Following the publication of my review of Michael Wilding’s Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir in Issue 1 of Rochford Street Review I received an email from Pat Woolley correcting a couple of points in my review and disputing some of the observations Wilding made in his book. I invited Pat to respond to Michael’s memoir of Wild and Woolley. The article which follows is a slightly edited version of that response.
Mark Roberts January 2012
Michael Wilding titled his book ‘Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir’ yet it only covers the first five years of a publishing company that lasted for 37 years. It is a matter of record that he and I co-founded W&W in 1974, but he had nothing to do with the company after 1979. After 1979 he cut off all contact with me and W&W, while I continued to manage the company publishing new and exciting authors despite the difficult market for avant garde literature.
Michael always saw himself as the creative one while I had the business acumen. That’s what he said to a National Times journalist who interviewed us early on. He knew little about the finances and didn’t want to take part in any of the day-to-day management of the business. The closest he’d get to this was addressing and stamping media releases.
Michael had a tenured position at Sydney University, and all the perks of travel and sabbaticals that came with it. He had his own office, light glowing through the stained glass windows. In contrast, for the first couple of years after Wild & Woolley began, I made my living typesetting ads, magazines and junk mailers, on nights and at weekends, so that I’d have enough hours in the day to run W&W, visiting bookshops and taking orders, talking to reviewers as well as carrying boxes of books to the post office, and doing the bookkeeping, selling, promoting, typesetting, proof-reading, pasting-up galleys and packing of orders. In 1976 the company was doing well enough for me to hire Shar Adams to help with the office work, and Laurie Duggan to pack orders. They were paid. I wasn’t.
Early in 1978, W&W had outgrown its premises in Chippendale. The floor boards and bearers were dry-rotted and white-anted. Every day, Shar and I moved 15 or 20 boxes of books onto the footpath to give us enough space to run the business. If it rained, we put plastic sheets over them. I found new premises in the city and the lease required signatures from both Michael and me. Michael refused to sign.
I found a lawyer who came up with a resolution: we’d adopt new articles and memoranda for the company that would make me governing director and after that, I could run Wild & Woolley without the Wild. Maybe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, perhaps yes, probably no. He left behind a stack of manuscripts that he’d committed us to publish, and with very little money, I did my best.
In 1978, Michael received a one year grant from the Literature Board and left Australia for Britain and the US. In the next years, I managed to launch all the books he’d taken on. There were many, including Polemics for a New Cinema by Albie Thoms, a collection of articles from film magazines. I read the book in proof after it was typeset. It appeared that Michael hadn’t read through any of the articles. He just passed over the file of newspaper cuttings and said it was ready to be set. I was left to pick up the pieces.
1980 was W&W’s lowest point. The city premises had a fire,
In 1983, I co-founded ‘Women’s Redress Press’, established ‘Australia In Print Inc’ in 1986 to wholesale Australian books to the United States, and under the Wild & Woolley imprint between 1983 and 1990, I published many books of fiction, poetry, rock and roll, art, and politics. Between 1983 and 1991, I also studied law part time and gained an LLB at UNSW. In 1990, predicting the impacts of technology on publishing, I bought a high-speed photocopier to print short run quantities of books for self-publishing authors. In the next two decades, I produced books for more than 1500 writers, usually under the Fast Books imprint, but occasionally bannered Book House or for the highest quality literature, Wild & Woolley.
Michael Wilding’s book with the misleading title is not a history of Wild & Woolley. It is his narrow view of some exciting times we shared in the seventies. A true and honest Wild & Woolley memoir should be written, but not by Michael. He just wasn’t there.
Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir. Michael Wilding. Giramando Shorts. 2011
Michael Wilding’s account of how he meet Pat Woolley and how Wild & Woolley began: “Pat and I went back to my place in Balmain where the poets had already entered through the bathroom window and were sitting around writing poems on my typewriter and eating and drinking what ever they could find…” immediately made me recall a Nigel Roberts poem from his first collection In Casablanca for the Waters (published, of course, by Wild & Woolley):
sometime / during 67
i read his poems /& he read
mine / & that we knew of someone
up the road / who wrote
that we should visit
& did / &
he read ours / & we read his / then
had a smoke
talked of why
of OUR OWN MAGAZINE
that / we would publish
who / or whatever
– ‘For the Little Magazines’
While there may have been a world of difference between Nigel Roberts’ Free Poetry and the vastly more ‘professional’ looking publishing venture Wild and Woolley eventually became, there is a hint of a shared experience here, a creative spontaneity driven by a belief that Australian literature was changing and the old methods of publishing were not going to cut it anymore.
Before I go much further I have a confession to make….I was an undergraduate student majoring in English and Australian Literature at Sydney University between 1978 and 1981. From memory I also took Wildings Utopian and Anti-Utopian fiction class in either 1979 or 1980 (though if you can remember a Michael Wilding class you probably weren’t really there…). While at Sydney Uni I slowly became involved in the local poetry scene so I knew many of the writers documented in Wilding’s memoir. So while I enjoyed Wilding’s account of the Sydney writing scene of the mid to late 1970’s I suspect that at least some of my enjoyment was because I knew many of the poets and writers he was writing about.
Wilding’s account of his time at Wild & Woolley is, obviously, a very personal account. I had the feeling at times, that WIlding was like a child in a chocolate factory. He was involved in bringing some of the most important contemporary writing to Australia “…our project was to bring the margins to the centre and for a while we succeeded. We got these important books around. It was a major intervention into the cultural map of the nation…”. Reading between the lines, however, I got the impression that, at least at a commercial level, Wilding must have been a little difficult at times to work with. At times for example he seemed to treat the Wild & Woolley warehouse as almost his personal library. Soon after they established their first warehouse he talks of walking “along the shelves picking up a sample copy here, another there. My library swelled as I added the new arrivals week by week”. At another point he talks about raiding the rubbish bin in the warehouse to retrieve damaged copies of books that could not be sold “One day I noticed the entire staff, all two of them, were sitting laughing at me. Knowing my obsession, they had been deliberately putting books into the garbage bin when they heard me arrive”. He was billed for all these books however, and when he left the business he was faced with a considerable bill.
At times I did feel a little sorry for Pat Woolley. While Wilding obviously understood the cultural and political aspects of their grand publishing adventure, it was Pat Woolley, one suspects that kept the books moving, the dollars circulating and the Press afloat “The financial details, as ever, I shied away from. As Pat put it, ‘You didn’t have anything to do with the finance’. Wilding eventually leaves the business and I had the sense that there were some things that maybe he felt didn’t need to be raised again.
What I found more interesting was Wilding’s view on how Wild & Woolley slotted into the cultural and social history of the time. He talks of the “considerable cultural optimism’ of the early 70’s – the Lady Chatterley’s trial was in the past, censorship was being relaxed and of course young poets and writers in Australia had started to look to the US for ‘inspiration’. Wilding also adds another important mix into the equation, the ending of the Vietnam War “And a release from all the anti-war protests that had taken up so much time and energy and emotion…..They had been a necessary activity, but now we could return to what life should properly be about: writing, reading, and the arithmetic of publishing”. This is a theme he returns to a number of times during the book. I found his thoughts on the rise and fall of the Sydney Association for the Studies in Society and Culture particular interesting. He places the publishing activities of the Association in the context of the general attack on humanities in Australian Universities as “the new world order directed the young into economics, law, business studies and computer science”. In this context the Association’s publications were run very much on an amateur basis – making whatever use they could of the University’s resources until “it all came to an end. The reforms in tax laws, the introduction of the GST, and the ABN, made it all unfeasible”. Wilding sees this as part of the “law of unintended consequences”. There wasn’t a direct attack on the small press ethos it was just collateral damage “Voluntarism was now to be replaced by professionalism; except that in many cases it was not replaced, it simply ceased to exist.”
Another strength of this book is in the individual portraits Wilding paints of some of the different people he encounters during the Wild & Woolley years. In particular the sections on Vicki Viidikas, Christina Stead and Jack Lindsay stood out for me – indeed I was sent scurrying to my bookshelf to confirm that, yes my copy of Decay and Renewal was indeed a Wild and Woolley edition.
In the final instance it is probably important to understand why Wilding has called this book a “Memoir”. Probably the best description of a memoir I have come across was from Gore Vidal “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” (Palimpsest). As I have noted previously, Wilding’s account of the adventures of Wild and Woolley are a very personal account and I am sure that other players in the drama may very well have a different view of some of the incidents captured in this book. But given the constraints of the genre, Wild & Woolley: A Publishing Memoir is a fascinating account of a critical period of Australian Literature from the perspective of one of the more cutting edge publishers. What made it an important book, in my opinion, however, was Wilding’s ability to trace the social and political impacts on writing and publishing from the mid seventies through to event of the GST and the moves to subject writing and publishing to forces of the free market.