This article is from Chapter 2 of Peter Kelly's "Buddha in a Bookshop" (2007 Ulysses Press), a personal memoir of the life of Harold Stewart and how Buddhism came to Australia.

Melbourne was still a recognisably Victorian city in the 1950s. Looking down Collins Street from Spring Street you could see a vista of three-storey bluestone or sandstone office buildings and hotels dating from the boom years of the late nineteenth century. Some of them, like the Melbourne Club, dating from the 1860s, had a patrician air of elegance and affluence, others were more flamboyant in the Italianate manner of the 1880s, heavily ornamented with pediments, urns, pineapples and other exotic ornamentation. The buildings were softened by rows of feathery trees and on autumn days, when the mist still clung to the air, the effect was magical. It evoked the streetscapes of Pissarro or Whistler and, not surprisingly, was known affectionately as the Paris End. The buildings were mostly occupied by medical specialists, dentists, opticians as they still are today. At street level there were cafes and coffee lounges where actors and journalists used to meet. 'Cinderella's' had been such a place during the 1940s and provided one of the few night venues for people to socialise and exchange ideas. This was followed in the 1950s by 'Prompt Corner' where you could sit for hours over welsh rarebit or raisin toast and endless cups of coffee.

Around the city there were coffee shops like 'Gibby's' which provided similar fare but were not as interesting. 'Val's', upstairs in a building opposite the Town Hall, was one of the few camp (not yet gay) venues and provided an amusing show on Sunday nights. When the Italian immigrants started to arrive in the 50s things started to look up. At Pellegrini's in Bourke Street and also at 'The Legend' you could get genuine espresso coffee. I can vividly remember hearing the hiss of the espresso machine in 1955 and resolving to go to Italy as soon as I could scrape the fare together. The 'Legend' was famous for the paintings by Leonard French which hung on the walls. There were a few 'continental' restaurants which offered an alternative to stodgy Anglo-Saxon fare: at 'The Old Vienna' in Russell Street, next to the 'Savoy' cinema, you could dine on bauernfrüstück, a substantial omelette of potato and sausage, served with sauerkraut and washed down with cider or lemon tea served in a glass. If you were hard-up or a University student you could get a cheap Italian meal of minestrone, pasta and lots of white bread at 'The Hoddle', located in a basement in Little Collins Street near Elizabeth Street but you had to be early, for the queue, particularly on Friday nights, was long. 'The Hoddle' was a haunt for aspiring writers and artists and corduroys and berets were de rigueur. After a while, when you became a regular, rough red wine was produced in tea-cups. It had to be drunk furtively because of the archaic licensing laws. Drinking wine with meals was virtually impossible until the 1960s and only possible for the rich who could afford to go to posh hotels or Italian restaurants like 'The Society', 'The Latin' or 'The Florentino' which had been going since the 1920s.

Top of Collins Street, about 1950. Latrobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

Melbourne has always been a city of pubs which proliferated in the post Gold Rush Boom. But in the 1950s they were not congenial places to linger because of early closing. The 'rush hour' trade between 5 and 6 o'clock was a swilling time when customers downed as much as they could before closing. There were also wine-bars, usually located in basements and approached through beaded curtains where customers, quite often ladies, could get genteely tipsy on Tokay or port. Table wines, like chardonnay or claret, were not yet fashionable. Some pubs, like 'The Mitre', were places favoured by artists and bohemians such as Justus Jorgensen who came in from Eltham from their artist's colony 'Montsalvat'. The house was a mud brick and sandstone pseudo-mediaeval structure that housed Jorgensen and his extended family of artists, potters and craftsmen who espoused a kind of William Morris style of arts and crafts living. I don't remember there being pubs like 'Packies' in Sydney which was a watering hole for radicals and freethinkers, Andersonian libertarians and their followers. This marked a difference between Melbourne and Sydney Bohemia at the time. Melbournians have always had a tradition of concern for social welfare and improvement inherited from Fabian socialist movements and radical Protestant groups and they were less concerned about individual freedoms. This came later.

Muse in the City

After 6 o'clock the city died after workers streamed out to the suburbs. The cinemas still operated and there were a few coffee shops open where you could go for supper. 'Raffles', in a basement in an arcade off Collins Street was a favourite haunt for those of us in duffle coats who wanted a place to meet to discuss Camus or Sartre or just to go after a concert in the Town Hall. Then it was home on a long tram ride to Essendon or Surrey Hills. The 1950s was an age of concert going and the Town Hall was the venue for orchestral and choral music and sometimes for solo recitals. The standard fare was the symphonic repertoire from Haydn to Sibelius but occasionally with a visiting conductor you could hear something more venturesome. I remember a wonderful concert conducted by Alceo Galliera featuring Vivaldi's 'Gloria' in the first half and Debussy's 'La Mer' in the second. Mahler was rarely heard but Richard Strauss'Electra was given in a memorable concert version by Marjorie Lawrence singing from a wheelchair. The Early Music movement had not percolated down to Australia in those benighted days and enthusiasts, like myself, had to be content with HMV and Nixa recordings which were starting to appear in the new LP format. I can remember attending record evenings, run by early music groups, where you could listen to Oiseau Lyre recordings of Scarlatti or Couperin played by Wanda Landowska. There were apparently people who owned harpsichords in Melbourne but I didn't get to see them. Now, of course, one can learn to play it at the Conservatorium. Music by the high modernists was not played in concerts very often because people walked out in droves at hearing Stravinsky, Bartòk or Shostakovich, let alone Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Occasionally, at a Musica Viva chamber music concert it was possible to hear 20th century works slipped in between the Beethoven and the Brahms. Musica Viva, started by members of the expatriate Central European community, was a great contribution to the musical life in Melbourne at this time and up to the present day. The venue for these concerts was the Assembly Hall in Collins Street and it was here that the first concerts of Indian classical music were held. I can remember how cold these venues were on wintry evenings and how hard the seats were but it didn't seem to dampen my enthusiasm. Later, in the early 60s, Barry Humphries made his memorable debut as Edna Everidge here. He was also an early enthusiast for Dada and Surrealism and had a keen interest in modern art and literature.

There were several record shops in central Melbourne at this time but one or two stick in my memory. One, John Clements', was located upstairs in an arcade off Collins Street. The proprietor had been a professional singer at one time and was an expert on opera. You had to order from the counter and from there you could see shelves and shelves of records stretching to the back of the dimly lit shop. It was here that I bought my 78s of Landowska playing Scarlatti and a compilation called the Columbia History of Music in Sound which had snippets of mediaeval and renaissance music that whetted the appetite for more. I was reading Cecil Gray's History of Music at the time and wondered what Machaut or Palestrina sounded like. I little dreamed that fifty years later that one would be able to hear these composers on the ABC or 3MBS FM. The second record shop was Thomas's, located at the corner of Bourke and Russell streets and it was here that I bought the early LPs which began to appear in the early 50s. It was here also that I met Cliff Hocking, who converted me to Stravinsky and Berlioz and to Indian music. He met Harold in his shop about 1955 and later began to attend meetings in the Norman Robb Bookshop.


The National Gallery of Victoria was housed in the same building as the State Library and the Museum in the 50s and was not to move to its present home in St Kilda road until 1966. It had an impressive European collection, unique for Australia, but its modern section was fairly timid due to the conservative tastes of the directors up to that time. If you wanted to see expressionist, cubist, surrealist art you had to resort to looking in art books in the well stocked art section of the State Library. Australian modernist painting, which rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of Nolan, Boyd, Tucker, Percival, Blackman and others was not on public view. The taste of the galleries, and the general public was for the 'gum-tree' school of Hans Heysen and Ernest Buckmaster or the neo-realist school of Max Meldrum who directed the art school at the National Gallery. It is true that a kind of proto-modernist opposition to this was run by George Bell at his studio where students learned the techniques of post impressionism and formalism by studying Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, Matisse, Vlaminck, Derain and their British followers. Several of Bell's colleagues, like Arnold Shore and William Frater, made their mark on the art scene in later years as did his students. Geoffrey Goldie, a friend of Harold Stewart's, combined sound structural techniques learned from Bell with Indian themes and applied them to set designs for the dance performances of Chandrabhanu from the 1970s to the present. His landscapes and portraits show a strong interest in the structural qualities learned from Bell. Frances Bourke also studied with Bell and in addition to painting later became well known as a fabric designer. Her innovative modern designs, often drawing upon aboriginal themes and native flora, captivated private and public taste and revolutionised the way living rooms and hospital wards looked.


The locus for Modernism was not in the city but out on the fringe at Heidelberg. Here at a farm house, 'Heide', John Reed, a solicitor, and his wife Sunday, established a kind of Australian Bloomsbury Group of painters, poets and writers who met at Heide and sometimes lived together. The Reeds were patrons of the arts and it is largely due to their generosity that the talents of Sidney Nolan, Joy Hester and Bert Tucker were nourished. Max Harris, editor of Angry Penguins, came from Adelaide in the 1940s to collaborate with the Reeds in setting up a publishing company which published new and experimental work. His role in the Ern Malley affair in 1944 had undermined his confidence for a while and it was largely due to his association with the Reeds that he regained it and continued to proselytise. The Reeds built a modernist house designed by David McGlashan, and it now is a Museum housing their collection of Australian paintings and drawings. Members of the Boyd family of potters and painters, who lived at Murrumbeena, were frequent visitors as was John Sinclair, a painter who later became a music critic. Needless to say Harold Stewart and James McAuley were anathema to this group and as a part of Stewart's group of Traditionalists I never met the Reeds or most of their circle. The Reed group diffused a knowledge of Expressionism and Surrealism into the wider circles of the art world and in a way created a climate of opinion which prepared the ground for the reception of Nolan, Tucker, Boyd and others in the 1960s. In the 1950s this was largely confined to a cognoscenti.

Australian prose writing in the 1950s was still largely dominated by social realism which it inherited from the writers of the 1930s and 1940s or by the nationalist ideals of The Bulletin which derived from Lawson and the bush balladists. There was little interest in European writing and so the influence of Kafka, Proust, Gide, Mann, Brecht, Rilke or even British and Irish modernists like Lawrence, Forster, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce was hard to find. Due to censorship laws it was hard to find copies of Ulyssesunless someone could smuggle a copy for you disguised as a bible. University English departments were not adventurous in this regard and courses in Australian literature were a decade away. It is hard to gauge what the tastes of the ordinary reading public were in the 1950s but if the fare offered by suburban lending libraries is any indication it was largely imported British fiction: detective stories, thrillers, historical romances. Popular writers were Somerset Maugham, Georgette Heyer, Dorothy Sayers, A.J. Cronin while at a more highbrow level there was a taste for Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. In so far as the general public read contemporary Australian authors they were inclined to go for Eleanor Dark, Katherine Susannah Prichard, Frank Clune or Ion Idriess. The time of Patrick White had not arrived.


Poetry in this period was beginning to flourish. Judith Wright and A.D. Hope were beginning to be known and a group of poets at Melbourne University: Vincent Buckley, Evan Jones, Chris Wallace-Crabbe were starting to make their presence felt. The work of poets was diffused by means of literary magazines and quarterlies such as Meanjin and Quadrant. The work of these poets was sophisticated, witty and learned and showed the influence of modernists such as W.H. Auden, Eliot and Pound. By contrast the nationalist 'gum tree' school continued to survive in the work of the Jindyworobaks emanating from South Australia. They showed a pioneer interest in aboriginal myth and folklore as well as in Australian landscape and the work of Roland Robinson and William Hart-Smith is representative. Their work shows little influence from international modernism and in this they contrast with the poets influenced by Max Harris and his Angry Penguins as well as the University poets. Harold Stewart and James McAuley, dubbed as neoclassicists in some quarters were in a camp all of their own but shared formal qualities with A.D. Hope. Harold eschewed Australian content altogether and his books published in the 40s and 50s dealt with either Greek or Chinese themes.

Theatre and Films

Melbourne was still a city of live theatre in the fifties: at 'The Tivoli' you could see variety and comedy and sometimes musicals like Brigadoon. At 'The Princess' you could also see musicals and occasionally opera. Visits from overseas Italian opera companies and the arrival of the Boravanski ballet company satisfied a thirst which had been building up over the war period. Russell Street theatres, like 'The Comedy' were largely venues for British West End plays that didn't place too many demands on the patrons. If you wanted to see 'serious' plays you had to resort to 'little theatres' like the 'New Theatre' at South Melbourne which produced plays by Shakespeare, Tchekov, Ibsen, Strindberg. I can remember a memorable performance of King Lear starring John Alden. The University of Melbourne's John Sumner and Wal Cherry also mounted many memorable plays in the Union Theatre. University groups were the only ones likely to be interested in producing plays by Brecht, Pirandello, Cocteau, Anouilh and other European modernists. Australian plays didn't really start to take on until the 1960s and the arrival of the new playwrights like Williamson and Jack Hibbert and the setting up of 'La Mama' in Carlton. This local fare was enlivened by the visits of overseas companies, most notably the visit by 'The Old Vic' Company with Lawrence Olivier and Vivian Leigh who performed Sheridan's School for Scandal with elegance and a professionalism most of us had not seen before.

Interest in foreign films was high in Melbourne in the 50s. At 'The Savoy' in Russell Street it was possible to see French films like Les Enfants du Paradis or Swedish films by Bergman or Italian neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves. The Melbourne Film Festival, inaugurated by Irwin Rado and Edwin Schefferle began in the 50s. Up to this time the movies was dominated by Hollywood or British films. Australian films were in their infancy.

In retrospect the 50s seem to have been more stimulating culturally than they are usually perceived to be. After a decade in which theatre, film and music was very restricted in scope there was a great hunger for new experiences. Australia had been cut off from the currents of European culture by the war and before that by the depression and by a persistent anglophilia. Intellectuals, artists, writers, students were keen to learn about the new ideas emanating from Paris. This meant the books of existentialist thinkers like Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and their followers. Some of the more daring of us grew our hair longer and wore beards. Girls tried to look like Juliette Greco. But smoking marihuana was still a way off as were the feminist movement and gay liberation.

Interest in politics among young people was not very evident and left-wing groups tended to be the preserve of old 'lefties' from the 1930s. The International Bookshop in Elizabeth Street was reputedly a bastion of communism and was raided from time to time. It was possible to see Russian films like Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible, Odessa Steps, at a cinema in Flinders Street on Sunday nights which were organized by Leftist groups and it was rumoured that ASIO had spies who secretly photographed the patrons! Internationally the 50s were bleak times in the shadow of the Cold War and the threat of the Bomb. Government in Australia was firmly in the hands of conservatives with little opposition from Labor which was torn apart by splits and factions and didn't really recover ground until the 70s. In this climate the thinking classes tended to despair and turn to art or literature for solace.

Religion and Theosophy

But some turned to religion, and there were a number of conversions to Catholicism, particularly in university circles due to the activities of the Newman Society. This spiritual searching was a sign of the times. While some sought solace in Catholicism others found it in existentialism. Harold Stewart and his Traditionalist circle were unusual in looking to the East. I don't recall being aware of the activities of the Theosophical Society apart from the fact that they had a well-stocked bookshop . But theosophy had a long and well-established history in Melbourne. Apparently the bookshop of W.J. Terry at 84 Russell Street had stocked theosophical texts and translations of oriental classics such as the Bhagavadgita in the 1870s and he also conducted seances in a room above the shop to cater for the needs of Spiritualists who often included members of the educated professional classes. Prominent Australians like Alfred Deakin, Professor Ernest Scott and the poet, Bernard O'Dowd, were interested in both Spiritualism and theosophy. Colonel Olcott, a prominent theosophist, arrived in Australia in 1891 and Annie Besant, the second President, paid visits in 1894 and 1908 and lectured to huge audiences. The fashion for theosophy had declined some time in the 1930s but there were enough members, mainly from well-off middle-class backgrounds, to set up a society in a very imposing building in Collins Street. Here they held lectures and had an impressive bookshop but were eventually forced to sell the building. Their present premises, in Russell Street, are more modest. My impression is that some people in Melbourne came to know about the oriental traditions by way of the activities of the Theosophical Society. Harold Stewart had read Annie Besant some time in the 1930s but in general did not have much respect for theosophy, especially as Guénon had been so critical of the movement. Ironically theosophical bookshops are today the most likely places to pick up the works of Guénon and his followers!

Members of the Theosophical Society, 1950s. La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

Changing Melbourne

There was a great deal of building activity in central Melbourne and this meant that some of the Victorian character disappeared. A famous landmark to suffer this fate was the Eastern Market which was bounded by Bourke Street, Exhibition Street and Little Collins Street. It was a two-storey structure dating from the 1870s. In the central space there was a market for florists, greengrocers, clothes stalls, secondhand books, antiques and bric-a-brac and food stalls, while around the perimeter there were shops. Upstairs there were the offices of obscure trading firms, commercial art studios, Chinese herbalists, health studios, photographers. It was a great place to pick up bargains, meet friends for coffee and generally enjoy oneself. We were all rather depressed when it was pulled down and replaced by a hideous hotel. Things were never quite the same.

Eastern Market about 1950. Collection of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

Elsewhere in Collins Street the Paris End suffered deprivations as Victorian buildings were replaced by glass and steel 'egg-crates' of no architectural distinction. The heritage lobby were unable to do much about it as the city fathers seemed to be caught up in the rush to 'modernise'. The city grew brasher and noisier as the post-war production of cars proceeded at speed. After the drabness of the war years some effort had been made to brighten buildings up in preparation for the royal visit of 1954 and for the Olympic Games which were held in Melbourne in 1956.

The fifties was a time of full employment and economic boom and the suburbs of Melbourne started their famous sprawl. Most people lived in the suburbs and devoted themselves to homemaking and the cultivation of gardens. The weekends were unexciting: Saturday at the races or at the football (Australian rules) cricket and perhaps Saturday night at the cinema. Sundays was for church-going and visiting relatives or perhaps going for a 'blow' in the car to the hills. Until the advent of television about 1956 Sunday nights were for listening to the Lux Radio Theatre. The city of Melbourne was silent and dull on Sundays: shops were closed, libraries and art galleries were closed, pubs were closed and only a few cafes and milk-bars remained open. Very few people actually lived in the city itself so it was like a ghost city in the weekends.

When an American film company visited Melbourne in the fifties to make On the Beach, based on the novel by Neville Shute, the star Ava Gardiner remarked that Melbourne was just the right place to make a film about the end of the world! It was a dull city for young people and there was as yet no 'youth culture' apart from dance halls and private parties. At Moonee Ponds Town Hall the young went to Varieties' dances 'where happy tunes led to honey moons'. No doubt there were hotter spots at St Kilda where you could cavort to the small hours but these were for the minority. Jazz clubs existed (Graham Bell's group being the most famous) and were patronised by university students and the cognoscenti, including the Heide group. The pop concerts of the sixties were a decade away as were drugs, beats and hippies. Instead there was square dancing, 50-50 dances and jitterbugging for bodgies and widgies. Most young people lived at home until they married and setting up in a flat and leading an independent life was a dream. Those who did escape from the suburbs had to make do with living in boarding houses or rented rooms which were far from ideal in which to conduct a private life. Romance had to be conducted in the back seats of cars or in vacant allotments or on the beach.

The fifties was an era of mass exodus for artists, actors, writers and others interested in a more sophisticated environment and usually the destination was Europe, reached after a long sea voyage on the Stratheden or the Orsova. Many, like myself, dreamed of the world of Paris or Rome, revealed in the films we saw at the Savoy cinema and started to save the fare. In 1956 I was able to spend most of the year away in Italy, France and England but had to return after the Suez crisis threatened war. Several of my friends left Australia never to return or returned in old age to find everything changed beyond recognition.

Interest in Asia

Very few people seemed to be interested in Asia in the fifties and fewer still wanted to go there. Going to China was difficult because of the Communist take-over in 1949 and in people's minds Japan was associated with the war. There were virtually no courses about the Asian region in universities until the 1960s and the popular enthusiasm for seeking wisdom in India was yet to come. Apart from theosophists few people expressed any interest in the religions of Asia. This is why Harold Stewart and his bookshop group were a kind of avant-garde in this respect.

In 1950 he decided to move to Melbourne, partly at the urging of friends from Melbourne, and partly because he was sick of Sydney and its associations. He also hated the humidity and longed for more temperate climates. He found a room at 108 Powlett Street, East Melbourne, not far from the Fitzroy Gardens and within walking distance of the city. The room, on the first floor at the back of a Victorian terrace, served him as a home for sixteen years before he went to Japan. I remember the house as being dark and the room smelling musty, probably from incense and dust from books. (I used to joke about the smell of 'rotting Buddhas'.) Harold had a huge library of books which lined the walls on all sides. From a desk at the window he had a good view of the Dandenong Ranges and he no doubt worked at his typewriter there and composed poetry. The room was small so it was hard for him to entertain friends there and so visitors were rare.

He supported himself in much the same manner as in Sydney, writing literary articles for journals and magazines. A major source of income came from lecture-notes that he made for the Council of Adult Education, then run by Colin Badger. His patron however was a Viennese lady called Helen (Lene) Stevens who ran the book and discussion groups at the C.A.E. Lene was a warm and highly cultured woman who took to Harold and gave him as much work as she could. They became good friends and she often invited him to dinner parties at the home of herself and her husband Steph, a genial Hungarian economist. Harold used to enjoy the wonderful cooking and the sophisticated conversation. Nevertheless writing lecture-notes was a somewhat precarious way of earning money to live.

When he received an offer from a friend, Norman Robb, who ran a bookshop, to work part-time as a sales-assistant, he jumped at the offer.


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