From Marginalised Malcontents to Micronation Monarchs: The Australian Experience

Local history, Popular Culture, Regional History


Within the world of macropolitics, the realm of large-scale political entities, the urge by some within the whole to secede has always been a recognisable element of those societies. During the last half century Australia as elsewhere has witnessed the emergence of individuals or small groups of people wanting to break away, for varying reasons, and go it alone.

The actions of micronations✻ or “would-be” micronations (sometimes called “model countries”) have been motivated by a host of varying reasons. These include genuine secessionist aspirations, environmental protests, a sense of grievance and financial motives. Quite a few seem to be specifically humorous in intent. Some micronations are just left-field wacky, like Asgardia, a Russian initiative which seeks to launch satellites into space to found a “real nation” recognised by the UN (and therefore, it claims, protect Earth from the threat of asteroids, solar storms and space junk)[1].

The ‘border’ bridge between Vilnius & Užupis
Reactions of the periphery to the metropolitan centre have prompted the rise of quasi-anarchist communities purporting (seriously or less seriously) to be outside the jurisdiction of that same central authority…two such European instances of this are Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen whose advocates proclaimed autonomy over a small district of the city in 1971 and an established open drug trade (tolerated by the Danish authorities until 2004); and Užupis (Užupio Res Publika), a tiny enclave within Vilnius, described perhaps somewhat romantically as a “modern manifestation of a bohemian Free State”[2]. Whereas Freetown strove for a kind of anarchist autonomy, the unrecognised “Republic of Užupis” adopted all the trappings of a sovereign state (flag, currency, politicians, anthem, etc) but uncertainty remains whether the Užupis entity is “intended to be serious, tongue-in-cheek, or a combination of both”[3].

The Prince of Hutt R Province
His Royal Hutt River Highness
One recurring theme of micronationhood including in Australia has been the singular protest against the state (or against the local authority). Leading the way in this (chronologically at least) is Prince Leonard and his self-declared Principality of Hutt River. Leonard Casley was an unremarkable wheat farmer in rural Western Australia in 1970 when a dispute with the state of WA over the wheat production quota set him on a course of (declaring) succession from Australia. ‘Prince’ Leonard adopted royal titles and garb for himself and his family and the Hutt River Principality grew into a tourist attraction. Casley’s failure to comply with his taxation requirements resulted in a Commonwealth prosecution in 1977 which the prince, increasingly behaving like Count Rupert of Mountjoy✪, responded by declaring war on Australia![4].

The Hutt River WA prince, after easing himself into the unfamiliar mantle, like other Micronation ‘monarchs’ enthusiastically set about establishing the tourism potentiality of the novel enclave in the Western Australian bush…HR Province began issuing ‘royal’ stamps, ‘legal'(sic) currency and passports (described by the Council of Europe dismissively as “fantasy passports”)[5]. In 2017 Prince Leonard now a nonagenarian ‘abdicated’ in favour of his son, the altogether less regally sounding ‘Prince’ Graeme.

King Paul with his court (Source: News Ltd)
The principality of the suburban quarter-acre block
Some breakaway entities and would-be sovereign states have arisen from the most trivial of domestic matters, eg, Mosman artist and art school principal Paul Delprat founded the Principality of Wy as a consequence of his local Sydney council’s refusal to grant permission for a residential driveway (a dispute lasting over 20 years!)[6]. Presiding over his ‘kingdom’ which comprised in area one suburban block, ‘King’ Paul, possessed of a theatrical bent and a large supply of whimsy, has warmed to his new status, naturally going the “whole hog” with full regal fancy dress, pomp and ceremony!

Global open borders orchestrated from the NSW South West Slopes
George Cruikshank together with his cousins started up his own micronation whilst still a schoolboy in Sydney. Known as the Empire of Atlantium ‘Emperor George II runs it from Reids Flat¤, 344km inland from Sydney…the 0.76 square kilometre province has its own post office, government buildings, currency, national anthem and monuments (ie, a small white pyramid and obelisk in the micronation’s Lilliputian-sized capital). What marks Atlantium out from other micronations is its espousal of liberal, progressive values – described by the Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations as serious in its aims and “a refreshing antidote to the reactionary self-aggrandisement of so many micronations”…a “secular humanist utopia”[7] George is also a bit atypical as ‘micronationals’ go as his separatist impulse derives not from a specific beef with local authority but from genuine idealism. Emperor George advocates the international freedom of movement and other socially progressive goals. The Empire claims in excess of 3,000 ‘citizens’ hailing from various parts of the globe – all signed up online.

A Great Britain strawberry patch in Sth Australia!
The strawberry fields United Kingdom
One of the more exotic if not outright wacky secessionists in Australia was Alec Brackstone. English migrant Brackstone, alarmed at the prospect (as he saw it) of Australia’s drift toward republicanism, founded the Province of Bumbunga in rural South Australia in the 1970s. The ultra-monarchist, self-appointed governor-general of the breakaway mini-state, planted thousands of strawberry plants in the pattern of a huge scale model of Great Britain (A++ for loyalty/subservience to the Crown!) The Bunbunga Province also issued Cinderella stamps honouring the royals, but the province dissolved in the late 1990s after the “G-G” was charged with possession of illegal firearms and repatriated to the UK[8].

PostScript: Micro-states of mind?
Wy and the self-styled Hutt River and Bumbunga provinces conform with RT Reid’s characterisation of the ethos of contemporary micronations …”mock sovereign states fuelled by local disputes, utopian idealism and the imaginations of a few eccentric individuals”[9]. Ultimately it is that eccentricity, together with their isolation and the fact that they pose no real inconvenience or harm to the greater (macro) political entity✦, explains why they tend to be tolerated (but not encouraged) by the central authority of the state.

✻ defined as an entity claiming to be an independent nation or state but not recognised by world governments or major international or supranational organisations, ‘Micronations’, Wikipedia,
✪ leader of the fictional minuscule tinpot state of Grand Fenwick which declares war on the USA in the 1959 comedy/satire The Mouse That Roared
¤ Cruickshank’s Atlantium had two prior “spiritual homes” in Sydney, a house in suburban Narwee and a flat in inner city Potts Point
✦ the ‘Principality’ of Seborga in the Italian Riviera is a good case in point: despite a 98.7% vote in favour of independence from Italy in 1995, the tiny town (pop: <400) still pays its taxes to Rome [1] 'Space oddity: Group claims to have created nation in space', Science, 12-Oct-2016,
[2] J Crabb, ‘Gabriele D’Annunzio And The Free State of Fiume’, (Culture Trip), 12-Jul-2017,
[3] ‘The Republic of Užupis’ (Užupis Everywhere), . Some of the more absurd sounding clauses of the Užupis Constitution evoke a suggestion of whimsical hippiedom, eg, 12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
[4] ‘Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations’, (J Ryan, G Dunford & S Sellars, (2006)
[5] ‘Principality of Hutt River’, Wikipedia,
[6] ‘Prince of Wy Paul Delprat loses driveway court battle’,
(Simone Roberts), Mosman Daily, 17-Jul-2013
[7] Lonely Planet, op.cit.
[8] ‘Province of Bumbunga’, Wikipedia, Hutt River, Atlantium and Bumbunga are only three of the estimated 35 Australian micro-nations in existence at one time or other, according to ‘A quick tour of some of the many, many Micronations Australia has to offer’, (Joseph Earp, Mashable Australia,
[9] RT Reid, ‘Micronations of the World’, Smithsonian, 23-Aug-2009,

Grawlixes/Obscenicons – Unutterable Graphics and the Universal Interjection!

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

Grawlixes or Obscenicons

Grawlix: a spiral-shaped graphic used to indicate swearing in comic strips (comprising typographical symbols, non-letter graphic characters which are encased in a word-free balloon)

~ Wiktionary,

Etymology of the Grawlix
The term Grawlix itself comes from veteran American cartoonist Addison Morton Walker. The sprightly nonagenarian better known to the world as Mort Walker has gleaned lifelong fame in the US (and elsewhere where his comics are treasured) from two of his creations, Beetle Bailey and a spin-off of sorts, Hi and Lois. Beetle Bailey is especially beloved of seriously rusted-on US comic aficionados. Beetle, a private (zero-class!) in an unnamed US Army military post, has been described as “a feckless, shirking, perpetual goof-off and straggler known for his chronic laziness and generally insubordinate attitude”. Debuting in September 1950 Beetle Bailey is among the oldest comic strips still being produced by the original creator [‘Beetle Bailey’, Wikipedia,].

Copycat grawlixing!
Walker apparently coined the term ‘grawlix’ around 1964…it appears in a tongue-in-cheek article he penned called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes”. A nonsense word, grawlix is the descriptor that Walker came up with to depict a cartoonist’s standard device: to show that one of his or her’s characters was uttering a “four-letter” word or words in the strip without infringing any moral codes, the cartoonist would draw a combination of typographical symbols and insert them in the dialogue balloon in place of the actual profane words. Commonly but not uniformly, the symbols used are @#$%&! or slight variations on this (whichever typographics are used, the grawlix always ends with an exclamation mark [Nordquist]). And as a way of expressing powerful, earthy emotions without having to call in the censors, it caught on within the realm of popular graphic art!”❉

Mort Walker’s catalogue of neologisms
In his Lexicon of Comicana (1980) Walker in his jocular fashion elaborates on his personal vocabulary of neologisms from the world of the cartoonist (with mock grandness he called these his Symbolia)…so in addition to grawlix the Lexicon contains many of Walker’s trademark neologisms, words coined for his own amusement, some with strange-sounding onomatopoeic names – a few of which are listed below.

In addition to grawlix, Walker devised and named three other sets of symbols and squiggles representing graphic euphemisms for the unspeakable and very taboo swear words – Quimps, Jarns and Nittles (basically hard to distinguish from grawlixes but something very similar by another name!) [World Wide Words].

Moving away the topic of obscenities Mort came up with other words to describe some of the graphics representing the range of feelings and emotions experienced by his comic personae – such as squean – squeans are starbursts and little circles above the character’s head to indicate a state of intoxication, dizziness or unwellness¤.

Other logo-inventions in the idiosyncratic Walker Lexicon are variations on the same theme – such as:
Emanate – lines drawn around the head to show shock or surprise
Plewds – flying sweat droplets that appear around a character’s head to indicate working hard, stressed, etc.

An indotherm – as opposed to a wafteron!
Another neologism in Walker’s ‘cartoonucopia’ is Indotherm – wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat; when the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.

Before the grawlix was the unnamed ‘grawlix’
Mort Walker gave the world a recognisable name to identify what is today a standard cartoonist’s device for representing profanity in a non-verbal way, but the use of @#$%&! wrapped in a speech bubble far predates modern comic strip practitioners like Walker. Ben Zimmer has researched early US comic strip history to find that the device features in comics goes as far back as 1902 – the work of Rudolph Dirks employed the grawlix in his strip (he just didn’t it that, or anything!). In Dirk”s “Katzenjammer Kids” for the New York Journal… the pioneering cartoonist “initiat(ed) the use of both speech balloons and…symbolic swearing”. This was emulated by a contemporary cartoonist of Dirks, Gene Carr, at about the same time (1903). Zimmer himself eschews the random ‘Grawlix’, preferring the term Obscenicon💢[Zimmer].

Grawlixes and other such graphic devices are the indispensable tools of cartoonists and comic artists looking for a way to economise with words and convey an emotion succinctly. They are non-verbal and thus all about visual cues…they can convey obscenities without recourse to the offending words themselves, or they can summarise an action or reaction instantly with an image that obviates the need for words and a lengthy explanatory sentence.

❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆ ❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆ ❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆∺❆


Interjection: is a part of speech using words solely designed to convey (often strong) emotions (reinforcing meaning or feeling). It conveys the emotion, sentiment or feelings of its speaker [‘What is An Interjection?’, (Your Dictionary),].

Another way of characterising the interjection is through its syntactic position. It is “an exclamation inserted into an utterance without grammatical connection to it” [ibid.]. Interjections are the tools of casual or creative communication, they have an informality to them, and in many cases an outright ‘slanginess’ to them (eg, ‘Jeez’, ‘Holy cow!’ (or ‘mackerel’), ‘Fiddlesticks!’, ‘Baloney!’, ‘Bingo!’, ‘Mama-Mia!’).

All contemporary engagers in social media are (over)familiar with exclamations like ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ (case optional) or ‘Ha-ha’ which infest the online world of communications like locusts at harvest season⊛. Interjections are exhaustive in number and heterogeneous in nature. They can be used to communicate a broad spectrum of different feelings – from anger and frustration (Argh) to sadness or sentimentality (Aw) to confusion (Huh!) to disgust (Yuck!) to mockery (Whoop-de-doo⊡) to indifference (Meh) to surprise (Wow!) to excitement (Woo-hoo!) to triumph (Yay!) not to be confused with the affirmative ‘Yea!’ [Fleming].

Interjections are usually positioned at the start of the sentence, occasionally at the end (the purpose being to maximise the message’s impact or effect). And like the sound themselves, most interjections can be strengthened by elongating them [Vidarholen] – adding one or more extra w’s to Aw gives weight to the degree of empathy you want to convey to your interlocutor; similarly using more than one Ha-ha is interjector code for turning up the laughter gauge! Putting an exclamation mark after the interjection is not mandatory but is often employed in the spirit of the lack of restraint that characterises this part of speech. After all, interjections are at their core exclamations – the appended ! goes with the territory!

PostScript 1: “Onomatopoeic interjections”
Onomatopoeic words or phrases are ones that imitate the sound of a thing or action, splash! is therefore onomatopoeic, it is also an interjection. Interjections represent emotion and can usually be distinguished from onomatopoeia which represents sounds, although there is clearly some overlap between the two. Another point of difference is that an interjection is syntactically isolated, it has no grammatical connection with the rest of the sentence⌽.

PostScript 2: Batman – Holy interjections with graphics!
The cult 1960s television series Batman is a veritable feast of interjections…in just about every episode Boy Wonder Robin, with excruciating monotony, specialises in uttering interjections of the “Holy ……” kind. Robin would pick the opportune moment to breathlessly interject with “Holy Switch-a-Roo”, “Holy Superlatives”, “Holy Cliche” or whatever other topical word pertaining to the “Dynamic Duo’s” particular predicament de jour [Oxford Dictionaries Blog].

The sublimely ridiculous Bat Fight scenes in the TV show are replete with interjections…as Batman and the arch-villains land thunderous blows on each other, corny graphics flash up with words representing the pugilistic action (SOCK! AIMEE! BIFF! WHAMM! KAPOW! THUNK! BANG!). Interestingly Batman’s art department incorporated some comic strip style graphics into the flashing word cards (eg, stars within the word SOCK! signifying the effects of being ‘socked’, ie, dazed, dizzy – akin to a kind of squean? KAPOW! with a bulls-eye target inside the O)


❉ placed in dialogue boxes above the characters’ heads (Walker calls these “Maledicta balloons”)
¤ a character with both a squean and a spurl (a vertical upward-spiralling coil) above his or her head is more than a little drunk, they’ve had a ‘skinful’ in fact! [Brownlee]
⊛ its unquantifiable definitively, but an empirical survey of the various avenues of social media would confirm an upsurge in interjection usage in everyday communications
💢 Urban Dictionary describes ‘oscenicons’ as “like a emoticon, but for profane words”
⊡ especially mocking someone who is trying to impress
⌽ the Onomatopoeia Dictionary lists a number of words that can represent both forms of expression, eg, wham, phew, shoo, shush, ha-ha, geez

╰☆╮ ╰☆╮ ╰☆╮

J Brownlee, ‘Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips’, (Co. Design), 15-Jul-2013,
Grace Fleming, ‘Interjections’, Thought Co, 23-Apr-2015,
Richard Nordquist, ‘What the @#$%&! Is a Grawlix?’ (Thought Co), 02-May-2017,
B Zimmer, ‘How did @#$%&! come to represent profanity?’, Slate, 09-Oct-2013,
‘Grawlixes’, (World Wide Words),
The lexicon of comicana’, Wikipedia,
‘Dictionary of Interjections’,
‘From “Gadzooks” to “Cowabunga”: some episodes in the life of the interjection’, Oxford Dictionaries,
Onomatopoeia Dictionary A-Z, (Written Sound),

Sydney’s Seaside Amusement Piers of Yesterday – Recreating Brighton Pier on the Pacific Coast

Heritage & Conservation, Local history, Popular Culture

The beach and the seaside being such an integral part of Sydney, it is not surprising that amusement piers – following the fashion of Brighton, Blackpool, Hastings and a host of other seaside piers scattered throughout Britain – sprang up and achieved popularity for leisure-seeking Sydneysiders in the early to mid 20th century. I have previously outlined the meteoric but short-lived rise of Tamarama’s Wonderland in an October 2014 blog, ‘A Day-Trippers’ Paradise: The Vogue for Pleasure Grounds in 19th/20th Century Sydney’. In this piece I am focusing on former amusement piers at two of Sydney’s most iconic beach suburbs – Coogee and Manly.

Coogee Pier
Coogee Pier AKA Coogee Pleasure Pier took four years to construct (1924-28) but its operational lifespan was as ephemeral as Wonderland, lasting only a mere six years! (1928-1934) The pier was constructed by a private firm, the Coogee Ocean Pier Company, at a princely sum of £250 thousand…”large crowds gathered to watch the first pile being driven on 24th July 1926. Radio stations 2BL and 2KY made live broadcasts of proceedings”¹.

Coogee Amusement Pier
The Pier on the beach at Coogee, when opened was a spectacular sight, reaching out 180 metres out to sea. Built with the boardwalks of English Coastal towns in mind, the entertainment pier complex was lavishly furnished with a 1,400 seat theatre, a ballroom that could accommodate 600 dedicated foot-shufflers, a 400 seat restaurant, a penny arcade and small shops. Beach-goers flocked to the pier as illustrated in the old photograph at right, helping to establish Coogee’s credentials as a resort town. The pier also incorporated a large, netted safe swimming area for its patrons – the shark net itself, attached at one side to the pier, cost £6,750. The “occasion of the shark net’s official opening was made grander by the additional unveiling of the new Giles’ Ocean Baths and the new surf sheds. The celebration was promoted as ‘Come to Coogee’ Week and attracted a crowd of 135,000 people”².

Unfortunately the amusement pier’s fate was sealed by its precarious location in the open bay, where it was subjected to the physical onslaughts of nature. Damage to the pier by the surf’s repeated thrashings❉ took its toll and the operators eventually decided to pull the plug – in 1934 Coogee Pier was closed and subsequently demolished³.

Manly wharf & fun pier 1950s/1960s
Manly Fun Pier
Manly Fun Pier (MFP) (at one point it was referred to as Manly Amusement Pier and Aquarium) was located in Manly Cove on the wharf that had hitherto been used as a cargo wharf♦. The Pier opened to the public as a “fun parlour” in 1931, eventually adopting as its slogan, Built for Fun in ’31. Establishing itself as a local icon, MFP gradually expanded its rides and features over the years – which included the Octopus ride, the Space-Walk ride, the Mexican Whip, a tumbling house and slide, indoor mini-golf, as well as more traditional features such as a ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a ghost train, a mirror maze and a train ride. The Pier’s aquarium anticipated the Fun Pier’s debut, kicking off from the year before, 1930⁴. The distinctive feature of the aquarium was its entrance which required visitors to go through a gigantic synthetic shark mouth to get inside!⁵

Later additions to MFP included dodgem cars, scooter-boats, speedboat joy rides, Pierrot shows and a wax museum. Richard Smith rose from being in charge of the speedboats to become manager of the entire amusement pier. MFP continued to be run by Smith’s family until 1971 when a group of concession holders took over its management under the banner “Fun Pier Company”. A sygna storm in 1974 damaged the Pier necessitated repairs by the Company⁶.

Manly Fun Pier & Aquarium late 60s/early 70s
By the 1980s MFP was on the wane, small suburban fun piers were passé, and it was of no surprise when the Pier closed in 1989. The old Cargo Wharf was incorporated into an expanded, modernised Manly Passenger Wharf in 1990 and new amusement rides were erected (carousel, Ferris wheel, etc). However this revival was short-lived – locals living on the eastern side of Manly Cove (East Esplanade, Little Manly) didn’t waste much time before they started voicing complaints about the noise and light coming from the new rides at night…within a short time what remained of the Manly wharf amusement park was permanently closed⁷.

Old portico entrance to Giles’ Baths

PostScript: Coogee’s “pay-to-swim” baths
As suggested above, the opening of Coogee Pier in 1928 was something of a double act for Coogee with the simultaneous opening of Giles’ Hot Sea Baths, in a natural rock pool setting off the northern headland of Coogee Beach¤. The baths (AKA “Giles’ Gym and Baths”) were built on the same site as the earlier Lloyd’s Baths. The baths’ proprietor was Oscar E Giles, a masseur who promoted health and fitness through hydrotherapy, electric and hot sea bath treatments, as well as offering a “weight-reduction massage course”⁴.

Coogee Beach’s long tradition of “pay-to-swim” baths extends to the other (southern) side of the beach, two such still operating are Wylie’s and McIver’s. Wylie’s Baths, an ocean tidal pool, was started by Henry Wylie for Olympic swimmers (including his daughter Mina (Wilhelmina Wylie) and pioneering Australian gold medallist Fanny Durack) to train. McIver’s Ladies Baths is the only women only saltwater pool in Australia. The baths have been available only to women and children since the 1880s. Since 1922 it has been run by the Randwick and Coogee Ladies Amateur Swimming Club.


░▒⁰ ¹ ² ³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶ ⁷ ⁸ ⁹▒░

❉ lifeguards at Coogee recently found remnants of the pier on the ocean floor 50m from the shore
¤ known for its distinctive portico entrance… to the 1980s a male only swimming preserve, Giles’ Baths closed down in 1998 but the rock pool is still used by swimmers today willing to brave its turbulent waves
♦ parallel and subordinate to the larger, Passenger Wharf
there is some understanding that the southern end of Coogee Beach was sacred to women in traditional aboriginal society

¹ ‘Bicentennial Commemorative Plaque – Site of Coogee Pier & Shark Net’, Monument Australia,
² ibid
³ Gillian McNally, ‘Sydney’s long lost amusement parks’, Daily Telegraph, 23-Jul-2015
⁴ ‘Manly Fun Pier’, (Parkz – Theme Parks),
⁵ ‘Manly Fun Pier’, Wikipedia,
⁶ John Morcombe, ‘Manly had its own fun pier for almost 60 years’, Manly Daily, 26-Jun-2015
⁸ ‘Giles Baths’, (Randwick City Council),

Cursed Movies II: The Conqueror Film’s Catastrophic Afterlife

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The Conqueror (1956) was a doomed film, both cinematically and in terms of its devastating human cost. Its reception critically was abysmal and its performance at the box office was less than mediocre. Reviews for the movie disaster have been consistent in assigning it an unenviable position as one of cinema’s worst ever pictures, one of Hollywood’s greatest “turkeys”¹.

Yahoo!Movies described The Conqueror as “the most toxic movie ever made”…tarnishing the careers of those who appeared in this egregious stinker, especially its star John Wayne, effectively bankrupting RKO Pictures (costing a blown-out $6 million) and contributing to the deaths of an inordinate number of its cast and crew².

John Wayne, faced with the need to fulfil the third and final picture of his contract with RKO, apparently fished the discarded script out of the rubbish bin and convinced the assigned director Dick Powell (who in turn convinced RKO’s owner Howard Hughes) to make the film with Wayne playing the role as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan (a role intended apparently for Marlon Brando). By all accounts Wayne was grossly miscast⋇, interpreting the great Mongol leader as a cowboy (probably an entirely natural notion for the Duke!). The script (by Oscar Millard) was terrible and vacuous as the following inane, awkward samples of the dialogue illustrate:

Temujin: I feel this Tartar wo-man is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar wo-man.

Temujin: She is wo-man, Jamuga…MUCH wo-man!


Snow Canyon NP
Radioactive set
The Conqueror was a patently absurd vehicle by any standard – as an attempt at film art or as a plausible historical reconstruction…but as disastrous as the movie was, it was to have far more serious and far-reaching tragic consequences. Most of the filming took place at Snow Canyon¤ near Saint George in Utah, 130 odd miles from a nuclear test site where the US Government detonated 11 above-ground nuclear explosions in 1953. By the time location filming took place, June-August 1954, winds had shifted the still highly radioactive soil downwind to Snow Canyon. The shooting of the action sequences (in an adventure movie this was most of the film!) necessitated that the performers wallowed in the carcinogenic dust day after day.

The film’s producers (Hughes and Powell) were aware of the proximity of the atomic testing before shooting started but had been assured by the government that the atomic tests posed no risks to public health, a gross deception (self-deception?). Compounding the dilemma, at the end of the location work Hughes ordered that 60 tons of the radioactive reddy-brown dirt from the Snow Canyon site in Utah be carted back to the RKO film set at Culver City for re-takes!

Human Fallout
Consequently, by about 1980 it could be shown that 91 of the 220 individuals who made up the film’s location staff had contracted cancer including its stars Wayne, Susan Haywood, Agnes Moorehead and Pedro Armendáriz (one of Wayne’s sons who had a small part in the movie later also died of cancer). There is no definitive way of proving that the contaminated soil was 100% to blame for the cancer deaths…Wayne had a heavy smoking habit (up to seven packs a day!), as did others in the cast, which could have been a contributing factor to the malignancies⍔. The harmful effects of the area’s radiation however is undeniably part of the explanation for such an aberrant outbreak of disease. Robert Pendleton, professor of biology at the University of Utah, concluded that the toxic fallout of Saint George was of epidemic proportions, that the toll was about three times what might be expected³. In addition it is well documented that health checks on ordinary residents of Saint George similarly revealed higher incidences of cancer than other comparable areas⁴.

PostScript: Howard Hughes’ own private purgatory
As is well-known, The Conqueror’s Producer Hughes lived as a recluse, (literally) hermetically sealed off from the rest of humanity, for his last years. It is believed that he deeply regretted his decision to go ahead with The Conqueror project. Hughes delayed the film’s theatrical release and attempted to purchase every single print to try to keep it out of the public eye. Part of his penance in his hermit mode of existence, it has been claimed, was to watch and re-watch the disastrous movie every day (along with Ice Station Zebra⁵).

⋇ Wayne as a 13th century Asiatic warrior was a ludicrous choice, as the casting was overall – only two of the entire performers were of Asian descent. Many of the doomed extras were undisguised Navajo Indians
¤ Howard Hughes thought the rolling red hills would be similar in appearance to the steppes of Mongolia
⍔ although ‘Duke’ Wayne did not die from his lung cancer (which went into remission) but from the subsequent stomach cancer he contracted [Gaggiano, below]

¹ included in H & M Medved & R Dreyfuss’ 1978 The Fifty Worst Films of All Time
² ‘The Conqueror: The story of the most toxic movie in Hollywood history’, (Yahoo!Movies, 09-Nov-2016),
³ Pendleton: “…in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law” – Karen G Jackovich & Mark Sennet, ‘The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents’, People, originally posted 10-Nov-1980,
⁴ Rory Carroll, ‘Hollywood and the downwinders still grapple with nuclear fallout’, The Guardian,, 06-Jun-2015,
⁵ Greg Caggiano, ‘The Conqueror (1956): The Film That Killed John Wayne … Literally’, Reel to Real, 26-Jul-2010,


▒⁰ ¹ ² ³ ⁴ ⁵ ⁶ ⁷ ⁸ ⁹▒

Cursed Movies I: Health Hazards of Oz

Cinema, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.

Many, many things did go wrong on the set, including costs…the MGM musical/fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.

Judy as Dot in Oz
The staggeringly appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarette habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014,].

Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.

Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.

The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.

In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood],].

The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia,]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.

PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life.

Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010,]]

✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95)
a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove the early show business career of Garland and her sisters, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]

A 1960s Juvenile Reader: Classic British Comic Strips and ‘Just William’

Literary & Linguistics, Media & Communications, Popular Culture

As a counterweight to the surfeit of 1960s American television that comprised a large slice of my diet of home entertainment, my juvenile literary tastes back then were decidedly more Anglophile. Plunging into the graphic art world of the 1960s comic book I digested everything I came across catering for adrenalin-pumping, red-blooded British boys.

Desperate Dan, ‘The Dandy’
Among these beacons of popular culture were The Beano (which starred Dennis the Menace and Gnasher), The Dandy❈ (featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan), Knockout (Billy Bunter), The Hotspur, The Rover (these two papers were prime examples of the “Boys’ Own Adventure” style of stories) and Eagle with its centrepiece inter-galactic hero ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’, not to forget Tiger which catered for British schoolboy football mania with the stellar-booted striker ‘Roy of the Rovers’. The individual comics were grouse fun but what I most enjoyed was the comic book annuals of The Beano, etc., where I could indulge myself in reading a whole end-of-year book comprising a cross-section of the comic’s different strips⚀.

At primary school in the sixties the punitive powers-that-be weren’t all that rapt in comic books as reading material…my confiscated copy of ‘Dennis the Menace Bumper Comic’ (before I had a chance to read hardly any of it!) bore witness to that. From what was on offer in the school library, the one children’s book I did take a shine to was Just William, I should say series of books because there 38 (some sources say 39) ‘William’ books in all! All of the books were collections of short stories, with the exception of one in novel form.

Richmal Crompton
Just William was the creation of female English author Richmal Crompton (Lamburn). As a child feverishly devouring all the William books I shared with the overwhelming bulk of readers the uncritical assumption that Richmal was a man. How wrong were we all!!! Miss Lamburn was a school mistress (ironically – in an all-girls school!) who contracted polio and spent the rest of her life writing the William series of books as well as 41 adult novels❦.

The character of William (surname: Brown) was apparently based on Richmal’s young nephew Tommy…in the books William is scruffy and untidy in appearance, and given to directness, rebellion and straight talking – which sometimes lands him in strife. He is the leader of his own small gang of school friends who go by the name of “The Outlaws” (comprising his best friend Ginger as well as two other boys, Henry and Douglas). William is 11, an age he stays at, despite the series of books stretching over a period of nearly 50 years! [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry]

‘William the Dictator’
Most of the books follow the ordinary run of events of William and the Outlaws entangling themselves in minor mischiefs, usually involving nothing worse than the ill-conceived idea of painting a terrier blue! But occasionally William strayed into more edgy and outright polemical territory. In the short story ‘William and the Nasties’¤ William’s band emulate Hitler and his fellow National Socialists in order to terrorise a local Jewish sweet-shop owner (featuring in the 1935 collection William the Detective [‘Five Fascinating Facts about Just William’,].

Just William’s topicality
A good number of the Just William books regularly reflected current events of their day. William the Conqueror (published in 1926) was resonant of European colonial power imperialism leading up to WWI. William The Dictator (1938) reflected the world’s concern with fascism and National Socialism. Similarly, William and the Evacuees (appearing in 1940) was set against the backdrop of WWII. In the post-war period, the superpowers’ preoccupation with the space race inspired new books like William and the Moon Rocket (1954) and William and the Space Animal (1956) [‘Just William’, Wikipedia entry].

Just William book spin-offs
With such popularity that the Just William books attained (12 million sales in the UK alone), they inevitably flowed through to adaptation to other forms – cinema (three films in the 1940s), two television series (one in the mid-1950s and the other in the early 1960s), radio and even theatre. As well, the schoolboy hero spawned a host of Just William merchandise…from jigsaws and board games to cigarette cards, magic painting books and figurines of William [‘Richmal Crompton’s Just William Society’,]

Celebrity fandom: Lennon as William
Some time after the Beatles visited Australasia in 1964 at the height of “Mop-top mania”, I remember hearing that John Lennon had been a fan of the fictional William in his boyhood. Lennon’s devotion to the books prompted him to form his own, real-life version of the Outlaws, moulding his friends Ivy, Nigel and Pete into a Liverpudlian boy foursome. With John of course as leader, the boys engaged in “small acts of defiance and daring” on their local turf [J Edmondson, John Lennon: A Biography (2010)]. The revelation that I had been propelled into the stratospheric company of such a youth icon as Beatle John, only served to magnify my primary school days zeal for all things William Brown!

PostScript: Continental comic book legends
My childhood taste in comics were not exclusively confined to the gold standard of British comics. Like millions of other children I was also captivated by those ancient Gallic tormentors of Roman legionnaires, Asterix and Obelix (Astérix le Gaulois by Goscinny and Uderzo). In equal measure I was in the thrall of Tintin, Hergé’s creation of a globe-roaming Belgian boy-reporter. Each comic album of The Adventures of Tintin was a lesson in political geography embroiling Tintin in high-stakes adventures in a new and exotic land. But as rewarding as the respective adventures of Asterix and Tintin were, in my book nothing quite scaled the same exalted heights of anticipation as did the prospect of dipping into the treasure trove of Just William’s world.

╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╼╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼ ╾╼╾
❈ The originals The Beano and The Dandy were of course far superior to the highly derivative and latter imitations like The Topper and Beezerand Cor!!
⚀ not to be overshadowed, schoolgirls had their own comics and annuals such as Bunty and School Friend Annual
❦ the most accomplished of which was Leadon Hill. The tone of the adult novels was more pessimistic than the Just William series, dealing with themes of divorce and infidelity [Danuta Keen, ‘Not Just William: Richmal Crompton’s adult fiction republished’, The Guardian, 21-Apr-2017]
¤ the name ‘Nasties’ is the result of William’s mishearing of the word ‘Nazis’

The All-American Adolescent according to Two Hollywood Studios: Hardy Vs Aldrich

Cinema, Performing arts, Popular Culture

When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed, like everyone else, to saturation levels of US commercial television. Faced with the novelty of a new and revolutionary form of home entertainment, I clocked up the viewing hours (which turned into thousands of hours). Eventually through trial and error I picked out my favourite American programs, a few gems among the preponderance of TV dross and mediocrity.

Back then I was particularly fond of old black-and-white movies on TV (until 1975 all Australian television was in black-and-white!). Drilling down even deeper, 1940s and 50’s movie serials were highest on the totem of my juvenile television tastes. I lapped up countless viewings (and re-viewings) of the like of Ma and Pa Kettle, Blondie, Batman, Tarzan, Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, to barely scratch the surface of my childhood obsession.

‘Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary’
As an Antipodean-based “honorary American boy”, a lot of my vicarious existence was channelled through Hollywood’s projection of the typical American teenage boy. MGM had Andy Hardy (played by that pint-sized bundle of energy, Mickey Rooney), whilst over at Paramount, the studio eventually tried to counter Andy’s popularity with Henry Aldrich (portrayed initially and briefly by the over-saccharine Jackie Cooper, but mostly by the perpetually perplexed-looking Jimmy Lydon).

Both screen personas had their measure of humorous escapades in each movie in the series…teenagers Andy and Henry got up much the same thing, they were both likeable, both “got into jams, had romantic vexations, and mischievously interfered in the lives of their older brothers and sisters”, with consequences all of which were at worse ephemeral[1].

Hardy and Aldrich each had his own distinctive and characteristic expressions, these verbal calling cards were often reiterated throughout each movie…Andy Hardy, when in ebullient mood, would chirpily respond to Polly Benedict or to another of his many, simultaneous love interests with “You said it, toots!” Henry Aldrich is universally remembered for the opening exchange with his mother who bellows: “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!”, to which Henry from upstairs would haltingly and tremulously reply, “Com-ing, Mother!”

Once I latched on to Paramount’s counterpoint to the Hardys, the Aldriches, I quickly developed a preference for the new kid on the Hollywood block Henry Aldrich over Andy Hardy. The longer the Andy Hardy/Family sequence went, the more it seemed to wallow in “Gee mum'” sentimentality, with a touch of smug bourgeois self-satisfaction. Andy came from a distinctively middle class American family (his father was a court judge, as the good-intentioned Andy himself aspired to and eventually realised)…Henry seemed more to reside in the world of the working class family, not exactly down-at-heel, but hardly flush with affluence. The Henry movies were a bit more gritty, more down-to-earth and lacking the romanticised and soppy wholesomeness of the Hardy Family sagas.

The first Andy Hardy film was released in 1937, A Family Affair with 15 more following within the decade, plus a less successful ‘reunion’ film in 1958 focusing on Andy’s return to Carvel to take up his father’s old judicial post. The character of Henry Aldrich first surfaced in a Broadway play What a Life in 1938 (playwright: Clifford Goldsmith)…from there in span off into fourteen years of radio (1939-53), four years of television (1949-53), a series of ten movies, and an uncountable number of comic books, musical scores, pin-ups, games, and toys.

Stumbling, bumbling Henry!
The Aldrich movies never reached anywhere near the lofty heights of the Hardy films, neither in the returns from the box office or in the esteem of cinema critics✳. Henry Aldrich movies were either ignored by critics or dismissed as inferior B-movies, merely larks and juvenile fun…contrasting sharply with the symbolic status afforded the Hardy series by MGM, the cinematic embodiment of the “Stars and Stripes”, of “America”[2].

Jeffrey Dennis notes how the respective imaginary ‘worlds’ Andy and Henry inhabit sit poles apart. Carvel, the Hardy home town in small town Idaho, is comfortably ensconced in Middle American suburbia, a peaceful and harmonious realm in which the war (WWII) does not enter. Carvel and the Hardys represent an idyllic family lifestyle, with the films’ message a somewhat preachy reinforcement of solid and wholesome American values[3]. Against the stark realities of the Depression and the drift into global war, fictional Carvel offered the American public a chance to indulge in “feel-good” escapist diversions.

Henry’s home town Centerville, by contrast (located in an unidentified state) is a much more grim, dark and foreboding entity. Reminders of the war constantly swirl around the world of Henry and the Aldrich family and that of he and his best pal Dizzy (in the form of war bonds, war relief funds, rationing, air-raid drills)[4].

‘Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout’
Both boys regularly get themselves embroiled in injudicious teenage troubles but Henry Aldrich’s conundrums have the more serious consequences…whilst Andy at his incautious worse may be “fined for driving without a licence, but Henry is threatened with prison, juvenile hall, and a mental asylum”[5]. And Hardy’s often foolish escapades, unlike Aldrich’s, never amount to life-threatening situations.

Critics have also drawn attention to differences in how each screen teenager viewed the perennial adolescent boy issue of “girl trouble”. Whilst the easily love-struck Andy Hardy was unequivocally a dedicated girl-chaser most of the time, Henry Aldrich expressed a more ambivalent attitude towards the fairer sex: “Wimmen – they bore me!”, Henry exclaims in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour[6]. Teenage Henry is reticence or seemingly indifferent to girls, preferring to spend time messing about with best mate Dizzy. Rather than being a manifestation of latent homosexuality, Henry with his simplified approach to life, most of the time just finds girls too complicated, not worth all the fuss and bother.

American youth in the Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich films were depicted humorously, often with affectionate nostalgia and occasionally condescendingly. At the same time, both series revolving round the comical misadventures of American teenage boys were a window on the beginnings of a distinct adolescent sub-culture[7], which would take further shape in the years following WWII with the “Rebel Without a Cause” youth generation.

✳ in 1939 Mickey Rooney was the number one box office star in American films, a position he retained for the following three years, Source: ‘Top Box Office Stars: 1932-1939 (Part 1)’, (Classic Film Guru),

[1] RJ Bresler, Us Vs Them: American Political and Cultural Conflict from WWII to Watergate (2000)
[2] JP Dennis, We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-craziness (2007)
[3] in 1943 the film series was awarded a special Oscar for “achievement in portraying the American way of life”, Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen” (2005)
[4] Dennis, op.cit.
[5] ibid.
[6] RB Armstrong & MW Armstrong, Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (2009)
[7] PC Rollins, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past (2004)