Bunthorne's Blog

Stewart McGowan's blog

Kenneth Slessor, Ladies’ Man.

Backless Betty

I came across a very unusual collected Kenneth Slessor recently. It’s a collection of his work from the late 20’s and early 30’s, published as ‘Backless Betty from Bondi’.

I’ve taught Slessor occasionally, and still have a couple of his poems in my repertoire. This book adds something to my understanding of him. Slessor worked as a journalist for a number of papers over his lifetime, including Smith’s Weekly.

The book re-publishes a range of Slessor’s early poetry, illustrated by the cartoonists who were a big part of the paper’s success. If you’ve ever taught ‘Wild Grapes’, the original illustration’s in here.

There’s a story somewhere in my family about a grandmother being absolutely scandalised that a copy of Smith’s Weekly had arrived in her house, which gives you a sense of tone. Whoever told me the story was implying that grandma was a bit of a wowser who should just let the men-folk get on with enjoying life.

The paper was an illustrated tabloid, sensationalist, with a mix of sport, finance and satire. It promoted the image of the laconic ‘digger’, independent, free-spirited, fond of a drink and romantically inclined.

The poems give you a good sense of its flavour. If you’re interested in the depression years, it’s a revealing piece. I’d be tempted to use this if I were teaching Slessor for English (Advanced) Module B. How would the artists in Slessor’s time have illustrated the poems set for study?

The link to the pdf of three or four selected pages is here: Slessor Backless Betty. Oh, this is Volume 2 of his illustrated poems. I have Volume 1, Darlinghurst Nights, on order. When it comes in, I’ll scan anything that’s on for the HSC and share it here.

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