Rebels in corduroy- the Barjai poets, 1943-1947

Rebels in corduroy

The Barjai poets, 1943-1947

One day in 1947 or 1948, some members of the ‘Barjai’ group of young poets and artists walked down from Brisbane Central Station to the Ballad Bookshop, on the corner of Edward and Adelaide Streets, to meet with their colleagues.

Someone on the street noticed that they were clad in corduroy jackets, which had become a sort of uniform for their group, and called out ‘there go those queer people’.[1] This kind of intolerance and provinciality was one side of the Brisbane that was recovering from World War II. But by the time that Barjai was established, in the early years of the Pacific war, an educational, literary and cultural infrastructure already existed in Brisbane that allowed a small group of talented and ambitious teenagers to build a journal that lasted 23 editions over nearly 4 years. [2]  

More than 50 young Australians contributed text or art to its pages. But Barjai primarily owes its success to the efforts of its two editors, Laurence Collinson and Barrie Reid.  Collinson was born in Yorkshire to Jewish parents, who emigrated when he was two, and settled in Brisbane in 1937.  He found his way to Brisbane State High School (State High), where he met Reid, one of 3 children raised in ‘a poetry family’[3] by their single father, George Reid, a businessman and rationalist.

At that time, the Queensland school leaving age was 12, and those who went to high school generally did so with the benefit of a small State Government scholarship available to children who passed a public examination in the last year of primary school. Most who attended high school left at year 10 level.

State High was then the only university entrance level state school in Brisbane (permanent population 335,000[4]), and one of Queensland’s few co-educational high schools. Collinson presumably found his way there because Christian secondary schools were not open to him. Reid originally went to Brisbane Grammar, but chose to switch to State High because there were ‘better teachers’[5].

By 1943, they had reached their senior year. In August, with a group of their friends, they published a little magazine for the entertainment of their co-students, called ‘Senior Tabloid’.

‘Published’ is probably an ambitious word, because the early editions were typewritten on thin paper; the only available duplicates were ‘carbon copies’ in the days before photocopiers and electronic printers existed. According to Michele Anderson, the second edition of Senior Tabloid consisted of a mere 3 copies,[6] one less than the number on the editorial committee, of Reid, Collinson, Cecel Knopke, and John Tonkin.

Something in its mixture of poetry, commentary, and controversy seemed to resonate with its audience. By edition 5, it had become ‘Barjai’, which its editors proclaimed, was ‘the aboriginal’ for ‘meeting place’[7]. Shortly afterwards, State High’s principal, Isaac Waddle (unsurprisingly known as ‘the Duck’), banned  Barjai’s sale within school boundaries, in response to an article by Knopke that confessed to the author’s atheistic beliefs. So the editors adopted the good Australian tactic of selling copies outside the school gates[8].

Not surprisingly, circulation continued to grow. By edition 12, in January 1944, the original editors had left school, and ‘Barjai’ was commercially printed.  Copies were sold more or less throughout Australia, for a price of 1/3 (12 cents) a copy.  Brisbane based contributors and their associates met fortnightly at premises above the Lyceum Club in Adelaide St, Brisbane (where Post Office Square is now). Their meeting place became a focal point for others of the Brisbane culturati, such as the poets Judith Wright, Val Vallis and James Devaney, and the artists Joy Roggenkamp, Pamela Seeman and Laurence Hope.[9]

Barjai clubs began to meet in other states, and by edition 19 it stretched to 40 pages, with contributions from all over Australia. It featured 4 black and white reproductions of contemporary watercolours along with a mixture of original poetry, short stories, and essays, together with criticism and reviews of art, music, and literature.

It achieved its reach and prominence with the support of many senior figures in the Brisbane cultural establishment. Financial and managerial support came from Dr J.V. Duhig, first chair of pathology at the University of Queensland, a long time supporter of Queensland cultural institutions, and a close friend of George Reid. Literary patronage came from figures such as Clem Christesen, the founding editor of Meanjin, and the poets James Devaney and Martin Haley, longtime stalwarts of the Queensland Authors’ and Artists’ Association (QAAA). The Royal Queensland Art Society provided a platform for the incorporation of paintings and linocuts into Barjai’s pages.

Despite this support, Barjai remained for the most part fiercely independent; it spoke for ‘Youth’ with a capital ‘y’. The editorial for issue 12 made this clear:

BARJAI will not apologise for the youth of its writers, but will encourage them to alter the conception of Youth in the average adult mind…

The critic will find in these pages little of that humour and carefree exuberance of spirit so often attributed to Youth. Perhaps this is regrettable, but there can be little humour left in minds born during depression and growing to maturity in war. 

But Youth has never lost enthusiasm and still retains an energy that is forthright and dynamic; and if optimism is hidden beneath the strain of war it will break through and become the driving force of tomorrow.’[10]

So what exactly, did Youth have to say to the ‘average adult mind’? Well, not much actually that adults weren’t saying already, but that’s true for all writers and especially all poets, all the time. And at least Youth was saying it. 

Barjai’s poetic tastes were eclectic: traditional rhyming verses, excursions into modernism, love poems, nature lyrics, streetscapes, political poems, war poems, peace poems and polemics.  Overall, the quality is pretty good, certainly much better than could reasonably be expected from an authorship limited to those 20 and under.

Most of the poems owe more of a debt to Housman and the Georgians, than to Eliot and Pound. But sometimes a poem can surprise:

‘I saw the city open her trap
And I saw all her rabbits run;
Oh I ached for mirth and I threw my cap;

At the burning boomerang sun.’ [11]

Occasionally, you find a really striking simile: ‘We spoke politely, /And our arguments followed like well-fed bishops’. [12] But for the most part, the poets are taking the road more travelled, in the belief that no-one has been there before, and with an uncertain sense of the number of feet in a metre:

I have come from mist to mist and seen the beauty
Harrow and plough by silent night;
I have come from under the stars and glory

Shining white and mystical light; [13]

There are a few poems by young servicemen and women, but they are only obliquely about life on the battlefront. Take this, written with a nod to Siegfried Sassoon:

You bray of Peace my friend, who know it not;
When shall it come? to-day? next month? next year?
Your figures prove Vict’ry is very near;
Carry your nought and place your decimal dot,

Then to your easy chair, and lager beer- [14]

And there’s little from the Brisbane based poets that reflects the presence of more than 150,000 servicemen in the city, though undoubtedly this influenced cultural life generally, and this fragment by Reid’s sister Rona might hint at the influence of servicemen on the nightlife:

When day is done
and their bodies
should be at rest
their skeletons play around

at the night clubs.


Those few poems which have social, as opposed to personal, concerns, are closer to the soft-socialism of Charles Chaplin than any hard edged Marxism:

If the silken throats
And wildly beautiful
Purple music of nightingales,
Froze to barren ice in the city slums,
Would the successful business man

Call it lack of enterprise?[16]

As one might expect, sex and sexuality finds its way into the poems, sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly:

You moved
in the strange pleasure of the night;
I awoke;
we together saw tall poplars

pointing cultured fingers to the sky[17].

More frequently, the mood is one of adolescent angst:

But under suffocating light
That should be life itself,
The youthful fierceness of dreams melt.
O this young heart beating

For the accomplishments of the gods![18]

There’s also a certain youthful self-consciousness. Take this, from Brian Medlin, of Adelaide:

I am one of many:
idly but thoroughly
whittling my dreams,
my love, my hatred, desires,

on the stick which is yet to be me.[19]

Barjai is at its best in the moments when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The 16 year old Grace Perry, raised in Brisbane until the early 40s, had already published 2 books of verse  by the time her work appeared in Barjai. In #10, she took the novel step of reviewing a review by RG Howarth of her books:

I can agree with MR R.G Howarth and all the other critics who have reviewed the small books of verse by Grace Perry that she is a singer with a pure lyrical note….There can, unfortunately, be no denial either of the fact that Grace Perry is conventional in her thoughts and images….. though I do not believe that a poet should be so unconventional as to be ridiculous, I do believe that once Grace Perry thinks her own thoughts and forms them into original poetry, she will make a great Australian poet.[20] 

Overall, there’s a confident, assertive tone to much of the poetry that comes from the authors having read some, but not a lot, of poetry themselves, and having some, but not a lot, of life experience, which makes reading their work, even now, nearly 80 years later, an invigorating experience.

At its peak from 1944 to 1945, Barjai wasn’t just a magazine, it was a Brisbane centred cultural group with connections throughout Australia. The Reid family in particular were very welcoming. Sidney Nolan slept on the Reids’ front veranda in Chermside for three months, ‘trying to escape the army’[21]. While living there he painted some of his Ned Kelly series, using boards taken from the garbage tip. Reid also took the artist Laurence Hope (who had arrived broke and homeless from Sydney) into the family home[22]

The Barjai group were bohemian, if you can call wearing corduroy bohemian. A better description might be ‘consciously different’. Its politics were progressive but not radical. Though Collinson later joined the Communist party and on occasion its editorials  professed communist leanings, the Barjai group resisted attempts from the Communist affiliated Eureka Youth League to take over their little magazine. Though Collinson was homosexual and Reid probably bi-sexual[23], I could find no homoerotic elements in the love poems, perhaps apart from an occasional ‘you’ instead of a ‘she’. There are plenty of stories about members going first to Barjai Group meetings and then to Church fellowships.[24] And in some respects the males at least were happy to embrace traditional roles; It seems that it was always the women who cleaned up after meetings.[25]

Some time in around 1945, the Barjai group formed links, and eventually became indistinguishable from, the avant-garde Miya Studio.  In 1946, Barjai the magazine began to appear less frequently. It folded in 1947, when Duhig, its chief patron, ran into tax troubles and the founders would have turned 21. Eventually Miya Studio linked with the leftist New Theatre.

It took a while for the legacy of Barjai to be recognised. Morris Miller and Macartney do not mention it at all in their Bibliography of Australian Literature (1950), and in 1959, Cec Hadgraft, in Queensland and its writers dismisses it as ‘the short-lived Queensland periodical Barjai’[26]. This is unfair: Kenneth Slessor and Jack Lindsay’s famous Vision,  lasted a mere 4 issues, Colin Bingham and Edgar Holt’s Merlin Papers just two, and only one edition of Paul Grano’s Southwellian  saw the light of day.  23 editions is a long run for a literary magazine.

From the 1960s onwards, though, the authors and artists who Barjai had launched began to gain recognition. Among them were Thea Astley, whose novels won four Miles Franklin awards, Grace Perry, who became a distinguished paediatrician,  the founder of Poetry Australia magazine,  and a fine poet, Lilian Roxon a late Barjai associate who became a famous rock journalist, Brian Medlin, who became first Professor of Philosophy at Flinders University, and a leading peace activist,  the music critic Charles Osborne,  the academic and arts patron Don Munro, the librarian and reviewer Vida Horn, the artists Pamela (Seeman) Crawford, Laurence Hope, and Joy Roggenkamp, the artistic and cultural polymath Barbara Blackman, and many others.

Gradually, pretty well all the Barjai figures moved interstate or overseas. Collinson went to Victoria, and then England, publishing poetry, fiction and drama, working first as a teacher, and then eventually as a psychotherapist. He passed away in 1986. Reid too went to Melbourne, became an important part of the Heide group led by John and Sunday Reed, and entered into a distinguished career in the State Library. For nearly 30 years he was poetry editor and then editor of the left wing literary journal Overland. He died in 1997.

At Reid’s 60th birthday party, in 1986, Astley remembered those Barjai days:

I live for those Sunday afternoon meetings at the Lyceum Club where we talk books and poetry and drink tea and eat Sao biscuits topped with tomato and cheese. … We go for hikes into the hills near Mt Coot-tha. We’re young and we talk and talk and talk. …

My parents worry. ‘Are they left wing?’ they ask anxiously. Poetry readings might lead to communism. Worse, communism might lead to poetry readings!...

Hello all of you. You never bored me. Not once. And when I read of today’s youth agonising with ennui, I can only wish they had what we had. [27]

I suspect the Barjai group all had their moments of ennui, too, but bored or not, it would have been great to see them in action, in those days.


Further reading. It’s better that you read Barjai than you read about it. Print copies of Barjai are hard to get hold of. However, digital versions of 5 or 6 editions are available through the National Library’s Trove site.

There are 3 readily available discussions of Barjai, more as a social phenomenon than as a literary magazine. Michele Anderson (now Helmrich) wrote the first real exposition of Barjai and Miya Studio in her Arts Honours thesis in 1987; her work is easily accessible through UQ’s e-space. Joanne Watson wrote an excellent chapter on Barjai/Miya in Ray Evans and Carole Ferrier’s Radical Brisbane (The Vulgar Press, 2004). Lastly, William Hatherell’s The Third Metropolis  (UQ Press, 2007) is a comprehensive and entertaining exposition of Brisbane’s cultural development from 1940-70. Much of the book is infused with the spirit of Barjai, and 12 pages are specifically concerned with it.



[1] Interview with Rona Arndt (Reid), sister of Barrie Reid, and herself a Barjai contributor, 17/2/2021.

[2] For an exploration of this theme, and the cultural contexts that made Barjai possible, see Hatherell, W. The Third Metropolis, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 2007.

[3] Ibid

[4] ‘Queensland’s population still on the increase’, The Worker, Brisbane, 3 June 1941, p2.

[5] Arndt, op cit.

[6] Anderson, Michele Elizabeth, ‘Barjai, Miya Studio, and young Brisbane artists of the 1940s: Towards a radical practice’ BA Honours Thesis, University of Queensland Department of Art History, July 1987, p 16. This article is generally indebted to Ms Anderson’s work.

[7] Ibid, p18

[8] Ibid, p25

[9] Watson, Joanne, ‘Lyceum Club’, chapter 34 of Radical Brisbane, an unruly history, edited by Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, Brisbane, the Vulgar Press, 2004, p219-225.

[10]  Barjai, no 12, p3.

[11] Alex Lire, from Poem to John (II) Barjai no 12, January 1944, p11

[12] Grahame Harrison, fromPrelude’ in Barjai no 15, p7.

[13] Betty McFarlane, from Mars, Barjai no 16, p7. Why her ear didn’t tell her to use ‘mystic’ instead of ‘mystical’, etc, is beyond me.

[14] Louis H. Clark, from This peace Barjai no 15, July 1944, p4.

[15] Rona Reid, Jitterbugs, Barjai no 15, p10.

[16] Grahame Harrison, Beauty is so rare a thing, Barjai no 16, p6.

[17] David Beard, from Poem, Barjai no 16, p8.

[18] David Sanderson, Poem, in Barjai no 14, May 1944, p 6.

[19] ‘Me’ Barjai no 15 July 1944, p7.

[20] Grace Perry, Book Review ‘I live a life of dreams’, in Barjai no 10, late 1943, p6. 

[21] Interview with Rona Arndt 17/2/21

[22] Watson, op. cit., p220.

[23] Reilly, D. Barrett Reid, Australian National Dictionary of Biography: accessed 21/9/2021, but see Papps, P. Barrett Reid: a charismatic chameleon, Latrobe Journal, no 87, May 2011, pp136-148.

[24] Hatherell, op cit, p132.

[25] Arndt interview, op cit.

[26] University of Queensland Press, 1959, p18

[27] Reid, Barrett, Librarian, Poet, Artist, Chermside and District Historical Society, Accessed 19/9/21. 

Poems by Theme