Witch Girl and the Push – Reviews

Review by Richard Brennan, The Guardian, 2014

‘Witch Girl and the Push’ is a wide ranging, free wheeling and very enjoyable memoir. Lyn Gain discovered the Sydney Push a month after the death of John Anderson in mid 1962 and this is her story. The book is written in a conversational tone – sometimes repetitive but full of vivid anecdotes.

I have read a lot of reminiscences of this era and like Lyn I am part of the third generation of:

“the same amorphous group which included folk singers and poets, artists, musicians, conmen, gamblers and other bohemians loosely aligned by a rejection of bourgeois values and a determination to have a good time”.

‘Witch Girl’ has an enormous cast of people about 40 of whom appear and reappear throughout the book. For good measure there is a map showing the placement of various pubs, coffee lounges, cellars, wine bars and restaurants along with some of the most boisterously frequented push houses. And there are a lot of photos.

Lyn has a prodigious memory and an occasionally sharp tongue but her recollections are generous and most of us get off fairly lightly. It is hard to imagine that anybody else knows so many participants from the last 50 years including fellow travellers from various pubs in Balmain and Paddington. They all have their stories and when I finished the book I saw a lot of people with fresh appreciation. There are few, if any, stories about people who were at the Royal George but did not later move on through the United States, Criterion etc. (No Lawrie Payne, Jan Miller, Danish Chris, Val Payne, John Hagan, Jenny Rankin etc). Amazingly, as is apparent at Push reunions, a lot of us have survived.

My favourite chapter was ‘Romance and the Gambling Push’ a group in which, like the author, I was an active participant. I fondly remember the card game at which a pair of Aces was (apparently) trumped by three Aces although the troublesome fifth Ace could not be located during the ensuing exchange of words.

Lyn describes herself as “someone who has always felt uncomfortable with hypocrisy”. That is true but there is a lot more to be said about her. Across the last 50 years she has actively participated in the Push, the social and community services industry and currently is an involved resident of the wider life of Bellingen.

She is anxious not to be labelled a do-gooder but it must be noted that for 16 years she worked effectively to influence government priorities on behalf of those with the least power in society.

Lyn is a push person to her high-heeled bootstraps and it continues to be the bedrock of her approach to problems. As she writes about libertarianism:

“Why did so many of the best minds in Sydney over several decades, take up its tenets and still subscribe to them, or acknowledge the relevance of many of them today?”

Another question is why did so many of them turn out to have considerable and sought after organisational skills. Of her work as NCOSS Director Lyn writes:

“NCOSS was not just concerned with the community services portfolio. We had to shadow every portfolio with an impact on social wellbeing … Think of us as a shadow cabinet made up of a permanent staff of around four policy and research officers, including the Director and Deputy Director, each one of whom has to be their own one person band, and you will get the picture.”

It was not a future that a lot of us saw coming towards her but neither would many have predicted a career for Roseanne Bonney in the Bureau of Crime Statistics, or Andre Frankovits’ long involvement with Amnesty, or Irina Dunn’s election as a Nuclear Disarmament senator or John Maze morphing from his long tenure as lecturer and tutor in the Psychology Department to the authorship of a series of fantasy novels for young adults.

A lot of the cast have died and the book includes some vivid pen portraits of, among others, Darcy Waters, Jean Buckley, George Molnar, Kaye Hancox and Lance Lupton… I have now read it twice, with great enjoyment, and put it on a shelf beside ‘Appo’, ‘Last Train to Granada’ and Albie Thoms’ ‘My Generation’. Richard Brennan

Review by Richard Ackland, Justinian, 2013

All of which is a long-winded way into mentioning Lyn Gain’s new book, Witch Girl and The Push – Social History As You’ve Never Read It

Gain was director of the N.S.W Council of Social Service and had been appointed by attorney general John Hannaford as the first lay member of the NSW Judicial Commission, during the time of Smiler Gleeson’s tenure as head of the JC. 

Much of her book is taken up with the horizontal adventures of a pack of hoary narcissists and their doxies – i.e. The Sydney Push. 

However, two valuable pages are devoted to her experience as a member of the Judicial Commission. 

It’s the first public slice of life that takes us behind the scenes of this secretive outfit. It is not a pretty sight. 

“Murray Gleeson was then the chief justice and was really quite charming and amusing if you could get over his truly breathtaking arrogance. 

I am told that this is a common condition among members of the legal fraternity, but I have never come across its like before or since.” 

Gain tells of the procedures of the commission where complaints are processed, reports written and then letters prepared for sending to the complainant and the judicial officer in each case. 

At her first meeting the commission was preparing a letter to be sent to magistrate Pat O’Shane, rebuking her for some “minor behavioural matter”. 

“I remarked that this letter seemed to be a little arrogantly worded. After some exchanged glances around the room, Murray Gleeson said that perhaps they had intended to sound arrogant.” 

On another occasion the commission was dealing with a complaint about a magistrate who heard a domestic violence case. 

He granted the woman applicant an AVO, but she said that if ever her husband hit her again she would leave the marriage. 

The magistrate proceeded to lecture her about the importance of the institution of marriage and told her that “it takes two to tango”. 

The only other woman on the commission at that time was Marla Pearlman from the Land and Environment Court, but she was away for this meeting. 

Gain had trouble getting the male judges to see that a magistrate had no right to tell a woman to put up with domestic violence. 

Murray Gleeson was convinced that it was an “inoffensive little homily on the virtues of marriage”. Reg Blanch from the Dizzo and Bill Fisher from the Industrial Court (and an old Andersonian) went along with Smiler. 

“All I could do was exchange glances of disbelief with the female minute-taker to the commission as we shook our heads.” 


Review by Anna Logan, OWN Matters, Older Women’s Network Newsletter, 2013

I’ve just finished reading a racy and compelling very autobiographical social history that covers about 50 years of the Sydney milieu – in the Sydney Push, then at the Council of Social Service of NSW (NCOSS) , now in the bush.
Lyn Gain says, “I found the Sydney Push in 1962 when I was sixteen. This changed my life forever. “ She then recounts her 16 years of adventures with them, starting with learning to swear. She honed other ‘vices ‘ along the way, but was also strongly influenced by the Sydney Libertarian philosophy around which much of the Push was posited. “Sydney Libertarians are leftwing and not to be confused with American libertarians who are far right”. She particularly hated the hypocrisy then prevalent in Sydney society, so felt that her “determination to have a good time and live the good life” was an acceptable goal.
Much of this section of Lyn’s book covers who she gambled and drank with and who she “was on with”. This latter activity led to her rejecting the Libertarian social theory that sexual jealousy should be repressed. She asserts that she tried to avoid men who were already “on with” someone else, but was as “jealous as a cat” herself when this wasn’t reciprocated. Lyn says that “Libertarians believe “good is what you find desirable”. That suited her down to the ground!
Though Germaine Greer preceded Lyn’s days in the Push, they met when Germaine returned to Sydney for a period. Lyn was always buoyed by the memory of Germaine – probably impressed with Lyn’s intellectual incisiveness and wit – inviting her to return to London with her to do her typing, an invitation she refused at the time.
In 1976 Eva Cox became Director of NCOSS and tracked Lyn down to ask her to come for a six-week survey job on unemployed women. The six weeks stretched to 19 years, during which time I joined NCOSS as their accountant, and Lyn eventually became Director. I particularly enjoyed reading this section of the book; it reminded me of the characters, events, and governments that I followed with avid interest at the time.
Obviously Lyn’s time in the Push prepared her well for the community services industry. She was used to begging, borrowing (and probably stealing), she’d become a champion networker, and she followed the Libertarian creed of critical enquiry and permanent protest. She had extraordinarily well-qualified casual workers at her fingertips. (I remember one of the casual typists as having a doctorate in astrophysics.) She hired or recruited priests, murderers (well, one that I know of), millionaires, pollies and the homeless to her side, making for a very successful Director.
To our amazement , nay horror, when Lyn retired she and Hannes moved to Kalang, near Bellingen. NCOSS bought Lyn a goat, which I know is what she asked for, never mind what she says, but she turned out to be rather better with donkeys than goats.
For those of us of a certain age and temperament, “Witch Girl” makes a fascinating read. It is available from www.valentinepress.com.au for $44.60. Or have your local library buy it. Tell Lyn I sent you!




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