Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Between Battles 16: Angus & Robertson Pocket Editions

Photo Credit: Jane Ryder
Anzac soldiers were voracious readers. Books, magazines and newspapers from home (as well as trench journals produced at the front) were in high demand, and soldiers’ letters to their families frequently featured requests for reading material to ease the boredom of static trench warfare. The Salvation Army, Red Cross and YMCA collected books and periodicals for the troops, and patriotic organizations like the local Comforts Funds regularly stockpiled and posted books along with the usual parcels of tobacco, chocolate and socks.
Items donated to the Townsville Soldiers’ Sock and Comforts Fund.
Townsville Daily Bulletin, 20 December 1915, 7.
Commercial publishers also recognized the demand for literary entertainment, and in 1915 Angus & Robertson published a reduced-size “pocket edition” of C.J. Dennis’s Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, designed to be carried in the pocket of a military tunic and marketed as the ideal gift for a son or husband at the front. Angus & Robertson continued to release pocket editions throughout the war, several of which were featured in the “Between Battles” displays in the JCU Eddie Koiki Mabo Library and CityLibraries - Flinders St Branch, Townsville.  C.J. Dennis was by far the most popular author, but other writers such as the Scottish-Australian Will H. Ogilvy also featured, with his pastoral visions of the Australian bush and romantic appeals to a sense of duty to the “Mother Country” contrasting with Dennis’s irreverent and ironic portrayals of loveable larrikin characters.
Advertisement featuring pocket editions, “suitable for the trenches.”
Tribune (Melbourne), 21 December 1916, 8.
Pocket Editions marketed as Christmas gifts for soldiers.
Geelong Advertiser, 11 October 1916, 2.
These books represent more than an opportunistic marketing campaign by Angus & Robertson. The experiences of Anzac soldiers abroad fueled a nascent desire for an Australian literary identity, and works like The Moods of Ginger Mick were uniquely antipodean responses to the emerging modernism of European literary culture.  The Moods of Ginger Mick even included a glossary of Anzac-influenced Aussie slang, reinforcing the development of a distinct cultural identity. Dennis worked with one eye on the unfolding war, providing a darkly comic and identifiably Australian interpretation of combat and life on the home front. This topicality sometimes caused problems, and his poetic response to Anzac rioting in Egypt was excised from Ginger Mick by military censors and not published until 1918. 
Caption:  Various titles from Angus & Robertson's pocket editions held in the JCU Library Special Collections     Photo credit: Jane Ryder
Angus & Robertson’s pocket editions for the trenches provided more than a diversion from the harsh realities of war. They mark the emergence of a distinct Australian literary culture, intertwined with and indebted to its British origins but confident of its own unique audience and perspective. While often jingoistic and sentimental, these works were complex and ironic statements on the state of Australasian cultural life, and their nuanced and affectionate portrayals of Anzacs at war and at home resonated with a generation in the process of establishing a distinctive national identity.

Further Reading:

- Butterss, Philip. An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of C.J. Dennis. Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press, 2014.
- Laugesen, Amanda. ‘Boredom is the Enemy’: The Intellectual and Imaginative Lives of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond. Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

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