The Push

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					Teachers’ Notes
written by Dr Pam Macintyre

                               The Push
                         by Julia Lawrinson

Continuing her representation of Australia’s recent past, Julia Lawrinson has
taken a particular period in Australian social life and a particular social group
as inspiration for her fascinating novel, The Push.

       ‘The source for the term “The Push” dates back to the late 19th
       century, where it referred to gangs of small-time street criminals in
       Sydney’s The Rocks district. Many years later, it was adopted by a
       loose but distinctive group, based in Sydney, who had a rebellious
       approach to life that was in opposition to the conservative values of the
       1950s and 1960s.

       Anti-authoritarian, anti-elitist, anti-careerist and anti-censorship, these
       men and women chose an eccentric lifestyle that united social and
       political criticism with drinking, gambling, sex and anarchy.

       The Push members were more likely to be found drinking at a public
       hotel bar (commonly known as a “pub”) or gambling at the horse races
       than in a church or at a formal dinner party. The group moved away
       from the grounds of Sydney University and instead met in cafés and
       pubs located in the centre of Sydney, known as “downtown”.

       Sydney was a smaller city in the 1950s, and the urban heart was
       vibrant and attracted artists, journalists, actors and students. The
       Lincoln Coffee Lounge & Café in Rowe Street was seen as one of the
       birthplaces. As the Push moved “from gown to town”, particular hotels
       became associated with flowing drink, laughter, jokes and dynamic,
       controversial discussion. The back room of the Royal George Hotel
       was one famous venue, and the art critic, Robert Hughes, memorably
       painted a Push mural on the wall of this establishment.’


Plot Summary

Australia in 1957, when the novel is set, was a conservative society,
particularly in comparison to the twenty-first century that we live in. The

Libertarian views of the members of The Push are both appealing to, and
challenging for, eighteen-year-old Erica, the protagonist. She feels stifled by
her relationship with the solid, reliable David, and the expectations that her
future will be as a wife and mother. Her job at accountancy firm Burns Wylie
and Thomas in central Sydney, is routine. Life with her single mother is
fraught with tension, particularly where her older sister, Peggy – estranged
from her mother, Ivy, and Erica – is concerned. Erica’s friend, nineteen-year-
old Trish, suggests they join the group of young dissidents at the Royal
George Hotel, including the handsome Johnno, whom Erica has briefly
encountered when with David. Overcoming her shock at women in the public
bar, and strongly attracted to Johnno, Erica begins a social and love life she is
careful to keep from her mother. Eventually Erica, who has been drifting,
takes Johnno’s advice and exerts agency. What will be the outcome is left
tantalisingly for the reader to decide.

On one level this is a love story between two people whose relationship is
complicated by their different understandings of what connects people. It is
also about the beginnings of a period of radical change in Australian society,
which was to follow in the succeeding two decades, but which had its seeds in
the late 1950s.


These teachers’ notes suggest that there are various (overlapping) frames
through which to explore the novel with students.

This is a love story, and one complicated by the different views of Erica and
Johnno. Erica clearly loves Johnno, but has very traditional expectations
about what she thinks defines a boyfriend, whereas he chooses not to
conform to that idea.
   • On page 115 we see clearly the effects of Erica being in love for the
       first time – her changed view of the world.
   • The Push is trying to construct different ways of behaving. For
       instance, on page 250 Vanessa says ‘we still carry around those ideas
       of owning people and so on, but they are trying to change all that’.
   • P126 Erica feels she has ‘natural feelings’, that is, the feeling she
       belongs with or to Johnno is completely natural, but The Push is
       against such ‘possessiveness’.
   • P126 Trish says sex is just physical and that they have been taught to
       feel that it’s more than that. Erica says the difference is that she was
       taught to accept someone like David but feels she belongs with
       Johnno. Who is right?
   • P127 Erica wants to disagree but she doesn’t have the words. How
       powerful is language? Is that part of Erica’s problem, that she doesn’t
       have the words and relies on feelings that Trish calls ‘romantic tosh’? Is
       romance tosh?

A Past Australia
An important part of any reading experience is creating mental images of
characters, settings, events, behaviours and social mores. It might be fruitful
to begin discussing responses to the novel with Hartley’s opening lines from
The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently

Just as the fantasy writer has to do considerable world building, the historical
fiction writer has to build up a picture of another time, and Lawrinson’s
creation of a period is meticulous. Young readers may well identify readily,
aspects of society and domestic life that are very different from contemporary
Australia. Here are some worth exploring:

Social mores
   • P6: Erica and David discuss the merits of a society that hides its
       feelings behind being polite. Erica is impatient with it; David thinks it is
       good behaviour. What do you think?
   • P12 Ivy says to Erica ‘a girl like you won’t get a catch like that every
       day’. What does she mean? What sort of girl is Erica and why is David
       a ‘catch’?
   • P20 Trish says to Erica, who proposes that they eat their lunches while
       walking ‘What, eat in public…How bold. We shall shock the whole of
       Sydney town’. What current public behaviour might shock
       Sydneysiders even more?
   • Is there any public behaviour that might shock ‘the whole of Sydney’
   • When Vanessa has to go to hospital after the abortion, Peggy gives her
       a wedding ring to wear and tells her to say she is married. What does
       this tell us?

Domestic life
  • House proud Ivy uses a carpet sweeper. Here is an advertisement from
     1958. You might like to find more on the web.


    Most are relatively easy to empty: Spread newspapers on the floor, tip up
    the sweeper with one hand, and reach down with the other hand to pull on
    a metal tab. Empty the sweeper each time before you store it, we add, or
    whenever it gets too full.

    •   Ivy eats bread and dripping (p14). What is dripping? Are you prepared
        to try it?

   •   P35 a perm cost 17/6d. This was before decimal currency – how much
       would it be in dollars and cents?
   •   The height of technical sophistication was an all-in-one record player
       (p36) and a television set with an internal antenna.
   •   The quiz show ‘Pick a Box’ was on television; Dean Martin’s ‘Memories
       are made of this’ was a popular song.
   •   Fifty years in the future, when books (or whatever!) are written about
       today, discuss and decide what will be the elements that characterise
       this era, such as TV, films, music, behaviour, life style.
   •   Erica reads Readers Digest condensed books and Daphne du Maurier
       novels. One of du Maurier’s most famous is Rebecca, which Alfred
       Hitchcock made into a film in 1949, starring Laurence Olivier. Invite
       students to read it, or watch the movie, or the BBC version in 1997
       starring Charles Dance and Emilia Fox.
   •   Chapter 11: Ivy takes a wrapped bottle of Great Western Champagne
       to the Peters’s for dinner, of which Mrs Peters is disdainful. Why?
   •   P52 Notice how the women are introduced to each other – not by
       forenames but as ‘Mrs Waring’ and ‘Mrs Peters’.
   •   It is acceptable that Mr Peters is too busy to socialize with the women.
       Notice his exchange with David on page 60.
   •   What do they eat? (54)
   •   Chapter 13 Trish goes to the back bar of the pub and is shocked to see
       women there.
   •   P65 why does Ivy say that Erica is ungrateful? What does it suggest
       about the place of women in the society?
   •   Isn’t Ivy’s position contradictory? She despises the rudeness and
       snobbery of the Peters, yet she wants Erica to marry into the family.

   • p17 girls wear blouses and cardigans; p19 women dressed for
      shopping ‘in town’; p25 not wearing lipstick during the day; P62 Trish
      feeling ‘defiantly conspicuous in a dirndl skirt and black stockings’.

   • ‘going down the street’ – do we still say that?
   • ‘topping and tailing the beans’. Invite students to find others that are of
     their time.
   • What are contemporary translations? What is jiving; what is a

Narrative structure
Each chapter is an episode in various characters’ lives. Erica, David, Trish,
Ivy, Peggy are alternate focalisers, but not Johnno or Vanessa. We see the
Push only through the filters of those on its edges, or outside it. It would be
worth considering why Lawrinson has chosen this. We don’t always follow one
character in sequence. Events come to us in episodes from varying

   •   One exercise could be to write an experience from either Johnno or
       Vanessa’s point of view, such as the scene on the balcony (chapter 40,
   •   Considering the deliberate structure of a novel is always worthwhile
       and provides an alternate way to think about it, rather than focusing on
       themes. What is the purpose and effect of this structure on the reader?
   •   Part of this careful construction includes the excerpts from the
       Women’s Weekly’s teenage advice column that are at the beginning of
       each chapter. Talk about their significance. For example, are they a
       foreshadowing of what is in the chapter? Or are they ironic
       observations on the episode? Or is their purpose quite different?

This concept is central in the novel in terms of family, society, and personal
values, particularly for Erica. Below are some examples of how the author
explores the idea of ‘truth’. Students might find others.
   • Erica believes a certain ‘truth’ about Peggy, which has been
       constructed by Ivy and is different from Peggy’s version of events.
   • Ivy puts a great store on Erica being truthful and yet she tells lies about
       Peggy at the dinner at David’s house.
   • David calls Erica a hypocrite (p239) for never having said what she
       meant. Is that right? David being honest tells Erica she has no one to
       blame but herself (p241). Is he right?
   • P131 Johnno and Erica debate truth and belief. Johnno says ‘If you
       know the truth, you can make a decision about how to respond to that
       truth. If you only have an illusion, whatever follows from it is false’.
       Consider the validity of this in the light of the point below, Erica’s view
       of Peggy etc.
   • Erica, still positioned by her traditional view of relationships constructs
       her own beliefs about what she perceives to be the relationship
       between Vanessa and Johnno, rather than asking either of them for the

Erica at ‘just eighteen’ is beautiful, naïve and restless, although she is
uncertain about what. She is ripe for the attractions of the handsome Johnno,
and the possibilities of The Push. She is still influenced strongly by
conventional ideas about how to live life, especially in regard to love. This is
one of her biggest challenges. She wants to escape from present restrictions,
but she doesn’t want to end up like older sister Peggy, who has paid a high
price for her ‘freedom’, hasn’t she?
    • Consider the journey Erica goes on during the term of the narrative.
       For instance, on p237 she decides that her moral failing is that she
       can’t stand boredom, and that through ‘tolerating boredom’, symbolised
       by getting back with David, she will save herself from ending up like
    • Is she the same at the end of the book as she was at the beginning?
       What has changed? Consider the significance of her friendship with

       Vanessa, for instance. What do you predict for her future? Does it
       matter whether she wins or loses at the racetrack?

David is constructed and constrained by the social conventions that oppress
Erica. He has spent his life proving himself – at school, to his father, at work.
He loves Erica but his feelings are not reciprocated. David lives so completely
within the society into which he has been born that he lacks the insight to
understand the longings of Erica. Chapters 18 and 22, when he ventures to
Kings Cross ‘to regain his manliness’, reveal just how locked into a particular
construction of masculinity he is. However, he is going against the wishes of
his socially elevated mother for instance, to court Erica.
    • Is it comical, for instance, that the tassels on the stripper’s breasts
        remind David of his mother’s Holland blinds? Or is it saying something
        about him, or both?
    • David says ‘You are my girl aren’t you?’ He is sincere, isn’t he?
    • Do you feel sorry for him? Is he a tragic figure? Consider that we only
        really see the relationship through Erica.

Johnno is perhaps idealised. When we first meet him he is dressed in
corduroy trousers and a black shirt, blond and handsome. He works
intermittently on the docks and otherwise spends his time in the Royal George
Hotel, or at the races at Randwick. His attitudes are the antitheses of David’s.
He is casual, indolent, doesn’t worry about money, gambles and relies on
others to buy him drinks (p87).
    • On page 125 Trish calls him ‘the world’s most compelling pub
       philosopher’. Is that all he is? Or is he what Peggy imagines him to be
       on page 148?
    • Search for some of his ideas: For example p109-110 – ‘being told that
       what you see is something different to what it is’. ‘Rich people who’ve
       made their money from exploiting other people, not paying them what
       they deserve….If only they shared those profits with the workers, then
       there’d be no more poverty’. Why doesn’t he act, if he feels so
    • ‘Because it is not natural’ he says of marriage. Is he right?
    • On page 258 Johnno tells Erica about the way he will always live his
       life. He tells Erica she must make the decision about her life; it’s not
       just based on wanting to be around him.

Ivy is one of the most complicated characters in the book, simultaneously
exasperating and poignant. Widowed during the war, she has struggled to
bring up two daughters on her own on a pension and supporting that income
with sewing. When we first meet her she is instantly antagonistic towards
Erica for wearing slacks (p12).

In a telling episode on page 14 we are given an insight into her: ‘She was
prepared for a hard life, but not a disappointing one’. We readers appreciate
events that have shaped Ivy, understandings that Erica doesn’t have. Ivy is
obsessed with ‘decency’.
    • Why does she hide Peggy’s letters? Can you understand this or do you
        think it unforgivable?

   •   Peggy says her Dad was the only one who could make Ivy smile and
       that she’s barely smiled ever since (p163). Why is life so hard for Ivy?
   •   When she contacts David (p229), is this an act of betrayal of Erica, to
       protect Ivy’s good name or does she really have Erica’s best interests
       at heart? For instance, she thinks of Erica that she could have had a
       good marriage and an easy life (p231).
   •   She supported Peggy over the abortion, but then withdrew support
       when Peggy wouldn’t live the way she thought she should.

Peggy is twelve years older than Erica, she is now ‘past thirty’.
   • She has pictures of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Errol Flynn ‘film
      stars’ of the period – research them, and watch some classic films.
   • P25 Do you have any ideas about why Peggy might have moved out?
      What her ‘misdemeanor’ might have been?
   • Chapter five gives us insights into Peggy’s life. Initially, there is some
      mystery surrounding her. For instance, a neighbour says she has seen
      her in Darlinghurst when she is supposed to be in Melbourne. She
      works as a barmaid in Darlinghurst and lives with an abusive man.
   • What are the ‘tubercular pink’ cheeks a reference to on p28?
   • Is Lawrinson suggesting that before The Push this was a common
      situation for young women who wanted ‘a good time’?
   • What are the qualities that are revealed about her when Erica enlists
      her help with Vanessa?
   • How would you describe Peggy: as a survivor? A sad case? Consider
      her loss of hope that she would be part of a family again (p260). How
      does this valuing of family sit against the Push’s refuting of such
      values? Trish for example, says that friends are more important than
   • Would Peggy have been happier had she not clung to the hope of
   • Is she the symbol of what was wrong with such a conservative society
      that could not allow or provide a place for her?

Vanessa: Erica is drawn to her from the beginning – an older woman with the
style and sophistication that she admires, and yet is uncertain about her
relationship with Johnno.
    • Can it be argued that Erica’s working out of her relationship with
       Vanessa is what ultimately brings her to an understanding of Johnno
       and her sister, Peggy, and her ability to take control of her life?

Trish is not beautiful like Erica, and Ivy doesn’t trust her. She thinks Trish is
‘sly’ (p92)
    • Is that fair or is it a result of Ivy’s prejudices and fears for Erica?
    • What do you think Trish’s importance is in the novel?
    • Why are we shown her family?

Girls at work: Jean and Betty are occupied with preparing themselves for the
only future they can imagine for themselves: wives and mothers. They are
busy collecting items for their ‘glory boxes’. They represent the conservative

times. For instance, when Erica suggests there might be more than working in
an office until inevitable marriage, Jean says she doesn’t want to travel to ‘all
those dirty foreign places’ (p120).

Sydney in 1957, sweltering through an uncharacteristic November heat wave,
is vastly different from the sophisticated metropolis it is today, and part of the
pleasure in the novel is identifying those differences. Many familiar features
are mentioned, such as Hyde Park, the Botanical Gardens, Kings Cross,
Darlinghurst Road, Glebe (which was then poor and working class, rather
than the affluent inner suburb it is today). It is Sydney though, without its
iconic feature, the Opera House (p30). Google image has some fine images
of Sydney at this time complete with trams, such as these below.

   •   Constructing a photomontage of Sydney in the 1950s with overlays of
       Sydney now, or a parallel photomontage of the present, would
       demonstrate the huge physical change in the city and also social

  • Consider also how Lawrinson uses the weather to intensify the mood of
     the novel. The backdrop is unseasonal, stifling heat, which has an
     effect on everyone. It is the driest year since 1888, the hottest since
     1915 (page 82). This oppressive heat gives ‘an epic quality’ to David’s
     restlessness. Sydney is covered in a smoke haze, which could be read
     as a metaphor for the confusion surrounding Erica.
  • Consider the change in events when the storms and rain come: the first
     on page 117, when Erica sleeps through and then on page 196 when
     the storms and rain become more frequent.

Responding to The Push
Readers’ Theatre
There are some excellent exchanges that reveal much about the period and
the people that lend themselves to being read as Readers’ Theatre, such as.
   • The Dinner – Chapters 11and 12: Narrator, Ivy, Stella, David, Erica,
      Mr Peters.
   • P176-177 Johnno and Erica’s discussion about feelings and marriage.
   • Chapter 7 Trish’s family: Trish, Eleanor, Roy, Trish’s mother, Trish’s
      father, brothers.
   • Chapter 43 Trish’s family: Trish, mother, father, Trish’s brothers.

Hot Seating
   • Chapter 12: Hot seat Erica. How was she feeling? Why did she do
      such a provocative thing?
   • Hot seat Ivy. Why did she lie? Why does she want Erica to marry into a
      family she found ill mannered and superior?

Values of The Push
The central characters in the novel are on the fringes of The Push. However,
it is worth tracking what particular ideas and ideals The Push itself represents.
     • For instance, the conversation on page 63-64.
     • Was the Push pure self-indulgence, or is the world of ideas important
        and legitimate?
     • Was there any social action? Is considering that social action is
        replacing ‘one authoritarianism with another’ an excuse? Think of the
        great movements that have brought about social change – feminism,
        environmental movement, etc.
     • Chapter 17 when Erica first encounters them at the pub, what are the
        topics of conversation?
     • P79 There are no introductions, as such ‘social niceties’ are
        unnecessary. The worst crime is to be ‘bourgeois’ (p101). What is your
        understanding of that label?
     • From today’s standpoint, is it difficult to understand what was so
        revolutionary about The Push?
     • P89 Erica says they seem more interested in a good time? Is that all it
        was about?

   •   P105 Vanessa says ‘They can’t imagine you might debate the big
       questions and also display a bit of style. It’s almost heretical’. What are
       the big questions they debate and is Lawrinson mocking them - is
       heresy a form of oppression and lack of freedom?
   •   Vanessa studies the arts but they are looked down on ‘Clouding the
       true nature of existence’ p106. What might that criticism of the arts
   •   Teaching is also looked down on as ‘passing on the dominant
       ideology’. Is it still? Has that changed? Is that a bad thing?
   •   P129 Conversation between Vanessa and Silver about ideology.
   •   P141 When Vanessa was in Greece she sent back money to support
       The Push. Trish raises the issue of the way they treat women, and
       Vanessa says ‘they aren’t boring’. They are callous and lazy. Is this
       good enough?
   •   P148 Discuss Peggy’s take on The Push: ‘most of them would no more
       have talked to a prostitute as if she were a person than vote for
       Menzies’. Does her cynicism prove correct?
   •   P200 Having a card game to pay for an abortion rather than marrying
       the pregnant woman.

Different Australias

   •   Julia Lawrinson’s previous title Bye Beautiful is set nine years later,
       across the continent, and in a country town rather than a city.
   •   How much has changed since 1957? Have The Push’s ideas had any
       discernible influence?
   •   What is the same?

Ideas to discuss
   • P35 ‘There is no more difficult task than making your parents realise
       you are growing up’.
   • P82 ‘the apple never falls far from the tree’.
   • P88 Johnno’s definitions of ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’.
   • P267 Johnno says ‘freedom is the prerogative of the fearless’ – do you
       agree, in terms of the story and in terms of the wider social context?
   • P165 Erica observes ‘they [The Push] only cared about ideas’. Is this a
       criticism or a complement?

Historical context and events to find out more about
   • Depression
   • World War 2
   • Japanese submarine in Sydney Harbour
   • P30 Grace Kelly marrying Prince Rainier
   • P69 Marjorie Jackson
   • P113 Princess Margaret
   • P114 Dionne quintuplets
   • P131 Sputnik

People referred to, to find out more about
  • Prime Minister Menzies
  • John Anderson, a Scottish-born Australian philosopher who was a
      Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University from 1927-1958. He is
      credited with educating a generation of influential 'Andersonian'
      thinkers and activists – some of whom helped to place Sydney in the
      forefront of the worldwide 'sexual revolution' of the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Vilfredo Pareto (p129) philosopher who coined the ‘Pareto Principle’.

Related reading
Troubled love/romance
   • The Ghost’s Child by Sonya Hartnett
   • Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
   • What I Was by Meg Rosoff

Many Australias of the Past
  • Nights in the Sun by Colin Bowles
  • Bye, Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson
  • Boys of Blood and Bone by David Metzenthen
  • Love Me Tender by Libby Hathorn

Factual books on the 1950s
   • Who Was That Woman? The Australian Women's Weekly in the Post-
      war Years by Susan Sheridan (with Barbara Baird, Kate Borrett and
      Lyndall Ryan),
   • The 1950s: How Australia became a modern society and everyone got
      a house and a car by Stella Lees and June Senyard


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