I met Wendy Lowenstein a few times and corresponded with her occasionally about publishing workers literature.
Wendy displayed the qualities of old communists in Australia whose roots lay in the depression in the 1930s— committment to workers struggle and organisation.
In person Wendy was warm and intelligent; her words were not marred by rhetoric.
I first met Wendy at Emma’s bookshop in West End in Brisbane in August 1997. She was launching her book Weevils at Work which took its name from her earlier oral history of the 1930s depression, Weevils in the Flour. Wendy signed the book with the words: “For Ian Curr – Struggle keeps you fit“.
Her introduction, ‘Here I Stand‘, to Weevils at Work quoted a Public First activist writing in the Pen, a Melbourne community newspaper: “We have an obligation to hand on a better society to those who come after us … Civil disobedience, combined with industrial action, is the only option left to us unless we’re prepared to live as an underclass.’
Later in 1998 Wendy sent me (on behalf of LeftPress) an autographed copy of her book: Under the Hook: Melbourne Waterside Workers remember working lives and class war: 1900-1998. Wendy had just launched the new edition of the book with a new chapter called after the popular slogan “MUA—here to stay!”
My partner and I later visited Wendy at her home in St Kilda where we met her husband Werner and her daughter. Wendy’s house was full of books; her lounge was a reading room with wooden chairs — a warm place for political discussion where everyone could contribute on an equal footing.
On the front page of Under the Hook Wendy describes how difficult it is to publish working class literature in Australia.
An unsympathetic publisher asked her “Who’s going to read it?”
Wendy’s reply: “Wharfies, of course”.
The publisher then said “Waterside workers don’t read books!”
Wendy replied: “Workers will read books relevant to their lives. You don’t publish the right sort.”
Wendy Lowenstein was right.
Proof of her claim was when SHAPE published “Towards Peace – a Workers Journey” by Phil O’Brien with Bernie Dowling in the early 1990s.
Phil sold over 1,200 books to fellow workers, union members, ex-soldiers, schools, and libraries.
The printers, LeftPress, helped distribute another 300 or so around the Left and union circles.
Over 1,500 books in all were distributed.
Today LeftPress still gets requests for copies of the book which is now out-of-print.
Wendy’s books include The Immigrants (with Morag Loh), Cinderella Dressed in Yella (with June Factor and Professor Ian Turner), Shocking, Shocking, Shocking, Under the Hook (with Tom Hills) and Weevils at Work. Her screenplays include Weevils in the Flour and Strikebound.
Her vast collection of oral history is in the National Library in Canberra.
27 October 2006