Craig Munro
Literary Lion Tamers

Purple Prose

A.G. Stephens

In 2010 I drove from Brisbane up the steep eastern slope of the Great Dividing Range to Toowoomba. This regional centre had once been A.G. Stephens' boyhood town and it was where he'd begun his printing apprenticeship.

Later a journalist and newspaper editor, he's now remembered as Australia's most important early literary critic. Stephens was also a pioneer book publisher who edited the Steele Rudd classic On Our Selection and Joseph Furphy's Such Is Life.

Opposite the Toowoomba cemetery I located the city's historical society where a day's research revealed information not just about Stephens and his family but also about my own. When Stephens was growing up, my great-grandfather John was working as an accountant for the Toowoomba timber milling firm of A. & D. Munro.

Apart from the alcoholic Duncan Munro, my mercantile forebears were a pretty dull lot, so I handed back their files and took out those relating to the precocious young Stephens. He'd been christened Alfred George Stephens, but all his later Sydney Bulletin colleagues referred to him as A.G.S. When writing letters or correcting printer's proofs he used purple ink and a flourish of the pen which in his own day would have been referred to as a strong hand.

When Alfred was six his father Samuel — already a leading figure in Toowoomba — bought the Gazette, encouraging his son to develop an interest in print culture. The newspaper building was just a short stroll from where the Stephens family lived, and Alfred observed at first hand the writing, editing, typesetting, proofing, and printing of the Gazette.

As well as managing the newspaper, Samuel founded Toowoomba Grammar School, and his son was the first boy enrolled on the handwritten register. For recreational reading, the school library boasted shelves of adventure stories and detective novels along with the obligatory Boy's Own Annual and generous helpings of Scott and Dickens. Aloof and bookish, Stephens was never popular with his schoolmates, concealing his adolescent sensitivities beneath a hard shell of wry humour. It can't have helped that he was chosen to play Portia in a school production of The Merchant of Venice.

At fifteen, and mature beyond his years, Stephens convinced his parents to let him begin a printing apprenticeship, and with his father's business contacts he was taken on by The Toowoomba Chronicle. Less than a year later his father bought the Gazette building from former proprietor A.W. Beard and arranged for Alfred to transfer his apprenticeship to Beard's Sydney printery. Stephens frequented the Mechanics Institute library and the public library on Macquarie Street, spending his spare time reading the latest books from Britain and America as well as a wide range of newspapers and magazines.

Late one afternoon, Stephens walked down to Circular Quay and took a ferry across the Harbour to Milsons Point, on the North Shore. At the end of his life, not long after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Stephens remembered that ferry ride as a teenager, with the green wash thrown up by the ferry's bow as it cut through the Harbour swell. Standing at the prow of the boat, and dreaming about what his future might hold, he'd felt the salt spray on his face as more cautious passengers held onto their hats against the force of a southerly buster.