Lenny Lower’s Labours

Drew Cottle

Readers of The Hummer may well ask: ‘What has Lenny Lower, a drunken comic journalist, have to do with the study of Labour history?’ On the surface it would seem Lower should barely rate a footnote in Labour’s history. He wasn’t a Labor Parliamentarian, trade Union official or a rank-and-file activist Of the Left or Right. Lenny Lower was a hack journalist who worked for a time on the Labor Daily, and finally fOund regular employment with Frank Packer. Yet Lower was a fine larrikin comic with an eye and an ear for earthy Australian humour. He lampooned the high and mighty, revealed the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious, and wrote sardonically of the absurdities and injustices of bourgeois convention. Being a full time comic with daily deadlines to meet took its mental and physical toll on Lower. More often than not Lower had to be fished out of anyone of the umpteen pubs he frequented to type his column for the Packer press. Lenny was just not a happy drunk but a brilliant drunk who revelled in the company of ordinary people.

However, like all journalists in the 1920s and 1930s, Lower’s working and social life was dictated by newspaper proprietors. Lower could not escape the long arm of the boss. The ambience of the bar was punctually broken by the demand for yet another funny story. Only by the late 1930’s, when the worst years of the Depression had passed, did the Australian Journalists’ Association emerge as a militant organisation determined to improve the conditions and pay of working journalists. Such a move , however was ten years too late for Lenny Lower. Melancholic and increasingly lost to the grog, Lower, A writer who had kept working people laughing during the Depression, had become totally dependent on the Largesse of the Father of the’ Goanna’, ‘Taipan’ Packer (Lower’s appellation). To ensure Lower would write his daily column for the Telegraph: Packer Gave him just enough’ pocket money’ to remain sober.

Colleagues of Lower thought Packer acted like a Solomon to the wayward comic. Packer provided Lower with employment when nobody else would tolerate such behaviour. Packer’s beneficence was never altruistic It was determined by the profit curve. Lower’s tragic-comic view of life, just as much the sweated labour which worked the Packer and Theodore goldmine saved Packer’s press empire from bankruptcy when the Australian Womens’ Weekly was launched in the early 1930’s. During the Pacific War Australian troops clamoured to read the Australian Women’s Weekly not for its recipes or romances but for Lower’s latest offering.

In 1947, Lenny Lower died, a victim of a bungled operation for throat cancer. Like Bee Miles, every Sydney taxidriver knew Lenny Lower. He was a generous-spirited drunk. Only Frank Packer could put a price to Lower’s value. As Barry Dickins, an admirer of Lower reminds us ‘ … he (Lower) died in a Sydney hospital, sitting upright covered with blood with his typewriter between his knees’.

Lenny Lower needs to be remembered by those who study labour history just as he was – a wild, drunken humourist whose daily labours made Frank Packer a rich man and the lives of his readers, ordinary workers, more bearable and perhaps richer, for they could laugh.