Who’s afraid of Barry Spurr?

Two years after the disgraced academic’s sacking, Naaman Zhou looked into why his supporters are still talking

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One month ago, on the week of the fourth of July, someone at The Australian received a book in the mail. It was brand new and had been printed in Charleston, South Carolina, via a small Sydney press nobody had heard of. It had a picture of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library on its front that didn’t quite go to the edges, which made it look like a Powerpoint slide.

It sat on the desk of the higher education editor at 334 pages and up to 35 individual articles if you count poems. It was called The Free Mind: Essays and Poems in Honour of Barry Spurr – a self-described “collection of scholarly papers” made in tribute to “a notable public intellectual”.

For the uninitiated, Professor Spurr was the decorated Chair of Poetry and Poetics at the University of Sydney, inaugurated in 2011, then unseated in 2014 after a raft of emails from his University account were made public. Among other things, the emails called Indigenous Australians “human rubbish tips”, insulted students for being “Mussies and chinky-poos” and suggested that a victim of a recent sexual assault should be re-assaulted and her mouth “permanently stitched up”.

For this, Spurr was suspended in October that year, formally forced out in December, and then buried via two years of pointed non-referral in departmental PR. But now, for whatever reason, he was back via proxy and doing the publicist’s rounds.

The contributors list boasted Bruce Dawe (Order of Australia, Patrick White Award) and 27 other collaborators – a mixture of current academics, old students and one retired priest.

To those who think the story of Barry Spurr was all but over, this book of essays disagreed. The question was why? What kind of person was so invested in the old story of a tarnished Professor as to form, via 300-page tome, this unique kind of fan club?

The Free Mind is ostensibly a book of honour. Its makers refer to it as a Festschrift – a German tradition where a book is compiled for an admired academic. Essays, poems and other works are offered up by fans and well-wishers as a sort of gift – usually for occasions like retirement, rather than say, the 18-month anniversary of being fired for racism.

Reading The Free Mind is like flicking between JSTOR and fanfic. It packs itself with deeply academic and tangentially relevant essays on things like Christian views of courage, and memory in Little Dorrit. It lionises Spurr as educator, intellectual servant and leading authority. It has a typo on page two of the foreword.

It contains a poem from the long-time Warden of St Paul’s College, Ivan Head. An unorthodox sextet, the poetic turn (or volta) is an image of him dribbling. It is called ‘Pie Apocalypse’.

“Where the trains speed by/ I can sit and eat a pie”, it reads. “At the juicy gravy bit / I drool, lick my lips/ And ponder the apocalypse.”

Another, from retired priest John Bunyan (potentially a pseudonym) is titled ‘Spurred On’ and in reaching for spirituality, accidentally makes it sound like Professor Spurr is dead. “Rejoice, resound, and with T.S., live, my friend,” he says. “In your beginning, Barry, is your end”. This seems to imply either that Spurr has recently passed into the great beyond, or that T.S. Eliot has moved into Stanmore.

What The Free Mind really is about though, is a few old chestnuts: free speech, political correctness gone mad, and what it means to be a university.

This trinity of modern alt-right talking points provide the first answer about the motivation of Spurr’s band of resurrectors. Dual epigraphs tell us from the off that 1. “Nothing cramps the free mind like a taboo”, and 2. “A true university rebukes censorship and correctness and should honour anarchic provocation”.

What this stabs at is a conception of Spurr as case study in a frightening new social trend. He is a fall-guy, booted out for championing white men and the canon, just because people around him had decided to tear that down.

The essay ‘Professing Poetry in Australia in the 21st Century’ tells us that “European civilisation is almost despised in many Australian universities”. It warns us of “zealots” and “concept-fanatics” in control at the highest levels. It is all about making Spurr a victim of others’ ideas rather than his own words.

In fact the word “fired” is anathema to The Free Mind. Not once is his sacking mentioned. “Professor Barry Spurr retired,” the foreword says, “after 40 years on the academic staff of the Department of English”. He is a man swept away by an unforgiving new social norm, and not because the University found out he’d been telling friends he’d prefer his classrooms were all white.

This, crucially, is why, when The Free Mind turned up at The Australian and was scoffed at, it actually was not alone.

Four weeks earlier, a website called ‘The Sydney Traditionalist Forum’ had hosted a symposium where Spurr was the headliner. He submitted an essay on T.S. Eliot’s Anglo-catholic faith (a subject on which he is objectively a world authority) and was given pride of place. One month before that, he had been in The Spectator with a review of a new book from one of The Free Mind’s eventual contributors, Michael Wilding.

For the few backers of this mini-renaissance, the motive is obvious – Barry Spurr is someone worth spending time, money and real, printed pages on, because he is a lightning rod for a cause. Nobody seems to admit that maybe exalting Spurr’s “Mussies and chinky-poos” as “anarchic provocation” crucial to the free exchange of ideas, isn’t the soundest equation.

When I asked the publisher, Edwin H. Lowe why this book was published now, in 2016, he said it began in 2015 and took 12 months to complete. He told me he had “no personal interest in Barry Spurr” and that now the project was complete, he was looking to move on.

As for Prof. Spurr himself, Honi discovered that this July he was subjected to a final, further disgrace: he’s tutoring Year 12 English in the Inner West for $100 an hour. Professor Spurr and The Free Mind’s editor, Catherine A. Runcie were also reached for comment, but did not reply.