Farrago 1999 vs Farrago 2019: What’s Changed?

12 December 2019

Nathan Lambert was an editor of Farrago in 1999. 

Earlier this year, a friend took me to a party hosted by Guy Rundle, the Melbourne writer, in his flat in South Yarra. People perched on the edge of couches and drank wine from coffee mugs as if it were a student party, even though most of the attendees were twice that age. Somehow the topic of Farrago came up, and I mentioned that I had co-edited the magazine in 1999. Guy introduced me to two other former editors who were there: Prue from 1988 and Sean from 1992.

Prue had some news that nobody else knew, which was that Union House, the site of the Farrago offices for as long as anyone could remember, was being demolished. This set off a wave of nostalgia and discussion about how the magazine had evolved over the years.

Farrago is usually thought of as an activist publication, and to a degree the changes in the magazine reflect broader changes in the political left. The 1999 editions covered East Timor, the proposed Jabiluka uranium mine, and the republican referendum. More recent editions have focused on climate change, disability, and transgender issues.

Other things have remained more constant: the indie film reviews, the campus news (which has been very good in 2019), and the magazine’s propensity for diversity. Sonja Repetti wrote a piece this year on protists, a group of mostly microscopic organisms. Will Johns wrote one on so-called Mediterranean homosexuality. Twenty years on, I can still remember random Farrago articles from my own time, including a savage attack on Richard Kingsmill, the Triple J Music Director, for being too old to run a youth station (he was in his thirties then; he is now in his fifties, and still in the role) and an article that claimed apropos of not much that James Joyce had a voice like Manuel from Fawlty Towers.

But there are two things that really stand out reading Farrago this year. The first is that some of the things we thought were very 1990s have turned out to be more enduring. Activities Officers are still plugging Prosh Week. Creative Arts Officers are still plugging Mudfest. The magazine is still publishing major features on homophobia, sexual harassment and racism on campus.

There are plenty of articles from 1999—on women’s sport, on changing the date of Australia Day, on removing gender-specific terms like ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Master’—that could be re-published today. And there are plenty of articles from today—on the beauty industry, on anonymous harassment registers, on racism towards international students—that could have been published in 1999.

One interpretation is that we’re not making much progress across the anti-discrimination agenda. But I don’t think that’s the case. What does strike me as more progressive when reading the Farrago of 2019 is the change in tone.

Farrago of 1999 could be callous and insouciant. Articles on anorexia appeared alongside numerous references to ‘picking up’ and the sexual attractiveness of women. Law students were stereotyped as spoilt and rich. Frankston and Geelong were stereotyped as moccasin-wearing backwaters. Serious issues such as body image, institutional child abuse, sexual assault and drug addiction were the butt of cheap jokes.

As for 2019’s Farrago, there have been jibes about overweight ticket inspectors and Monash Clayton. A café review said that the barista was cute (alongside an otherwise very good piece on hospitality pay). There have been pieces in the creative section that ran the risk of trivialisation. But overall, the tone has been much kinder and more inclusive.

Right-wing commentators like Jonathan Haidt and Jordan Peterson have a theory about this. They claim that anxious snowflakes have taken over modern campuses, shutting down debate with their political correctness and content warnings. Peterson diagnoses this as a form of generational immaturity—as proof that Millennials are too thin-skinned to survive in the real world. In last year’s magazine, Pete Steedman, a Farrago editor from the 1960s, complained that political correctness was acting as a ‘censor’. But the changes don’t feel like censorship. They feel more like thoughtfulness, or even maturity. Wil Anderson has a line to this effect about cancer jokes and sexual assault jokes: that people make them until someone they know experiences cancer or sexual assault, and then they stop.

When Prue, Sean and I talked about Farrago, we talked about regret. It’s a common theme among former editors: the things we wish we hadn’t written; the people we wish we hadn’t denigrated; the writers we wish we hadn’t read, the likes of David Foster Wallace and Hunter S Thompson who can convince you that your arrogant, indulgent prose is some sort of genius. I did a set of interviews with truly obnoxious questions—an unfunny ‘Between Two Ferns’. I wrote things that were cruel and sexist and disrespectful. I can still remember a 25-year old telling me I was too young to write for a mass audience; that I should wait until I was her age. I remember thinking, ‘But 25 is so old!’. But she was right. There are some things I wrote—an article mocking early childhood education, another mocking a woman whose boyfriend had written her phone number all over campus—that still flicker through my mind today.

In a way, people who have written for student publications have experienced something that is only now becoming universal. We were given a platform at a young age from which we could fire off our thoughts, day or night, from the safety of our keyboards, and the only catch was that those thoughts would be recorded. I’m not sure if Farrago 2019 is better in part because people have more experience of that. Certainly the adoption of text messaging and social media in the decade after I left university—and the associated rise of screenshots and call-outs and blocking—changed the way I wrote for the better, and probably the way I thought as well.

At the recent Broadside festival, the authors Jia Tolentino and Zadie Smith discussed their regrets as young writers. Smith was melancholy about it, but Tolentino observed that “hatred of our earlier selves is at least proof we’re getting better”. There seems to be some truth to that. I still keep 1999 Farragos on my shelf, not out of any sense of pride or nostalgia, but almost the reverse—as a reminder that people change, and in the long-run society changing is just people changing.

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