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Banning, Arthur Alexander (Lex) (1921–1965)

by Gavin Souter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Arthur Alexander (Lex) Banning (1921-1965), poet, was born on 27 June 1921 in Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, son of Arthur Antoine Banning, a waiter from Belgium who later became a theatre proprietor, and his native-born wife Helma Louise, née Hall, of Scots and Swedish descent. As a result of a difficult birth, the infant suffered from athetoid cerebral palsy, a spastic condition against which he was to struggle all his life. Lex's 'own particular demon', as he called it in a poem, was involuntary movement of the arms, neck, face and legs which made him grimace and stagger, distorted his speech, but left his intellect and creativity unimpaired.

His father died when Lex was aged 4; thereafter Banning mostly lived at Punchbowl with his mother. Although he attended public schools, and was able to read though not to write, the boy could not sit normally in class. For the most part he was left to educate himself by such means as perusing encyclopaedias. About 1936 he was found employment at Sydney Observatory; during three or four years there he learned to type. Little is known of his life for four years after leaving the observatory, except that all his teeth were extracted.

In 1944 Lex Banning was admitted as an unmatriculated student to the faculty of arts at the University of Sydney. Over the next five years he distinguished himself scholastically, dictating all his exam papers, and became a notable figure on campus and at such downtown coffee lounges as Repin's and Lincoln Inn. Another of his haunts was the Royal George, a hotel frequented by the libertarian 'Push', where Banning drank unsteadily but to good effect. He edited the Arts Society magazine, Arna, and in 1949 co-edited the student newspaper, Honi Soit. That year he graduated with second-class honours in English and history.

Banning's sardonic appearance—austere lips enclosed by a short, dark beard and moustache, sharp nose, tired, deep-set eyes and a widow's-peak hairline—was well matched by his mocking sense of humour and by his disillusioned poetry which sometimes verged on nihilism. His work, published in Meanjin, Southerly, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bulletin, was collected in three books: Everyman His Own Hamlet (1951), The Instant's Clarity (1952) and Apocalypse in Springtime and Other Poems (1956). Although despairing, Banning's verse was, in the judgement of one critic, 'the product of a brilliant mind, agile wit and passionate heart'.

In the early 1950s Banning worked as librarian at the Spastic Centre, Mosman. He went to London and, soon after arriving there, on 27 January 1962 at the register office, Lambeth, married 26-year-old Anne Agatha Ferry, a medical practitioner and friend from Sydney. They returned to Australia in 1964, but separated soon afterwards. Banning again took up residence at his mother's home where, on 2 November 1965, he died of 'poisoning self-administered—no evidence accidentally or otherwise'. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery. In the words of his poem, 'Nursery Rhyme', evoking the crooked man who walked a crooked mile, Banning had 'reached his crooked mile's end' and been 'straightened out by death'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Appleton and A. Galloway (eds), There Was a Crooked Man (Syd, 1987)
  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (Melb, 1988)
  • Twentieth Century, Autumn 1958
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Apr 1961, 3 Nov 1965
  • Banning papers, 1944-65 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Banning, Arthur Alexander (Lex) (1921–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/banning-arthur-alexander-lex-9420/text16559, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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