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Alister Nasmyth Kershaw (1921–1995)

by Des Cowley

This article was published:

Alister Nasmyth Kershaw (1921–1995), poet, writer, and broadcaster, was born on 19 December 1921 at Elsternwick, Melbourne, only son of Alton Cranbrook Kershaw, commercial traveller, and his wife Frances Matilda, née Thomson, both Victorian born. His father served in both world wars, rising to the rank of major, and was later camp director (1948–61) of the Bonegilla migrant reception and training centre. Alister was educated (1927–38) at Wesley College, Melbourne, where the headmaster Harold Stewart was not impressed by his satirical style and advised Kershaw’s father to withdraw him in fifth form: ‘rabid on peace society—spoiled his work—wants to write—confirmed smoker—specious humbug—exercised harmful influence on others’ (Lemon 2004, 241). Rejected for military service in World War II on medical grounds, he worked as an announcer for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) from 1941, and towards the end of the war with the Department of Information in the short-wave broadcasting service.

From the late 1930s Kershaw had begun mixing in Melbourne’s literary and bohemian circles. He became a regular contributor of poetry and reviews to literary and art magazines, including Angry Penguins, Comment, Art in Australia, and Meanjin. With Adrian Lawlor in 1941 he conceived the fictional poet Mort Brandish, a literary hoax and parody of modernism that preceded the Ern Malley affair by more than two years. Kershaw’s first book of poetry, The Lonely Verge, was published in 1943, followed by Excellent Stranger (1944), featuring a striking cover design by Albert Tucker. He later wrote about these years in Heydays: Memories and Glimpses of Melbourne's Bohemia 1937–1947 (1991). It was a far gentler account than his earlier satirical poem The Denunciad (1946), which lampooned, among others, the Heide circle of the arts patrons John and Sunday Reed:

Where Nolan, like a loony don,
Shows them the canvasses he’s painted on
Or—if his art might rightly be defined—
His blobs of paint with canvasses behind;
Or yet again, where Albert Tucker reels
Towards the blackboard of his high ideals
On which dull surface he has often placed
In crimson chalk the proof of his low taste …
(Keon 1986, 23)

Finding Australia isolated and claustrophobic, Kershaw departed for England in 1947. He soon met a number of writers, including the novelist Henry Williamson and the poet Roy Campbell, the latter assisting him to find work with the British Broadcasting Commission. During a visit to Paris he met his literary idol, Richard Aldington, and later that year he settled with Aldington and his wife Netta, taking on the role of secretary at their villa at St Clair, Le Lavandou, in the south of France. It would prove an enduring friendship. Kershaw published a bibliography of Aldington’s work in 1950, was his literary executor from 1962, and later co-edited Richard Aldington: Selected Critical Writings, 1928–1960 (1970). On 9 January 1950 at the parish church of St Marylebone, London, Kershaw married Australian-born Patricia Cornelia Wright, a receptionist. The union was short-lived and in 1957 he married English-born Sheila Sanders. In 1951 he had moved to Paris, where with the Australian artist David Strachan he produced Accent and Hazard (1951), comprising a series of poems by Kershaw, reproduced as handwritten facsimiles and accompanied by twenty-two colour etchings by the artist. It was a rare example by Australians at that time of the livre d’artiste tradition. Kershaw researched and wrote several books, including Murder in France (1955) and A History of the Guillotine (1958), and from 1959 to 1966 he was Paris correspondent for the ABC. He later estimated that he broadcast approximately one thousand news stories, a selection of which was published as A Word from Paris (1991). Geoffrey Dutton later recalled Kershaw’s ‘golden voice’ (1995, 12), while Robert J. Stove described it as ‘rich, warm, [and] mellifluous, with a soupcon of a growl’ (1991, 5). After he left the ABC, Kershaw spent more than a decade editing and translating for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. He published two further volumes of poetry, No-Man’s Land (1969) and Opéra Comique (1979), which, along with his earlier works, would be gathered in Collected Poems (1992). From his retirement in 1982 until his death he resided in a house he had originally purchased for Aldington at the hamlet Maison Sallé, near Sury-en-Vaux, Cher, in the Loire Valley. Having divorced a second time, he married Slovenian-born Jelka Kozmus in 1986. He published several memoirs and was a frequent contributor to the Australian press. For Typographeum Press in Francestown, New Hampshire, United States of America, he edited works on Campbell, Aldington, and the French journalist Léon Daudet, and authored a memoir on Lawlor and a final volume of verse, Empty Rooms (1990).

Kershaw had cut a striking figure in 1940s bohemian Melbourne. Though his politics inclined to the right, he was more a natural contrarian than a considered thinker. He refused to align himself with contemporary trends, whether modernism or social realism, instead seeking friendships with mavericks and outsiders. His memoir The Pleasure of Their Company (1986) portrays ten such figures, whom he described as nonconformists, including Max Harris, P. R. Stephensen, Aldington, Campbell, Lawlor, and Williamson. A genuine bon vivant, he extolled the pleasures of wine, good friends, and conversation in his posthumous memoir One for the Road (2005). Survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his second marriage, he died at Maison Sallé on 27 February 1995.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Dutton, Geoffrey. ‘Man of Words and Gentle Melancholy.’ Australian, 1 March 1995, 12
  • Keon, Michael. ‘The Sawtooth Integrity of Alister Kershaw.’ Quadrant, September 1986, 22–26
  • Kershaw, Alister. Heydays: Memories and Glimpses of Melbourne's Bohemia 1937–1947. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1991
  • Kershaw, Alister. Interview by Diana Ritch, 25 February 1992. National Library of Australia
  • Lemon, Andrew. A Great Australian School: Wesley College Examined. Wahroonga, NSW: Helicon Press, 2004
  • Stove, Robert J. ‘The World According to Kershaw.’ Australian, 16–17 November 1991, Weekend Review 5

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Des Cowley, 'Kershaw, Alister Nasmyth (1921–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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