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Waters, Darcy Ian (1928–1997)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published online in 2022

Darcy Ian Waters (1928–1997), bohemian, wharf labourer, and punter, was born on 14 May 1928 at Casino, New South Wales, second son of New South Wales-born parents Eric Edgar Pemberton Waters, telegraph linesman, and his wife Thelma Matilda, née Lancaster. Thelma worked as a cleaner when her husband’s early death made her the family’s sole breadwinner. After schooling at Casino Intermediate High School, where he was far from a star pupil, in 1946 Darcy enrolled in veterinary science at the University of Sydney, evidently because he loved horses and horse-racing and aspired to be an equine veterinarian. In his youth he could reputedly recite the names of all Melbourne Cup winners. When he discovered that the university’s introductory veterinary science course neglected any content that related to horses he soon lost interest in it and other science-based subjects.

Gravitating to the humanities, Waters enrolled in Philosophy 1. According to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) he neglected to sit the final examination in that subject nine times. When he did he received a 100 per cent pass. Attending seminars addressed by the Challis professor of philosophy, John Anderson, had proved to be pivotal. Increasingly elitist and conservative, Anderson had a long and contentious career as a freethinker and libertarian. Though inspired by Anderson’s erudition, Waters was increasingly indifferent to formal university tuition. Ensconcing himself beneath the jacaranda tree in the university’s main quadrangle he would encourage intelligent conversation about philosophical issues with students and members of staff.

Waters became embroiled on the edges of student politics. ASIO reported that he was a committee member of the university’s Labour Club from 1946 to 1947. He participated in protests against the Dutch ‘police action’ in Indonesia in 1947 and in 1950 joined the Anti-Conscription Committee, which opposed Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s plan to reinstate national military service. The final secretary of the Freethought Society—the last wash-up of Andersonian libertarianism—he was a leader in its replacement, the Libertarian Society. Underpinned by the perception that the university was elitist, the libertarian group—collectively styled ‘the Push’—ensconced itself in the Ironworkers Hall in Lower George Street and later in certain Sydney pubs and coffee houses.

For periods of time Waters made his living as a wharf labourer. ‘Among his mates,’ he enjoyed the reputation of being Australia’s ‘laziest’ wharfie (McGuinness 1997, 15). He briefly worked in the Commonwealth Public Service but, according to ASIO, in order ‘to express his brand of Philosophy and pratical [sic] anarchism’ he ‘removed official files from his office, tore them up, and disposed of them in the toilet’ (NAA A6119, 820). His other major form of supporting himself was gambling on horse-racing. Characteristically dressed in a ‘crumpled blue country gentleman’s shirt and jeans’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1997, 31), with a form guide in his rear pocket, he was a regular at racetracks in Sydney, especially Randwick. His gambling sprees were frequently reckless, occasionally lucrative but more often unsuccessful. His interest in the turf, a legacy of his father’s interests and his country upbringing, was one of the reasons, together with his tall, long-limbed body, he acquired the nickname ‘Horse.’ At least one of the houses in which he lived featured a map of those to whom he owed money. He would show visitors the wall festooned with the details of his debts and remark proudly, ‘Look at all the friends I’ve got’ (Coombs 1996, 29).

The Push was bohemian in character and a direct response to the conformism of Cold War Australia. Drinking in inner-city pubs, partying, playing cards, gambling, sexual promiscuity, drug taking, shoplifting, and robust intellectual conversation were its milieu. The Push had no formal leadership structure, but a hierarchy in which Waters and his fellow punter and bridge champion Roelof Smilde featured prominently. Tall, strikingly handsome, and broad-shouldered, with a long mane of blond hair and a vibrant singing voice, Waters was idiosyncratic, charismatic, intelligent, charming, and sexually magnetic. He was also predatory, feckless, and indolent. To the present day, however, he enjoys an exalted place in memories of the group, as an ‘Adonis,’ the ‘Push Prince,’ or Sir Galahad, or at worst ‘a sort of Don Quixote without the chivalry’ (Coombs 1996, 19). ASIO, on the other hand, regarded him as ‘a “con” man,’ who lived ‘entirely off his wits and has never been known to do a days [sic] work in his life’ (NAA A6119, 820), as well as a communist sympathiser.

Marxism in fact had only a tangential influence on Waters and the Push. Their intellectual influences included Wilhelm Reich and Sigmund Freud, French situationism, anarchism, and libertarianism. The group produced a newsletter, Broadsheet, but for the most part Waters and his colleagues refrained from active engagement in political affairs of any sort. Their view was that fundamental change was impossible. Therefore the best that could be done was to discuss and critique issues, invariably in a rough pub or party over a schooner of beer or three. As part of the Push’s disdain for careerism, even academic or literary achievement—in fact achievement of any sort—Waters largely shied away from committing himself to paper.

The coming of the new social movements of the 1960s, spreading from opposition to the Vietnam War, caused Waters and his Push colleagues to revise many of their views. Second-wave feminism challenged the sexism that underpinned much of their sexual politics. Their ‘largely passive stance of “permanent protest”’ (Summers 1999, 301) gave way to direct intervention in political campaigns. In the early 1970s he and other cadres of the Push embraced the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation and its ‘green bans’ campaign against the redevelopment of Victoria Street in Kings Cross; he was one of many charged with trespass. He was involved in campaigns against censorship via the University of New South Wales student newspaper Tharunka and supported the stand taken against the exploitation of their labour by the Gurindji stockmen at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory. In 1971 he was arrested for allegedly spitting at a policeman’s shoes when he was warned for jaywalking. The case was dismissed but became a talking point in Push circles, celebrated as ‘the last great confrontation between the Push and Them’ (Abjorenson 1995, 18). By this time the New Left, the anti-war movement, and second-wave feminism had rendered the quiescence of the Push largely passé.

In the 1980s Waters campaigned against corruption in the New South Wales Labor government and police force. He produced a journal styled Horse Talk that exposed the seamy underbelly of Sydney life. Although he had relationships with Push women, including Gillian Burnett and Wendy Bacon, he never married. In his later years, emphysema took its toll on his freewheeling lifestyle. He also broke his hip in a car accident, ironic given that the perfidy of the motorcar was one of his pet topics. Neither infirmity caused him to disengage from politics. Carrying a bottle of oxygen to assist his breathing and with the aid of a walking stick, he continued to attend fringe political meetings, decades older than many of the other student activists in the room. He died of a combination of chronic airways limitation, ischaemic heart disease, and congestive heart failure on 30 April 1997 at Camperdown, and was cremated. A ‘romantic … figure,’ Waters was also ‘romanticised’ (Coombs 1996, 19). In some respects he was more style than substance. His elder brother Edgar (1925–2008), whose career was blighted by ASIO surveillance more than was Darcy’s, made a more enduring legacy as a collector of Australian folklore. By contrast, Darcy never really had a career, other than as a barfly.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Abjorensen, Norman. ‘Intellectuals with a Taste for Low Life.’ Canberra Times, 26 November 1995, 18
  • Bacon, Wendy. ‘Prince of the Bohemians.’ Australian, 2 May 1997, 16
  • Baker, A. J. ‘Sydney Libertarianism and the Push.’ First published in Broadsheet, no. 81 (March 1975). Accessed 17 March 2022. https://www.nealemorison.com/wlmorison/sydlib.html. Copy held on ADB file
  • Barcan, Alan. Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University. Carlton South, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2002
  • Coombs, Anne. Sex and Anarchy: The Life and Death of the Sydney Push. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1996
  • McGuinness, Padraic P. ‘Farewell to the Last of the Ocker Intellectuals.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1997, 15
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 820
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 2386
  • Ogilvie, Judy. The Push: An Impressionist Memoir. Sydney: Primavera Press, 1995
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 11045, Darcy Waters papers
  • Summers, Anne. Ducks on the Pond: An Autobiography 1945–1976. Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 1999
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Darcy Waters.’ 2 May 1997, 31

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Waters, Darcy Ian (1928–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waters-darcy-ian-32255/text39909, published online 2022, accessed online 8 October 2022.

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