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Alister Nasmyth Kershaw (1921–1995)

by Peter Coleman

from Age

Alister Kershaw, poet and critic, had two Australian careers, with a French literary life in between.

In Melbourne in the 1940s, Kershaw who died in France this week at the age of 73 was at once an exuberant avant-garde poet promoted by Max Harris, an irrepressible satirist of the same avant-garde in his New Denunciad (published in Angry Penguins) and a delighted hoaxer of modernist gibberish in the works of Mort Brandish, the advanced poet whom he and his friend Adrian Lawlor invented and published.

Kershaw migrated to France where, after many down-and-out adventures in Paris, he became Richard Aldington's secretary in Sancerre. He wrote A History of the Guillotine, translated the Memoirs of Leon Daudet, and edited A Salute to Roy Campbell.

Although he kept in touch with Australia for a while as the ABC's Paris correspondent, he believed that he had been almost entirely forgotten at home. He liked to joke that future pedants would treat him as some sort of mysterious Dark Lady of the Sonnets. "Did he really exist?'' they would ask. They would find some clues: Roy Campbell dedicated a poem to him. Ezra Pound mentioned him in his letters. Richard Aldington said that his Lawrence of Arabia was Kershaw's idea. But his early poetry was neglected and, in the end, he insisted, the literary establishment would decide that he was a private joke, an invention like Woody Allen's Zelig.

Then, in the 1980s, he was rediscovered by the Sydney publisher Tom Thompson, who stimulated him into a new burst of creativity, including the Collected Poems (with a tribute by Michael Keon), a Second Denunciad (expanding and revising the first), a new edition of Mort Brandish (with a generous preface by James Gleeson), his Misadventures in France (about his early years in France) and A Word from Paris (a selection from his broadcasts).

Above all, he wrote Hey Days, his moving memoir of the Melbourne bohemia of his youth and his own tribute to such friends and mentors as Max Harris, Adrian Lawlor, Michael Keon, Albert Tucker; the 1940s world of the Petrushka Cafe (with tea in glasses), the Leonardo Bookshop (which already stocked Samuel Beckett) and the modernist magazine printed on brown paper, Cecily Crozier's Comment.

In his later years, Kershaw's gift for friendship and hospitality were legendary. One summer, 40 people, mainly Australians, stayed at least one night at his home in his village, Sury-en-Vaux.

He died in his garden early on Monday, of a heart attack, at the same spot where his friend Richard Aldington died in 1962. He is survived by his wife, Jelka, and two children (now in Sydney) of an earlier marriage, Sylvain and Solange.

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Citation details

Peter Coleman, 'Kershaw, Alister Nasmyth (1921–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 February 2024.

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