Joan Coxsedge’s Life of Protest, Painting and Politics

Reviewed: Cold Tea for Brandy: A Tale of Protest, Painting & Politics By Joan Coxsedge Vulcan Press, 2007

In a book Joan Coxsedge co-authored in 1982, Rooted In Secrecy, the Australian antiwar activist–who was a member of Victoria’s Legislative Council between 1979 and 1992–described Australia’s hidden 20th-century history and revealed the role clandestine agencies play in Australian political life.  And in her 1986 book, Thank God for the Revolution, Coxsedge exposed in vivid terms how U.S. imperialism’s intervention in Central America’s internal political affairs, historically and under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s, led to the massacres of thousands of civilians in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

But in her autobiography, Cold Tea For Brandy: A Tale of Protest, Painting and Politics, Coxsedge not only continues to reveal more of Australia’s hidden history and expose more about the crimes of U.S. imperialism around the globe.  She also reveals how she came to be one of the great Australian anti-imperialist left-wing dissidents of the 20th century and exposes how difficult it is to radically democratize Australian society through parliamentary means alone.  In addition, Coxsedge lets us know how it felt, personally, to be an antiwar activist, an anti-imperialist elected official and a politically-conscious painter for so many years since the early 1960s.

After opening her book with a poem, "The Grand Finale," that concisely summarizes what she found, saw and did as an elected member of the Upper House of Victoria’s state parliament, Coxsedge recalls how surprised she was when she was first elected "against all the odds" and "with the narrowest of margins;" and how her legislative office "became a community resource for local campaigns and those of the global variety, involving people from the four corners of the earth."  Then Coxsedge, who was born in 1931, describes her working-class family background and what it was like growing up in Australia during the Great Depression and World War II.

Neither of Coxsedge’s parents were anti-corporate political activists, although her father, Roy Rochester, "voted Labor all his life."  So Coxsedge "had to find" her "own way through the political jungle."  Yet, ironically, the left-wing leader of the International Longshoreman and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU) during much of the 20th century, Harry Bridges, had grown up around the corner from where Coxsedge’s monarchist grandmother lived in inner Melbourne’s since-gentrified Kensington neighborhood.

Despite contracting a mild case of polio when she was six, Coxsedge soon recovered and, by the time she went to High School (unlike the majority of Australian working-class students before 1950), she participated actively in sports like hockey, tennis and swimming. Coxsedge also almost died at five years when a local incompetent doctor misdiagnosed her ruptured appendix.

Coxsedge next describes what it was like working as a probationary nurse in Melbourne after she graduated from high school in 1949.  But after a learner car driver rammed into her while she was riding her bicycle, Coxsedge was injured so badly that she no longer was able to lift heavy patients and had to give up her nursing job.  Instead, she spent the early 1950s working as an assistant survey draftswoman for a state government agency that developed public housing projects, while taking art classes at night; until she met and married in 1953 an ex-British World War II veteran who had recently immigrated to Australia.

After briefly describing what it was like working as a paralegal for a left-liberal law firm in Australia and then raising a family of three in the 1950s and early 1960s, Coxsedge then takes her readers into the meat of her book, which is a kind of people’s history of the Australian left since the 1960s, as reflected in her own political and cultural activism and writing since the mid-1960s.

She takes her readers first inside the 1960s Australian antiwar movement during the Vietnam War Era and into the women’s prison where she was jailed for awhile for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience.  Then she takes you into the world of socialist left parliamentary politics, before recalling the experiences she had after she decided to start exposing in the 1970s the role that secret police and foreign intelligence agencies were playing in Australian domestic politics. Next Coxsedge provides her readers with a perceptive look at the development of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia during the 1970s, before describing in more detail her life as an elected state parliamentary representative.

In the final portion of her autobiography, Coxsedge describes her post-1980s journeys around the globe, impressions and experiences in places like the Cook Islands, Libya, Central America, Cuba, Mexico, South America, Europe, Malaysia and the USA.  At the same time, Coxsedge also provides her readers with short, capsule political histories of some of the countries to which she has traveled.

As a bonus for the reader, Cold Tea For Brandy also includes images of Coxsedge’s sketches and paintings, as well as some photographs of her family members.

If you’re a U.S. antiwar reader who has never been "Down Under" and knows little about either Australian labor history or Australian antiwar movement history, then you’ll likely find Coxsedge’s autobiography-which is well-written in non-academic, jargon-free language-highly informative.  And if the right-wing Australian-born global media mogul Rupert Murdoch has been the Australian historical figure you’ve been most familiar with since the 1970s, then you should definitely read Coxsedge’s politically inspirational autobiography. For Coxsedge has also been one of the Australian historical figures who has most courageously and consistently stood against the right-wing anti-democratic warmongering policies which Murdoch’s News Corporation/Fox News global media conglomerate has promoted, in a journalistically unethical way, for many years.