E.W. Cole, proprietor of Cole’s Book Arcade in Melbourne’s Burke Street Mall, was an amazing man. He condemned the White Australian policy when it was unpopular to do so and had decidedly progressive views about religion. He published the famous Cole’s Funny Picture Books and met his wife through an advertisement he placed in the newspaper. Carolyn Holbrook asked the former diplomat, Richard Broinowski, author of Under the Rainbow, why Cole continues to fascinate us.
E.W. Cole has been the subject of various novels and biographies over the years. Why do you think he continues to fascinate us?
Edward Cole’s story fascinates because it engenders a sense of lightness, humour and optimism among those who know his story. It has the elements of many popular fairy tales — from poverty to success because of the hero’s good character and refusal to give in. It also fascinates because of the opposites in his character — a capacity to indulge in outrageous self-promotion whilst maintaining an essential humility.
Little is known about Edward Cole’s early life, apart from a few details such as the impossibility that his purported father was actually his father. How difficult was it write that first chapter, walking the line between speculation and informed conjecture?
Writing my first chapter on Cole’s early life was difficult. I had to find out all the known facts, assisted by a very competent researcher in Kent, and then add to these as many credible speculations from snippets of the lives of those around him. The challenge was to build a realistic structure of fact clothed with likely possibilities. The result is not a linear progression of known history, but a set of alternatives for the reader to decide upon. Even more so with my chapter on South Africa.
One of the things that leaps out to a contemporary reader most about Edward Cole is his opposition to the White Australia Policy. He claimed that a sizeable minority of Australians shared this opinion. What is your impression about the level of opposition?
I think Cole overestimated the degree of popular support for his anti-White Australia position. An optimist by nature, he liked to think that every fair-minded man (and woman) would agree with his belief that we are all of equal intelligence beneath the skin, whatever its colour. He would be disappointed at the prevalence of popular casual racism today, not least among crowds at AFL football matches. He would have whole-heartedly empathised with the portrayal of Adam Goodes in Vincent Namatjira’s Champion, winner of the 2020 Archibald Prize.
In his campaign against White Australia, Cole made the magnificent point that Jesus would have been disqualified under the policy! How was Cole regarded among the religious and social establishments of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Melbourne?
Cole was regarded with disdain and frustration by Melbourne’s clergy – disdain at his lack of formal education, frustration at their inability through lack of training to counter his very sensible observations about the flaws in conventional Christian doctrine.
How would you describe Cole’s religious views? He discerned the common themes of the world’s great religions and rejected the idea of miracles, but did he discard belief in the afterlife entirely?
Cole himself seemed to have flexible religious beliefs as he made his way through life. At one stage he was sceptical of Christian beliefs, saying that Jesus was a good man, but not the son of God. Or if he was the son of God, then he had brothers and sisters in other religions who could also claim divinity. He also believed in a Divine Creator, but on considering the vast universe He had created, one who had far greater responsibilities than the petty concerns of looking after the earth and its inhabitants. Cole was a universalist, a believer in a Creator, but one with infinitely greater concerns than human beings and the planet they inhabited.
Cole was recognisably modern in so many of his attitudes; towards women, religion, race, technology, marketing. How do you account for his ability to see the world with such a unique perspective, unconstrained by the mores of his time?
I don’t believe that Cole’s perspective was unique. Many thinkers of the day held similar views, especially his religious scepticism at the time of Darwinism. Nor was he a feminist in today’s terms. Generally, he thought women had their place in society, one of consequence, but not necessarily equality. His reliance on Eliza to run the Arcade in his absence was a singular thing, due to her strength of character as his partner. Nor was Cole’s perspective about marketing and technology unique. In the Victorian era, everything was possible, and it witnessed the beginning and growth of the industrial revolution. What was unique about Cole was that for a basically uneducated man, he had an imagination equal to, and possibly surpassing those of the technical innovators and inventors of the day. Yes, Cole was unconstrained by the mores of his time, a unique gift and one that initially compelled me to write about him.
Neither of Cole’s sons served in the First World War. What do you think the attitude of Cole and his family was towards the war and the British empire more generally?
Who knows what the attitude of Cole’s family was towards the bloodletting of the First World War and the British Empire in general? Apart from eldest daughter Linda, they appear to have been a parochial bunch, insulated by wealth from the hard knocks of society and the outside world. Possibly also rather snobbish. Certainly none appeared to have been driven by any patriotic urge to serve. As for Empire, my speculation is that they would have been deeply conservative, never questioning whether Australia’s subservience to Britain and its lack of a foreign policy betrayed a lack of independence of national thought. I doubt that I would have had much in common with them, with the possible exception of Linda.
Despite his strong views about political issues such as conscription and immigration policy, Cole does not seem to have engaged directly with the formal political process. Is this correct and if so, why do you think he eschewed politics?
Yes, Cole was not engaged in the formal political process in Victoria. I imagine that much of his considerable talent and energy was taken up with establishing and managing his Arcade. In his early days in Melbourne, his forays into religion and philosophy served two purposes – to satisfy his compulsion as an auto-didact to get to know everything about a particular subject, and as an assistant for self-promotion. I do not mean this in an unworthy way. But his ability to advertise himself went hand in glove with his compulsion to express his strongly arrived at views to a wide audience.
Under the Rainbow is a very beautiful book. Can you tell us about the process of selecting the pictures and designing the book?
Selecting pictures for the book was for me a looming headache. How could I find the best ones? What would they all cost? What about copyright, especially if we took illustrations from earlier publications about Cole? But MUP in general, and Cathryn Smith in particular, were extremely resourceful. To the limited number of photographs and pictures I found, they found many more. And through their professionalism, getting copyright was not a problem. As for design, it was a dream. MUP either hired, or had in house, a talented bunch of designers. My main job turned out to be to throw some ideas into the mill, and to endorse the rather brilliant ideas they came up with.
Your epilogue imagines Cole returning to Melbourne in the present. If he opened a book shop in Melbourne in 2020, what do you think it would be like?
I think if Cole were to open a bookshop in Melbourne today, he would first take a shrewd look at what existed, and how books were advertised and sold. If unconstrained by financial considerations, he would certainly not just restrict himself to the book trade. He would have, as he had in the 19th century, a music department, an upmarket tea salon, a quality restaurant, an art gallery and a boutique for the promotion and sale of high quality merchandise. Also, most likely, a department of computers and electronic gear to rival JB HiFi. All this, of course, would depend on Melbourne becoming Covid-free. If it were not, he may still venture into the market, but with the most sophisticated mail-order service that his money could buy. Always the opportunist, he would realise that confinement to home had stimulated reading books, an added incentive to establish his new Arcade. His advertising would rival Dymocks.