1902-1955 | VIC | Cartoonist
Gurney, born in England, achieved fame as creator of the war-time comic strip "Bluey and Curley". The strip featured a pair of soldiers - Bluey, a Great War veteran who had re-enlisted, and Curley, a new recruit to the AIF. Gurney was accredited as a war correspondent, and visited troops to ensure authenticity in his strip. In New Guinea he contracted malaria. Sent to England in 1946 for the Victory Parade, he had Bluey and Curley participating in that event. He drew other strips earlier in his career - among them 'Ben Bowyang' for the Melbourne Herald.
I must have been only five or six but I remember as if it was yesterday. I needed something good for show and tell. What would wow my grade one mates? I crept into dad’s room, looked in the wardrobe and found his war medals – a little faded, a bit dusty but perfect to impress.
I snuck into the kitchen and plucked up all my courage – could I take them to school, please? Dad looked uncomfortable, a bit embarrassed but reluctantly agreed.
Show and tell went brilliantly … until (almost like Richard Carleton pouncing on Bob Hawke all those years ago) someone asked me the blood on your hands question. “What did your dad do when they shot at him?”
It had never occurred to me that in a war someone might try to shoot my dad. I had to think quickly… what on earth would Dad have done? Fathers were smart – my dad would have had a cunning plan. The answer – when it popped into my head – was very simple … when the guns went off, he just hid behind the trees.
Dad laughed long and loud when I told him that night.
I think it was the only time we ever talked about the war. In a long and fulfilled life, he never felt comfortable telling his wife or either daughter what really happened in Borneo all those years ago.
But if we couldn’t talk about the steamy jungles of Borneo, there was one way I could get him to talk about being a digger, about the mates he knew and of battles won and lost. My dad and I could talk about a comic strip he rated – Bluey andCurley written by artist, caricaturist and cartoonist Alex Gurney.
Its two central characters were Bluey (named for his red hair) who had served in the first AIF while Curley (and his boisterous mop of curls) was a new recruit. They were loveable larrikins – always up for a drink, a punt and were never all that keen on the top brass paid the big bucks to sit behind the big desks.
Their exploits – in every campaign from North Africa, the Middle East, New Guinea, Northern Australia and the Pacific Islands – made my dad laugh. He loved the honest use of the Australian vernacular. The simplicity and integrity of the line Gurney used to bring his two boys to life. He cheered on B and C as they made the military establishment squirm. Best of all he loved the way no matter what their latest scrape, Bluey and Curley always looked after their mates.
There was something about the strip that felt very real to my dad. Perhaps it was the slang, the scrapes, the latest crazy scheme to make a buck – I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps Gurney’s extensive research in army bases and camps here and overseas gave the strip street cred to Diggers everywhere.
Gurney was born in Devon, England, and had a Tasmanian mother. They moved back to Hobart where he attended Macquarie Street State School. He left school at 13 and did an electrical apprenticeship for seven years with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. He studied art part-time at night to develop his sketching and cartooning skills. By 1918 he was submitting work to The Bulletin, Melbourne Punch and Smith’s Weekly and in 1923 he won he won first prize at the Kingborough Agricultural Show for “an original pencil drawing”. Three years later he published a book of his caricatures of famous Tasmanians.
In 1926 he began working in newspapers, briefly for The Morning Post, then freelanced in Sydney for several papers before a stint at The News in Adelaide. He moved to Melbourne to become cartoonist for the sports pages of The Herald and then the paper’s feature cartoonist. He started his Ben Bowyang series (based on the C J Dennis creation).
In 1939 he created the characters for Bluey and Curley. The strip first appeared in Picture-News Magazine and was transferred to The Sun News-Pictorial in 1940. He produced the strip for 15 years until his death in 1955. Upon Gurney’s death, John Hetherington wrote in The Age: “Today’s world needs men who can make it smile and sometimes guffaw ... Alex Gurney ... was that kind of man ... He was a happy man himself. He liked fishing, a beer or two, a good story. Gurney will be remembered for a long time, because he had an inborn genius for knowing what makes men laugh. He would have hated to picture them weeping over his tomb.”
Bluey and Curley was syndicated in Australia, New Zealand and Canada but was considered too Australian for an American audience (a nation’s loss). After Gurney’s death, the strip was penned by Norman Howard Rice and then Les Dixon.
Bluey and Curley is a strip I still love – it gave a little girl the chance to get to know her dad a little better and gave a woman the only fleeting glimpse of a side of her dad she would never fully understand.
Jill Baker loves the Bluey and Curley strip because it reminds her of a side of her father she never knew. Jill has worked in newspapers, magazines and books and won a Walkley Award, the Sir Keith Murdoch award and the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill. She is the Executive Editor, Sundays at the Herald Sun.
Alex Gurney at Ramu Valley, New Guinea, 5 May 1944. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
Bluey and Curley, courtesy National Library of Australia.
'Gurney, Alexander George (Alex) 1902-1955', Steve Panozzo, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, 1996.
My Dad: Alex Gurney 1902-1955, Margaret Gurney, Black Rock, 2006.