Australian Notes

Australian notes

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

It was more a rally of old hands recalling the glory days than a standard book launch. The venue was Sydney’s Gleebooks. The speaker was Michael Kirby, former august High Court justice and now whimsical memoirist of his heady days as student leader back in the revolutionary 1960s and 70s. The book was Cradle of Australian Political Studies. Sydney’s Department of Government. (Connor Court) –an inside job by Michael Hogan, formerly of the department.

Kirby had agreed to launch it, he said, when Lex Watson, the gay rights activist, on his deathbed asked him to. He did so because he believed the department of government had been at the centre of all the LGBTI reforms of recent decades that Kirby had supported. His often gossipy address roamed widely. He recalled that Sydney University’s Merewether building was known as Gay and Lesbian Central; that St Andrew’s College was an oasis for drunks; that Dick Spann, the head of the government department, had been ‘a spy’, presumably in the Royal Navy; that he had prepared a legal opinion arguing successfully that the Registrar had no authority to close down the University’s Camp Inc. He remembered whose lectures seemed to be based on the morning’s newspapers (Henry Mayer’s); whose critique of radical feminism seemed ‘trivial’ (Tony Abbott’s); and who had struck him as a ‘good-looker’ (Peter King).

The speech was more anecdotal than the book. But Hogan’s Cradle also has its moments. Here is legendary Henry Mayer plaintively appealing to his friend Terry Irvine after being compelled to resign as head of department: ‘What did I do wrong Terry?’ Here is Terry Metherell, later Minister for Education in NSW, in a ‘spectacular and public yelling exchange in the corridor outside the department office.’ And here is a distinguished professor of politics and sociology (Bob/Raewin Connell) changing his/her sex and name.

Cradle sympathetically and in detail covers the department’s first hundred years from Francis Bland’s lectures on public administration in the old collegial university through to the age of ideology (Vietnam, homosexual law reform, women’s liberation, apartheid) and on to the universities’ current ‘corporisation’. The longest chapter is ‘Real Politics in the 1970s’ about how staff and students reacted to the Vietnam War, the GLBTI movement, and the democratization of staff-student relations (‘It changed my life’, said Meredith Burgmann.) Hogan reports that his department was able to avoid the ‘poisonous personal relations’ of others (especially philosophy and economics) as long as ‘The Dick and Henry Show’ prevailed – depending on the catholic ebullience of Mayer and the skeptical tolerance of Spann. Is the age of ideology over in the new age of corporisation? Issues such as decriminalization of drugs, gay marriage, animal rights, and ‘international human rights’ (usually code for Palestine) mandate urgent university action, despite corporisation. We shall see. No one seemed confident.

Rupert Murdoch put in a good word for Max Harris. It was about forty years ago. ‘Every society needs a Max,’ he said, ‘to identify its forlorn hopes and its lost causes.’ I am not sure what lost causes Murdoch had in mind. As Betty Snowden tells it in her huge, generous biography, Max Harris (Arcadia), the irrepressible Harris lived a richly productive life as child prodigy, editor, poet, novelist, publisher, bookseller, columnist, catalyst and enfantterrible. But he is still best remembered for the Ern Malley hoax when he published in Angry Penguins some apparently avant-garde verse attributed to the late Ern Malley. It was mostly gibberish, if occasionally enlivened with the bait of a few striking phrases, all concocted by the poets Jim McAuley and Harold Stewart. But it is worth remembering that McAuley had a good opinion of Harris. What would be the point of hoaxing a fool? The two became correspondents, even collaborators. This is where I must make a small correction in the proof copy of the book. Snowden writes on page 286 that Max Harris and Jim McAuley never met. As it happens, I was present at their meeting in the old ramshackle Quadrant office, reached by a heaving lift in a long since demolished building in 2 Albert Street, Sydney. It was in August 1962 shortly before a conference on little magazines. Although the hoax had exploded almost forty years earlier, passions still simmered in the souls of modernists like Sid Nolan. Tension mounted as we silently waited for Harris’s arrival. Suddenly he was there, large as life – in bow tie and cane, looking like Bunyip Bluegum in The Magic Pudding. Work stopped. McAuley, looking like Rumpus Bumpus the Poet, looked up. ‘Hullo Max,’ he said. Max nodded. ‘Hullo Jim.’ They then settled down to talk over the piece McAuley had asked Harris to write on the achievements and failures of Angry Penguins.

Snowden also documents one unexpected and little known episode in Harris’s extraordinary career – his work in the last ten years of his life for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. He believed that the prayers of the Josephite nuns had cured him of membranous nephritis, a kidney disease – his own ‘miracle’. The Church beatified her in 1995 a few days after Harris’s death. His last and posthumous article in the Adelaide Advertiser pressed the case for her sainthood. The Vatican finally conferred it in February 2010. She was, Harris said, a far greater ‘symbol of the mystique of our Australianness’ than, say, Ned Kelly or Phar Lap!

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