HISTORIANS - RUSSEL WARD
Book Review, late 1988
or early 89, pp. 13-14.
What would you like to
know? Doc Evatt’s on-the-spot explanation of why he wrote to Molotov?
Archbishop Mannix’s response to Cardinal Spellman’s claim on the
papacy? The particular pleasure derived from small boys by the
headmaster of Geelong Junior Grammar? How a knowledge of Urdu maintained
the Hands-Off-Indonesia blockade? What Malcolm Ellis said to Charles
Currey when the lift opened? All those delights and more tumble out of
Russel Ward’s autobiography.
Several of Ward’s
anecdotes deserve to become what E. H. Carr called “historical
facts” – not just events that happened but items selected by
scholars as typifying a process. For example, the examiner’s report on
his un-footnoted MA about the poetry of T S Eliot pointed out that “it
is possible to dislike what one may call the idea of the Jew without
being anti-Semitic.” The wisdom of literary criticism surpasseth that
A further attraction is
the spread of locations for Ward’s life. Starting in Adelaide in 1914
and moving to Charters Towers and onto Perth before returning to
Adelaide for secondary school and university, Ward’s memoirs move into
the Centre at a time when the Alice was a two-pub town, then cross to
Melbourne to teach, up to Sydney for the army and Communist Party
activism and onto Canberra for his doctorate at the ANU. More than most
Australians who live only in Victoria or New South Wales, Ward is a
fully-fledged member of his nomad tribe. Being there and seeing the
place is an advantage in an historian; growing up and working in so many
towns and cities is a rare distinction,
attempt to defend themselves as bastions of academic freedom they need
to be reminded of the Russel Ward case. Ward was denied a lectureship at
the then NSW University of Technology on political grounds. The
conservative head of school resigned in protest. The Chancellor and
Vice-Chancellor, who names are beneath repeating, carried out the wishes
of the security police. This instance was but one of several.
Ward is aware how frail
memory can be and reports a good example of what can happen when he
checks a clear impression against the actual newspaper photograph and
finds the long-treasured image in his mind quite different from the
fact. Yet he relied too much on his memory when he, and his editor,
should have consulted an almanac: a Dutchman, not a Bulgarian, was
accused of setting fire to the Reichstag; if second world war two
soldiers were promised a movie starring Marilyn Monroe it is not
surprising that their patience ran out; the chronology of Inky
Stephensen and his Australia First Movement is muddied. Ward also
forgets what he has just said: on page 46, Melbourne has the reputation
for being the “most sinful”; ten years later, Sydney is reputedly
the “sin capital”. Both are possible, but some mark of transition
would have helped the reader understand why.
Ward has been blessed
with the facility for meeting embodiments of the Australian legend at
every turn. He found them in the Centre, hitching to Canberra, in the
army, and in his beloved GPS rowing team where no single oar has the
chance to outshine the others, creating a utopia of gentlemen. Ward also
has the gift for friendship. Almost everyone he meets becomes a lifelong
friend. Meeting people allows him to like a few improbables, including a
security policeman. If only he could have had a beer with Menzies and
Spry. Ward likes everyone except himself.
snobbery, envy and self-pity are some of the offences he charges against
himself. Nowhere does he seek to explain away these flaws, but faces
them with details of their consequences. The tone is never that of a man
proclaiming his faults out of a desire to be told that he is lovable.
do not tell us what happened but what their author felt about the events
in his life. This approach to autobiography is rare in Australian males.
During a Spalding Gray performance in Adelaide in 1986, several males
became physically distressed when the US comedian began to talk about
why some men go into cubicles to piss instead of to the urinal.
Murray-Smith noted that Australian male life-stories rarely continued in
a personal vein past adolescence. Viewed against that background,
Ward’s autobiography is a decided advance. He tells us about his
feelings, desires and ambitions. We hear a lot about his early sexual
practices, more than from any other recent Australian memoirs I know,
albeit without the raw emotion of Roger Milliss’s Serpent’s
Tooth. In addition, Ward carries his story forward to his
For no reason, I read
the chapters in reverse order and so began by encountering the
already-made Russel Ward as a troubled and married man nearing forty. As
I read back through his life story, a question arose about why he was so
unhappy with himself. For a while, I suspected that he was concealing
something. Eventually, I read the chapter where he identifies what he
calls his father’s “reticence – and neurosis” from embarrassment
about having been a shop assistant.
Ward further suggests
that his father’s great mistake was to return to Prince Alfred College
as its principal and then to fail there. This Radical
Life stops on he brink of Ward’s leaving for Armidale where he
spent the next thirty years. Was his mistake to take a job in a town as
tightly pastoral as the Adelaide of his youth? There can be no doubt
that Ward has been good for New England.
Clearly, he is a poet
manqué, but at what else does he feel less than complete? He tells us
how close he came to aspiring to be Master of Trinity. Is part of the
problem that he really did so aspire? He is, as he keeps saying, his
Perhaps Russel Ward is
right about his father. Or has he found a way of facing his own demons
by writing them into the career of a much loved parent, one whom other
boys feared, and even hated. Let’s hope that Ward takes us through the
years since 1970 after which, he laments, everything seemed to go awry.
If he does persist, we
can look forward to more pen sketches as striking as those of G V Portus
and Harold Wyndham which display the gifts that make The
Australian Legend so persuasive.