the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

It is a great thing when you dis­cover an early and long un­pub­lished novel by a writer you like in other gen­res. Mal­colm Mug­geridge is, I think, the supreme mem­oirist of the 20th cen­tury. I liked all his jour­nal­is­tic books. A few years ago I came upon a 1987 edi­tion of an early novel, Pic­ture Palace, which he had writ­ten in the 1930s. It was a satire of the fa­mous Manch­ester Guardian ed­i­tor CP Scott and had been sup­pressed as li­bel­lous.

The satire on Scott had el­e­ments of bril­liance and was pretty sav­age, but over­all I was dis­ap­pointed. It was a poor novel.

I un­der­went a sim­i­lar but more in­tense ex­pe­ri­ence when read­ing The Ban­dar Log, the long sup­pressed novel by Alan Reid. Reid wrote this story of the great La­bor Party split in 1958 but court ac­tions pre­vented its pub­li­ca­tion.

The hugely en­ter­pris­ing and wholly praise­wor­thy Con­nor Court pub­lish­ers brought it into print based on the man­u­script Ross Fitzger­ald came upon when writ­ing his bi­og­ra­phy of Reid. Fitzger­ald has done a ser­vice to history here.

Reidy was a great friend to me many years ago. Tony Ab­bott, in the book’s fore­word, de­scribes him as “the Paul Kelly of his day”. That’s a gen­er­ous com­pli­ment but not quite right as Alan didn’t at­tempt any­thing like Kelly’s pol­icy anal­y­sis. John Howard made a sim­i­lar com­par­i­son in nom­i­nat­ing Reid and Kelly as Aus­tralia’s two great po­lit­i­cal sto­ry­tellers. Alan wrote two jour­nal­is­tic books about John Gor­ton and one about Gough Whit­lam. They were fan­tas­tic.

The Power Strug­gle, about how Gor­ton came to of­fice, was my first Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal book. It read like a John Buchan thriller: great ac­tion, great pace, the story rac­ing for­ward in vivid in­ci­dents, all mas­ter­fully re-cre­ated. Char­ac­ter was lightly dealt with, and only that el­e­ment rel­e­vant to pol­i­tics.

Which brings me to the judg­ment I have to make, reluc­tantly, about The Ban­dar Log. As a novel, it is truly dread­ful, much worse than I could have imag­ined pos­si­ble.

I first met Reid in 1977 when, as an un­der­grad­u­ate, I went with Ab­bott to his Cre­morne apart­ment to tell him about the far left con­trol of univer­sity stu­dent unions. He en­cour­aged me to write for The Bul­letin mag­a­zine, which I joined in 1979. Reidy be­came a friend, col­league and men­tor, full of en­cour­age­ment, earthy and su­per­fi­cially cyn­i­cal, with deadly ac­cu­rate po­lit­i­cal radar and a great gen­eros­ity in talk­ing things over with younger col­leagues.

I trea­sure his mem­ory but I have to be hon­est about this book. Al­most ev­ery­thing is wrong with it. In what is meant to be a se­ri­ous book, he gives sev­eral main char­ac­ters lu­di­crous names as a kind of lit­er­ary joke. Thus the HV Evatt char­ac­ter is named Kaye Se­bor­jar, for Ce­sare Bor­gia, and the char­ac­ter who rep­re­sents Alan him­self is Macker Kal­ley, for Machi­avelli.

His ex­ceed­ingly cyn­i­cal view of all his char­ac­ters is way over the top and com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic. No one has a de­cent mo­ti­va­tion. One of his char­ac­ters com­ments au­thor­i­ta­tively: “There are no he­roes in our racket … mostly mis­er­able bas­tards who’d send their moth­ers to a knack­ery if the price was right.”

As­ton­ish­ingly for such a gifted jour­nal­ist, he presents not hu­man beings but pan­tomime vil­lains and das­tardly beasts from Vic­to­rian melo- drama. And they’re all meant to be like that. I’ve known a lot of politi­cians well and vir­tu­ally all of them started with a good streak of ide­al­ism and a sense of pub­lic ser­vice.

The char­ac­ter based on BA San­ta­maria is a grotesque car­i­ca­ture. At one stage he is de­scribed as an “agent of pa­pal fas­cism”, else­where the Reid char­ac­ter in this book de­scribes him as “a back­room Hitler with fas­cist sym­pa­thies su­per­im­posed on deep re­li­gious feel­ings, and the sur­face mild­ness of an oriental sage”.

I got to know Santa very well. Ad­mit­tedly, I didn’t meet him un­til 1974, 16 years af­ter Reidy wrote The Ban­dar Log, but he was not re­motely any­thing like the char­ac­ter in Alan’s book. I think Alan only ever met Santa once or twice. In any event Alan’s ef­fort to imag­ine the pri­vate el­e­ments of th­ese char­ac­ters is a com­plete fail­ure and the novel, though of his­tor­i­cal in­ter­est, is clumsy, dull, pon­der­ous, di­dac­tic, poorly writ­ten, repet­i­tive and a com­plete washout. Alan was lucky it wasn’t pub­lished in his life­time.

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