Peter Craven

Humphrey McQueen
Suspect History: Manning Clark and the Future of Australia's Past

Wakefield Press $16.95pb, 238pp
186254 410 7

It is hard to recall a more shameful episode in the history of Australian journalism than the saga of Manning Clark, the Communist Spy. The Courier Mail, under Chris Mitchell, cobbled together a story which suggested that because the nation's best-known historian had once been seen, in 1970, with what some people may have imagined was an Order of Lenin, then he was an agent of influence for the Soviets. The Press Council, responding to a group of complainants which included not only a former Governor-General (Sir Zelman Cowen) and a former State Governor (Davis McCaughey) but the widow of Geoffrey Fairbairn -- the man supposedly appalled by the medal wearing -- thought the paper should publish a retraction. And, if there is anything cheering about the whole ugly business, it is that the nation's broadsheet press and, more particularly, its -- often `conservative' -- op. ed. columnists, like Paddy McGuinness and Robert Manne, dismissed the charges brought against Clark as drivel, even if they were a little inclined to lecture his ghost about history and the evils of being soft on communism.

Of all the pieces which the Clark cock-up provoked, none came within cooee of the long essay on the subject by Humphrey McQueen which was published in Australian Book Review. It was an impassioned piece of demolition work which also managed to be a generous portrait of some of the other players like Geoffrey Fairbairn. In this remarkably rapid expansion of that essay McQueen maintains much of the vivacity of this (even if he spreads his riches somewhat thinner) in the first half of the book but then in the second turns back to snarl at the Robert Mannes of this world, as well as the Geoffrey Blaineys. At least at first glance it is a vain, grandstanding performance which exhibits a self-regard that is at the edge of the grotesque.

But first things first. The demolition of The Courier Mail's evidence is done with great forensic gusto. We now know that the medal in question was not an Order of Lenin. McQueen makes barristerial mincemeat of the recollection of Les Murray who does not know what time night falls in Canberra, had always been inclined to think the country was dominated by Marxist Úlites and who admitted to David Marr that, in any case, Manning's assertion that the gong was real may have been 'puckish', that is, facetious and leg-pulling.

According to McQueen, Geoffrey Fairbairn's supposed outrage to the journalist Peter Kelly may have been an example of the same kind of jape. McQueen is particularly good on the courtly Fairbairn, a passionate anti-Leninist who commanded the respect of the radicals who enrolled for his classes on 'Revolts and Insurgencies' and someone who defended Manning Clark's jeremiads in the post-'75 period, saying that his 'noble' friend was immune to the disgusting 'insouciance' of the times. His widow says, quite flatly, that if Geoffrey Fairbairn had believed that Clark was the recipient of the Order of Lenin he would have walked out of the ANU History Department.

McQueen attempts to place Clark's friendship with Ian Milner, who seems to have 'defected' to Czechoslovakia in 1950, in the context of Clark's vast array of versatile friendships (with Barry Humphries and Blainey and Zelman Cowen) and Ó propos of his enduring gratitude to Milner for giving him his first academic job. He spoke of him too, in his memoirs, as a true believer who would never try to convert you to the communist cause.

If McQueen's grasp slackens at all in the first, masterly, part of this book -- the negative half -- it is in his defence of that very odd book, Meeting Soviet Man. It's not edifying to be reminded that Clark's trip to Russia came three days after the Soviet Writers' Union (his specific hosts) expelled Pasternak for allowing Dr Zhivago to be published in the West. Clark worries this question in the book, as he would, but does say that of course the Soviets had a case. This is not something to rend garments over but it has to be admitted that Humphrey McQueen's defence of Clark's remark that Lenin was Christ-like in his compassion remains unconvincing for all the vigour of his hand stands.

Anyone who has ever been a romantic left winger remembers the passage quoted in both Lukacs' biography and Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station (derived, I think, from Gorky) in which Lenin says that there is nothing greater than Beethoven's Appassionata and how the trouble with music is that it makes you want to stroke heads whereas now we have to knock them and knock them hard. Manning would have loved it. But we don't really need Humphrey McQueen telling us that we need to have recourse to William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity to understand Clark's equivocations about the Soviet Union and the figure of Lenin. Yes, he appalled Judah Waten by wanting to have a bob each way but it is disconcerting that, in the wake of the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, Manning could say that he believed Soviet society was 'the first to create equality and fraternity'.

In the latter part of his book, Playing the Man, McQueen gives a vivid portrait of Manning Clark as an individual while being needlessly dismissive of those he disagrees with. There are stories of Clark, as head of the History Department, saying that he represented the general as opposed to the popular will and there is an especially vivid touch where McQueen says that Manning although their relationship was distant and correct (in other respects) would come up behind him, grasp him by the upper arms and say, 'Remember the first is love.' Apparently this always happened after lunch.

Manning Clark was not wrong to enjoin the greatest of the commandments on Humphrey McQueen. Indeed there are moments in Suspect History when his anecdote of Fairbairn's providing him with a doorknocker with the McQueen coat of arms -- they agreed it was three bastards rampant -- takes on a new meaning. He is appalled that Robert Manne, in particular, can have defended Clark against the scurrilous charges only to treat the Courier Mail campaign as 'a grave injustice to his own high-minded campaign to demolish Clark's history'.

This is unfair, even if you do weary of Manne's tendency to suggest that everyone who has ever flirted with communism is tainted with the crimes of Josef Stalin, and it leads McQueen to a volley of ugly and needless sneers about Manne's literary critical competence (which seems fine to me) as well as the gross inaccuracy that he has never taken on board the historical significance of the slaughter of the First World War -- a charge which Manne refuted very soundly in The Australian by citing his review of the great Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, whom he admires.

McQueen's references to literature work like a nervous tic in this book. Not only does the reference to Empson verge on pretentiousness but he is capable of remarks like 'I am less selective...and more like George Orwell'. He also says that Gertrude Stein's remark about the 'village explainer' which he applies in a somewhat complex moment of loyalty to Clark was said of Ford Maddox Ford. 'Excellent if you are a village. If not, not' was in fact said not of that metropolitan Englishman but of Ezra Pound and is a much more penetrating comment on Pound's sometimes hokey and often folksy harangues.

McQueen clearly has his reservations about Clark's prophet-like stance, post 1975, and cites Manning's own tip that he was a bit like Clym Yeobright at the end of Hardy's The Return of the Native, preaching on sound and obvious topics. He is himself sound enough, however, when he says that Clark attempted to tell the story of Australia in its own voice or in the medley of voices, refracted through whatever Victorian version of Biblical or Prayer Book English, of the players he chose. He is right that Clark was never in any sense a Marxist and that even the dark mutterings about the philistine middle class owe more to De Tocqueville than Marx. For McQueen, Clark's History 'told of a clash of belief systems around a cluster of biographies'. He thinks the last volume is the most flawed, not least because the narrative voice is not so precisely adjusted to the content and because the cut-off point means he has to foreshorten both Menzies and Curtin before they reach their days of greatness.

This would seem, on the face of it, like a rather qualified two cheers for Manning Clark, the historian, but it is linked, in practice, with an intense defence of Clark as an innovator who was more revolutionary than we realise in putting Australian history on the map and who, as Russell Ward said, has taught us to take for granted the religious formations that shaped our society. McQueen who is at his best a more 'natural' writer than Clark is also passionate in his defence of the man who as a syllabus maker would never budge on the necessity of his students reading the great narrative masters: Thucydides, Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle. He cites Geoffrey Blainey's question: who in the history of writing in Australia has produced the sheer volume of polished prose that Clark has?