Russel Ward
A Radical Life: The Autobiography of Russel Ward
Macmillan   264pp.

Australian 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 of Solomon.

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,

When universities 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.

Priggishness, funk, 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.

Rousseau’s Confessions 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 forty-third year.

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 father’s “sonny”.

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.