A chance to stray

One Sunday morning as I went walking, by Brisbane waters I chanced to stray;

The most radical thought possible in capitalism had been penned in Brisbane in 1888 by Sam Griffith in his mansion, ‘Merthyr’, at Moray Street, New Farm. For the Christmas issue of William Lane’s Boomerang, the future Chief Justice advocated the distribution of wealth to its only begetters, the working class. ‘Slippery Sam’ promptly deserted the views he had acquired from reading Marx’s Capital. His betrayal shows the difference between interpreting the world and changing it.

Griffiths’ essay was the equivalent of history as the view from Government House verandah versus history from below. Radical Brisbane mines history from below, without losing sight of the power of capital organized by the state. Even further down - beneath the below - are webs of friendship, informal connections and chance encounters. A map of Radical Brisbane would join the dots between cafes and bookshops, kitchen tables and street corners. In the ‘Afterword’, Carol Ferrier recalls her immersion in these layers of Brisbane’s radicalism from 1973. Much of this ‘Foreword’ tracks my path through the often anonymous contributors to radical Brisbane.

Reading the manuscript has given me points of connection.  My father had spoken of how his boss in Ipswich left him, then aged thirteen, in charge of the store to ride into Brisbane to bash open the heads of workers during the General Strike of 1912. I was probably conceived in the Regatta Hotel where, twenty years later my friend Merle Thornton chained herself to the public bar where my mother had served. A neighbour, Senator Gordon Brown, had led the Free Speech Fights before the Great War, and sketched his life in My Descent from Soapbox to Senate.

Among my earliest political memories is traveling on a Brisbane toast-rack tram in 1951 when a man got on and announced: ‘Billy Hughes is dead’. Another passenger responded: ‘Pity he didn’t die years ago’. Aged nine, I was shocked to hear anyone speak ill of the dead. Yet I was intrigued. What had this person Hughes done to elicit such passion?

A passion for politics had been instilled in me before I was two when my grandmother taught me to sing ‘They’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the Green’. Ours was a Labor household, though not an active one until the 1957 Split. I then joined The Gap branch of the ALP on my fifteenth birthday to ensure a quorum. Next Christmas, my father gave me a copy of Power With Glory to prevent my having any illusions about the Great Australian Labor Party. I absorbed a lot about standing orders from the labouring men, and the few women, who were members in the State electorate of Mt Coot-tha and the Federal seat of Ryan.

They were men of their times, male chauvinist in a way that protected women from violence; racist in so far as they supported anti-colonial revolutions but did not trust their bosses to play fair with coolie labour here. The wording on the ALP membership badge was real to them: ‘The Unity of Labor is the Hope of the World’. They helped me to get a motion critical of the Aboriginals Protection and Preservation Act through to the Central Executive after I had been outraged at the violations of the United Nations Charter documented by a group of academics around the Toowong ALP, also in the seat of Ryan.

The campaign money came from socials and raffles, each raising between three and five pounds from a dozen or two of the faithful branch members who had arranged lifts across the city. Our State Electorate covered a swathe of western Brisbane including the Wilston–Grange where Mr and Mrs O’Sullivan were stalwarts, examples of the Roman Catholics who stuck to their Great Australian Labor Party although told by the pro-fascist Archbishop Sir James Duhig that they were in peril of hell’s fire. While Mr O’Sullivan’s cracking Irish tenor sang Jerusalem to Mrs O’Sullivan piano accompaniment, we knew that the Holy City was the promised land of the Socialist Objective.

Personal accounts are idiosyncratic by definition yet they intersect sufficiently for the general reader to find points of connection and for the academic historian to be reminded that the origins of the people are not in the library.

Libraries, however, are crucial. It has long seemed to me that the Left collects books as a surrogate for the wealth accumulated by the Right, which puts more of its trust in the police than in the power of the Press.

My mother borrowed detective novels from Reid’s Lending Library on the Sixth Floor of Finney Isles department store. She gave me the threepenny bit to borrow von Mises On Socialism which, at sixteen, I understood so little that I did no know either he was for or against. A life of the armaments czar, Baron Basil Zaharoff, argued that wars were started for profits, an economic determinism which I knocked up into an article for the ALP monthly paper. Shaw’s Prefaces which allowed me to discover that I was not the first or only person to doubt the existence of God or the virtue of profit-taking. All criticism begins as a criticism of religion.

At this time, the BWIU militant next door lent me his copy of Lenin’s Imperialism, which, wrapped in a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet, I read during the annual retreat at Marist Brothers, Ashgrove. Anti-communist though my teachers were, they hated British Imperialism no less.

At the Peoples Bookshop in Brunswick Street, The Valley, Bill Sutton did everything he could to broaden the stock with poetry, music and the visual arts, as well as the widest range of works from allied publishers in the US and Britain. As Bill confessed, he had always been a shearing-shed anarchist. From him, I bought my first Gramsci, after being altered to his writings by Ted D’Urso, one pointer to the Italian influence among Queensland radicals. The Modern Prince provided the concept for analyzing the Labor Party in A New Britannia.

I had lost my faith before I heard about the Rationalist Society that presented a public lecture every Sunday night. There I had my first chance to speak in public and, inevitably, chose Orwell, to the chagrin of the Coms who were wooing me. From the Rationalist’s Thinker’s library I borrowed the essays of Colonel Ingersoll whose chosen epitaph, ‘One does good, neither from threat of punishment nor promise of reward, but because good is good to do’, has replaced whatever commandments I carried away from Rome.

Don Griffiths who presided over the Rationalist Society was the son of the Mrs Griffiths who had led the anti-conscription fight during the Great War. After its meetings, the younger members – forming the Humanist Society – would continue the discussions in the Venice Café on George St, opposite Burnett Lane. Prominent in that company was Frank Fyfe on whose gestetner we printed the Freethinker that provoked my suspension from the University. When the Rationalists organized a symposium on ‘Is Queensland a Cultural Backwater?’, the Special Branch answered the question in the affirmative by parking outside all day.

From a copy of Outlook I discovered another discussion group at Ted D’Urso’s flat in East Brisbane. On my first meeting, I heard of Rosaluxembourg, which I assumed was a man’s surname. Reading Paul Frolich’s biography of her converted me to the Leninist version of the state. At the Outlook gatherings, I met the recently immigrated Joe Abusio who introduced himself by asking ‘Who are the revolutionaries here?’

Mirabile dictu, a family of Irish Catholic Quakers, the Rourkes, also attended. Mr Rourke, who had fought in Spain, positioned himself under a print of Beethoven to whom he bore a terrifying resemblance. He signed his letters, ‘Yours in Christ the revolutionary’.

Radicalism would not be radicalism without police cells. Outside the old watch-house at the end of Adelaide Street in 1966, Mr Rourke had asked me to find out when the desk sergeant would be releasing two of his children. After I suggested that the officer would be more likely to tell their father, Mr Rourke agreed but admitted: ‘I can’t speak to a policeman without hitting him’. As the night dragged on and the teenagers remained locked up, the dour Scottish communist, Alec MacDonald, who was Secretary of the QT&LC, got me to guide him to Police Commissioner Bischoff’s house near ours in The Gap. MacDonald got Bischoff to have the detainees bailed. That night I saw the effective side of the cautious bureaucrat if roused to anger, and the authority he could wield as the leader of the organized workers.

Brian Laver’s gaoling at Boggo Road in January 1967 led to a vigil during which Mrs Rouke flummoxed the police Inspector who had approached her as the demonstrator who looked most likely to give a civil answer to his question: ‘Who’s your leader?’ She replied: ‘We wish neither to lead nor to be led’. That sentence remains with me as an ideal to which radicals should aspire, no matter how impossible its complete implementation.

At the tail of the Right-to-march campaign in 1979, I spent one of the more enjoyable nights of my life in a cell with punks and anarchists who were as funny as an upturned cartload of monkeys as they teased the police. Equally memorable was the dignity of Senator George Georges in court the next morning insisting on the return of his belt to keep up his trousers before he could enter a plea.

As Queensland moved from being considered a backwater to its modernization under Bjelke-Peterson, who tempered authoritarianism with corruption, the local Left sought solace in the view that their State had once been the most radical in the Commonwealth. If only more people knew about that past, the Left hoped, its progressive side would re-emerge.

A compendium of events is not history. Still less is the cataloguing of strikes and protests historical materialism. The task is to pursue the dynamics that explain why parts of Queensland that had been radical at various times before the 1950s turned reactionary thereafter. Nowhere is this discontinuity more obvious than in why Brisbane went from being the most conservative to the most liberal zone. Similarly, the repression of the 1970s and 1980s did not grow out a tropical torpor. Queensland was ‘different’ for material reasons that I explored – appropriately - in the April 1979 issue of Meanjin, which had started life in Brisbane in 1940.

Under the modernizing of Labor Lord Mayor Clem Jones, the Brisbane of my first twenty-four years had begun to disappear before I left for Melbourne in 1966. By the time I went to teach in Japan, early in 1988, none of the precincts of my childhood was standing. When I returned for August 1991, my home town had embarked on the course that makes it so livable an urban space. Locals associate the change in atmosphere with the 1988 Bicentennial ‘Expo’. Far from being a cultural backwater, Brisbane has become to the arts what Adelaide was in the 1970s. The Expo site at Southbank flourishes as a social space.

Since then, the prime source of Brisbane backwardness has been the indolent ignorance of Southerners who use Queensland as the ‘other’ on which to project the faults in their place that they have failed to eradicate. For instance, it was the Victorian police, not the Queensland ones, who introduced the death penalty as summary execution of criminals and the mentally-ill.

When, late in 1963, I won the editorship of the student newspaper, Semper, Bruce McFarlane telegrammed: ‘Do things of which others may write, or write things that others may do’. My adherence to that call has been less than perfect. Yet its injunction is one of the principles I garnered from the scattering of Brisbane radicals to whom this ‘Foreword’ pays homage.

And when from bondage we are liberated our former sufferings shall fade from mind.