Friday, November 18, 2005

Frank Hardy: Politics Life Literature, by Jenny Hocking

Jenny Hocking is Deputy Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and has written books on politics, politicians and ASIO. Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life is not so much a conventional biography of a writer as a kaleidoscope of history, politics, biography and literature. More pointedly, Jenny Hocking explores the role of fact in the making of literature, and leaves the reader pondering: What is the role of the politically committed fiction writer in times of upheaval and discord?

Hocking cites pacifist and anti-fascist Egon Erwin Kisch as an early influence on Frank Hardy, with his view that fiction had been rendered obsolete by the horrors of the First World War, to be supplanted by fact based writing as a new form of fiction.

The case of Kisch is an interesting one, with numerous parallels to today. The Czech author had been an inmate of the Nazi’s concentration camps. He accepted an invitation from the Movement Against War and Fascism to speak at its anti-war congress in Melbourne. Yet Robert Menzies, then Attorney-General in the Lyons government, felt he was more a Communist proselytizer and famously determined that ‘he shall not set foot on the soil of the Australian Commonwealth.’ (Recall how John Howard made similar boasts about asylum seekers on the Tampa.)

Kisch jumped ship, was dragged back on the Strathaird and eventually disembarked at Sydney. What followed was a game of cat and mouse through the courts, until Menzies’ plan came undone, the High Court judging that the exclusion of Kisch from Australia had been invalid. (Scott Parkin comes to mind in 2005.)

The book also reminds how Menzies was an admirer of Hitler. After Menzies’ 1938 visit to Germany, the Attorney-General was moved to say, ‘Hitler is not an administrator as Mussolini is. He is a dreamer, a man of ideas, many of them good ones.’ In that same year Menzies even went so far as to say that he ‘thought it was a great thing for Germany to have arms.’

Another historical curiosity is the appearance of the German aristocrat, Count Felix von Luckner, on Australian shores. On June 6, 1938, at the Sydney Town Hall, the Count held a gig in which he demonstrated Aryan supremacy by ripping up telephone books and bending pennies, all the while telling the audience how happy Germany was. Sydney’s rich and powerful filled the front row seats. On the Count’s arrival in Sydney, he was welcomed by a private audience with Prime Minister Joe Lyons.

Some eight years after these tumultous events, Frank Hardy would start work on his most famous novel, Power Without Glory. It was written with the express purpose of lifting the veil on the corruption within politics, most notably within the Labor Party. Throughout his life Hardy harboured a mistrust of parliamentary politics, and later admitted he had worked throughout his life for a communist dictatorship in Australia.

Power Without Glory is an odd novel, in that it was pretty much commissioned by the Communist Party. Hardy was provided with financial backing by the Party for four years; he also had a swag party member researchers. The novel in a lot of ways reads like blockbuster fiction, yet doesn’t really have a plot, rather it piles political intrigue upon political intrigue, until you feel quite sick at the canker in the democratic bud. There’s no let up in the pornographic detail. This was pretty much Hardy’s aim: a book aimed at moral improvement, not so much of the reader, but of the current political culture.

Writes Hocking:

‘The Communist Party’s strategy intersected with Hardy’s interest in attempting an epic political novel as expose. It was suggested that a book written around the successful and dynamic financier and Victorian Labor Party identity John Wren, sufficiently disguised to avoid prosecution, yet obvious enough to ensure popular declamation, would be a unique form of political strategy as literature.’

Hocking’s interest in ASIO also provides much fascinating detail from the period of the Australian Communist Party’s heyday. Again, reading through this history one is struck by the parallels to today, especially the fact that Labor Party passed the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950, for fear of appearing soft on communism. Indeed, the past is prologue!

Prior to the passing of the Dissolution Act on October 23, 1950, the Menzies Government had received an ASIO report on what the Communist Party was up to. While admitting that support for the Communist Party was waning, nevertheless ASIO provided lists of groups that were sympathetic, yet not members of the party. The groups listed for attention were the likes of The New Housewives Association, the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Sydney Technical College’s Student’s Union. ASIO also provided lists of people to interred in case of war.

As you can see, life was a sea of troubles if you were a member of the Australian Communist Party during the ban. ASIO’s file on Hardy was so prodigious that it had a habit of casting dark clouds on innocent bystanders: Hardy’s son, Alan, had his details indexed. He was seven years old at the time.

The second half of Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life concentrates more on Hardy’s somewhat haphazard literary output over the years (after Power Without Glory’s 1950 publication, he didn’t write his next novel until 1958) and his personal life. There were the love affairs with Greek songbird Nana Mouskouri and Rumanian actress Elena Arama. The destructive addiction to gambling. Not one to pay his bills, despite his Marxist education and sure knowledge that he must be living off the labour of others, he could be found lining up with kids at busted phone booths in order to make a free call. Hardy even received a letter from some angry battlers after not paying one of his removalist bills: "We are a company of battlers and cannot survive when people, like yourselves, do not pay their debts!’

How different we are from what we profess ourselves to be.

The book also contains a nice little section on Mary Hardy, Frank’s youngest sister by fourteen years. As a youngster growing up in the seventies I always had to be in bed by the time her show The Penthouse Club started, but I instinctively knew at that young age that Mary Hardy’s wit and snappy one liners were something to be celebrated – Australia’s answer to Dorothy Parker. Her life too was pretty miserable, ending in suicide in 1985.

She went out with a bang. In 1983 Mary stormed a Liberal Party Function in Sydney. It was a $500 a pop fundraiser. Newly elected PM Malcolm Fraser and wife Tammy were the guests of honour. After interjecting during Fraser’s speech and making crow calls during Colleen Hewitt’s rendition of the Liberal Party theme song (is that available on CD I wonder?) she was taken to Redfern police station. Now that’s what I call civil disobedience.

Jenny Hocking’s Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life, with its theme of the intersection of where politics and art meet, will keep your mind wonderfully focused on the role of the writer, and his or her responsibilities.

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