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Art and life

March 12th, 2013

I’ve been a big fan of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy since I first encountered it nearly a decade ago. The first two volumes, Grand Days and Dark Palace dealt with the heroine’s adventures (political and sexual) as a young and optimistic staff member with the doomed League of Nations. That was a fascinating glimpse of a world that had vanished well before I was born, and showed up Moorhouse’s capacity for imaginative recreation of that world, as well as the marvellous character of Edith Campbell Berry.

In the third volume, Cold Light, Edith turns up in early postwar Canberra, and there’s a sudden shift of view for me (and I guess, also for Moorhouse). The story runs into the early 1970s, when I was growing up and going to uni in Canberra. Edith is an observer and occasional participant in events ranging from the creation of Lake Burley Griffin to Menzies’ attempt to ban the Communist Party. Not only that, but most of the characters, with the exception of Edith and those in her immediate circle, are real people. Notable examples include Latham, Menzies and Whitlam, but also some academics from the early days of the ANU. I knew quite a few of them, and some of them even knew me: Heinz Arndt, for example, paid me the backhanded compliment of describing me as “a very dangerous young man” [1].

Reading and visualising a book so close to your own life is an odd experience – I was starting to wonder if I would appear in a crowd scene, perhaps outside Parliament House after Whitlam’s dismissal. For younger readers, of course, the early days of Canberra belong to the same dim past as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. They will, I think, find the book just as rewarding as I did, though in a very different way.

fn1. Arndt had been a leftwing social democrat in his early years in Australia, but moved sharply to the right later. In mischievous moods, I sometimes cited, with approval and without mention of his subsequent evolution, his early work advocating bank nationalization.

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  1. Ikonoclast
    March 12th, 2013 at 15:11 | #1

    Hmm, never read that. Perhaps I should.

    People who move right as they mature and grow older are sellouts. It’s that simple.

  2. GrueBleen
    March 12th, 2013 at 16:45 | #2

    “a very dangerous young man”

    Being of a similar age, that quote reminded me that when our government finally made it possible to access one’s ASIO file, I couldn’t bring myself to try – it would have been way too humiliating to find out that I didn’t have one !

  3. Robert (not from UK)
    March 12th, 2013 at 16:54 | #3

    Professor Quiggin, I presume you’ve read the biography of Heinz Arndt from some years ago (a biography in which his daughter, Bettina, was involved)?

    http://epress.anu.edu.au/titles/arndt_citation

  4. TerjeP
    March 12th, 2013 at 16:56 | #4

    Ikonoclast :
    Hmm, never read that. Perhaps I should.
    People who move right as they mature and grow older are sellouts. It’s that simple.

    Assuming “right” means economically liberal (rather than socially conservative) then anybody who doesn’t move this way isn’t paying attention.

    A large part of my youth was spent in the care of a lovely elderly couple. She was Norweigen and had spent twenty years in China helping the poor. She revered the Communist Party. He had been in the Australian communist party and talked often of the Great Depression and the problems with capitalism. I remember being told that when the iron curtain eventually came down we would all be shocked by the prosperity of the Russian people under communism. By the time I was sixteen I was, per the classic saying, a believer in communism. Let’s just say that as the years have passed my thinking about economics has grown less and less impressed with the idea of command and control, economic centralism and pretty much the entire left wing economic agenda. So maybe I’m a sellout but that isn’t the way I would describe it.

  5. kevin1
    March 12th, 2013 at 17:16 | #5

    Apparently Billy MacMahon complained to Menzies about Arndt, as a socialist and supporter of bank nationalisation, being appointed a professor in 1950. I lost touch with Moorhouse’s writings – “Conferenceville” and “The Americans, Baby” I recall as all about the swinging sixties in Sydney academic land, a variation on Melbourne’s “Don’s Party”. Marilyn French’s ‘Women’s Room” was more enjoyable for me even though it was American, because the writing was so much better, and there were people in the book grappling with the dangers, thrills and pain of breaking out so they could align their values with their life.

    I know the creepy feeling of immanenceyou allude to. It happened to me reading “Screw Loose” the autobiography of Liberal adviser, journalist and outrageous queen Peter Blazey when he had a chapter about the drug-induced death of someone I was quite friendly with, but had deliberately ignored investigating the circumstances of his death. A blow by blow record of all that happened that night was there in print, and Blazey’s apologia for his role in it.

    Shane Maloney’s great reports on the last page of The Monthly about brief encounters between famous people in Australia are a great read, and he’s published them in a book. I thought they were fiction but they’re not.

  6. kevin1
    March 12th, 2013 at 17:34 | #6

    @GrueBleen
    I was nervous about applying for my ASIO file but did so a few years ago. Perhaps what shocked me the most was that when my teenage brother was thrown out of the family home, and came to visit me on his mate’s motorbike, ASIO noted the rego number and proceeded to investigate his mate and family. I can tell you they were the most straightlaced people around, but DOB of all of Brian’s family, addresses, cars, employment was all recorded. That’s right, my brother’s friend’s parents and 7 siblings. Who knows where it proceeded after that – perhaps their friends, extended family, employers.

  7. pablo
    March 12th, 2013 at 18:13 | #7

    I enjoyed Christopher Koch’s book ‘The Memory Room’ set largely in Canberra. The current controversy over Israeli/Australian spy Ben Zygier could sit well in this bureaucratic spook world of the capital’s past. As for me I remember meeting academic Peter Herbst in the late ’60’s at one of his wonderful musical soirees. A Canberra gem worth remembering on it’s centenary.
    Not sure about an ASIO file but I recall a friend who married the daughter of a Soviet military attache in London and brought his new bride, a fluent English speaker, back to Australia in the mid 1970’s. It wasn’t long before ASIO came calling with plenty of ‘offers’. She soon decided life in Oz, domestic or otherwise, wasn’t worth the hassle and went home.

  8. John Quiggin
    March 12th, 2013 at 18:16 | #8

    @pablo

    Peter Herbst taught me briefly, but I didn’t persevere with philosophy

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