A novel, a history and a memoir

By May 27, 2013 Other No Comments

You will see that the website has changed, and now includes books for sale. When I was first a graduate student, at the University of New Engand, my supervisor was Russel Ward, he who wrote The Australian Legend and much else besides. I was lucky, and students at the University of New South Wales correspondingly unlucky, because he had been refused employment at UNSW on the ground that he was a Communist. I would have to say that he neither looked nor sounded like one. In bearing and appearance he appeared to be a large retired colonel, with a booming voice and laugh, a stiff moustache, white hair and a red face. He was a fine supervisor, and we got on well. He was pleased with me, because I was his first graduate student, and  I got a first in my degree.

The years passed, and I began to draft a novel in my head. It would be about appointing someone to a university post who might be a Communist. It wouldn’t be just the Russel Ward saga. More years passed. I was now a professor, and much more knowledgeable about what went on in universities. In 1975, on study leave in London, I knew what I wanted to say in my novel, got up early each day, and wrote and wrote. It was almost a one-draft, final-draft story. I sent it off to Curtis Brown, who became my agent, and they sent it to Angus & Robertson, where Richard Walsh became my editor. He improved it, and lo! — it appeared in 1977 as The Second Chair. 

I followed Jane Austen‘s advice, and had written about what I knew. The story had changed, but the core of the plot was very much about university life, and how appointments were made. I was then at Macquarie University, and the headline of one review referred to me as the ‘C.P. Snow of Macquarie’. While I had read The Masters and Corridors of Power, I had not had any of his books in mind. No matter. The bookshop at Macquarie sold out quickly, with one after another of the university’s staff buying the book to see if they could recognise anyone they knew, perhaps even themselves. And sex: was there any sex in it? Well, there was a bit, but I had also read the French Lieutenant’s Woman, and knew of the power that could come from not dwelling on that absorbing subject.

The interest was understandable. I had created a new University in Sydney in the 1960s, and called it ‘Philip University’ after the first of the colony’s governors. I had also placed it in the northern suburbs, and given it a Vice-Chancellor and professors. None of them were, to my knowledge, modelled on anyone I had met, and the protagonist was a Professor of Sociology with an interest in industrial relations, not a Professor of Politics, which I was. Anyway, the book did well, collected a lot of favourable reviews, and went into paperback in 1981.

While writing it I had come to see it as the first book of a trilogy about universities and Australia in the 1960s, and the end of a kind of innocence as we went into the war in Vietnam. The ABC heard of this project, and asked for a scenario, together with an indication of when the other books would be ready. Alas, when I returned to Australia at the beginning of 1976 life became hectic: the dismissal of the Whitlam Government at the end of 1975 meant that my first-year class in Australian politics  had leaped from around 550 to 1276, and I had no time for novels or anything other than finding tutors and rooms and some kind of management of this gigantic enrolment. The next novel went to the back-burner.

But the tiny flame did not die. I never had another study-leave opportunity like the one in 1975, but the notion of what happened after The Second Chair stayed in my head, and unrolled when, in 2010, I started to write that kind of fiction again. By the time it was finished the publishing industry was in chaos, so Turning Point was not greeted with enthusiasm, and Angus & Robertson had long gone. No matter, it is finished and being prepared for electronic publication, or print, if someone wants it that way. The setting and the central characters are much the same, but the action has moved from 1963 to 1964, and some of the focus is on machinations within the Federal Parliament in Canberra. The third novel, Nobody’s Hero, is being written, and takes the story forward to 1965 and 1966. Here the focus returns to Phillip University. It too will appear here in due course.

Two other works are offered for your interest. One is Edna and Alec, a memoir of my parents, who lived from the beginning of the century until the late 1980s, so their story encompasses Australia in the 20th century. The able children of Scottish/English working class immigrants, they both became high school teachers after going to university in the 1920s, an unheard-of experience for their families. Then came the Depression, when they considered living together but not marrying, since Edna would lose her job at once. The war followed, and my parents took the possibility of Japan’s invading Australia seriously enough for Edna to learn Japanese (she had been a language teacher). Their story, to say it again, is Australia’s story, and those who had parents of a similar age might find it brings back important memories.

The third is, in a sense, a focus on Australia in the second half of the 20th century. What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia was published in 2005, and tells the stories of 35 classmates at Armidale High School who did their final school examination in 1953, and then set out to find out what the world had to offer. In doing so, they discovered who they were and what they could do — and helped to shape our country. Their confidence about what Australia could be is in some contrast to the common air of gloom and disenchantment today.

Well, there they are, three books available by going to the icon. I mentioned chick-lit in the Pride and Prejudice piece, and I’ve written a bit of that too, mostly as gifts for my wife, but also as an experiment — to see what I could do in that well-populated genre. A couple of those will appear here later this year.

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