Forty-one years ago I had my only sabbatical leave that lasted a full twelve months. I was then at Macquarie University, as the Professor of Politics, and I had finished a major piece of research that I’d been working on for ten years. It was based on two national surveys of Australian voters conducted in 1967 and 1969, and it was full of numbers, tables and graphs. I wanted to be free of it, and to write about human beings in other contexts.
Don’t get me wrong. I was proud of what I had done, and Stability and Change in Australian Politics, which had a second edition based on another survey in 1979, is my major work in the field of political science. Another Professor of Political Science classed it as one of the top ten books written in the field in Australia.
But throughout those ten years I had been thinking about a novel, a piece of fiction. I had started (and stopped) a couple of novels as a teenager, but this was different. I plotted it out in my head over several years, and when I got to London in 1975 I decided that I would spend my mornings writing the book until it was done. That took me two months of mornings, writing long-hand in an old large diary, and then editing the result on to my portable typewriter. I gave the MS to a couple of people I trusted to read and comment, and their reaction was supportive. So I found a literary agent that had an office in Australia, and sent it off to them. They liked it too, and later I learned that Angus & Robertson would publish it.
The book appeared in 1977 as The Second Chair, won gratifyingly positive reviews in the right places. The ABC learned that I had sequels in mind, and wanted to know when they would be ready: the subject was right for a TV series. Alas, Sir John Kerr had dismissed Mr Whitlam a month before I came home, and my first-year politics class had zoomed from about 500 to 1276. I had no time for any further fiction, and my already busy life grew steadily busier.
But the sequels were always there in the back of my head, and would pop up when I was travelling, or alone, at the beach or in the bush. The Second Chair was set in the 1960s, and built around the efforts of a young professor in a new university in Sydney to fill a chair, a professorship that becomes suddenly vacant when its occupant is accidentally killed. In doing so the protagonist, Richard Hogarth, learns a great deal about the politics of universities, and thereby about himself. He becomes romantically involved (‘sexually’, would be more accurate, though there is not much sex in the book) with the wife of a staff member. He wins his battle and loses the war.
I wanted to explore how Australia entered the war in Vietnam, and that became a sub-theme of both the sequels. Hogarth had a troubled marriage, and I had that experience myself, though for different reasons and in different ways. Our emotional lives, it seems to me, are no less important to most human beings than our professional roles, the money we make, or our apparent ‘status’ in society. I would explore those themes in another book altogether, The Canonbury Tales, where a groups of accountants and finance people find themselves marooned overnight, and can only talk. The most senior among them, a woman, tells them that they have a heaven-sent opportunity to talk about something really important, not just money and power, and at first hesitantly, they do. It is a cathartic moment for most of them.
Back to Hogarth. I had been a young professor too, and though the books are not autobiographical at all I was able to understand where Hogarth was, and how he would feel. Before long he is appointed the dean of his faculty, and thereby he has new ropes to learn, and becomes one of the senior players in the university. That brings him close to the vice-chancellor, a classical scholar against whom Hogarth had fought in The Second Chair. That episode is forgotten in Turning Point, the first sequel, in part because Hogarth’s closeness to a rising Liberal MP gains him appointment as a consultant to a Select Committee in Canberra, which the vice-chancellor sees as a triumph for his new university.
Hogarth discovers an astonishing consequence of a wartime love affair of his father, and that affects his own marriage, given his recent love affair, known to his wife. His journeys to Canberra bring him into contact with an attractive woman in the federal parliament, but he manages not to go down the same road. But together they become aware of political machinations that are part of Australia’s formal entry into the Vietnam conflict.
Turning Point came out last year, and it was followed last week by the third novel, Nobody’s Hero. The title for this book had been in my head for a long time, but when I came to write it the plot shifted somewhat. I had been visiting Stanford University in California in 1971 when the university was convulsed by a long-running investigation of whether or not its president had been right in terminating the contract of a staff member, Bruce Franklin, a leader in the anti-war demonstrations at the university. It was a major event in American higher education, and was still going through the courts fifteen years later.
Nothing quite like that ha happened in Australia, but the convulsions that occurred because of the war and conscription had their own counterparts in our country, and that became a sub-theme of Nobody’s Hero. Hogarth is older, his kids are older, his wife is looking for a new career, and he is beginning to wonder what the rest of his own life is to be about. Those tensions, plus the war, make the third novel more powerful, at least in my estimation, than its predecessors. I discovered along the way that a trilogy has to end properly, and I think this one does.
At the same time, I can see that since Hogarth at the end of Nobody’s Hero is only 40, there is another quarter-century of his working life ahead, and I wonder what he might be doing in the Gorton years, the Whitlam years and those that followed. Nous verrons, as the French are fond of saying.
In the meantime, copies of all these books are available through the website, on Kindle, in virtually all Canberra bookshops, at Gleebooks in Glebe and Harry Hartog in Bondi Junction in Sydney, and I hope in due course in at least one major bookshop in every major city in Australia.
Join the discussion 14 Comments
Good luck to your novel, Don. You’ve set the substance in vivid times.
Don, I have often wondered why you don’t write more about the politics of AGW in Australia? That would be your natural strength. You tend to want to chance your arm critiquing the actual science.
Look at me. Look at me pathetic.
Oh dear! Now look who is trying to get himself noticed. Patheticer
Don Amoore. It is a reasonable question. Regardless of one personal view on AGW, there is quite an interesting political story to be told. All sorts of factors do affect public opinion and political fortunes.
Sorry Don Amore, I think your comment was meant for Mike. Hard to follow lines.
Writing a novel that is not a ‘pot-boiler,’ a western or a detective story but a work that establishes a credible world recognizable by the ordinary reader with characters that have a reality and themes and preoccupations that reflect who we really are, that is not an easy task. To do so in between the demands of a full professional life and even post that life when still partially embroiled in the themes that have arisen from it is still more unusual. I have read only the second part of the trilogy but that book meets the above criteria in full. So congratulations – and may you continue to write fiction along with your other work. Fiction – well done- will live on when the passionate essay has long been relegated to oblivion. Three cheers for fiction writers and down with critics!
Responses are curious when someone delivers the unexpected – look at Dylan when he went from folk to electric – we think we want people to evolve and show their human side etc. but we often feel threatened by the change and the straighteners become harsh or dismissive.
I’d like to read the novels having enjoyed CP Snow years ago but right now I’m (not) enjoying a book group novel by Peter Goldsworthy. For so long women have read books from the perspective of men when the favour hasn’t been returned. Yes I’m aware that Don likes Jane Austen – I like her but … I don’t find the social mores of her time a comfort where I’m sure her men fans probably do.
“I don’t find the social mores of her time a comfort where I’m sure her men fans probably do”
Not true. She had a sardonic eye, and I suspect she would have been the equal of many modern-day misses.
Yes I’m sure she would Bryan, but her characters, as delightful as they are show the constraints of the time. I’ve always felt quite sorry for Mrs Bennett – she knew the importance of hers daughters marrying and is seen as a silly goose while Mr Bennett is fondly regarded as he sits in his study with pipe and slippers (figuratively anyway) as his wife goes bananas matchmaking.
I should have written THEIR daughters, maybe the mistake was a sign to bring me back to the fact that parenting should involve both procreators.
Elizabeth Bennet is well aware that her father is careless and indolent about his daughters, as is Darcy. I think that JA was setting him up as a bad example of parenting. Much as I like some of his one-liners, Mr B would exasperate me if I were one of his extended family.
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