A Political Rake’s Progress by John Hyde

Poetry can strike without regard or respect for occupation. Among those generally acknowledged as among the greatest poets have been an actor-manager, a German professor, a French pickpocket, an American loafer, an Anglo-American banker and a librarian. No profession seems entirely safe.

However, an Australian farmer and federal Liberal MP, best known as a leader of the economic Dries and, after leaving parliament for having, with others, founded and run political-economic think-tanks for twelve years, still seems at first glance a slightly unlikely poet.

John Hyde is a man of major accomplishments. He became a successful wheat farmer in Western Australia despite losing his right arm in an accident at the age of twenty-three; as a Member of Parliament from 1973 to 1982 he was courageous in rejecting strong pressures to become mere division-fodder and in pushing an economic reform agenda against the entrenched orthodoxies of the Coalition, offending many vested interests and, “with all the survival instincts of a kamikaze pilot”, drawing upon himself what Adam Smith called “the insolent outrage of furious and disappointed monopolists”. Like his mentor the late Bert Kelly he became a newspaper columnist with a powerful and elegant style, showing a strong ability for lateral thinking.

Declaring an interest, I worked for him for two years at the Australian Institute for Public Policy and it was among the most enjoyable and stimulating employment I have had.

Like Roy Campbell, he is a poet at the opposite end of the human spectrum to the now largely defunct grant-supported and often barely-literate poetic establishments of Fitzroy and Balmain. He is a man who has done things.

A Political Rake’s Progress is subtitled, “Verses born of frustration in public life and joy in private.” Some of its content is unashamedly political doggerel, but good fun, like the limerick (and limericks generally ought to be bad, like puns) concluding:

But twenty-three years of conservative rule
Convinced E.G. Whitlam that only a fool
Neglected the healthy, the wealthy and arty.

There is a pretty grinding, yet appropriate, and indeed so appropriate as to be unavoidable, rhyme about the National Party (well, Gerard Manley Hopkins in a poem about a shipwreck rhymed portholes with messes of mortals):

They never envisaged their ruin:
The tariff of Black Jack McEwen.

There is a mention too of the famous Dry interjection in the party room when the Liberals met in despair after losing Victoria in 1982: “Why not try good government, Malcolm—it might be popular.” (Unfortunately, good government didn’t save them twenty-five years later.) There is another limerick about one of the most surprising transformations in Australian politics (when one comes to think of it, not utterly unlike the plot of Henry V):

Remember our Premier Hawke
Whose ACTU stole the pork?
He rose by back-stabbing Bill Hayden.
He drank and laid many a maiden:
Yet governed with better than talk.

However, other items, for example the poem to his wife, Helen (“I wed a lover and a friend”), and a sonnet to his political mentor Bert Kelly, are on a much higher plane and can be considered seriously as poetry. The latter begins:

There is a kind of valour held in trust
To honour, braving threat and ridicule
From all, to champion what’s right and just
Against self-righteous clamour for a rule
By popular appeal to ignorance.
These valorous all fear their own mistake;
All feel the jibe, contempt and scornful glance,
But struggle on for truth and honour’s sake …

The two parts of the book’s subtitle are important. Although the crusade of Kelly and the Dries was, in the long term, anything but wholly vain, many of the poems deal with the frustrations of political life—the novice parliamentarian coming slowly to realise the difficulty of actually changing anything, no matter how obviously necessary that change is, assailed before “the altar of public opinion” by the whispers of “Its highest priests … Doubt, Ambition, Fear and Loyalty.”

Several poems deal with the dreadful consequences of the Totalitarian Temptation, and one on the “Me-Tooism” of the last federal election, recalling the economic wrecking of the Whitlam era, is subtitled, “Who really wants to live in exciting times?”

The poems in the other part of the book, on family and private life, are calm, loving and thankful. One gets something of the same feeling as one does from poems like Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes”—simple and accessible, but not unintelligent, poems of celebration; a popular poetry but with a mental strength that poetry of any kind all too often lacks today.

There are also poems portraying a way of life, one at least as worthy of commemoration as any and probably more so than most: about farming machinery. There is also a poem of poignantly remembering, while “confined to bed for months”, flying, with “arms wide” a Tiger Moth, driving a header at night, and a farmer’s reaction to rain after long drought:

Of all, I think Beethoven would best have understood
A sound so natural, so joyous and so good …
He dons his hat, gum-boots and coat
And in the wet his spirits float.

I also like this a good deal better than the products of some other contemporary bards:

My walk to work reveals a splendid day.
This morning magpies on the shearing shed
Pour song of deep contentment in my way.
They can but sing of life’s enduring thread
Of nest, and egg, and fledgling bird.
They must find bliss in what they strive.
Their song, as confident as any heard,
Affirms it’s wonderful to be alive …

C.S. Lewis writes in An Experiment in Criticism that the specific value or good of literature as Logos is that it admits us to experiences other than our own. This Hyde’s verses do.

This book has an excellent introduction by Hyde’s fellow Dry, Ross McLean. He describes the author, rightly, as a “rare, true and wise spirit”. It is of value not only for its verse, which at its best touches both funny-bone and heart, but for the light it sheds—as another type of book could not—not only on a good man and a happy family, but also on a courageous, intelligent, principled, and ultimately at least considerably successful movement in Australian politics.

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