Hollow Man of Yesterday

Most serious readers of Australian history have long since laid Manning Clark aside. His six-volume History of Australia became the famous busted flush of a certain slightly gauche period of our intellectual development, and today the mention of his name can be an embarrassment many of us would rather be spared.

The heat has gone out of the great blast of angry vehemence which met all criticisms of Clark in the early 1990s. Many of his hottest champions of those days now acknowledge (some of them still rather shyly) how unworthy of their adulation his work really was.

The house of Clark’s history was never designed to withstand the heavy weather of time and criticism. Built by the well-known firm of Jerry, bits fell off it every time a fresh volume was issued: in volume 1, Portsmouth Harbour (which never saw the keel of a single First Fleet ship) is given as the departure point for New South Wales. So it went on: in volume 6, the one-time-only winning horse Phar Lap is made to win the Melbourne Cup twice. The overall paint job, done over once lightly with dodgy synthetic prose, was certainly not able to glue the rickety dwelling together. Now, even Don Watson prefers to defend his hero from the foxhole of Clark’s two books of documents (1950 and 1955) rather than from the ramparts of the six-volume History. Every one of the clear and specific criticisms made of Clark in Quadrant back in 1993 remains fudged but never refuted by his supporters.

Clark’s work and reputation having slipped below the sunset, why now should we be offered a massively detailed new Life by Brian Matthews? The author clutches the six-volume History as his sea-anchor. Clark’s lesser works—Meeting Soviet Man, The Quest for Grace, the awful short stories and so on—are wisely cut adrift to sink. But Clark’s “primal fault” taints the History, just as it does the minor writings. The shallowness of it all lies in the narrowness of Clark’s experience.

He never left the soft cocoon of perfect bourgeoisdom. Just as one example, he did not enlist in the services during the Second World War. True, mild epilepsy forbade the rigours of front-line action, but he did not offer himself for other duties—a sacrifice conscientiously made by thousands of other young men suffering from disabilities. He went from posh school to posh university, then to an even posher university, then to teaching in the poshest boys’ school in Victoria; then it was on to the tenured cloisters of academe. Such sense as we occasionally get of him as a man wise in the ways of the world, one who has “been around”, derives from little more than irresponsible escapades fuelled by liquor, and a talent for self-advertisement. Yet this adult babe-in-arms would pronounce confident judgments on such men as Cook and Bligh, Leichhardt and Sturt. Could an engaging biography arise from such a subject?

Samuel Johnson dogmatised that a biography may be written only by one who has “eat and drunk” with the subject, and “lived in social intercourse with him”. Brian Matthews fails that half-joking counsel of perfection, having met Clark only on a few odd occasions. But he is in other ways well equipped for his task. His lifelong specialty has been Australian literature, with deep study of that highly Clark-relevant figure Henry Lawson. He has taught widely, and has an impressive list of published books.

He has immersed (surely almost drowned) himself in the oceans (one resists the temptation to call them the “very vast seas”) of documentation, including the near-illegible drivel of Clark’s whingeing diaries; he has digested correspondence to be measured only by the cartload. His analysis of all this is penetrating, and his exposure of Manning’s sly dodges and wheezes, evasions and dishonesties is often very sharp.

Matthews’ use of my own extensive correspondence with Clark is always cogent and fair, and he is quite right to correct my error, when I said that Manning Clark the Musical ran on stage for only a few days. (It was several weeks.) Matthews’ own writing is clear and direct—the very antithesis of Clark’s.

This fat book tells us much about Charles Manning Hope Clark, but it does not make a satisfying Life. I doubt that such can ever be written, because Manning cannot be said to have existed, not, that is, in any firm or constant character. He was not merely one whose name was writ in water. He was simply a being dissolved among the shallow pools of his own relentless self-interest, and his corresponding cry-baby awareness of his weakness.

Wrestling, myself, in 1993, with Clark’s lack of authentic identity, I wrote: “… the mystery of Clark’s real character continues to puzzle me. Well though I knew him, and much as I enjoyed his amiable and intelligent aspects, the essential nature of the man continued to escape me.” Then I recalled the description by Ford Madox Ford of two famous pre-Raphaelite artists he had known when he was a little boy:

“Rossetti was a man without any principles at all, but who earnestly desired to find some means of salvation along the lines of least resistance. Madox Brown, on the other hand, was ready to make a principle out of anything that was at all picturesque.”

Manning Clark, I realised, subsisted roughly halfway between Rossetti and Brown, and that was as close as I would ever get. I feel inclined to say to Brian Matthews: “Give up, old man. Neither of us should waste another moment of our lives trying to coax a second bounce out of a dead cat.”

But although this biography fails the final obligation to deliver the summation of a character, and tell readers “what it had all been for” in one soul, I found much of interest in the story along the way.

The Clark diaries are emetic; a servile whine of self-abasement, self-pity and self-seeking. If the man ever had a generous thought for someone else, he took care not to record it. It greatly surprised me to learn that the relationship between Manning and his wife Dymphna was consistently poisonous. I saw them together quite often, and sensed no underlying rancour. He had hurt her, and she withheld forgiveness; above all, she had scant respect for his work. The diaries bleat continually: “Why does my wife hate me?” Yet grim mutual detestation did not prevent their having six children.

The detailed accounts of Clark’s affairs with (named) female partners I found trivial and boring, and not worth the pages they occupy.

Apart from a vague hint on page 381, Matthews does not canvass the possibility that Manning was bisexual. This omission (if it is one) causes me no special concern; I grew up in an age when biographers did not expect privileged access to the closet, and when the prim last line of an obituary in the Times (“He never married”) was all you needed. Today, many writers and readers of biographies seem to expect that everything should hang out, whether from their chaste scholarly conscience or their prurience it is not always easy to be sure. For those who care, Manning left many traces for their examination. Even from as early as 1948 my wife and I recall weird conversations with him, suggesting that his interest in boys might extend beyond ordinary good will.

On page 119 Matthews seems to suggest that I may have “unintentionally” overcoloured the picture of Clark’s alcoholic bouts, which may not have exceeded the ordinary indulgence of his academic peers. Not so! Clark, when he was “on it”, was the most wildly irresponsible drunk I ever knew, a serious danger to himself and to his friends.

Matthews seems entirely to have missed Clark’s ever-eager avarice. He was certainly the most grasping author I dealt with in my time at MUP, and a blatant free-loader. The maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch would have made him laugh heartily. He never paid for the taxis his friends had to engage to get him home safely, and in half a century never bought me a drink, or a hot pie for lunch. He did not honour his contractual obligations, and he broke the law to dodge his income tax.

Confidence in Matthews’ general accuracy is sometimes shaken by errors. On page 230 he says that volume 1 of the History was launched in Canberra; it was in Melbourne. On page 116 he states that Gwyn James was “the very man who would commission volume one of Clark’s A History of Australia in his capacity as publisher at MUP”. This is not so. Manning had offered it first to Angus & Robertson in Sydney, and they had declined it. It thus reached MUP, as it were, second-hand, and was eagerly sponsored by James. All this happened before my time at the Press, but it is well established by James’ correspondence.

Sometimes the versions of Manning Clark episodes offered by Matthews are incomplete. Does he apply censorship to shield his subject? For example, Matthews states that in 1958 the Fellowship of Australian Writers elected a delegation of three to represent Australia at a literary gathering in Moscow. The chosen ones were Judah Waten, outspoken communist and obstreperous drunk; James Devany, gentle elder poet; and Manning. Matthews does not, however, disclose that before the airline flight bearing the three Australian ambassadors to Russian letters had travelled very far, the behaviour of Waten and Manning had become so outrageously offensive that Devany asked to be moved to another seat, as far away from them as possible. On their return home, both Manning and Waten (separately) confirmed all this to me, with robust and embarrassing detail, and roars of merriment about the fuss they had created.

Readers of this Life will find no mention of two reviews of volume 5, one by the Australian journalist Edward Kynaston and the other by Professor Claudio Veliz. They were hard-hitting and derisive—precursors, perhaps, of a change in the tide? At about that time, however, at least five leading Australian historians had been asked for a review by Quadrant, and had declined. One of the most senior of them said to me: “Of course it’s a shocking book, but in my position I can’t possibly say that in print.”

In what strikes me as a serious omission, Matthews says nothing whatever about what might be called the F.L. Edmunds affair of 1948. This deeply marked Manning in his early academic days, and left a scar which undoubtedly affected his later behaviour. Edmunds was a Red-baiting ratbag, a teacher of handwriting at Melbourne’s Scotch College, a typical specimen of “Reds under the beds” syndrome. He was also conservative MP for Hawthorn in the Victorian state parliament. From both inside and outside the parliament he railed at the “dangerous nest of Reds” at Melbourne University, Manning by name among them. The then vice-chancellor, Sir John Medley, defended freedom of enquiry and opinion in universities with great firmness. Public discussion and media debate were warm. The rabid Right demanded academic sackings and public inquiries.

Manning and I discussed the Edmunds matter long and often, for I too was a victim: I was standing as an independent candidate for the state seat of Toorak. On one occasion Edmunds delivered his poison spray at me in person, in the University’s public lecture theatre; fisticuffs were narrowly averted. Throughout this unpleasant period, Manning’s outward conduct was exemplary in its dignity and forbearance. But privately he was terrified. Firmness of spine had never been one of his strong suits, and sometimes he seem to be about to break down in tears. When eventually the brouhaha died down, he resumed his sneering at John Medley as a “bloody Pom” who had no business here.

Through most of his life, Manning’s politics kept him in and out of hot water; he made sure of this, because although some of the resultant controversies were painful and distracting from his work, he found the lure of the accompanying publicity irresistible.

His first academic post at Melbourne was not in History, but in Political Science. He was appointed by Ian Milner, temporarily acting as department head while Macmahon Ball was abroad. Milner found his own media fame as “Australia’s Rhodes Scholar Spy”, and deemed it prudent to remove to Prague. (Manning went to see him there when visiting Europe.) On his return, Mac Ball was horrified to find Manning installed: “The very last thing I need in the department is someone so unstable and unreliable as Manning,” he said to me. I followed with discreet amusement the sequence of exquisite politesses by which Ball unloaded Clark onto Max Crawford’s History department, while Crawford believed himself to be poaching a promising scholar from Ball. The Edmunds matter followed not long after.

Thereafter, few radical excitements—the Petrov Royal Commission into espionage, the Vietnam War demonstrations, the Whitlam dismissal by the Governor-General—failed to attract the assistance of Manning Clark, especially if there were some prospect of his picture in the papers.

Even death could not deny Manning his ongoing media fame. In 1996 the Brisbane Courier-Mail published a detailed report that Manning had worn a high Soviet decoration—the Order of Lenin—to a social engagement in Canberra. Respected public figures attested that they had seen it. The story reached front pages all over Australia, with its implication that Manning’s loyalty to Australia might be doubtful. The counterblast from the Left was tremendous, but the Courier-Mail stuck to its guns, and never retracted.

Brian Matthews’ account of this Order of Lenin matter appears on pages 474 to 476. Re-reading it, as I several times have, I feel that Matthews here pushes academic objectivity to the full stretch of its elasticity: such is his passion to defend Manning against imputations which (right or wrong) would in themselves not one bit have surprised many people who knew him well. However, we should certainly thank Matthews for his report of Dymphna’s response to journalistic enquiries as to whether Manning had been a spy. She said (in effect), “Certainly not. He was too gormless ever to be entrusted with serious work like that.”

Was Matthews surprised to read the Weekend Australian of December 6–7, 2008? It contained a long and prominent reprise and reaffirmation of the Courier-Mail’s original coverage of the Order of Lenin story. Back to square one!

Manning Clark wrote some half-dozen or so barely publishable minor works, mercifully now forgotten. He was the author of a long and windy History which is no longer read, or believed or appreciated. As an individual, he was in no way a character who might be held up as a model for general national emulation. Now he has been anatomised for us in a very long book by Brian Matthews which, in all fairness, could be called good in parts.

Now could we all forget about Manning Clark? Anything more “yesterday” can hardly be imagined.

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