My Life as a Leper

This is an edited version of the speech Peter Ryan gave in response after Professor Geoffrey Blainey launched Peter’s book Final Proof at a Quadrant dinner at the Marriott Hotel in Melbourne on December 3, 2010.

I am grateful to Quadrant, and to the ever-valiant Keith Windschuttle, who have arranged such a distinguished gathering, and to Geoffrey Blainey, who has spoken so generously.

In bits and pieces of writing over the years, I’ve touched on the experiences of working in a variety of jobs: public servant; five years a soldier; bush timberworker; publisher of comic books and other rubbish; ten years in advertising and public relations; and a hopeless effort to scratch a living as a freelance journalist.

Then came the twenty-six years at Melbourne University Press, of which some highlights are given in the little book so graciously launched tonight. Finally, a working life rounded off (if that is the phrase) by fifteen years as an Officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria, retiring when I turned eighty.

Tonight, I thought I might describe briefly the slice of experience which I can only call “My Life as a Leper”. First, however, it just occurs to me that I have shaken quite a number of hands here at this gathering: if anyone would like to slip out for a quick scrub-up, please feel free to do so.

My infection with the socially embarrassing distemper of literary leprosy arose from a long article in Quadrant of September 1993. It was only my second contribution to that admirable magazine, and it is interesting now to reflect that it was written with high encouragement from its then Editor, Robert Manne.

That article re-examined the value of the work of historian Manning Clark, who had died a few years earlier. Re-reading it the other day, some seventeen years later, I remained confident that it was written in polite terms, and that all its assertions were backed by cogent evidence. Of course I realised that my conclusions would be widely unacceptable, but I took it for granted that contrary argument would be made within the arena of reasonable evidence and civil language: I never made a bigger mistake in my life.

What follows is indeed a doleful tale, but you mustn’t think that it depressed me as it unfolded. It had, indeed, an outrageous humour which frequently set me laughing aloud. Clearly, Australia had already distinguished itself in the 1940s with the famous Ern Malley hoax. Now, with Clark, we had done it again, but this time were refusing to own up to the joke. When all the smoke finally blew away, not one of my facts or arguments had been refuted, or even addressed.

First warning of the ferocity of the coming storm was given by the Age newspaper of Thursday, August 26, 1993. Even the paper’s posters out on the street read: “Manning Clark’s Work Canned”.

The ABC news that morning went all the way to New York to find its comment, and from that city we heard art critic Robert Hughes pronounce that “Ryan played dirty pool”. Then he admitted that he hadn’t read the article! This blend of ill-will and irrelevance was long to disfigure the Clark side of the debate.

Paul Keating’s speechwriter, Don Watson, called me “a cannibal who should repay his superannuation to Melbourne University”. Work that out! Veteran historian Russel Ward said I was mad. The prolific Peter Craven jeered about my being “an old war hero”. (There’s another one to work out.)

From the ANU, Professor Paul Bourke wrote a three-column article for the Canberra Times. A bold heading pronounced me to be a “pornographer of power” and “a knocker”. He went on to suggest that I was probably telling lies.

My mailbox for a couple of weeks brought abusive letters. “May all your children die of cancer” was a choice specimen. Oddly, none of them was signed.

Australian historians announced two seminars specially to discuss this unexpected stir in their tranquil pond, and one seminar actually took place. I was not invited to attend either of them.

During the whole of my twenty-six years service with MUP I had taken part in the activities of the Australian Book Publishers Association. Some years after I had retired from the Press, the Association held its annual dinner in Melbourne, and the then Books Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Ian Hicks, invited me to come as his guest. On our arrival, the Association’s President, who was Australian CEO of one of the world’s great publishing houses greeted us (or greeted me) with: “Bloody cheek you’ve got to show your nose in here!” Hicks, sturdily: “Peter’s here as my guest, Brian. Shall we stay?” President (graciously): “Since you’re in, you might as well get yourselves a drink, I suppose.” So you see, it’s not all that bad being a leper if you can score a couple of decent free scotches before your dinner.

Hicks and I were given seats alone at the remotest corner of the dining area, with a couple of dozen empty chairs as a cordon sanitaire to shield the rest of the company from infection. Nicholas Hasluck, son of MUP’s leading author Sir Paul, came down from the top table to sit and chat with the outcasts.

The most relentless of my traducers was Stuart Macintyre, Professor of History at Melbourne University. When he called me “a coward”, I publicly offered him a chance to repeat it, provided he stood within arm’s length as he said it. The offer remains open.

Clark’s supporters tried to represent me as a publisher who had lured Manning into MUP’s list, exploited him, and then cruelly turned on him. As so often in dealings with some parts of Australia’s academic establishment, the facts are otherwise. The Press Board’s commitment to Manning had been made long before my appointment to MUP was even contemplated. When I arrived in mid-1962, the printed copies of Volume I were already in store. Moreover, the contract obliged the Press to continue publishing as many further volumes in the series as Manning chose to write.

The six-volume History’s sales made a great deal of money for Manning, and for MUP, but my true evaluation of the man’s authentic worth is surely seen in the fact that, of his half-dozen or so later published books, not one received the MUP imprint.

While at the Supreme Court, I got a phone call from a graduate student from overseas who was working on a thesis at the Melbourne History School. I shall not disclose this person’s identity. The student told me the topic of the thesis; could I help? It just so happened that I did have considerable relevant knowledge, including certain details which would not be known to anyone else. And of course I would be pleased to assist. As I was from time to time doing some private research in the nearby Baillieu Library, it was agreed that we should meet at the ground floor entrance to the History Department which, after successful recognition, we shortly did. Ushering me hurriedly into a lift, the student murmured, “I don’t think anyone saw us.” And then, as we ascended: “I’ve got the use of this room up here. I don’t think anyone will come in. It would do me no good if it got out that I’d consulted you.”

I dissembled my puzzled irritation at all this mystification, and we established that I could certainly be of material help. I agreed to make myself available in the future, and left the building alone, as inconspicuously as I could. I never heard another word. 

Reflecting on this odd episode, I wondered whether I should buy a wig and dark glasses, if I were ever to visit the Department again. The atmosphere had resembled that of ancient Rome under the Emperor Tiberius, or of Moscow under Stalin. I had to remind myself that it had been that citadel of free and open inquiry, the Melbourne University School of History.

As the years passed, I have gradually been allowed to stop ringing my bell; now it is time, as we lepers say, to throw in my hand, and sit down. 


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