The first impression of Hal Colebatch is his bean-pole physique—six feet six inches (1.98 metres). Next, his elegant attire: as a solicitor he dresses up to meet clients at his home office in a quiet Nedlands street. He’s lived at this small and cluttered house since 1957, apparently without any maintenance input.
He revels in tradition. His business card has his 400-year-old coat of arms and motto, “Post Multus Difficultates” (“After numerous difficulties”). He still enjoys exercises with toy soldiers and is teaching his grandchild chess—Hal’s father was state chess (and bowls) champion.
Hal’s book Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged our Troops in World War II, was published by Quadrant Books in 2013. It was a remarkable publishing success. In 2014, it shared first prize in the Australian History section of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It has been reprinted seven times and sold more than 12,000 copies. The day before Hal died, Quadrant ordered another reprint so we would have enough stock for Christmas season orders. It covers the extraordinary incidence of strike activity by Australia’s trade union movement during the Second World War. Wharfies disrupted the loading of vital supplies to the troops in the islands, and pilfered mercilessly from ships’ cargoes and troops’ personal effects. Other strikes by rail workers, iron workers, coal miners, and even munitions workers and liferaft builders, badly impeded Australia’s war effort. The strikers were protected by Labor’s hard-Left Minister for Labour Eddie Ward but, Hal argues, they took their toll on Labor Prime Minister John Curtin and probably contributed to his early death. Hal says the topic is so hot that virtually no academic historian has dared or wanted to touch it. He took twelve years to find a publisher. He told me:
Even after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, waterfront and other strikes increased. My idea is that these strikes were not communist-directed but rogue efforts by lumpen-proletarian scum, who have never been called to account.
At the most the wharfies got a fright when US troops fired warning shots into the air and dropped stun grenades into the hold to halt their wrecking and looting of vital war supplies for PNG. Eddie Ward would have seen the strikes as part of the larger attack on capitalism. Even the Menzies government of 1939–41 had been scared to take action, lest it cause a general strike.
My main sources were ex-servicemen replying to my ads in the press for information. Every time I put the ad in, I’d get a little batch of replies to follow up, I ended up with seventy accounts. I believe quite a bit of the same disruption went on in New Zealand and I also got a couple of stories from Britain.
Hal has written about twenty-five books. They include poetry (seven volumes), biography (three volumes with a fourth under way), fiction and science fiction (a dozen, some co-written), several institutional histories and even a legal tome of West Australian traffic laws. In June, Acashic Publishing in Perth launched his 600-page historical and philosophic work Fragile Flame, on the uniqueness and vulnerability of scientific and technological civilisation, and its Christian underpinning. This work masterfully brings together his life’s preoccupations.
This profile is republished from Quadrant‘s October 2013 edition.
Australia’s Secret War can be order here
Hal’s first novel in 1975 was Souvenir, about a somewhat farcical writers’ workshop on a small West Australian island. As a topic, this was not an astute pick career-wise.
In an era when government funding showers onto artists for activity such as playing with their own poo, Hal’s public recognitions are few: a $50,000 Australia Council grant for two years in 2000: a Centenary Medal in 2003 of no monetary value; and a $7500 West Australian Premier’s Prize in 2008 for his poetry volume The Light River. He has never been invited to a literary festival or university summer school, and mainstream publishers don’t want to know him (Fremantle Arts Centre Press is an exception).
Les Murray blames the dominant Left literary establishment, which has made Colebatch one of the most suppressed major writers in Australia. “I am not writing about East Germany in the 1970s, but Australia in the 1980s, 1990s and in 2007,” Murray wrote in his preface to The Light River, noting Hal’s high reputation in the USA, the UK and New Zealand: “The One Faction [Australia’s literary Left] expresses its hatred and fear of him in ways natural to it.”
The only academic interest in Hal has been a single BA honours thesis. He says:
There’s a clique of poets in Sydney and Melbourne which devotes its energies to keeping outsiders out of the grant money and publication of any kind. If it were not for Les Murray, I’d have very little poetry published. Murray edited several of my books with Heinemann and Angus & Robertson.
Hal says he is a Christian but finds no church very agreeable: “I got too much compulsory church at boarding school. But I have loved the style and content of Christian writers such as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.”
In chatting, I mentioned passports and that passports used to look like hand-written diplomas. Hal replied, quoting from Henry V:
He which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
I was startled then at his recall. Now, after burying myself in his numerous books, I’d just accept that Hal is across a stupendous variety of cogent information and can synthesise it at will. In erudition (but not popularity) I’d place Hal with Clive James, and in wit with Mark Steyn (though Hal’s wit is even more acidic). Hal’s original career in journalism has made all his writing easy to read, and like Geoffrey Blainey, he makes his best points with a telling fact or anecdote.
In 2010 Hal wrote a history of the West Australian Victoria League for Commonwealth Friendship, a once-thriving royalist and troops-support group during the wars, which he chaired from 2003 to 2006. Its membership is now down from 400 two decades ago to forty mostly elderly members. While outsiders mock it, Colebatch records the league as part of the upsurge of volunteer community groups a century ago, and a body capable of shipping 50,000 warm shirts to diggers transferred from Gallipoli to the Western Front.
He edited the 1991-92 fifth and sixth editions of Debrett’s Handbook of Australia, 800 pages of biographical entries with topics like “Pleasant and correct dining” as a bonus. Hal says he got Debrett’s into the black but it then collapsed through inter-company debts.
Asked about being “very right-wing”, Hal says, “Such a reputation is a surprise to me; I think of myself as mainstream. I just do what I do. Some have attacked me after first distorting what I wrote.”
An instance was a poem in 1969 satirising Perth festivities for visiting astronauts—certainly not satirising the astronauts themselves, for whom Hal’s writing over decades shows immense respect. His literary enemies misused the poem so much that he forbade its reproduction.
He has twice stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal for Perth, in 1977 and 1996, and no longer aspires to be a politician.
Just to list his recent output is a shock. Only last year he produced a biography of the Liberal Party’s low-tariff advocate and “Modest Member” Bert Kelly MHR (published by Connor Court). Hal brought to bear not just his historian’s skill but also insights into the workings of government—he has worked for two federal Liberal ministers.
Acashic, based in Subiaco, published two of his novels in 2011—on the same day, in fact. They’re ripping yarns on his pet themes of global politics and science fiction. He has had three more of his science fiction novels accepted by Baen Books in the USA, the doyen of science fiction publishing houses. This will take his output in the Man-Kzin Wars series (including collaborative efforts) to seventeen novellas and 750,000 words.
Hal’s sci-fi stories are character-driven with moral twists. He will test scenarios of appeasement or resistance in domains where culture and technology have got out of step. He’s too clever a writer to go for pat solutions and one of his stories is even written from a cat-like alien’s point of view.
The background knowledge has to be good. As he says, authors have to know things like how a Bussard ramjet operates, what Delta-V is (space-ship momentum), and the difference between a muon and a neutrino.
Hal is saddened at literary disdain for science fiction, which like any other genre has its rubbish and its masterpieces. He notes that writers as diverse as Kipling, Robert Conquest (historian of The Great Terror) and C.S. Lewis wrote science fiction. He claims that without science fiction to inspire young readers, real space-flight would never have got under way. Space pioneers like Werner von Braun, Robert Goddard and Arthur C. Clarke were all sci-fi aficionados, and the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky actually wrote science fiction, he says.
Colebatch can write about possible aliens on remote planets, arguing that our Newtonian and Einsteinian science, along with our space probes, are very recent. “To assume we know it all is taking a lot for granted,” he says. He uses an analogy of pre-Columbian Americans in 1491 arguing that they were safe from overseas raiders because war canoes couldn’t cross the ocean or carry enough food.
“I write sci-fi because in the real world I don’t find enough that I enjoy writing about. My sci-fi story ‘Telepath’s Dance’, for example, has an eccentric female scientist with a chip on her shoulder, and an eight-foot-tall telepathic cat with a chip on his.”
Even in his poems he enjoys the shock ending. In “English Scene”, for example, a bearded bloke with patches at elbows and knees is digging in a field in the rain. Colebatch compares him with the slaves, serfs and farm labourers there before the man’s time, then discloses that the man’s actually an academic on field work, and desperate for tenure in archaeology.
Meanwhile Hal cranks out a stream of political/history columns and press features. Over the years his output in the American Spectator OnLine would total 100 columns.
His 1999 book Blair’s Britain was immediately listed by the Spectator’s Taki as a book of the year. It pre-dated Nick Cater (The Lucky Culture, 2013), in arguing that cultural hegemonies have overtaken party politics.
Hal has been a politics, poetry and fiction contributor to Quadrant for fifty years. He had two pieces in the September 2013 issue: “What If Sir John Kerr Had Been a Layman?” and a short story, “Writer’s Block”.
He spent fourteen years researching his biography of controversial pre-war West Australian mining magnate Claude de Bernales (also creator of Perth’s ersatz “London Court”). De Bernales’s affairs were so convoluted that some British government files on him are still closed, till 2025.
Hal in 2004 published the biography of his father Sir Hal Colebatch, a long-time West Australian politician and small-government advocate who was, for a month, the state’s Premier. When Sir Hal went to deal with militant wharfies in 1919, large rocks and scrap iron were dropped from Fremantle bridge onto the launch taking him to the scene of conflict. One wharfie, Tom Edwards, was killed later that day. The cause, whether police rifle butt or missile from his own side, was never established. The day has become festooned in Left–Right myths, including that Sir Hal led a bloody bayonet charge. In fact, the dispute was rooted in Commonwealth politics and Sir Hal was a reluctant participant. Shots were fired, more likely towards Sir Hal.
Some weeks ago Hal was commissioned to do a biography of Sir Stanley Argyle, Victorian Premier from 1932 to 1935. Argyle was also a pioneer in Australian medical X-ray technology.
Hal says. “I write mostly at night, but I’m not doing much law practice. I can earn reasonable money from science fiction publishers in the USA and I do a lot of casual journalism.”
He is uninterested in literary fashions. He likes life-affirming writers such as Kipling and Chesterton, and civilisation’s torch-bearers such as Alfred the Great. Of Alfred’s victory over the Vikings at Ethandune 1200 years ago, he says it saved English-speaking civilisation from being murdered in its cradle, and saved us, as Chesterton put it earlier, “from being savages forever”. Hal’s writings often refer to Chesterton’s 170-page epic poem about that battle, “The Ballad of the White Horse”. Hal notes sadly that Alfred’s Winchester has largely dropped the king from its promotional material.
Noting that there’s a warship HMS Kipling but no warship HMAS Peter Carey, Hal says that if Kipling had been immortal he would have given us “the great poem about the moon landing which we have never had, and would have loved the technical details involved”.
Hal’s poetry is often cited as his best work. It ranges from human vignettes and celebrations of the Swan River and Rottnest Island to love and political satire. He says he’d rather build things up than tear things down.
I was intrigued by one poem, “That Werewolf Again”, in which, just for fun, Hal took on the challenge of a German poem about grammatical cases, alleged to be untranslatable into rhyming English verse. The result is funny and excellent.
His shortest poem is “Astronomer Royal” (thirteen words: “Two words arranged / To cover so much / Of the breadth of a civilization”). The longest is a true epic of the Atlantic sea war, “The San Demetrio” (twenty-three pages), in which sixteen civilian crewmen re-boarded their stricken and blazing tanker and took it to port with its 11,000 tonnes of aviation fuel. Colebatch as a toddler first heard the story from his father. “The poem was about what ordinary well-motivated men can achieve,” Hal says.
His father, with two sons, was widowed in 1940 and in 1944 re-married, to Marion Gibson, a nursing sister with health problems dating from a wartime tank accident in Nungarin, Western Australia. They first met at Rottnest Island’s chapel. (She had just missed joining the draft of nurses who went to Singapore and in 1942 were machine-gunned by the Japanese at Bangka beach.) Sir Hal was seventy-two, Marion thirty-three. Young Hal was a honeymoon present ten months later.
Sir Hal poured his love and learning into the small boy, until Sir Hal’s death at eighty when Hal was seven. Hal on his father’s lap or shoulder imbibed the great writers and current affairs, collecting autographs of notables such as Tokyo raider General Jimmy Doolittle and Fleet Admiral “Bull” Halsey.
His mother also versed Hal in the best of literature, and read to him from The Cruel Sea, “without the rude bits”, Hal recalls. Typical of the milieu in their flat on the fifth floor of riverfront Lawson Flats in Perth was a visit by then-Captain John Collins, who had been on HMAS Australia when a kamikaze Zero hit the bridge. Collins complained to Marion about headaches and she set to work picking metal splinters out of his head with tweezers.
Among Hal’s happiest memories is getting a bit part as a horsed picador in the grand parades of Bullen’s Circus, twenty nights per season. At primary school, when other kids thought poetry was about cats and mats, Hal would recall:
The graceful folding of a seagull’s wings,
The mystic beauty of a moon-kissed sea …
He has written wonderfully of the look and smell of the 1940s Perth museum and art gallery. He was also entranced by the State Library of the day, “where, by some architectural perfection of light, sound and atmosphere, it was impossible not to study and absorb knowledge”. Impossible for Hal, that is.
No mere spectator to nature, the young Hal mixed with leading West Australian naturalists such as Harry Butler and the Serventys, collecting spiders and lizards. Another interest was caving, on which he has published a small book. “There are half a dozen caves in the south-west open to tourists, and 200 not,” he says.
Keith Gibson, a relative, was a Lieutenant-Commander in the Navy Reserve, and gave Hal, still in short pants, a corvette of his own, HMAS Parkes, to command and play on at the mothballed fleet at postwar Garden Island base, south of Fremantle. Navy themes, sea trade and navigation have endured in Hal’s literary output over half a century—including much recent lamenting of the deliberate run-down of British naval strength.
Colebatch became a petty officer in the naval cadets and later co-owner of a forty-four-foot ketch, Freya. In his backyard today is an upturned Mirror dinghy, which seems, like Colebatch, to be mourning its long absence from the water.
And it is impossible to sail without knowing
Of breaking-strains, and that just so much wind
Will capsize a dinghy, and that nowhere …
Is there any smallest estuary you can blind
With non-science …
One imagines titled Perth people to be wealthy—Hal’s grandfather Sir Frank Gibson was the Fremantle mayor for twenty-nine years. But Sir Hal had shifted assets to his first family, possibly bailed out the family newspaper the Northam Advertiser during the depression, owned no house or car, had no parliamentary pension, and left an estate of only 2000 pounds.
A wealthy friend from the goldfields pledged to amend his own will for Hal and his mother, but died on the morning of his appointment with his solicitor. Marion was forced back into nursing, and lived in a one-room cottage on the grounds of Perth’s repatriation hospital until she got a TPI pension. Hal boarded at Christ Church Grammar, helped by his mother’s war-service subsidy and support from Sir Frank (who was also far from wealthy). Hal says:
I had lived at home with doting parents who treated me like a little prince. Christ Church was mainly for farmers’ children, with whom I had nothing in common. I got bad advice that if anyone bullied me, ignore them. That got me bullied worse. Finally I threw a boy out of a second-storey window and the bullying stopped.
Apart from a perspicacious English master, Peter Naish, who is still his friend, the school did little for Hal, and he had to repeat matriculation at Leederville Tech. There he met another fine English teacher, Gerry Brennan.
He went on to fifteen years part-time university study, earning five degrees including a PhD in political science with his thesis on the Australian reception of Vietnamese migrants fleeing communist re-education camps and execution. He sees no analogies with the current flotillas of economic migrants from Muslim countries.
His MA was on Australian peace movements during the Cold War—its orientation easy to guess. His other degrees are BA (Hons), BJuris and LLB.
Hal in 1964 landed a job for a decade as reporter on the West Australian. High points included watching the Ord River Dam fill and a specialty as science writer; lowlights included reporting prosecutions of kids riding bikes without the then-obligatory number plates. He told me:
Eventually as a lawyer I failed at defending a murderer who had come out of prison, lodged with a fellow ex-prisoner, and strangled him, leaving the body in the flat with the murderer’s DNA everywhere.
He’s done a funny poem on a barrister discussing his social life with a crony while advising his client that the sentence could be fourteen years, “but I’d emphasise that is a maximum so try not to worry too much”. Hal’s originality extends to a verse in praise of newspaper sub-editors, normally seen as the bunch that goes out on Friday nights to paint the town grey.
His biggest mistake, he says, was accepting a Canberra cadetship in the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1973. “I hated the life. I got out and did law while working as an electoral assistant to Vic Garland.” (Garland, Liberal member for Curtin, held various ministries to 1980, and was knighted.)
Hal was mentored by UWA’s associate professor of politics and one-time ditch-digger Paddy O’Brien, who supervised Hal’s MA and PhD. (Ken Minogue at the London School of Economics recommended Hal’s PhD for Special Congratulations.) Hal says Paddy was not just brilliant academically but also a bon vivant whose house was a magnet for globally-big names in transit, and for Perth odd-bods outstaying their welcome, including at one stage Hal, who stayed several weeks during a bad patch psychologically.
Typical of O’Brien’s style was distributing a fake menu when Soviet gymnasts were dining at the opening of Perth’s Edgley Entertainment Centre in 1974. The menu comprised food and activity at a gulag camp. O’Brien, Colebatch and others successfully took on Perth’s Left establishment including Brian Burke and WA Inc.
Colebatch takes no prisoners: he likens the wishy-washy British Conservatives to orang-utans watching on as their forest burns. Reviewing a fellow-cynic’s book on Britain, Colebatch wrote, “Alastair Campbell [Blair’s spin-meister] is perhaps let off too lightly as a ‘steaming pile of partisan malevolence’.”
Closer to home he has no mercy for Manning Clark. Hal’s asides make one shudder:
Lenin had described fellow-travellers as “useful idiots”, but it is doubtful how useful Clark was …
Like the coward and pro-totalitarian rat he was, he scuttled out of England the moment the war started getting dangerous and failed to join even in civilian war work in either Britain or Australia, spending the war instead playing cricket with small boys at Geelong Grammar School and seeking academic positions while rivals were absent on war service.
Menzies, in contrast to Clark, stayed in London during the Blitz.
Always the contrarian, Hal argues for example that Franco’s team were the better guys in the Spanish Civil War. Why? Because if the Stalin-controlled Republicans had won, they would have allowed the Nazis through to Gibraltar during the Hitler-Stalin pact, sealing the Mediterranean against Britain. Franco not only defied the Nazis but also protected Jews.
Hal says even juvenile literature these days is stuffed with sexuality, drugs, boredom, family dysfunction, Aids, ozone layer holes, death during cosmetic surgery, and suicide. He describes the authors as “the authentic voice of Caliban, a yawp that can’t be counterfeited”. Kids in pre-war fiction sailed yachts, sewed tents and were happy with a pocket torch for Christmas. Real physical danger was eagerly written about by Kipling, as in his Jungle Books. “I recently saw a quite nauseating fairy story in which the Fairy King leads his people in hiding from a passing dragon, itself quite wussy-looking as dragons go,” Hal says.
He had ambitions of being a satirical writer but says it’s too hard now to distinguish between satire and reality. A UK criminal could not be deported because he would be separated from his cat and that would violate his human rights. Britain’s new-look Community Police Support Officers stand in for real police. When three girls attacked and robbed a fifty-five-year-old man, a couple of the Support Officers hid behind a tree until a fifty-nine-year-old woman came to the victim’s aid.
In the mid-1980s Colebatch was in Britain as a tourist and then as a computer company rep. He met his wife Alexandra there in 1985. Their two children are from her first marriage.
He invariably dedicates his work to Alexandra. A moving poem is his “Driving to Meet My Wife in Canberra”:
How I must love you if the first sight,
Knowing you are there, of the lights
Of this city
Appearing at last over the crest of a ridge
Can lift my heart.
Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and online here