Books

Over There in the Sixties

In mid-1964 Nick Hasluck was twenty-two and had just graduated in law from the University of Western Australia. As so many Australians with a bit of saved money did in those long-gone days, he set out for the cultural homeland by slow boat, specifically the 28,000-ton P&O liner Himalaya, which had recently declined to an all-tourist-class floating democracy—not that Hasluck could have afforded a first-class cabin had there been any. He was off to do a postgraduate law degree at Oxford, with subsidiary dreams of becoming an author.

In that last respect he had an example in his father, Sir Paul Hasluck, who in addition to his work as a cabinet minister in the Menzies government had a well-established reputation as the author of volumes on the home front in the Second World War and on Aboriginal history and culture—ground-breaking works, not popularising re-hashes of done-to-death subjects acclaimed “great reads”.

Over the years, Nick Hasluck succeeded in establishing himself as a novelist of note while pursuing a career in law that led to a seat on the Supreme Court of Western Australia. His latest book is a first-hand account of the world he experienced in England and on the Continent through the mid-1960s. Its strongest appeal is to those of us who can remember those times and the personalities that made them vivid. Hasluck combines retrospection with extracts from the diaries he kept, creating a double perspective, part subjective, part distancing and objective. Moreover, because he was well connected, he had entrée, and many of the reminiscences and anecdotes involve people of note. There are numerous passages one could quote. A handful will give some idea of the book.

He meets up with his parents in London. They’ve just flown in from Moscow, from where Sir Paul had written to Nick about his meeting (one of the very first) with the new post-Khrushchev leadership:

The government gave us a friendly reception. I had an hour’s talk with Kosygin, the new Prime Minister, and a talk with the Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko, who I knew from my days on the UN Security Council in the 1940s. I found Kosygin to be a quiet, thoughtful and pleasant man. It will be a help to the world if we can have people at the Kremlin who would occasionally listen to others and habitually think over matters.

Enjoying the reunion with his parents at their London hotel, young Nick gets engaged in discussions about what’s going on in the wider world. His diary entry of that date reads in part: “Sir John and Lady Hackett took us upstairs for a sherry and introduced us to an official from the Defence Department and his wife.” Lunch followed, then the women withdrew, as per custom:

The three older men left at the table began talking about the recent British election, but this soon led to Lyndon Johnson’s victory in the American Presidential race. Would he act on the resolution he had obtained from Congress after American destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin? He was now authorised to prevent further aggression …

In retrospect that entry is amusing, but lots of us were taken in about little North Vietnamese gunboats taking on powerful US destroyers, because we hadn’t yet heard the whole truth, from Robert McNamara in his later years, from the Pentagon Papers, or from the NSA later still in 2005, proving for all time the deliberate misrepresentation that sanctioned wider war. The contemporary view and the retrospective view are frequently at odds in this interesting book. We get the old view, which may be embarrassing now, and that alone creates a narrative tension.

Hasluck watched Churchill’s funeral in real life, outdoors (for most it was on television: “Churchill’s funeral’s on”), noting in his diary how all of a sudden the crowd fragmented and just drifted away. The age of heroes was dead:

We had just witnessed an event that might well be described as the end of an era. The papers were mostly interested in scandal now—as in the Profumo affair—for that was the way in which governments could be brought down and papers sold to the masses.

Certainly there was little hero-worship among audiences at the Oxford Union, where they were debating the once-outrageous topic “That this House would not fight for King and Country”, a re-run of a 1930s debate on the same subject—but who cared now? British anti-war films such as King and Country (1964) were all the go and the very notion of “King and Country” was absurd. Hasluck attended significant debates and speeches at the Union, noting down his reactions to Malcolm X, Tariq Ali, Jeffrey Archer and James Baldwin, men headed for assassination, fame, notoriety, jail, or a combination thereof.

Someone in the audience asked Baldwin:

As a well-known writer, would you not concede that the standards of Western civilisation in terms of music, art and literature are generally far higher than those of the coloured people of the world? If so, should they not seek to emulate the European way of life?

Hasluck noted:

The questioner was howled down, and forced to resume his seat, but enough had been said to put the ball in Baldwin’s court. The visitor answered calmly, to say that the question contained exactly the sort of complacent assumptions that had to be examined. He personally was not satisfied that European art was superior, and certainly not satisfied that European music was better than traditional practices in other places. African literature and story-telling had for the most part not been embodied in print or permanent forms, and thus a comparison was not necessarily valid. One had to respect oral traditions handed down from father to son. For this reason they might be considered more of a living meaningful thing than the static forms of European culture.

It was Hasluck’s view too.

Neither was the law a matter of static forms. His sympathies were increasingly with the famous judgments of Lord Denning who, in the interests of justice, readily dispensed with chains of authority. What once had seemed solid ground beneath Hasluck’s feet was under liquefaction and some of the old certainties were eroding:

At times I felt I was heading for a nervous breakdown. Unlike many law students my interest in the law was fed to some extent by insights drawn from literature. To me, the law was not a matter of solving puzzles or saluting abstract rights but of getting to grips with individual stories, the ways of the world, good or bad as the case might be.

The Oxford Union’s avant-garde speakers aside, the university had a lot of the world to catch up with. Holdings in college libraries were out of date, and supervisors on non-British literary and historical subjects were hard to find. Hasluck made friends with the American Mike Levin:

He wanted to write a thesis on the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, but was having trouble finding a don at Oxford who knew enough about the subject to supervise his doctoral work. According to Levin, no one seemed to know anything about American literature. This didn’t surprise me. Now that the preliminary exam was over, I had begun to look for works of fiction in the college library. There was scarcely anything later than the works of Kipling, James and Conrad. Works by twentieth-century American writers, and by “colonials”, were non-existent.

Pretension was all around them and they enjoyed puncturing it:

While passing through the foyer after the showing of an art-house film [Levin] had a habit of saying, loudly enough to be overheard, “I thought the crucifixion scene was valid!” If faced with Oxonian disdain about the merits of a thriller, Levin, like a sassy narrator in a Philip Roth novel, would say, “You want Hamlet, or you want James Bond?”

The young Hasluck spent some time in company with Lord Carrington, with whom I also had the pleasure of talking when he was Secretary General of NATO at Brussels. Carrington had met the Haslucks in Canberra, where he’d been posted as British High Commissioner in the 1950s. After ranging across other topics including Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, the talk turned to Profumo.

To Carrington, John Profumo was:

a fine man and the victim of a strange groundswell of moral outrage. [Carrington] illustrated this by recalling that when the elderly Palmerston was notoriously implicated in adultery, the worldly-wise Disraeli instructed those on his side at election time to say nothing about it. In Disraeli’s view, if news of Palmerston’s sexual vigour became common knowledge, he would win the election easily! Both then and now, the reality is that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. On this lighter note we were invited by our host to adjourn to the sunlit lawn and play some croquet.

This captures Carrington well and reminds me why I liked him. He was urbane and witty, and definitely no preacher of moral sentiments. I never understood, any more than Carrington, what Profumo had done wrong that I myself mightn’t have done given half a chance, aside (perhaps) from lying to Parliament, which MPs do every sitting day in small ways and large. The sad thing about Profumo was that he spent the rest of his life atoning for what, from the perspective of a couple of years on from 1963, was next to nothing—which Carrington understood. “It was just that the time was wrong.” Impeachment for lying strengthened Clinton, and the Monica Lewinsky affair was “So what?” Meanwhile Profumo was still performing works of supererogation.

My favourite piece in the entire book is Hasluck’s account of a roller-coaster ride he took with some friends in Copenhagen soon after visiting Elsinore Castle and contemplating its central place in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s no connection. Of the seven companions:

I was last in line, and as there were only six places, there was no seat for me. In the few seconds left, my friends told me to jump in and sit on the lap of a friend in the front seat. He said yes to this and promised to hold me tight. I succumbed to the reckless advice and plonked myself on his lap.

Within seconds of taking off I realised I was in big trouble. As a roller-coaster hurtles down a deep slope, everyone becomes weightless—hence the iron bar locking them in. My friend did the best he could to hold me down, but it was no use. I was virtually floating in mid-air. As the front carriage came out of the slope and careered around the first bend I was still floating and very close to being dashed against the struts of the tunnel.

His strength wasn’t enough to counter the centrifugal forces ranged against us. My grip on the bar somewhere behind me was tenuous. I simply couldn’t keep firmly attached to the carriage. There was one appalling moment when I suddenly thought “I’m not going to get out of this alive”. The carriage kept rushing onwards, up hills, down slopes, around corners, with both of us doing what we could to meet the challenge. What we managed was just enough to keep me in one piece as the ride ended.

There are plenty of other entertaining passages, and one of the best concerns the Vatican Librarian at the Secret Archives, Father Burns. Hasluck engaged him in a conversation and they soon got on to the real deal:

He mentioned that the Vatican had now opened the secret archives of the long reign of Pio Nono [Pius IX]. This had whetted the appetite of scholars from abroad and kept my informant very busy of late. There were other secret archives, he hinted, containing all sorts of dire mysteries. If revealed, these would be sensational—but while the Library was under his care, they would never see the light of day.

The writing is good: “whetted the appetite”, “very busy of late”, “all sorts of dire mysteries”, “sensational”—and then the dash and the determination to keep that room forever locked.

If you were an Australian student abroad in Britain and the Continent in the 1960s you’ll probably find something of yourself in this well-constructed and engaging account, but in any case it’s an accomplished memoir.

Beyond the Equator: An Australian Memoir
by Nicholas Hasluck

Arcadia/Australian Scholarly, 2019, 281 pages, $34.95

Philip Ayres is an established literary historian and biographer, and a frequent contributor to Quadrant. His latest book is Private Encounters in the Public World (Connor Court, 2019).

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