The Punch and Sparkle of Peter Ryan

One of the more revealing public issue spats of recent decades was Peter Ryan’s attack in Quadrant in 1993 on the quality of Manning Clark’s six-volume History of Australia. Ryan’s view was not so different from what many people, including me, thought of the great opus if they actually read it, but like some financial institutions, Clark had seemed “too big to fail”.

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His “magisterial” work had attained cult status, with the boldness and vision of the enterprise and Clark’s self-promoting publicity for it. The New Left, with childhood memories of cowboys and Indians and the presence of Watergate and Vietnam, seized on it as the long-awaited book that would rip away the smug surface of imperialism; it would reveal brutal colonial officials whipping convicts and red-coated troops and police helping upper-class squatters to drive Aborigines from their land and kill them.

The ridiculous legend developed of Clark as the great left-wing historian of Australia as against Geoffrey Blainey as the right-wing historian. Ryan’s Quadrant article, which the mainstream media took up, did not stop the adulation, but it muted it a little and made criticism more acceptable. In 1988 a musical version, Manning Clark’s History of Australia, had been a vaunted theatrical event but an expensive flop.

My view of the six-volume work, which resembles but is franker and shorter than that of Ryan and some others who have read it, is that it is uneven, not bad in parts but not good in others. It is often grandiose, idiosyncratic, waffly and far too long. Put differently, it can be boring. It needed the sort of hard editing, drastic shortening and fact checking Clark himself might have urged on a promising but developing student.

It is at its silliest when being “Left”, mainly with pompous character assessments of tall poppies over 150 years, through to ending ready to figuratively pull Menzies’s nose, a Melbourne University sing-song in the background. Clark has only token mentions of Aborigines, not remotely enough to satisfy the New Left belief that their dispossession damned colonialism. Clark admitted that he had failed on Aborigines. One still hears or reads occasionally, though, that Manning Clark “told the truth” about Aborigines. (Even as I was writing this article, there was a media reference to Clark’s “iconic history”.)

His main point about the defining 1830s and 1840s wool boom was to depict the “squatters” in their unimportant class role while ignoring sheep, wool—and Aborigines. His vaunted “nationalism” was mainly surly anti-British 1890s Bulletin with a 1930s make-over.

The problem is that “Left” and “Right” in history rarely work. History is what the available evidence shows it to be. It can only be manipulated politically by ignoring critical context, which turns it into propaganda. But it can be improved by new evidence, of which Clark had little.

Clark was a good historian nevertheless; a visionary pre-war pioneer of the belated systematic academic approach to Australian history, a good dedicated teacher, writer and companion, with a masterly grasp of the official documents. His short history of Australia was good, despite blemishes. But his considerable talents were not up to a soaring, “magisterial” multi-volume project of which too much was expected. He lacked empathy with the world outside academia and faltered when trying to write beyond the scope of the official documents.

I never met him, but it seems to be a common assessment of him as a man that he was genial, dedicated, enthusiastic and well-intentioned, but also a touch self-important.

Criticism of Clark gets good coverage in this brisk biography of Peter Ryan, who readers will remember as the incisive, erudite and sharply witty columnist for Quadrant from 1994 until his death at ninety-two in 2015, as good an essayist as Australia has produced.

Punching at pomposity and fraud was his favourite activity and he looked on the Quadrant essay on Clark as perhaps his best product, proud of the odium he attracted for it from part of the academic establishment. The odium was not so much defence of Clark’s History, as that Ryan, as the former Director of Melbourne University Press, the country’s most prestigious academic publisher, attacked after the author’s death work that Ryan had produced and sold to the public for a good financial return to the firm.

The ethics of this can be argued both ways. The multi-volume project had been commissioned and contracted before Ryan was appointed to MUP in 1961. He was in charge throughout the publication of the books and, though he was steadily disillusioned, felt there was too much commitment all round to stop the project. Besides, an important public figure professor (at ANU) can be a bit too big to fail.

The academic response to Ryan’s article, though, was as much as anything the common one of a gossipy little club infuriated by an insider, one of their own, breaking ranks.

Volumes three and four of the series were the best (and least opinionated). The last two were the worst—thin soup, as Ryan later described them—waffle, harangues and adolescent personality attacks on tall poppies, especially Alfred Deakin. These two volumes were the main object of Ryan’s critique, and the remorse he felt about publishing them, but John Tidey’s biography does not make this clear enough.

Peter Ryan had an amazingly productive life: boy soldier and cadet patrol officer, at eighteen stalking the Japanese in Papua New Guinea; at twenty selected for Colonel Alf Conlon’s mysteriously back-room Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs. Future notables he met there included James McAuley and John Kerr.

The decorated ex-serviceman next became an anti-communist student leader in the post-war Melbourne University Labor Club; then from trashy publisher and advertising man to twenty-six years running MUP; after that secretary to the Board of Examiners for Legal Practitioners.

He produced a vast volume of books and freelance journalism, memorably acerbic columns, reviews and feature articles. He was one of Melbourne’s prodigious lunchers, at the Latin and other memorable eateries, with an array of friends and companions, public figures, writers and artists, bohemians, and less notable interesting people. He said he “collected” people; and they were attracted to his quiet, friendly sparkle.

His first and best-selling book was Fear Drive My Feet, an account of his time as a teenager stalking the Japanese. “The breath of falling bombs seemed to sizzle past our ears,” he wrote.

Readers often turned first to his column in the back pages of Quadrant or to his “Melbourne Spy” when he shared that column with his mate Cyril Pearl in the late, lamented Nation.

Politically, he decided after experience that Labor was too often spurious. He became a moderate conservative, especially in the sense of respect for established institutions, language, culture, customs and defence, sceptical about rapid or flashy change. The column he was preparing when he died was a caustic look at the Australian Republican Movement and its red-bandana-wearing spokesman.

Ryan’s Luck: A Life of Peter Ryan MM
by John Tidey

Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2020, 136 pages, $29.95

Robert Murray is the author of  The Making of Australia: A Concise History (Rosenberg) and Australia in the 1920s (Australian Scholarly). Peter Ryan “collected” him in the later years of Peter’s life


2 thoughts on “The Punch and Sparkle of Peter Ryan

  • Stephen says:

    I am an on line Quadrant subscriber now but for many years I bought the printed magazine from the local paper shop. I would then go to the French bakery in Camberwell Junction (in Melbourne for those from elsewhere) and turn to the back page first to read Peter Ryan’s latest thoughts first. I don’t think I was alone in doing this. If Quadrant were to publish a full collection of Ryan’s back page reflections I don’t believe I would be alone in wanting to buy it!

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    One already exists. “It Strikes Me – Collected Essays 1994-2010”

    Published by Quadrant Books in 2011

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