Nicholas Hasluck (above) has been a significant and engaging novelist on the Australian literary scene for half a century now. His achievements, from Quarantine and The Bellarmine Jug to Dismissal and The Bradshaw Case are well attested. His books are not only a good read, but they have something to say. In part this is the result of his having led a double life. He has not only been a prolific writer, author of some thirty volumes of fiction, poetry and essays, but he has also worked for his living. He has encountered the real world. He has not lived on a succession of government grants and hand-outs, on that treacherous largesse that has insulated so many litterateurs from normative human experience and left them with little to write about.
Indeed, to refer to his double life is to sell him short. In the period covered by Bench and Book, his has been a trinitarian existence. Bench and Book is a selection from his diaries for the years 2000 and 2001. During this period he was promoting his novel Our Man K, writing Arbella’s Baby, serving as Chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, and beginning his appointment as a judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
He is remarkably candid about the trials and frustrations and humiliations of authorship. He discovers that his novel Our Man K:
didn’t seem to be in the West Australian library system … It seems that an order was placed for 29 copies but at that stage the local supplier had only 8 left in stock. Because he couldn’t fill the order precisely, he supplied nothing … I remain puzzled as to why the full 29 could not have been supplied in the first place, particularly as Clare Forster, to my great chagrin, has just told me that the book did not sell well and many unsold copies are languishing in the Penguin warehouse … From promotion to distribution, it seems that everything always finishes up weighing against the author.
Like many a writer, Hasluck took advantage of the Cultural Donations scheme to present his manuscripts, drafts, working papers and correspondence to the National Library. It was an attractive scheme, even though, as I found out, the libraries were more interested in the correspondence than the manuscripts. In return for the donation the value of the papers was assessed and the donor received an income tax rebate. Hasluck reflected wryly:
Odd to think that the notional value of these drafts amounts to more than the advance payments I received for the books themselves. It reminds me of my acerbic comments at the recent Literature Board meeting. I pointed out that an emerging Australian writer these days can earn more in three months by mentoring a beginner with an unpublishable manuscript than he can in three years by writing a novel on his own. Around the table, sounds of hollow laughter.
And then there are the ritual humiliations of the book signings at writers’ festivals. At Adelaide: “I discover that the queues for my neighbouring authors number 50 or 60, while I add my signature to a mere three or four copies of Our Man K.” Things only get worse after his next session:
Across at the signing tables I observe huge queues waiting for my three fellow panellists, including the “unwell” Foden, but not a single taker for my book. I am not surprised by this. Let’s face it: I have only been invited, somewhat reluctantly, to the Adelaide Writers’ Festival as the Chair of one of their funding providers and, in an age of increasing political correctness, especially after today’s events, I doubt that I will be invited again. So much for the oft-proclaimed desire for “diversity” and differing viewpoints at writers’ festivals in contemporary Australia.
I have quoted these entries at length not to add to Hasluck’s despair and humiliation, but as an indication of the honesty and selflessness of his recording such all-too-familiar episodes. Many of us have experienced these frustrations and have felt the same resentments, but few have dared to air them. Yet these are the realities of the novelist’s experience in the world of multinational publishers and writers’ festivals.
Bench and Book is not one of those sensational diaries of scabrous anecdote and scandalous gossip, characteristic of parliamentarians and other self-promoters. The material dealing with the Literature Board and the succession of literary figures encountered is extraordinarily unprejudiced and polite, as befits someone in the chair of that body. That Hasluck managed to sustain such impartiality is a tribute to an essential generosity and decency, given the nature of so many of the figures who parade through these pages. Nonetheless, he is not blinded to the problems that emerge as his tenure proceeds:
I spend a few hours after dinner working through the applications to the Literature Board by individual writers, so few of them revealing any interest in politics or the moral dilemmas of professional life, or the business of earning a living.
The increasing dependence on receiving grants and the emptiness of the creative work emerging is something that begins to concern him:
In the course of some related talk about the funding process, I question a proposal for “micro-grants” to “youth artists” and the notion that a young writer has to have a grant of some kind before he or she can sit down and write a poem or embark on a first novel. As usual, I am a minority voice. We debate recent criticisms by Richard Wherrett from the Sydney Theatre Company that too many theatre people, applicants for grants, are being encouraged to do safe, shallow, “mainstream” work.
Hasluck does not expand on these insights. But he has touched on one of the major problems for Australian literary culture, and the pernicious effects of the very existence of the Literature Board. Whatever the original intentions, once you set up a financial rewards system of grants and fellowships and residencies and prizes and honours, you’ve ensured that you’ve got your compliant, conformist celebrants of the status quo. The applicants soon self-censor themselves into uniform conformity, avoiding anything socially contentious or controversial, in order to get funding. In effect, the Australia Council becomes the way the state supports its loyal propagandists and suppresses its critics. Why else offer subsidies? That’s how the system works. It doesn’t have to be a bunch of complicit board members consciously excluding the critical and the subversive and true. The critical and subversive are no longer on offer. The literati have purged themselves of any untoward thoughts in order to get grants and awards. And in this age of political correctness the self-censorship has become stifling.
The other problematic feature of the Australia Council is its steady evolution into a self-serving bureaucracy. Hasluck records this well, with its increasing dependence on professional administrators, advisers and “facilitators”, concerned to impose a public relations and business administration model on the proceedings:
Twenty years ago the Council emphasis was upon excellence, the provision of grants to professional or quasi-professional artists—hence an emphasis upon innovation and risk. There has been a shift to egalitarianism and community arts. With less certainty about what constitutes excellence, there is a corresponding devaluing of innovation. The social mood of conformity leads to power being vested in the bureaucracy and weight being given to governmental edicts and good deeds.
“The artist’s role is gradually being written out of the plot,” he writes. And he observes that “outlaying funds upon opaque policy initiatives such as the Promoting the Value of the Arts campaign … is putting too much money into the pockets of advertising executives.”
The diary entries open in January 2000 with “a rumour doing the rounds that I might soon be filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court”. Hasluck’s reaction is ambivalent. “The job would probably put an end to my literary endeavours,” he writes in March, but nonetheless decides to accept the offer. In May, he is installed and he records the ceremony. Then his wife, Sally, “delivers me to the rear door of the Court, the entrance to the lower level and the dungeon. I traverse the book-lined corridors to my little room: the central desk, the barred windows, the patch of blue sky beyond.”
He is soon brooding on a topic of recurrent concern to him, the relationship between law and literature. When he was a student, he and his contemporaries “seemed to believe that benefit could flow from exploring the relationship”. Forty years on, most of those fellow students had abandoned that interest and only a few “mavericks” retained any interest in literature at all. The dominant mood was “a belief in most legal minds that one needn’t bother about literature because it simply doesn’t count. It speaks in a way that is imprecise and often misleading. It doesn’t lead to tangible results.”
His other sad reflection is, “my experience of criminal law is limited”. And the diaries go on to record his necessary engagement with a series of often frustrating and frequently distressing cases. After a harrowing episode in court—“it certainly isn’t an easy business to remove a man from his family and put him behind bars”—he writes:
I reflect on yesterday’s events, the remanding of the prisoner in custody. Hard to imagine what it was like for him. The last, fleeting word with his wife, then into the van, out to the jail, the strip search, his clothes removed, the dour prison overalls, the cell. Those first few hours alone. It is all too much. My imagination fails me. This, if anything, demonstrates the need for links between law and literature. To reveal it. To make us feel it. And yet so few signs in the current batch of Literature Board applications that emerging writers are striving to catch the actuality of some similarly wrenching experience.
And so, balancing his literary endeavours, a good half of the entries are devoted to his experiences on the Supreme Court.
Whereas the entries on literary figures are quite amazingly restrained and non-judgmental, there are some sharp assessments of various legal figures. “An esteemed Chief Justice in the eyes of many. To me he was always an authoritarian presence on the Bench, quick to find fault,” he writes of one character. And of another, “Judicial stress, he tells us, isn’t a form of angst affecting him. Judicial stress is the angst he inflicts upon those at the bar table.” And again, “he will be missed, but not by me”.
Running throughout the diaries are the controversial issues that, raised at various literary events, extend into legal and political debate; the “stolen generation” and the allegations of “genocide”. At a Literature Board event in March 2000, Hasluck responds to the question of why John Howard refuses to apologise to indigenous people:
The ugly term genocide is being flung about so casually that an earlier generation of Australians, such as my father, and so many others who strove to improve Aboriginal conditions when social reformers were busy elsewhere, are now being grievously defamed without having a chance to be heard in their own defence. My remarks produce the usual stunned silence. It is incredible in Australia at the moment—and mind-boggling—that people seem to be so unaccustomed to hearing a view contrary to their own, especially on this subject.
Hasluck questions some of the proponents of the “genocide” claim, amongst them Colin Tatz, Professor and Director of the Australian Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, “a leading proponent of the current ‘stolen generation’ mantra that genocide was rife in Australia for many years”. Hasluck spends a day reading Tatz’s 1964 PhD thesis:
Curiously, as I now confirm by a careful study of the text, there is no mention whatsoever of any problems concerning the “removal” of part-Aboriginal children from their parents. How is it that Colin Tatz, a human rights campaigner, failed to protest, or even notice, the “genocide” that was allegedly taking place at the time he was writing his thesis? Probably because, contrary to current propaganda, it wasn’t there to be noticed. Perhaps it simply wasn’t happening! I note also, from the list of signatures on the ANU library card, that only 11 people have looked at this thesis since it was written 40 years ago. The list does not include Robert Manne or Sir Ronald Wilson. Neither Manne, nowadays a leading critic of the assimilation policy, nor Wilson, Chairman of the Royal Commission inquiring into such matters, has bothered to look at one of the main contemporary records of what was actually taking place in northern Australia in the 1960s.
Hasluck later engages in an exchange of correspondence with Wilson over Wilson’s assertions “that ‘genocide’ was being perpetrated in the Northern Territory throughout the 1950s as a deliberate policy”. The correspondence is reproduced in Bench and Book, with Wilson defending his assertions. But by the end of the diaries in June 2001, Hasluck notes a Bulletin report that Wilson conceded, “With hindsight … it was a mistake to use the word genocide.”
Bench and Book is a fascinating and important record. The events encountered and the issues raised relate not only to the two years the diary entries cover, but to the nature and experience of Australian cultural and political life today. It is a storehouse of observations and insights, and although there is no index, the endnotes contain a list of some 250 “personalities” mentioned. It calls out to be mined by future cultural historians, assuming there are any such left surviving the wreckage of our universities and the obliteration of our historical and literary studies.
Bench and Book
by Nicholas Hasluck
Arcadia, 2021, 347 pages, $44
Michael Wilding’s memoir The Midlands and Leaving Them (Shoestring) was reviewed in the June Quadrant and his book Marcus Clarke: Novelist, Journalist and Bohemian (Australian Scholarly) in the July-August issue