History: The real Frank Hardy?by John MorrisseyNews Weekly
, February 10, 2001
John Morrissey looks at a new biography of novelist Frank Hardy which reveals there was no shortage of skeletons in his literary and social cupboards.
At my only meeting with Frank Hardy, a promotion of his books in 1977, he became very matey when I claimed to have read all of them. When I responded to his inquiry about my political leanings, he replied, "Don't worry mate. All of my friends are Commos or Groupers!"
Pauline Armstrong has produced a judicious and well-researched picture of the man - with all his contradictions - his life, his work and his relationships with those about him*. Since Hardy's death in 1994 there have been accusations of plagiarism, that he was not the author of Power Without Glory and that he was merely a mouthpiece for the Communist Party of Australia in its battle against the Labor Right in Victoria.
Armstrong investigates all of these claims while concentrating on the writing of Power Without Glory and to a lesser extent But the Dead Are Many, his later novel which supposedly recalls his rejection of (Soviet) Communism after Russian intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The writer presents her credentials to be his biographer as "lapsed Catholic and lapsed Communist", as well as being a contemporary, which enabled her to "understand the times and the pressures and assisted in constructing a reliable outline of Hardy's life".
However, she explains at the outset that owing to the restrictions placed on using Hardy's papers and publications, by him initially and by his literary executor after his death in 1994, she has had to rely on other sources, and there is an impressive amount of oral history employed.
Many of those interviewed, who were key players on either side of the Communist Party's struggle during the 1950s, have passed on since Armstrong began her research in 1991, and so this work has been quite timely.
To have relied more on Hardy's own works and especially to have submitted to the censorship of his executor could have resulted in a much different picture.
Childhood and youth during the 1930s, mainly in Bacchus Marsh, are surveyed briefly, and his developing attraction to knockabout Australian pursuits such as betting and beer drinking noted. However, it is interesting that the early experiences of Depression hardship, intimated in Legends of Benson's Valley and elsewhere in his writing, are at odds with his father's continuous employment in the job of a dairy inspector and a stable home in Bacchus Marsh throughout this period.
Nevertheless, it was with the self-image of a battler from the bush that young Frank left home in 1938 for Melbourne, where he worked on the Radio Times as a cartoonist and mixed with the sort of people who would lead him to join the Communist Party in 1940.
In the same year he married Rosslyn Cooper, a middle class Protestant girl who, ironically, became a Catholic and bore a daughter who was baptised a Catholic.
Hardy accepted the policy backflips of the Party in 1941 but waited to be called up for the army in 1942 before joining the AIF in 1943, by which time he described himself as agnostic. His "active service" was spent in the Northern Territory, where he edited - but did not found, as he claimed - the Troppo Tribune.
After a transfer to Melbourne in 1944 he worked with many other Communists in the Army Education Service where he led a congenial life writing, frequenting leftist drinking circles and furthering his credentials in the Party during the high point of its popularity in Australia. His wife, Ross, became his secretary and also involved herself in political activity.
"Months before his discharge from the army," says Armstrong, "there is little doubt that Frank had accepted and was working on a secret assignment from the CPA to write a book." Her research and especially her numerous interviews lead her to conclude that the project was conceived as a counter-attack on the Movement by wounding Wren, who was perceived by Ted Hill and the CPA executive as the source of its finances, as he was believed to be of those of the Victorian ALP Right.
If this is correct - and it is only Hardy's own claims in The Hard Way which contradict the recollections of her interviewees - then the project was ill-conceived from the first. Armstrong concludes that there was very little connection and some hostility between Wren and the Movement!
What is even more interesting was the amount of support which Hardy received from the Party while he was writing Power Without Glory.
Much of the research was carried out by CPA organiser, Les Barnes, and volunteer Party member, Deidre Moore, while the faithful Ross set up his reference card system and typed the manuscript. Much of his own research took the form of digging in Wren territory, picking up rumours, anecdotes and especially local colour.
Hardy continued to write for the Communist Guardian and it is certain that the Party paid him some salary during this period, in spite of The Hard Way omitting these details while it emphasises his hardships.
Armstrong makes much of how little Hardy has acknowledged the contributions of others to his work.
Although there is some confusion about the exact details, the description of the clandestine printing of the book is entertaining, with its hide-and-seek qualities, but the process by which the Party finally approved of the manuscript is especially significant in terms of the later trial.
The national leadership took over from the Victorian executive, and Les Barnes' qualms about the libel against Mrs Wren in the Nellie West character were set aside by the General Secretary - much to Hardy's glee - but a slur on Pat Kennelly was omitted.
On trial for criminal libel, Frank Hardy was supported by an extremely effective Defence Committee, which harnessed the energies and collected the money of loyal Party members and trade unionists for whom he had become a class hero.
Armstrong is scathing about his lack of respect and gratitude for their support and sacrifices, and his continuing to drink and bet - "race-days were still sacred ... alcohol and gambling is a poor mix" - turn up drunk at meetings to support him, and even make anti-Semitic remarks to Jewish Party members and sympathisers.
Still, the funds rolled in, including large donations from wealthy members solicited by key Victorian functionary, Ralph Gibson, enough to engage the services of Don Campbell KC and his junior, John Starke, who insisted on being paid on a daily basis.
The trial itself followed a lengthy preliminary hearing five months earlier, in which large sections of the book were read aloud and duly reported in the daily press. This had had the effect of establishing as truth in the minds of the public all of the most sensational allegations against Wren which Hardy had included in his work of so-called fiction.
Armstrong seems to conclude that Hardy's acquittal by the jury was the result not of the prosecution's failure to prove that Power Without Glory was not a work of fiction so much as of public feeling against Wren and acceptance of Campbell's argument that criminal libel was an unjust charge, the matter really being a civil one.
Armstrong is quite clearly aware of the 40 years of writing that followed Hardy's magnum opus at the age of 33, and makes an effort to survey those years and work for the reader. She praises his works which did not serve the aims of Socialist Realism, the short stories and yarns in particular and The Four-Legged Lottery, and pays tribute to his work for the Gurindji people in supporting their campaign for the return of their traditional lands from Vestey's, the lease-holder, detailed in The Unlucky Australians.
She is less enthusiastic when describing his slavish toeing of the Party line after a number of visits to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1950s with descriptions of the marvels which he witnessed, published in The Guardian and in his Journey Into the Future.
He receives little credit for his literary defection from Soviet Communism, expressed in his 1968 series of articles in London's Sunday Times and later The Bulletin, titled "Stalin's Heirs". Other major works receive scant attention: his beloved Outcasts of Foolgarah is ignored, while Who Shot George Kirkland, in which his admirers find so much philosophical complexity, is dismissed because the incident on which it was based was spurious.
"Betrayals" is the title of one of the latter chapters of the biography, but it is a theme which Armstrong pursues throughout. Her oral sources reveal that Hardy abused his wife's devotion, did not share the fruits of his successes with her and their children, and treated friends and supporters badly. Only one of his benefactors at the time of the trial was ever repaid, he cadged money shamelessly throughout his career and even the brief sea-going stints which he undertook for working class credibility saw his seamen comrades bitten mercilessly.
He finally deserted Ross for a younger, more influential and more glamorous woman, who also became his devoted helper.
Armstrong reserves her final condemnation for Hardy's use of privileged material about a member of her own family, his friend Paul Mortier, as the basis of But the Dead Are Many, allegedly without his widow's consent. Once again, as in 1950, the issue was the hurt caused to people by the fictitious parts of a work which clearly identified its subjects in the mass of material based on real life.
Frank Hardy and the Making of Power Without Glory will infuriate his ardent admirers on the Left and disillusion many readers like me, but it takes nothing from his position as a major Australian writer.
Readers of Pauline Armstrong's work will find it hard going, as the restrictions placed on her force her to paraphrase rather than quote Hardy's published work, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish her comment from her narrative and sources, while the use of end-notes rather than footnotes makes frequent reference to the back of the book necessary.
Nevertheless, it is the fruit of prodigious research and makes a major and timely contribution to Australian history. Hardy's next biographer may well be far more sympathetic and hence receive much more co-operation from his literary executor, but is unlikely to share Armstrong's credentials as a product of the same times and influences.