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THE BANDAR LOG , A LABOR STORY OF THE 1950s

7 July 2015 201 views No Comment

The Sydney Papers Online 7th July 2015

THE BANDAR-LOG : A LABOR STORY OF THE 1950s
by Ross Fitzgerald

Australian Canberra Press Gallery journalist Alan Reid was both a player and an observer of the great Labor split of the 1950s. From his experience, he not only came to a very dark view of political players on all sides but also wrote a novel , The Bandar-Log , depicting the machinations of both key and peripheral participants in the drama that rent the ALP. Reid’s novel remained unpublished after a court case against it found the text to be libellous until, more than five decades later, academic and journalist Ross Fitzgerald and Connor Court Publishing have now published an edited version which was launched at The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 24 June 2015. Helen Trinca, Managing editor with The Australian and editor of The Deal magazine, spoke about The Bandar-Log as fiction while Ross Fitzgerald gave an account of how the lost text was rediscovered.

THE BANDAR LOG , A LABOR STORY OF THE 1950s

ROSS FITZGERALD

The late Alan Reid (who was born in 1914 and died in 1987) was probably the most influential political journalist in twentieth century Australia.

Working for most of his long career as Canberra correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, Reid not only reported key events in Australian politics, but also from time to time actively participated in them. Apart from his hitherto suppressed novel The Bandar-Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s, Alan Reid wrote three major works of non-fiction: The Power Struggle, published in 1969, The Gorton Experiment, published in 1971 and The Whitlam Venture, published in 1976.

Colin Roderick, who worked at the time for A&R insisted that Reid’s novel was libellous. As a result, the publisher withdrew its initial support.

As Stephen Holt and I point out in our biography Alan (“The Red Fox) Reid, which was shortlisted for the 2011 National Biography Award, Reid’s roman á clef, which highlighted the Machiavellian nature of Labor politics in the 1950s, was submitted to Angus & Robertson in 1958. However Dr Colin Roderick, who worked at the time for A&R insisted that Reid’s novel was libellous. As a result, the publisher withdrew its initial support.

In 1960, as Stephen Holt and I explain, another attempt at publishing The Bandar-Log, this time by J.P. Atkins of Cleveland Publishing, also failed. The printer, Halstead Press, a subsidiary of Angus & Robertson, was ordered to halt the print-run by its owner-company.

A celebrated legal case followed the abandonment of the printing. Atkins (who was president of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW) sued Halstead for breach of contract. However, in September 1961, Judge W.B. Perringnon of the Sydney District Court found the novel to be libellous and the claim was dismissed.

Indeed, in a legal first, Reid’s novel had been judged to be defamatory without having been published!

The Bandar-Log is a document of considerable historical significance. This is because Reid’s novel is a thinly fictionalised recreation of the great Labor split of the 1950s. This schism in Labor’s ranks began in October 1954 when its erratic federal party leader Dr H. V. (“Doc) Evatt denounced the perceived influence wielded over the party by the anti-communist Catholic activist B. A. (“Bob) Santamaria. The resulting donnybrook involved personality clashes as well as ideological conflict. The messy saga featured a diverse array of participants , including Catholic churchmen, trade union bosses, state premiers, state and federal Labor politicians and assorted commentators and journalists.

The characters appearing in The Bandar-Log mirror, with varying degrees of faithfulness, these actual participants in the Labor split. For example, in Reid’s novel the character Kaye Seborjar (i.e. “Cesare Borgia) is clearly Dr Evatt, while the character Carr Domineco is undoubtedly Bob Santamaria. Moreover in The Bandar-Log, the hard-bitten political insider Macker Kalley (i.e. “Machiavelli) is none other than Reid himself.

Fortuitously, and thanks to the diligent and helpful staff of the Mitchell Library in Sydney, I was able to access and copy the 1960 galley proofs of Alan Reid’s hitherto unpublished novel. As a rule of thumb, each single galley equaled three pages of the manuscript.

At The Sydney Institute, Anusha Rutnam digitally converted the old, complicated and arcane typeset manuscript into a relatively readable format. But a problem was that some of the 1960 galleys were both quite difficult to read and/or were overwritten in Reid’s own hand. Moreover, the 1960 version of The Bandar-Log literally repeated hundreds of “I said, “she said, “he said, “they said, etc. So, to make Reid’s novel more accessible and readable, a great many of these repetitions were omitted.

After I completed the first editing process, Paige Hally then meticulously re-typed the manuscript from the original. At this stage Terry Moriarty’s fact checking and proof reading was extremely helpful. Then, after a final edit, Nathan Lentern painstakingly entered all the various corrections into the final manuscript.

In the publication of The Bandar-Log, I am especially indebted to Alan Reid Jr , who is with us here this evening with his sister Susan McLean , and to other members of the family of the late Alan Reid. I would also like to thank the family of the late, great, cartoonist Les Tanner , whose extremely evocative portrait of Alan Reid (which originally appeared on the front of Quadrant magazine) graces the cover of this book. As it happens, it was none other than Peter Coleman, whose memoir we are also celebrating tonight, who as editor of Quadrant at the time arranged for Les Tanner to draw this portrait of Alan Reid.

When you read The Bandar-Log you will see why historians like myself and Stephen Holt, along with leading political commentator Laurie Oakes, and former journalist now Prime MinisterTony Abbott, thought it important to at last publish The Bandar-Log for all to read.

While Alan Reid’s hitherto unpublished Australian Labor novel of the 1950s is hardly War and Peace or Great Expectations, I hope that when you read The Bandar-Log you will see why historians like myself and Stephen Holt, along with leading political commentator Laurie Oakes, and former journalist now Prime Minister Tony Abbott, thought it important to at last publish The Bandar-Log for all to read.

Thanks indeed for organising this fine function Gerard. And thank you for pressing my publisher, Connor Court, to feature Tanner’s brilliant cartoon portrait of Alan Reid on the book’s front cover.

****************

POLITICAL FICTION AND NON-FICTION , ALAN REID’S THE BANDAR LOG
by Helen Trinca

Australian Canberra Press Gallery journalist Alan Reid was both a player and an observer of the great Labor split of the 1950s. From his experience, he not only came to a very dark view of political players on all sides but also wrote a novel , The Bandar-Log , depicting the machinations of both key and peripheral participants in the drama that rent the ALP. Reid’s novel remained unpublished after a court case against it found the text to be libellous until, more than five decades later, academic and journalist Ross Fitzgerald and Connor Court Publishing have now published an edited version which was launched at The Sydney Institute on Wednesday 24 June 2015. Helen Trinca, Managing editor with The Australian and editor of The Deal magazine, spoke about The Bandar-Log as fiction while Ross Fitzgerald gave an account of how the lost text was rediscovered.

POLITICAL FICTION AND NON-FICTION , ALAN REID’S THE BANDAR-LOG

HELEN TRINCA

I have been asked to look at this book as a work of fiction. I am relieved, glancing around this room with its battalions of Cold War experts, that I don’t have to judge its historical accuracy! But of course looking at this work as a piece of fiction is in some ways impossible.

This is a book about very specific, historical events written by one of the country’s most outstanding journalists , a man who made his reputation on reporting facts , so it is difficult to read The Bandar- Log as just another novel. Indeed, reading the book, especially those sections where the characters are easy to identify , Calwell, Evatt, Santamaria, John Burton, Gough Whitlam , one is constantly thinking of the real people and trying to assess the authenticity of the events and the characterisation.

You end up measuring Reid’s words against the facts. And if, like me, you are no expert on Labor politics in the 1950s, you end up spending time on Wikipedia reminding yourself of the facts! It is an engrossing exercise, but it is very different from reading a more obviously fictitious novel.

In the end, this book has to be seen as an Australian artefact as much as an Australian novel. None of which, I stress, reduces its attractiveness: this book has its flaws, but it is far from a dry or boring read.

The Bandar-Log, in print at last, is sometimes gripping and almost always interesting. It’s a book by a witness to extraordinary events; a witness who in the late 1950s chose to put aside his usual rules of engagement, the rules of journalism, and write freely about the people and the events he had reported on for years.

Information and imagination blur and the result is a book that becomes a unique contemporary account of events more than half a century ago.

Armed with plenty of facts, and loads of gossip and third hand information, this doyen of the press gallery gives us the best of both worlds. Here is journalism masquerading as fiction, and because we know what Reid is referencing we are also getting fiction purporting to be history. Information and imagination blur and the result is a book that becomes a unique contemporary account of events more than half a century ago.

You will have to read it for yourselves to decide where truth begins or ends or whether you are happy simply to enjoy Reid’s powerful writing and his judgements on political tactics and the political class. But, for me, my understanding of the forces in play around the 1954/55 Split in Labor is amplified by this book. Its strength is that Reid writes his story almost in the heat of the battle. The party has split, the DLP is up and running and Labor is in trouble, but not much is decided in national politics. The dust has scarcely settled.

Reid might not have been a player like Evatt and Calwell and Santamaria, but he had been close, very close, to some devastating events in the nation’s political and broader cultural life.
Reid, like a whole host of people , politicians, party operators, and party faithful , had just gone through some of the most dramatic years of their lives.

So Reid, when he sits down to write his novel, brings to the typewriter anger and cynicism and despair and resignation about Labor’s crisis , and about the dramas and dirt of politics more generally.

Reid, the Canberra press gallery reporter, steps back. He recreates conversations he could not have heard about the battles between H. V. Evatt and Bob Santamaria for the direction of the Labor Party. He invents dialogue that is strong and clear and allows him to say the things he believes are being said behind closed doors. He analyses the players of this Cold War power struggle in ways that would have been impossible on the front page of The Daily Telegraph where he worked for most of his career.

And he does it all by drawing on years of observation and gossip as well as fact finding. His judgments are tough. Reid was a brilliant and sometimes cruel writer of non-fiction. Here he is, channelling Calwell on Santamaria:

“My enemies in the party (Santamaria) and his organisation are bitter. They know I loathe the things they stand for. Their ruthlessness. Their suicidal craving for a Holy crusade against the communist Heretics…They want to restore peasantry… Their ideal man is bovinely content, stupidly docile and subservient to the divinely inspired, crazy guidance of Leaders whose minds half the time are preoccupied unrealistically , and intolerantly- with the problems of life after death.”

There is a lot more like that and in the case of some of the more minor characters, Reid’s views of their immorality and corruption are quite sizzling. It’s all entertaining, but also a little confusing: there are simply too many people, too many characters. Ross Fitzgerald has counted around some 30. They are as confusing as any cast of Russian characters. Reid no doubt could keep track of them all in the narrative, as he had in his mind who they were, but there they needed to represent a particular idea or play a particular part in the action in order to really work for the reader. He needed to write more people out of the history in order to give us a book that works as a believable story. But instead of culling, he can’t resist throwing in yet another State Secretary or union organiser he has met along the way.

In contrast, he does a good job on the main players. They are modelled so obviously on real people and real action that we find there is an internal consistency in their behaviour and attitudes. Calwell, Santa, Evatt leap off the page, as large as they were in life. There are others in this room that knew them or have read extensively about them and they will be better judges than I can be of the accuracy or not of their proposals. But it seems to me that Reid has captured them well.

I thought it might be interesting to read a little from the book about the main characters. See if you can guess who they are:

“Then he rose to speak. He was a dark man with intense, unhappy eyes. His skin was yellowish, the colour of thin mud. He was tall, over six feet, very straight backed, with wide shoulders and a lean waist…The man spoke slowly and deliberately. He gave an impression of having considerable strength. His voice was firm and cultured, rather thin, but compelling…”

“Who’s that character? Fortune (Calwell) asked. He’s got something.

“Money and a social conscience… He’s been around in the party for a while… Joined up after the war?”

No prizes for guessing that one. It’s Gough Whitlam, of course. There is more of the same, but it’s fascinating to hear Reid, in 1958, just six years after Gough was elected to Parliament, talking about his character. A little later in the book, the Gough character, whose name is Tom Bannion, is offered a position in the party machine and must wrestle with his conscience and decide what road to take. And later still, is this passage:

“But Bannion was too painfully earnest for Fortune to make him a close henchman. Bannion became too earnest about minor peccadilloes for Fortune’s taste. He had a gift for transforming a minor tactical move into a full scale crusade. Fortune told him once: “If you can win on a narrow front, never extend the battle. You could lose.

Here is another passage:

“He considered himself a religious man. He was not particularly concerned with the moral teachings of his church, but he was concerned about the religious symbols that were associated with it. These, by their material presence in his home, gave him the comforting assurance that he was religious without the need for self-examination….”

And again:

“There was animosity between the two men. Their strengths were similar. Neither had the faculty for mustering support for the cause they espoused. But both had the capacity to play on the hates, jealousies, fears and weaknesses of their fellow politicians so that they would combine against persons or policies they opposed. But (X) a man who boasted that he had never read a book but had acquired his education from life, was more subtle, devious and painstaking than the other man.”

The X is Calwell, and the other man is the NSW Labor legend, Eddie Ward.

One of the interesting aspects of the book is that Alan Reid has written himself in as Macker Kelley , (Fortune) Calwell’s adviser, chief of staff. Reid positions him as the insider who consistently throughout the book presents himself as the outsider. The ultimate political player, not so much above the compromises of politics, because he too can get down and dirty, but ultimately above the beliefs and passions of politics. There’s some good work to be done , perhaps by a biographer , analysing Macker Kalley against Alan Reid and working out what the fictional character reveals about the real man.

A few other points…

While we know it is about the Split and while the key elements of the battles between Santamaria’s followers and Evatt’s followers do emerge clearly, the novel suffers badly from poor structure and a lack of a clear plot line. There are too many incidents that are not really clearly connected. And some machinations are to be honest mind-numbingly complex and dull. The action around the Split should have been introduced earlier and more should have been made of it all.

Another fault in the book is that Reid sometimes forgets he is trying to be a novelist and falls back into, what should we term it, a kind of journalistic commentary. The statements are always interesting but an experienced novelist would allow those conclusions and ideas emerge from the narrative. There’s a good example of this in a section on women. And I shall preface it by saying a little more about women. There are very few of them in the book.

This will worry some people but it doesn’t worry me. It was an era when people like Reid simply could not and did not see women as powerful in any public sense; and secondly it’s an historical fact that there were no women at the top of the party or in parliament or the union movement so they don’t feature in this account for hood reason. Added to that, Reid does a good job actually in talking about that background role of women and writes sympathetically about Evatt’s wife and Margaret Whitlam, who is named Janice in this book.

Surprisingly, he gives the Calwell character a rather colourless, stay-at-home wife. In fact, Calwell had a very switched-on, intelligent, educated and engaged wife who co-launched an Irish newspaper with him. Here is the author describing (Fortune) Calwell’s attitude to women. It’s an example of where Reid has some terrific material to get across, but lacks the novelist’s capacity to mix it into the narrative.

“Outside his home, he had no feminine contacts, only political ones. Most party politicians were similarly placed. Some provided opportunities for extra marital sexual activity, but they were usually with tarts or some little typist attached to politics in some way and prone to be impressed by a politician’s importance. Those high in the party seldom became involved with women except on a purely physical plane. Their passions were conserved for politics …”

Again, great stuff, but not necessarily great literature.

I will finish with a reference to one of the most successful sections of the book where Reid is writing of the seedy, corrupt underworld of Labor politics. It’s a scene set in a nightclub where a powerful party figure is trying to entrap a lower echelon apparatchik so that he can be of use at a later time. In the middle of the action is one of the club dancers who, in effect has to decide whether she will do the party boss’s bidding and prostitute herself to the flunkey or refuse and thus risk losing their powerful man’s patronage.

It is a chilling piece of writing and is so convincing that it seems clear Alan Reid had been witness to such events many times. And, of course, it’s a reminder of what Reid was doing in this book. Not just talking about the Split but talking about the moral vacuum of politics. Here is the section, with the girl speaking first:

“He wants me to go back to his hotel with him. Do I have to, Mr Lilley?

Lilley said sharply, “You don’t have to do anything Annette… You’re nervy Annette. Imagining things… But it’s quite alright, my dear. I understand. You run along home…

The girl’s eyes were miserable. She looked very young and vulnerable. She hesitated. She said, “You’re sure he’s all right, Mr Lilley. Not crazy or anything?

The fat man was smoothly reassuring. “Of course I am sure, my dear. I know Brock. He’s a nice fellow.

She wavered. “If you’re sure he’s all right, Mr Lilley.

She was pathetically anxious to please the fat man… “I’ll go get Brock…

“You’re doing me a favour Annette”, said Lilley softly. “I never forget a favour…

“Thanks, Mr Lilley,she hesitated. Then with boldness that Payten (who is observing) had not expected she said, “About the favour, Mr Lilley. They’re auditioning at the Globe. For an understudy for Maria Montes.

Lilley smiled. He took out his notebook. He scribbled in it.

“You’ll get your audition, my dear. It wouldn’t surprise me if you got the job.

The men watched the girl sway along the foyer…

Payten said, “How’s it feel to be a procurer, Joe?

Alan Reid was an ace political reporter and player, but that section shows he was also an astute observer of life , and it is that skill which really adds depth to this novel.

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