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The Bandar Log review: An insider’s fictional picture of the ’50s Labor split

11 July 2015 226 views No Comment

Review of The Bandar Log: A Labor Story of the 1950s
By Alan Reid
Edited by Ross Fitzgerald, Connor Court, $34.95.

Towards the end of The Bandar Log, Macker Kalley (“Machiavelli”), the fictional character resembling Alan Reid himself, muses on the role that jealousy plays as a “driving force” in history: “If Stalin hadn’t intrigued Trotsky out of the party he’d never have had supreme power … that simple act of jealousy changed the entire course of the Russian Revolution. And yet we persist with the myth that it is always impersonal forces, not the personality of men, which shape great events.”

This is vintage Reid. Whatever else he may have changed in his hitherto unpublished novel to disguise himself as Kalley, the Stalin-Trotsky comment is all too familiar. To declare an interest, I remember hearing many like it.

Over the 25 years I knew Reid, first when I was a newcomer to the Canberra Press Gallery in 1964 as the Channel Nine reporter where he was my bureau chief and mentor, then as a colleague at The Daily Telegraph, The Bulletin, and the Sunday program, I learned from him, argued with him endlessly, and admired him.

Reid (1914-1987) certainly believed that men, not impersonal forces, made history, and that politics was a clash of wills between ambitious, sometimes mad, often ruthless, and always deeply flawed individuals. But he wrote The Bandar Log in 1958. Over the next three decades he developed a far more nuanced, and less cynical view of politicians and politics than his novel’s alter-ego, who declares: “All politicians are bastards, but some are bigger bastards than others.”

The author of The Power Struggle (1969), the inside story of how John Gorton became prime minister after Harold Holt drowned, The Gorton Experiment (1971), which charted Gorton’s downfall, and The Whitlam Venture (1976), for which Whitlam sued him, is clearly not the novel’s glib and gloomy Macker Kalley, or even its Reid. In those three trail-blazing non-fiction accounts, Reid is no less pungent about politicians. But he allows for far more complexity in human motivation than in The Bandar Log.

True, Reid’s fictitious depiction of the great Labor Party split in the mid-1950s, and politics generally, as a cesspool inhabited by the irredeemably corrupted, may well have echoed his beliefs at the time. It’s hardly surprising if it did. Although the split may seem distant, even irrelevant, to later generations, it was a time of sectarian bitterness and visceral hatred, which enveloped Australian politics in a black cloud, and whose impact continued for decades.

No disrespect to the ABC’s The Killing Season, which was brilliant, and which Reid would have loved, but compared with the 1950s Labor split, Rudd-Gillard-Rudd was a genteel affair.

Moreover, Reid was at the split’s centre, as a reporter and, at times, as an actor in the drama so his novel depicts the split, all too simplistically, as an epic struggle between the two most recognisable characters: Kaye Seborjar (“Cesare Borgia”) as the ALP leader Herbert Evatt, and Carr Domenico as Bob Santamaria, who supported the anti-Communist Industrial Groups within the ALP.

Again, no surprise here. Reid admitted that during the 50 years that he had worked in “the zoo”, he had become addicted to politics, not unlike many of the practitioners he wrote about. He was a long-time member of the ALP’s Canberra branch until 1957, which meant that at different times, and sometimes simultaneously, he was both observer and player, reporter and participant, journalist and lobbyist.

Indeed, it was Reid the consummate insider, hated and admired, which made him such an interesting figure. Ross Fitzgerald and Stephen Holt captured his distinctive contribution in Alan “The Red Fox” Reid: Pressman par Excellence, their 2011 biography. And it was Fitzgerald who discovered The Bandar Log’s galley proofs in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, and edited them for publication.

When Reid submitted the original manuscript to Angus & Robertson nearly 60 years ago, Fitzgerald and Holt note that the publisher’s readers’ reports were scathing. “Dull reading … not enough action,” one wrote. Another said the novel was too static, did not deal directly with the political crisis that the characters talked endlessly about, and it was hard to become interested in what happened to them. The original readers were right.

But despite its literary shortcomings, and as Tony Abbott’s foreword and Laurie Oakes’ postscript attest, The Bandar Log is an important book. It adds another dimension of understanding to what the Prime Minister calls “probably the most far-reaching convulsion in Australian politics”, and Reid’s involvement in it.

The novel’s chequered history points us to what the American critic Lionel Trilling called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet”. After Reid tried three times to publish it, the District Court in Sydney ruled in 1961 that the book was defamatory, even before it was published. A legal first.

The judgment left Reid profoundly disillusioned. But eventually he decided to continue writing books. Not the novels, some of which, like The Bandar Log, remained as manuscripts in his drawer, and others which he had hoped to write. Instead he turned to what he called the “bloody good stories, comrade”, the bestsellers which were happening every day in Canberra, and which he told best.

Sam Lipski is the author, with Suzanne Rutland, of Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-1989 (Hybrid).

The Sydney Morning Herald,July 11-12, 2015, Spectrum, Review, Books p. 30.
Also in The Age, July 11-12, 2015

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