Forgiving the Victim, 1996-1998
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. — W. B. Yeats
Murray badly needed to believe that he had shaken off the Black Dog, and the last thing he wanted was a passionate public controversy of the sort that in the past had so often deepened his depression. Yet that was what he got, soon after leaving hospital. The focus was Australia’s most controversial historian, Manning Clark, whom Murray had known slightly while they both lived in Canberra, and whom he had run into subsequently when they both visited the Hermannsberg Mission in central Australia in 1987.
In May 1970 Murray had met Clark at the Canberra home of a mutual friend, the poet David Campbell: at the time Murray, unemployed, was doing some rabbiting on Campbell’s farm for pocket-money. Clark was wearing a striking medal, which Murray, who had had a fascination for military and other decorations since childhood, recognised as the Order of Lenin, a Soviet decoration distributed copiously inside Russia, but awarded to very few foreigners. Seeing Murray’s stare, Clark tapped the impressive medal proudly, saying ‘It’s real, you know, not the stuff students wear. It’s a real gong’. Through Murray’s mind darted the thought, ‘Doesn’t he know how much blood is on it?’
He later looked up the medal in the Australian National University library, and satisfied himself that Clark had indeed been wearing the Order of Lenin. Though he thought this as shameful as wearing a Nazi decoration, he did not want to expose Clark, and it was only eight years later he chanced to mention it to an academic friend, the political scientist John Paul: ‘What would you think of a senior Australian historian who wore the Order of Lenin at a private dinner-party?’ Paul was incredulous, and asked Murray to describe what he had seen. ‘Lenin’s head in relief in silver [it was actually platinum], edged with ears of grain in gold, and red enamel above’, said Murray. Paul later mentioned Murray’s story to a journalist friend, Peter Kelly.
On 24 August 1996, while Murray was recovering from his operation, the Brisbane Courier-Mail ran a story by Kelly suggesting that Clark, who had died in 1991, had been a Soviet agent of influence who helped to select Australian diplomats; the newspaper used as evidence Murray’s sighting of his Order of Lenin. It also quoted an academic, Geoffrey Fairbairn, who in 1970 had seen the same medal worn by Clark at drinks at the Soviet Embassy, where Clark’s wife taught English to the staff, and where Clark himself tutored the Ambassador. Fairbairn had been deeply distressed to see the historian wearing the Soviet decoration, which he identified with certainty as the Order of Lenin.
Members of the Clark family angrily denied that Clark had ever been awarded the Order of Lenin, arguing that it must have been a lesser Soviet award, resembling a large coin, which Clark had received from the Russian Communists in 1970: unfortunately this could not now be found. For weeks a passionate controversy swirled through Australian and British papers. It was given a partisan edge by the fact that Clark had been closely associated with the Australian Labor Party. Labor politicians entered the fray in his defence.
Murray was the only living witness, Fairbairn having died in 1980, and he was badgered for interviews until he was exhausted. He came under tremendous pressure to deny that he had seen Clark wearing the Order of Lenin, but refused to do so, though he hated being the centre of the controversy. The medal he had seen and described to John Paul could not be mistaken for any other Soviet decoration, certainly not for something resembling a simple coin. Nor was it credible that Clark had merely bought or borrowed it (though Murray tactfully did not point this out), for Fairbairn had seen him wearing it at the Soviet embassy, the one place Clark would not have dared wear it had he not had a right to.
Given Clark’s frequently affirmed Leninist sympathies, it is not clear that any Soviet medal could do his reputation much further harm: he twice accepted invitations to tour the Soviet Union—in 1958 after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and again in 1970 after the Czech uprising was crushed—while in his shameful book Meeting Soviet Man, published in 1960, he had several times compared Lenin to Christ. For a time after his first visit to the USSR he had clipped his beard so as to give himself a striking resemblance to Lenin. At the very least, as a letter to the Economist put it, ‘the fact that the privately humane Clark proudly wore an ersatz Lenin medal on many occasions shows, for a supposedly great historian, a remarkable lack of knowledge or care about the career of one of the 20th century’s monsters’. Clark had in word and deed openly supported a system soaked with the blood of 100 million victims, and Murray had no wish to point the moral. He refused to comment further on the matter.
Publicity much more pleasant to him came with the publication, a month after he left hospital, of his latest volume of verse, defiantly entitled Subhuman Redneck Poems. The cover illustration was a photograph by Graham McCarter of Cecil Murray in the overgrown garden of the Bunyah house, wearing his bush-hat and holding his violin and bow, the very image of a rugged redneck musician. Many of the poems spoke for Cecil and for Murray’s people, the rural poor, against those who would patronise and suppress them: perhaps 10 per cent of the volume’s poems, as a result, were passionately indignant. The critic Don Anderson, whose judgement Murray respected, picked out this group of poems for condemnation and listed them by name, calling them ‘vile’. Murray felt they had hit the target: ‘He named all the right ones’, he remarked with a grin.
Anderson was right to remark on the unevenness of the volume—all Murray’s volumes are uneven, though as Bruce Clunies Ross would remark, ‘There's “less good” and “good”, but it's very hard to find really inferior Murray’. But perhaps Anderson had failed to see that Murray’s saeva indignatio in defense of the ‘redneck’, the poor, the common man, was as vital and energising to him as Yeats’s use of the occult was to the Irish poet. And other critics recognised that, as Elizabeth Lowry put it, ‘Murray’s poetry, grounded as it is in the assertion of the private claims of the individual against public pressures, might just conceivably be liberal in the original sense of the word’.
Anderson’s criticisms, though, did not extend to the bulk of the book, which was made up of poems as strong as any Murray had written: he was clearly a poet at the height of his powers, as Anderson affirmed:
He is a great poet of grief—here for his father, as he was for his mother in The People’s Otherworld. He is one of Australia’s premier poets of the natural world... His gift for similes that leap off the page like brush-fires is everywhere on display: ‘You slept like a salt tongue, in gauze’; ‘childhoods among bed-ticking midnights/blue as impetigo mixture’ (and note the rich double-entendre in ‘bed-ticking’); a woman’s hair is ‘like teak oiled soft to fracture and sway’. He is a master of economy.
Other critics saw these strengths too. The poet Sophie Masson, responding to Anderson’s negative comments about the angry poems in the volume, wrote: ‘There are surely so many other things in the collection—beauty and tenderness, great pain and loss, and an unerring eye for the numinous word and the almost unbearable, yet exquisite, image—and the taking of enormous risks, both personally and artistically’. It was perhaps above all the sense of suffering endured, accepted and overcome that gave the volume much of its power. And as Anderson recognised, Murray remained what he had been from the start of his career, one of the best nature-poets in the language, as in ‘Dead Trees in the Dam’:
Odd mornings, it’s been all bloodflag
and rifle green: a stopped-motion shrapnel
of kingparrots. Smithereens when they freaked.
Rarely, it’s wed ducks, whose children
will float among the pillars. In daytime
magpies sidestep up wood to jag pinnacles
and the big blow-in cuckoo crying
Alarm, Alarm on the wing is not let light.
This hours after dynastic charts of high
profile ibis have rowed away to beat
the paddocks. Which, however green, are
always watercolour, and on brown paper.
His description of two deaf women signing to one another, too, has a magical rightness to it, particularly in the brilliant imagist connection with Chinese calligraphy:
He could produce repeatedly the same deadly accurate bounce and stab, transfixing images like a bird, unerringly, as in ‘Comete’ with its description of a woman’s long hair:
Uphill in Melbourne on a beautiful day
a woman was walking ahead of her hair.
Like teak oiled soft to fracture and sway
It hung to her heels and seconded her
As a pencilled retinue, an unscrolling title
To ploughland, edged with ripe rows of dress,
a sheathed wing that couldn’t fly her at all,
only itself, loosely, and her spirits.
of life and self, brushed all calm and out,
its abstracted attempts on her mouth weren’t seen,
nor its showering, its tenting. Just the detail
that swam in its flow-lines, glossing about—
as she paced on, comet-like, face to the sun.
Subhuman Redneck Poems was a great critical success. It won Murray the premier British poetry award, the T. S. Eliot Prize, worth £5000, and TV news helicopters thwacked the skies above the Forty Acres and floated down into the paddocks around the little weatherboard house as journalists competed for interviews. Murray’s neighbours, to whom helicopters usually meant a medical emergency or police aerial-spotting for marijuana, were tremendously impressed.
Those Australian critics who had been peddling the view that his poetry had gone off badly since the 1970s gradually fell silent, though with apparent reluctance: ‘For this he gets the T. S. Eliot Prize’, lamented Ken Bolton in a review of Subhuman Redneck Poems. By contrast TIME magazine devoted a full-page encomium to his work, calling him ‘a national conscience-pricker’, and quoting one of the T. S. Eliot Prize judges, the poet Ruth Padel, as saying, ‘He is a good example of a poet who becomes universal by being very particular’. And, what pleased Murray even more, the volume was a great popular success, selling more than 10,000 copies in Australia, an astonishing figure for a book of poetry in a country of only 18 million people. Australians had proved again that they were willing to identify with his sometimes lonely struggle against literary and political fashion.
But that energising and stressful conflict never came to an end in spite of his occasional victories, and it was important to him that it should not. By February 1997 he was engaged in another ideological struggle, this time with Robert Manne, editor of Quadrant, for which Murray had acted as Literary Editor since 1989. Manne had from the start of his tenure sought to reposition Quadrant politically, and Murray, who at first had supported the move, gradually came to oppose it on the grounds that Manne was going too far. Murray thought Quadrant almost the last publication standing out against the left-wing fashions he deplored, and he did not want to see it abandon that position. The crisis came when he clashed with Manne over the Helen Demidenko affair.
In 1994 Demidenko had published an acclaimed first book, The Hand That Signed the Paper, a novel focusing on killings in the Ukraine by Communists before and by Nazis during World War II. Before its publication, on 22 September 1993, it won the Australian/Vogel Literary award. In June 1995 Demidenko also won Australia’s premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, a range of critics and commentators lauding her and her work.
But with that the tide turned. Beginning on 9 June 1995, criticism of the novel began to appear, centring on allegations that the book was anti-Semitic. There was no agreement on this, and on 3 July 1995 the novel won another prize, the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s Gold Medal. Then came a dramatic development. On 19 August 1995 it was revealed that Demidenko was not the daughter of a Ukrainian immigrant, as she had claimed, but the offspring of two English migrants: her real name was Helen Darville. There followed a storm of controversy, some of the critics who had previously praised her work now joining the many others who turned on her, attacking her as a fraud, a plagiarist and an anti-Semite. Her book was hastily dropped from the 1995 shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
Murray, who had not thought much of The Hand That Signed the Paper, felt intense sympathy with Demidenko/Darville once she came under a storm of often vicious personal abuse. ‘She was a young girl, and her book mightn't have been the best in the world, but it was pretty damn good for a girl of her age [20 when she wrote it]. And her marketing strategy of pretending to be a Ukrainian might have been unwise, but it sure did expose the pretensions of the multicultural industry’, he would remark. The ferocious, massed attack on her was a phenomenon he recognised from Taree High, and he would do his best to stand against it wherever it found a victim. He considered that Darville’s crime lay in showing up proponents of multiculturalism, and in ‘talking about dangerous material, the Holocaust and, more dangerous still, the immense slaughter, the killing fields, of the Communists—you're just not allowed to mention that stuff. The Communists have an enormous interest in suppressing all that history’. The claim that her novel was anti-Semitic he thought unsustainable, a view shared by level-headed Jewish and gentile commentators such as Andrew Riemer, Peter Singer, Thomas Kenneally and Leonie Kramer.
The first of Murray’s responses was a poem, ‘For Helen Darville’, which he published in Subhuman Redneck Poems, in which he draws attention, as Darville had, to the fact that the victims of Communism vastly outnumber those of Nazism and deserve equal pity:
The Six Million are worth full grief:
it isn’t enough to be stunned—
but showing up your elders’ multiculture
so easily is what got you shunned,
that, and pity for the greater working class
which their dream made work in the ground,
eighty million in a darkening red flag
outspread under ice, under grass.
Subsequently, in ‘A Deployment of Fashion’, he would link the attack on Darville with the wider phenomenon of attacks on those judged outcasts (from Lindy Chamberlain to Pauline Hanson) by society’s fashion police, the journalists, academics and others who form opinion:
In Australia, a lone woman
is being crucified by the Press
at any given moment.
With no unedited right
of reply, she is cast out
into Aboriginal space.
It’s always for a defect in weeping:
she hasn’t wept on cue
or she won’t weep correctly.
There’s a moment when the sharks are
still butting her, testing her protection,
when the Labor Party, or influence,
can still save her. Not the Church,
not other parties. Even at that stage
few men can rescue her.
Then she goes down, overwhelmed
in the feasting grins of pressmen,
and Press women who’ve moved
from being owned by men
to being owned by fashion,
these are more deeply merciless.
She is rogue property,
she must be taught her weeping.
It is done for the millions.
Sometimes the millions join in
with jokes: how to get a baby
in the Northern Territory? Just stick
your finger down a dingo’s throat.
Most times, though, the millions
stay money, and the jokes
are snobbish media jokes:
Chemidenko. The Oxleymoron.
Spittle, like the flies on Black Mary.
After the feeding frenzy
sometimes a ruefully balanced last lick
precedes the next selection.
Robert Manne, by contrast, joined in the attack on Darville, in a long article in Quadrant in August 1995, republished in the Sydney Morning Herald. Murray did not agree with Manne’s stance, though he sent him a card congratulating him on the fairness of his article.
There was a sharper disagreement between Murray and Manne on such issues as the printing of an article by Hal Colebatch claiming that Manning Clark had been anti-Semitic: Manne, who did not agree, rejected the piece, against Murray’s advice. Murray, like Manne, thought Colebatch mistaken, but felt he deserved a hearing. Colebatch subsequently got his opinion into Quadrant as a letter, which Manne countered editorially. The issue was important as a symptom of the struggle now in progress, and Murray came to feel Manne was taking the journal too far from its previous editorial stance.
He wrote to Manne, accusing him of having been ‘duchessed by the Left’ who were out to silence Quadrant and steal it. He told Manne he was disgusted by anyone who joined a gang to pick on an individual, and for good measure added that he was aware that Manne was trying to have him removed from Quadrant’s editorial board. On 21 July 1997 Manne wrote to the Committee of Management of the magazine asking for support in sacking Murray.
‘I’m fighting for my survival as Lit. Ed. of Qdt.’, Murray told Christine Alexander in February 1997: ‘Rob Manne’s out to dump me as he shifts politically. We’ll know soon who is to go’. In the event, it was Manne who went, Murray having the support of Committee of Management members such as Leonie Kramer for his view that under Manne’s direction Quadrant was in danger of losing its independent voice in Australian journalism. In addition to the Demidenko affair, Committee members seem to have felt that Quadrant was failing to take an independent line on the issues of racial politics which were now convulsing Australian public life.
Murray himself rather agreed with Manne’s line on racial issues, telling Geoff Page, ‘On Wik [a High Court ruling that Aboriginals could lay claim, on grounds of traditional ownership to land on the Australian mainland], I’m comfortable with it, and probably closer to the Dodsons [Mick Dodson and his brother Pat were prominent Aboriginal spokesmen] than to the Howards [John Howard, Liberal Prime Minister in 1997]’. But Committee members considered, as Manne reported to the Press, that Manne had changed Quadrant to the point where the journal ‘is indistinguishable from any other magazine of opinion, that it has lost its anti-leftist bite, and that only one line has been run on Mabo and Wik and the stolen children’. Finding the Board unwilling to remove Murray, and in fact keen to back him, Manne resigned.
Murray, telephoned by a journalist and asked to comment on events, replied that he valued Quadrant as a voice that added variety to editorial expression in Australia, that he had nothing against Robert Manne, and hoped that the Left which had tried to seize control of Quadrant would now treat Manne well in spite of the fact that he had failed to deliver the magazine to them.
In many of his dealings with the newspapers, which he had tended to regard as weapons of war, he was now more relaxed. In 1997 the Sydney Morning Herald was still taking what Murray called ‘the Aust. Council’s line against me’, alleging that he had had huge amounts of Literature Board support and deserved no more. In March 1997 the newspaper unwittingly printed in its letters column a spoof response, written by Murray’s friend Piers Laverty: ‘As a taxpayer who has no truck with poets or people of that ilk, I was horrified by the picture... of Big Les lollygagging about the Bunyah Health Farm, stuffing himself with lark’s tongues and the like... all paid for by the taxpayers’. Pleased with this, one weekend Murray amused himself by copying his dead father’s crabbed, turn-of-the-century handwriting, and produced in it a letter which he dispatched to the Sydney Morning Herald, supporting Laverty’s line, sourly disapproving of Murray’s ‘grant-bludging’, but revealing that ‘Les’s big government handout’ was the mainstay of the local economy of the Bunyah valley: ‘I know some butchers might have to go out of business if they didn’t supply Murray’s weekend whoopee parties with lawyers and penpushers at his estate as he has the hide to call it’. The letter was signed ‘Cecil Murray’. Again the newspaper fell for the hoax, only two days later grumbling gamely that ‘someone has been having a lend of the Herald’. Murray had reached the point where playfulness was replacing anger.
He was winning other, more personal battles too. With his new-found confidence in facing his past, he made his peace with some fellow pupils from Taree High. It was at this time that he began exchanging Christmas cards with a few of them, such as Ralph Suters and Robin Norling. He was even drawn to Barbara O’Neill, who as Barbara Montgomery had been one of the girls who had tormented him most actively. Some years before she had approached Murray and invited him to a Taree High School class reunion: in refusing it, he had reminded her of his treatment at her hands and those of her friends. He needed to put the matter behind him. O’Neill pleaded defensively, ‘We were only sixteen’. ‘I was only sixteen’, Murray replied evenly. Later he would remark, ‘We said a lot in that one exchange’. Victim and victimiser each had something to forgive, a profound and original insight which would inform the ending of Fredy Neptune.
Now he heard that O’Neill was dying of stomach cancer. Murray screwed up his courage and visited her in Taree’s Manning Base hospital several times, to her surprise and pleasure. As O’Neill neared her end Murray visited her for the last time, and as he left, gave her a big kiss of forgiveness on the cheek, to which she responded with warmth. ‘We both understood what we were saying’, Murray would recall later. The torments of Taree High were behind him at last.
His long process of reviewing and accepting his life was given added energy during these years by the process of self-examination which collaborating with a biographer entailed. From the end of 1994 onwards he submitted to long interviews which involved an often painful reliving of his past and the raking up of many old embers. I warned him that I might discover and reveal uncomfortable things about his background: ‘Anything you can find, you can use’, he repeated confidently. These lengthy interviews intensified during the second half of 1997, when he was Literary Fellow at the School of English, University of New South Wales; with his earlier harried visit in mind he had feared being ‘pelted by the feminists’ there, but the angry wave had passed its peak. Instead he found the university a pleasant change from Bunyah life, a change he registered in ‘Prime Numbers’:
Normally I live in the country,
work, garden, parry thrusts from the Herald,
but two days a week I fly in
to a cubicle in the Stacked City,
an every-coloured brick university
that is built on top of itself
like a brain’s lobes and evolutionary layers
on the last rock before Botany Bay.
The inner streets of this oppidum
are paved with grey carpet, and inmates
lie on them for cool negotiations
or to write in big pads. Footsteps with vocal
animate the stairs and little squares;
odd walls not yet built over
catch sun and frecklings of leaves;
a coffee shop may form round a stairwell ...
Back above the racehorse-named streets
in Overlap City, I’m really a specimen,
a mountain to geographers ...
But even as he submitted to exploration, mapping, classification, he was inspecting, analysing, writing himself, putting the final touches to the volume he would call ‘my secret autobiography’: Fredy Neptune.