It was back in the mists of time but I easily recall the day in September 1961 when I dropped in to the NSW District Court to listen to what promised to be a sensational political trial. It centred on a notorious novel – finally published this week some 54 years later – about the catastrophic Labor Split of the 1950s, written by the famous journalist Alan Reid. It was called The Bandar Log in an allusion to the vicious chattering monkeys of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The subtitle makes its theme clearer: ‘A Labor Story of the 1950s’. Reid personalised the story as a war to the death between the attack dog of the Labor Left who was obviously meant to be Dr H.V. Evatt and the hero of the anti-communists who was obviously Bob Santamaria. Reid’s problem was to find a publisher.The book publishing division of his employer Australian Consolidated Press would not take it on. They thought it would not sell. (‘We are not in the business of losing money.’) A second publisher, Angus & Robertson, was keen. They even thought it might win the Miles Franklin Prize. But as Reid tells the story, one day an old Labor cobber sidled up to him in King’s Hall in the old Parliament House and whispered: ‘It’s not coming out!’ He was right. A&R finally turned the book down as defamatory. Then unexpectedly a third publisher turned up, P.J. Atkins of Cleveland Press, who said he thought there might be a quid in it. (Atkins was President of the Democratic Labor Party in NSW.) He wanted to publish it in time for the 1960 Christmas trade. But suddenly Atkins’ printer – Halstead Press, owned by A&R – followed A&R’s ruling that the book defamed prominent public figures. It refused to go on with the printing. The publisher thereupon sued Halstead Press for damages for breach of contract. The case came before the District Court. Despite great expectations the court-room drama was low-key, even dull. The principal witness for the printer was the literary scholar Dr Colin Roderick, a director of Angus & Robertson. He painstakingly showed how closely the fictional characters mirrored and defamed actual public figures such as Dr Evatt and Bob Santamaria. The cross-examining barrister for the publisher – the formidable Tom Hughes, later Attorney-General in the federal Liberal government – argued that the characters were definitely not portraits of real people. They were simply political types that turn up everywhere in politics from Washington to Westminster, from Canberra to the Kremlin – the wheeler-dealer, the fanatic, the madman, the fixer, the opportunist, the ideologue, the double-crosser, the stooge, the sycophant, the jackal or whatever. But despite Hughes’ aggressive and lengthy cross-examination, Roderick stuck doggedly to his observation that the characters were thinly disguised portraits of actual politicians in Canberra. When I wrote up the case for the Bulletin of September 1961 I reported that ‘it seemed at times as if Dr Roderick was being subjected to an extremely stiff Leaving Certificate examination in textual criticism’ – and passing.
But rereading my piece after 54 years, I see I did not do justice to the contest. My divided loyalties got in the way. My sympathies were with Reid. He was a colleague at the Bulletin and although I often, and increasingly, disagreed with him, I wanted to see his novel published. But I was also convinced that Colin Roderick was right that the characters in the novel were portraits of real public figures – not only Evatt and Santamaria but also Arthur Calwell, Eddie Ward, Gough Whitlam, and Dr John Burton among others. I did not put my by-line on the report. We presented it as ‘From a Sydney Correspondent’. Readers today, more than 50 years later, will probably consider The Bandar Log as hard-hitting if dated commentary. But in 1961, at the time of would-be publication, it was an inflammatory and libellous, if accurate, account by an insider. The Judge found the book was defamatory and dismissed the claim for damages.
It was a triumph for Dr Roderick. Consider the portrait of Evatt: ‘…brilliantly mad, pursued by a sense of historic destiny. Subtle, a self-deceiver. Haunted by the lust for earthly power and a desire for immortality in the memory of man… he would not let what to him were the trifles of normal standards of morality and the little decencies of human existence stand between him and the end he was pursuing… shifty moody, sombre and morose…’
After the hearing in the District Court, Reid returned his manuscript to the bottom drawer, to be forgotten and apparently lost to history. But a copy of the printer’s galley proofs survived among the Roderick papers in the Mitchell Library – ignored by historians until recently discovered by Ross Fitzgerald [who with Stephen Holt had a few years ago published the biography Alan (‘The Red Fox’) Reid.] Fitzgerald corrected the proofs and edited the novel again. Connor Court has now published it, at long last, with a Foreword by Prime Minister Abbott (who calls Reid ‘the Paul Kelly of his day’), an Introduction by Fitzgerald and Holt (who find the novel ‘surprisingly relevant today’), and a Postscript by Laurie Oakes (who notes Reid’s ‘extraordinarily bleak’ picture of Canberra politics – ‘filthy and disgusting… a sewer’.) One point is clear: the novel, wooden, creaky and didactic, has little literary merit, but it evokes the spirit of Labor politics in the 1950s. It is a document that will be of lasting interest to students of Australian politics. How many more such documents are still out there, in library archives or family garages, waiting to be discovered?