Not Happy Manning: Part One

On the 24th August 1987 the last volume of Manning Clark’s A History of Australia was launched by David Malouf. Peter Ryan was Clarkâs publisher at Melbourne University Press and Manning thanked him generously at the launch. “Peter Ryan was an is a great publisher. . . . Thank you Peter for your faith in the dark days and your delight in all that has happened”.

In fact Ryan had harboured sufficient doubts about the venture completed with the launch of the final volume to have kept him away from the launch. He doesn’t seem to have raised his concerns directly with Clark but did so indirectly – by sending Clark some negative reviews and seeking his reaction. Manning wasn’t forthcoming.

As many readers would know, Ryan launched a savage attack on Clark in Quadrant in 1993 – not very long after Clark had died. One might sympathise with what was no doubt a sincerely held concern with his own complicity in what he ultimately came to think of as academic charlatanism.

I have a bias because like a lot of people I enjoyed the considerable hospitality of the Clark family. I lived in their converted garage for a while in the 1980s and when I wasn’t there one or other of two very good friends lived there. Manning and the marvellous Dymphna were remarkably generous to whomever happened to be occupying the office of the ‘gamekeeper’ – the guy down the back in the garage.

Whoever you were you were invited to dinners up at the house â with all sorts of folks both eminent and otherwise. You were welcome at their place on the coast – whether they were there or not – so were your friends. So were hitch-hikers they picked up. So I guess it would not be particularly becoming of me to join in the chorus of nastiness towards him.

Still his contribution has always been beguiling to me â as it seems to have been for so many people. Itâs not as if I feel obliged to defend his Great Opus â his six volume History of Australia. John Hirst – sensible on so many things offers a fairly dismissive view. He concludes “I am a critic of Clark’s practice and admirer of his original vision” and explains himself this way.

His early essays and the introductions to the documents are the best history Clark wrote. They are fair minded, accurate, subtle in their interpretation â all qualities which become increasingly difficult to discern in the six volumes of the History which follow. In the early work the dramatist and the prophet were under the discipline of the social scientist; in the History he broke free and if he succeeded as dramatist or prophet it was at the expense of rendering a clear account of the history of Australian society. The books are loosely organised chronicles with the events linked to each other on no firmer ground than that they were happening at the same time. The evidence on any point never accumulates, so the authorâs judgments carry no authority; they are obiter dicta of a rather wayward and impressionable judge. . . . To have uncovered and convincingly depicted two or three tragic heroes among Australia’s public figures would have been an achievement; in making Hamlets of them all, he went dangerously close to bringing himself into derision.

I think Hirst might be right, though I’m not at all sure.

And yet I still think Manning did something both worthwhile and remarkable with his life – of which more later.

A couple of weeks ago searching for material for Missing Link on the latest Manning Clark excitement â his incorrect recounting of his arrival in Germany the morning after Kristallnacht – I came upon this thoroughly poisonous review by Ryan.

I remain completely mystified. Not by Peter Ryan’s view that Manning’s history is vastly over-rated and isn’t much good. Everyone is entitled to his opinion and the quality of his work is obviously a legitimate subject of public debate. But the gratuitous and relentless personal nastiness of his attack makes one wonder what itâs all about.

Ryan canât help himself.

Thus for instance he laments the too gentle treatment that Clark gets in a book dedicated to the history of History at Melbourne University. There one chapter refers to the musical of Clarkâs History of Australia as “perhaps the most original spectacle of the Bicentennial year”. Well I saw it and didnât think much of it. What that has to do with Clark Iâm not too sure, but Ryan tells us that it was âa ghastly flop, rushed red-faced off the stage after a run of a few days.

It was a flop. And who cares? But for someone whoâs just lambasted Clark for âhis incapacity to handle mere factsâ. isnât âa few days❠a funny way to report what is more accurately reported on the Manning Clark House website thus “[T]he company struggled to complete the six week season, incurring a large financial loss”?

Almost no paragraph passes without some gratuitous attack and throughout it all thereâs that flavour of the inquisition â in which the accused will be condemned no matter which way the evidence falls. Ryan tells us this:

I tried to tease him as the costume took shape, but he agreed, with perfect good humour, that he was turning himself into a character, rather like Edna Everage. In 1978 Patrick White, launching volume IV of the History, told the audience that Clark’s attire was “just one of his gimmicks”.

So whatâs the problem? Clark made a character out of himself, as do many people. He didn’t dissemble, as he didn’t dissemble in one of his autobiographical books when he said “fame was always a spur”. Is that a bad thing? If Clark had denied it Ryan would have him for duplicity.

Manningâs writing captures – well or badly depending on your perspective and your taste – his own contradictory nature and the concomitant vision. Peter Craven puts it remarkably well. (Not everything Peter Craven writes is great, but how does he write so much great stuff? And how can someone who writes so well have such an irritating plum in his mouth when he talks?)

Manning Clark was a man who was for many things, not least the moodiness of his own contradictions. [Stephen] Holt [his first biographer] says that the Long Dorm at Melbourne Grammar formed him and gave him his lifelong identification between philistinism and cruelty and the Yarraside establishment of a Melbourne that believed any second coming was just for them. At the same time he could never finally decide what intellectual contradictions to bring to bear on the turbulent dramas he apprehended or imagined. Was Nettie Palmer speaking truth when she espoused the Republican Cause in that 1930s debate about the Spanish Civil War and if so why did Manning thrill to Bob Santamaria’s cry of ‘Viva el Cristo Rey‘. Of course he could never decide what side he was on because his eye was on the gestures and the vision that lay behind them. As R.P. Blackmur once said of Shakespeare, Manning Clark had a provisional faith in many things.

If one wants to engage in character assassination, the style that Manning developed for expressing this vision is a gift that makes the whole thing like shooting fish in a barrel. When Clark waxes lyrical about the hope for better things embodied at least in the vision of the socialists â even if the world they built in Russia was full of cruelty and conformism â then you quote those bits that speak well and wistfully of socialism. You donât quote the equally strong qualifications, and Clarkâs frequent warnings that the utopian visions sometimes masked âhellâ in peopleâs hearts.

Weâll quote more chapter and verse – on those claims and on Ryan’s attacks – in the next installment.

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