Over the long weekend (which I lengthened by almost a day at each end) D and I went to Canberra to visit my father. My stepmother is in Italy at present – as at last weekend, Siena, to be precise.
At the last minute I tried to get to see the Bell Shakespeare Company’s As You Like It at the Canberra Playhouse, but decent tickets for the three of us were not to be had.
As ever, I also read some of my father’s books.
One of these was Dorothy Hewett‘s autobiography, Wild Card.
My father was at UWA for some of the time Hewett was there, and he remembers having some conversations with her. She was, he told me, a fine looking woman, though the conversations were not of this type – he actually said something to the effect of her being quite out of his league. Although father doesn’t get a guernsey (in any event, a dubious honour), the autobiography does mention other WA figures who were known to my parents and to me via them, including Ron Strachan, who was a great chum of Hewett’s and subsequently director of Taronga Zoo. (This WA mafia was a funny thing: in my childhood we also occasionally met Vince Serventy, who had been my mother’s high school science teacher.)
Wild Card deals with Hewett’s life up to 1958, when she moved back to Perth from Sydney with her three children. According to Hewett, she did so after Les Flood, her then de facto and father of her children, who was exhibiting fairly florid symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, burnt all her manuscripts and papers (save for the sole m/s which he thought politically acceptable) and one of her children told her that Flood was planning to leave her and take their children with him.
In 1949, in order to move to Sydney with Flood, Hewett had left her first husband and Clancy, their son, in Perth. Shortly after the move, she learnt that Clancy, aged three, was ill with what was “eventually diagnosed as acute lymphatic lukaemia, a killer disease for which there was no known cure.” She writes (p 177 in my 1990 Penguin edition, if you want to look it up or, for that matter, if you don’t want to but need a footnote):
I had never even heard of it before but, consumed with guilt and horror, I used money I didn’t have to send urgent cables to children’s clinics in the USSR and America. I rang and consulted dozens of Sydney child specialists. Each time the same answer came back, it tolled like a funeral bell. ‘You must face the facts,’ they said, ‘that there is nothing to be done.’ But I couldn’t face it.
Only in action could I get any peace, and there was no more action to take. I even wrote to Arthur Calwell, the shadow Foreign Minister in the defeated Labor Party, whose twelve-year-old son had died of leukaemia. He sent a Commonwealth car round to Marriott Street [in Redfern, where Hewett was living at the time] with a parcel of his dead son’s books for Clancy. I stood in the ugly room, touched almost in spite of myself, with the pile of books in my arms. In those days the Communist Party, echoing Stalin, saw the Labor Party as the main enemy. Social Decmocrats were traitors to teh working class. They always sold out under pressure. Lenin had described the Australian Labor Party as a ‘bourgeois reformist party.’ But the simple humanity of a parcel of used books that had once belonged to a dead child cut through all the theories. I was conscious of Les [Flood] staring out of the window as the car drove away, laughing grimly with his brother. ‘That’s an easy way to get a few votes,’ he said.’
The Monthly magazine runs a regular feature, “Encounters” on unlikely or unusual Australian historic encounters. The August 2007 issue dealt with Arthur Calwell and Peter Kocan, who in his youth famously attempted to shoot Calwell at a political meeting in Mosman. Calwell and Hewett is to me a more intriguing, and touching, “encounter.”
The books were presumably left behind somewhere along the way, if not burnt in the bonfire.