Remembering Hal Colebatch
by Mark English
If you grew up in London or New York or any other city with a strong literary and/or cinematic tradition or even in towns (such as many in Europe) with strong local traditions and customs, the geography of your childhood has an enhanced reality. I grew up in possibly the most isolated and culturally tenuous capital city in the world: Perth, Western Australia. I have not visited for some considerable time and my fondest memories are generally the earlier ones, so the city I describe bears little relation to today’s version. It was a sleepy, provincial outpost with white sandy beaches stretching north and south; with Rottnest Island on the horizon, its two lighthouses (the main light and he fainter north light) starting to flash in the distance as the sun set over the vast, uninhabited, unpunctuated expanse of the southern Indian Ocean; a few late bathers wandering about, a few families sitting in their cars gathered around a fast food caravan (trailer) with a neon “Eats” sign perched on a low cliff overlooking North Cottesloe beach.
There was a palpable sense of being trapped – or perhaps nestled – in the middle of nowhere.
It was on the banks of a wide, slow, zigzagging river that British settlers founded the original Swan River Colony in 1829 in order to stop the French laying claim to the western part of the continent. There was always something a bit superfluous or derivative or unreal about Perth. Culturally it was very much provincial British (especially in my earlier memories of the place). But the climate was like Southern California, and most of the housing was “California bungalow” style.
D.H. Lawrence had visited. He hiked through the hills overlooking the city and wrote about the landscape. He stayed with friends in the hills. But he couldn’t take it for long.
It was the recent death of Hal G.P. Colebatch that got me thinking about all this again. His father, Sir Hal Colebatch, had been a prominent politician, a Senator and briefly Premier of the State of Western Australia. He had been an advocate of free trade and a leader of a secession movement towards which my father had been sympathetic.
Sir Hal Colebatch was a 72-year-old widower when he first met Marion Gibson, a 33 year old nurse. Young Hal was born ten months later. Marion (Lady Colebatch) later worked with my aunt, who was also a nurse. Hal was about 10 years old when he was introduced to her. She said to him, “I know your uncle,” thinking of a Dr Colebatch. “No. I am his uncle,” said the child. And so he was. The doctor was the grandson of Sir Hal (and his first wife).
Hal was bullied at boarding school and was advised to ignore it. It only got worse. It finally stopped (he claimed), when he threw one of his tormentors out of a second-story window.
The old State Library and Museum complex and the campus of the University of Western Australia were amongst Hal Colebatch’s favorite haunts. I often saw him, very tall and preoccupied-looking and always wearing black-rimmed glasses, loping along the pathways and porticos of the university.
Writers, artists, musicians, actors and intellectuals have always been inclined to move from provincial towns and cities to bigger cities. London loomed large for Australians at that time. Colebatch was unusual in his attachment to his home city. He had a couple of extended stays in England, but otherwise lived virtually his whole life in Perth.
Given his family background, he no doubt felt that he had a special stake in Perth and Western Australia. And, given that he loved the sea and the river and “messing about in boats,” it was not such a bad place to be. His first book of poems was called Spectators on the Shore. But even he could not sustain his interest in the place and its people, and his fiction writing shifted towards science fiction. He was a significant contributor (18 stories, well over half a million words) to the series, The Man-Kzin Wars (created by Larry Niven).
I had only one real conversation with Hal Colebatch. He was sitting alone one afternoon at a table in the “old ref” (refectory) on the UWA campus. I asked if I could join him.
He was quite a bit older than me. I knew that he had taught in the Politics Department, but I don’t think that he had his PhD at this stage. Basically he was a journalist and a writer; or, more precisely perhaps, a man of letters. He had a gift for satire but came to believe (as I do) that the opportunities for satire as a genre were diminishing.
I found him very welcoming, open and interesting to talk to. He disapproved of the Penguin paperback I had just bought at the bookshop next door (Couples by John Updike). He was starting out on a law degree, he told me. I was a bit surprised. He was doing it because he needed to earn some money, he said. He subsequently qualified and practiced, but the practice fizzled out, I understand, and writing continued to pay the bills.
In our conversation, the issue of graffiti in public lavatories somehow came up. He pointed out a curious fact which he had recently observed. All male students were aware of the endemic (and very crude) graffiti in the male students’ lavatories within the Arts (i.e. humanities) Faculty precinct. His observation related to the Engineering school on the other side of the campus which he had recently visited. The lavatories there were pristine, he said. No graffiti at all. He put this down to the engineers having healthier minds (I forget the precise terms he used) than male Arts students. Of course, it might have been simply that they had more assiduous and well-equipped cleaners working there but, on the face of it, his speculation seemed plausible.
I emphasize that these observations were made in the course of light conversation. He did not take these things (or himself) too seriously. But the general tenor of the remarks fit very well with what I know about him. He respected engineers. Technical details mattered. He didn’t have much respect for the typical Arts student of the time who was likely to be involved to some extent in radical politics and the drugs scene.
Hal Colebatch was very unpopular – actively hated and scorned, in fact – by the literary Left, which constituted a clear majority of writers and academics. He was a conservative; very anti-Communist; and not well disposed to elements of the trade union movement.
I have talked in the past about my distrust of historical narratives. Strangely, this was one of Colebatch’s big themes. My brother recalls a first-year Politics lecture (or possibly tutorial) which Colebatch gave in which he claimed that the standard narratives of history were almost invariably false. One example he elaborated on was the bombing of Guernica.
One of Colebatch’s last significant works exposed in dramatic fashion the way that a general reluctance on the part of historians, publishers and educators to broach or explore a politically sensitive issue can lead to serious distortions of the historical record. This particular case goes far beyond the confines of academic history. It is significant for people trying to understand the part that their families played in World War 2. Certainly, learning about the widespread sabotaging of the war effort by militant leftists within the labor movement has changed the way I see old rifts within my own family. Let me explain.
My father volunteered for and was assigned to a commando unit which was involved in significant battles with the Japanese in the Pacific. My aunt and uncle were opposed on ideological grounds to the war and considered their older brother’s actions to be a betrayal of some kind.
Though my father was involved at times in extremely dangerous operations, my aunt cut him off and would not write to him. Her only comment when I did some digging into official documents and discovered truly nightmarish details concerning my father’s war service (he suffered greatly) was to say that he had a death wish.
I assumed that my aunt and uncle’s extreme left-wing political orientation and pacifism was just some kind of family peculiarity, deriving from or (more likely) passed on through my grandfather. I know that my aunt idolized her father; and he idolized her. He died young, leaving my father as the eldest son – a teenager at the time – to take on heavy responsibilities. My aunt no doubt resented her increasingly cautious and anxiety-prone older brother taking her beloved, radical and flamboyant father’s place as head of the family.
But the scores of stories unearthed by Hal Colebatch about egregious and widespread sabotage campaigns conducted by militant left-wing unions against the war effort puts our little family dramas into a wider political context and changes the way I think about the past. Even little things which had been just taken for granted – like the soldiers’ relentless diet of bully beef – take on a different significance when you learn that fresh food rations for the troops were seriously restricted at least in part because of union action.
Australian governments were weak in dealing with this union sabotage and disruption. Early in the war, a conservative government feared provoking a general strike, and the subsequent Labour Party government was predictably – given the party’s strong ties to organized labor – soft on the unions. (By contrast, the Americans intervened with live fire and stun grenades to stop the destruction of their equipment by Australian dock workers.)
Hal Colebatch had a very polite and restrained manner, but he was always forthright. He didn’t hide his feelings. This is evident in a revealing 12-minute video interview he gave a few years ago to promote his book on Australia’s “secret war”.
Looking slightly frail, he tells a few of the stories he unearthed and concisely sums up their significance. His strong views on the behavior of the militant unionists come through very clearly.
The interviewer asks whether it was difficult for him to retain his objectivity on this issue, whether his feelings colored what he wrote. With a mischievous grin, Colebatch replies: “Well, I suppose that the writing does get a bit colorful at times.”
An obviously partisan figure, Colebatch was not a mere polemicist. His early training as a journalist on a respected newspaper reinforced a natural commitment to getting the facts right; and a quirky and inquiring mind imbued his writing, even the casual journalism (book reviews, op-eds, etc.), with style and substance.