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.

16 Comments »

  1. I grew up in possibly the most isolated and culturally tenuous capital city in the world: Perth, Western Australia.

    That’s where I grew up. Well, technically, it was South Perth. But that’s near enough (and nearer than Cottesloe). But I had never heard of Hal Colebatch.

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      • Yes, I often visited the zoo. We usually took the tram, as it was a longish walk from where I lived.

        My earliest memory of the zoo, was of the squirrels. They were the only animals not in cages. But I guess they don’t try to escape from the zoo, because there’s not much food for them in the native Australian vegetation.

        After my earlier reply, I looked up Hal Colebatch. And I see that he must have still been in high school at the time I left for graduate study in the US. That’s probably why I had never heard of him.

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        • I too grew up in South Perth, in an area then called South Kensington, which I now see sounds rather posh — which it wasn’t. For me the then new Civic Centre with its modern Public Library was important. My sisters and I went there often, with Smith the dog in the bike’s carrier basket. Americans may be surprised to know that South Perth had its own baseball team, which we followed religiously.

          Speaking of writers, I think Walter Murdoch lived opposite the library. Tom Hungerford was known as the fictional chronicler of South Perth. Sally Morgan later wrote about the area where I lived. At age 11, I moved to the country. I never saw any city other than Perth until I was aged 22. That was common. We thought the rest of the world was isolated from us.

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          • I too grew up in South Perth, in an area then called South Kensington, which I now see sounds rather posh — which it wasn’t.

            We might have almost been neighbors. I attended Kensington School (neighbourhood elementary school). And I just had to use the Australian spelling of “neighbourhood” there.

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          • Hi Neil. I went to South Kensington primary school (now a place for seriously disabled kids), just a short distance away, 1956 to 1961.

            I was going to say that there were no writers in the country town to which I moved (thus claiming a sort of reverse authenticity), then I remembered that there is a large book about the fiction writers of the Western Australian wheatbelt: “Like Nothing on this Earth” by Tony Hughes-d’Aeth. Many of the authors came from my region. I read the book last year.

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  2. Mark English:
    Wharfies war profiteering and general intransigence is expunged from history. If they were associated in any way with a conservative movement they would be quite correctly named and shamed. A great account of a decent man who recieved the ultimate accolade of being hated by the liberal intelligentsia of the university. It is hardly credible that the wharfies would block the disembarkation of men who were coming home from the hell of Japanese P.O.W. camps.

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    • Alan

      The term ‘Perthling’ is most appropriate in the context, having a retro, sci-fi feel to it. I see that it is quite widely used now. Usen’t to be, I think. The only demonym I recall hearing is ‘Perthite’.

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  3. I vaguely remembered the kerfuffle about Australia’s Secret War, but would never have connected that one with that against the Kzin. The pacifism of some of those coming out of WW1 was pretty heartfelt.

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    • David

      “The pacifism of some of those coming out of WW1 was pretty heartfelt.”

      The tradition of radical thought which influenced members of my family pre-dated WW1, and the radicalism of the unions probably did also. The latter, certainly, had little or nothing in common with the noble sentiments expressed by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, for example.

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  4. The second half of this article gets less and less interesting for me, possibly because entirely regional, if true. Certainly, in the US, the left-unionists were solidly behind the war effort, and, it must be admitted, received benefit from this. Any problems they had (and they did have them) were of a different nature than Colebatch wrote of (and not without controversy, apparently).

    However, the first half of the article is quite interesting and well-written. Colebatch certainly sounds like an interesting person and an interesting writer; and Mark has every right to promote his personal memories of the man, as well as how the man’s writing influenced his own beliefs and viewpoints.

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      • It certainly was. Perth may have been very isolated, but I see old gun emplacements and ammunition facilities every day.

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    • ejwinner

      I realize that the issues raised – both personal and political – in the latter part of the essay may have limited interest for Americans. Bear in mind, however, that from 1942 the American General Douglas MacArthur (as supreme commander of the South West Pacific Area) was based in Melbourne. All Australian as well as American troops were under his command. So, in effect, Australian dock workers and other radicals were directly sabotaging the US war effort.

      It is amazing and extremely depressing that these events were covered up for so long. My father never talked about the war and, as Colebatch makes clear, written sources just didn’t deal with the issue. I had no idea that such things had gone on and I find it disgusting that such a tacit cover-up could have occurred.

      Of course such claims are going to be controversial in the sense that they provoke defensive reactions. But even if (which I don’t believe for minute to be the case) half the stories were false or misleading, the rest would still constitute a damning indictment of the academics and writers responsible for researching and chronicling this period of history.

      But I present the issues which Colebatch brought to light as an illustration of general points (academic conformism, and the need for skepticism about established historical narratives). I like it that Colebatch puts the emphasis on his informants and specifically talks about himself as a journalist uncovering a story (or a set of stories).

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