The glory of a powerful author

Issue 

Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life
By Jenny Hocking
Lothian Books, 2005
310 pages, $39.95 (hb)

REVIEW BY PHIL SHANNON

It took 40 police and the Tactical Response Group to arrest Frank Hardy in 1986 at a Writers-in-the-Park event at the Harold Park Hotel in Glebe, Sydney. Although his offence on this occasion was $8000 of unpaid parking fines, the scale of the operation was a fitting finale to the fear and loathing that Australia's best-known communist and most popular writer aroused amongst the defenders of power and wealth.

Jenny Hocking recounts with relish the Glebe incident and other tales of Hardy in her fine biography of the man who was born in rural Victoria, auspiciously in 1917, the year of revolution in Russia. Leaving school at age 14 at the peak of the Depression in 1931, Hardy continued his education at the hands of the harsh instructors of unemployment, bread-and-dripping and European fascism, with his university the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

During World War II, as ASIO started up its 50-year watch on him, Hardy won over many new recruits to the party through his Army beer-night storytelling in the Northern Territory and his work for the Army Education Service journal in Melbourne.

His first, and explosive, novel — Power Without Glory — was a party assignment, an expose of the Australian Labor Party and parliamentary politics through the novel's anti-hero, John West, a thinly disguised but fictionally independent take on John Wren, the Collingwood boot-worker who rose from the slums through the gambling and gangster world to be a multi-millionaire financier and Labor Party warlord.

The novel was published and distributed by the CPA in 1950, rushed into print to avoid the attempt by Prime Minister Robert Menzies to ban the party. Sales of the novel soared, many attracted to what they saw only as a scandal sheet on the high-profile Wren. Then a small libel bomb, quietly ticking in its pages, went off.

At the instigation of John Wren's son (John Wren, jnr), and to shield Wren himself from scrutiny in court, it was Ellen Wren (John Wren's partner) who brought a case of criminal libel against Hardy for portraying her as an adulterer who had had an illegitimate child. Hardy's criminal libel case was a political trial of the highest order. The charge was not civil libel, punishable by an award for damages, but criminal libel, an arcane offence (not seen in Victoria for over 50 years) carrying a 20-year sentence. The charge required the support of the state government to proceed. The conservative Victorian government did so, on the advice of the state's Crown Solicitor, one Frank Menzies, the prime minister's brother.

The prosecution continually sought to denigrate Hardy as a communist (which was irrelevant to the libel charge), portraying Power Without Glory as "part of a communist conspiracy against our system of government". Hardy saw the case in its broader context of anti-communism, the stalking horse for attacks on political democracy and civil liberties, and joined battle on this front outside the courtroom. In a rousing defeat for anti-communist hysteria, the jury found Hardy not guilty.

Hocking's engaging biography is humanly understanding, politically fair and analytically astute in its treatment of Hardy's revolutionary politics and his complex and sophisticated approach to politics and literature. Hocking brings Hardy fully alive as writer and revolutionary.