When Neville Cunningham died, the world lost a great fighter for peace, justice and equality. I first met Neville Cunningham through fellow communist, band mate and cellmate Harry Anderson in the 1960s.
Harry and Neville had been shipmates and comrades for years. Both enthralled and entertained many gatherings with hilarious stories of their adventures at sea and fighting bosses for better wages and conditions. From 1978 his home, The Beehive, so called because of the bee boxes he kept in his backyard for honey, became a meeting place for left activists and the folk music fraternity in general.
When I left Newcastle to head bush for a new life as a teacher and folksinger, Nev generously helped shift me to central western NSW in his small truck. In recent times I have had a number of discussions with Nev as I researched material for an upcoming memoir which includes a segment featuring his activities.
When Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, they cut off all communications with the outside world. The FRETILIN movement began a clandestine radio station to broadcast up-to-the-minute information about their struggle. These broadcasts were picked up in the Northern Territory by an illegal mobile radio receiver that was operated by supporters of FRETILIN. Nev spent five months in the Northern Territory, guarding and transporting the receiver while playing hide and seek with the Australian authorities and police, who seemed bent on destroying communications with Timor to appease the Indonesian government.
Long after the demise of the Communist Party, from which he resigned over the issue of “truth”, Neville continued to produce regular newsletters in Newcastle that became a link between individuals, groups, and organisations who wished to conduct activities outside the established media and power structures. He also carried out much research and has written on aspects of Australian life and politics, including short stories, and conducted a small irregular folk club at the Beehive.
Nev had a close association with communist author Frank Hardy and was Hardy’s campaign manager when he stood against the rabid anti-communist Billy Wentworth in Mackellar in 1955. Nev helped the perennially broke gambling addict Hardy, twice evicted, move house. Neville actually gave Hardy the idea of the plot for his book The Outcasts of Foolgarah, in which Neville’s cousin, a garbage worker union delegate, became the model for the central character. When I spoke to Neville last year, he told me he didn’t like Hardy’s portrayal of the strike in his book, because he fictionalised the story and “the truth is the truth and that’s it”.
It is interesting to contrast Neville’s view with Hardy, who wrote: “Fact is not the same as truth. Truth is not the opposite of fiction.” It is not insignificant that the subtitle to his novel Who Shot George Kirkland? was “A Novel about the Nature of Truth”.
It is also interesting to note that Nev’s final split with the CPA was over truth and Nev’s right to tell it in the way he wanted through his first published short story, published in The Bulletin, “Me and My Mate Harry and The Peace Badges”.
Nev was born in 1935 in the Great Depression and devoted his entire life to improving the living conditions of his fellow humans, in particular the working classes and the downtrodden. His love of nature was manifested in his love of beekeeping which can be seen in his beautiful short story “Confessions of A Beekeeper”. This love transformed into a 100% commitment to our Mother Earth through the environment movement.