‘Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life’ by Jenny Hocking


2005,  258 P & notes

I don’t particularly remember Frank Hardy.  If asked off the top of my head, I would have said that he died in the 1970s. I’m like the former premier of New South Wales Barry Unsworth who said in 1986, “I thought Frank Hardy was dead. I really did.” In fact, Frank Hardy didn’t die until 1994, but for me he somehow seems always to be of the  black-and-white TV decades, always associated with the races and cigarette smoke. I don’t remember the television program “Would You Believe?” (1970 -1974) which seems to have been a forerunner to “Would I Lie To You?”, on which he appeared as a regular panelist. But I do remember the Channel 2 miniseries ‘Power Without Glory’, for which Frank Hardy was notorious when it was published in 1950 and feted when it was televised in 1976.  It tells the story of John Wren of Collingwood, fictionalized as John West of Carringbush, and the corruption of the local ALP.

Melburnites of a certain age (and older) will be familiar with the underworld figure John Wren and it seems that many Melbourne families have their own John Wren stories.  For myself, my first husband’s family’s foundry was in Johnston St Collingwood, just up the road from John Wren’s tote.  On my side of the family, my own great-grandfather joined in the Sunday morning horse races along Sydney Rd to the Sarah Sands Hotel  ( a turn of the century version of drag racing maybe?) where he ended up beating a horse owned by John Wren, who was keen to purchase the victorious horse. My great-grandfather was not keen to sell. Wren came up to my great-grandfather, assured him that every man had his price, and left his card with him.  I don’t know how the story ended.

The first word in the subtitle of Hocking’s book is ‘politics’, and it was politics that drove Frank Hardy’s life. Hardy, as a member of the Communist Party, was financially supported by the Party for four years to write Power Without Glory. I had naively forgotten that the Communist Party hated the Labor Party as much – if not more- than the Nationalists/Liberals. The book was a way of smearing the Labor party by publicizing links between Labor politicians and the underworld ‘entrepreneur’ John Wren.

In her biography of Frank Hardy Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life, Jenny Hocking describes the writing of Power Without Glory and its effect on the rest of Frank Hardy’s literary work.  It was a big book that Hardy mapped out carefully, researching real-life figures and very  loosely fictionalizing them by giving them pseudonyms with the same initials.  The book’s Wikipedia entry has a long list of the real-life and fictional characters, and the renaming is all rather obvious.  It was an unwieldy book, and it was to solve a narrative problem that Hardy took up a rumour that he’d heard about an extramarital affair and a resulting illegitimate daughter.  As Hocking tells it, Hardy agonized over the inclusion of this illegitimate daughter and so he changed her identity into a son. He was to continue to agonize over this decision in his own reflections on the writing process for the rest of his career.

Power Without Glory was published in 1950 within the context of the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act.  It was printed surreptitiously, as seen in a  fascinating article by Des Crowley about the State Library of Victoria’s four-volume copy of the book ‘Proof Copy or Clandestine Version‘.  Almost immediately Hardy was brought before the court by the Wren children for criminal libel of their mother Ellen Wren (Nellie West). Hardy was found not guilty, on the basis that John West was a synthesized fictional character, not a real person.  He had escaped the clutches of the law through the decision that Power Without Glory was fiction but he and his readers knew that, at its core, it was not. The questions of fact, fiction, truth, reality and memory lay at the heart of many of his later works, most particularly The Hard Way and Who Killed George Kirkland?  It was like a weeping sore.

But as Hocking shows, there was more to Hardy’s career than Power Without Glory. Hardy was a member of the Communist Party from youth. Hocking describes the Australian literary scene at the time, when ASIO agents eyed literary figures and organizations with suspicion, and when the Party itself fractured after Kruschev’s revelations about Stalin, and the rise of Communist China.  Hardy was an outsider to academia, he was very much a contemporary of the other realist writers at the time: Jean Devanny,  Dorothy Hewett, Katherine Susannah Pritchard.  Hocking captures well the jealousies and enmities within the various branches of the Society of Realist Writers, and the politics behind the editorship of the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group’s publication Realist Writer as it metamorphized into Overland.  Hardy railed against the “Patrick White Australia Policy” which lionized White but starved Hardy of Commonwealth grants because of his politics. In many ways, he received more recognition overseas that he did in Australia, even though he affected a quintessentially ‘Australian’ identity and stage presence.

Hardy was often impecunious, often because of his gambling, in which he followed his father. He was a difficult husband, conducting multiple affairs, leaving his wife Ross [sic] to cover the family expenses, and in effect doing exactly what he wanted to with little thought of his obligations or responsibilities. He was a loving brother to his sister Mary, who compered that weird Channel 7 trotting show Penthouse Club, which I loathed.

[As an aside, Marieke Hardy who appeared on the late, lamented First Tuesday Book Club, followed her grand-father and great-aunt into screen-writing and television]

He was also heavily involved with the Wave Hill Walk Off, acting as scribe and reporter for Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji land rights struggle.  It was an involvement that drew the enmity of business, the Liberal government and the Communist Party, which dominated the indifferent North Australian Workers’ Union.  It was through this involvement that he became a close friend of Fred Hollows.

I really enjoyed this book, which took me to many events and places that I didn’t anticipate.  Hocking draws heavily on Frank Hardy’s own papers, but also Hardy’s autobiographical writing, newspapers spanning some 40 years, correspondence and papers of a slew of contacts and interviews.  You don’t need to have read Hardy’s works (I’ve only read Power without Glory) because Hocking gives a good taste of their flavour, and her list of Hardy’s works at the end of the book highlights how prolific he was as a playwright, journalist and writer of both short stories and full length novels.  The book is painstakingly researched but easy to read.

But -oh- he was a slippery character.  He was a great ‘yarner’ and gave the appearance of being open, while boiling inside with secrets. His carefreeness barely cloaked carelessness and irresponsibility.

Near the end of the book, Hocking sums up his life:

In Hardy’s fragmented character, the committed political activist, tireless Party worker and determined writer coalesced with the man who shamelessly abandoned himself to the lure of racing, gambling and debt.  It was this divided character, with its alternating obsessions that had enabled Hardy to withstand decades of official disinterest, denial and derision, sustained by a political cultural milieu that he had himself helped create. But the uneasy juxtaposition of literary revelation, political action and personal secrecy within him always threatened to fracture, held together through continuing self-examination and by the unmet promise of eventual disclosure. Although he wrote extensively about himself, presenting each new work as the opportunity for self-reflection and revelation previously denied him, in each retelling Hardy revealed little that was new. (p 256)

Source: La Trobe University Library

Read because: My interest was piqued after reading Paul Strangio’s book about the Victorian Labor Party Neither Power nor Glory

My rating:  9/10


I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

7 responses to “‘Frank Hardy: Politics Literature Life’ by Jenny Hocking

  1. An interesting review of what sounds like an interesting book. I read Power Without Glory in 1970 (ish). Enjoyed it though thought the writing a bit clunky. I think that of all your socialist realists – I knew they were all communists but it hadn’t occurred to me they considered themselves a ‘school’. One day I must do (give/take, it hardly matters) a U3A course in schools of writing in Aust. I think that’s where my Gens are headed anyway.

    • residentjudge

      That would be a fascinating course- you should. I suspect that I’m a bit far away in Melbourne to attend though;

  2. Great review; I didn’t even know about this book, though I’d looked at another, partial biography of Hardy.
    Katharine Susannah Prichard’s copy of Power Without Glory has a typescript giving all the real life equivalents of the character names – I assume the list was circulating.
    I think a literary biography can and should give an appreciation for a writer’s work without the need to have already read it; too many reviews end with ‘and like any great literary biography it points you to the works so you can go and read them’ – so glad you think this one does it well.

  3. I found the book Power Without Glory riveting. It may have been my first real education about corruption in high places. I very much enjoyed the tv series too. A friend in the early 1980s lived in the same block of flats in Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park, as Mary lived before her suicide and had some contact with her. I liked that she was quite self effacing about her looks. I liked that she was challenging, and at times vulgar when everything on tv then was so nice. My ever so prim grandmother used to shriek with laughter at what Mary would come out with at times. Mary was a mentally frail person, like so many talented people. I can certainly remember Frank being interviewed on tv. Perhaps he was somewhat of a difficult and uncaring person, but for me, he is a hero, so I probably won’t read the book. There is enough in modern life to be disillusioned about.

  4. I am really keen to read his book The unlucky Australians. I’ve read the opening paras and love his style. It’s about the Gurindji land rights story. I have my parents’ old copy – from their downsizing last year. N.ow, I just have to read it

  5. Pingback: History Memoir and Biography: March 2018 Round Up – Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  6. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018 completed | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s