Memoir

A letter to my father

DEAR NEVILLE,

I know you weren't that keen on poetry – apart from Henry Lawson's ‘Faces in the Street'– but here's a short poem I wrote a couple of years ago. I'd been looking at the black and white snap that shows us standing at your grave, huddled there in the winter light out on the flats near the Altona petro-chemical complex. It was a big mob of unionists and peace workers, but you can't see the Congress for International Cooperation and Disarmament's Sam Goldbloom, who gave the oration from the centre of the pack. I haven't read this poem to any of your mates, living or dead, but I'll type it again for you now. It's the first poem in my new book, Necessity, which has an epigraph from a great Californian poet, George Oppen, a leftist, a modernist who worked on the docks in San Francisco. The book, which has a lot of you in it, is worth getting for Oppen's lines alone:

There is the one word
Which one must
Define for oneself, the word
Us.

Here is the poem about your present suffering, even though you died fifteen years ago. It's called ‘Old Photo: The Union Buries ...' Forgive me my use of the third person: in my heart, I was writing the poem directly to you.

A solid pack around his grave.
Good steel to a magnet, the sky leaden
with the warmth, somehow, of common ground.

I did not know them all
but the bulk of them knew me. Their leader
told them of his bookish son

and of his grandchildren gathered – see,
near my elbow on the lava plain
on the hard crust of The Flats

near thistles, stone walls, Carbon Black
and the cracker's flame leaping
where the cranes once flew

over a lad's lizard-hunting days.
That was the time of solid stories,
of organising rather than mourning.

This group, with family in it, is resolution.
I remember stupidly thinking, the clay's so
sticky no union man could turn in it.

 

THIS WAS WRITTEN about a year before the bastards got really serious about their new laws for unions and workplaces. Bad enough then, worse now. ‘You wouldn't read about it,' I can hear you saying. ‘Bloody murder.' Well, we did read about it, and it boils down to murder. If you were around now you – union organiser or not – you could have trouble getting into the worksite. The blokes would have to meet you outside the gate. Break that rule and we'd be visiting you in prison.

How did it happen?

As you used to say it might happen – pretty much as Jack London set out in his prophetic novel, The Iron Heel, published in 1908. The corporations got their way. Corporate power managed, after years of subtle and not-so-subtle manoeuvring, to get the workforce it wanted. In the United States, they managed it by the start of the twentieth century; here, they are clinching it for the twenty-first. Now our country – which we like to think has a unique egalitarian tradition – is battling not to be redesigned to fit a trade agreement with America that makes us about as independent of their economic interests as Hawai'i. Shocking things have become givens: work shifts increasingly make the old family life impossible; more women are in the workforce but at the lowest rates of pay; the same with young people. Everything is more modern than you knew, but fewer and fewer people are being skilled for it. Australia has a skills shortage, would you believe? And strikes are, in effect, banned. In the culture at large, there's an attitude to workers' actions that would throw you back to the 1920s, when your father was accused of being a Wobbly.

The mass media subtext is that unions are subversive. Of what? The economy, stupid. You know the argument – I won't punish you by repeating it. What you wouldn't know, though, is how many corporate chiefs, and those who keep smearing unions and the very idea of working people having the right to use their power, are earning millions these days. Millions a year! You died in the early 1980s, just as a slogan fell to earth: ‘Greed is good'. This is still the atmosphere in which Australian workers are supposed to ‘negotiate' what are called their ‘individual workplace agreements'. These agreements are as individual as a cigarette in a packet.

I can see you lighting one up.

You're in our kitchen at home, that little weatherboard Housing Commission place into which you and Mum proudly moved soon after the war, and the clay soil of which you both turned into the humus that yielded the nicest garden in the street. You smoke one cigarette, butt it out, and light another. The back door is open to the breeze; the tea in the teapot has gone cold and is thick with tannin. It's ten years since Mum died and you are missing her badly. You keep the house spick and span in her honour. The door is open for any of your old mates who might walk in.

‘G'day Nev.'

‘Hello, hello, hello.'

And they scrape their boots on the back step and come in.

Men from the railways, dockyards, from the petrochemical works, from the power house. Fitters, electricians, welders, toolmakers. They have come off the job, or they might be on their way to a shift. They have come to say hello – they miss you now you're retired. They want to know what you think about various ‘developments' in their jobs. A dispute is brewing: what do you reckon about this and this ...?

Towards the end of your life, you were a Commonwealth Bank of industrial wisdom.

 

TODAY – I'LL SPIT this out – what can we say when the guts seems to have gone out of people's confidence to organise collectively? And when the terms of public debate about these issues are such that once you deal with the slanderous references to ‘union bosses' – the glib and sinister media shorthand for the thuggery, corruption and stupidity of the men and women elected to represent working people – you then have to argue the case for the basic rights to action.

Your life's work wasted – and your father's, too. In everything I say to you now, to you both, I can feel my breath shortening. I write to you with a kind of sick hope. You gave me such strength to dissent in the name of common decency and justice. At the same time, so many of us feel it's a losing battle, and that the ideas which were once an effective weaponry have lost their edge, and may even be strangely harmful, I'm not sure why.

As it happened, in the year leading up to the passing of the IR legislation, (disgustingly called ‘WorkChoices'), I was out of the country, living in Rome. If I'd been here I would not have been able to stand your pain. The Left in Italy is still strong – useless a lot of the time, but strong, and often corrupt. But that's Italy. We cursed the unions when the trains stopped running, yet praised them for still existing in their confident ways. One day I watched a couple of railway workers walk along the track beside the train. Solid middle-aged men in their prime – like you when you worked for the Victorian Railways. They had that physical ease of tradesmen who are not driven like slaves – a clock was ticking as they walked beside our stationary train, but the clock was well out of sight. They wore smart navy-blue denim work pants, with an emerald green lining on the trouser pocket. They seemed to be light on their feet, as you were when you rode a bike to work – a short ride to the erecting shop where you worked as a blacksmith and then a welder. A man with the light step of a good footballer, cricketer and boxer. When I was a kid, you used to let me feel your shoulders and biceps.

Your arms were made for hammers.

And you had the heart that could endure a furnace when it was close to hand.

From Rome, I'd ring up mates who would tell me how the campaign to destroy the union movement was progressing. Their voices rang with incredulity. Was it possible to be living through an epoch of such historical defeat? The flat was a short walk from the Protestant Cemetery. It has the tomb of Shelley, who wrote the best of the angry poems against the crushing of working-class people, and who scandalously declared himself a democrat, philanthropist, atheist. And the grave of Gramsci, the bravest of the Italian communists, who Mussolini locked up in 1926, sealing the fascist defeat of all legal opposition. Gramsci -‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will' – then had all the time in the world to apply his great stoical intelligence to thinking and writing about matters collective, including that heroic moment when Italian workers took over their factories.

You were never a communist, of course – you thought that the party tended to be authoritarian and was full of ‘yes men'. Besides, you thought – not without some vanity – that your militancy was more effective if you belonged to no party.

I'm now thinking of you as an older man; you'd done your time with the railways and stepped up from being the secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, Newport Branch, to being a full-time organiser for the office in the city. From blue to white collar in middle age – going off to work in a suit for the first time in your life, leaving Mum at home wondering what might become of her now that you were, in your prime, working in an office where there were ‘other women'. You remained as true to her as she was to you, no matter how long the strike or how arduous the picket line or how many meetings kept you out at night. That was something both of us knew. How solid Mum was going to be no matter what. I remember you saying when the Crimes Act was passed: ‘This could mean some of us could be put in gaol.' And the feeling was that, even in gaol, the struggle would go on. For every good union man, there was a loyal woman at his side. That was the model: solidarity existed inside and outside, whatever might happen.

 

FROM YOUR GRAVESIDE, we could see where one of the highlights of your life took place – the Union Carbide plant in Altona. That sit-in – the longest in Australian history, as it turned out – was an event very largely led by you.

The petrochemical complex was our wicked political landscape; some of those companies belonged to the IG Farben cartel that backed Nazism and made the gas for Hitler's death camps. After the war, much of its know-how and capital migrated to America, where it thrived and began its march back across the rest of the world. When your union's dispute with the company began in 1982, Union Carbide was already notorious for its industrial accident in Bhopal, India, where thousands died or were injured, never to be compensated.

Your dispute could well have been about health and safety; there was already evidence of risk from a toxic complex being so close to settlements. But it was about shorter working hours, a battle for a thirty-five-hour week. It sounds utopian now, but was not (and you will be pleased to know that workers in France still have their thirty-five-hour week). It was simply the last of the major campaigns for shorter hours, argued on the principles that had inspired the Chartists more than a hundred years earlier. Your campaign was a direct continuation of the winning of the ‘eight-hour day' back in 1856. And that, remember – the bastards today would want us to forget it – sprang from the simple human truth that life is most worth living when we have a decent time to rest and play as well as work (as in ‘toil'). The vision back then, as with your last big campaign, was that bosses with their machines did not own time. Time – what we make of it – rests on what all of us decide together.

You shone during that dispute – no, you helped many others shine. No one who went down to that picket line, no one who came to the fence to pass supplies over it to the workers inside, failed to realise this. Collective effort has a zest to it that the present culture wants us to suppress. Every nuance of the present culture is designed to channel this sense of empowerment into other things – sport, pop concerts, fire-fighting.

The sit-in lasted nine weeks. During that time, the battle to sustain morale inside the plant was hard. But the men, as well as their families, and most of the union leadership outside of the dispute, held on. In the end, the unions did not win outright. They lasted until their case was heard in the court, at which point they were awarded a thirty-eight hour week, a substantial victory at the time. The way the system worked meant this could be a benchmark for other cases, other situations. It also meant that collective action did not dissipate political resolve. No one could say a factory could not be taken over again if the cause demanded it. That's unimaginable now. It's important to say that in your mind such disputes were not ideologically driven. Yes, you had a firm view of the class set-up, but indignation about that did not drive you. It was the structural backdrop to your organic sense of what might need to be done by particular unionists at particular times. You were not so much a class warrior as an open-minded strategist. That's why many of the bosses liked you – the tenor of you, your courtesy and sense of principle. You and a boss often liked each other out of mutual respect.

Oddly enough, it was younger fellas like me who got on your goat, banging on about workers' control. You did not speak in those terms. You didn't get carried away with any notion that Capital should reconstruct itself with a mind to the rights of Labour. You didn't seem to get round to reading about the experiments in industrial democracy in Scandinavia, any more than you got excited about the so-called Tito model of workers' control in Yugoslavia. When we had that decade of ‘workplace reform' in the 1980s, when many of us were excited about some kind of civilised challenge to the ‘managerial prerogative'– that left you cold too.

I accused you of being stuffy, unimaginative, bound for defeat. You lit another cigarette. If I vamped up the discussion, spinning into sociology, you would hear me out and say, ‘Tell you the truth, Baz, some of what you are saying is a bit over my head.'

And so you, skilfully, Socratically, quietened me down – as you could some of the union blokes who landed in the kitchen, all hot under the collar. ‘Just a tick, just a tick,' I can hear you saying to a couple of the ETU blokes (those who the ALP would now automatically expel, and this without a murmur from the ACTU).

The young Trots loved you, and you appreciated that. Some of the best reports of the sit-in appeared inDirect Action. You had the knack of reporting how things were going, without betraying the confidence of the men inside and without inflaming things with a falsely ideological report of the actual state of play.

 

I SUPPOSE THAT'S what – that you were decently strong, so reasonable and committed, an approach that seems to have got the union movement nowhere. The IR laws are ruthlessly indifferent to the compact men like you made with industry – the productivity worth talking about. How many times, I wonder, did I hear you talking the details of what would improve productivity, and how better conditions might contribute to it? Countless times. You wouldn't like this way of putting it, but you were part of the whole system. Men and women like you deserve better than what late capitalism has triumphantly delivered. The cynicism of corporate strategies is an insult to you as a citizen. It makes me feel I want to protect you and everything you stood for, as well as fight for something else – I'm not sure what – on your behalf.

Remember the story you told about your own father, Percy?

Percy – white haired, big-bellied as I remember him, a gold watch in the fob pocket of his waistcoat, a flower in his lapel to please the ladies in the office of the Sheetmetal Workers' Union at the Trades Hall, Melbourne. As a young man, a young father to you, he had been blacklisted for trying to start his union in the 1920s.

These were the days before the factory was utterly modernised by time-and motion studies – ‘Taylorism' (or ‘Fordism', as Gramsci called it). Percy was working away at his bench in a little factory in South Melbourne when he looked up to find an inspector standing beside him. In the palm of his hand, the inspector had a watch. Percy went on with his work for a few minutes.

Then he looked across and said, ‘I say, what's that you've got there?'

‘Nothing much,' said the inspector, ‘don't let me disturb you.' He had been observing with concentration Percy's movements around the bench.

‘Oh, I see,' said Percy, ‘it's a watch. It looks a bonzer.'

‘It is,' the man had to agree.

‘You know,' said Percy, ‘I've always wanted a watch like that. Mind if I have a look for a tick?'

He saw the inspector hesitate. He added, ‘I've heard a lot about those timepieces and I just want to check on something about them.'

‘Oh, all right,' said the inspector, and handed it over. Percy put the watch neatly on the bench and, bringing his hammer down, smashed it to pieces.

Sacked again! His blacklist blacker.

 

YOU WERE A stay-at-home who managed to live the life of an internationalist. Even the other day, when you came to me in an Indian temple, my clearest impressions were connected to those decades of routine at home. Back from the railway workshop at 4.30 pm, home all weekend too; a few beers at the local on Saturday night, watching World of Sport on Sunday morning, mending the mower in the afternoon, sitting on a wooden box against the bike shed, sending me down to the local library to get what you called ‘a good novel'. A man who had left school at fourteen but who was a good reader, a subscriber to the Australasian Book Club, not to mention Overland (posted to the Newport Branch of the AEU, which was our place, thank you very much). A man of simple needs who groaned when he had to go into the city. My old man, the fixed point, I used to think, when little did I know that you were inseparable from events in other parts of the world, events to which we are all bound, like it or not.

‘Stand here,' you told me once, when we were in a crowd at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, and I did. I joined the queue that slowly approached the huge black man at the edge of the stage. ‘You'll remember this,' you said, and I knew I would as my fingers slipped into the big, warm, dark brown and pink hand of Paul Robeson. And in case I forgot, you bought the record of that wonderful event, when Robeson spoke of being with Welsh miners and workers in Russia (a nation that had welcomed his son into an unsegregated school) and then he sang Water Boy, and Old Man River, and of course Joe Hill, the name I would one day choose for my son.

One cold night, years later, I was walking past the Melbourne Town Hall and there you were, out on the footpath in a thin plastic raincoat, your head damp from a recent shower.

‘Neville! What are you doing here?'

‘It's clear enough,' you smiled, pleased to see me.

There were half a dozen others with you. They stood close to each other, as if around a campfire, keeping warm by handing out the leaflets. HANDS OFF TIMOR. INDONESIA OUT.

Guilt flooded me on the spot. And pride – that you were there, despite the smallness of the cause. This was in 1979. We chatted a while and I passed on, wondering how long Mum was going to have to keep your dinner hot.

You were dead by the time the Timor cause became fashionable. You won't believe me when I say that the Coalition government sent in troops to support their move to independence. You will believe me, though, when I hasten to add that both parties – Labor as well as the Coalition – did next to nothing to check the killings by the Indonesian militia.

That day at the Palais, I remember now, had been organised by the Peace Movement. It was Hiroshima Day.

‘They didn't have to do it.' That's what you always said. The Yanks could have won the war without dropping the atomic bomb. They had firebombed at least sixty cities, razing them to the ground, demolishing hundred of thousands of civilians. Japan was beaten.

I don't even have to imagine what you would be saying about the bombing of Iraq and all that has followed. I know it in my bones. The blood from your heart flows in me and nourishes my political marrow.

 

 AND THAT'S HOW you appeared to me a few months ago, when I was in that temple in Rajgir in India, the one people come to through the bamboo forest, where the Buddha and his disciples had many meetings.

The temple was vast, with no obvious place to sit. Just a bare tiled floor. The altar had been attended to, but that was all. A low wooden fence marked it off from visitors, leaving half the place divided into significant space and dead space, like an unused gymnasium.

I drifted around the walls, looking at the woodcuts and the calligraphy that expressed the connection with the patrons in Japan. Then I felt you there: silent, invisible, but definitely there, as if you had come up behind me.

There were many pictures of a Japanese monk with a wide brow and huge ears. You had big ears, as well a noble forehead like his, especially as your hair receded, but your smile could not match that of the monk, whose mouth was ready for watermelon. At first I did not recognise him, although the face was intimately familiar.

On the wall nearby there were large photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic blasts of 1945. The pictures curled at the edges, and the images – the skeletal dome, the charred bodies, the figure almost incinerated with the bicycle – had faded, just as they had, for a generation or so, begun to slip over the horizon into history.

Or so it seemed.

Now it made sense, my double memory. The monk was Nichidatsu Fujii. You'd met him in Tokyo in 1984, a visit that coincided with his hundredth birthday. A deep encounter – I could tell from your tone. Remember the story you told me about him? The Americans wanted to extend the airstrip in Tokyo so it could take their largest military planes. Fujii built a pagoda, a little Buddhist temple on the airstrip. It seemed a cute gesture, a mere symbol of resistance to war machines, and if it happened today they would rip it down. But this one pagoda stayed. A victory for the peace activists – one of many successes for the Nihonzan Myohoji order, of which Mr Fujii was the founder.

Thereafter you carried Mr Fujii in you. You did not speak of him a lot, but Fujii was there inside you, like a mentor. And the fact that Fujii was massively loved in Japan gave you extra strength during the years you devoted to the peace movement in Australia. Not that your innerness was spiritual – not consciously, at least. You did not have a monkish disposition, although your natural shyness was compatible with a contemplative life. Your deeper self was directed outwards – which was the reason, I suppose, that you often cited the deeds of Gandhi; the deeds rather than his self-struggle – his political sense, his imperatives for action. Fujii was all action without Gandhi's mortifications.

As I stood in the temple, I could see the joy in Mr Fujii's face. A youthful vigour. In an odd way, I was conscious of your dapperness – how all your campaigning kept you young. Sometimes you were the sad man whose wife had died too young. But more often you burned for what had to be done to stop people killing each other. Fujii's face, as I gazed at it, brought you into the temple. You came closer and stood by my side; we were shoulder to shoulder. What an internationalist you were!

And I realised that the story you told me of Fujii included something you never actually described: the face-to-face meeting, with that utterly Buddhist smile of Fujii's entering your heart. I think Japan, that most reticent yet passionate of places, did that for you, even though it was India which crucially helped. After all, it was after that journey, remember, that I first saw you weep. You'd come back from Russia.

Yes, once upon a time you had travelled to the Holy Land and back. In the Soviet Union you felt that you had seen the future that worked (a claim we argued about a lot). Your union delegation was shown all manner of success, from the latest in tractor factories to the greatest achievements in mass education. The tears came with an image from Moscow on the screen: lovely kids in fur hats and red scarves playing in the snowy ground of their kindergarten, and you had to rush to the bathroom. I'm not trying to embarrass you. Mum and I sat dumbfounded in the lounge room. No explanation when you came back in. Just more slides.

But a couple of days later you spoke to me resentfully.

‘If it wasn't for you and your mother,' you said, ‘I would give myself over to helping those people.'

Those people were not the Russians, I was relieved to be told. You meant the women and children you'd seen in Bombay, on the stopover to Moscow. The union men had taken you into the slums, along the streets where women and girls in cages were for sale.

‘I would go back there,' you said. ‘That's what I would do!'

I remember thinking, ‘Why blame me? You could have changed your own life!'

Besides, if you'd told Mum, she might have gone with you. She was just as selfless as you, as I'm sure you realise. Now I realise that what you were saying was there is a depth of compassion that no amount of political struggle can appease – even in the days when political struggle on behalf of others was commonplace in Australia. That's another thing you took for granted which is unimaginable now. Maybe you stepped up to me in the temple so that I would understand. There we stood, together in Mr Fujii's Japanese temple, in India.

None of us is alone, finally.

Is that what you were doing in Vietnam, putting your selfless-self deliberately at risk? To Hanoi you went, with another deputation and at the height of the American bombing. There was camaraderie in that – stumbling out of bed at 2 am and heading towards the air-raid shelter as the B52s came over. You told jokes about it. Those members of the Victorian Socialist Left who had to get their pants on first were lucky to come back at all.

You risked your life in that war because you opposed war.

 

THE HOT NORTHERLIES blow acorss your grave. Iraq? Do you know about the war we are caught up in now? I feel you stir.

What are you signalling? That we must keep speaking out for peace and against war? That we must stick it out in the face of the American war machine? I read a statistic the other day, buried in the middle pages of the national newspaper. Guess how many American soldiers have killed themselves after coming back from the war? Twice as many as have died in it, so far. As for the huge number of civilians who are dead, you would have anticipated that. You had a radar system for what was pitiless.

These days we have what is called a ‘war against terror' ...

I imagine you lighting another cigarette.

‘Most terrorism,' I can hear you saying, ‘is spawned in the Pentagon.'

‘That's a bit simple,' I reply.

‘Not when you look at what causes what.'

‘Do you know that we have been undergoing a federal election campaign?'

‘Oh yeah.'

‘Labor is going to pull out of the war.'

‘Watch how they keep fitting in with the Yanks.'

‘Labor says it's going to tear up the IR legislation. There is perhaps some hope in that.'

‘Let's wait,' I can hear you say, ‘see how much of it they change.'

‘At least Labor doesn't think the world should be run mainly for big business.'

They like to think they don't. We'll see.

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