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All deaths great and small

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Syd Harrex One of my favourite easy reads is Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon. Of course, because it’s a thriller we’re dealing with, the ‘small death’ turns out to be not so small, to have in fact wide ranging, serious ramifications; but we know what he means.

Many deaths, the majority no doubt, are ‘small’, in the sense that the ripples they spread diminish and quickly smooth into invisibility before reaching any shore in the unforgiving rage of time and history. Still, there are friends and loved ones who sense these diffident, unpretentious ripples and grieve at the remembrances they conjure up and the finality of their disappearance as time runs over them.

Last year, as a regular contributor to Australian Book Review, I agreed to review the newly published Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 18 1981-1990 L-Z. I did so with some trepidation. Reading the ADB is not like reading a novel or even a history; it is not a narrative. How could it be? I asked in my review, ‘traversing, as it does, a decade’s worth of diverse Australian lives?’ But discrete narratives do emerge ‘if you are in the happy position of being able to read the Dictionary not for reference but simply for its rich cornucopia of sheer existence, the intersecting trajectories, directions, quirks, good and bad luck, triumphs, mistakes and fascinating penumbras of lives’.

Many of these of course are not small deaths. Distinction, achievement, leadership, innovation, creativity or, in some cases notoriety, quixoticism or eccentricity provide the grounds for inclusion in the ADB. Yet, for all the differences that emerge as one tracks the Dictionary’s decade-long roll call – placing some names above many, some in a class of their own, others in a ruck of the scarcely memorable – one indispensable criterion unites all the ADB’s characters and places them beyond our imaginative, intellectual or descriptive reach: they are dead, and in that sense, having enlisted on what Kenneth Slessor memorably called that ‘other front’, these are all in a way ‘small’ deaths because, once gone forever, only those of truly historical consequence can maintain stature in memories and anecdote.

This sombre train of thought was prompted by the death of Dr Syd Harrex (pictured), my close friend and long-time colleague at Flinders University. Syd was a legendary figure at Flinders. He was a wonderful teacher, a compassionate, respectful nurturer of his students, a fine poet and a first class research scholar whose pioneering work in New Literatures in English – his own specialty was Indian literature – virtually created the field as a legitimate academic endeavour in Australia by endowing it not only with proper seriousness but also with the excitement of discovery and the daring of radical divergence from the traditional English literary canon.

Syd was a bon viveur, a genuine gourmet and something of a wine connoisseur. He ennobled that cliché, ‘a legend in his own lunch time’, because Table One in the university dining room, where he – it seems fair to say – held court, became not only a cynosure for many lunchers but actually metamorphosed into a publishing company with, to date, several excellent works to its name. Table One had a set clientele but was democratically open to new blood so that quite often chairs would be squeezed together and chaotically doubled up. But it was not only Table One’s popularity that distinguished it. You couldn’t miss its waves of laughter, genial disputation and anecdotal volume and pace even if you were at the other end of the room.

Needless to say, not everyone in the academy’s sometimes puritanical halls appreciated Syd’s often rambunctious and, when it suited the occasion or sometimes even if it didn’t, bibulous approach to academic life and its constraints, opportunities and niceties. Tasmanian to the core and strongly influenced by James McAuley, his mentor at the University of Tasmania, Syd was actually the attractive embodiment of an academic English department style that had its roots in Melbourne rather than Adelaide – the poet, teacher, critic and intellectual, exemplified at Melbourne University by, pre-eminently, Vincent Buckley and Chris Wallace-Crabbe – a style on the wane in the 1980s and thereafter slowly strangled by governmental utilitarianism and, in the universities, philistine managerialism.

When I arrived, green and tentative, at Flinders University 46 years ago last January, Syd welcomed and looked after me, even though his PhD was due in two weeks – a note pinned to his study door read: ‘For God’s sake don’t disturb’ – and he was packing to go on study leave. It was the start of a great and profound friendship which ended only on Friday May 29. This was no ‘small death’.

Syd was, among much else, an unassuming, impressively knowledgeable Shakespearian scholar. Hamlet was his favourite among the tragedies, and Hamlet’s farewell memory of his father, with its heart rending restraint and elegant simplicity, is as close as I can come to an adequate last salute: ‘He was a man. Take him for all in all/ I shall not look upon his like again.’

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Syd Harrex image from The Hindu.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Syd Harrex, biography, death, publishing



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Thanks for this Brian. Syd was one of the first guys I met, on arrival Adelaide 1975. Sadly missed.

Barry | 09 January 2016  

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