Conway's maverick way


Ronald ConwayAn Australian book with sales figures of more than 70,000 copies is considered a best seller, especially when it is by an unknown author. This success is compounded when the book is a psycho-historical analysis of the Australian character with the dull sub-title: An interpretation of the Australian way of life.

But it was the title that grabbed readers: The Great Australian Stupor. First published in 1971, the book gained instant fame and was often given to distinguished overseas visitors to Canberra as a kind of guide to the Australian 'soul'.

The author, Ronald Conway, has died in Melbourne. He was 81.

Born on 4 May 1927, Ronald Victor Conway was an only child who grew up in a religiously divided family. His mother was Catholic, his father a Protestant agnostic who converted to Catholicism on his death-bed. His grandfather had been a well known cricketer, footballer, journalist and manager of the first Australian cricket team to tour England in 1878. He was a wealthy and somewhat brutal man.

Conway's parents were not well-off. Not baptised until he was nine, he was educated in state and Catholic schools. He left school at 15, worked in a bookshop, joined the RAAF in late 1944 and, after demobilisation matriculated and went to Melbourne University.

Here he was caught up in the Catholic activism characteristic of those years. This centered on the 'Movement' and Bob Santamaria, the Campion Society (which Conway joined), the Newman Society, the Jesuits at Newman College and the Catholic Worker Movement. Even then Conway leaned more to the right than to the left, but he always maintained a somewhat maverick stance in Catholic ideological struggles.

In his autobiography Conway's Way (1988) he gives a taste in his florid style of those years. He says that at university 'a varied range of social movements flourished ... under the benign laicist policies of Archbishop Mannix. The elite members of the Melbourne social movements were having "dialogue" with their archbishop, clergy and wider society in the days when Sydney had little else on its pontifical mind but raffles and rosaries.'

He studied for a combined psychology-history degree. His psychology supervisor was Professor Oscar Oeser, a rather sour South African. Conway also enjoyed acting in comedies of manners of the Sheridan variety, and he joined the Saint Patrick's Cathedral Choir.

After graduation Conway became a teacher, and from 1955 to 1961 he taught history and English at De La Salle College, Malvern. In 1961 he began to practice as a psychologist at St Vincent's Hospital: 'a great stretch of more than 25 years in dealing with intimate human difficulties lay ahead of me, like a horizonless Nullabor Plain', he writes.

At Saint Vincent's he met his patron and friend Dr Eric Seal who launched Conway into private practice as a psychologist.

It was on the basis of his clinical experience that a decade later he published The Great Australian Stupor. A provoking book, Stupor's portrait of the Australian male as inadequate and often with covert homosexual tendencies, is devastating. 'In the modern absence of a horse, his car has to become a man's best friend.'

The book is daring, even over the top. In my view it doesn't succeed because it is too jaundiced. Historical reality and psychological theory, too, are awkward bedfellows. But as Conway says it was favorably reviewed, except by two left-wing Catholics.

Conway followed Stupor with The Land of the Long Weekend (1978), The End of Stupor (1984), Being Male (1985), Conway's Way (1988) and The Rage for Utopia (1992), described by David Tacey as 'a fabulously rich and entertaining book which covers enormous spans of history in search of the origins of our contemporary obsessive-compulsive behavior'.

Conway loved the theatre and the media. He was a film reviewer, broadcaster, playwright and journalist. Always independent, some would say 'contrary', he could be snobbish, pretentious and fastidious, and very 'Melbourne'.

But he was also one of that rare breed in Australia, someone who stood against the prevailing climate of thought which ignores the really important questions of faith, spirituality and human experience, and focuses on the boringly conventional and politically correct.

Although he was disillusioned with much that happened after Vatican II, and was very interested in other faiths — he called himself a 'Sufi mystic' — Conway remained deeply rooted within Catholicism. He died on 16 March and was buried from Saint Patrick's Cathedral.

Paul CollinsPaul Collins is a former head of religious broadcasting at ABC Radio.


Topic tags: paul collins, ronald conway, great australian stupor, obituary



submit a comment

Existing comments

Rest in peace
Terry Steve | 30 March 2009

Forty five years ago I was a student at Killester College Springvale, we were part of the Catholic Schools Drama Festival. One of three schools selected for the final, up against St Kevin's and The Acadamy, Killester was thought to surely take third place, however we won, great excitement. Ronald Conway was the adjudicator and on receiving an individual Acting award for my performance, I seemed to delight him by publicly assuring him that he was a 'very good judge'. Ronald was gracious and very kind to an obviously sycophantic 14 year old budding actor. I have never forgotten that night. Rest in Peace Ronald and Rise in Glory.
Mary Cameron | 30 March 2009

I read both of those books many years ago! What would he say about us all these days?
Alison | 30 March 2009

Alison asks 'What would he (Ronald Conway) say about us all these days?'
I would suggest that Ron would take refuge in the bon mot - 'Plus ca change, c'est la meme chose'.
Uncle Pat | 30 March 2009

It is true but it does not seem enough to say that Ron Conway was conservative. Often he seemed not just to hold to unchanging ideas but to have a full nelson on the ideas he did not want to admit - even in others.
Lorna Hannan | 30 March 2009

I believe 'conservative' Ronald Conway was the kind of Catholic who thought distasteful, the 'axiomatic' statement made by some priests in support of the ordination of women: 'all I need (to be a priest) is to have a prayer life and a penis'. His mystical experience drew him toward 'that Incomprehensible Light ... an intuition of Eternity'. Mysticism is common to all monotheistic faiths, binding them to the Divine Truth.
Claude Rigney | 30 March 2009

I am interested in reading the article by Paul Collins and the comments following it.

I knew Ron from 1963 until his death and spent many hours with him. He was indeed a conservative and knew that that term would be used as one of abuse against him. He was however conservative in the sense that he was concerned to preserve the values and ideas which have underlain the development of our culture and society. He was little interested in most of the more fashionable concerns running riot in the community and the church, concerns which he saw a being primarily about power and therefore limited to the temporal plane.

C. Rigney invokes the mystical side of Ron's work and goes on to say that "mysticism is common to all monotheisitc faiths -- binding them to the divine". I know that Ron saw the mystical as transcending all faiths from animist to monotheistic.

As a personal aside, I feel that the monotheistic religions in particular are hostile to the genuinely mystical because they have nothing to say at all to the mystic in his/her ecstasy. Their attitude is still that of Chesterton who commented that mysticism is dangerous because "It starts in a mist, revolves around I and ends in schism."

Clever and from his perspective right, but sadly lacking in a sense of the truth.

Still one cannot express what one has not experienced.
Philip Owen | 08 April 2009

Circa 1955 when Ronald Conway was a teacher at Sandringham Tech I remember vividly him hitting students, including myself, over the head with a ruler until it broke and then he would proceed to poke you with the sharp broken edges.
Geoff Price | 26 May 2009

check out broken rites find out about the real conway
michele | 08 July 2010

Thankyou Paul for your summary on Ronald Conway, I knew Ron for 15 years and lived with Ron for 12 years up until his passing, ,it's nice to know that there are people who knew the deeper side of of Ron and his incredible understanding of the human humanity, . His thoughts and sensitive understanding to the soul who needed a crutch to lean was superior . A great man that many more people used and took for granted, . His work and insights to the spiritual world needs to be kept ,, thanks again for remembering him.. Regards ,Michael kelly
Michael kelly | 17 April 2016


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up