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In memoriam

Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral was packed, the mourners an engaging mix of the devout, the uncertain, the religiously tepid and the atheistic. Background, vocation and style were also diverse. There were the politicians, left, centre, right, and of course Gough and family; there were the authors, the priests, the critics, the journalists (left, centre, right) and the academics; there were those who looked as if they lived in suits and ties and those who couldn’t wait to change out of them. What drew all together in tribute and a shared sense of loss was the remarkable man whose body lay in the coffin and whose portrait by David Naseby stood at the altar threshold, as compelling in representation as its subject had been in life.

Richard Victor Hall is dead at the age of 65 and a life profoundly shaped by its formation in Catholic tradition has run its course. He was one of my oldest friends. We had met as cadet journalists on the Sydney afternoon newspapers described by John Douglas Pringle as the two worst newspapers in the world. It was probably true when he made his comments in the 1950s, though that was before Rupert Murdoch really hit his straps. We were part-time Arts students at Sydney University and helped found the Evening Students Association where we saw ourselves exerting Catholic influence against a vaguely sinister, and possibly imaginary, Masonic force. We became a factor of some sort (positive, I hope) in the Newman Society and worked with the inspiring Catholic chaplain Roger Pryke whose intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm, openness and lack of pomposity made Catholicism seem exciting, fresh and full of potential.

We edited the university magazine Hermes in 1959 and included a short story by Robert Hughes and (I think) the first published poems of Les Murray. We visited Ed Campion and Brian Johns during their spell in the Springwood seminary and talked theology, culture and current events. Our Catholic contemporaries, as students, included the philosopher Genevieve Lloyd (who became Aust­ralia’s first woman professor of philosophy), Bob Vermeesch (later a legal academic), John Woodward (later a judge) and scores of others who became influential in Australian life.

They were heady times to be a fledgling ‘Catholic intellectual’ committed to the life of the soul, the life of the mind and service to the community. Largely because of Hall’s adventurous spirit, we linked up with the key figures in the ‘intellectual apostolate’ (as it was somewhat portentously known) located in the University of Melbourne. In later years, Hall was always thought of as a quintessentially Sydney
phenomenon, but he was born in Melbourne and raised there for a time, and always moved easily between the two cultures. The intellectual apostolate was associated in Melbourne with such people as the academic and poet Vincent Buckley, the philosophers Bill Ginnane and Peter Wertheim, and many others later to be prominent in public life.

This movement of ideas, much influenced in different ways by Suhard, Congar, Cardijn, Dorothy Day and Courtney Murray, took somewhat different shapes in Sydney and Melbourne and had a great influence on generations of Catholic students and subsequent effects beyond the universities. In hindsight, it now seems to have been a trifle self-important, a little claustrophobic, often distinctly sexist, but nonetheless genuinely radical in its reformist instincts with regard to the church and the relation of faith to the secular world. Indeed, as a pre-Vatican II movement, many of its ideas and insights were more radical and intellectually courageous than those later propounded at the Council.

Although Dick Hall was a key figure in all this, he quickly moved beyond the ivory tower. He dropped out of his Arts degree after a few years because, I suspect, he found the disciplines and routines of university life too confining. He also wanted to change the world more directly than most academics. He continued in journalism, but found his true vocation as an ideas man in public life, especially in and around the Australian Labor Party, and later as an author. In some respects, the Whitlam years and their aftermath saw Dick at his peak. The passion for justice that was such a feature of his Catholic formation had been accentuated by his experiences growing up in the care of a single mother who had been deserted by Dick’s father when he was very young. At a time when single mothers had little social support, Phyllis Hall suffered much to raise her son and send him to the Jesuit school St Aloysius. Her struggles left her with many fears and neuroses and she could never settle in one place. So Dick grew up with the regular expectation that he would return home after school or work to find he no longer lived there. As a young adult, he solved the problem by buying a house for both of them.

Hall was secretary to Gough Whitlam during the years that Whitlam fought to make the Labor Party a feasible candidate for government. Then, with Labor in power, he worked in Aboriginal Affairs and in Secondary Industry. He was a founding member of the Australia Council’s Literature Board and was instrumental in setting up their fellowship and grants scheme. He was a guiding light in the establishment of the Public Lending Right that rewards authors for the use of their works in public libraries. During those years he also wrote pungent pieces for The Catholic Worker. He became an authority on security services and their foibles and wrote several books related to them. He wrote an excellent critique of the neo-conservative objections to black armband history, Black Armband Days.

It was often my melancholy duty, as co-editor of The Catholic Worker, to decipher the copy Dick sent us. His typing, in those pre-computer days, was marked by an aristocratic disdain for accuracy and his handwriting (often used for correcting the typing errors) was virtually incomprehensible. After his death, I excavated a ten-page letter he had handwritten me when I was in Oxford in the mid-’60s; it’s like trying to decode the Rosetta Stone.

He was a prodigious reader and talker whose literary-political-cultural lunches were legendary events from which it took days to recover. He was a kind man, but intolerant of folly. His conversation was stimulating, but a little baffling because it always began in the middle. He assumed you had read the latest remarkable novel, had already heard the inside political story that would be next week’s sensation, knew the arcane history of Mossad and its major personalities, were familiar with some medieval Papal scandal, so he hurried on from there with something you mightn’t yet know about one or all of these topics.

Like so many of those who were passionate about the revival of an enlightened Catholicism in the ’50s and ’60s, Dick gave up on the institutional Church when its movement towards regeneration became glacier-like. Even so, he kept a close eye on its doings and latterly was an occasional contributor to Eureka Street. In some ways, his hopes and fears shifted to the Labor Party and it was fitting that Whitlam’s speech-writer, Graham Freudenberg, gave the principal eulogy at the requiem Mass and his friend Wayne Swan read the epistle. But as Eureka Street’s contributing editor, Ed Campion (who conducted the service with Jesuit Michael Kelly) told the congregation, Dick’s passion for truth had distinctively Catholic sources.

Though chronically broke, he would regularly ring me and my wife, Margaret, for an updating chat (‘How’s the intellectual life, comrade?’), and we spoke on the phone during his sickness. He had been ill with liver failure for some time and his outlook was not favourable. I was overseas when he went into serious decline and in Tasmania when he died. I had planned to visit him in Sydney the next week to say goodbye, but this memoir will have to stand as a poor substitute for that farewell.

I was sharply reminded of him again the other day when I received a small payment from the Public Lending Right authorities. I have other reminders of him. When I left Sydney for Melbourne in 1961 he presented me with a handsome silver-plated beer mug, of some antiquity, that curiously enough contained the insignia of the NSW Parliament, the bar of which he had often graced with his presence. It was good of them to donate it.

Dick got things done, he sparkled, he connected, he brought values and a critical, sceptical mind to everything he did. He was proud of his three daughters and devoted to their educational enlightenment. He crammed so much into a life that was far too short by today’s standards, and in the end, despite the Writer-in-Residence facilities provided by Sydney University, he hadn’t quite finished his monumental biography of Gough Whitlam that was to set the record straight. The final part will be completed with a number of essays from those who knew both Dick and Whitlam.

He had such a capacity for living that it would be unfair if he hadn’t another life. His legion of friends have said goodbye but many of us hope and pray that it is merely a profound au revoir. 

Tony Coady is Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.



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