Terry Irving, The Fatal Lure of Politics: the life and times of Vere Gordon Childe

Book Review:
Terry Irving, The Fatal Lure of Politics: the life and times of Vere Gordon Childe[1]

Rodney Cavalier

Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957) of the Shore School enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1911. One year later Herbert Vere Evatt of Fort Street Boys’ arrived. The two students, the stand-out intellects of their time, began a friendship that lasted a lifetime, unsundered neither by future political difference nor that they were living half a world apart.

Childe and Evatt joined their local branches of the Labor Party. They campaigned for the re-election of the Holman Government in 1913. At the end of that year, Childe sat for his final exams. He emerged with 1st Class Honours in Latin, Greek and Philosophy together with the University Medal for Classics and a travelling scholarship worth £200.

Childe needed income. He always needed income. Before going to Oxford, with a long gap before the northern academic year began in September, Childe travelled to Glenn Innes for a job in teaching. He embarked for the UK three days before the UK declared war on Germany.

In the scholarly side of Oxford, Childe settled brilliantly. He was obviously a student of exceptional capacity. Being a student, a teacher, an administrator, was not enough for Childe. Labor politics had beguiled him in Sydney, now in Oxford the need to mesh his reading and writing with practical efforts to effect a more equal world for working people was a “fatal lure”.

Professor Terry Irving has examined every segment of Childe’s life and times with devotion and insight. The industry is formidable: every assertion in the Irving text is anchored in a thicket of notes at the base of each page. A page without footnotes is a rarity.

Authors whom we encountered on the covers of books in our student days as “recommended reading”, names such as G.D.H. Cole, were Doug Cole to Childe. Taking Cole as one example of the Irving method, we receive an explanation of guild socialism and much more. The Fabian Society was very strong at Oxford, as one might expect. Oxford students with a tendency to socialism, even of the gradual kind, found the Fabians too tepid.The Oxford Fabians seceded en blocto set up a Socialist Society. What these terms mean and any consequential activity fascinate Irving. The exegesis of Cole is characteristic of the text that follows.

Childe emerged from Oxford with three degrees: B.Litt, a BA in Greats, and a Diploma in Archaeology. His thesis on Indo-European influences on Greek pre-history was accepted. Childe turned in brilliant results without apparently stretching himself.

Avoiding conscription in the UK, Childe returned to an Australia that was rejecting compulsory service. The plebiscites smashed the Labor Party across Australia (bar Queensland). Gaining employment anywhere in a university proved impossible for him due to his politics, because of a non-official blacklist. A university administration chose to ignore Childe’s record and capacity for scholarship.

Childe resumed friendship with Evatt. Evatt introduced Childe to Bill McKell, a newly-elected state MP. McKell placed three Questions on the Notice Paper about the unfair treatment of Childe by the University. McKell was studying to pass the Barristers Administration (Admission) Board exams and was struggling. Childe tutored McKell in Latin and wrote précis of all the books he would be examined on. McKell passed. McKell was one of a long line of Labor MPs who achieved their academic qualifications after they had been elected to parliament.

Labor returned to government in NSW at the first election after the War. John Storey became Premier. Childe joined his staff as private secretary. He had a splendid vantage to see Labor from the inside. Childe was making notes, his first resource when he set about recording his impressions of that period.

Leadership of the Premier’s Department resisted the appointment. The Public Service Board was cold. Childe reported formally to the departmental head, a situation that could only work while the Premier was demonstrably backing Childe. An outsider to the public service who was the private secretary to the Premier was both novelty and offence. Storey chose not to cut his departmental head out of the loop.

Childe was eyes for Storey, gathering “intelligence”, aka information on the state of the economy built on statistics. The department insisted that Storey’s role was that of every other officer – to submit “plain statements of facts”. Any opinion was to go into footnotes. The observations of Childe were, of course, more valuable than any assembly of ‘facts’.

Tours of the state at Storey’s request took Childe on 191 tours to forests, soldier settlements, factories. Childe was both adviser and trouble shooter. Storey sent him to the Agent-General’s office in London. In that location, he was to provide reports directly to the Premier on national economic performances across the world.

Storey died in 1921. The Labor government fell in 1922. Childe was a marked man. The conservatives engineered his dismissal. Lack of performance was not a ground.

Childe was about to enter his most productive years. They were not in Australia; they were not in Labor politics. His writings transformed scholarship. How Labour Governs remains the best book ever written about the ALP. The Dawn of European Civilization shifted the paradigm on when civilisation began.

This review is by an unapologetic parliamentarist. My fascination is with a life lived, conventional narrative, politics and Childe’s impact on archaeology. A reader prepared to go beyond biography can, via the Irving text and the notes he has compiled, enter an advanced course on the beginnings of civilisation.

All of his academic career Professor Irving has been fascinated by Childe. In this book he has discharged a debt of honour. Politics was indeed ‘the fatal lure’, words in a title that summarise a life of achievement so very well. The result is a book worthy of V.G. Childe. There is no higher praise.

Rodney Cavalier has been a member of the Labor Party for over fifty years. He was a minister in the Wran and Unsworth governments. He has written a book on the fall of the Iemma and Rees governments and is editor of a newsletter which regularly publishes long essays on aspects of ALP history.


1.  Terry Irving, The Fatal Lure of Politics: the life and times of Vere Gordon Childe (Monash University Publishing 2020) 419pp. Bibliography 23 pp. index 14 pp.