One to Remember – John Manifold

Drew Cottle

Recently, there has been much worrying news from Queensland: its depressed economy, its corrupt public officials, its police-state operations against striking electricity workers, its treatment of women seeking abortion – and their doctors as criminals. Amidst this, word of John Manifold’s death only worsened the generalised gloom. The Sydney Morning Herald managed a three-line obituary. Other sections of the monopoly media ignored the death of the Queensland poet, folklorist and ballader. Even the fact that Manifold had been belatedly awarded the Order of Australia raised no comment. Manifold would have expected such a reaction, for he was their cultural enemy. He crafted songs of deliverance from class oppression and foreign domination. His enemy, big business, in a million ways preached the virtues of such realities. Who was this man Manifold? And why should he be remembered? Here is a thumbnail sketch. John Streeter Manifold, like John Malcolm Fraser, was born into a wealthy Western Districts squatter family. Manifold chose an entirely different life to that expected of his class. He rebelled against a life of wealth and privilege, becoming instead a Jack Donohue, a people’s’ poet. In contrast, the squire of Nareen – in parliamentary office or out – continues to champion the rights of his gilt-edged minority, the very rich. Now Manifold is dead the establishment will, no doubt, attempt to canonise him: claim him as one of their own. Efforts will be made to sever Manifold’s’ cultural accomplishments from his political outlook. Such attempts will flounder asevery aspect of Manifold’s work is profoundly political.

He attended that ‘finishing school’ for the rich, Geelong Grammar. Manifold, the colonial rebel, then went to study classical literature and modern languages at Cambridge University. This was during the worst years of the Great Depression and the rise of European Fascism. Both events radicalised the young Manifold, and polarised the student body and staff at the university. Although a brilliant student and budding poet, Manifold did not devote himself entirely to scholarly pursuits. He was moved by the crushing effects of the Depression on England’s workers, and saw in Hitler, Mussolini, and Mosley the fascist puppets of monopoly capital.

Manifold, like many progressive intellectuals of the time, took an uncompromising anti-fascist stand. He wholeheartedly supported the Spanish republican struggle against Franco’s terrorists. When Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939, Manifold joined the British army. During the anti-fascist war, Manifold, a gifted linguist, worked in military intelligence. Like most who served in the ranks, Manifold’s regard for the courageous resistance of the Soviet people to the forces of Nazism was deeply held. He was inspired by their victory. People in the Soviet Union obviously had a social system worth fighting for. Off duty, Manifold devoted himself to his calling,’ poetry. Written during this’ tumultuous period was probably the finest Australian war poem, The Tomb of Lt. John Learmonth A.I.F.. A stanza runs,

There was no word of hero in his plan,
Verse should have been his love and peace his trade
But history turned him into a partisan.

Manifold the poet hated war, but he hated far more the prospect of fascist enslavement. Manifold became a partisan for peace. With the defeat of fascism in 1945 Manifold, after having much of his verse finally published, returned to Australia at the onset of the Cold War. He and his wife, Kate, took up residence in the fishing hamlet of Wynnum, Queensland, not far from Brisbane. As the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War intensified, Manifold – because of his outspoken public stand on the need for international peace and social justice – was branded ‘a subversive’. His other ‘subversive acts’ in this time of cultural witch-hunting included writing progressive poetry, collecting Australian ballads and folklore, singing, and the making, teaching, and playing of musical instruments. Ever the cultural partisan, Manifold did not swim with the conservative tide. He paid dearly for his stand at a time when corporate America was establishing its economic, political, and cultural hold over Australia. Manifold was never to be feted by the cultural mandarins’. He sang the wrong songs, and wrote the wrong poems. He was snubbed, denied, and ignored. Foreign corporate capital’s songs of domination, and poems of exploitation, were the only sounds big business fancied in its long boom. Australia’s people’s music was kept alive by Manifold and others in this period, when cultural grants’ for such. work didn’t exist. The ways and means are still a largely unknown and unwritten chapter of our history of cultural dependency. Without the likes of Manifold, there may well have been no Busy Music Clubs, no Australian ballads, no bands like the Bushwackers, Redgum, Guanna. John Manifold should be remembered in creative ways. We should demand the publication of all his extant verse and songs.

If the Hawke Government is sincere in its commitment to the flowering of Australian Studies, the collected works of Manifold and other rebel writers like Victor Daley and Bartlett Adamson should be studied in schools and universities.

Following Manifold we need to reclaim the progressive and radical elements of our cultural past. Mummified versions of Henry Lawson will not help us win back Australia. Manifold’s fighting spirit is what’s needed. The last stanza of The Afterlife of Bold Jack Donohue should jolt the would-be Queensland Fuehrers, and delight striking SEQEB workers and others battling for an Australia free, equal and independent:

And when I know the wind shall blow
On businessmen in town
Come May Day or All Hallow’s Tide
When bold Jack Donohue shall ride
With his companions at his side
To smash the bastards down

Manifold has joined Donohue in the afterlife, but his spirit will be on every picket line, in every demonstration, at every rally where the working people of Australia are on the move upholding the best traditions of this country. Lines from Manifold “s celebrated poem, The Death of Ned Kelly, uplift those who dare to struggle:

Go tell your boss, says Kelly, who
lets the rich go free,
That your bloody rich man’s government
will never govern me.

(Reprinted from Southern Cross, July-Sept. 1985)