Bill McNamara

Lyndall Ryan

Bill McNamara was born on 6 August 1893, into a household devoted to the dissemination, through discussion, persuasion and education, of ideas directed towards social justice and civilised values.

During the whole of his long career, or careers, his life has been governed by those ideals and by his belief in the ability of human beings to recognise the good and the reasonable if these are pointed out through informed and unflatering argument. He was called William Morris after the nineteenth century idealist poet and artist, and not for nothing did his wife Clarice add the final two adjectives in her name for him: ‘William Morris Jutson Persistence Thorough McNamara.’

He must have absorbed those ideals as though by osmosis in the family bookshopwhich Clarice has described in an account of their first meeting in the 1920s. Much of these early recollections is freely drawn from her writings. A friend had sent her to buy a book that could only be found, she has written, ‘in that famous little bookshop’, McNamara’s Bookshop in Castlereagh Street, Sydney. She found it ‘a tiny shop with shelv~s groaning under every possible book, magazine, pamphlet or newspaper dealing with the radical movement throughout the world. Behind the counter stood a smiling young man with bright pink complexion, a shock of thick black hair standing straight up above a noble forehead, and blue eyes crinkling with friendliness and fun. It was Bill McNamara, son of Bertha, widow of William H. McNamara, Labor Party stalwart and radical bookseller who had made fame by going to gaol for his political opinions!

That, Billy used to recall of his father, was for insisting on his right to sell a newspaper containing an attack on the banks. And his mother, Bertha, who had come alone to Australia as a girl of fifteen from Prussian dominated Poland, held just as strongly to the power of ideas for good. Bertha became a polemicist and is remembered, through her plaque in the Sydney Trades Hall, as the Mother of the Australian Labor Movement. Young Bill McNamara had vivid memories of the already great figure of the day who used to drop in for a chat in the little back reading room of the shop: members of the women’s movement, Louisa Lawson and Rose Scott, coming to confer with Bertha; politicians like Billy Hughes, W.A. Holman, J.C. Watson and J.T. Lang all later premiers or prime ministers and writers such as E.J. Brady, Victor Daly and Henry Lawson. Of these, Jack Lang and Henry Lawson became brothers-in-law of Bill McNamara, marrying his half-sisters from his mother’s earlier marriage. That husband died young, and Bill’s own father died when he was twelve, and so he assumed his share in the running of the Bookshop. He used to tell of adding to the family income by selling newspapers on street corners after school, and while jumping on and rolling off the trams that ran along Castlereagh Street – an extraordinary story of someone his great-grandchildren remember as being a very, very careful person. He was one of the first six students to be granted bursaries to attend Sydney Boys’ High School, and later gained a scholarship to Sydney University where, because of his book shop duties, he completed his Arts and Economics studies at night. In 1927, the historic books hop closed, as competition grew fiercer in a world moving towards depress ion, and Bill was out of a job. All through the twenties, however, and on up to 1933, he was an activist in the Labor movement of New South Wales. This was the cause he pursued with the young radical schoolteacher Clarice Irwin, through his almost immediate finding of a job as an educational consultant with the far from-radical accountancy form of Hemingway Robertson and through the birth of their daughter, Margaret. From 1930-1933 Bill was the driving force in the Socialisation Committee which tried to implement the Labor Party’s declared policy of the socialisation of industry, production and exchange. This Committee nearly changed the face of Labor in 1933 but it was defeated by Left and the Right factions of the Party, each for different reasons. Bill was devastated by the defeat, largely because as a socialist, he believed that the Labor Party had to portray the intellectual integrity of a Socialist Party. Robert Cooksey in his hook. Lang and Socialism, has summcd up the work of the Socialisation Committee and its units:

Attached to the New South Wales Labor Party there have been a number of organised groups which have attempted to convert the Party to “Socialism in our time”. The Socialisation Units remain unique, in the nature of their organisation, the extent of their support, and narrowness of their defeat.

In 1947 another opportunity arose to put Bill’s ideas about social justice into action this time on an international scale when he accompanied Dr. Evatt’s secretary, Allan Dalziel, to the United Nations in New York to work on the drafting of the Declaration of Human Rights. When Bill was elected to the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, he found himself engaged in work of exhilaration and intense idealism, which culminated in his piloting through several proposals which were incorporated in the Charter of Human Rights and as such form part of the Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly under Dr. Evatt’s presidency in 1949. Upon his return to Australia Bill became the first director of the UN Information Centre for Australia and New Zealand, with headquarters in Sydney; a post he held for three years until a permanent UN officer took over at the end of 1951. These years 1947-51 provided Bill with considerable intellectual fulfilment. He revelled in the arduous and exacting work of drafting and redrafting, knowing when to compromise and knowing when principle could be no further stretched. Above all Bill saw his work with the UN as an extension of his parents’ beliefs in international forums for arguing principle through informed and unfaltering argument. In 1958, at the age of sixty five, Bill began another career as the first administrative officer of the National Trust in New South Wales, becoming its first field officer in 1961, a position he held until retirement in 1979, at the age of 86. At the same time he served as a member of the Library Board of New South Wales, as Vice-Chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council of New South Wales, as the government nominee director to the Cooperative Building Society movement of New South Wales and as a member of the New South Wales Film Council . Bill revelled in the diversity of this life. My mother Edna Ryan remembers Bill during this long and fruitful period as the complete Sydney man, actively engaged in the major cultural and intellectual institutions of the city, and regarded with joyous affection and respect across the vast Concourse of Sydney writers, architects, artists, muscians, journalists, bureaucrats and politicians. Bill regarded Sydney with that same sense of intellectual excitement that Baudelaire regarded Paris. Like Baudelaire’s flanneur, Bill knew how to Ii ve in the city. Every train journey and bus trip delighted him, yet oat the same time he wished through his work in the National Trust to preserve what was best for Sydney, as well as acknowledging the need for growth and change. When Bill and Clarice moved to Brisbane at the end of 1979, Sydney lost one of its most committed participants. In Brisbane, Bill and Clarice lost none of their zest for life. Bill still read the Sydney Morning Herald every day, more recently provided on subscription by his grandson Nicky. In 1983, a year after they moved to Sinnamon Village, Bill and Clarice were photographed by the Courier Mail as members of the winning ream of wordsmiths at the Village. Earlier this year, Bill broke his pelvis and was in hospital for many weeks. But he recovered in time to learn of Clarice’s Award as a Member of the Order of Australia, early in June. His last public appearance was the moving speech he delivered at a function in Clarice’s honour for that award at Sinnamon Village. Last week Bill was struck down by pneumonia. He died without pain on Monday evening, a month short of his ninety second birthday. Bill would have been delighted to know that on the following evening, Australia won the second test at Lords. How can one sum up such a life? Bill showed us how to experience life in all its richness, its disappointments and its triumphs. Bill remained committed to his belief in the ability of human beings to recognise the good and the reasonable if these are pointed out through informed and unfaltering argument. Above all that twinkle in the eye, his humour, his warmth and his gentleness and his quiet persistence are what I remember most about Bill McNamara. He would certainly expect us to remember him with a glass of beer and a good yarn. This seems just the day to do that.