It was disappointing to read Bob Carr claim in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 December 1998 that no major works of Australian history had been published in 1998. For in terms of Australian labour history, 1998 was surely a vintage year. After Stuart Macintyre’s elegant The Reds came Meredith and Verity Burgmann’s outstanding Green Bans, Red Union.
Red Hot by Sydney journalist and activist Hall Greenland is also an excellent contribution to working-class history, an example of how the biography of an individual can lead a reader to a better understanding of the surrounding context of time and place.
Because Greenland’s subject, Nick Origlass, lived such a full and rich life, a central figure in so many arenas and for so many years, ranging from local government and municipal socialism on the Balmain peninsula to union affairs, ALP entrism and international Trotskyism, Greenland would have to have tried hard to make this a boring book. Fortunately the author can write well (at times especially so) and he has an attentive eye for the telling of amusing detail. For instance at p. 279 Greenland makes the point that the Packer family unwittingly contributed to Origlass’s local politicking. Employed as a press room maintenance man in the Daily Telegraph, when Frank Packer sold the Terror to Rupert Murdoch, Origlass found himself being paid his wage to look after printing machines that were not in use. Tired by late night stints at Leichhardt Council, Origlass was able to make a comfortable cubby hole among the dormant printing machines in order to snatch a few hours rest!
Elsewhere Greenland explains that Jack Sylvester, the founder of antipodean Trotskyism, was not especially attuned to the rigours of domestic labour. That is to say, he bludged on his wife. Greenland explains:
And if Jack Sylvester was to be a union activist, found the UWM, cut a political figure, be jailed for political activity, get himself expelled from the Communist Party, found Trotskyism in Australia, organise locally, write and publish, and generally redeem the honour of the Left in Australia, then he wouldn’t have had time to do the dishes. And he didn’t. (p. 19)
A central issue with this biography is the relationship between author and subject. Greenland makes no attempt to disguise the warm, loving, surrogate father relationship he enjoyed with Origlass. Clearly this could have led to hagiography. Red Hot, however, maintains an appropriate emotional distance and includes extensive references to Origlass’s faults. Particularly breathtaking is Origlass’s sexism. On one occasion Hall Greenland recalls returning home with Origlass. Despite the fact that he had the front door key in his hand, Origlass knocked on the door. Greenland asked why he did not open the door himself. The old patriarch explained that it was his wife’s job to answer the door! (p. 242)
Wilfully deaf, incorrigibly verbose and congenitally overbearing, exasperating was a word often used about Nick Origlass by both opponents and supporters alike. It is not difficult to see why. Yet despite his ‘primitive manners’ (referred to in a letter from the Sydney Morning Herald’s late professional ex-Trotskyist, Jim McClelland, to Origlass in 1949) Nick Origlass was clearly an individual who did make a difference, who did leave the world a better place. The streetscape of the inner west of Sydney, the tradition of participatory democracy in local councils’ deliberations, and the freedom of information provisions, for example, are partly his legacy.
From a personal point of view the most pleasing aspect of this book is the frequently biographical approach the author employs. Greenland explains that both Origlass and his long-term colleague, Issy Wyner, saw labour history in terms of a ‘personal dimension’, the project of restoring the past in terms of ‘uncovering people and episodes which anticipated their own preoccupations, ideals and involvements’. (p. 298). Perhaps Greenland has internalised this framework for studying the past, for his book is full of intriguing detail about people who usually end up in the rubbish bin of history.
One such person is Lucy Eatock, about whom Red Hot includes a biographical appendix. Before I read this book I knew that she was a major figure in the Glebe eviction riots of 1932. W.G. Blisset, a policeman, recalled to the New South Wales Oral History project that ‘old Mum Etock (sic) from Bankstown’ was fond of throwing boiling water on policeman as they were participating in evictions. No doubt still smarting from one of Lucy Eatock’s unwelcome warm baths, Blisset recalled: ‘She was an old Bitch’. Hall Greenland greatly supplements this account, and also that provided by Audrey Johnson in Bread and Roses. Lucy Eatock emerges as an extraordinary activist of Aboriginal background, a bit like Joe Kennedy, except that she had decided that each of her large brood of sons were ‘going to be revolutionary militants’. (p. 311). In fact it was the false imprisonment of one of her sons for bashing a policeman, and the CPA’s complicity in allowing Noel Eatock to take the rap, that caused a new anti-Stalinist Left tendency to emerge in Sydney, before there was a distinct Trotskyist movement internationally. A number of important but often forgotten labour figures- including Jack Sylvester, Joe Boxall, Arthur Marshall, Anatol Kagan, Jack Wishart, Gil and Edna Roper all pass by in Red Hot. So does a youthful Bob Gould, the well known Sydney bookseller and labour history society member, who says he regarded the Origlass Housing Commission flat in Balmain as his ‘university’. Greenland’s entertaining turn of phrase is called into play to describe his old comrade. Aged nineteen, Gould was ‘a loquacious, fast-talking and rumbustious rebel…An “only” child and reputedly “spoiled”, he was precocious and argumentative’. (p. 221) (In the interests of being able to pursue the option of purchasing books in Newtown in the future I offer these startling observations without comment.)
Not only is Red Hot full of interesting biographical details, as a bonus it also explains the complicated machinations and sectarian hostilities of the various Trotskyist sects, internationally and in Australia, the Pablo-ites, the Healey-ites, and so on, which the present reviewer perhaps now understands for the first time. Red Hot can also be read as an important account of an old working class suburb, Balmain, responding to social change, of how ‘old’ and ‘new’ Balmainites can work together in opposing environmental threats, a marriage of convenience strongly manipulated by those old wire-pullers, N. Origlass and I. Wyner. Finally, the book has an excellent index and is well illustrated and designed.
Book reviews are at their most interesting when they are cranky, picky and hostile. So perhaps I should apologise for this boring review. One quibble should be mentioned. There are one or two secondary sources that Hall Greenland might have consulted, or made reference to. One is the above mentioned Bread and Roses. Another is a pretty reasonable honours thesis at the University of Western Sydney, Macarthur, by Beatriz Anderson, ‘Trotskyism in Australia with special emphasis on Balmain 1930-1950’. There is certainly no shortage of primary sources here. (At UWS we inherited part of the overflow of paper caused by the Mitchell Library having the ‘Origlass Archive’ and Jack Wishart’s papers. Even this is daunting!) On the subject of sources it is worth reporting that Greenland’s interviews with a large number of activists are lodged in the ‘Origlass Archive’ at the Mitchell.
As readers of Humme would appreciate, despite the three books mentioned here, there is now a real crisis in publishing Australian labour history titles. The book trade grows ever more attuned to publishing first year university textbooks; less inclined to the scholarly monograph. So whoever Wellington Lane Press of Neutral Bay are, they deserve the highest commendation for publishing Red Hot.