Dick Hall, 1937-2003

Andrew Moore

With the death of John Iremonger in 2002 and Richard Victor Hall in 2003, Australian literary affairs prematurely lost two major figures, the former prominent in publishing, the latter better known as a writer and bon vivant. An unforgettable icon of Sydney, with an extraordinarily resonant voice and shock of wild, frizzy hair, Dick Hall was one of the first authors to visit the offices of Australian Archives to write a major Australian book. This was The Secret State: Australia’s Spy Industry (Cassell, 1978). Despite recent contributions on that subject by historians, it remains a worthwhile and interesting volume. Scholarly types may have missed his 1998 book Black Armband Days, (Vintage) but this to me is a valuable book that contains an especially important essay on racism and the media. It is the one of the few places I know of where the lunatics of the Far Right are dumped on in book form.

Dick wrote widely on crime, espionage, politics, history and biography. Because Dick wrote for a living rather than when the muse took him, the quality of some of his books may have been a little uneven. His anthology Sydney is widely tipped to prove his most enduring, its introduction expressing his attachment to the harbour city as well as his wide general knowledge and intellectual generosity. The Rhodes Scholar Spy (1991) on Ian Milner was a quickie, but many (including Dick) would see as vindicated following the release of the Venona documents in 1996. According to an excellent obituary written by his friend Edmund Campion in the SMH on 25 March 2003, Dick’s biography of Gough Whitlam, for whom he worked as press secretary, remains ‘forthcoming’. I hope that this means it is in press.

A social democrat to the core and, with the likes of Ted Kennedy and Bob Scribner, a member of the Newman Society at Sydney University, Dick was unsympathetic to anything approaching Marxism. He would not have seen himself as a labour historian, though he co-edited Curtin’s off the record briefings to journalists. Way back in 1985 he addressed the Sydney branch of the Labour History Society on the Petrov Affair.

Dick’s most profound contribution was to the cultural lifmouraging the establishment of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, foundation membership of the Australia Council’s Literature Board and membership of the State Library Council at a particularly crucial time.

A great networker, Dick was always good company and an enthusiastic tippler. Some of this city’s best restaurants are no doubt still lamenting his loss. The last time I saw him was in the State Library’s coffee shop a year or more ago. I was researching the career of Stan Taylor, a former president of the New South Wales Arbitration Commission. Dick immediately reeled off anecdotes about Stan, (not all of them entirely reliable) and complained about how it was impossible to get a drink in the State Library without paying for an expensive meal.

Dick lived life to the full. According to Campion, the women in his life were ‘attentive to his exigencies’. Apart from twenty more years, what more can you ask for?