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‘A New Britannia’ turns 50

By Humphrey McQueen
Humphrey McQueen’s influential book questioned the nation-building myths of the time

Humphrey McQueen (Image © Karen Donnelly) and A New Britannia (Image via Twitter)

The writer Donald Horne called it “cock-eyed and parochial”, but Humphrey McQueen’s first book, A New Britannia, had a lasting effect on how the Left in Australia came to view its own history. The book persuasively argued that the formation of the labour movement in Australia was an extension of British imperialism. With October 2020 marking 50 years since the publication of A New Britannia, McQueen tells the story of its inception.

 

“You should write a book.” It was early 1969 in John Playford’s office at the politics department at Monash University.

Arena had published two articles of mine – “Labor versus the Unions” and “A Race Apart” – and Labour History one titled “Convicts and Rebels”.

“I couldn’t write a book,” I replied. “I had trouble enough with a 9000-word article.”

“Books,” said John, “are ten or twelve articles brought together.” Even then, I felt there would be more to it. “I’ve a publisher friend. I’ll arrange for you to see him.”

A few afternoons later I was on the train from Glen Waverley, where I taught Year 12 Australian History, to Little Collins Street to meet John Hooker, the commissioning editor at F.W. Cheshire.

What did I tell him? Whatever I said, it would have been a long way from what appeared in print 18 months later, and 50 years ago this October, although I had already chanced upon the title: A New Britannia.

“When you’ve got a complete manuscript,” Hooker said at the end of our encounter, “get in touch.”

Innocence and ambition merged. I supposed that I had a contract. Without that delusion, Milton’s “Fame is the spur” would not have made me “scorn delights and live laborious days”.

What had once been identified as my “scatterbrain” would have kept me going on producing articles, but it would not have set me on the path to becoming a dilettante with a score of titles in the next 40 years. My then wife, Judy, had matriculated from a dairy farm at Bundalaguah, in Gippsland; her work ethic, one of her continuing gifts, proved contagious and incurable, and I set to work.

Early in December 1969, the doorbell rang at our South Yarra flat. There was Hooker. Before I had the wit to invite him in, he said: “I’m not sure whether you remember me?”

“Oh yes, indeed.”

“I’ve left Cheshire,” – my heart dropped – “to take a job with Penguin. Here’s my card. If you’re interested, get in touch.” With that, he was down the steps.

Penguin. Penguin Books. A Penguin author.

Even today, the prospect of publishing with Penguin can thrill. Back then, Penguin’s publicity screeds set the agenda for readers each month. We would work through them, tick off possibilities, wait till the first Wednesday of the month to buy – though not always manage to read – all of our purchases before we selected the next enticements.

John Hooker was a chancer, a double-dyed anarchist in personality and in politics. He was breaking the law by publishing Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in Australia. Hooker told me later that he had assured the Penguin selectors that he had a swag of books to set the country on its ear. Mine was one. Although he was hit with multiple sclerosis in his fifties, Hooker never lost his toughness, his humour and his warmth.

Henry Mayer, a professor of government at the University of Sydney, was at that time writing a fortnightly column for The Australian, in which he drew attention to journal articles, including my three. Mayer described himself as a “pluralist”, which he was, though not being bored was his working principle. He was also advising Penguin, which led to the publication of Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) and Kevin Gilbert’s Living Black (1977).

After Mayer read my manuscript, he told Hooker that it was more thrilling than the Cook Bicentenary fireworks and that Penguin should put a battery inside the back cover to prepare readers for a shock. Tom Fitzgerald, the founding editor of Nation and a critic of white Australia, told me that he had never conceptualised racism here before reading A New Britannia.

In keeping with Mayer’s advice, reprints carried back-cover endorsements: “This is a very bad book” (Russel Ward); “cock-eyed and parochial” (Donald Horne); and “disastrous … slipshod and superficial” (Alastair Davidson).

My introduction to A New Britannia listed “five major weaknesses” I had identified while reading the page proofs: the absence of culture, women and Aboriginal Australians, and flawed social theory and method. I already knew too much to write it yet still far from enough to rewrite it. However, I was able to recast the book’s argument about racism, nationalism and the Labor Party in a 40-page appendix to the 2004 edition. The person with whom I argue most continues to be myself.

Consider the state of Australian intellectual and cultural production around 1970. The memorable feature films had foreign directors; but we had a start on theatre with John Romeril and Dorothy Hewett.

It was still possible to fit all the nonfiction works about Australia worth reading into a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Those on race relations would not have filled a shelf. There were few on women (even fewer by them), and scarcely more on environmental concerns despite the publication of the 10-volume Australian Encyclopedia, edited by the naturalist Alec Chisholm.

The 1960s had given us scholarly benchmarks including Bernard Smith on the visual arts, John Mulvaney on prehistory, Geoffrey Blainey on mining, Roger Covell on music and H.M. Green on all forms of writing. In no sense was Australia a cultural desert in 1970, but nonfiction titles were not keeping pace with the numbers of university students and graduates.

Penguin’s distribution system and selling price of $1.50 gave A New Britannia a head start, with four reprints by 1980 and a new edition with illustrations by Keith Looby published in 1984. Released in the same week as the second Vietnam Moratorium, A New Britannia appealed to the New Left even though much of my approach overlapped with its targets in the Old Left. A review from Kelvin Rowley pointed out that the Labor Party dissected in A New Britannia had been overtaken by the “technocratic laborism” of Dunstan, Hawke and Whitlam.

Hooker commissioned me to write two more books. Their success owed much to the work of George Dale as designer. Those were the days before permissions and fees. It would have been impossible to include the hundreds of images from the first edition of Social Sketches of Australia (first published in 1978) by the time the third edition appeared in 2004.

Hooker’s marching orders to me were for “a history for fourth-form boys who hate history”. The result was Social Sketches of Australia, about which a teacher once recounted this exchange:

“Please, sir, is this a history book?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“’Cos it’s got stuff about cars in it.”

When I flew to Brisbane late in 1997 after my mother died, the nurse who showed me her body stopped me as I was leaving, saying: “I hope you won’t mind if I tell you something.” He had grown up in Cunnamulla, in outback Queensland, when racism was the order of the day. Reading the school library’s copy of my book Aborigines, Race and Racism (1974), he found that he was not the only person who did not share that prejudice.

Hooker agreed that these were the best reviews an author could have.

Humphrey McQueen

Humphrey McQueen is a freelance historian and cultural commentator, and the author of 19 books on history, the media, politics and the visual arts, including his two classic books of Australian history – A New Britannia and Social Sketches of Australia.

Humphrey McQueen (Image © Karen Donnelly) and A New Britannia (Image via Twitter)

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