‘In loneliness and hardship – and with just a touch of pride’

Wild Card: An Autobiography 1923–1958
Dorothy Hewett
UWA Publishing

What right have these pontificating males to condescend to me? What right have they to decide my future? I will be a writer, no matter what they say, or how many warnings they give me.

Literary criticism discusses its objects always in the present tense, I tell my students when correcting their attempts to follow the discipline’s odder habits, because literature is always happening. The event of literature occurs at the moment of reading and so, somewhere, for someone new, Pip is discovering the truth about Miss Haversham, Friar Lawrence is getting his timing wrong, Eve is listening to a snake. It’s all still happening, or about to happen.

I’m particularly mindful of this continuous present writing this afternoon about a book that will most probably be, for most of you, a well-known and familiar friend, but which has entered into my life with the passionate excitement of a new discovery. Still, the cliché about preaching to the converted misses the point: who loves sermons more than congregations? So, a journey to the chapel perilous. It’s a sign of the strange trade-routes and uneven developments in the world republic of letters that Australian literature and Australian intellectual life remains, here in New Zealand, woefully under-read and under-appreciated; an impoverishing absence.

Dorothy Hewett’s Wild Card, an autobiography recently reissued in a handsome new edition by the University of Western Australia press, as sturdily bound as an old Progress Publishers anthology of Lenin, is a literary and political thrill, a triumph of intelligence, aesthetic daring, world creation and astoundingly beautiful matter-of-fact observation. It’s one of those books that manages with its discovery to create within you a sense of previous, and unknown, absence: I should have known you years ago.

Hewett’s writings form part of the large, unruly, archive of Australia’s Communism, a love story. I don’t write with any expertise on her, though, having seen none of her plays and knowing the poetry only casually, but as a convert and a proselytiser. Wild Card achieves the elusive trick of typicality, as the extraordinary and the personal somehow fuse into fitting images of their period, guides to an historical moment, indicators of what to look for in a world we have lost.

That world was the Cold War, and a Communist movement – before its decline ‘into the mainstream’ – seeing itself as something apart from capitalist society: an international current, loyal to revolt abroad and the oppressed at home, facing a hostile world. Hewett, in the period after this autobiography finishes, rebelled against the oppression and political decay Stalinism represented; here she records both the passionate bravery and inspired drudgery of a life in the movement, and the everyday sexisms and thuggeries that indicated its degeneration.  She travels to the Pilbara in secret to carry out party work in solidarity with the Aboriginal stockmen striking there; she immerses herself in the raffish, roustabout world of the Redfern branch; she agitates and organises in factories, offices, street corners. Bobbin Up, a brilliant novel I sneered at with arrogant and ignorant ‘theoreticist’ stupidity for its supposed crudities the first time I read it, comes out of these experiences.

Hewett can be angry against the ‘hierarchy of the Communist Party’, but for Australia’s rulers and bosses she maintains a particularly devastating, cool, contempt:

The first chill breath of the Cold War was beginning to blow. In March 1946 Churchill had given his Fulton speech attacking the USSR and Billy Snedden arrived drunk at the university dances, with his lawyer mates in tow, yelling ‘Get the bloody Coms’ and threw me across the refectory floor. Billy, a widow’s son from Victoria Park, just out of air force uniform, was being groomed for stardom by the local Liberals.

And Sydney! The only metropolis in Australasia, Sydney has been Australia’s greatest city for all the reasons that may have made it the most difficult for living. The organised crime, the police, the violence and corruption of the Labor Right, the steamy strangeness of the birds in Hyde Park; for generations of New Zealanders before Closer Economic Relations, Sydney was the place for the sexually different, the artistic and the intellectual to escape to, the city promising sophistication and danger and ideas and radicalism. Carmen Rupe moved to Surry Hills when Wellington’s conservatism bored her; Colin McCahon went missing in the Botanic Gardens; the Maori Trotskyist Charles White was one of the Domain’s orators in the 1930s.

Hewett knows this city. Sydney ‘becoming once against for me the legendary city,’ appears in Wild Card as a character, an immense world:

I am creating another city for myself with its own geography and its own stories: a city of the poor and dispossessed, a city of struggle, with its smoky towers rising up through the harsh, discordant cries of paper boys, flower sellers, barrow men, and the murmuring voices of lovers.

There is plenty about Wild Card that is disturbing, too, and in ways that aren’t always safely distant and ‘historical’. Abortion is another link between Sydney and New Zealand, being where the Sisters Overseas Service used to fly women who needed terminations they couldn’t get here in the 1970s. The so-called ‘pro-life’ would do well to read Hewett’s account of what doctors and hospitals and suburban crooks could do to women in the years before access to abortion services were liberalised – from sexual assaults to life-threatening and debilitating infections, Wild Card’s abortion stories are an important record. There was no ‘pro-life’ movement making much noise in this era, naturally, as women did the dying.

Narrative can do things analysis can’t, or can do analysis in different ways, and Wild Card tells some stories that are horrifying but insistently familiar. Hewett’s relationship with Les Flood, so violently destructive and so abusive at the same time as it’s so sexually charged and transformative, is particularly difficult to read about; she records the way this unbearable abuse is rendered bearable in a series of understatements that underline its worrying proximity to normality.

Another story reminds me of more recent examples of the Northern Territory intervention and the liberal defence of racism:

I belonged to the Redfern Tenant’s Protection League and in my bumbling, proselytizing innocence immediately made a complete fool of myself and a few more enemies for the Party. Discovering two young Aboriginal girls and their numerous bare-bottomed babies lying in an appalling shack in Kettle Street with no electricity, no stove, no toilet and no running water, I brought out the Tribune photographer and wrote up the story. I did a good job. The girls were immediately shifted out to a Housing Commission Settlement in the western suburbs, but when I went round to Kettle Street full of self-congratulations (so much for the death of the ego) I was met by silence and hostile stares. Prostitutes running their own amateur brothel, the girls had been exiled to the desert of the outer suburbs, losing their livelihood, their friends, their lovers, their customers, and their community. I remembered the young Aboriginal men glimpsed in the inner rooms sullenly pulling up their trousers, the rumpled beds and wary eyes. How could I have been so idiotically myopic? I told the story against myself and laughed.

Hewett tells the story against the state of that world, and to our own. This is a classic work, a tool for reassembling a radical literary tradition, a book that deserves a new generation of adorers. I started reading it in the peace of Albert Park one late afternoon after an Auckland protest against the TPPA, feeling those imaginative links around me. It feels ridiculously good – and in the tradition, again – to record this discovery in a journal with which she was associated.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

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  1. dorothy was one of the few people who recognized frank hardy’s genius -& understood the deep humanity of a man who helped her writing considerably which she mentioned often

    i knew her through heannie lewis, she & merv were wonderful people, very different but total in the way george johnston & charmian clift were

    it was her openness that allowed roger millis to write the magisterial offering, ‘serpent’s tooth’

    there is no question in mt mind – of her generation the best, the most heroic were communists

  2. This post lends itself to anecdotes and reading experiences.

    Bobbin Up I threw away in disgust when I read it all those years ago – maybe, as you say, it’s time is the present (political climate). Due a re-read then.

    I saw Hewett and Lilley at a poetry reading once – in a small pub in Perth –
    – one of three I’ve ever attended – where they were the star attraction. Swanned in late they did – read – and promptly left. Bloody bad form I thought. Perhaps they weren’t well (they were very large of body by that time) – but it was their presence that filled the overcrowded room – which felt empty when they left.

    I don’t remember what Hewett read. It is her superb stage plays which figure most in my memory.

  3. Gosh, what an overdetermined / underdetermined Overland readership.

    Interesting too the changing critical receptions of a novel, and how in one of her many preserved interviews Hewett claims something to the effect that being a Communist Party member for eight years prevented her from writing due to its Russian dogmatism, and if she had her time over again would expunge the didactic Communist bits from Bobbin Up as they spoil the novel, but didn’t do so as she saw herself differently after she left the party.

  4. ” … Australian literature and Australian intellectual life remains, here in New Zealand, woefully under-read and under-appreciated; an impoverishing absence.”
    I would argue the same, but in reverse!

    Lovely article Dougal. I haven’t read Wild Card but Alice in Wormland travels the same territory – her autobiography in narrative verse. It is one my my favourite books.

  5. Thanks for all these comments and memories - I’ve been travelling & so have only just caughthem. 

    Yes,Jeff, I read(or re-read, or read properly) Bobbin’ Up last year. One of those books forwhich the realist straightjacket is a spur & inspiration as it’s a restraint,I reckon.

    And as for ’Haverhsam’! Dickensian blushing this end.

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