David Hudson – bookseller, editor, socialist and sometime Overland proofreader and fact-checker – has died.
Australian progressives of a certain generation will remember David as the face of the Communist Party’s International Bookshop in 17 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.
He managed the shop between 1973 and 1987, a period in which it played a central role in disseminating radical ideas that simply were not available anywhere much else in Australia.
The novelist Christos Tsiolkas captured something of its importance:
When I was 16, I nervously made my way up the steep stairs of the International Bookshop in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. The bookshop, run by a socialist co-operative, was full of texts by Marx and Lenin as well as whole shelves of books on ecology, on feminism, on anti-racism and anti-colonial struggle. The reason I’d come into the bookshop was the word Gay on their sign outside on the street. It had literally leapt out at me, fascinating me and repelling me at the same time. Going up the stairs, I felt just like I was entering a porno shop. Once inside, I quickly ascertained where the ‘gay books’ were but I was still too nervous to wander over to that section . . . It still felt too public a declaration of my own ‘perversity’ . . . to be seen flicking through books meant for poofters. This was back then.
David helped create that space.
The son of a bricklayer, he was born in Glasgow in 1943. Though he immigrated to Australia in 1950, that heritage was apparent in the faintest of burs when he spoke – as well as in the frail physique resulting from childhood malnutrition.
He grew up in Casterton, near Hamilton, on the South Australian border and then attended Melbourne University on an education department scholarship in the early sixties.
Like so many others at that time, he became a socialist. Unlike many, he stayed one for the rest of his life.
David was active in the Labour Club and the campaign against the Vietnam War. He was, as a student, politically close to the wing of the Trotskyist movement represented by (fellow bookseller) Bob Gould.
He wrote his Masters Thesis on the Victorian Teachers Union and briefly worked as a teacher before seizing the opportunity to work in the International Bookshop – a job much more conducive to his temperament.
The Communist Party maintained the shop as part of a nationwide cultural infrastructure. At various times, the CPA ran (or at least directed) national and state-based newspapers, theory journals, magazines, a distribution agency and bookshops in every major city.
David was never a member of the party, which, in some ways, makes his appointment to such a position seem strange. Yet political ecumenicism was in his nature. He once told me that he’d always classified the Left according to those who ‘were nice’ and those who were not – and that, in the bookshop, he found mostly the former, including his lifelong friends Olga Silver and Ken Norling.
Certainly, he came at the right time. Kath Gleeson, the previous manager, had been a pioneer of women’s liberation, and had oriented the shop to the new ideas emanating from the social struggles.
As a result, the New International was one of the few places where, prior to the rise of commercial feminist publishing, the magazines and books of the women’s liberation movement could be purchased.
Later, the gay section became equally important. When my sister Jill and I interviewed David for our book Radical Melbourne 2, he explained:
When I started there were four or five narrow shelves all face on with gay stuff, the first thing you saw when you came in the door. This was probably some provocation of Kathy’s to improve some old party members’ view of the world.
That last sentence perfectly captures his humour. He had a keen sense of the absurd and palpably delighted in the idea of homophobes forced to confront the gay erotica that the shop sold in huge quantities. In that same interview, he laughed remembering what he called the ‘occasional demented letters in Tribune from ancient persons complaining about sodomy and perversion’.
Yet as Tsiolkas’ anecdote suggests, back then, mainstream shops wouldn’t stock gay and lesbian literature. The International epitomised the historical link between sexual freedom and the radical Left.
In 1984 the shop was included in the National Times’ roundup of Australia’s best bookshops:
It’s twice the size it was a few years ago and also stocks a large selection of posters, records, badges and postcards, which like many of the books, are unobtainable elsewhere. (Where else could you find a badge which says, ‘Bigamy is the same as monogamy – one husband too many’?)
Even so, the International Bookshop was still a radical bookshop. David’s employment there made him, of course, a target for ASIO and other security agents. He recalled how, once a week during the seventies and eighties, a polite young woman appeared with a handwritten list of books and pamphlets, obviously copied from Tribune, which she would assiduously track down – much to the amusement of the staff:
It was so ridiculous. We felt like saying, you know, we do put aside things for people. Would you like us to set up a little folder for you –perhaps one with ‘ASIO’ written on it?
Then came the queen’s visit to Melbourne, when the security services realised with horror that the route of the official cavalcade brought the Royal Personage dangerously close to the International Bookshop:
And so they sent two Commonwealth Police around. They were terribly pleasant. They said, ‘We know that serious political people like you aren’t going to do anything but on the other hand some maniac might be lurking inside your building.’ So we did our best to assure them that we were clear of maniacs.
David left the International in 1987 and moved to Perth, in part to pursue a romantic relationship with a man there. He established his own shop called Missing Pages but without great success (he quipped it might have been called ‘Missing Customers’). After that, he worked for the Left Book Club and then became an editor at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne.
He played an important role at the New International Bookshop in Trades Hall, where he kept accounts and attempted to teach a string of former activists (myself included) the rudiments of bookselling.
David had attended the founding meeting of the Melbourne branch of the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1962, and was passionate about the history of the Left for the rest of his life. He helped produce at least two classics of the genre: working with Bertha Walker on Solidarity Forever (her memoir of her father, Percy Laidler) and then with Wendy Loewenstein on her oral history of the Great Depression, Weevils in the Flour.
In conversation, he possessed a knack for making labour history come alive, not least because of his humour. When I worked at the New International Bookshop, he educated me about the genuine importance of key figures in the Australian communist movement, even as he told scurrilous stories about them. He delighted in irony and the grotesque but he was also very serious about the past, with the deep commitment to historical accuracy that made him such an effective proofreader.
In the fractious milieu of the left, David maintained genial relationships with people from widely different factions. He disliked dogmatism and once became quite upset when I wanted to read something he’d written on Leninism as a young activist – he found his old presumption embarrassing, he said.
At the same time, he remained deeply committed to the Left and its symbols, insisting, for instance, on attending the May Day rally each year.
Today, the internet has fundamentally changed intellectual life for the Left. Bookshops still matter but they are no longer the sole source of literature and ideas in the way that they once were. In a sense, David’s career represented a link back to an older tradition, one in which working-class autodidacts of the 1890s learned their politics in places like Andrade’s bookshop in Bourke Street.
I will remember him as a small figure standing behind a shop counter, surrounded by piles of books and receipts, discussing Lance Sharkey and the internal history of the Communist Party with a browser who patently isn’t going to buy anything at all.
David Hudson was a gentle and kind man, who embodied the best traits of the Left. Despite his own modesty, he helped make the world a better place, and many of us owe him a great deal.
David’s friends are planning a function in his honour some time in early November. More details will be available soon.