Ya ya ya, your father’s a Communist! The girls at my school in Melbourne in the late 1940s liked to taunt the oddballs in their midst; other targets were orphans (Ya ya ya, your father died in the war!) and Jews. My father was not in fact a Communist, he was an independent, a maverick who ran the Australian Council for Civil Liberties as a front organisation for himself, I thought, though others said for the Communists. It might have been easier for us if he had been a Party member, since that would have provided ready-made comrades and perhaps even an income, which in my father’s unemployed state was notably lacking. I asked him early on (though without getting a serious answer) why we didn’t move to Russia, if, as he seemed to think, things were better there.

My father described himself as a socialist, but I could never find out exactly what socialism meant. On the basis of my school experience, not to mention my experience at home, the idea that people could live happily and co-operatively together under socialism, or under any circumstances, seemed absurd: people either enjoyed causing each other pain, as at school, or couldn’t help it, as at home. Still, for all my scepticism about socialism, I felt bound to join the struggle, if only to preserve personal honour, so I challenged my tormenters to serial single combat at playtime in a distant corner of the hockey field. I was small so I probably lost, though this is not part of the memory. It was hard to decide just what I was fighting for. According to my father’s rules, there was no shame in being a Communist, though he happened not to be. What was shameful was to deny being a Communist, even if you weren’t one, in order to get off the hook. This, at any rate, was my deduction from our Australian equivalent of the McCarthy hearings, the Royal Commission on Espionage of 1954, at which my father naturally testified. But at school, denial wouldn’t have got you off the hook anyway.

As well as being a socialist, my father was a democrat, an allegiance he proclaimed in the title of his newsletter, the Australian Democrat. But he warned me early on about democracy. ‘The majority is always wrong’ was one of his maxims for a growing child; and I could see that it must be true, as we were always in the minority. Unless we were wrong ourselves, of course. This was a possibility my father alerted me to with another of his sayings: ‘Daddy is always right, except when he is wrong.’ My father was a witty man, especially when sober, a skilled writer of satirical light verse, and a raconteur, whose stories I would sometimes spoil as a child by asking, after the punchline: ‘And then what happened?’ I thought of him as a Shavian iconoclast and was surprised, when I went to university, to hear him described as a Marxist. The red-bound volumes of Shaw’s Plays Pleasant and Plays Unpleasant, with their breezy polemical introductions, were great favourites of his and mine, along with The Way of All Flesh and other satirical classics; we were also very fond of G.K. Chesterton. Lenin’s Works, bound in orange, were on our shelves, chosen by my father as a university prize to cock a snook at the prize committee, but I never saw him consult them.

When I was very young I thought we were Jewish. That was because we lived in a small block of flats whose other residents were all recently arrived European Jewish refugees, and also because my father was an active member of the Melbourne Council for Combating Fascism and Anti-Semitism, and most of his best friends, other than the drinking ones, were Jews. ‘Jewish’, in my childish understanding, was probably a synonym for ‘outsider’, perhaps even for ‘intellectual’ (though some of our neighbours, multilingual and much travelled though they were, didn’t fit). After a while someone must have explained to me that Jewish, like Communist, was a perfectly good thing to be, despite public opinion to the contrary, but we weren’t. At least that explained the disappointing fact that my family spoke only one language.

The one thing we clearly were was intellectual, and that was a cross to bear in 1950s Australia. At school, the name-calling equivalent of intellectual was brains and it was the vilest of taunts, one I endured all through school until my final two years, when I was reborn as a hockey-player. Even the word ‘intellectual’ was regarded as pretentious and offensive to Australian sensibilities, not to mention its usual qualifier, left-wing. I remember an embarrassing occasion in middle school when we were reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ and the teacher asked who those hollow men were: intellectuals, I piped up, but it was the wrong answer, received like an obscenity. It was hard for me to get the measure of school mores because they were so different from home ones: around the same time, this led to a Hate Sheila campaign, which caused me to skip a grade and later arrive at university a callow and undersized 16.

My father was better at handling (as well as creating) awkward situations. We both had poor eyesight, which meant that I never greeted people in the street in case they were strangers, while my father, recognising nobody, greeted everyone with a genial air of noblesse oblige. His bad eyesight, along with poverty and regular drunkenness, were the reasons that we, unlike all the families of my schoolmates, had no car. He took the tram into town and when on local errands rode a bicycle with a child-seat, an upright and arresting figure. Sometimes, with unimpaired dignity, he would dismount to pick up coal dropped from a passing truck.

For misfits in Australian society, we were extraordinarily Australian, three or four generations on both sides, mainly Scottish Presbyterians, for all my father’s sentimental preference for the Irish side. My mother never left Australia until the 1970s, when both her children were living permanently abroad. My father had left once, for 16 months to work as a journalist in England in the 1920s, a trip that ended ignominiously when he was badly beaten up and had to go home to regain his health. It’s possible that the trip left an imprint on his accent, which was certainly less broadly Australian than one would expect from a Moonee Ponds upbringing, but the only strong impression he passed on to me of his English trip was a sighting of Chesterton, in flowing cloak, in a Fleet Street pub. We had no known relatives abroad, and I left Australia in 1964 without the usual list from my parents of people I should be sure to get in touch with.

Our un-Australian Australianness was one of the many paradoxes associated with my father. A socialist without an income, he sent his two children to private schools; at an earlier stage in life he had reportedly sported a cane. A historian who habitually stuck his neck out, he nevertheless warned me, if I insisted on becoming a historian instead of a violinist, against publishing anything interesting until I had tenure (curiously, I think he even used this American term), advice I unfortunately forgot until it was too late. A man for whom backroom politics was a passion, he advised his children against political engagement. A lifelong critic of British imperialism and advocate of Australian national culture, famously ending one book with an encomium to the Australian people, who ‘made of Australia a home good enough for men of modest report to live in, calling their souls their own’, he encouraged his children to go to Oxbridge and, at least as I interpreted the message, not come back. Presumably our report, whatever he meant by that, was not to be modest. But what about his?

My father was not the first person to reject the bourgeoisie simultaneously from above (as an aristocrat of the spirit) and below (as a friend and mentor to the proletariat). Nor was he the first to embrace a bohemian lifestyle, the better to shock the bourgeoisie: most of his university friends did it too, though few for so long. While the friends settled down and found respectable jobs, my father made a downtown watering hole, the Swanston Family Hotel, his office and clocked in punctually on weekdays from early afternoon to 6 o’clock closing. The pub was one side of the bohemian life that I disapproved of; the other was the ‘girls’ of the Warrandyte and Eltham artistic circles, bright lipstick and nail polish glittering, blonde shoulder-length hair sweeping over one eye. But the Melbourne bohemian left had its redeeming features, notably Bill Dolphin’s violin shop in Collins Street, a gathering place for writers, artists and drinkers of the left, smelling of varnish, with instruments of all sizes hanging on the walls and signed photographs in sepia of great violinists. In 1935, when the Czech Communist journalist Egon Erwin Kisch was denied entry to Australia, he had been so outraged at losing his chance to visit the famous Dolphin violin shop that he leapt from the boat to the dock, breaking a leg and creating an Australian legend. Bill’s large size and taciturn demeanour daunted me, but I loved going with my father to his shop and ended up permanently in Bill’s debt, since he provided me with my first full-size violin, a battered but beautiful instrument labelled Antonio Da Costa, 1740 that he had found in a country barn and restored. He must have sold it to my father for a song, given my father’s financial state, so it was a shock, almost half a century later, to have it valued in New York as genuine. I wonder if Bill knew that.

Given my father’s penchant for shocking the bourgeoisie, it was unfortunate that the closest local representatives of this class were my mother’s parents, socially a cut above my father’s, we gathered, though as he had largely severed relations with his own family, this was hearsay. My maternal grandfather was a shy flute and golf-playing, non-drinking patent attorney with whom we had little contact, but my grandmother, a selfless woman who helped my mother with housework when she was schoolteaching and probably slipped her money under the table to keep the household going, was an important presence in our lives. My father treated them both with hauteur, addressing my grandmother (‘Barbar’ to all of us) with offensive formality as Mrs Davies. He did, however, form alliances within my mother’s family, one with her younger sister’s husband, valued by my father as a source of intelligent conversation at family gatherings, and the other with one of my mother’s many maiden aunts, Elsie Violet, rechristened by us as Ishie. If one were to plead my father’s case at the gate of heaven (a conceit he sometimes played with), Ishie, if nothing else, should get him in.

Though my father regarded my mother’s family as haut bourgeois, her grandfather had actually lost all his money in the crash of 1891, leaving a large family consisting mainly of daughters who were too poor to marry well and too genteel to marry badly or work. Ishie, one of the youngest of the sisters, missed the chance to go to university, an injustice that rankled all her life, all the more because the lucky sister who did get to go died young and wasted her opportunities. Ishie’s life before my father came into it, when she must have been in her fifties, was limited to good works at the local Presbyterian church, secretarial work in my grandfather’s office, and exercising her sharp tongue on her sisters.

My father may have thought he was liberating my mother by their marriage, but actually it was Ishie who got the best of the deal. To meet a man who was a socialist, an atheist, an intellectual, and charming to boot – this is the way she must have told me the story – was astonishing; and the fact that the rest of the family disapproved was all the more reason to welcome him. In short order, Ishie declared herself a socialist and an atheist, gave up good works at the church, and started buying sherry to offer when my father visited. This happened often, as Ishie became our regular after-school baby-sitter, and my father was the one who usually picked us up on his bike. Ishie would offer sherry and cakes, my father would offer commentary on current events and suggest books worth reading. Their conversations, marked by great mutual courtesy, were a rare pleasure for me to listen to in a domestic setting. At the time, I thought of this relationship as primarily to Ishie’s advantage, almost an act of condescension; only now does it occur to me that it must have been nice for him, too, to be admired, appreciated and waited on by someone who, as he would have put it, was ‘no fool’. He remained a regular visitor when Ishie, now prone to breaking limbs, was removed from her little house with the cypress tree in front to a home for the aged that she hated, where after a few years she died.

I was gone by then, off to England, away from the deaths to come, though not the news of them. England was not called ‘Home’ by young Australians of my generation, in contrast to our grandparents, but the trip there was still a rite of passage to adulthood: we had all grown up believing that the real world – the one where things made sense, culture originated, and you didn’t have to eat Christmas pudding in 90º heat – was elsewhere. The future academics went to study at Oxford or Cambridge, the others to work in London, sharing flats in Earl’s Court. I was in this respect boringly conformist, except in my expectation that once having left home, I would never come back. Why was I so sure of that, even before my father’s death? As I understood the implicit instructions, it was my duty to have a brilliant career in one of the places, not Australia, where such things were possible (‘Off to Vienna to study violin with Carl Flesch’ was one of my father’s jokes in my childhood). As I got older, the rider Get out before you get stuck (meaning stuck by marriage and children), was added, with strong endorsement from my mother, whose fate was indeed an example to me. I had always assumed I would leave Australia as soon as I got the chance, and I held gamely to this intention despite the fact that by the time I left home, I had started to enjoy life. At the University of Melbourne, it turned out, my disreputable father was rather a social advantage than a cross to bear: everybody knew or knew of him, and that made me more interesting. Shy and incompetent in practical matters, I was scared at the idea of leaving Australia, but that only made departure the more necessary, to show I was not a coward. Leaving, moreover, meant doing what my father wanted (though I would have denied the relevance of this), while at the same time putting an ocean between us.

It was a dark journey that I made in 1964 with my cohort of Commonwealth Scholars, the first to be sent off by plane instead of ship. I dropped my passport at the airport and scowled at my father’s pleasantry (‘Better not do that when you get to London!’) as he picked it up. England, when we finally arrived after repeated 3 a.m. landings in hot places, was small, damp and disappointingly familiar, like a book one turned out to have read before. Perhaps it was Home after all, but at least it was not home. What happiness to fling oneself into the unknown, cleansed of history, family, friends and possessions (except Bill Dolphin’s violin). How fortunate that in the real world, the one in which I was to make my brilliant career, my father did not exist and I was not his daughter. But a year later, when he died, it didn’t seem so fortunate any more.

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Vol. 29 No. 4 · 22 February 2007

Sheila Fitzpatrick’s father, about whom she wrote in the previous issue, was Brian Fitzpatrick, radical historian, civil libertarian and author of The British Empire in Australia: An Economic History, 1834-1939 and other books. We had intended to set that out in her contributor’s note and to say that her memoir of an Australian childhood will be published by Melbourne University Publishing, but we failed to do it.

Editor, ‘London Review’

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