Australian Notes

Australian notes

7 May 2015

9:30 AM

7 May 2015

9:30 AM

I have to concede that I was one of those who long years ago fell for a time under the spell of the late Henry Mayer (1919-1991). He persuaded me in the 1950s to write my first book – on the dismal history of censorship in Australia, Obscenity Blasphemy Sedition. He helped throughout with useful suggestions and criticisms. It has been my most popular book. (My only popular book!) Reprinted over the decades it is still frequently quoted. It is also the one book that I later renounced. I began it with the idea of striking a blow for the total abolition of censorship. By the time I delivered it to the publisher, I was beginning to have doubts about the abolitionist cause, libertarianism in general, and even Henry as ‘guide, philosopher and friend’. (He remained a friend.) It was too late to rewrite it, although in later editions I added some ‘second thoughts’. Critics welcomed the new editions but not my second thoughts. In any case the abolitionist case soon triumphed. My revised ‘reactionary’ opinions were soon a lost cause. I am not sure anything of quite this kind happened to other writers influenced by the liberationist Henry Mayer. In an interview in 2011 Anne Summers said that as a young woman Mayer ‘taught me how to think’ and that without him she would not have written the radical feminist Damned Whores and God’s Police. She appeared to have no second thoughts. Dennis Altman said that none of his books owed as much to Mayer as his Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. These writers felt no call to distance themselves from Mayer (although Altman noted a growing ‘tension’.) I mention them now only to show I have some understanding of what they mean when they acknowledge their debt to him.

It comes to mind because of a biographical essay by the historian Ken Inglis -‘In Search of Henry Mayer’ – in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science. Inglis points out that we know little about the private Mayer and almost nothing about his childhood in Germany, youth in England (including detention) or his early Australian years (also including detention) before he became an academic. Inglis’s essay is ‘a modest attempt’ to fill the gaps.


He touches on the years young Helmut (he swopped it later for Henry) spent in pre-Hitler Germany and then France, Switzerland, and Italy. He boasted that he had been expelled from various schools (‘the number varied in the telling’.) Finally he moved to England where his uncle Sir Robert Mayer supported him until 1939 when they quarreled ‘over politics’. By this time the 20-year-old Henry was a supporter of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, an ‘impossibilist’, pacifist branch of the non-communist left. Inglis is silent on the reasons for this family quarrel. There were probably several but one may conjecture whether Henry, like the SPGB, at first opposed the War while his uncle more sensibly supported it. In any case when in 1940 England faced a German invasion, the British authorities ‘detained’ him along with some 70,000 ‘enemy aliens’. (Churchill ordered ‘Collar the lot!’) Henry was then shipped to Australia – as one of ‘the Dunera boys’.

There have been several books about the Dunera ordeal, especially the dreadful conduct of those British guards who thought the detainees were Nazis. Mayer was always reluctant to talk about his experience. He refused to attend Dunera reunions and to read or even open copies of the Dunera News. But he was persuaded to review two books. One was The Dunera Internees (1979) by Benzion Patkin. It was, Mayer thought, indefensible to call the Dunera a hellship or ‘compare our treatment with that of the Jews under Nazism.’ As for Cyril Pearl’s The Dunera Scandal (1983), hedismissed Pearl’s description of the ship as a floating concentration camp: the treatment of detainees was ‘brutal and outrageous’ but nothing like a concentration camp. To suffer for 59 days, Mayer wrote, ‘is an option many of the permanently deprived of the world would love to have.’ Despite his many peccadilloes (in detention and later in the Army), the ASIO of the day (Commonwealth Investigation Branch) summed him up in 1946 as ‘a good type’. By 1950 he had begun his brilliant and legendary academic career as scholar, teacher, and provocateur.

I have one untold story which Mayer confided to me in the early 1960s. At the time there was a split in the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (publisher of Quadrant). One faction rallied behind John Kerr QC and Mayer. They wanted to get away from a stodgy obsession with communism. The Soviet Union was never going to collapse – was it? – so let’s concentrate on the new issues of the 1960s from Aboriginal advancement to feminism or the environment. The other faction rallied behind Lloyd Ross, Jim McAuley, Richard Krygier and Donald Horne. They (including me) said Yes to all that but also insisted the struggle against communist totalitarianism should continue to have high priority. In a tight vote Ross won the decisive election for the Association’s president. Mayer resigned in protest. But he went further. He painstakingly collected and sorted the relevant papers, manifestos, reports, memos, letters about the split. He then arranged to deliver them all to the Mitchell Library. The voluminous archive would, he thought, allow future scholars to see how he and his fellows had fought the good fight against the reactionaries. Then after a night’s sleep, he built a bonfire in the backyard and burnt the lot. Inglis ends his biography: ‘I suspect that he will remain inscrutable.’

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