Frank Hardy: 50 Years of Trial and Error

September 5, 2001

By Glen Jennings and Neralie Hoadley

PowerWithoutGloryPower Without Glory is an enormous novel detailing the rise to financial and political power of a Melbourne slum dweller, the fiercely determined John West.  It is a fascinating account of gambling – an Australian obsession – and it lacerates political corruption.  Power Without Glory is also Frank Hardy’s first and best known book.  Many commentators consider it the most influential novel published in Australia in the twentieth century.  It has become an Australian icon: not just because of the novel’s gripping tale of gambling, crime, and power, but for the stories that surround its unconventional publication in 1950 and the trial of its young author in 1951.  This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Frank Hardy’s public notoriety, and it is an opportune time to look once again at Power Without Glory and to assess Hardy’s general legacy.

The public spectacle of Hardy’s trial is in some ways ironic, because Power Without Glory was researched and written in elaborate secrecy.  Hardy and his supporters worked in a clandestine fashion to avoid the attention of police and powerful individuals who could prevent the novel’s publication.  After years in preparation, Power Without Glory appeared on Australian streets in 1950.  It was self-published and bound by volunteers in suburban homes across Melbourne.  Exhibiting its close relation with radical politics and the union movement, Power Without Glory was not distributed through normal literary channels: it was sold in factories, at political and cultural meetings, on street corners, in pubs, and under the clocks at Flinders Street Station.  Most contemporary reviewers in the established newspapers and journals ignored the novel.  Nevertheless, Hardy’s realist fiction soon became an underground hit, before exploding into public life when Parliamentarians and other leaders of society fulminated against his thinly veiled attack on powerful men and machine politics.  The thirty-three year old author was arrested and charged with criminal libel of Ellen Wren, the wife of John Wren, a multi-millionaire businessman and power broker in the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

John Wren, in the guise of the fictional protagonist John West, dominated Hardy’s great urban novel.  Power Without Glory depicted John West as a man who gained wealth and power through illegal gambling, bribery, and murder.  It traced West’s gambling empire from its birth in the 1880s in the alleyways of Melbourne’s slums.  The novel also explored West’s political racket within local councils and the ALP up to the 1940s, a web of influence defined by corruption, violence, and bribery.  Power Without Glory exposed police crimes, ruthless capitalism, political opportunism, hypocrisy within the church, and the machinations of the anti-Communist Movement spearheaded by B.A. Santamaria’s Industrial Groups within the Labor Party.  The attempt to suppress Power Without Glory and imprison its author was a key episode in the Australian Cold War.

The story of the making of Power Without Glory is one of individual and collective courage.  Great drama and daring marked the actions of Hardy and his supporters in collecting stories from the criminal underworld and political backrooms.  The notes and manuscript also required protection from powerful enemies.  A great many people were involved in researching and producing Power Without Glory and working on the Frank Hardy Defence Committee – people like the researcher and compositor Les Barnes, the printer Vic Little, the Communist intellectual Ralph Gibson, and Alvie Booth, an organiser for Hardy’s defence.  At various times during the production of his controversial opus, Hardy and his family went into hiding or lived with guns and bodyguards in their homes.  The supporters of the project showed initiative and determination, keeping the printed texts hidden from police and the functionaries of the Wren Labor machine who were determined to destroy the book.

The events surrounding the publication of Power Without Glory have been of on-going interest.  Hardy tells his own story of the novel’s birth and its defence in The Hard Way, published in 1961.  This lively but not always reliable book is seldom read today, but its basic argument is well known to readers of Hardy’s fiction because it served as the basis for Jack Lindsay’s 1968 introduction to the re-issue of Power Without Glory.  There were many people Hardy did not name in The Hard Way or felt it best not to name at the time of writing.  In late 2000 Pauline Armstrong’s book, Frank Hardy and the making of Power Without Glory filled in some of the gaps.  Her work reveals in fascinating detail the invaluable assistance Hardy received from many people within the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and from outside the party in the long process of researching, writing, editing, printing, binding and distributing a novel that was clearly intended to damage those who Hardy and his comrades believed held power without glory in Australia.  Armstrong’s research has given these people their due by recovering their names and responsibilities for posterity.  She has corrected errors or confusion in Hardy’s account, and also shorn it of some exaggeration and drama (although her book is itself marred by a jaundiced view of Hardy’s character, poor editing, and the tendency to neglect interesting lines of inquiry).

Hardy3At times Armstrong suggests that Hardy’s egoism led him to forget or downplay the role of other people in the Power Without Glory drama.  In The Hard Way Frank Hardy certainly dominates centre stage, through his alter ego Ross Franklyn.  Nonetheless, The Hard Way records Hardy’s gratitude to the prominent figures who supported his project or came to his defence, including the Communist leader Ted Hill, the Melbourne Guardian editor Ralph Gibson (who Hardy holds responsible for “the ultimate decision to write Power Without Glory”), the famous author and Defence Committee chairman Alan Marshall, the Butcher’s Union boss George Seelaf (who helped Hardy to steal away his own book from under the noses of Wren’s operatives), and the dedicated – and expensive – legal team of Don Campbell and John Starke.  In a mix of personal emotion and Marxist rhetoric, The Hard Way also pays special tribute to the “nameless ones” who promoted Hardy’s book and his cause, many of whom he never met:

The nameless ones who contributed a coin to the defence fund, voted for a resolution, [or] signed a petition…; the nameless ones who sewed … with unpractised hand the sheets of the second edition; the nameless ones who organized meetings; the very definitely nameless ones who ‘robbed’ the Industrial Press to recapture the second edition; the nameless ones who passed the books from hand to hand until the ill-bound copies fell apart; … the nameless ones who placed our message in the letter-boxes of history.
What shall I say about them?
Only this:  to them the victory belongs, to them the future belongs, for they, the people, are the real makers of history.

It is now half a century since Frank Hardy’s trial, which was an important moment in Australian literary and political history.  The criminal libel case brought against Hardy focused on the question of whether or not Ellen Wren had been defamed by the novel’s claim that Nellie West, the wife of John West, had engaged in an adulterous affair.  Looking back over fifty years, such a case may not appear a matter of great consequence. However, the Hardy trial was conducted in the midst of repeated governmental attempts to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia, a party to which Hardy belonged since 1940.  Hardy served the CPA in organisational work and self-consciously promoted its cause through his writing.  The effort to suppress Power Without Glory and imprison Hardy was integral to the Australian Cold War.  As Hardy continued writing his novel in 1949, the Victorian Government held a Royal Commission into Communism.  While the first edition of Power Without Glory began circulating on the streets, the Federal Government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act passed into law on 20 October 1950, although this Act was overturned on High Court appeal in March 1951.

Frank Hardy was arrested five days after the “Red Bill” became law.  He went to trial in June 1951, at a time when the newly re-elected Menzies Government had set a date in September for a referendum to amend the Constitution enabling the proscription of the Communist Party.  Unlike most libel defendants in Australia – then and now – Hardy did not face a charge of civil libel, with the prospect of retracting any defamation, paying a fine, or making money reparations.  Instead, Hardy was prosecuted in the Criminal Court under an old, rarely evoked provision.  Hardy’s prosecutors sought a jail term for the author.

Throughout his legal ordeal, Hardy linked his personal defence to the struggle for freedom of speech in Australia and the political survival of the CPA.  His case attracted passionate support from Australian writers, Communists, and civil libertarians.  Many of the volunteers – such as the author Alan Marshall – worked through the Hardy Defence Committee to publicise the cause and exert community pressure to have proceedings dropped.  Hardy and the struggle to save his book received words of encouragement from intellectuals, writers, and leftists around the world.  Hardy’s opponents outside court and in the witness box dismissed Power Without Glory as Communist propaganda.  They accused Hardy of stooping to defame an old religious woman when he wrote of Nellie West’s adulterous affair with a man labouring on the mansion of her powerful but emotionally distant husband.  Significantly, the prosecution did not charge Hardy with libelling John Wren.

Hardy’s trial involved great courtroom drama, shown by the contemporary Argus reports. Proceedings revealed the skill and cunning of Hardy’s legal team – the King’s Counsel Don Campbell and his junior John Starke (later Sir John Starke).  The records show a series of prosecution witnesses repeating the argument that Power Without Glory was “Communist propaganda” and “a Communist plot.”  These witnesses maintained that Ellen Wren, and not her powerful husband and his legal advisers, was the true instigator of legal proceedings against the Melbourne author.  They also claimed that Nellie West’s adultery was the grossest libel contained in Power Without Glory, not the series of criminal actions and political abuses ascribed to her husband and other establishment figures.  Hardy depicted Nellie West quite sympathetically in his novel, and most readers could appreciate why she became emotionally estranged from her ruthless, domineering, and criminal husband.  When the various claims and characterisations contained in Power Without Glory were revealed in court, the jury was unconvinced of Frank Hardy’s guilt – perhaps they were not convinced of John Wren’s innocence? – although it has been suggested that a relative of the novel’s compositor sat on the jury under instruction from his unionised workmates to acquit Hardy or never return to work!

The secrecy and suspicion that characterised the clandestine production and distribution of Power Without Glory erupted into public elation when Frank Hardy was cleared of all criminal charges on 18 June 1951.  The book then continued along its path to becoming a best seller in Australia and internationally, although anti-Communist authorities in the USA impounded 500 copies of Power Without Glory and tossed them into the sea.  Many of those who worked to defend Hardy went on to promote the “No” case in the Australian referendum called to outlaw the CPA, and they succeeded in the vote of 22 September 1951.

The intensity of the battle to get the book written, released, and to avoid imprisonment, took a toll on Hardy.  The struggle hardened his attitudes and his suspicions of the capitalist forces he saw arranged against him.  Soon after his acquittal Hardy took a trip to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and for a time he became the Communist apologist he had been accused of being at his trial.  This can be seen in Hardy’s execrable catalogue of the achievements of “new socialist man,” based on a five-week visit to the Soviet Union he took with his wife, Rosslyn.  Journey Into The Future, published in1952, was a work Hardy later disowned, for good reason.  In this turgid and didactic book, Hardy proclaimed Stalin a military genius and the intellectual equal of Karl Marx.  Hardy revered Stalin as an inspiring figure who made no major errors, exerting masterful leadership in all fields of work.  Hardy applauded Lysenko’s (farcical) biological theories that reportedly led to bumper harvests, rejoiced with Soviet women who supposedly enjoyed absolute equality with Soviet men, and repudiated the Nazi and Capitalist lies that anyone languished in Soviet labour camps.  It is easy to make fun of such nonsense.

But it is less acceptable to dismiss the body of work that came before and after the ill-named Journey Into The Future, books that came from Hardy’s profound personal experience, intensive research, and deep wells of humour and courage.  Hardy’s best work is characterised by realistic drama, political commitment, and laconic comedy.  His writing is fired with passion and narrative energy, as with the most compelling sections of Power Without Glory.

Power Without Glory itself cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda, a work of no social or literary merit.  It is a compelling story, an important social document, and an insightful characterisation of gambling (a passion which remained close to Hardy’s heart – and the bane of his family’s finances – throughout his adult life).  At the time of writing his first novel Hardy was influenced by the irony and realism of Dickens and Balzac.  As an inexperienced author, he relied on Elizabeth Bowen’s Notes on Writing a Novel to give his first prolonged work structure and narrative drive.  He also supported Soviet prescriptions for socialist realism.  Hardy believed his writing promoted working class interests, class interests he identified with in a visceral sense, having grown up in a poor family during the Depression.  Power Without Glory documented social conditions from the 1880s to the late 1940s – with vivid representations of poverty and inner city Melbourne.  Through a diaphanous screen of fiction, the novel exposed police and political corruption and the unedifying workings of church, business, and state.  Soon after the novel’s release, a list of names circulated among avid readers providing the true identities of characters mentioned in the book.  This list identified policemen, gangsters, politicians, capitalists and priests – many of them subsequently named in Hardy’s trial and the surrounding publicity.  These men included the Labor politician Frank Anstey, Prime Minister James Scullin, the murdered criminal Squizzy Taylor, Archbishop Mannix, and the powerful media proprietor Sir Keith Murdoch.

From a literary perspective, Power Without Glory is not unflawed, particularly the final sections that Hardy knew himself to be rushed.  Yet it is a novel of undoubted consequence.  Even Hardy’s old political enemy B. A. Santamaria felt the novel was like “a Grand Final football match.”  A poll of 150 Australian opinion leaders conducted by the Age and Sydney Morning Herald in 1999 voted Power Without Glory “the most influential work of fiction published in Australia during the twentieth century.”  And Hardy’s book rates among the few Australian works listed in Callil and Toibin’s recent study of The Two Hundred Best Novels in English Since 1950Power Without Glory is a crowded but compelling book, with traces of Balzac and Dickens fused with a socialist realist aesthetic that produces an early and explicitly Australian urban fiction.  It also remains, as Santamaria believed, a social document of interest to historians.

Hardy2Hardy’s important contribution to Australian life and literature is not confined to Power Without Glory.  On a light note he is remembered as a great humorist and raconteur, or more likely as a larrikin yarn-spinner and a life-long gambler who died at his desk with a racing guide in his hand.  More significantly, in the wider context of Australian politics Hardy is noted for being an early and effective supporter of aborigines, particularly in his advocacy for the Gurundji people.  Hardy’s efforts to promote land rights and to change the appalling condition of aborigines in Australia helped the local communities themselves, but also attracted other non-aborigines to work with indigenous people – including the famous eye surgeon Fred Hollows. Hardy’s commitment to indigenous issues was long-term and significant, and his 1968 book The Unlucky Australians presents a powerful indictment still worth the reading in this time of national debate over reconciliation.  In addition, Hardy’s major literary achievements include But The Dead Are Many, a novel of political tragedy that partially atones for Hardy’s early, naïve Stalinism.  Although marred by psychological jargon and tainted by the accusation that Hardy used the suicide of a friend to construct his fiction, But The Dead Are Many succeeds in depicting the passions and disappointments of life under oppressive regimes.  Hardy’s novel presents the deadening atmosphere of Stalinism and the personal crises of an individual.  In the book’s personal focus and ideological sympathies, But The Dead Are Many evokes a more humanistic vision.  Stylistically more adventurous than Hardy’s first novel, But The Dead Are Many is a work that the usually unsympathetic critic Max Harris described as “a remarkable book.”

According to Cyril Connolly “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and…no other task is of any consequence.”  Perhaps Connolly’s words may be read sceptically as the self-serving aphorism of a writer who, like Frank Hardy, was reportedly a troublesome guest and a difficult man.  But this statement nonetheless has something to recommend it.  Frank Hardy was not always kind, temperate, sober, or honest.  He was frequently rude, obnoxious, stingy, and profligate.  He was also arrogant, egotistical, blinkered, courageous, hilarious, and a passionate supporter of aboriginal rights.  And if he never produced a universally acknowledged masterpiece, he at least produced a work of great moment in Australian cultural history.

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