Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

Alan Reid would have relished the political turmoil

 - Friday, July 19, 2013
The Gorton Experiment by Alan Reid. 1971. Hardcover. Good condition. $25.00. Alan Reid would have relished the political turmoil that has broken since last month's column appeared. As I write, the first of (no doubt) many political television advertisements featuring our reborn Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has appeared.
Having chronicled the rise of John Gorton to the Prime Ministership in his book The Power Struggle, Reid now kept a very close watch on the new leader. Gorton's fresh, individual, 'larrikin' style appealed to the public, but Reid had early doubts about Gorton's leadership abilities. He commenced sharing these with his readers in The Bulletin: 'His approach seems to be Presidential... he has little concept of Cabinet responsibility and scant respect for the wisdom of his senior colleagues.'
Gorton's fresh, independent approach in foreign policy and a more centrist, activist approach by the Federal government to domestic issues yielded plentiful good stories. As did the Prime Minister's social life. His unannounced trip to Chequers Night Club in Sydney in July 1968 to meet entertainer Liza Minnelli caused a press uproar. Although Miss Minnelli described herself as 'all a-flutter' at the meeting, she insisted that the Prime Minister was both sober and respectful. She later threatened to sue any Australian newspaper that suggested otherwise. Likewise, a midnight visit by Gorton to the US Embassy to obtain information about the American bombing halt on North Vietnam—in the company of 19-year-old journalist Geraldine Willesee—in November 1968, was one other innocent incident given great media play and led to Willesee's dismissal by her employer.
By mid 1969, internal Liberal Party discontent over what was seen as Gorton's headstrong attitude as leader as well as his 'instability' and rumoured drinking problem had risen from murmurs to a dull roar. Alan Reid had numerous private conversations with the PM's party critics, notably Peter Howson, David Fairbairn and Edward St John. Gorton was also unfortunate in that his often ill-prepared and off-the-cuff media performances and speeches contrasted poorly with the articulate and polished presentations of the ALP opposition leader Gough Whitlam.
The Federal election on 25 October 1969 saw a 7% swing against the Liberal-Country Party Coalition with their governing majority cut from 45 seats to 7. But despite the catastrophic losses, a Country Party ban on Gorton's rival, William McMahon, becoming Prime Minister allowed Gorton to continue in office for a further 15 months. However, after Country Party leader John McEwen retired in February 1971, his successor Doug Anthony lifted the veto and Gorton's opponents struck—led by Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser. A Liberal Party leadership ballot was held on 10 March 1971. With the result tied at 33 all (there was one informal vote), Gorton voted against himself and was replaced by William McMahon. To complete the drama of the day, the party room then farcically voted Gorton in as Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister!
The Gorton Experiment was published on 1 August 1971. It was a controversial and savage indictment of Gorton's leadership, portraying him as an incoherent bumbler. Both the opening and closing pages set the tone: 'A bastard by birth, gregarious by habit, distrustful by nature, wilful by temperament, Gorton was Prime Minister by accident... The Gorton experiment... was a prime minister running a government as 'I want it run'... of trusting nobody who disagreed with him... of being eternally suspicious. It had cost him the prestige of his parliamentary majority... the friendship of men who had helped him to power. It had surrounded him with timid, frightened sycophants... and estranged large sections of his party.' For good measure, Reid included a 50 page postscript describing in detail the events of March 1971 that saw Gorton's downfall.
Gorton returned fire a week later in a series of six articles in Murdoch's Sunday Australian (for which he was to be paid $60,000). His opening salvo also included an unflattering portrait of Reid: 'He is a slightly built, balding man with little darting eyes and an expression of perpetual cynicism. When talking to one he tends to stand slightly turned away, peeping under a drooping eyelid... there is a knowing downward twist to his lips as he speaks from the corner of his mouth. One momentarily expects to be nudged in the ribs and given a hot tip for the 3.30 at Randwick.' According to Gorton, there was no act of 'political bastardry' that Alan Reid would not commit at the behest of his employer Sir Frank Packer—Reid had been the dummy and Sir Frank the ventriloquist.
On 12 August 1971, Prime Minister McMahon demanded and received Gorton's resignation for breaches of Cabinet solidarity. Gorton's resignation added to the demand for Reid's book & the first printing of 10,000 copies sold out in three days. A further 10,000 were ordered two days later. The manager of Shakespeare Head Press (more used to publishing school text books) noted excitedly: 'We're hoping to have another from Mr. Reid provided he is still in the mood—and hasn't made enough to retire on this.'
Another book there would be, five years later, when The Red Fox came to chronicle the rise and fall of the first Labor government in 23 years.
NEXT MONTH: Alan Reid v Gough Whitlam. Stephen Reid


MARY CORELLI, QUEEN OF THE VICTORIAN BESTSELLERS Victorian novelist Marie Corelli was an unprecedented literary and social phenomenon. In a writing career spanning nearly 30 years—from her first book in 1886 until the outbreak of World War I—she completed 31 novels, seven collections of short stories, a collection of poetry and numerous pamphlets on social issues of the day. Her novels sold more copies than the combined sales of all her literary competitors, including such popular authors as Sherlock Holmes' creator Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling. A biographer has claimed that 'While Queen Victoria was alive, Miss Corelli was the second most famous Englishwoman in the world; afterwards, there was no one to approach her'. Vain to the point of mania, in later life Corelli refused to allow herself to be photographed, preferring her reading public to have an idealised mental image of her.
Marie Corelli was born Mary Mills in London in 1855, the illegitimate daughter of Scottish journalist Charles Mackay and Elizabeth Mills, a house servant. She received convent schooling in Paris and Italy and was later educated privately by governesses. She developed an interest in both music (she was a talented concert pianist) and writing. At the age of 18 she successfully submitted poems to literary journals. In 1876 her mother died and Mary took over the running of the household. She was joined in this by her childhood friend Bertha Vyver who became her lifelong companion. The two women lived together for nearly 40 years. When her father suffered a crippling stroke in 1883, she also took on the task of earning a family income.
In 1886, she submitted her first novel, entitled A Dream of Two Worlds, for publication. The plot, in which the heroine (a pianist, of course) encounters a cosmic magician who instructs her in numerous mystical truths, features astral travel and spirituality. Mary was 31 years old when it was published, but resolutely claimed to be 17. She also claimed she was descended from Italian nobility—hence her writing pseudonym, Marie Corelli, one of many inventions about herself. After the book's appearance, Marie wrote to her publisher: '... no books of mine shall be in the least alike, so that neither the critics or the public should know what to expect of me'. She was as good as her word, and here are some examples...
Vendetta (1886), her second work is the story of Fabio, an Italian nobleman, who during a cholera outbreak is mistakenly buried alive. He escapes, and now unrecognisably disfigured, returns home to find his 'widow' in the arms of her lover. He spends the rest of the novel carrying out his deliciously perverse revenge.
In Thelma (1888) an innocent Norse maiden, for love of a dashing English baron, leaves the fjords of home for high melodrama as she confronts the hypocrisies and vices of English high society. The book contains vivid descriptions of Norwegian scenery, though Corelli had never once set foot there.
Wormwood (1890) tells of Gaston Beauvais, a promising young Parisian who, betrayed by his fiancée and best friend, falls prey to the seductive powers of absinthe. There follows a lurid recounting of his growing addiction and moral degeneration into criminal madness.
Barabbas (1893) was a sensational melodrama of the Crucifixion. It features the thief who receives a pardon from the Jews in place of Jesus. The novel also introduces a female character called Judith Iscariot (the sister of Judas) and supplies, in erotic detail, a love interest for Christ—a detail that had, unaccountably, been left out of the Gospels. It sold 10,000 copies in a week.
Many of her novels featured historical settings in Imperial Rome, Ancient Egypt and Babylon—with reincarnation and time travel as the main ingredients. Throughout the 1890s, Corelli was as productive as her publishers could wish. Bestseller followed bestseller: 10 alone between 1889 and 1897. She was reputed to be earning £10,000 per novel (nearly $1,000,000 in today's values), this at a time when the average wage for a city office worker was £200 a year!
Her literary peak was reached with her book The Sorrows of Satan (1895), which features a young novelist who enters into a pact with the Devil. Marie Corelli appears as 'Mavis Clare', a persecuted but popular author, who gets the better of Lucifer. The Sorrows of Satan enjoyed a greater initial sale than any other novel ever published in the United Kingdom, selling 25,000 copies in its first week. During this decade, reviews of her fiction—by leading critics—were an orchestrated chorus of ridicule and savagery. Several prestigious literary journals boycotted her books entirely.
Nevertheless, amongst the millions of readers who devoured her work, her admirers included Queen Victoria, who asked to be sent every new novel as soon as it appeared, Prime Minister William Gladstone and The Poet Laureate, Alfred Tennyson. In 1897, however, her health collapsed. She suffered a nervous breakdown and in 1901 retired to Stratford-Upon-Avon where she claimed a literary affinity with William Shakespeare. Between 1914 and 1918 she devoted herself to the war effort and offered her house for use as a military hospital. By the time of her death in 1924, she was a spent force as a writer but her breathtakingly inventive novels with their wild concoctions of the occult, science, eroticism and religion are quite literally one-of-a-kind. There were certainly better writers during this period—but no one ever wrote quite like Marie Corelli.
The following Marie Corelli titles are available from Gleebooks: Vendetta ($37, PB); Wormwood ($29.95, PB); Barabbas ($25, PB) Stephen Reid