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.

The editor has suggested...

 - Monday, July 08, 2013
The editor has suggested that I continue with a selection of neglected political classics until the Federal Election in September. So this month we present the first of two pieces on the life & books of Alan Reid, the foremost political journalist of his day. Called 'The Red Fox'  by his press colleagues, the nickname was both a recognition of his red hair & his journalistic cunning.
Alan Douglas Reid was born in Liverpool, England, on 19 November 1914, the son of a New Zealand-born Scot. In 1927, the Reid family emigrated to Australia. His father, a steamship officer, taught him to read and write from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. After an education at the Christian Brothers’ schools St Francis of Assisi, Paddington, St Patrick’s College, Goulburn, and Waverley College, Sydney, he graduated in 1931 to join the unemployment queues at the height of the Great Depression. In a 1982 television interview Reid recalled: I remember how rotten I felt about it. Unemployment saps your morale. I 'went bush' for a while... I dug drains down at the Riverina, did a bit of rabbiting, a bit of fencing, that type of stuff. Then I came back to town.
Alan Reid's 50 year newspaper career began in 1937  when he "fluked" a job as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun. He later became a journalist with the Frank Packer (father of Kerry) Consolidated Press newspapers: The Sydney Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and The Bulletin. A former Labor party member (membership terminated 1957), Reid became notorious for what were termed his 'journalistic intimacies' on both sides of politics. Robert Menzies dismissed him as 'that scribbler', Bill Hayden wrote that he was a Packer 'hatchet man', but  Reid was an influential participant in the politics of his day as well as a chronicler.
Between 1941–45 he was one of the few pressmen who received confidential briefings on wartime developments from Labor Prime Minister John Curtin. He had a similarly close relationship with Curtin’s successor, Ben Chifley. In 1954, his articles on anti-Communist campaigner B. A. Santamaria helped precipitate the Labor Split of 1954–55.
Most memorable was Reid's story in March 1963, headlined The 36 Who Decide ALP Policy. Pro- Reds Leftists Tell Calwell What To Do. Reid commissioned photos of Labor leader Arthur Calwell and his deputy, Gough Whitlam standing under a street lamp outside Canberra's Hotel Kingston on the evening of 20 March 1963. They were awaiting a decision from Labor's unseen and unknown Federal Executive delegates, who were inside overhauling the party platform on foreign affairs and defence. Reid's exposé proved extremely damaging to Labor and played a major part in costing the ALP the next two federal elections in 1963 and 1966. And it ultimately led to Whitlam's successful reforms to the ALP's structure.
When Laurie Oakes first arrived in Canberra as a young journalist in 1969, he later recalled the disapproval of a new generation of Press Galley reporters at Reid's failure to 'put the Coalition government under the same close scrutiny...' Reid admitted in a later interview that he tended to focus on the Labor Party because it 'has always been the dynamic of Australian politics... I had a much deeper interest in its machinations and movements then ever I had in the Liberals.' So it's ironic that the first, and best, of Reid's political trilogy, The Power Struggle (1969), recounts the internal tensions and leadership struggles within the Liberal-Country Party coalition following the drowning of Prime Minister Harold Holt in December 1967, and the rise of an unlikely candidate, (Sir) John Gorton (1911–2002), to the prime ministership in 1968.
According to his biographers, Ross Fitzgerald and Tom Holt, Reid had long harboured an ambition to write a serious and lasting work of literature. In 1955, a 50,000 word bushranger saga set in the Snowy Mountains, The Native Born, was rejected by the American Saturday Evening Post due to the unfamiliar setting and language. A second work, The Gathering, was completed in 1958. A hefty roman à clef based on the political personalities and intrigues of the Labor split, Reid hoped it would prove as controversial and successful as Frank Hardy's Power Without Glory (1950). But after initial interest publishers shied away, fearful of potential libel actions.
So, when it came to retelling the dramatic political events following Holt's disappearance, Reid's frustrated literary ambitions were given full scope. When The Power Struggle appeared on 9 January 1969 it was an instant bestseller. Reid combined pace, colourful description, literary embellishment and full use of his insider knowledge to portray both the warring individuals involved in the Gorton/McMahon leadership struggle and the details as to how Gorton triumphed. On the opening page, is Reid's characteristically crisp thumbnail descriptions of a gathering at Parliament House on 18 December 1967, less than a day after Holt's disappearance : Chief Whip, Dudley Erwin —'a countryman's shambling walk... a shrewd assessor of the political climate, possessed of the uneasy feeling that the government was in disintegration.' Army Minister Malcolm Fraser (b.1930)—'slender, languid, elegant... with a taste for power and an ambition to indulge his taste on a more lavish scale.'
The Power Struggle is a slender 202 page classic of Australian political reportage. It has been out of print since 1972. Perhaps an adventurous publisher could reissue a 45th Anniversary Edition next year. Any takers?