Keneally, A Man for the Ages

Book Review by Frank O’Shea, the fifth in Tinteán‘s occasional series featuring Tom Keneally’s work

A BLOODY GOOD RANT. My Passions, Memories and Demons. By Thomas Keneally. Allen & Unwin 2021. 388 pp. h/b $39.99

The problem with Tom Keneally’s latest book is where to stop. After several starts and stops, this reviewer is convinced that the best solution is to ration it out to yourself: at a few chapters a week, it will last two months. And you will need that time to absorb his philosophy. Not because it is dense or presented in convoluted prose, but because he raises so many interesting explanations of current or historical events.

Here is an example that should call the reader, especially one with understanding of Ireland, to reconsider his/her own view of the middle and later years of the last century. It is worth quoting in full.

‘It is not to revive sectarian argument that I say that British governments so badly administered Ireland, permitted such gross inequities that people other than supporters of the Grand Orange Lodge had no respect for the civil regimen. The church stepped into a vacuum. The dispossessed achieved their dignity within the church since they had none in the courts or councils or in the workplace. Immigrants to Australia clung to the church as their consolations for the Valley of Tears even when life here could be in, say, the Depression. The authority of priests and bishops was close to absolute and enviable by comparison with the relative powers of politicians, for priestly power was backed by God’s sanctions and wraths as well as by all hopes of mercy.’

He is of course writing about Australia, but it is the kind of reflection that may cause an Irish reader to take a second look at his views on bishops like McQuaid and Lucey and Browne. Did our parents, as he suggests, look to the church for the leadership and respect they never received from the civil authorities?

Inevitably, some of his ‘rants’ involve economics and even the great Tom Keneally cannot make that topic interesting. However, he has one immortal sentence which may make the reader regret speed-reading his other statements on the subject: ‘For trickle down does not trickle down. It gushes up,’ he writes. Perfect.

He lays the blame for many of the problems to do with climate at the doors of neoliberals, whatever they are. He targets in particular Tony Abbott, ‘a world-standard climate denier’ and his ‘his mare’s nest of shonky equations’, used to try to persuade the world that we were doing all right.

In a chapter on the Dismissal, he starts by giving an account of the rise and fall of the Nugan Hand bank. The connection is not immediately obvious, except that the CIA had a big role in the bank which was known to be widely used in paying for arms for places like Libya, Indonesia, Angola and the Middle East among other places. Then he quotes a US whistleblower referring to the Australian Governor General as ‘our man Kerr.’ After this, we do not meet the CIA again, but it is clear that Keneally is convinced that the Palace had a role in the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. ‘Perhaps she did not tell her elected prime minister because she feared there would be a race between Whitlam and Sir John to sack each other … but to consider it the preserve of the head of state of the United Kingdom to intervene in, or else ignore, the sacking of a prime minister by a non-elected official is of itself a huge constitutional problem and conundrum for all parties.’ Keneally is also critical of the background role played by Prince Charles in the whole affair.  

He devotes a chapter to ‘The Yartz: God bless ‘em’ and another to homosexuality. He writes that in matters of religion, he is an agnostic, though the reader may feel he is not entirely convinced.

 His chapter on Judaism and the Holocaust, he ends with the following: ‘…  when we comment on Jewish history of the Israeli state we bring to it a load of prejudice that is so ancestrally implanted in our culture that we do not notice it for what it is. In the meantime, Israel should treat the Palestinians with justice and full compensation, as we should Indigenous Australians and boat people we have kept in detention for years. You’d think that we of all people would know better.’

More than once, he takes to task successive leaders in politics and the media on the way they treat Aboriginal people, in particular their attempts to be treated with the dignity earned by their 40,000 year custodianship of the country. He praises Bob Hawke and his statements but is predictably and deservedly critical of Howard, Abbott and even Turnbull. With respect to the last-named, he points out that he gave short shrift to the Uluru Statement, claiming that it would not succeed in a referendum. ‘It certainly stood no chance if a prime minister opposed it or depended on his henchmen to misrepresent it out of convention.’ This last was, of course, the kind of thing that saw the republic referendum condemned to ignominy. Keneally himself was, in its early days, the public face of that attempt at getting away from Westminster and the Hanovers.

There is much to delight here, not at all diminished by sloppy sub-editing in more than one place – the Battle of the Boyne was 1690, not 1670, for example, and the mathematical inaccuracy in this sentence can be excused for the absence of an important word, ’85 per cent of the world’s more than 85 million people …’ But in truth, these annoyances do not take from the work.

More than once, Tom Keneally has been criticised for his stand on subjects like the republic, the Aborigines and migrant detention among others, but for a man of 85 to take on work like this is a gift to the world.  

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.