Red Hot, biography of Nick Origlass

by

Bob Gould

Red Hot, by Hall Greenland, 1998, Wellington Lane Press

My mate and old political sparring partner, Hall Greenland, has finally completed and published his biography of Nick Origlass, one of the most significant left figures in the political life of Sydney’s inner-west for about 60 years, although from the point of view of pompous official history — the history of prime ministers, governors, company directors and movie stars — he was but a bit player.

Like many of Greenland’s friends, I was a bit angry with him about taking so long to complete the book, but the 10-year wait was worth it. This book, like Susanna Short’s biography of her father, Laurie Short, A Political Life, which covers some of the same territory, is no hagiography.

Nick is there, pretty much as he really was, self-educated, sometimes domineering, sometimes obscure to the point of incomprehensibility, sometimes stubborn, but also courageous, incredibly dogged, inventive, extraordinarily knowledgeable, and occasionally very very funny, with a weird, dry sense of humour.

Greenland’s biography does Nick proud, and also, like Susanna Short’s biography of her father, brings to life many, many other colourful battlers for the rights of the oppressed in inner Sydney.

For instance, between both books, we now know all that can possibly be known about that wonderful agitator for the working class, once a bandmaster in the British Army, Jack Sylvester, who organised the unemployed in Sydney in the 1930s and was the founder of Australian Trotskyism — the tribal grandfather, so to speak, of all the socialist groups that might try to sell you a paper nowadays on the footpath in King Street, Newtown, or Glebe Point Road.

It’s hard to do justice to the extraordinary breadth and intelligent balance of Greenland’s warts-and-all picture of Nick and his associates. I am a bit prejudiced, as I was closely associated with Nick in a small group for years and fell out with him later.

He gave me my first basic education in Marxist politics. I loved him, but he also irritated the shit out of me. Hall catches the quality of this kind of love-hate relationship that many of us had with Nick, including Hall himself. But the great balance sheet in the sky will show that all who were ever associated with Nick gained more than they lost, and learned far more than they might have in other circumstances, even if some chose later to forget this.

Greenland’s biography covers the extraordinary strike struggle at Morts Dock at the end of the Second World War, when the Stalinist leaders of the Ironworkers Union unwisely tried to remove Nick as the Ironworkers delegate. As a result of this, 6000 metalworkers — the whole workforce in the area — went on a successful strike against their union leadership for the right to retain their elected delegate.

As a biographer, Greenland has, within the reasonable bounds of privacy, attempted to give a sensible account of Nick’s personal life, particularly his relationships with women, and his domestic arrangements. While a self-taught working-class intellectual of the old style, Nick ended up in quite a complex and modern network of relationships with the women in his life, and Greenland describes all this extraordinarily well.

A second, and important dimension of the book, as again of Susanna Short’s biography of Short, is the major contribution that they both make to the social history of the inner suburbs of Sydney. Almost all the action takes place in Balmain, Leichhardt, Rozelle, Glebe, Camperdown, Marrickville, Newtown, Chippendale, the city, Surry Hills and Paddington.

In the 60 years covered in these books, these suburbs were the heart of proletarian Sydney and the centre of labour movement life, and of the political and industrial upheavals that took place in those times. The recent partial gentrification of these areas has given them a mixed character now. The influx of moderately affluent, well-educated people in professions such as teaching, nursing and the public service, and even of some of the real rich into areas like Balmain, has been overlaid on the blue-collar proletarian base, which is still quite robust.

One interesting feature of the moderate gentrification of the inner suburbs is that most of the newer inhabitants still seem to vote Labor, as the seats have remained Labor electoral strongholds, even during the period of new inhabitants moving in.

The description in the book of how Nick Origlass and Issie Wyner made the transition from essentially industrial activities in unions and strikes to a broader role as aldermen and mayors on the local council, representing local residents of all categories in the more recent struggle against rapacious developers, and for a better quality of life, is of absorbing interest.

Many of their innovations, such as open councils, have become the essential nuts and bolts of the new urban politics.

Hall Greenland’s book is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to understand where we have come from, and where we are going in the inner suburbs of Sydney, or for that matter, in any major city.

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