The life and times of Paddy McGuinness and Bob Gould
I’ve crossed paths, and often swords, with P.P. McGuinness since we were precocious youths of 17 or so in the 1950s. We were both kids out of Catholic schools, me from the Christian Brothers College at Strathfield, St Patricks, and McGuinness from the Jesuit GPS school, St Ignatius at Riverview, a cut above St Pats, socially.
The brothers at St Pats were always anxious to get the school into the GPS sporting competitions, but they never made it (I don’t think McGuinness or I were ever very interested in sport).
We crossed paths in the rather intense politics of the Labor Party Youth Council during the Labor split of the 1950s. The Youth Council met in the Sydney Trades Hall, the meetings were fiery affairs, and over the next six or seven years a number of significant and colourful characters on the left and right passed through it.
As I remember, McGuinness started to attend the Youth Council when he was still in Riverview school uniform, and I have a photo of a bunch of us on the left demonstrating in the corridor below the tower room, where the meetings were held, in support of some issue such as recognition of China or withdrawal of Australian troops from Malaya.
An old acquaintance brought this picture to my 70th birthday party. I’m exuberantly at the front of this small protest and a very thin McGuinness in school uniform is standing off a little, looking at us a bit disdainfully.
Paddy was a year younger, but he stayed at school a couple of years longer than me.
We also rubbed shoulders in an unusual way around Sydney University. For a while we were both under the influence of the notable duo of Bruce McFarlane and Ian Parker, who had both been expelled from the university branch of the Communist Party for doctrinal reasons to do with Marx’s labour theory of value.
They were rather cantankerous men, but to my young mind, and to Paddy’s, they were sources of considerable wisdom.
Parker, who was cantankerous to the point of eccentricity, spent a good deal of time arguing with both of us about religion, and he’s basically the bloke who convinced me that traditional theism was an impossible proposition, and my impression is that he had the same effect on McGuinness.
At that stage (as an evening student, a species now extinct) I was too preoccupied with politics and pursuing women to be much of a student and I dropped out of university, but McGuinness was more of a student and he went through an economics course with flying colours.
We later rubbed shoulders around the large outer fringes of The Push, which wasn’t unusual, because the outer fringes were, in reality, 95 per cent of The Push.
The Push was a very large milieu where you went to meet people and learn a bit, and it had were a lot of hangers-on like me and McGuinness in the 1950s.
At this point, Parker played a bit of a guru role to McGuinness, insofar as a cocky bloke like Paddy could ever be said to have had a guru.
The atmosphere of The Push is caught rather well in Anne Coombes’ book, Sex and Anarchy, which contains some pictures of Paddy at his most theatrical.
Parker became, over time, a hopeless alcoholic, and eventually died in London in a tragic accident when he walked under a bus while drunk, but he had a big effect on a lot of people despite his eccentricity and alcoholism.
As he evolved, McGuinness developed a rather pontifical and arrogant demeanour that went with the colourful persona he deliberately set about developing.
He and I were never exactly close because of differing temperament and interests. I was involved in small-circle Marxist politics as well as the left of the Labor Party, and he had a certain aristocratic contempt for both those spheres of human activity.
I still remember with wry amusement a caucus meeting of the left in the Youth Council in the early 1960s in the funny old YWCA building in Pitt Street, where we used to call ourselves the Chess Club, or some such (to get the room). At that time the Youth Council left had evolved out of the orbit of the Communist Party to being influenced by Trotskyism. McGuinness came to one of the meetings for some reason I couldn’t fathom and launched a vitriolic attack on us all as creatures of the Communist Party, particularly my good self.
He was about seven years out of date.
I remember having to restrain one of our supporters, a rather tough electrician, who was also a self-employed jazz musician, from throwing McGuinness down the stairs. That wouldn’t have been a good look for us, but our friend was successfully restrained.
Despite these occasional hostilities we all used to drink and socialise, in a rather wary way, in the pubs in which The Push moved, seriatum.
McGuinness had a sister, Judy, a rather plump, good-natured woman, around The Push, who everyone liked.
I remember Parker and McGuinness having a rather elaborate joke at my expense that went on for several years, calling me Harvey, the non-existent white rabbit in James Stewart’s movie. I didn’t quite see the point, but they though it was pretty funny.
Another close friend of McGuinness at that stage was Dave Clarke, who adopted similar anarchist rhetoric, and went on to be a very dry and rather successful right-wing economist and academic. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, both Clarke and McGuinness developed a rather good line in producing for the Fairfax newspapers little yearly books of economic commentary directed at high-school students. I was irritated by their right-wing tendency but also rather impressed by their clarity of exposition of basic economic concepts without too much unnecessary abstraction. Those were pretty useful educational tools if you discounted the politics.
As other obituarists have noted about McGuinness, it’s interesting when you get your ASIO and Special Branch files to find what they thought of you. The spooks had a kind of grudging respect for McGuinness, but they were usually pretty hostile to me.
Both our files contain descriptions of a libertarian conference that we both attended, at which the contrast of the attitude of the spooks towards us was rather striking.
Sydney intellectual life has some very complex features, and there are a lot of intersections between people who end up being political or ideological opponents, but these social connections don’t necessarily disappear as political views evolve and change.
It’s kind of typical of Sydney that the religious artist Keith Looby was a friend of McGuinesss, and also of the labour historian Humphrey McQueen, who is like myself a currently unfashionable, unreconstructed leftist in his political outlook.
It was that underlying network of occasional social connections that made possible the rather notable debate in my shop in November 2000, with Henry Reynolds, McGuinness, Keith Windschuttle and myself, chaired by Hall Greenland, on Aboriginal history.
McGuinness’s economic and journalistic careers, which started rather late, were spectacularly successful. His evolving hard right economic and social views, combined with his competence as a descriptive economist, got him entre to surprising places. His bellicose economic dryness, belted out as if it was obvious truth that was impossible to refute, was extremely useful to conservative politicians, Labor politicians moving rightward, business leaders and cultural conservatives.
In the past 10 or 15 years, McGuinness and I were not personally unfriendly, but very wary of each other because of the obvious gap between our political outlooks.
I always found McGuiness’s journalism infuriating because of its arrogant and dismissive tone, but I’m the last of the print freaks and I may have read every word he ever wrote, and reading the right-wing chattering classes in their commercially unprofitable but politically important niches in the declining print media, has been my way of getting my adrenaline going at breakfast for many years.
McGuinness’s journalism, while arrogant in tone and a bit repetitive was often intrinsically quite interesting, because he was pretty widely read and knowledgeable, somewhat more so, even, than the other major cultural and journalistic commissar for conservative thinking, Gerard Henderson.
The most impressive thing about McGuinness’s journalism in his heyday was his prodigious energy. For many years he produced quite a large column every day, and to everyone’s amazement, while a bit boring, it was literate and more or less coherent.
From the point of view of Fairfax management, he was probably well worth the $3000 or thereabouts a week they paid him (a lot of money for a columnist in those days), which tended to make other journalists hate and envy him.
When he took over Quadrant his views had moved even further to the right. It seems to me that his Quadrant, while an opinion leader for conservatives, was deadly boring. I doubt that too many people other than its very sharp opponents, such as myself, read it carefully.
The obituaries of his current friends and allies give a bit more of an insight into McGuinness’s personal makeup. A hard-driving leftist journalist father, who died young, who named his son Padraic Pearse, and a Presbyterian mother, explain a lot about him.
Paddy’s marriage to his wife, a rather tough German woman who escaped from Stalinist East Germany, was clearly a love match, and it appeared to many people who knew him that he was pretty broken up by her death.
I met McGuinness’s daughter, a rather pleasant woman, once, and I was a bit taken aback that Paddy, possibly in a moment of cynical impishness, had saddled her with the first name of Parnell, after Charles Stuart Parnell, presumably imitating his father who’d saddled him with Padraic Pearse as first names.
Some of the other obituary comment seems quite bizarre. Bill Hayden should give us a break from oratory about McGuinness being a friend of the working class. I doubt that he was regarded as a friend by the trade unionists he wanted to put out of business, and the assorted recipients of welfare who he wanted to deprive of their modest payments in the interests, as he would have put it, of proper economics.
Despite all this, I regret the passing of Paddy McGuinness. As I said at the memorial meeting, at which I spoke a few years ago for an old opponent on the left, death is deadly business and it’s worst feature is that it stops the debate.
Something that made me crack up in one of the obituaries, while it may be true, is that Paddy said while he was declining that he didn’t want any bloody priests. That may be so, because in the past few years he knocked around a bit with bishops and cardinals. There’s a picture of his eminence, Cardinal George Pell, locked in serious discussion with John Howard at a Quadrant dinner. In the past couple of years McGuinness, due to the confluence of their social views on some questions, became Pell’s favourite atheist, and I’ve heard His Eminence speak approvingly of McGuinness on a couple of occasions. That may be just the workings of the kind of cultural identity with the Irish Catholic community still felt by many people who’ve lost religious belief, like myself and McGuinness. It seems to me, however, more likely to be based on the confluence of the conservative political and social views of McGuinness and Pell on a number of questions.
That extraordinary master of personal abuse and vitriol, Paul Keating, has just published in the Australian Financial Review a vintage attack on McGuinness. While he quite properly has a go at McGuinness for his support for the former Howard government’s anti-union laws, the main thrust of Keating’s diatribe is McGuinness’s alleged failure to acknowledge Keating’s personal role in the massive deregulation of the Australian economy. It requires all of Keating’s spectacular hubris to launch a boisterous attack on a bloke who has just died, essentially from McGuinness’s right. Attacking McGuinness from the right takes a lot of doing. Keating is a bit like Jack Lang was in later life, a larger than life hater, and he requires all his hubris to get away with it.