By Hall Greenland
Bob Gould was my old comrade and sparring partner. My relationship with him fell into three periods … the 60s which I will return to in a moment … but then in the 70s and 80s we went our separate ways looking for paths to or beyond what Bob liked to call the socialist project to which he devoted his life … and then there was a growing reconciliation in the late 90s when Bob’s wisdom flowered and his historical writing took off and I once again learned to listen and take on board the words of a master.
In the 1960s our friendship started when we found ourselves briefly in the Trotskyist movement … well briefly for me because Bob played his part in getting me and the group I belonged to expelled from the official Trotskyist movement. I tell you it was some surprise to be looking in the archives at Nanterre in the west of Paris in 2004 and to come across a long letter by Bob to the Fourth International centre in Paris detailing the idiosyncrasies and “crimes” of the group led by Nick Origlass that I was a member of. Even in Paris I could not get away from Bob Gould.
But that was an undercurrent of that period. More importantly we were together in the Vietnam antiwar movement. Whatever else can be said about Bob he was the initiator and driving force of the Vietnam antiwar movement. He organised the first street demonstrations against the war, on Friday evenings down in Martin Place and insisted that the main slogan had to be the immediate withdrawal of the troops as against vague calls for peace talks or stop the bombing or whatever else, which implied that US imperialism could have a role in determining the future of Vietnam. To him we owe the rediscovery of direct action on the streets and the precise political aims of the movement.
Beyond the political line, in launching the Vietnam Action Committee Bob was convinced that it would not remain a small-scale affair. He foresaw that we were on the threshold of a youth radicalisation that would spread beyond opposition to the war and beyond mere narrow political revolt. Even in 1964 and 1965 he could see alienated youth and revolt everywhere — he could feel it, sniff it, taste it, see it as he would say in his visceral way — and he saw this when we were but a handful stuffing envelopes in Bob and Mairi’s lounge room in Woollahra and listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Some of us smiled and shook our heads. But we were young and big dreams were part of being young. And Bob was Bob.
What we didn’t quite realise was that Bob was living Marx’s injunction. You know the 11th thesis on Feuerbach: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
Bob in the 60s was the prophet and enabler of the 60s. His vision had a vital cultural dimension, and that drove him to set up and expand the bookshop in Goulburn St … to import records and books for the US then the centre of the counter culture revolt … to let the upstairs to the independent filmmakers co-op that nurtured the reborn Australian film industry … to fight censorship by selling Phillip Roth and Aubrey Beardsley and Michelangelo’s David (for God’s sake) and defy the police raids … To set up the collective household at 67 Glebe Point Road.
Bob to the end of his life celebrated the 60s as the most important decade of the century — puff — of all of human history. It was a time when broad and deep revolutionary aspirations for a new society, a new way of living, took hold and were never entirely eradicated. That was a bond Bob and I and many people here had, and he reminded me of it in a tremendously generous speech he gave at my 60th birthday . We were there together at the dawn of a time when it was but bliss to be alive.
As for the 70s and 80s, we went our separate ways, seeing each other but occasionally, not helped by my writing an article for The Digger about industrial troubles at Bob’s bookshops that cast him as the hungry petit-bourgeois boss. After that article appeared he told people that he ranked the Greenland school for the falsification of history along with the Stalinist school for the falsification of history, which if you know Bob was some crime. By the 90s he seemed to have, if not forgotten it, to have forgiven it.
I suppose it was my book on Nick Origlass, to whom Bob and I owed so much, that brought us back together.
He was at that time thinking deeply about his own origins and how they fitted into the bigger picture of the evolution of Australia and its Labor movement. He’d always had an interest; back in the early 1960s Bob organised weekends on Australian Labor history at the WEA (Workers Education Association) centre in Newport and at his shop for all us younger militants. That interest deepened and sharpened in the last 15 years of his life.
Bob’s family is extraordinary on both sides; he was not born so much into the purple as into the pink. His roots converged in his father Steve who fought at both Gallipoli and the Western Front and lost an arm, which earned him that nick-name “Wingy”. Father Steve became a Marxist Catholic (in the son the order was reversed, Bob was a catholic Marxist) and a lieutenant of Labor’s most troublesome premier, Jack Lang. So Bob’s was a distinguished Irish Catholic and Labor lineage and Bob was never going to forsake it. He belonged in both movements; he was there by right of birth. Yes, he was revolutionary, and yes, he was an atheist, but his roots were there in the Irish Catholic community and the Labor Party and he never walked away.
Out of this visceral and cultural connection Bob constructed a view of our history that restored the Irish Catholics to a central role — particularly in and via the Labor movement. For Bob it was the conjunction of the Irish Catholic strand and the irreligious parts of the Labor movement that gave us our better moments. That was never truer than in the successful anti-conscription campaigns of 1917 and 1918 when Archbishop Mannix , the Labor leftwing and the IWW fought and won the referendums and defeated the warmongers, the Establishment and the Labor rats
Bob saw in Labor for Refugees and opportunity to recreate that advanced and liberating conjuncture. In the larger political picture the major modern form of that alliance was Labor and the Greens. In the often tribal warfare that exists in the inner-city between the Labor Left and the Greens, Bob Gould, while never forgetting his primary loyalty to the Labor Party (he worked for Carmel Tebbut in the last election), advocated coalitions and co-operation among them rather than constant sniping and rivalry.
It wasn’t just the Irish Catholics that Bob’s historical writings restored to their proper place but also the indigenous people. He expended considerable energy in refuting the fairy stories of Keith Windschuttle and Paddy McGuinness on what had happened on the frontiers of colonisation. Bob of course thought he’d found an indigenous ancestor in his genealogy too — something he was proud of.
Through most of the 50 years that I knew him he was a bookseller. And I direct you to the internet chatter about Bob. It is mostly about how his bookshops changed the lives of people. Most of it is fond and even sacrilegious and irreverent as Bob would have liked it. Many of you will have heard that one wit wrote: So the only person taken up by The Rapture was Bob Gould.
Elsewhere the travel writer Peter Young blogged about how he discovered Gould’s bookshop after stumbling out of a discotheque in the wee hours (Bob pioneered late, late-night shopping). “It was where I bought my first copy of Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa by Ed Buryn. Boy, did that open my eyes. If Bob hadn’t bought that job lot of remaindered hippy-shit books, God knows where I’d be now.”
Another contributor on a chat room talked of Bob’s hovering educational presence in the bookshop:
I may have got him wrong, but I always felt a slight sense, if you regularly went to the counter with a pile of escapist fiction only, that although he understood, he was taking polite pains not to show some disappointment that you weren’t reading something a bit more substantial as well. The only time I remember him beaming at me was when I purchased a biography of Joan Baez that focussed on her activism, alongside a history of Elizabethan politics (but then maybe he was just in an especially good mood that day anyway).
And then on another Catholic site you can read…
Bob Gould, passed away on Sunday. This is a great loss. While an atheist & a Marxist, Bob had great affectation for his Irish Catholic heritage, & actively plucked out books for us in his gargantuan bookshop about our Catholic working-class history & politics. Without him, we would know far less about ourselves. Say some prayers for the repose of his soul tonight.
Finally, there is the Catholic mystic poet who wrote this beautiful remembrance:
In the seventies I haunted his bookshop in the city … I went to Gould’s a lot, but once I went a few times just to gaze at a photo story called Women in Love (distinctly not D H Lawrence) in which a lesbian love story was told with heart-breaking pictures of bodies, faces soft with desire and love and a text free of shame. I never bought it. Freedom was still something I could practice in Gould’s, but not in my real life. (Thank you, mother Church.) Occasionally I did read the articles.
Gould’s shop has blended with much else in seventies Sydney that now forms a crystal of sweetness, excitement and libertad swinging by a window, shafting stabs of sweet regret across the landscape of my mind.
Can I just borrow that beautiful phrase — a crystal of sweetness, excitement and liberation — and apply it to Bob.
Well I don’t know about the sweetness — that’s not the Bob we know and love. Or the crystal, he was a rough diamond. But the bit about the excitement and liberation — that’s Bob and his works and that’s the Bob we’ll carry forward to achieving — in some measure and in all its promise and richness — the socialist project that Bob never stopped dreaming of and encouraging us to work for.
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