TEXT review


Telling all

review by Emily Sutherland

 

 

Michael Hyde
All Along the Watchtower: Memoir of a Sixties Revolutionary
The Vulgar Press, Carlton North, Vic 2010
ISBN 9780980665174
Pb 272pp AUD32.95

 

During the latter half of the 1960s, Melbourne was subject to political and social unrest. It was the time when Ronald Ryan was hanged at Pentridge Gaol, the last person to be executed before the death penalty was finally abolished, and when the opposition to Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, as an ally of the United States, grew in strength and ferocity. Those who opposed the war ranged from peace activists to those who advocated more violent methods of protest, extending to not only withdrawing Australian troops but also to overthrowing capitalism and imperialism as practised by the major Western powers. Into that mix can be thrown the movement against the discrimination suffered by Indigenous Australians, and the volatile anti-communism of many of the post-World War II refugees. The feminist movement strengthened during the sixties. Sleepy, staid Melbourne stirred and flexed her political muscles. It was to this Melbourne that Michael Hyde returned from the US, where he had already been involved as a teenager in protest movements and peace activism: ‘[I] roamed free and wild: I travelled everywhere from San Francisco’s Berkeley University, to see its Free Speech movement led by Mario Savio, to the poverty and refried beans of Mexico, where I soon learned all the negative, imperialist connotations of the word “gringo”’ (13-14).

All Along the Watchtower is also the title of a protest song by Bob Dylan, written in 1967. For Dylan, there was a deliberate Biblical reference to Isaiah (21.8): ‘Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord, continually by day’. The Old Testament allusion would not have escaped Hyde, growing up as he did in a religious household. His father was a Methodist minister appointed to a church in Pasadena, California, where the family lived for a time. Returning to Australia to study at Monash University, Hyde wandered about during orientation week feeling lonely and lost until he found the Labor Club festooned with posters of Marx, Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao and Che Guevara. Also there was a small dark-haired woman exhorting students to join the movement and overthrow capitalism, an invitation he felt unable to refuse. Signing up, he began a period in his life when he was not only part of the movement protesting against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War but was also to become, along with Albert Langer and Darce Cassidy, part of what Windschuttle designated as an ubiquitous trio of leading protesters (Windschuttle 2005: 25). Eventually, Hyde was invited to join the Maoists, who were, according to the socialist Mick Armstrong, obsessed with police violence and state oppression (Young 2001). The membership of the Maoists was a closely guarded secret, but its political base was reputed to be the Monash University Labor Club, which the young Hyde had joined in 1967.

All Along the Watchtower can be read in three ways: firstly, as an historical account of a protest movement; secondly, as a Bildungsroman, an account of a young man developing from a naïve non-drinking, sexually inexperienced and idealistic teenager to a battle-hardened political activist who experienced arrest, police intimidation and who, throughout this journey, also experienced all he could in the way of sex, drugs and rock and roll; and finally, as a combination of these two.

Some readers may feel that the point of looking back on important events after a period of many decades is surely to review and reflect on them with the benefit of maturity and hindsight. Such reflection is not part of Hyde’s account. While Hyde gives a vivid account of his activities – pasting posters on walls, addressing student groups, collecting funds for the NLF and travelling during 1968, first to China where he observed communism and the Cultural Revolution firsthand, then to Cambodia, where he met Wilfred Burchett – his recollections and reflections remain firmly in the time that they occurred. He seems to accept that the Cultural Revolution in China, which began in 1967 and continued for another nine years, was a great movement to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden and the workers, while admitting that he heard one story too many of their struggles. There appears to be no awareness of the suffering imposed on academics and professional people, or the famine experienced in China as a result of maladministration. He may have, as did many, objected strongly to the Australian government’s support of the corrupt South Vietnamese regime, but there is no acknowledgement of the reprisals, the re-education camps for dissidents and the discrimination against those who fought on the opposing side, which characterised the Vietnam government after the end of the Vietnam War. There is no questioning of communism after Soviet Russia sent in tanks and troops to put down the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings, events that caused a crisis in the Communist Party in Australia at that time. At the end of the book, the author does question whether it was worth it. He describes the toll on the protesters, in terms of personal tragedies, including two suicides, broken careers, terms in jail and shattered relationships. To answer, he writes: ‘From my perspective, everything I’ve been telling you about was all worth it…. Today I see many aspects of our society that have their roots on what we fought for during the sixties and what many from those days still fight for. I can see it in our music, literature, art, theatre and films, schools and universities’ (271). This assessment might serve as a starting point for others to reflect on and reappraise the protest movement in the sixties. Hyde concludes: ‘I can see it on the smallest and largest scale, in homes and at work, in the anti-war and environmental movements, in community groups – even in the way society thinks, discusses, argues and tells stories’ (271-72). I wish that he had expanded on this.

Considering the book as the account of a young man’s rite of passage, there is a certain self-consciousness in the writing. Personal issues are given the same weight as political ideals: ‘In the midst of all this furore and euphoria, my status as a virgin hung around like smoke from a campfire’ (41). Hyde’s subsequent deflowering came as a relief not only to him but also to those with whom he shared a house. Heavy drinking, drugs and group sex follow in a frenzied avalanche, although political activities were his main focus. His relationship with his family, who were sympathetic but less active, is an interesting one. The more involved he became and the stronger the anti-war movement grew, the more his pacifist family supported him. This was not a case of a young man turning his back completely on his childhood, but of him bringing his family into the fight. Surviving an expulsion from Monash University because of his activism and eventual reinstatement, he completed his degree and then became a teacher, was married and raised a family. During his time as an assistant teacher, he faced a different reality when a student claimed he knew nothing of their lives: ‘It almost made me cry, because it was true. I stood for the oppressed, the poor and the exploited but my experience and that of many other student left-wingers were light years away from these kids – their homes, their parents’ jobs, their opportunities and their dealings with the cops’ (175).

Hyde now lectures in writing and literature at Victoria University, Melbourne. He has published both non-fiction and fiction, including novels for young people. An earlier book, Hey Joe, whichdrew on interviews with Vietnam veterans, was a precursor to this memoir.

All Along the Watchtower holds the reader’s interest, mine especially as I lived in Melbourne through that period and was part of the protests against the Vietnam War, albeit in a far less confrontational role. The narrative never flags, giving a sense of urgency and adrenaline inducing events. It highlights the questioning and flouting of previously accepted mores and standards. Hyde is correct when he states that his story should be told, and it may even jolt people from their political apathy and unquestioning acceptance of government policies.

 

Works cited

Windschuttle, K 2005 ‘Mao and the Australian Maoists’, Quadrant 420: 22-31 return to text

Young, M 2001 One Two Three, What Are We Fighting For? Melbourne: Socialist Alternative return to text

 

 

Emily Sutherland has a PhD in creative writing. She is an honorary research fellow at Flinders University, where she writes and undertakes research. She recently co-edited Integrity and Historical Research published by Routledge. Emily is deputy editor of the journal Transnational Literature.

 

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TEXT
Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo
Text@griffith.edu.au