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A master craftsman for seven decades

Jon Cleary taken by Brianne Makin (The Australian) 

OBITUARY: Jon Cleary Novelist.

Born Sydney, November 22, 1917.

Died Sydney, July 19, aged 92.


 VERY few writers can boast of publishing novels across seven decades, let alone maintaining a loyal readership in that time. Jon Cleary could, selling more than eight million books and winning fans from You Can't See Round Corners in 1947 to Four-Cornered Circle, his 56th title, released in his 90th year.

It is an astonishing record of creative production, especially when you add to it his copious film and television scriptwriting. Now the faithful if suitably battered 1948 Olympia typewriter on which he wrote most of those works is still.

Cleary died on Monday, aged 92. For the past three years, he had been frail and house-bound, attended by a full-time carer, "glad to be retired, and pleased I don't have to do anything anymore". In and out of hospital with age-related heart problems and with his steel-trap memory stalling, he was stoic and sustained by his faith, awaiting what he called "the great silence".

There was poignancy in this because the dapper Cleary was always a man of many words, an inveterate letters-to-the-editor correspondent and a born storyteller who loved nothing better than a lengthy chat over a bottle or two of quality wine. Cleary delighted in dissecting the iPod present as much as the Depression past, and his prodigious recall enlivened every anecdote with authority.

His repertoire included tales of seeing James Jones and Ernest Hemingway confront each other in young lion-old lion posturing in their New York editor's office; of sitting beside Truman Capote and Gore Vidal as they traded verbal savageries in a Manhattan nightclub; and of meeting his idol Graham Greene, who stood to greet him, "handsome and tall, wearing a tweed suit and yellow woollen tie, dressed just as I imagined a successful author would dress".

Most of the pleasure went from his life when his wife died in 2003. Theirs was "a 57-year love affair", he would say: she was his first reader, and when she went, "I missed our conversation". They had married in 1946, a fortnight after meeting in the last week of a voyage to England, to where nurse Joy Lucas was fleeing post-war Melbourne and he was off to make documentary films. He'd paid his fare from a pound stg. 1000 second prize in a first-novel competition when his manuscript for You Can't See Round Corners was photo-finished out by Ruth Park's The Harp in the South. Cleary was fresh out of the AIF after five years in the Middle East and New Guinea. By war's end he had begun to write short stories and some were published in the Saturday Evening Post.

When he realised public taste had moved from evocative fact to escapism, he canned his documentary dreams for plan B: writing. In a serendipitous twist, his first editor in England was Greene, who offered Cleary the best advice of his life: "Write an entertainment because it will teach you about construction." He also said never to forget there were two people in every book, the writer and the reader, and that brevity spoke volumes.

Cleary worked as a journalist for the Australian News and Information Bureau in London and then New York, where he spent 11 months writing The Sundowners. It became his breakthrough novel. selling three million copies and establishing him internationally. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, as he shuttled between England and Sydney's northern beaches, he majored in adventurous stories heavy on derring-do with issues such as Nazism and Third World oppression. Many featured Australian characters, and most raised ethical or moral questions. They were also cinematic, and soon Hollywood came calling.

As he said later, if he'd written his own story as a synopsis -- a lifetime of travelling, decades living in Europe and the US, years spent mingling with cultural movers, Hollywood exposure and a lifestyle far removed from the poverty of his youth -- editors would have dismissed it as far-fetched.

The eldest of seven kids of a Sydney working-class family, he grew up as the Depression hit. His mother, Ida, was a fourth-generation Australian, his father Matt's family "were all IRA people of the 1916 revolution". When Cleary was 10, his father was imprisoned for stealing pound stg. 5 from his baker's delivery bag "because we were in debt up to our eyebrows . . . a month later, the time-payment people came to our place to repossess everything except a piano and my mother's double bed. I remember sitting on the steps with Mum, who was weeping bitterly, and she said, 'Don't ever owe anything to anybody.' That sticks with you, and it's why I gained a justifiable reputation for being tight with money."

Another lifetime belief was instilled in the Marist schools: he would go to mass every Sunday for "an hour of selflessness", which he saw as a useful discipline, although the "misogynist hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church" became increasingly irrelevant to his belief. He came to his own "understanding with God", his faith helping him through such personal trials as heart problems in his 60s and a daughter's death from cancer.

Cleary left school at 14 "because the family needed the money". In the next eight years, he was unemployed for four, despite working as a bill poster, crooner, commercial traveller, baker and textile worker. What he recalled most from this time was how "the family was the heart of society . . . The night after we were repossessed, our friends turned up with chairs, an old table, cakes, sandwiches -- they were all battlers but they helped out." He never forgot that generosity, nor the values it represented; it was to inform the world view that permeates his work. Which made his own destination slightly ironic.

In the late 60s, the Clearys acquired, sight unseen but in partnership with a friend, businessman Eric McClintock, a large block of land and an old house at Kirribilli. Not far from the prime ministerial compound, the two homes they constructed have million-dollar views of Sydney Harbour, and have remained home base for both families since.

A bit earlier, Cleary had entered Raymond Chandler territory, writing The High Commissioner, a novel set in Britain featuring a rough-diamond Aussie copper called Scobie Malone. Leavened by social comment and a cast of flawed, intriguing characters, it attracted readers, and it attracted Cleary, liberating him in unexpected ways.

In 1977 he was in Hollywood, working on a movie script for Burt Lancaster. Joy sent a card saying: "Happy returns for your 60th." Cleary realised he was far from home: researching in the morning, writing in the afternoon, spending lonely nights in a hotel and drinking too much. He decided he didn't want to grow old in England, he didn't like living in America, and he missed his friends in Australia.

He'd written three Malone tales by then but "didn't want to get trapped by it. Then I realised I could use Scobie by hanging it on crime, which intrigued the international market, and write about what it was like living in Sydney in the late '80s and through the 90s."

He was never interested in mystery but in the characters. "They bring it alive, add truth, solve plot problems." There was much Cleary in Malone, a parsimonious Irish-Catholic inner city-raised honest cop predisposed towards the battler, a man forced to combat his prejudices in coming to terms with multiculturalism, feminism, homosexuality.

Cleary once said that, at 40, he appreciated "I did not have the intellectual depth to be the writer I would like to be, so I determined to be as good a craftsman as I might be". Despite such self-deprecation, he would get annoyed "when people dismiss me as a thriller writer -- I think to myself: Well, the buggers haven't read half of me because if they look at my books they would find half are not thrillers."

He was always modest about his work, and somewhat under-appreciated by the literary world. His own assessment was that he lacked a poetic eye but had an eye for colour and composition and was strong on narrative and dialogue. And he took pride in the research underpinning his works. The need for research fed the desire to travel, which suggested novel ideas, reinforcing the need to travel. He visited Berlin to check out Checkpoint Charlie and delve into Nazi archives; he spent time in Bolivia and in Simla, in India; and he went trekking in Papua New Guinea and Burma.

He followed current affairs with an aficionado's eye, and would drive around Sydney in the Daimler he brought home in 1974 to "get local colour and backdrop". He denied being a petrolhead, but he drove around the US twice, took a trip through Africa, owned the first Jensen in Australia, and was among the first to take a private car into Russia in 1957.

Despite his extensive writing life, Cleary maintained relatively few literary relationships, his close friends tending to be those he made back in the day. One writer friendship he valued was with Morris West. They met in England in 1957 and had much in common beyond their faith: both had long careers overseas, an international outlook and worked in Hollywood; both made prodigal-son returns to Australia and both at different stages were subjected to critical maulings at home.

But while West revelled in the spotlight, Cleary saw himself amid the footlights. Yet in any account of Australian literature, they deserve equal billing. They saw the world as their stage, and wrote for it. They attracted huge audiences. And while they peopled their books with Australians, they were not tribal. In some ways, they were larger-than-life pioneers: a concept that would have made the diminutive Cleary laugh out loud. Yet from a man who said "my two favourite words are octogenarian and nymphomaniacal, but unfortunately they don't go together", who would expect anything else?

Published in The Australian, July 22, 2010

Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2010



Murray Waldren's latest book
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