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JOHN HOOKER


COMES the time, comes the man. And for Australian literature in the 70s, on the verge of discovering a sense of self-worth, that man (or prime among them) was John Hooker. Opinionated, manic, brash, literate and internationally focused, his role in our publishing renaissance was integral. He chivvied and nurtured a new breed of writer, can-do'ed their projects, discouraged their doubts, insulted their fears, inebriated them with wine and enthusiasm, and helped push through what was no less than a cultural revolution in challenging outmoded censorship laws.

And then, by the mid-80s he was gone. And as publishing becomes ever more sanitised in spreadsheets and marketing strategies, his anarchic, instinctive, rogueish approach seems like an anecdotal aberration. Which is mourned by many. For as a publisher, he had an edge: he was primarily a writer who had strayed into publishing, not a businessman merchandising writers.

Fortunately for us, having survived more thin than thick in recent years, he is still with us, as feisty as ever and making his unapologetic way as a writer. Among Hooker's Heroes are Mailer, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Cheever, Carver ... "Their rigor attracts me, the hard-drinking male thing that is - probably deservedly - so out of fashion these days," he says. "But one exists on a catechism of memories, and mine encompass this tough school." This from a man whose "favorite book of all is Winnie the Pooh, closely followed by Wind in the Willows. And Biggles is in there somewhere."

Contradictory? Perhaps. Yet totally in character. Shunned early by the literary elite in his native New Zealand for "straightness", he became Australia's 'wild man' of publishing. He is, says author Barry Oakley, "among Australian publishing's more influential figures" yet remains "one of our literature's great neglected figures". And although a self-confessed advocate of "radical values", he writes books ostensibly lauding right-wing philosophies.

In a way, this fascination with trawling the politically unfashionable has seen him left right off the critical agenda, disparaged by one analyst as "the man who writes about men and guns". That "hurt me terribly," Hooker laughs - "he missed the point entirely." Now 66, he sees no paradox at all in his having equal regard for Kipling and Kerouac, or in espousing socialist values while extoling those of the RSL. "Life," he chuckles, "is a complex weave, and we are a mixture of all our influences."

AFTER graduating from Auckland University, Hooker migrated to New Zealand's deep south as a bookseller with writerly aspirations. Publishing veteran John Cody remembers encountering him one freezing Dunedin evening, huddled outside a furniture shop making notes. "He was somewhat embarassed by it, but as I discovered later, he was collecting background colour for his first novel. I was impressed by his earnest dedication."

When a Hooker story was published in the prestigious American journal Evergreen Review, an avant garde bimonthly then prohibited in NZ, it shook local literary circles. In that snobbish era, he was seen, says a colleague, as "tainted by commerce, yet here he was succeeding internationally".

"Those were times of a general fear of things obscene," says Hooker. "And I wrote violent, sexy stuff, influenced by Henry Miller and Kerouac. I'm not into all that Freudian shit ... but it probably came from my lonely childhood." An only child in a "strict C of E household in the days when one stood for the Queen in the cinema", he had bad health, a vivid imagination and a strong sense of dislocation. "My mother was English, my father a robust, rugby-playing man. I was sickly, with an emotional yearning for the Mother Country, a retiring, solitary bookworm."

In part, he also wrote as rebellion against "the culture, which in NZ then was dark - literally and figuratively". Enlightenment came unexpectedly via a year-long writer-in-residency at Monterey University, California (impelled by the Evergreen works). It was 1962, and "there was lots of dope and tarot cards, very much a Neale Cassady/Ginsberg thing". Culture-shocked, he and his wife travelled America, relentlessly savouring a part hippie/part badlands ethos in best On The Road/"cheap clapboard motel" tradition; by year's end, returning to NZ was untenable.

After time in London and Italy, he landed an editor's job in 1964 with Melbourne publisher FW Cheshire, where he met "one of the great men in my life, Andrew Fabinyi, a literate secular, left-wing free-wheeling Jewish Hungarian - a man of great intellect who got out of Budapest the day after Hermann Goring bought a book from his bookstore. "Andrew made me a publisher. He encouraged intellectual honesty in a liberal tradition, and he had a refining influence on me."

Refined is as you define it. In 1969, Hooker was recruited by Penguin for what became a ten-year stint that saw him ultimately as publisher and board member, and during the which he both scandalised and helped propel into international awareness the Australian publishing scene. "I went there when the social agenda was driven by the desire to get Gough Whitlam in, to get censorship out and to get the pubs open until 10pm. I was my luck to be working for a radically-based publishing house of world stature. The old order was falling apart, Australian writing was coming of age, there was a sense of destiny. "

It was also a time for legends to be made. Publishing then was still a "gentlemanly" occupation, far removed from its contemporary glamour. Hooker's relationship with then Penguin publisher John Michie helped change that. Michie was essentially a scion of the Melbourne establishment, a "conservative but wild, artistic man - he used to say that he and I invented the 40-hour lunch," Hooker laughs uproariously. "And it's true, we were always at lunch, drinking claret by the bucket-load. But we also ran this brilliantly wacky publishing company, and published some wonderful books.

"Being at lunch was not just dissolution - it meant discussing ideas, arguing philosphies, challenging authors, mixing writers with academics and radicals and politicians and trade unionists, and coming up with the strangest fancies which we then made to fly."

It also meant OTT behaviour that was usually forgiven but seldom forgotten. Among his close confidants were cartoonist Bruce Petty, "who had a huge influence on me, as did Donald Horne and Anne Summers, among many others". Summers he considers the "giant of that scene, and she's still as lovably cranky and feisty today". And her book, Damned Whores and God's Police he rates as the most important he published, ahead of such fellow ground-breakers as Living Black and the censorship-challenging Portnoy's Complaint. More Algonquin than Bloomsbury, the Penguin set was a tough, no-quarter-given school - and Hooker was championship material, recalls one survivor, "so verbally pugnacious that you wondered how he got through life without a broken nose, or several. In his cups, he was particularly adept at clearing a table of guests by rattling off insulting character assesments like a verbal gattling gun."

Says Petty: "John's mythology is full of surrounding apocryphal stories, most of which are true. He was known for enlivening the odd dinner party with outrageous propositions, but it was done from a sense of mischief - he's a genuinely funny fellow, passionate about writing and words." Oakley concurs: "Two of the biggest things in his life were literature and lunch - he could be superbly constructive at the one, spectacularly destructive at the other."

"I don't regret anything for one moment," says Hooker. "Mine wasn't a glorious publishing career, but it was exciting, ratty, strange, bizarre and curious ..." It also exacted a price, ending in the mid-80s after a 5-year stint as publisher at Collins. "It wasn't just the drinking," he says, "although that was diabolical towards the end. I started falling about, physically and emotionally."

Three strikes saw him out. His father died ("He'd gone through so much - he went at 18 from a Taranaki farm to trenches on the Somme, an appalling proposition. We never got on very well - he stood for all that I hated in way, racism, conservatism - but he died in front of me in hospital. I had a sudden realisation of mortality."). His marriage broke up, and he was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis.

"I just buggered off to live by myself in Port Fairy. After 20 years of publishing, I just had to get back into writing". After all, his first - and then only - book, Jacob's Season had been published back in 71. He's still based near Port Fairy, south of Warrnambool "in a refurbished federation farmhouse overlooking the Southern Ocean, with a welcoming seaward garden full of English flowers" which he shares with his partner of more than a decade, Rae.

In a curious way, he says, ms has "been a blessing. My mind is unaffected but I'm not very mobile, although I can get around on one or two sticks. But the lack of mobility also means lack of distraction. I tend to spend the day in front of the computer writing, or I read a lot." All things have a meaning? "All things have a result. My son was recently talking about the wild days and said somewhat carefully that 'having ms was the best thing that ever happened to you, Dad', and I had to agree. Otherwise I suspect I would have been dead like so many of my friends by now ..."

Instead, he has six novels on the cv (including The Bush Soldiers, a book "about the masculine colonial values of my father's era, whose hero is really based on him", which Allen & Unwin is re-releasing this month), and yesterday released the seventh, a historical novel "that's the best thing I've ever done. It's very dark and sombre, but beautifully written," he enthuses.

Beyond the Pale revisits a favoured theme, dislocation. Set in the 1840s, its Anglo-Irish aristocrat hero is a classic wrong time, wrong place man whose 18th century rationalist background has ill-prepared him for a landscape he views as akin to a gulag. His life's work becomes the building of a monumental house and garden, aided by an Irish labourer. But his physical and emotional dislocations become compounded with a moral dislocation as a rapacious aristocracy brutalises the Irish, and they in turn brutalise the Aborigines.

It's an uncompromising look at the treachery and racism that underlie Australia's formation, notes Hooker. He remembers walking "many years ago in the autumnal hills outside Canberra with Manning Clarke who suddenly said: 'We have no business being here'. He meant we, as Europeans, are in the wrong place. It was an undercurrent in his histories, and it's echoed in Henry Reynolds' work, that our presence here is morally defective. And I firmly believe that, that until we face up to our colonial past, we are never going to get it right."

Beyond The Pale (261pp, $19,95) is published by Allen & Unwin.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998

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