To dip into the realm of the autobiography is something your correspondent should do more often, particularly if it can uncover thoughtful and interesting reads of the calibre of the work of journalist, foreign correspondent, author, diplomat, arts critic and government advisor Bruce Grant. Indeed he has been all these things since his boyhood in country West Australia in the late nineteen twenties and early thirties. This was clearly a time when people lived in their societal silos: protestant, catholic, country, city, Pommy, Ozzie, when differences were settled mostly by poking out ones metaphorical tongue. Although the major part of the book is devoted to a working life, one of the great joys is reading of the early years and the influences and societal factors which played a role in Grant’s personal development. The simplicity yet harshness of country life, its demands of attention to the uncontrollable or the unpredictable is beautifully portrayed, while at the same time pointing to the early development of a keen observational ability and a sense of the spiritual, qualities essential to the role of a journalist and writer. A scholarship to Perth Modern School was undoubtedly a factor in the development of strong academic skills. At the same time Grant’s story of his handling of differences with the headmaster which led to an early departure from the school underlined an early response to the strictures of the overly conservative and hidebound attitudes of a country yet to throw off the colonial cringe.
In describing the long arc of Grant’s life, there are some key elements to which he holds strongly and discusses at length: the challenge of the swing from a British protective embrace to a United States embrace, the up-ending of the role of the state and its subjects, the issue of developing a useful voice as a middle power at a time of changing power structures around the world and particularly in Asia, as well as the growth of the movement for a republic. It is a tribute to Grant’s skill as a writer that he makes these themes interesting, particularly through stories of his working relationships with men of influence in the newspaper world and government. Similarly his abiding love for Indonesia has been a strong influence in both his life and work. The book is a reminder that Grant was amongst the first to recognise the importance of the Australian/Indonesian relationship. But more than recognise, he also demonstrates his understanding of the country, its challenges and contradictions.
The chapter devoted to India is particularly interesting. Grant’s observations, whether personal or professional, are perceptive and still of relevance today as the relationship between India and Australia reaches new intensities. Not be ignored however are the comments about Sir John Kerr which bear witness to Grant’s understanding of his fellow human beings. Clearly he sensed in the man some serious failings. Then the events of The Dismissal prompted him to leave India so as to have a more active role in steering the political future of Australia. This had perhaps faint echoes of the decision to leave Perth Modern School early: a sense of carefully judging the ethical and moral issues at a time of significant change.
On a more personal level, the autobiography portrays an outgoing and personable individual, not a dry intellectual but one with a wry sense of humour. The range of friends and acquaintances referenced is encyclopaedic. Photos undoubtedly show a handsome man, not without sex appeal. Grant is clearly attracted to highly intelligent women. He talks about what the readers must assume are his four great loves, his first wife Enid, Bambi Shmith (Patricia Tuckwell who became Countess of Harewood) , his second wife Joan (nee Pennell) and Ratih Hardjono whom he also married. Grant writes sensitively about these relationships in what is, to your correspondent, an important element of the autobiography. It is obvious from the latter part of the book, where there is a natural ending to the arc of professional life and the writing becomes more like a series of essays, that Grant valued his family above all and has managed to maintain a homogeneous and devoted extended family notwithstanding the complexity of his marital affairs.
In his final musings, which perhaps ramble at too great a length, Grant seems to express some sadness that the work he undertook to guide thinking on Australia’s potential as a middle power with special status in Asia has had limited traction, with politicians now more interested in narrow domestic quarrels.
Apart from those with an interest in the trajectory of Australia’s foreign policy over the 20th century this insightful (and very well indexed) book is a must read for young diplomats and older politicians so they may better understand their role in the future development of a truly independent voice for Australia.