A lifeline at the end of the lineage
For several years I’ve been learning what I can about my father from those who knew him as a younger man than I. This part of my biographical project will be coming to an end soon. Unexpected gold—like my correspondence recently with a ‘racing chaplain’ my Dad taught at North Sydney Boys High—may continue to emerge, but as I’ve talked to Russel Ward’s former colleagues and students in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and the ACT, my list is almost exhausted. My recent meeting with Quentin Beresford in Perth took me to the end of the line in more ways than one.
All I could say is that I remember him: the young scholar who came to dinner quite often during a period in my childhood. His youth may have been what made him memorable, and perhaps his willingness to engage with kids, but still, all I remembered was Quentin’s distinctive name and a little of his squarely handsome and bespectacled features. As part of my project it was logical that I track him down.
Finding him was easy. I put his name into google with the word ‘historian’ and his staff page at an Australian university appeared. He responded positively, and on a rare trip to Western Australia, I met Quentin again after an interval of thirty years. When he came to the door of his home in suburban Perth I remembered the genial, broad face, now accentuated by age. Over dinner with winter gusting and squalling outside, this is what I learnt:
Quentin came from a struggling single-parent Tasmanian family and had felt the call of higher learning as a young man. He’d enrolled at the Hobart College of Advanced Education (CAE), intent on qualifying as a teacher. By the time he finished his training in the late 1970s he knew that he wished to take his history studies further. To do so would require his enrolment at university, a step that no-one in his family had taken before. As CAE training was not recognised by Australia’s tertiary institutions at the time, this was where his troubles began. Quentin applied to the University of Tasmania, alarm bells rang and his case was treated as a precedent: academic panels were convened to discuss his application and his stepfather, a solicitor, stepped in to represent him. His own father had died. His application was rejected and the young ‘chalky’ seemed to be at a dead end. Casting his eye over Bass Strait, he decided to chance his luck at the University of New England (UNE), which was well-known for its degrees by external studies. He wrote to the Convenor of its Australian history program, Russel Ward.
Quentin still remembers the response that came immediately from the famous professor: Dear Mr Beresford, you are qualified to enter the UNE Masters degree in Australian history. The aspiring scholar was gobsmacked by this turnaround in his fortunes. Looking back, he considers that his rich and rewarding career in Australian academia would not have been possible without Russel’s intervention. That intervention was characteristic, he believes. Ward knew what he felt the right thing to do was, and the institutional rules–and any whiff of academic small-mindedness or parochialism–were subverted on the spot. This was what, after all, UNE had done for Russel when his own career was in danger of being destroyed in an ASIO-led fog of communist paranoia two decades earlier. And so Quentin was afforded the same type of ‘leg-up’ by UNE that had saved Russel’s almost-sabotaged career in the 1950s. As Quentin got to know the man he considered a great historian, he asked him in the 1980s why he had stayed at UNE for so long. ‘Loyalty’, Russel said. ‘They gave me a chance when no-one else would, and I owe them my loyalty’.
Quentin enrolled at UNE and was invited into the home of the professor he admired (cue a young preternaturally quiet lad with a page-boy haircut at the table). According to Beresford, Russel soon became the type of academic mentor that every student desires, but few are lucky enough to find. Ward engaged the young man’s resources and drew out his confidence, often via the copious notes that he wrote on Beresford’s assignments. These were so encouraging and made such an impression that Quentin has kept his essays to this day.
At this point in our banter, Quentin became quite animated describing the things that he learned from Russel and that he has brought to his own dealings with students through the years: treat them with respect; engage their resources; encourage their voice to emerge. Russel, he thinks, was highly skilled in all of this, and an incredibly patient listener. The way the professor treated the fourteen students in Beresford’s cohort beggars his belief. A key component of UNE’s external program were mandatory residential sessions each year. Living in Hobart at the time, a national pilots’ strike prevented Beresford from attending one session. Unsure what the university would do, he rang Russel: ‘I can’t bloody get there’, he said. My father’s solution was to simply hold the residential again, this time attended only by Quentin and one other, and teach it himself. Instead of having one of fourteen topics to speak on however, Quentin now had seven, and consequently shat himself. Thus two students spent eight or ten days locked in wide-ranging discussions of Australian history with Professor Russel Ward. My dad didn’t miss a beat of it, apparently, listening patiently with all his attention as the two students discovered their voices. This seems to Quentin now an example par excellence of the older man’s egalitarianism: ‘You, as an individual, are as important as your class’, he seemed to be saying.
It was at this point that the conversation took on something of a circular quality, that it seemed to reach some sort of culminative fruition as I, the younger student sat as a postgraduate with my father’s former protégé. Quentin described finishing his studies and returning to Tasmania. A few years later Russel was visiting the island to give a talk and got in touch. Somehow the subject of his own mortality came up and the old man expressed his deep concerns about the effect that his impending death could have on his three young children. Quentin told me that Russel’s greatest concern was that we three—Ov, Sally and I—would not be able to know him as adults, and he us. Russel was seeking advice. Quentin’s own father had died when he was ten years old, and the young scholar was able to talk with authority about the very experience that Russel feared for us. The result was a profoundly honest interaction that Quentin sees as one of four or five such encounters in his life. Hearing all this was compelling for me, of course, like looking into a mirror, and rather than observing my own prosaic surrounds, seeing through the other side. Like a message delivered direct from my father after a thirty-year hiatus.
But there was more symmetry to my meeting with Quentin Beresford. Time seemed to fold in on itself. He displayed great interest about what I was doing, and the last half hour of our conversation was taken as he drew from me where I was up to in my own work and gave his considered and supportive advice about the next step in my own career: the publication of my first book. He gave offers of considerable assistance, both as a reader and an author with twelve notches on his belt. What could he do to help me with that all-important foot-in-the door, that lucky break? Anything he could, of course. The circle was closed. His mentor would have been happy.
Charlie Ward is a writer, oral historian and PhD candidate, usually based in the Northern Territory. Since 2007 he has been working on a book about Kalkaringi and Daguragu, two remote communities founded by Gurindji strikers and their assistants in the wake of the Wave Hill Walk-off of 1966. His work has been published in Griffith Review, Meanjin, Southerly and academic journals, and can be followed on his blog, the webworld of charlie ward, where a version of this article first appeared.
Ward, Charlie, 'The legend lives', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 7, October 2014.<https://evatt.org.au/legend-lives>