Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962. Crown octavo, x 294 pages, dedication to the renowned Editor Beatrice Davis, 20.5 cm (height) x 13.7 cm (width), 361 pages weight: 0.36 kg. Fine / fine. Item #351
This collection of 30 short stories by the Australian poet, playwright, novelist, actor and sketcher Harold Edward (Hal) Porter (1911-1984) is, in retrospect, a not-so-secret history of the author’s own life and predilections. Porter dealt frequently in his stories, novels and autobiographical works with questions of the amoral and immoral, his characters often regarding a moral code as a cultural habit. The full ramifications of Porter’s obsessive concerns were revealed by critics and his biographer only after his death in 1984.
Porter was born in Melbourne, the eldest of six children of Harold Owen Porter, a railway engine driver, and his wife Ida. When the family moved to Bairnsdale, Hal attended local schools, followed briefly by a cadetship as a journalist with the Bairnsdale Advertiser. In 1927, Hal Porter took up a junior position at Williamstown North State School where he taught, except for return visits to Bairnsdale, until 1937. After his first story was published in the Bulletin, Porter moved to Melbourne, working briefly as a window-dresser. In Bairnsdale again by 1938, and unemployed, Porter the following year met Olivia Parnham (“the Ardath girl” in cigarette advertisements) and married her in June 1939 one week after their first meeting. They never lived together, but Olivia cared for Hal during his long convalescence after being run over by a car in September 1939. His injuries, leaving him with chronic pain and a limp, precluded his enlistment in World War II. Hal and Olivia divorced in 1944.
Hal Porter held a variety of teaching posts from 1940 in public and private schools and as a private tutor, sometimes as a resident master or claiming tertiary qualifications which he did not have. He taught in Adelaide, Hobart, Sydney (Knox Grammar, where he lasted a single term), Melbourne, Ballarat and with the Army Education Unit in Occupied Japan. Porter met Beatrice Davis, Editor at Angus and Robertson, and—improbably—ran a St Kilda hotel for several months for a drinking friend. Porter’s subsequent occupations included cook on a Goulburn Valley sheep station and City Librarian in Shepparton and Bairnsdale. Porter travelled to England in 1960, where he found a publisher in Faber & Faber, meeting TS Eliot, about whom he was privately caustic. From 1961 Porter supported himself as a writer with the aid of Commonwealth Literary Fund grants in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1982 Hal Porter was appointed AM, and the following year, in a repeat of his 1939 accident, he was again hit by a car, remaining in a coma for 14 months before dying in a Melbourne private hospital. He was buried in Ballarat. Sir William Dargie’s portrait study of Hal Porter is held by the LaTrobe Library, Melbourne.
Peter Pierce, the eminent literary critic and academic whose entry on Porter in the Australian Dictionary of Biography provided much of the above detail, described Porter’s conflicted personality: he had grace and charm, was courtly and cultivated, adept at winning friends, but was also intensely snobbish, vain, ceaselessly demanding of others and prejudiced against Jews, foreigners and Aborigines. He addressed most male acquaintances as “dear boy” (the last words on his tombstone).
Some writers and literati, like Max Harris, were aware during Porter’s lifetime of his serious moral failings, but it was not until Mary Lord’s biography, Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts (1993), that Porter’s true, reprehensible nature became more widely known. Her book, balanced in other respects, was sensational in revealing Porter’s paedophilia, in particular his sexual relations with one of her sons. In retrospect evidence of Porter’s serial pederasty with young students abounds in close reading of his oeuvre, and in other writers’ accounts. The late Australian poet and academic Noel Rowe (1951-2007), in Australian Humanities Review (41), February 2007, wrote: “The simple but significant fact is that it is the narrator of Porter's first book of autobiography, The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, who introduces the knowledge of paedophilia into his writing and therefore offers it to reading. The narrator invites, or dares, the reader to see what is hidden in full view. If there were readers who saw, they did not speak: perhaps they thought pederasty unspeakable, or his admission exaggerated, or his experiment a minor detour. Perhaps they were lulled by Porter's words into thinking pederasty no more objectionable than drunkenness, or being charming”.