Harry Mac, by Russell Eldridge
(Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99)
Review by Michael McDonald
You could be forgiven for thinking the role of Ocean Shores resident Russell Eldridge is being played by several people.
As well as being the editor of the The Northern Star for many years until his resignation in 2008 and a stalwart of the Byron Bay Writers Festival since its inception in 1997, he has helped out with various non-profit organisations, written and performed standup comedy, been highly amusing (and poignant) in many local theatre productions, and kindly kept public meetings under control.
Now he has turned his hand to authorship as well, and brings to the task the same desire for an open, respectful society he brings to all his other pursuits. Eldridge’s novel Harry Mac first surfaced in 2013 when, under the title Shame, the manuscript won the Byron Bay Writers Festival/Varuna Unpublished Manuscript Award. And only last week Caroline Baum named Harry Mac her book of the month on Booktopia: www.booktopia.com.au/caroline-baum.
Harry Mac’s subject is the turbulent South Africa Eldridge left in 1979 ‘to get away from apartheid’, spending three years with the Sydney Morning Herald ‘before moving to this region to join the hippy folk in the hills west of Nimbin’.
Tom the observer
The story is told through the eyes of young boy Tom, whose father is Harry Mac, the hot-blooded newspaper editor who keeps running into trouble with the apartheid regime. Here the novel draws on autobiography, newspaper ink flowing strongly in the Eldridge blood.
‘The character Harry Mac is loosely based on my father, who was a newspaper editor and who had been a POW in Italy in WWII,’ says Russell.
‘The premise of the story is based on fact – my father was made privy to a harebrained scheme to assassinate [prime minister] Verwoerd in the manner described in the book. I don’t think he took it too seriously at the time. So I took the idea and made up a fictitious story about how it might have evolved.’
It is a fascinating time and Eldridge does well to weave all the threads together – a society in the 1950s and 1960s still traumatised by WWII and the Boer War, composed of the Afrikaner Nationalists and their secret police, the Germans fond of the Nazi days, the English speakers yearning for their own old-school British colony, and of course the oppressed black population, still caught up in tribal conflict.
To tell the story Eldridge populates a laneway in his home town of Pietermaritzburg with a bunch of remarkable eccentrics – the Mac family and their servant Essie and her activist son Windsor, Tom’s friend Millie with whom he hangs out in a house of ghosts, and the Jewish doctor Sol Lieberman, who knows too well the impact of persecution. Across the domestic stage fraught with tension stride great men such as Nelson Mandela and the vile H F Verwoerd, architect of apartheid.
Mandela is also connected to Pietermaritzburg, making his last public appearance at the All-In Africa Conference before going underground, says Eldridge. ‘He was also captured just outside our town.
‘I also discovered on reading Mandela’s autobiography that, while on the run, he had a safe house in my grandparents’ street.’
As the apartheid regime tightens the screws on public freedoms, and the residents of the Pietermaritzburg lane find themselves in trouble with the secret police, Eldridge has his character Sol quoting Primo Levi on ‘the insolent logic of the oppressors. The twisted reasoning they bring to bear to justify their treatment of fellow human beings.’
Which leads to the obvious question: Does Russell see any parallels between the current Australian government and the Verwoerd regime?
‘Absolutely,’ he replies. ‘I’ve always loved Australia for its independence, fairness, bluntness and sense of life as fun.
‘But while writing Harry Mac, I was strongly aware of the terrible irony of again witnessing the slow erosion of civil liberties, the introduction of draconian laws, detention without trial and mass surveillance.
‘Worst of all is the meek acquiescence of the public, who generally are buying the government’s scaremongering message that they are doing all this for our own good, to protect us from a nebulous but threatening enemy.
‘Australians are allowing themselves to be herded into a laager, hoping the troubles of the world will disappear.’
• Marele Day will launch Russell Eldridge’s book Harry Mac at the Launch Pad at the Byron Bay Writers Festival on Saturday August 8 at 3pm. See more at www.byronbaywritersfestival.com.