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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Reading, religion and radicalism; On my grandfather Harry Dean

What's striking for me in this photograph of my grandfather John Henry "Harry" Dean is the contrast between the setting - a memorial in part of Melbourne's metropolitan parkland, a weekend outing possibly with friends, or with his wife-to-be - and what looks like a business suit, but which would merely have been de-rigueur garb for social occasions in the 1920s, when the shot was snapped. I don't think he was a striking man, though; he married, in 1926, four years after his father, a schoolteacher, died, a local beauty, Beatrice Kewish, whose father was a journalist. There was something fitting in her name; I have a book of Harry's, Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, which is inscribed in the year of his wedding. Certainly Harry would also have read Dante's early sonnets. A thinker and a reader, Harry met Bea through the Presbyterian Church, where they both attended services regularly. My mother once told me that Harry changed allegiances and became a practicing Communist in 1941 when Russia joined the Allies in WWII, but it appears that the conversion occurred earlier. He was clearly there from the 1930s, and would say that "Socialism was living Christianity".

A logical man, he was also highly empathetic, and took others' experiences as seriously as his own. Harry's father made the decision about Harry's career, so because he had done well in chemistry at secondary school Harry went on to study pharmacy, and became a pharmacist. My mother tells me that Harry would readily distribute contraceptive pills to those who needed them, and he also had the habit of giving his money away to those in need. Harry even patented a dispensing device for pills that could have been used for those contraceptives in his pharmacy in suburban Melbourne.

There are a lot of things that I don't know about the bookish, serious, and earnest Harry Dean. Critically, he died, of cancer, in 1954, immediately before his daughter, my mother, married my father. Even more critically, he specified in his Will that his book collection - which comprised some 2000 volumes - was to go to the Party, and this, unfortunately for me - although my own bookishness didn't really start to become apparent until about 1981, when I left a residential college of the university and moved to nearby Glebe to live in an apartment where I had enough space to make a library - is what happened. Only a few stray volumes have gravitated to me as a result of the death of Harry's son, my uncle, several years ago.

There are Henry Lawson story anthologies with faded green hard covers. There is a quite battered 1906 edition of Steele Rudd's Back At Our Selection, which is part of one of those classic Australian series of comic novels that have worked on domestic popular culture so strongly over the years. There is On the Choice of A Profession, a tiny 1916 chapbook with something like builder's plaster smeared over the boards used to bind it, by Robert Louis Stevenson. There is a cheap, 1927 edition of Twilight of the Gods, by Richard Garnett, the kind of book you can imagine a serious young Australian man reading to improve his mind and enrich his character, especially someone who might be questioning the relevance of his native church. This also applies to the 1924 edition of George Frazer's The Golden Bough - the first edition came out in 1922 - which is in pretty good condition and has a fine leaf-design on the cover, but also a few spots from moisture damage. Harry could not have known, when he bought such books, that 80 years later - more than two generations - his grandson, who he never met, would be coveting books he had bought in the prime of his manhood.

The stamp Harry used to mark his ownership of books is a plain, round-cornered oblong with merely 'J. H. Dean' located prominently in it. Some of these books carry the mark on the frontispiece. My mother did not carry much of Harry's learning about society and culture to me; she was more interested in the theatre in her youth, although it was the New Theatre, a left-leaning company, that engaged her. So I have dreamed of Harry's complete book collection many times in the past decade, since I learned about it, and I imagine that its contents have been thoroughly redistributed in the period separating his death and the present time. But apart from a few stray remnants of the collection, something of Harry's seriousness and his curiosity have been bequeathed to me, modified perhaps by an analogous idealism that belonged to my father.

My father might have been attracted to Harry's daughter partly due to the fact that Harry's brother, older than him by a number of years, was a judge. Arthur, who had fought in WWI, became a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court, in 1949. Harry's split from the church was problematic for Arthur. "If he said something was right, it was right," says my mother of Harry. But Arthur didn't think so and, says one of Arthur's children, Harry's involvement with the Communist Party caused friction in the family. Anything approaching Communism was viewed with great suspicion in the 30s and 40s and 50s. Harry's involvement with Communism was rooted in a critical approach to politics, to religion, and to commerce, and he remained committed to the cause until his death.

Harry's sister Madge, seven years younger, would also become a schoolteacher, as her father had been, and was part of the British and Commonwealth occupation force in Japan after WWII. She travelled widely thereafter and finished up in New Zealand, living with her Danish-born husband. But that's another story.

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