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Non-fiction reviews


Ric Throssell - My Father's Son

14 December 1989

My Father's Son
Ric Throssell

Published in The Age

Few Australians could claim so distinguished a lineage as Ric Throssell. His mother was one of our finest novelists, Katharine Susannah Prichard. His father was Hugo Throssell VC, a hero of Gallipoli, and scion of one of Western Australia's leading families. So this autobiography is more than an autobiography: it is a cross-section of our recent history.

Ric Throssell's father was converted to Communism by his bride soon after the Great War. He began to speak out passionately against the tragedy he had seen at first hand, and the outrage he felt that some had profited from it. The post-War adulation which surrounded Hugo Throssell began to abate quickly once his new political views became known. The Freedom of Information Act recently afforded his son the following report, written by a Major HE Jones in 1919:

The latest recruit to the ranks of the Social Democrats is Captain Hugo Throssell, VC... Many attribute his leaning toward socialism to his wife's influence, but he states he saw the need for such principles whilst on active service and on his return to Australia. However he was struck on the head at Gallipoli and further he was a victim of cerebro-spinal meningitis, his mind having perhaps been affected...

The next report revealed that "A medical authority informed a friend of mine that he would not be surprised if THROSSELL went 'off his head' at any time, so it is evidently his wife who must be regarded as the more dangerous."

Katharine made her infant son a silk gown embroidered with the hammer and sickle. His first mug was engraved with the International Workers of the World slogan, and the coat of arms of the Third International. Some of his first words, uttered while banging his mug on the dinner table, were, "Workers, World, Unite!"

With such impeccable socialist credentials it is little wonder that the Australian Government was deeply suspicious of Ric Throssell, too - and that his subsequent career in the diplomatic corps was watched with keen interest by such charmers as WC Wentworth - who wrote to External Affairs Minister Casey: "My own information, which admittedly is in the nature of a substantial rumour rather than anything specific, is that both Throssell and his wife are members of the Communist Party and have always been so, and, in fact, are one hundred percent traitorous. No doubt you have the matter well under review." (Note the contradictory term, "substantial rumour".)

Ric's father's business ventures after the Great War had gone bad one after the other. Hugo was hard-working, highly-principled, and intelligent. But the Depression, and drought, and hostile bank managers, were too much for him. While Katharine's fame was on the up and up, Hugo had put most of the family's money into failed ventures such as a rodeo. He killed himself with his revolver in 1933. Circumstances had gone against him time and again, and he'd felt like a weight around his family's neck: if he were out of the way at least Katharine would get the pension she needed to keep herself and young Ric alive.

Ric Throssell's story touches on not just the facts of Australia's modern history, bu the themes and currents underlying them. It is dubious that Katharine would have been a communist had she been born today, now that the philosophy is largely discredited. However at that time it represented the hope of the ordinary person, the one chance the downtrodden had of halting the downward spiral of capitalism's collapse - which was easy to believe in in 1929. Katharine, and so many like her, grabbed it with both hands. Similarly, Hugo Throssell's story is not merely that of an Australian war hero, but of a potentially great man betrayed, in the War, by the stupidity of his British superiors (who sent his mates and his brother to needless deaths) - and destroyed after the War by persistent bad fortune.

This is Ric Throssell's own story too - of his time in New Guinea in the Second War, and of his early years as a diplomat. It is not without humour. One of Throssell's earliest tasks was to look after the new Chilean Charge d'Affaires in Canberra, whose English was bad, and who knew little of how to set up shop in the new bush capital:

"Each morning I presented myself at the Hotel Canberra [the Chileans' temporary office] and carefully read through the letters on the housekeeping problems of the new mission, discreetly correcting the grammar and vocabulary. In the afternoon, back at my desk, I solemnly received the same letters and composed the official reply."

Then came the years abroad. First Moscow, just after the War, where Throssell's first wife died of polyneuritis. Then Rio, from 1949 to 1952, where there actually seemed little need for Australian diplomatic representation. And then back to Australia, where the exhortations of parliamentarians like WC Wentworth, and more anonymous public servants, resulted in Ric's interrogation by ASIO - who were convinced (on zero evidence) that he was a communist.

This led to his interrogation by the Petrov Royal Commission, an interrogation which is described in painful detail. Throssell, the mild-mannered diplomat and loyal public servant, was asked the same degrading questions over and over, and challenged to disprove that someone's half-recalled half-truths implicated him in disloyalty. Contrary to the assertions flung at him, he had never met Petrov, had never been a communist, and had never channeled information to the Soviets. Eventually he was cleared - or so the report said - but thereafter officers junior to him in the diplomatic corps were increasingly promoted over him. The reason appeared to be that his security clearance was not high enough to permit further promotion.

As the years went on he appealed several times (even to Prime Minister Whitlam personally when Labor finally got in), asking to at least know the grounds of his disfavour. Was there evidence against him? What was it? Who had provided it? No answers were given, on "security grounds". He eventually retired in 1983, after 40 years in the Corps, still in the dark as to why his career had been sabotaged.

If there is one lesson to be learned from this book, it is that our security services often - even in the 1980s - overstep the mark when it comes to individual rights. If there were one scrap of evidence that Ric Throssell was subversive, or even sympathetic to communism, one could understand the official attitude. But there wasn't: despite all the phone and mail intercepts, and interrogations, and rumours, to which he was subjected, not a single fact emerged, other than that he was Katharine Susannah Prichard's son.

An interesting book, which reveals a side of the Australian character which is less than agreeable.

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