Guy Rundle recalls the man and the life. The wise guy from another era, another century, who was always ahead of the curve and very much in this century…
He had the appearance of wire, stripped of its casing, thin, straight, finely detailed. Whether in overalls, tennis whites, or army-disposal shirts and pants—that uniform of postwar left- wing men—Alan Roberts projected energy, electricity. He wore budget-price steel-frame glasses, the physicists’ go-to, but adorned them with clip-on shades, which gave him an air of hipster cool. His haircut was forties’ demob, neat with a slight tousle at the front. He favoured the neat, thin moustache of Lotharios and wise guys of that era. Sometimes he appeared as if he was stepping out of a newsreel, especially if you knew where he had been and the things he had done. Yet he was always up with the latest tech, ahead of many of us, a man ceaselessly in the present and alive to its possibilities.
To meet Alan Roberts in his seventies, as I did, was to meet the twentieth century. Or one version of it. By that point in the 1990s, he had retired from teaching physics at Monash University, somewhat separated from the far-left/Trotskyist movements in which he had spent decades, and had the appearance of a leisured and contented man. You could have mistaken him for a tennis coach, for, having adopted the sport as a way of keeping at tip-top fitness, he had become just this side of obsessive about it. He was always in sweatband, racquet in hand, a regular at the Fitzroy club that was beginning to fill up with QCs and senior public servants as the ’burb bourgeoisified in the nineties. He had never actually retired from politics or writing, but tennis and the care and feeding of his huge Alsatian—or three generations of them—seemed his key focus.
The back story, when it came was, extraordinary, told as an aside. The years in the Communist Party, then the departure: ‘I left the Communist Party because of one thing someone said to me: you’re expelled’. His part in the 1949 steel-workers’ dispute, which kicked off the Cold War in Australia. The far-left Trotskyist years, being part of the social movements ramrodded by Nick Origlass and others in the fifties and sixties. The years in the forties when he made a living writing detective fiction. Being a science-fiction nut in the thirties, corresponding with Ray Bradbury and others. Holidaying in chic socialist Yugoslavia. Shaking ‘Mao’s bloodied hand’, as he put it. The shift away from Marxism and towards radical systems theory in the 1970s. The relationships and the vicissitudes of a liberated era. Then, in the last years, a willingness to talk about the Pacific war, and being a young man with no choice but to spray advancing Japanese troops with a Thompson gun…
Livewire, a transmitter of energy, too much so to write the books he should have written, a line to be chiselled on the headstones of a hundred radicals. He was an activist, a writer for action, drawn increasingly to Arena in his last decades by the realisation, perhaps regretful, that Marxism simply did not provide the frame to understand the contemporary world, and that many of his former comrades were living off a consoling myth. Like many of his generation, he retained—could not but retain—the humanist faith inherent in Marxism, that humanity never set itself problems it couldn’t solve. He lived off Allen’s snakes and hamburgers, had 8 per cent body fat, and once wondered aloud to me why the idea of eating what your body asked for had not caught on as a diet strategy. I, 30 kilograms overweight, said I followed that diet and maybe he hadn’t thought this through. He laughed but did not recant.
I laughed once, out of youthful disdain, when he spoke about taking over the committee of the Fitzroy Tennis Club—whose local notables had rescinded a long-standing arrangement whereby public-housing kids could use the club’s Edinburgh Gardens courts. He, with friends and comrades, some of Arena ilk, took over the committee—it never knew what hit it—installed a new majority, reopened the courts, and then handed it back to the old committee a year later.
Later, in an obituary for Nick Origlass I commissioned, he wrote of Nick’s life’s work, that politics was politics; it didn’t matter whether it was national revolution or the tennis club—you did it. The point felt both general and particular, duly noted, never forgotten. Alan carried the energy of a century littered with disappointments into a new one that he saw as alive with possibility. Like many others, I’m glad to have made the connection and got the full blast of it.
Guy Rundle in Arena Magazine 158, March/April 2019