Sir Walter Murdoch
Emeritus Professor Sir Walter Murdoch, Foundation Professor of English and former Chancellor of the University, died on 30 July 1970. At a memorial service held in Winthrop Hall on Sunday 9 August the following address was delivered by His Excellency the Governor-General, the Right Honourable Sir Paul Hasluck:
Uppermost in our thoughts today will be the wish to express sympathy to the members of the Murdoch family. Although death came in the fullness of time and its slow and kind approach had been awaited, the loss of his living presence is keenly felt. All who are here at this service hope that the touch of our friendship will be of some solace to the bereaved.
Our presence also comes from a wish to honour Walter Murdoch himself. Many who knew him well have already paid public tributes to him. I am speaking today at the wish of the family. I do so as a former student and as a family friend.
It is a compliment to be asked to speak in this way on this occasion. I know that I have to speak with modesty and with care. Memory is still vivid of the smile that kindled in his eyes and around his lips before a humorous remark laid bare the foolishness or falsity of any unworthy speech. He would have poked good-humoured fun at any pretentious phrase or any exaggeration here today.
You will remember what he wrote about 'a battle between high-sounding nonsense and humble common sense'. One of his examples was chosen from what had been said by a former Governor-General of Australia on a great occasion. 'Confronted with a statement like that', he wrote, 'what is one to say or do?' To relieve the tension of his mind he suggested an imaginary addendum to the Governor-General's message - 'something like: "to mark the universal grief, the Government House blow-out on tripe and onions has been postponed for a week"'. I think Walter Murdoch might have taken some joy at the thought that this is the first memorial service at which anyone has mentioned tripe and onions.
He wrote in one of his favourite essays: 'Real hero-worship, the only kind that will stand the wear and tear, is the ability to love a man, and honour him, and laugh at him, all at the same moment.'
I want to talk of the man himself, not of his achievements. This is a time to try to look at the whole of his life and, if we can, to see it in one piece. Most of us, even the oldest of us, have a memory of him of the past half century. We may have forgotten there were nearly another fifty years before that.
As a young man in Melbourne he grew up in one of the great formative periods of Australian national history, - the eighteen nineties. In politics, the ferment that brought federation; in literature, an awakening ambition and faith; in economic and social affairs a turmoil from which emerged both trade unionism and modern Australian banking. When, in later years, Walter Murdoch wrote his sketch of Alfred Deakin he was in part recalling his own experience, for the idealism of Deakin was not something he had found out by research among the statesman's papers but something which had inspired him when he was young.
Walter Murdoch carried through to a period over sixty years later many of the finer qualities of the turn of the century. I do not mean that he lived in the past, for one of his characteristics was the way he kept up with the young in succeeding generations. But much that was strongest and best in him told us a lot about what was strongest and best in Australian life in that early period of confident patriotism, faith inhumanity, and hope for the millennium.
The earliest of his writings of which I myself have a copy is an address entitled 'The Enemies of Literature', which he delivered to the Literature Society of Melbourne in May 1907. The young writer, then in his early thirties, was very earnest and rather playful, by turns. His devotion to literature was clear. It was a personal joy and a sacred care.
Already, too, he had identified the enemies not only of literature but of all noble endeavour. His peroration was a call 'to wage unwearying war on the dull indifference of the Philistine, on the cocksure materialism of the present-day scientist, on the narrowness of the puritan and the triviality of the dilettante'.
Two years later, in 1909, a small book of essays, 'Loose Leaves', dedicated simply to V.C.M., with an Italian quotation of deep affection, tells more of the young newly-married man. It tells of his first visit to the city of Florence - the beginning of another abiding influence. It recounts his impressions of London in 1909, where he was present at the tercentenary of Milton and came away feeling that he had seen 'the fine flower of our civilisation' among the writers present. He recounts a talk with George Meredith at Box Hill. Many years later, in answer to a question, he was to say that Meredith was foremost among the three men of unmistakeable genius with whom he had conversed in his lifetime.
About this time he wrote a few text books, - good ones. In those penurious days, a few text books necessarily came into being along with other offspring at regular intervals in the early married life of any academic. He had a wife and children, the schools had text books. One text book was 'The Australian Citizen', the middle one of a series that included 'The Struggle for Freedom' and 'The Making of Australia'. He called it an 'elementary account of civic rights and duties' and, in addition to its merits as a text book, it has documentary value for it reveals the way enlightened people looked at Government and social obligation in the first decade of the Australian Commonwealth. They talked of our duty to society. They discussed moral ideas as well as social conditions. Justice and freedom and brotherhood were as much part of the lesson on citizenship as the way in which Parliament worked or wages were regulated.
I am glad to see from the copies I have that these text books went through several editions. That was good for Australian pupils and also helpful for the wee bairns growing up at his home in South Perth.
The second half of his life begins with his appointment to the Chair of English in Perth. Here his life was rounded to fulfilment as a great Australian. I would stress that he remained pre-eminently an Australian while serving this part of Australia devotedly and well. Indeed Walter Murdoch did much in his contributions to public discussions to extend the horizons of Western Australia beyond its own borders.
I will not attempt, among those who know the record better than I do, to recite his work at this University. His contribution would undoubtedly have been significant in keeping the Senate, the Professorial Board and the Faculty of Arts in good-humoured sanity and free from pomposity.
I speak of what I know myself of my Professor. His devotion to literature, his joy in books, made him an influential and inspiring teacher. His lectures and his tutorial discussions are a precious memory. We had the benefit as undergraduates of studying with a man who communicated what was good in books and told us what he enjoyed instead of telling us only what was wrong with books or communicating what he disliked.
He himself described two qualities of the literary critic in his Macrossan lectures on 'The Victorian Era'. 'Real criticism', he wrote, 'is based on eternal values, not on passing fads.' He had a great contempt for what he called 'silly fashions' and put us on guard against imitating the most recent vogue. He also wrote: 'It has been my life-long habit to try to link literature with life and to regard the history of any nation's literature as the spiritual autobiography of that nation'.
A university was perhaps the natural place for him to be. It is difficult to imagine him in any other place than this because he made it so peculiarly his own. The University nourished him. Enough humbug and pretension there to stimulate his wit; enough congenial minds to warm his friendship; enough occasions to read more books and reflect on them; enough young people to kindle his imagination and reinforce his faith in humanity without laying on him too heavy a burden of marking their essays; and enough opportunity to maintain that close relationship of life and letters that was at the centre of his interest.
It was his happiness to come to a young university and a small university. He was one among a notable band of early holders of chairs. Of course they all dabbled, according to their abilities, in University business - at one time the Vice-Chancellorship rotated annually among them as a sort of spare-time activity - but though doubtless the business was well done, their big achievement was to shape the character of the University, give it the spirit of inquiry, and a healthy scepticism, alongside an idealism that meant a faith in the search for truth. They nurtured a spirit that is so well expressed in the University motto 'Seek Wisdom' and in two inscriptions in the University grounds - 'Verily it is by beauty that we come at wisdom' and '...clear away the clouds that Ru may see the stars'. These are manifestations of the University that Murdoch helped to build, - a University considered not as an edifice but as a community of dedicated minds, for he and his fellows built this University both in the tin sheds at Irwin Street and in the halls of Crawley. It is well that this man should be remembered in this place. When I suggest that his greatest work was done at the University and recall that he was honoured in his lifetime with the Chancellorship, I am not thinking only of what may be recorded in the archives of the Senate but of what still warms the hearts and keeps clear the minds of those who were his students and companions.
I would not dare call him a great educationalist. That was the sort of word he abominated. He had scepticism about education as the term is normally used. 'The only education out of which good can come', he wrote, 'is the education which teaches you to think for yourself instead of swallowing whatever the fashion of the moment may prescribe.'
It has been customary to speak of Murdoch as a humorist and sometimes as a philosopher who salted his wisdom with wit. He himself disclaimed any pretension to be a philosopher in a formal sense. But do not think of him as just another funny man who wrote amusingly. Far from it.
Murdoch was by nature a preacher, a reformer and an intensely serious man - a man who cared deeply about the outcome and who wanted to do his part in shaping the outcome. Yet he did not like the narrowness, pretension and self-righteousness that he observed in other persons who preached, who reformed and who were serious. Because he poked fun at them he also poked fun at himself.
Kindly by nature, shrewd in calculation and clear in intention he was not making a joke out of life but steadily following a gleam. He once wrote of what he called the 'root virtues'. Here is the list: 'to laugh at humbug wherever it may raise its solemn old head, to be ready to follow an argument wither soever it may lead, to face the facts of life without fear and without disguise, to desire the truth no matter how unpalatable it may be, to be honest and frank in speech and thought'.
He also answered a question about what he considered to be success in life: 'Success and unsuccess are best ignored,' he wrote. 'To have watched life with undiminished curiosity; to have faced the end of life with courage unimpaired; to have won prizes without loss of humility; to have met defeat without loss of hope; to have loved and been loved; to have taken delight in simple things and common people; to have kept alive our faith in our fellows and to have done our best, according to the measure of our poor abilities, to serve them; to have kept our hearts from cruelty and our minds from cynicism; - I don't say that this is to make a success of life, but it is at least not to have failed ignobly.'
He lived up to that. When Walter Murdoch has thus told us himself what sort of man he was, there is no need for me to say any more except that we loved him.
This address was published in The University News, Volume 1 Number 2, August 1970.