School Days and the Great Depression From where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet My window–sill is level with the faces in the street Drifting past, drifting past To the beat of weary feet While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street. - Henry Lawson
Beginning and EndI spoke with Errol in the state library of Queensland a few weeks ago. He showed me a book about people’s defeat of conscription during World War I. Errol was doing research for a play about conscription – about a debate that split the Labor Party.
It was the anti-war movement that brought Errol and his two brothers, Michael and Dan into public life in Brisbane.
It brought us all into an expression of popular will against the Vietnam war, in opposition to its genocidal racism, into confrontation with police, dodging the army as best we could, and critically opposed to the ‘military industrial complex‘.
So we took to the streets and marched.
Back to our conversation in the state library, Errol gave me a tip about a film called ‘Resist to Exist’. He told me that since I was researching the 1985 South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB)* dispute when Joh Bjelke-Petersen sacked 1002 electricity workers, it might be worth a look. The 1985 SEQEB dispute was a dispute remembered by many but the real travesty is known to few … it was the Hawke government together with the old guard of the ALP who sold out 1,002 SEQEB workers when they had Joh on the ropes with electricity black-outs and later with a transport blockade of QLD. They flew ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, up from Melbourne on the eve of the defeat of the Cain Labor Government in Victoria to uphold the Accord and to euthanase the SEQEB workers. During the SEQEB dispute, 1.2 million workers were stood down. Even his own party was tired of Joh’s antics … after SEQEB it was the National Party that called in Fitzgerald to expose the corruption. And Wayne Goss and his cohorts dumped the old guard …
We owe a lot to Errol O’Neill for helping provide the education we did not get at school, about the political history of Queensland, about brothers, Ernie and William Lane, about Fred Paterson, the only communist elected to parliament in Australia. Errol’s trilogy of plays: On the Whipping Side, Faces in the Street and Popular Front were worth a thousand social studies textbooks. His complicated optimism and despair came through in all his plays … including The Hope of the World‘ which made up his ‘quadrology‘.
The Popular Theatre Troup brought Errol’s humour and acting skills onto the stage, at Uni, into schools and factories. I did see him once in a play in an old church, importantly no longer used for religious practice.
Errol O’Neill was born of Lebanese and Irish parents and was 71 when he died. His mother was Gladys Lutvey, a descendant of the Lutvey and Farrah families who came to Australia from Zahle in Syria (now Lebanon) in the late 1800s. They settled in Gayndah in south-east Queensland and opened a general store there in 1898.
I remember standing in a line with Errol at the launch of a book Raw kibbeh : generations of Lebanese enterprise edited by Anne Monsour. We were looking at a poster of one of his ancestors in Gayndah which was on display and he told me part of that early history of the Lutveys in Queensland. Having walked from Sydney, hawking goods on the way, they established a successful retail and hawking business in Lismore on the Richmond River. But after devastating floods in 1891 and 1893, Russia (anglicised from Raschid) and Eva Lutvey moved to Queensland.
It was hard being a Syrian hawker in a country increasingly based on a policy of White Australia. But Errol’s forebears, Abraham, Hebrew for Ibrahim (إبراهيم,), and Minnie Lutvey were very successful in Gayndah. When Errol was growing up, his Aunties Rose, Mona and Mary Lutvey had a dressmaking shop near Norman Creek, also prone to flooding. I went down there one day only to find Dan trying to dry out his huge collection of books with a hair dryer. A flash flood had hit the shop on the corner of O’Keefe and Junction Streets where Dan kept his books.
Errol’s dad was Frank ‘Bluey’ O’Neill who drove a taxi often seen parked at the Stones Corner rank. This was a trade that Errol took up to help him financially while he was following his vocation in acting and theatre. ‘Bluey’ and Gladys sent their sons to St James school at Coorparoo and they lived in the same street as Queensland’s Special Branch chief, Les Hogan, with whom all three boys would become acquainted in later life. Errol wrote in the Workers BushTelegraph that Frank O’Neill had no time for scabs. His son had little time for the Special Branch, writing:
I got a job in the government sector in the early seventies and was summarily dismissed after a fortnight when the “security checks” were completed – and there was no other reason for dismissal except my Special Branch file. Not a criminal record, mind you, just a Special Branch file. I know that there were many others who were similarly blacklisted.
Years later, Errol’s brother, Michael, would explore intrigue in the Queensland Public Service in the recently published Michael, we really have to talk.
As a student I remember listening to Errol on 4ZZZ lamenting the failures of sometimes quirky Queensland political leaders.
So many stories, but underlying all is the ongoing struggle for social justice and opposition to war, inherited from the past and passed on to us all in Errol’s writing, his plays and his collection of essays like Denying the faith & other stories about growing up in Stones Corner in the 1950s.
I am saddened by Errol’s passing, especially so soon after Michael’s.
Katherine and my condolences go out to Dan and to Mary Kelly and to Errol and Mary’s sons, Joe and Kieran.
We will miss Errol greatly.
27 April 2016
Other books mentioned here are:
Michael, we really have to talk– : plus, A subversive’s toolkit : a collection of dissident texts useful for derailing organisational bullies by Michael O’Neill (edited by Bernie Dowling)