Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven

Writer: Dr Paul Adams

Image of John McLaren courtesy of VU library, photographer unknown.

As Victoria University celebrates 100 years of education, Paul Adams shines a light on the late John McLaren; a true believer in the ‘door of opportunity’.

John McLaren who recently passed away was a long time Emeritus Professor at Victoria University and was former Head of the Department of Humanities at Footscray Institute of Technology, prior to it becoming Victoria University.

I have been asked by Hyde to write a few words about John.

I first met John when I enrolled as a mature age student at Footscray Institute of Technology in 1978; I remember John as an imposing figure with an almost Whitlamesque presence. John would always insist on uncompromising views of social justice, as well as strong intellectual and academic values. He saw his role as giving students from working class backgrounds a leg-up in a system where few students from these backgrounds had opportunities in higher education.

As a teacher he was Socratic and quizzical, preferring to enter into a dialogue rather than lecture at his students. He had strong requirements that students engage in discussion. This was a breath of fresh air; although for some students it was also very challenging.

John seemed to take his place naturally as Head of what was at the time probably one of the most progressive and left wing Departments of Humanities in the country. Staff members at the time included ex-Vietnam moratorium leader Harry van Moorst, Marxist sociologist Hiro Take, historian Don Watson, and urban planner Leonie Sandercock. It was a pleasure as many other students will recount to be a student at Footscray Institute during this period; it was a place where you were constantly challenged in your thinking and the exchange of ideas was always exciting, and never boring or conservative.

John’s favourite lecture topic was Milton’s Paradise Lost. I learnt from John that it was ‘Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven’ and that the devil was actually a revolutionary democrat fighting a just war of liberation against the tyranny of God. I found out that Milton was actually making an allusion to the English Civil War and the battle of Cromwell’s parliamentary army against the God king Charles. But at the time in the late 70s, it seemed to have much more specific political resonances, perhaps because of the way John taught it, with the dismissal of the Whitlam Labour Government shortly before in 1975, and the way the Murdoch press and conservatives had demonised it and continued to do so once it had lost Government. I remember this had a very powerful effect on my thinking about the importance of taking up just, but unpopular causes.

This was also a period of the Leavisite ‘metaphysical ascendancy’ in English literature. John was a beacon of light in pursuing contextual understandings of literature which later became better known to all of us as cultural studies. Indeed, John was a critical figure in developing the Australian Cultural Studies Stream at FIT in the BA, which was at the time a first for Australia. The fact that John championed historical understandings of literature also encouraged many of us to continue on with the study of literature which might otherwise have become disinteresting.

My best memories of John though are convivial: the long conversations which would start in the afternoon in his office in E block, which would stretch into the evening, at a time when there was time and space to have such conversations. It was most usually accompanied with a glass of John’s cheap red which he always kept primed in a cask in the corner of the room in the hope of bringing forth a good conversation. Usually one or two other students and another staff member would blunder in and join the round table discussion. John was a great raconteur and had an encyclopaedic mind from which he could recite obscure facts about literature, poetry, politics and history more generally. If the Art’s society ran out of grog, John could also be relied on to chip in for a keg which made him a very popular figure.

John was a strong campaigner for the West. He always would say that the West was not the ‘disadvantaged West’, but the ‘wasted West’; he railed against the daft journalists who wrote about the West in this way in the dailies and didn’t get what a fantastic resource the West was. This made a great deal of sense to me as in my youthful eyes the West seemed to be bustling with potential — the problem was that it lacked support. There were poetry groups, drama and political reading groups, an explosion of new cultural initiatives like the Footscray Community Arts Centre, a third world club at FIT and students working on social justice projects and international solidarity.

John would always take a stand. I remember on one occasion I and other students had come foul of the then Institute’s student disciplinary procedures for organising a demonstration against the then Liberal Minister for Education, Wal Fife. John not only supported all of us but indicated in no uncertain terms to the management of the Institute that if one student was expelled because of the demonstration, he would resign. John took many stands like this over his lifetime and was a man of principle. He later became Chair of the Coalition against poverty and unemployment.

John supported many writers and others in the cultural field over many years. There were many he would slip a few quid to in order to keep them going when times were tough, and his legacy more generally to Australian literature and the support of writers here is of even greater importance.

I believe I speak on behalf of a number of former students who are very grateful and thankful for John’s support over so many years.

Thank you, John.

Dr Paul Adams is Coordinator Postgraduate Communications, College of the Arts at VU Footscray.

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