Liam's picture

The one time my Caucus delegated powers to me to do a dirty preference deal with the Labor Right, the buggers didn’t show up. An avid and over-earnest, if naïve student of the dark arts of dealing I’d even arranged to meet the Student Unity negotiators at Norton Street’s Bar Italia, scene of the Leichhardt Council mayoral battle that was filmed as Rats In The Ranks. When I got a call on my mobile—the size, shape and colour of two chocolate paddle-pops stuck together, and I couldn’t really afford it, but I was so proud—to say that they couldn’t make it, a deal’d been made with the Libs instead, regrets, I could have strangled a kitten in pure frustration. Who were they to deny me the chance to make arrangements to lock out the Trots, to play the game, to imitate, most importantly, the players?

And so to Dominic Knight’s Comrades, “a novel of student politics”. If it were a work of non-fiction, it’d definitely be one of those works best read from the index back, each reader looking for his or her own representation of themselves. In his epilogue, making veiled reference to John Hyde-Page, the Liberal candidate who stole and threw several hundred copies of Honi Soit in the Victoria Park pond before failing to stack Peter King’s branches against Malcolm Turnbull, then writing the outstanding Education of a Young Liberal, he gives the definite indication that this was a book in debt to the much, much more bizarre world of lived experience. How can you make up the immensely privileged, insular and perverse world of Sydney University student politics, as lived and filmed? If Dan Brown wrote it, even his editors would hesitate.

Yes, that’s the Chaser boys in the miniseries, before they were famous. Yes, if you keep watching, Charles Firth cries sincere tears on camera on a Union Board election night. My Dad’s in there too, somewhere. So is the rest of a lot of the mental geography of my early adulthood.

I read Comrades with a constant startling recognition of places, people, institutions and phenomena. He’s not so much written a book inspired by a time and a place but written a roman à clef with the keyring shuffled only so much to keep a step ahead of the lawyers. NOLS exists, or at least existed; the elections at Sydney University are correctly portrayed down to the names of tickets, election rules, and proportions of the votes gained; the factional system as described was precisely as I participated in it at Sydney University in 1999-2003; the characters aren’t the usual archetypes of novels like these but quite literal descriptions of real individuals. I really did race to the post office to submit my faction’s nomination forms before the deadline, with the Trots on my heels, just as it’s described. College candidates really did steal their own coresidents’ ballot papers, for all I know, they still do. My comrades and I really were that self-absorbed and unselfconscious. I suspect our supercharged hypocrisy, self-importance and cant exceeded Knight’s characters’—but only because if he’d tried to write it, no editor would have allowed him to break the suspension of his readers’ disbelief. Knight hasn’t just represented the world well, he’s bottled it.

Be disgusted, but remember that these people really exist, and are writing your public policy.

Hyde-Page’s book, now recalled for legal reasons, has a central moment of shock that’s worth the energy of tracking a copy down: John’s father, despairing at his son’s activities in the Liberal Party and his displays of amorality, tells him he is ashamed that he is his son. It’s an amazingly honest and confessional chapter in what could have been simply an ordinary tell-all quickie, and turns it into something of a political tragedy. That’s not what Knight’s writing, of course, so he can hint at, but can’t show you, the deadly attraction of young people’s involvement in the youth wings of their political parties. When Enoch Powell, the quoteable racist, quipped that political lives always end in failure, he could have described the central attraction of student politics that a happy novel can’t possibly portray: the appeal of engaging with, and defeating, people you disagree with.

As a senior Labor Party figure I respect once described to me the real elation of a successful election night:

I love beating them, I like to see the light die in their eyes.

That’s a difficult sentiment to put in a pleasant romantic novel. Comrades is a fun couple of nostalgic train trips, especially if like me you were there. I’m grateful to Knight for creating an imaginary world of student politics—one with no consequences.