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Clark, Charles Manning (1915–1991)

by John N. Molony

Manning Clark, by Rennie Ellis, 1990

Manning Clark, by Rennie Ellis, 1990

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn4084073

Born 3 March, 1915. Died 23 May, 1991. Charles Manning Hope Clark would not want to hear more of the facts, of his degrees and appointments, honours and writings.

They are all spelt out in other places and he took none of them with him. He would want us to try to get to the essence of the man, an essence which cannot be distilled into facts. A beginning, which he could not have rejected, is to say of him that he was a teacher of life.

Many years ago Manning had been to Jerusalem and to the places where Christ walked. We had a course on the rise of Christendom in the History Department and he offered to give a lecture on his return. He began simply by saying that he wanted to talk to us about 'that man'. He spoke quietly for fifty minutes while no sound but his voice was heard. That was Manning. He wanted to get to the heart of things.

God surely wrote with lines that stood up in boldness by bringing Manning to the ANU. No one has summed up and lived its motto more fully: 'This above all to get to the heart of things'.

We all have our memories of the person defined between the large hat and boots. Only Dymphna could ever tell what she endured to ensure that the rest of the ensemble was fitting. She need never have worried because those things were only the outer Manning. Do we need tell her with what love and reverence he spoke of her to us? Do the children and grandchildren need to know how his eyes lit up with joy and pride when we asked him about them? All of that is within the sanctuary of the family which he guarded jealously. It is a place where I shall not step.

But there were other sanctuaries and, above all, the History Department in The Faculties. He founded it, nurtured it, watched over it. It became the extension of himself. To Manning it was as important who taught history as what they taught. Thus he drew us from far and wide with all our weaknesses, our varied and conflicting views of life and our failing to measure up to the largeness of life.

But he was content because he knew that, whatever else, his Department was not a mere collection of the meek, the straight laced and the conforming. He wanted us to make a mark on life by the history we taught. Only others can judge how far we succeeded.

To be with Manning, to listen to him talk and laugh, to hear his references to the classical past, to the great Russian authors, to music, to sport and especially his beloved Carlton, to sit beside him at a Test match, to hear him tell a joke or to watch him dance was to know that we stood in the presence of life.

That huge, domed head was the symbol of his seriousness of purpose as well as of his intellectual magnitude. Manning Clark was a serious man and every line he wrote proves it. In every line there is life.

Those who judge his History need to bear in mind one thing. Manning took our history and lifted it to another level because he made it truly Australian. In him coursed the blood that made Australia — an Australia he so passionately wanted to get up and 'have a go' at being herself. His purpose was to shake off all the toadying and cringing, all the petty reverencing that made us a colonial outpost.

Thus he told our story with pride, while seeing our miserableness and failings, and excoriating them for what they were. To Manning, place itself was sacred, not only because the mighty dead had stepped there but because it was our native place from which we had drawn our being. He went on countless journeys through Australia, walked countless miles to see, to feel and to taste that place. He is the historian of the Australian place as well as its people.

None of us who knew and loved him can separate the image from the man because the image was so intense. He was the master weaver of the image on page after page of his History. It is a thing in itself to think of that image of the large tie and the waistcoat. It is more to know something of the heart that beat there hidden. How fitting that, in the end, the heart said enough. It had been spent.

The embarrassed and shy students with the halting essays, the members of his staff who were sometimes broken by life, the man or woman in the street with whom he paused and shared his quiet strength, the high ones whom he stood close to even when he reproved them, the fearful ones who told him their secrets knowing that their word was safe — all those know how his heart was spent.

In later years Australians wanted to hear from Manning. Somehow, the people knew that one who held in his own being the essence of Australianness would have something to say to them. He did not go out and offer it to them. They demanded it of him as a right. He did not speak to comfort with honeyed words because the truth is not like that. He made no prophecies about the future. He stood on his own ground and told us that we had to be strong, to stand together and seek a way ahead, to respect others, our past and our environment Above all, he wanted us to be proud sons and daughters of our native land. It was enough.

The voice is stilled now and the pen laid down in that eagle's eyrie above his home where the words flowed and from where he looked down on his beloved Canberra. Some of us know the agony of those words as they were written and rewritten, done again and again until he was sure that he could do no more to make them stand up like mountains on the plain. The words stand up, Manning and will do so through the generations of the future. They stand up because they clothe the mighty theme you created for us. It is the theme of an Australia, young but ancient, wronged and the wrongdoer and especially to those who were here before us, brash and impetuous but largehearted too in its welcome to those who have come burdened amongst us. It is the theme of an Australia that eschews the shoddy and the second rate and wants to stand clean and upright amongst the peoples of our world. Manning has done his part to make that theme a reality and a promise for all our tomorrows.

Manning was proud to be both a son and maker of the ANU. He wanted it to be a place in which we climbed to the heights of human endeavour as makers of life. To strive for that ideal is to thank and remember him because, although he belonged to all Australia, he belonged to us in a way that nothing can supplant.

In the words of the ancients we say our grieving 'Ave atque vale', Manning. But to Manning that would not be enough because he believed that 'Life is changed, not taken away.' He remains amongst us as our teacher of life.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John N. Molony, 'Clark, Charles Manning (1915–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/clark-charles-manning-225/text1655, accessed 24 August 2017.

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