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Conway, Ronald Victor (1927–2009)

by Tony Stephens

Ronald Conway took it upon himself to diagnose what was wrong with the Australian psyche. He attacked the notion of mateship; he said feminism had gone in for overkill, with children the victims; he blasted materialism, fumed against the "hyperventilation of sexual scandals in Western societies" and said that "rampant promiscuity" was the "real ethical blight of our time".

His books, The Great Australian Stupor and The Land Of The Long Weekend became, at least for a time, part of the Australian vernacular. Ronald Victor Conway, who has died at 81, was born in Oakleigh, Melbourne. His great-grandfather, Henry Conway, from Anglo-Welsh rural gentry, claimed descent from Count Conway of Conway Castle, through the count's dalliance with a governess.

Ronald's grandfather, John "Jack" Conway, was born to Henry and Catherine Conway and tutored by Alfred Deakin, the future prime minister, at Melbourne Grammar. While still at school, he played cricket against H.H. Stephenson's English XI at the MCG in 1862, taking four wickets for 60 runs.

He inspired, selected and managed the first white Australian cricket team to England, in 1878 — an Aboriginal XI had gone in 1867.

The family moved to Sydney in the 1880s, where Jack wrote on sport for the Sydney Mail and the Herald. Jack and Elizabeth Conway had seven children but only one, Leslie, married. He had two sons with his wife, also Elizabeth. Keith, the older, died before Ronald was born. The younger son said later that his father gave him a love of books and his mother taught him how to stand up to the world. Yet he did not include her in his Who's Who entry. He said that governments should ban single-child families.

His parents, who managed relief food and clothing stores during the Depression, showed no interest in Ronald's abilities. His schools depended on the family finances. At Hawksburn state school, he won an essay prize about Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling.

When the family could not afford Christian Brothers College, he went to St Joseph's Technical College, Abbotsford, leaving at 15 to work in the Hill of Content bookshop. There he saw that a fountain pen belonging to Jean MacArthur, wife of General Douglas MacArthur, was repaired. Conway undertook national service during the last years of World War II.

With an arts degree and diploma of education from Melbourne University, he taught English and history at Sandringham Technical School, then De La Salle, Malvern.

He had worked in psychiatric wards and, in 1961, joined St Vincent's Hospital, Melbourne, becoming a consultant psychologist. He built a private practice and lectured in applied psychology at RMIT. Part of his work was on alcoholism and drug addiction; he had tripped on LSD in controlled experiments. His first book, The Great Australian Stupor, in 1971, painted the Australian male as a completely inadequate father, selfish husband and incompetent lover, who took refuge from his inadequacies at the pub. It sold about 70,000 copies.

In The Land Of The Long Weekend (1978), he argued that, with the breakdown of family and close personal relationships, Australians were turning to mindless materialism. Now, with Australians working longer hours than most peoples, the book is dated.

The End Of Stupor (1985), the last of his trilogy on Australian life, manners and mores, argued that mateship was an outworn, politically corrupt concept that failed to promote devotion among men, and that feminism gave women a lonely, pyrrhic victory but forced intimidated men into postures of resentful avoidance, with hit-and-run sex.

There was hope for change, however, because the price of godless hedonism was too high. Conway wrote Being Male (1986), Conway's Way (1988), his memoirs and reflections, and The Rage For Utopia (1992). He wrote newspaper columns, appeared on ABC television programs such as Any Questions and was an adviser on priestly vocations for the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne. He may have been part of the cultural conservatism pursued by the poets Christopher Brennan and James McAuley and the Catholic lay leader B.A. Santamaria, but he is not easily pigeonholed.

He wrote in 1988: "Australia has become an addicted society, one which seeks a too easy and too dangerous way of breaking out of the rat trap of materialism that it has built for itself. This is a society without sufficient creative imagination to stay happy and healthy." And in 2001: "Ours could be the first century in history to turn media-heated sexuality into a universal bore."

He sang in choirs and produced and acted in plays but, for much of his life from childhood to retirement in Hawthorn, was a loner. He wrote: "Perhaps the wholly present point of our conscious existence is not to build a wall against mortality but live as deeply as we can so as to inspire those who come after."

A memorial service for Ronald Conway will be held at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, at 10.30am today.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2009

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Conway, Ronald Victor (1927–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/conway-ronald-victor-15977/text27216, accessed 23 October 2017.

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