Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Richard Victor (Dick) Hall (1937–2003)

by Edmund Campion

Richard Victor Hall, who has died after a long illness, ended his days as he lived them, with very little cash in his pocket or the bank, but with a wide and eclectic mass of friends who admired his political acuity, his historical knowledge and his engagement in Australia's national conversation.

Throughout his adult life, he was an exemplar of old republican virtue, which put selfless service of the res publica at the top of one's goals in life. He often applied the Shakespearean accolade, "He has done the state some service", to a person he admired. Now it can be said of him.

Abandoned by his father, who disappeared into New Zealand, he was brought up by his mother, Phyllis. Work as a secretarial temporary gave her some sort of income and they lived in a bewildering variety of cheap accommodation. All his life Dick liked the phrase, "it put fruit on the sideboard", to denote work that brought a little luxury. It pointed to a straitened boyhood. In those years he formed the lifelong habit of reading; you rarely saw him without a book.

From school at St Aloysius College he went into radio journalism and then worked for newspapers and The Bulletin. Enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney, he became a leader in the Newman Society groups and found there a comradeship that was lifelong. There, too, he absorbed a philosophy that would colour his whole life. Put simply, it taught that a job's value did not lie in how much you were paid — work should be vocation, a service to the community.

So, after two years with the Freedom from Hunger campaign, he became, in 1968, a secretary to Gough Whitlam. The story of those heady years of Whitlam's march to power await their telling in Dick's forthcoming biography of the great man. For the secretary, it proved to be a five-year postgraduate seminar, expanding his mind and sharpening his political expertise. Government won, Dick moved sideways, to Aboriginal Affairs and then to Secondary Industry, where he was adviser to the congenial Jim McClelland, a friend for life.

He was a founding member of the Australia Council's Literature Board, which held its first meeting in March 1973. It was a distinguished board, including Geoffrey Blainey, Elizabeth Riddell, Manning Clark, David Malouf, A.D. Hope, Geoffrey Dutton, Nancy Keesing and Richard Walsh. To be made a peer of such people was itself an accolade.

That first meeting instructed Dick and Tom Shapcott, another member, to report on the practicalities of Board assistance to Australian writers; and within a fortnight had agreed to their mix of grants, fellowships and residencies. In its first year the Board made 230 grants, from 1147 applications. By 1976, Dick was quoted in the press: "It is pretty hard to look at today's Australian bestsellers and find one which hasn't been irrigated by the Literature Board."

Another achievement at those first years was Public Lending Right, instituted in July 1975. This compensated authors and publishers for the multiple use of their books in public lending libraries. After his three years on the Literature Board, Dick continued to devote considerable time to making PLR work. For many elderly writers, it was their only superannuation. A cognate scheme, payment for universities photocopying of writers' work, also engaged him, but was achieved only after lengthy lobbying by the Australian Society of Authors.

In these campaigns his associate was his close friend, Frank Moorhouse, who shared a quixotic belief that a writer might survive in Australia as a freelance. Moorhouse put Dick into several of his fictions and may do so again. He recorded, for instance, the night at Tony Bilson's Bon Gout restaurant when Dick, taunted to exasperation by a loudmouth at a nearby table, settled the matter by dumping a jug of water over his head.

Dick's presence in the restaurant that evening was not by chance. For from the time that Tony and Gai Bilson came to Sydney to initiate their culinary revolution, Dick became one of their regulars. His Friday luncheon table at Bon Gout, followed by one at Susie Carleton's EJ's Restaurant and finally at the Zuzza family's The Mixing Pot in Glebe, became legendary. There one would meet overseas authors and publishers, journalists, artists, actors, politicians; and the talk would progress until nightfall, when it might transfer to a pub.

At Dick's table one met formidable women. He had many close women friends, all sharing one characteristic trait: each of them was a strong, independent achiever who knew her own mind and had a mind to know. None was his handmaiden; but each, in her own way, was attentive to his exigencies.

While the mothers of his three daughters shouldered most of the economic burdens of parenthood, the girls' father participated fully in their scholastic, moral and social development. Better than most of his contemporaries, he was a caring father, an active presence in their lives. It seemed emblematic that for decades the women of his family were accustomed to barbering his hair. They survive him: Mary Nathan, Kirsty McDonald, and the daughters, Caitlin, Meredith and Louisa.

When Neville Wran became Premier of NSW, in 1976, he appointed Dick to his cultural affairs advisory body. Here, his longest lasting achievement was the Premier's literary awards, developed in concert with Donald Horne. Copied by other states, the NSW awards remain the richest of such annual prizes.

At the same time, Dick was appointed to the NSW State Library Council, the overseeing body of the state's public libraries. In 1980 he was elected president of the council, a position he held through annual election for four years. His closeness to the Premier ensured the building of a new general reference library for the State Library of New South Wales and the relocation of the Mitchell Library.

Publicly he was most engaged in the campaign to defend the free public library system against an unhealthy "user pays" ideology. Chairing the monthly council meetings, he was brisk, efficient and sympathetic to the staff (a sympathy repaid affectionately). He kept his eye on the clock, holding that the proper time to close the meeting for lunch was noon. All this was done without pay.

Meanwhile, he was getting on with his writing. Much of it was evanescent — speeches for politicians, briefing papers, book reviews, magazine articles and the like. He ghosted books for Mick Young and Jack Hallam and, an early graduate of the NIDA playwrights' course, he saw two of his plays produced.

Twice he collaborated with friends on a book: with John Iremonger for The Makers and the Breakers, an examination of the 1975 constitutional crisis; and with Clem Lloyd in Background Briefings, a collection of John Curtin's wartime off-the-record briefings of journalists. In 1994 he won the inaugural James Joyce Foundation fellowship, which included a residency at Trinity College, Dublin.

His books were about policemen, criminals and spies, written with dash and insider knowledge. He got on well with knockabout coppers, who trusted him with their secrets. His penetration of the spy world ambience accounted for the success of two espionage thrillers, Costello and Noumea. It is a regret that he did not persist with this genre. But there were always calls to write other books on other topics.

Dick had contributed a chapter on Aboriginal history to Frank Stevens's pioneering Racism in Australia and had never lost his interest in the field. When "black armband history" became fashionable as a pejorative term, he pulled together a lifetime's research and wrote swiftly Black Armband Days. More than a collection of essays on related themes, it is a powerful meditation on racial, sexual and social prejudice. He followed this with an investigation of the Windschuttle thesis which appeared in Peter Craven's Best Australian Essays 2001.

The year before, Craven had selected for inclusion in Best Essays 2000, Dick's introduction to his Sydney: An Oxford Anthology, perhaps his most lasting book. In it he displayed the wide reading, capacious memory and intellectual generosity which his friends treasured.

It is the book of a lover of Sydney, someone who had walked its lanes and streets, smelt its air, known its highs and lows — someone as unique as himself. Dick believed that in writing about a person's work, as in a book review, you should quote some of his words, to give the flavour. So let him have the last word here, from the Sydney anthology:

"A city is more than the sum of its setting, its landscapes, its buildings. It lives in its people, their conflicts and contradictions, their crudeness and their subtleties, their achievements and their failures, their virtues and their vices. It lives in this past and present. The visitors come and go, but the authentic voices of the city, in the end, come from its people."

Original publication

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Hall, Richard Victor (Dick) (1937–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 October, 1937
New South Wales, Australia


22 March, 2003 (aged 65)
New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

liver dysfunction

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism