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Porter, Harold Edward (Hal) (1911–1984)

by Peter Pierce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Hal Porter, by William Dargie, n.d.

Hal Porter, by William Dargie, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H89.209

Harold Edward Porter (1911-1984), writer, was born on 16 February 1911 at Albert Park, Melbourne, eldest of six children of Victorian-born parents Harold Owen Porter, railway employee, and his wife Ida Violet, née Ruff. In his early years Hal lived at 36 Bellair Street, Kensington, a house that afforded the title for his most famous work (and first volume of an autobiographical trilogy), The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (1963). After he spent a term at Kensington State School, his father’s work took the family to Bairnsdale, which he described as ‘a shire town, a Gippsland town . . . the scene of my petty comedy for the next ten years’.

In 1921 Porter became the youngest student at Bairnsdale High School and his first published story appeared in the school magazine the next year. Failing to complete his Leaving certificate, he was briefly a cadet reporter on the Bairnsdale Advertiser. In October 1927 he took a position as junior teacher at Williamstown North State School. Apart from a few interludes at Bairnsdale (one occasioned by the death of his loved mother on 21 March 1929) he taught there until resigning in 1937, after the publication of his first story in the Bulletin. Living in Collins Street, Melbourne, and sampling the city’s bohemian pleasures, he then worked briefly as an assistant window-dresser, one of his numerous unlikely occupations.

In 1938, unemployed, Porter returned to Bairnsdale to live with his father. There, in 1939, he met Olivia Clarissa Parnham, ‘the Ardath girl’ in the advertisement for that brand of cigarette. After a week’s hectic acquaintance they married on 23 June 1939 at the Church of St John the Baptist, Bairnsdale. Although they never lived together, and divorced in 1944, Olivia cared for her husband during a long convalescence after he was run over by a motor car on 1 September 1939 while crossing Victoria Parade, Melbourne. His injuries left him with a limp and recurrent pain, and prevented him from enlisting for service in World War II.

In 1940 Porter worked briefly at Balook State School before securing a resident mastership at Queen’s College, Adelaide, teaching senior English and French. Now employed at a private school, he resented not having attended one. Not for the last time he pretended to have appropriate tertiary qualifications. As he would remark, ‘I am composed of other people’. An affair with a male student, an indiscretion that went unpunished, is fictionalised in the story ‘The Dream’. In 1942, in a limited edition of 250 copies, he published Short Stories. Moving to Prince Alfred College in the next year, he played Creon in Medea for the Adelaide University Theatre Guild and had stories published in Angry Penguins and Coast to Coast.

Restlessness brought Porter to teach at the Hutchins School in Hobart in 1946. Within the year he was dismissed, following a letter to the press protesting at the headmaster’s cancellation of the King’s birthday holiday. He stayed on in Hobart, as a private tutor, producing plays and helping to found the Hobart Theatre Guild with his friends and supporters Ann and Roger Jennings. His Tasmanian sojourn influenced two of the finest works of his baroque style and melodramatic art: a historical novel, The Tilted Cross (1961) and a play, The Tower (1963). In the former he described Van Diemen’s Land, with recent disenchantment, as ‘an ugly trinket suspended at the world’s discredited rump’.

In 1947 Porter lasted a single term at Knox Grammar School, Sydney. He met Beatrice Davis from Angus and Robertson Ltd, which was to publish most of his works, including his first volume of verse, The Hexagon (1956). After teaching at Ballarat College, he was persuaded by a drinking mate to take on the improbable task of running the George Hotel at St Kilda. For a few months, he did. In 1949 he applied successfully to join the Army Education Unit in occupied Japan. From that stint came the novel A Handful of Pennies (1958). A return visit in 1967 soured his earlier sanguine view of the country and issued in a non-fiction work, The Actors (1968), and another short story collection, Mr Butterfry and Other Tales of New Japan (1970).

Back in Australia, Porter taught at Essendon Grammar School, cooked on a sheep station in the Goulburn Valley and, late in 1953, accepted a post as city librarian at Bairnsdale. In 1958 he took up a similar position at Shepparton. These appointments allowed him time to write, as did grants from the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1956 and 1960. Travelling to England in 1960, he found a London publisher in Faber & Faber, met such luminaries as T. S. Eliot (about whom he was privately caustic) and was tempted by a career as a dramatist. Three of his four plays had London productions in the 1960s, but without acclaim.

From 1961 Porter supported himself as a full-time writer, gaining further CLF fellowships in 1965, 1968, 1972 and 1974, and sharing the Britannica-Australia literary award in 1967. His working rhythm, especially in the 1970s, involved disciplined retreats to the farm owned by his sister and her husband at Glen Avon, near Garvoc in the Western District. These periods were punctuated by binges in Melbourne.

Porter’s third volume of autobiography, The Extra, appeared in 1975, provoking critical outrage over his depictions of Katharine Prichard (who ‘reeks of . . . untended armpit’) and Kenneth Slessor among others. The Extra ventilated many of Porter’s prejudices — against Jews, ‘foreigners’ and Aborigines. The counterpart of Porter’s grace, charm and cultivation was an intense snobbery that, for instance, saw him elevate his father’s occupation from engine-driver to engineer. His facility at winning friends was matched by ceaseless demands on their patience.

Towards the end of his career, Porter produced Bairnsdale (1977), illustrated with his own elegant line drawings, and a final volume of stories, The Clairvoyant Goat and Other Stories (1981). An anthology of his work appeared in 1980, edited by Mary Lord, who became his biographer. Her book, Hal Porter: Man of Many Parts (1993), was even-handed in judging an old friend and sensational in revealing Porter’s paedophilia, in particular his sexual relations with one of her sons. In 1981 Porter moved to Ballarat, where he lived at Weeroona, the only house that he ever owned. He also fell in love with a married man thirty years his junior.

In 1982 Porter was appointed AM. On 24 July 1983, in a shocking reprise of his 1939 accident, he was again hit by a motor car. He remained in a coma for fourteen months before his death in a private hospital at Thornbury, Melbourne, on 29 September 1984. He was buried in Ballarat cemetery with Anglican rites.

Tall, fair haired, vain, loquacious, courtly, bibulous, disposed to dress as a dandy and to address most male acquaintances as ‘dear boy’ (the last words on his tombstone), Porter was one of the most variously talented of Australian creative artists. He was an actor, a sketcher, a distinguished poet, a playwright, an occasional novelist, one of the finest of all Australia’s authors of short stories and a pioneer of the first flowering of autobiographical writing in this country. His much-praised manner was at once outward-looking—precise in its evocation and remembrance of social details—and hermetic, in the creation of self-contained imaginative worlds in which he transformed, with a cruel art, so much of what he had known and watched. A portrait study of Porter by Sir William Dargie is held by the La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • W. H. Wilde, J. Hooton and B. Andrews, The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (1985)
  • M. Lord, Hal Porter (1993)
  • P. Pierce (ed), The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia (1993).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Pierce, 'Porter, Harold Edward (Hal) (1911–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/porter-harold-edward-hal-15483/text26697, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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