Saturday, September 17, 2005

Reds under the beds

Sometime in the early part of 1951, a special Brisbane Climbing Club meeting was called and Dr Freddie Whitehouse, a respected lecturer in geology from the University of Queensland, was billed as the guest speaker. Whitehouse had already made a name for himself as a climber around southeast Queensland but as soon as he rose to speak, it was clear he had an agenda which had little to do with climbing. This was the era when Federal politics in Australia—as in many other countries—was dominated by anti-communism and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had done his bit to create an atmosphere of near-paranoia about communist infiltration of Australian institutions—even bedrooms! In this ‘Reds under the beds’ atmosphere, universities came under particular scrutiny because of the likelihood of them becoming a breeding ground for ‘leftish’ and ‘pro-communist’ views. The accounts of Whitehouse’s speech that evening vary considerably but what is consistent in the recollections is that he made explicit links between communism and climbing. His target was the founder of the Brisbane Climbing Club, Kemp Fowler, who had been questioned by customs officers on his arrival in Australia for possession of ‘leftish’ literature. Several climbers from that era have suggested that Whitehouse had close links to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and learned of Fowler’s suspect political affiliations through these. Some have even suggested that Whitehouse was an ASIO agent! Others suggest it was Bert Salmon, a staunch monarchist, who raised the alarm. Whatever the trigger, Whitehouse’s challenge for climbers was to choose to align themselves either with King and Country or with the forces of darkness. Fowler was one of the world experts in radar technology and this may have brought him to the attention of the authorities as well. The present global political climate has some curious parallels with the environment more than 50 years ago. But the aim was to expel Kemp Fowler, a suspected communist. A lively debate ensued and what had become a group of close friends, was suddenly divided. Comino recalls the evening:
The basis of it was, as Freddie [Whitehouse] said, if…the country’s being infiltrated by “Reds” and you’re climbing with someone who’s a communist trying to bring about your downfall somehow or other, then you can’t have complete confidence in the person you’re climbing with…Well, that was the philosophy—that was the tale we were given, anyway.
Following the debate, Kemp Fowler stormed out of the meeting followed by a group of his supporters. It was the last meeting of the Brisbane Climbing Club, barely 12 months after it had started. Although the contrived political situation caused some established friendships to remain tense for years, in the end, climbing was the catalyst that brought people back together again. There must be few, if any, other examples anywhere of a climbing club being effectively shut down because of the political persuasion of its founder. They were heady days indeed.

No comments: