This historian’s radical portrayal showcases the two lives of Vere Gordon Childe – himself a radical archaeologist-Marxist political activist and perhaps one of Australia’s greatest intellectual exports. First, Irving explores Childe’s student life; the brilliant Honours undergraduate from Sydney University and Oxford, denied by conservative sentiment of his academic career and banished to secondary teaching in Queensland. Childe returned to the labour movement, became Private Secretary of a Labor Premier, and then travelled to the UK as representative of the NSW Labor Government; an appointment cancelled by an incoming conservative government.
It then turns to his second life; archaeologist and academic of world renown, applying Marxist principles to study and exploration. Along the way, there is a lifelong friendship with HV Evatt, employment assistance from state and federal politician Ted Theodore, tutoring Latin for William McKell’s bar exam, and over 40 years of security surveillance from Australian, UK, US and even USSR intelligence agencies. Childe had a privileged upbringing (few had the opportunity between 1911 and 1917 to graduate from both Sydney University and Oxford) but chose a socialist-pacifist path in WWI and stayed true to his beliefs.
His politics continued even after his 1957 death at Govett’s Leap, Blackheath. The then-ASIO DG alluded to the toll of counterespionage as a cause of suicide while Evatt’s wife, Mary Alice, suggested murder because he knew too much. An inquest suggested otherwise.
Yet from George Orwell in 1949, who said Childe’s political views were untrustworthy, to Indiana Jones in the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull advising a student to “consult the works of Gordon Childe”, his life and work resonates. It’s an extremely compelling portrayal of a unique Australian.