Farewell Bob, my old friend


Bob Gould, long-time Sydney political activist, Trotskyist and ALP member, and notorious bookshop owner, died on May 22 aged 74. More than 300 people from many areas of Bob’s political life attended his funeral and the following wake at Newtown’s Courthouse Hotel. This is the obituary speech at the funeral by John Percy, national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and editor of Direct Action. Other speakers were Mairi Petersen, Janet Bonser, Hall Greenland, Jenny Haines, Nick Martin, Meredith Burgmann, Ian Rintoul, Phil Sandford, and Natalie Gould.

I first met Bob 46 years ago. Over those years he’s been my mentor, recruiting me to Marxism, close political associate, fierce political opponent, disputant, source of left news and friend.

Bob’s most important political contribution in a completely political life was his role in building the Sydney movement against the War in Vietnam, initiating the Vietnam Action Campaign in 1965. The struggle of the Vietnamese people against the invasion by US – and Australian – troops was one of the most important and heroic struggles of the 20th century. Bob made an important contribution to that struggle, and in the process participated in the social and political movement that helped radicalise thousands of young people.

My first memory of Bob is at the Canberra Australian Student Labor Federation conference in May 1965, where we were two of the 16 arrested in what was the first sit-down protest against the Vietnam War. Bob was arrested many times in the course of this campaign. The time spent overnight in a police cell contributed greatly to the education of a naive student like myself (my cell-mate was a member of the Communist Party). The links I made with Bob Gould from then on contributed even more.

Bob Gould

In court the next day, the police trotted out a long record of Bob’s supposed outstanding charges: indecent exposure, child molesting. (Those of you in the scene at the time might remember Arlo Guthrie’s album “Alice’s Restaurant”, in which a similar situation was described, where “we all moved to the other end of the bench…”.) The record was bogus, of course; Bob suspected a former libertarian, who later gained notoriety as a reactionary right-wing columnist, had used his name.

Although a member of the Labor Party for all his political life, Bob was a Marxist, and a member of the old Trotskyist “International” group led by Nick Origlass in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

After the Canberra protest, Bob and Mairi and some of the other younger members of the Trotskyist group, and some of the radicalising Sydney Uni students such as myself, and Rod Webb, set up the Vietnam Action Committee.

VAC functioned from Bob and Mairi’s house at Holdsworth Street, Woollahra: meetings, working bees, stuffing envelopes, mailing out VAC newsletters to 10,000 people. The leaflets and newsletters were printed in a tiny back room upstairs, on a Gestetner duplicator. (Learning to operate a Gestetner was an essential skill in those days.) The shelves covering all the walls were stacked high with magazines and books and leaflets – a mini version of Bob’s bookshops later. It was a wonderful place for a new young activist to rummage around while tending the Gestetner! I often walked away loaded high with books and magazines from such working bees. Many other young activists had similar experiences.

From 1965 through his activity in the campaign against the Vietnam War, he recruited me and a number of other young people to Trotskyism. Bob, my brother Jim Percy and I were political associates from 1965 to 1970. (Our political opponents bundled us together as “Gould and the Percy brothers”.)

In August 1967 we established the socialist youth organisation Resistance, initially called SCREW – Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion Everywhere – and set up the Third World Bookshop at 35 Goulburn Street. It was an amazing radical centre, with regular activities nearly every night. In 1969 we set up the International Marxist League.

We parted ways politically in 1970. Jim and I went on to found the Socialist Workers League (becoming the Democratic Socialist Party). Bob remained in the ALP, a tactic we disagreed with (he probably even disagreed that it was a tactic, considering it a principle.) He retained a keen interest in left politics, lamenting the further degeneration of the ALP to the right, and especially recently over its stand on refugees.

Bob was a voracious reader, although I’m a bit sceptical about the figure quoted in one article of him knocking off 40 books a week! But I was envious of his ability to read and absorb a huge number of books. He was always interesting to have a political gossip or debate with.

We all have many regrets at his passing:

Many of us, that arguments and discussions remained unfinished.

All of us, that all his memories and experience is no longer there.

That he didn’t write his memoirs.

That he never sorted his archives – how many dozens of garbage bags of history he left behind. But he probably was never going to do that. It will be source material for many books/PhDs. (But this will probably need a new upsurge of radicalisation, for activists of a new generation to come along and make full political use of it.)

My personal regrets: that I missed a last chance to speak. I had been planning to visit him this week, to catch up on left news and to invite him to a meeting to launch a new campaign, “Agent Orange Justice”, which is aiming to help redress the terrible legacy of the Vietnam War, which Bob would have approved of.

Bob was a fighter, an interesting character on the Sydney left for more than 50 years. He’ll be sadly missed. And the best way to respect his memory is to keep fighting, keep campaigning, as he did.

Farewell Bob, my old friend.
John Percy

Australian News & Analysis