Photo: Four Poets – Hal Colebatch, Rod Moran, Andrew Lansdown & (seated) Les Murray (2002)
Tribute for Hal Colebatch
Memorial Service, 23 September 2019
by Andrew Lansdown
Renowned Western Australian intellectual, commentator and author, Hal G.P. Colebatch, died on 9 September 2019. Hal’s wife, Alexandra, asked Andrew Lansdown to officiate at the memorial service and to present a tribute on behalf of the family. Below is the text of Andrew’s tribute, with a postscript that expands on the matter of Hal’s Christian convictions.
Alexandra [Hal’s wife] has asked me to bring a tribute on behalf of herself and her family. There are two facets of Hal’s life that Alexandra wanted me to focus on—and I am delighted to be able to do this, for I share her conviction that these are, ultimately, the most important—namely, Hal’s faith and his family.
Before elaborating on these matters, however, permit me to make a few brief comments about Hal’s character and his achievements.
Hal was a fundamentally decent and kind man. He was loyal to his friends and generous to those who approached him for help. He was a man of extraordinary intellect and literary ability—and he did not squander these gifts. Indeed, as his astonishing literary output demonstrates, he was the most diligent and vigilant of men. He loved justice and truth and he courageously strove to protect and advance them, knowing that injustice and lies are the enemies of human flourishing.
Hal earned degrees in history and law and gained a PhD in political science. He worked as a journalist, a lawyer, a political advisor, and an editor. And of course, through it all, he wrote … and wrote and wrote.
He wrote poetry, articles, reviews, radio plays, novellas, novels, biographies, and books on the culture wars.
And despite the massive prejudice against him by the left-controlled literary world, he was awarded the 2008 Western Australian Premier’s Literary Award for poetry for his book, The Light River, and the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for history for his best-selling book, Australia’s Secret War.
In October last year, Hal emailed me a copy of his latest, unpublished poetry collection, titled Under a Dragon Moon. In the dedication, he states, “It being time to fly one’s flag, I dedicate this volume to the greater glory of God, and once again to my beloved family, Alexandra, Katie, Alexander and James …”
And this brings me to the two things that Alexandra wanted me to emphasise in this tribute—Hal’s faith and his family.
Let me start with some comments on his faith:
When I visited Hal in hospital the day before he died, he made a point of telling me that he had recently taken Holy Communion and made confession. The words of “Pie Jesu” [“Merciful Jesus”, played earlier in the service] were not merely beautiful sentiments to Hal. He believed that Jesus is truly “the Lamb of God/ who takes away the sin of the world” by the sacrifice of himself. “Merciful Jesus” did everything that needed to be done so that those who trust in him might be forgiven and restored to a right relationship with God the Father for eternity.
Hal was a private man and he did not often express his personal feelings, nor did he generally talk personally about his faith. Yet in recent years he has plainly felt it necessary to openly identify as a Christian. In 2012 he wrote a short article for me titled “Flying the Flag”, an article which I published in a small magazine I edit for a Christian organisation here in Perth.
“Flying the Flag” is an autobiographical piece explaining his somewhat reluctant conversion from a deist to a theist—from a believer in a remote God who has no ongoing interest in the universe he created to a present God who intimately cares for his creation, and for human beings in particular. Hal came to understand that he personally matters to God, matters so much that God himself actually entered human history as the Man Jesus in order to express that care to the ultimate. Hal came to see that it was God speaking with and through Jesus when Jesus said,
Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30).
Like C.S. Lewis, whom he so admired, Hal found himself compelled by reason and evidence to believe in the Christian Triune God of the Bible. He came to believe that God cared personally for him, and that the supreme expression of that care was evident from God’s supreme intervention in the world when he became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the words of Lewis could have been Hal’s words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.”
The last words Hal and I shared together in Osborne Park Hospital the day before he died were words of faith, when I prayed for and with him to the God whom we both trust and worship.
Hal and Alexandra shared a strong faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And this brings me to the second matter of supreme importance:
Hal and Alexandra shared a strong love for one another.
Hal had a deeply happy marriage and felt himself deeply blessed to have Alexandra as his wife.
Hal and I were friends long before he married Alexandra. But I noticed soon after he married her that he had a certain contentment he had not had before. As the years of their marriage went by, Hal’s love—so it seemed to me—deepened for Alexandra and the blessings of her love for him were more keenly felt.
Just as, in recent years, Hal has written more and more in defence of the Christian faith, so too he has ventured to write more about his personal love for Alexandra.
Permit me in closing to read to you several short poems that are essentially love vignettes for Alexandra:
Good things about having a bad cold
Not having to work, not having to think;
plenty of orange-juice to drink.
Front door locked, phone off the hook;
nice red jelly and a book.
Hearing rain beat on the roof above;
my wife beside me who I love.
I look down at my wife’s sleeping face
And I know
That in a lifetime of mistakes
I did one thing right.
I write stories about tigers,
but it wasn’t until
the hospital tried to bully me
that I discovered
I had married one.
Today is my birthday.
Today the nurses brought me a cake.
Today I made it without a walking-frame
To the end of the ward and back.
Today a square of sticking-plaster
Replaces the tube in my arm.
Today I ran my hand over my scalp
And felt the prickles
Of my hair starting to grow again.
Today my favourite nurse gave me a hug.
Today I put on my own clothes.
Today the sun is shining.
Today my wife and daughter
Arrived to take me home.
You will have noticed Hal’s reference in this last poem not only to Alexandra, but also to Katie, his daughter. I had hoped to read you several more poems that express his love for his family. But time will not allow it.
I wish to conclude this tribute with a comment about Hal by the late great poet, Les Murray. While having a coffee with Hal several years go, he mentioned that he had been in hospital for a week or two. I responded, “You should have told me, Hal, and I would have visited you.” And he said, “Best not. One likes to be seen at one’s best.” I then asked if he would mind if I told our mutual friends, Peter Kocan and Les Murray, about his illness. He said I could, but forbade me to go into details. Les responded to my letter with this statement: “Please give Hal our commiserations. I don’t like to imagine a world without him, if I were still in it!”
Les Murray, who dedicated all his books “To the glory of God”, departed this world earlier this year. We are the ones who are left to deal with the reality of a world without Hal. As we do so, may we emulate the best of his qualities, and in particular his love for family and God.
Postscript: Additional observations on Hal’s Christian convictions
While Hal G.P. Colebatch was reticent to write about his faith in personal terms, he nonetheless did so often enough to make his position plain.
The following two short poems, for example, reveal his belief in both the existence of God and the creative agency of God:
The Reverend Mr Paley said
That finding a watch on a beach
Implied the existence of a watch-maker.
But he could have gone one step further
And said that it also implied
The existence of a beach-maker.
Dove Shells on a Rottnest Beach
Their perfect beauty
on the white sand,
their intricate markings and design,
are yet more evidence
this was no accident.
Hal may not have taken a literal view of the creation account in Genesis, but he certainly viewed the Universe, the Earth, and all the Earth’s lifeforms as the creations of God.
In addition to asserting the existence of God-the-Creator, Hal attacked the denial of his existence. In a stunningly succinct and caustic poem titled “Argument of an Atheist”, he poleaxes atheism in just three line:
Argument of an Atheist
“Show me one actual miracle,
One real event without a mundane cause,” he said,
Standing on the Earth under the Milky Way.
Upon reading this poem, one almost feels sorry for atheists. Almost … But Hal is well aware that it is not atheists but Christians who need sympathy in Western societies today. For, the expression of a belief in a Creator-God—and especially an expression of a belief in the good great Creator-God of the Bible—is verboten in academic and artistic circles and inevitably results in censorship and ostracism.
To a Controversial Public Personality
Insulting social convention
has been your stock-in-trade,
but I doubt you’ll be forgiven
the scandal you’ve now made.
Iconoclasm’s brought you fame
but now you’ve gone too far.
Your days may well be numbered
as a multi-media star.
You’ve sailed close to the wind before,
you’ve cut it mighty fine.
But now you’ve really done it,
You’ve really crossed the line!
They’ve loved your every outrage,
whoever you’ve cursed or kissed.
But they’ll not love your latest words:
“When I was an atheist”.
It would be easy to relish the sardonic (not to mention, typically Colebatchian) tone and twist in this poem without quite appreciating the vileness of the truth that it expresses. In contemporary society—and especially in academia and the arts—there is a high cost to being identified as a devout Christian. Hal understood this all too well, and perhaps (I conjecture) he felt a little reticent to add this cost to the costs he was already paying as a self-identifying conservative.
Hal wrote many articles in defence of Christian people facing persecution in the East and in defence of Christian institutions facing devastation in the West. In an article titled “Those Odd Atheist Bus Slogans”, he highlighted the intellectual absurdity, artistic barrenness, moral bankruptcy and social destructiveness of atheism. Among other things, he declared:
If, as C. S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, we believe that we and our neighbours were created by God to live forever, we will treat ourselves and one another differently. But it actually goes further than this. If man had in the past taken to heart the [bus slogan] injunction that “There’s probably no God,” not only would there be no hope of eternal Salvation, and no fixed ground for morality, but there would also be no art, science or civilization.
Again, he states:
One of the great ironies of atheism is that by denying God it insults man. Atheists often call themselves “humanists,” but it is religious belief that is the only true humanism, for it is only religious belief which holds that man is something more than dust, and holds the human brain to be more than a chance assembly of atoms. For another odd thing is that if you believe in God, you get belief in man added in.
Statements such as these constitute not only an objective rejection of atheism but also a personal acceptance of Christianity.
Hal loved the writings of the great twentieth century Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. In 2011, he proposed that I co-author a book with him on C.S. Lewis’s seven novels for children, collectively known as The Chronicles of Narnia. While deeply honoured by his faith in me, I was quite unable to act upon his proposal. Apart from the fact that I could not possibly add such a task to the numerous family, church and writing responsibilities that were pressing upon me, I felt a little anxious that I might not be able to meet Hal’s expectations. Certainly, his breadth of knowledge, his writing speed and his reading retention were far superior to mine.
Nonetheless, Hal sent me a draft of what he had in mind—a 40-page treatise titled One Guide to Narnia and Middle-Earth: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the story-teller’s art. In the Introduction to this (to my knowledge) still-unpublished essay, Hal states that, notwithstanding Lewis’s intention in the novels “to introduce children to the basic principles of Christianity”, his own chief concern was not religious but literary—namely, to explore “what [the novels] show about the art of story-telling and imagination”. He continues:
It is, however, impossible to avoid theological matters entirely and I have not tried to do so. I am grateful to my friend Andrew Lansdown, pastor of [a] Baptist Church in Western Australia and a well-known poet and author, for reading the text and ensuring that where theological matters are mentioned, they are dealt with in an orthodox manner. In this area, orthodoxy, or what Lewis called “mere Christianity”, is all that I have aspired to. As Lewis himself put it, when pointing out that Christianity largely re-stated old truths rather [than] set out radical new ones: “our faith is not pinned on a crank.”
Hal’s faith was not in a “crank” but in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the tenets of his faith were orthodox, as soundly and profoundly enunciated by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity.