Extracts from funeral tribute for George Munster by Tom Fitzgerald, 1984

Extracts from Tom Fitzgerald's funeral tribute for George Munster. National Library of Australia: MS 389.Papers of Ken Inglis.

He was thirteen when, on the sea voyage to Australia [in 1939, with his parents and sister, fleeing Nazi persecution], he applied himself to learning English. By then, one supposes, he must have been growing aware of his extraordinary powers of rapid assimilation and accurate memory. Four and a half years after his arrival, sitting for the New South Wales Leaving Certificate examinations, he came top of the State in English as well as French, and the newspapers made a feature of it. Records kept by his mother show that at the annual prizegiving of Sydney Boys’ High School on December 16, 1943, he was called to the dais to receive three awards (more than any other boy of the passing out class) from His Excellency, the Governor of New South Wales, Lord Wakehurst. Others beaming their approval on the platform were the premier of the State, Mr McKell, and a selection of Old Boys, as George took the AB Piddington prize for English, the Earle Page prize for French and the Dr FW Doak prize for Latin. There was the Establishment, out in force, beckoning recruits from the best and brightest young men to be replacements for their own high positions in the meritocracy. If any of the prominent people on the platform had been asked to speculate on the future of the Munster boy, they might have pointed to yet more glittering prizes to come in one or other of the professions: say, to the position of an eminent jurist, as might easily have been within his grasp. There is nothing to suggest that George ever entertained such ideas. A functionary’s role in the prescribed grooves, whatever the salary and prestige, had no interest for him. He would be a free spirit, occupied with more worthwhile concerns which would sometimes subvert the self-righteousness of members of the Establishment.

…George had spent a considerable time overseas, I think more than five years in all, particularly in England, Spain and the Middle East. Though he spoke of these experiences with enjoyment, he said he had decided…that this was the country most to his taste for a home base. The reasons for that decision were not self-evident, and some see it as part of the mystery about George. Peter Porter, in London, said recently…that George might find more fulfilment, as well as wider recognition, if he lived in Europe. Part of the explanation may lie in George’s self-sufficiency, the absence of any basis for feelings of cultural inferiority, and the ease with which he was able by reading to keep abreast of intellectual developments overseas. Australia was a stodgy place in the ’fifties, but one who remained firmly outside the stodge could find interest in observing it and giving it a stir.

…And there was the incomparable quality of the writing: fresh, lucid, with a concealed verbal fastidiousness, a distinctive gleam of intelligence and modulating wit. It was as though he had accomplished an adjustment of gear to journalism. The flow was strong and increasingly assured. A new quality was introduced into our journalism, and George acquired his national reputation.

…In the meantime, George did not forsake the business management of the paper. One idea for building circulation came from the Federal Government’s ban on imports of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which was acclaimed overseas when published in 1959. George had been an attentive reader of Nabokov for years, and when Elwyn Lynn sent us from America an enthusiastic review of Lolita, with quotations illustrative of its quality, he was moved to more than a sense of the ridiculous. He wrote to Nabokov, suggesting that a way to break down the absurd provincialism would be to have extracts from the book published within Australia, so that everyone could form an opinion of what they were not being allowed to read in book form. Mrs Nabokov wrote back, giving us permission to print one chapter from the novel. Sylvia Lawson and I had our favourite chapters, but George’s adjudication was final: ‘Pick the longest chapter, and divide it into two instalments.’