Telling and writing the story: Richard Fidler’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler, NLA, 2018

On Friday night I went to my fourth consecutive Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia. A highlight on the Library’s calendar, it’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005.

This year’s speaker, Richard Fidler, was, at first glance, a surprising pick – but a very popular one. He is well known to Australians, for several reasons, but particularly for hosting, since 2005, ABC Radio’s hour-long interview program, Conversations. He has also recently written two historical books, Ghost empire (2016) and Saga land (co-written with Kári Gíslason) (2017). These books, the lecture promo said, contain short biographies of historical figures from, respectively, Byzantium and mediaeval Iceland. So, he has not written a biography or memoir or autobiography, per se, but these books contain small biographies. Moreover, his Conversations program, it was suggested, comprises mini-autobiographies of the interviewees. Fidler then, as it turned out, was well able to talk about life-writing or, more broadly, telling life stories.

After being introduced by the NLA’s Director-General, Marie-Louise Ayres, Fidler commenced by telling us that he’d titled his lecture, “Telling and writing the story”. The event’s promotion explained that this meant

outlining some of the tensions that come into play when bringing someone’s life story to a listening audience and comparing it to the freedoms and constraints involved in writing biography for a reader.

Fidler commenced with a little anecdote exemplifying the dangers of biography. Back in 1988, he had read, he said, Robert Caro’s The years of Lyndon Johnson: The path to power (1982). It’s volume 1 of a larger work. Caro has now published three more volumes (in 1990, 1992 and 2012) and has apparently announced that he will conclude with a fifth volume which, he said this year, could take from two to ten years. Caro is now 82. Fidler proposed that this story provides a warning for the biographer – as you go in, he said, have an eye on the exit! This issue has not – to date, anyhow – been a problem for Fidler whose biographical work has taken a very different, and much shorter path.

Radio versus print

As the lecture’s promotion promised, Fidler talked about both his written and radio work, reflecting as he went on the difference between the two. I love this sort of discussion, this exploration of different media, of different forms of writing and presentation, in order to tease out what is inherent to each. As a consumer and reviewer of media, I believe that knowing and understanding the form in hand is a critical starting point. I’m therefore going (to try) to marshal my report on this lecture to focus on these issues, rather than be a blow-by-blow summary.


Early in the lecture, Fidler said that written stories can take more liberties – the story can sprawl, for example, diving off on tangents at will. Radio, on the other hand, is more linear, it must keep moving forward in a direct path (though it does have the voice to guile you!) He likened radio to a shark driving ever forwards, while print is like a Portuguese man-of-war which can drag all sorts of bits-and-pieces along with it.

Richard Fidler, Kari Gislason, Saga LandHe exemplified this through the Saga land project, first explaining, for those of us who didn’t know, that Icelandic sagas – Saga land’s subject – are stories of real Vikings. Icelanders read these sagas, he said, the way we read Shakespeare. He also explained that in Old Norse, the word “saga” means “telling. He then read the beginning of the first saga about Gunnar, showing us how the narrative tension builds. (We’ll leave, here, the side issue of how much of the actual stories about these real people is fact, and how much fiction or hyperbole, as it’s irrelevant to my main thread. It’s an issue, he suggested, best left to saga scholars who still argue about it.)

He realised, he said, that these sagas would translate well to audio (to radio and podcast). Their first two chosen stories translated pretty easily to the audio form, but then he got to the story of Gisli which turned out to be much harder to transform into a linear form. How could he pour this sprawling story into the narrow form needed for a spoken narrative – a paradoxical problem, given the sagas originated in oral form. The “crush of family”, the multiple but confusing relationships, he said, are important to Gisli’s story. Eventually, though, he identified its core, and developed the narrative from there.

Fidler went on to talk about more stories from Saga Land, and talked a little about Ghost empire which he described as, essentially, the biography of a city, Constantinople. It reminded me of another “biography” of Constantinople, Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerising Istanbul: Memories of a city. Anyhow, regarding writing Ghost empire, he mentioned in particular the mini-biography of Constantine XI and how writing about him involved “a strange act of sympathy.” In fact, he described biography as “a profound act of sympathy”, which means, for him, “sitting beside his subject” as he writes rather than observing from a distance.


Of course, many in the audience were keen to hear about Fidler’s hugely popular radio program, Conversations, and Fidler did spend some of his 45 minutes on it too. He started by saying that the program’s aim was to present the stories of unknown people although, as listeners know, he also interviews better known people like “astronauts, authors and scientists.”

Fidler talked about the challenge of creating coherent narratives out of his subjects’ lives, many of whom, unused to the media, struggle to tell their stories coherently. His producers spend a long time talking – often on the phone – with selected interviewees, teasing out a narrative. Life is messy, a bit like a teenager’s bedroom he said!

Moreover, how reliable is memory, he asked – and then told a pertinent personal story to prove just how unreliable it is! He quoted British poet, Lemn Sissay’s definition of a family:

“Family is memory disputed between a group of people over a lifetime.”

Love it. Anyhow, he said that, consequently, he asks his interviewees “What do you remember?” rather than “What happened?” This question can often result in wonderful reveries, ones that make him almost stop breathing in order to not break the momentum. He gave an example from his interview with Angela Lansbury who gave an evocative description of the London of her childhood. Fidler said that he could see that a movie of that time was playing before her eyes.

Overall, he said, producing Conversations required artful deception in order to create the narrative arc of an hour.

Why read or listen to biography?

This subject wasn’t – really – specifically addressed, but Fidler did say a few relevant things. Regarding the value of reading Icelandic sagas, he said our interest springs from a deep-seated human need to understand our own lives through those of our ancestors. The sagas, he says, may fall short in terms of biographical rigour but they do tell larger truths. They were enjoyed as escapism but they also offered a different way of being human. Apparently, the poets Auden and Borges loved Iceland’s sagas.

Somewhat related to this issue was his discussion about the overall value of radio. It’s more intimate than television. It’s also more “profoundly democratic because you can’t be seen” and therefore not judged by the markers of appearance. He saw this as “a noble nakedness.”  In addition, radio has, he believes, an “enormous didactic momentum”, one which can create a “commonwealth of shared sympathies”, a sense of shared humanity.

There was more, including a Q&A during which questions included how subjects are found for Conversations, what he would ask Constantine XI if given the chance, and his tips for new interviewers.

But, I’ll leave it here and conclude with Fidler’s impassioned concluding statement, made in the context of the week’s astonishing events in which the ABC lost both its Managing Director and Chairman of the Board. He said that the public trusts that the Board will support the ABC, and that it’s not the government which funds the ABC, but you (that is, us), the audience. That of course brought him resounding applause – and so, sadly, ended another excellent Seymour lecture.

Further reading and listening: Saga Land: The Book and Radio Series

Previous lecture postsRobert Drewe (2015), David Marr (2016) and Raimond Gaita (2017)

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
28 September 2018

Monday musings on Australian literature: New Territory 2018

New Territory LogoLast year, some of you will remember, I was a mentor for the ACT Writers’ Centre ACT Lit-bloggers of the future program. It was great fun, and I really enjoyed working with Angharad and Emma over the six-months the program lasted. I wrote a couple of posts about the program, but if you’d like to refresh yourself, this one soon after it started would be a good place to start.

Well, it’s on again this year, but newly branded as New Territory: Adventures in Arts Writing, and with the Street Theatre joining the ACT Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia as program partners. The program, as last year, provides for two emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia, the Street Theatre and, in fact, the Canberra Writers Festival, and post their responses on the Writers Centre’s Capital Letters blog.

The ACT Writers Centre’s advertising of the program described it as follows:

[It] is a program that is committed to developing a deeper conversation about the arts: why we make art, how do we engage in art, and to what end? We aim to develop the arts writers, thinkers and provocateurs of the future.

In other words, the writers are encouraged to explore the arts in Canberra – and particularly the events offered by the partner organisations, which they can attend at no charge.

The two writers were chosen in June, and the program is now officially under way, so I’d like to introduce this year’s bloggers to you:

  • Amy (armchaircriticoz): like last year’s Angharad, Amy has a full-time job, and is developing her blog and critical writing skills on the side. Currently her blog roams across film, television, exhibitions, books and other topics that grab her fancy. Do check it out.
  • Siv Parker (On Dusk): and like last year’s Emma, Siv has some writing credentials behind her. Indeed, she won the  David Unaipon Award in 2012, and, in fact, I mentioned her twitter fiction piece in my post on the Writing back anthology last year. She is keen to rekindle her writing career, particularly in this arts writing area, and wants to explore how social media can be harnessed to this purpose. Check out her blog too.

I have asked Siv and Amy whether they’d like to write a guest post here during the program, as Emma did last year, and both seemed keen so you will hopefully see them here sometime in the not too distant future.

I will report back mid-program and point you to some of the work Amy and Siv have been doing, but meanwhile please do check out their blogs and Capital Letters (links above).

Until then, thanks again to the ACT Writers Centre, the NLA and the Street Theatre for sponsoring this program – and a special thanks to author Nigel Featherstone for overseeing this program and gently, encouragingly, shepherding us all through it. I am thrilled to be involved again. I loved getting to know, and spending time with, Angharad and Emma, and look forward to developing a similar relationship with Amy and Siv. Writers – of all sorts – are such fun to be around.

We’d love to hear if you know of any similar programs in your neck of the woods.

Sydney Writers Festival 2018, Live-streaming (Session 1)

May is such a busy month for birthdays and anniversaries in the Gums world that I hardly ever get to the Sydney Writers Festival, even though it is not much more than 3 hours drive away. I was consequently thrilled to discover that this year the National Library of Australia, Canberra, would be one of its live-streaming sites (#AWFLiveAndLocal) – and I was determined to support it (as well as attend because I wanted to). Overall, some 15 sessions were streamed over three days to around 35 sites.

This year’s theme is “The year of power”, one which is close to the revived Canberra Writers Festival theme of the last two years, “Politics, Power, Passion”.

Conflicting Narratives, Friday 4 May, 3pm

Panel: Ben Taub, Alexis Okewo, Alec Luhn, Ben Doherty (MC)

Sydney Writers Festival 2018This session was billed as being about “the role of storytellers in a time of ongoing conflict, terrorism and refugee crises.” The panelists, for those of you who don’t know them, were New Yorker writer, Alexis Okewo, who has written about extremism in Africa in her book A moonless, starless sky; the Moscow-based reporter for The Telegraph, Alec Luhn; and another New Yorker writer, Ben Laub, who writes about Syria and the jihadi movement in Europe. The moderator, Ben Doherty, writes for The Guardian.

The discussion started with Ben asking each panelist about his or her recent work. Okewo spoke about the moral complexities faced by people in extreme societies, arguing that the decisions they have to make aren’t simple. Individuals often aren’t all-victim or all-perpetrator and can be forced to commit violence. She talked about the aftermath, about how you live after terrible things (which made me think of Aminatta Forna’s The hired man, my review).

Taub talked about Syria, and how the Rome Statute is clear about what you can and can’t do in conflict. The problem is, however, that Syria isn’t a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that while there is “no ambiguity in international law”, Russia “protects Syria” at the UN Security Council. He noted that although there are currently geopolitical obstacles to pursuing accountability, this doesn’t mean you can’t collect evidence for later.

Luhn clearly confronts similar problems, asking how do you resolve problems when countries don’t agree on fundamentals. It’s more than simply “trying to beat the Russians at their disinformation game.”

Discussion then moved on to processes, such how journalists do their research in such tricky regions. They all agreed that journalists’ main job is to find reliable/trustworthy sources, and that there is a lot of newsworthy material out there “if you know the right people.” Okewo spoke of the difficulty of getting into the remote regions, for example, where Boko Haram is operating. Obtaining good information is particularly difficult in places where “the government is broken” and “resistant to being transparent.” The narrative regarding Boko Haram, for example, tends to be that it didn’t happen, but is a political plot.

Laub talked about the need to use trusted sources, some of which can come via NGOs. However, he did comment that the narrative you get can be “true but not the whole story”.

Related to this, and scattered throughout the conversation, were discussions about what readers can trust. Luhn, in particular, emphasised the importance of teaching media literacy. (My friend and I felt that this is something that’s surely always been taught. Of course, the environment in which we apply assessment techniques keeps changing, but the principles remain the same.) Responding to a question during the Q&A about what readers can trust, Luhn (I think) said that the best thing is to read widely because each media form/outlet has pluses and minuses. It comes back to media literacy, and understanding different outlets.

Another questioner from the Q&A wondered whether it would be possible to have a rating system for journalists, like we have for, say, Uber drivers. MC Doherty was not convinced about this. He wondered who would make the assessment, and worried that ratings could affect freedom of speech. Luhn pondered an organisation like UK’s OFSTED. He also said, though, that we need to trust the professional standards of the traditional newsroom and non-profit journalism centres.

Luhn, I think, quoted Churchill’s “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

From here, the discussion moved on to journalists’ safety, an issue of critical importance if we are going to get reporting from the ground. Alexis, the only woman on the panel, had quite a different spin on this: women journalists, she said, can be threatened by their own sources. They must trust that the people they are reporting with won’t hurt them. She also talked about dealing with vigilantes, about writing on people who are doing admirable but also disturbing things! You can’t fully trust them.

Luhn commented that it’s important not to work alone but journalists are increasingly are doing just this. He mentioned the Rory Peck Trust and the “hostile environment” training they offer freelance journalists. (The things you learn!)

Laub, I think, talked about relying on locals – drivers etc. What happens after you leave can be problematic, he said, because these people can face retribution for working with foreign media. Journalists need to continue the relationship after they leave. On the other hand, people, such as your fixers, can turn on you.

The session ended with quite an engaged Q&A, some of which I’ve included above. It ranged from questions about journalism itself – including one asking for advice for young writers – to questions about the regions the journalists are working in and the causes of the problems those regions are facing. The panel talked about Russia’s troll factory, and the future of Syria for example, but I’m going to close here!

It was inspiring to hear this bunch of engaged – and brave – young journalists talk about their work and their profession.

PS: I apologise if I’ve wrongly ascribed the speaker. I mostly captured the speaker’s name, but I slipped up a couple of times.

Unbreakable: Conversation with Jelena Dokic

Louise Maher and Jelena DokicIf you are a fan of professional tennis you will probably have heard of Jelena Dokic who hit the world stage during the 1999 Wimbledon Championships. She was just 16 years old, and, as Wikipedia writes, “achieved one of the biggest upsets in tennis history, beating Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-0. This remains the only time the women’s world No. 1 has ever lost to a qualifier at Wimbledon.” If you were an Australian tennis fan this was very exciting – or should have been. Unfortunately for Croatian-born Dokic, her tennis trajectory was one dogged by controversy, much of it caused by her abusive, controlling father. Her story, which she has documented in her book, Unbreakable, co-written with Jessica Halloran, is a tough one.

An author talk with a sportsperson about a co-written memoir would not necessarily be high priority for me, but if there’s one sport I love, it’s tennis, and Dokic’s story has implications that extend beyond tennis. So, with no competing events on that night, Mr Gums and I decided to go. It was in the form of a conversation between Dokic and local ABC presenter Louise Maher.

Jelena Dokic, UnbreakableThe conversation started with some introductory information. This included that Dokic had reached 4th in the world by the age of 19 years old, and that, due to the Yugoslav wars, she and her family had left Croatia for Serbia when she was 8 years old, and then emigrated to Australia in 1994 when she was 11. By 11 years of age, then, she’d already experienced far more trauma than most her age had experienced. When you add to this the fact that her father – who saw tennis as the opportunity for a good life – started abusing her from the minute he introduced her to tennis when she was 6 years old, you get the picture of a sad and lonely young person. It’s no wonder that the Australian tennis community – fans and players – found it hard to warm to her. No wonder, I say, but that’s no excuse. The failure of duty of care for this young person is clear – and her book has, apparently, got the international tennis world talking.

Now, I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow summary of the conversation, partly because it covered a lot of ground that is covered in the book, as well as in the various stories about her life that you can read on the Internet. Instead, I want to focus on the lessons and messages from the book (well, from what she told us about the book, as I haven’t read it.)

She had a few reasons for writing the book. One was to help others: she hopes by sharing her story, she will increase awareness of abusive parent-child relationships, particularly in sport, and thus help ensure it doesn’t happen to others.

Another reason is a more distressing one, in a way, and that is to enable Australians get to know her better – because the truth is that, due to her father’s abusive control of her, spectators never really got to know her, and as a result, they sometimes gave her a hard time. Some of this was racially or ethnically based – indeed she was told “to go back where you came from” – by several within and without the tennis world. The worst time for her, though, was when her father suddenly withdrew her from Australia, when she was 17 years old, to play for Yugoslavia. Her first major tournament after this was, unfortunately, the Australian Open – and the crowds jeered her. That’s hard enough for any-one, but for a 17-year-old girl who had no say in the matter, who was being abused by her father, it increased her sense of loneliness, of isolation, of having no support.

This issue of having no support is something she repeated several times in the conversation. When Louise Maher pressed her about her mother’s role, Dokic answered that her mother didn’t intervene. She wanted the family to stay together, and trusted her husband knew what he was doing!

Dokic provided various examples of her father’s abusive behaviour towards her, and of her desperation for a little praise that apparently never came (even after significant wins). She finally managed to “escape” home when she was 19-years-old – but life was tough, as she left with nothing, no money, no credit card. This is when, she said, she particularly needed support, but there was none.

I won’t continue, but there are some too-familiar lessons here, particularly the one that I’ll call the “turning a blind-eye syndrome”! There were people, Dokic said, who knew things weren’t right, but they were reluctant to get involved. And the media focussed on her father, enjoying the sensationalism of reporting on his behaviour – “Media thought he was funny, but he wasn’t”, she said. The didn’t pay any attention to what was happening to Dokic, or to the impact of their reporting on her. (I wished, that night, that I’d thought of my question about what she’d have liked the Media to do, before, not after, question-time finished!)

Dokic loved playing tennis, she said, but her father ruined her career. Tennis aficionados will, I’m sure, agree with her. She did look like achieving a come-back in her mid-to-late twenties but injury, illness, and surely the impact of all she’d suffered, meant there wasn’t the fairy-tale ending. Today she does sports commentating, motivational speaking and coaching.

There was a lot lot more – but if you’re interested, read the book!

Meanwhile, there are lessons to be learnt by the media, by spectators, and by tennis organisations about duty of care, particularly when reporting on, watching, or managing young players. What happened to Dokic could not have been completely avoided – its having started at home when she was a beginning 6-year old player – but it should not have gone on for as long as it did if people who knew, or even suspected, things were amiss, did something about it. I do hope this book has the effect that Dokic would like.

(Oh, and sitting next to me at this event was one of the ACT Litbloggers, the lovely Angharad of Tinted Edges. I look forward to seeing her post on it.)


A paradox of empowerment: Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture

Kim Scott and the whale's eye

Kim Scott and the whale’s eye

Why was Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture booked out, but not Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture*. Both lectures, held at the National Library of Australia, are endowed by generous benefactors and are free. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Gaita was booked out, but so should double Miles-Franklin-winner Noongar-author Kim Scott have been. His novel, That deadman dance (my review), is a pivotal book in terms of our understanding of first contact and therefore important to reconciliation. I had to see him in person.

Scott’s lecture, titled “A paradox of empowerment”, was described on the National Library page as being about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” And this is exactly what he spoke about, based on his Noongar project.

The evening started with a Welcome to Country by local Ngunnawal elder Tyrone Bell, who explained the tradition behind this practice. It led beautifully into Kim Scott’s talk, which he said was fundamentally about reclaiming Aboriginal language and story.

Looking through a whale's eye

Looking through a whale’s eye

Scott started by explaining the picture on the screen beside him. It’s from a story about a Noongar man entering a whale. He chose it because it represents the idea of seeing things differently. (You could tell he’s a novelist by the way he framed his lecture around imagery to convey his ideas!) For example, is this a porthole? Or are we looking through an eye, or even with the eye, this latter suggesting that the Noongar man has become the whale, has been transformed. This possibility of transformation was the underlying theme of his lecture.

Before he continued though, Scott offered some provisos. He likes, he said, to be particular, to start with the local (which approach also appeals to me). However, he is often criticised, he confided, for being somewhat diffident, hesitant, by which I understood him to mean for not being out there on the political hustings. He’s hesitant, he said for a few reasons:

  • the project – a small community-based language revitalisation project – is insecure. Funding and resources are uncertain, people with the needed knowledge are passing away, and the project is not connected to any institutional infrastructure.
  • it is a regional, provincial activity that may not be relevant elsewhere, although he suspects it is, because the reality is that some of most substantial renaissance work has originated in regional projects.
  • the project produces books – which give status, provide focus, can be used by schools – but books can be accessed widely, which could result in non-Aboriginal people learning the language before its owners do. This would continue the disempowerment the project aims to overturn.

Outside the circle

And here, Scott the novelist turned to again to metaphor. He quoted Governor Phillip who, having been welcomed into Port Jackson by the local people, found their curiosity problematic. He wrote:

‘As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our Dinner, I made a circle round us; there was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet.’

Scott used this circle motif as a metaphor for the ongoing exclusion of indigenous people by the settlers. The circle marked a power relationship, an exclusion, that became a defining feature of Aboriginal people’s identity. And yet, he said, researchers like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth) and Tony Swain (A place for strangers) are starting to identify what lay outside this circle – knowledge and skills, an active not passive relationship with the land – that the settlers could have learnt from. This knowledge is still outside the circle, he said.

Noongar language (Daisy Bates)

Noongar language (recorded by Daisy Bates)

He provided specific examples – many of which he used, in fact, in That deadman dance – of the Noongar’s documented sophisticated, positive response to the first settlers in Western Australia. But still, they were kept outside the circle. He shared, as an example of the Noongar’s open-minded, lively response, a Noongar story recorded by Daisy Bates, which incorporated the name of the new colony’s town, King George Town, into their language.

Changing this circle is, he said, vital to healing. He believes that through projects like his, together with the research of people like Gammage and Swain, things are beginning to change, that Aboriginal culture is starting to be recognised, appreciated, rather than denigrated.

Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project

And so he got to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a local language revitalisation project that is occurring outside the circle. His argument is that over time, since first contact, Governor Phillip’s original circle expanded, and the world outside it became increasingly impoverished. The Wirlomin language project believes that by recovering language, and the stories that go with it, the circle can be changed.

Proven benefits to social and personal wellbeing emanating from strong attachment to Indigenous cultural traditions. (Kral and Falk 2004, Anderson and Kowal 2012, and others).

He described the project – what it uses, what it produces, and how the knowledge is shared. I won’t detail that here, as you can learn much of it at the website. But I will share his teasing out decisions made, and their political implications. For example, when Kayang (Hazel) Brown took people to a special place in country, told its stories, and then re-covered the marks, her aim was not to practise the same attitude of exclusion, but to establish a protocol of respectful, negotiated relationships for sharing knowledge.

Another example concerned an event the group was organising to present books in language that they’d produced. He said that his view, “as the sophisticated man in the group” was to only invite Noongar, but Aunty Hazel (Kayang Brown) said they should invite some of the local non-Aboriginal people. Scott questioned why, given these people had controlled and spoiled their land, but Kayang responded, regarding one particular person, that “we grew up with him”. So he was invited, was given a copy of the stories, and responded positively, and emotionally. Scott learnt, through this experience, the paradox of empowerment through giving, and what can be achieved by moving into the circle.

All these, he concluded, open up possibilities of healing and transformation, with giving and sharing being the major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging.

This was a wonderful lecture, given by a man who emanated dignity, humility and grace. It was deceptively simple, but the thinking behind it was generous and sophisticated. You had to be there!

Ray Mathew Lecture
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017

* The Ray Mathew Lecture was established in 2009, through The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, created by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing. The lecture is named for the Australian poet and playwright, Ray Mathew (1929–2002), who left Australia in the late 1960s, and never returned. He spent most of the remainder of his life living in the New York apartment of his patrons, Eva and Paul Kollsman.

Truth, Truthfulness, Self, Voice: Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres

Raimond Gaita and Marie-Louise Ayres, NLA, 2017

This week Mr Gums, Brother Gums and I went to one of the highlights of Canberra’s literary calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture at the National Library of Australia.  It’s an annual lecture devoted to life-writing, and was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. This is the third one Mr Gums and I have attended, the first in 2015 being given by Robert Drewe, and last year’s by David Marr.

Raimond Gaita is best known to Australians as the author of the award-winning Romulus, my father, which, he informed us, is not-a-biography-nor-an-authobiography. He’s not, he said, a writer like those other Seymour speakers such as David Marr and Robert Dessaix. If we thought he would then go on to expound his theory of biography/autobiography/memoir, as might be expected for a “biography lecture”, we were mistaken, because philosopher Gaita had other plans.

And here is where I come a bit unstuck, because philosophy is not really my thing. I am therefore going to simplify – hopefully sensibly – what was a seriously philosophical argument that I tried to follow while also taking notes. I am going to limit my post to a few points that grabbed me – and that I believe I got right! I must say, though, that even if I didn’t catch all his arguments, I was thrilled to finally see this thoughtful, considered man in person.

“a tragic poem”

Raimond gaita, Romulus my fatherWhile Gaita didn’t engage, in the expected way anyhow, with the theory of his subject, he didn’t ignore it either. He explained that he doesn’t see Romulus, my father as biography or autobiography because it doesn’t contain “the critical psychological probing” you expect (or, perhaps, that he thinks we expect) in biography. He sees the book, rather, as “tragic poem”, as being about “broken lives” but not “diminished” ones. His described his book as tragedy, which he defined as reflecting “calm pity for the suffering it depicts”.

He wrote it “truthfully” as witness to the values by which his father lived, the father who, he said, gave him his “lifelong moral compass”. He discussed criticisms of his book, those arguments that had he been more ethically critical or more psychologically probing, he would have presented a more understanding picture of his mother. Don’t you love the way people are so ready to criticise what writers don’t do, rather than focus on what they do do? After all, the book is called Romulus, my father! I know, I’m being a bit ingenuous, since writing about his father does necessitate writing about his mother, but I stand by my point nonetheless.

Now, back to Gaita … to explain himself, he quoted Iris Murdoch’s statement that understanding another person is a work of “love, justice, and pity”. However, he said, he was 12 years old when his mother killed herself. He did not know her as an adult, had not conversed with her as an adult. He can, for example, speculate about what his father and his father’s friend Hora might have thought about things, but he didn’t know his mother: she doesn’t have an “individuated presence” for him. He sorrows for his mother (and admits that in writing about her he has put her under “intense scrutiny”) but he knew her only as a boy would.

At this point, he referred to Freud’s describing biography as being “vulnerable to psychological distortions”. Were Christine and Romulus really as he depicted them? Well, not, I understood him to say, in an absolute sense (but yes, he hoped, in his own sense). You ask seven people, he said, to describe a person and you’ll get seven different descriptions. You cannot match/judge these narratives against a single (simple? absolute?) notion that would guarantee “truthfulness” about that person’s life.

Truthfulness, et al

Gaita then went on to say that he is currently writing essays about people who have mattered to him. These essays have to be truthful but they can’t say everything. He hopes, however, that what is left unsaid will not compromise the truthfulness of what is said. He’d like to think that this is a justified hope. I think, in the right hands, it is!

One of his essay subjects is Martin Winkler who taught him German at school, and with whom he maintained contact long thereafter. Winkler is, he said, the wisest man he’s known. Around half of his lecture drew, in fact, from this essay on Winkler. I’m not going to repeat all he that said in detail here, but the essay, from what he shared with us about Winkler’s beliefs and ideas, would be well worth reading when it’s published.

So, just a couple of points. German-born Winkler loved German language and culture, but he was not blind to what Germany did during the war, which “lacerated his soul”. Winkler knew the dangers of following tradition which enables hiding behind respectability and which, in effect, enabled the Holocaust. However, he did not believe this had to diminish his love of Bach, or of German culture. Later in the lecture, Gaita commented that who would have thought that we would be now placing our faith in the Germany of Angela Merkel. (It just goes to show, doesn’t it, that people and/or nations can change. We live in hope!)

Another idea Gaita shared relates to love, ethics and values. For instance, he said, a feeling or emotion such as enthusiasm is ethically neutral, but love is “good”. It, in showing what people love, can be revelatory of value. He quoted Plato’s statement that love never proceeds by force or submits to force. Gaita also shared Winkler’s view that the core of responsibility is to be responsive to the needs of others in the lived context, which I assume means understanding people in terms of their lives rather than via some idea of absolute values.

Around here, if I remember correctly, Gaita returned to Romulus, his father, and in particular to Romulus’ compassion for his wife and her lover, which was evidenced, for example, by his providing financial support for them. Some of Romulus’ friends did not understand this (did not understand his father’s “goodness”). They felt his behaviour – his foolish heart – led him to dishonour himself. In other words, Gaita pointed out, another person would tell a different story about Romulus. So, the question is, was he a good man or a cuckold? There is no ethically neutral ground by which you can weigh the facts of his life to give one right answer or another. (Again, I think I’ve understood his point correctly. At least, what I’ve written makes sense to me, so that’s perhaps good enough!)

(Later, in the single-question Q&A, Gaita elaborated on his ideas of goodness and character. His father’s “goodness”, he said, was completely absent of condescension or superiority, something which many of his compatriots did not see or accept. Gaita, though, believes there should be more of such “goodness” in the world.)

For Gaita, growing up with such a man, seeing such compassion, was a gift. And it’s largely because of this that he did not grow up bitter. To be able to love, he said, is as important as being loved. You can, he said, be morally clear-sighted and at the same time love clear-sightedly. (I like this.)

Around here, we got into a discussion of facts and their meanings. You need, he said, to be truthful about the meaning of facts, which is more important, or relevant, than the facts themselves. (Regular readers here will know how much I liked this idea.) By example, he talked about the final sentences of Romulus, my father and of language choices that can convey different meanings. He could, for example, have written that his father was buried “not very far from” or “close to” or “near” his mother. He eventually chose “close” for its layered meaning – but he worried for a long time about whether the world also conveyed “sentimentality” (which emotion he sees as antithetical to truthful or authentic feeling). In the context, I think he made the right choice.

So, a very different biography lecture to the previous two we’ve attended. But, when you ask a moral philosopher to speak, that is, I suppose, to be expected. In other words, although we got a lecture which did address ideas regarding “truth” in writing about a life, it was also one that extended way beyond this to a discussion of values. My mind was certainly stretched – and is probably the better for it.

Seymour Biography Lecture
National Library of Australia
12 September 2017

Monday musings on Australian literature: ACT Litbloggers under way

A few weeks ago I posted on the ACT Litblogging program for which I am a mentor. But, I’ll just recap in case you missed that post. Titled ACT Lit-bloggers of the Future, this is a collaborative program between the ACT Writers Centre and the National Library of Australia (NLA). It provides for two emerging ACT-region writers to attend events at the National Library of Australia and post their experience on the Writers Centre’s Capital Letters blog, as well as for that mentorship from me.

The two bloggers, playwright and performance maker Emma Gibson, and blogger/podcaster and writer Angharad (Tinted Edges), are now well underway. They have posted on three events, and more posts, I know, are scheduled for the next month. The posts to date reveal the variety of programs offered by the National Library, an impressive variety really, when you know that the bloggers, due to their work and other life commitments, have not been able to attend every event available.

Here are the posts published to date:

  • Hugh Mackay, Selling the dreamAuthor talk with social commentator and prolific writer Hugh Mackay, held on 6 June, and posted by Angharad. The book was Selling the dream, on the advertising industry, and Angharad, who loves attending author talks – as most keen readers do – enjoyed both the overall experience and what she learnt about advertising, including its increasing role in political campaigns. As you usually do at author talks, she bought the book and had it signed!
  • Presentation on the life and death of botanical illustrator Dorothy English Paty by curator Nat Williams, on 28 June, and posted by Emma. Emma, who has always liked botanical illustration, was throughly engaged by this introduction to Paty (1805-1836), a little-known early Australian amateur artist. The Library has two of her Newcastle sketchbooks in its Nan Kivell Collection and this talk focused on presenter Williams’ research. As Emma says, although there are many gaps in our knowledge about her, the survival of these notebooks, together with research by people like Williams, will ensure that she (and the contributions she made) are not lost to us.
  • NAIDOC 2017 week collection talk titled Our voice, presented by librarian Ryan Stoker on 6 July, and posted by Emma. Described as a collection talk, this event involved Stoker highlighting “a variety of interviews, social histories and folklore recordings” that the Library has collected from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As a playwright, Emma is attuned to things aural, and takes her own audio recordings when travelling. Not surprisingly then, she found the talk illuminating, particularly in relation to how this collection at the NLA might help keep indigenous languages alive.

More posts, as I said in my introduction, are coming, including one from Angharad on an author talk by the popular and successful Australian fantasy and historical fiction writer Kate Forsyth. Look for that, and others by our two bloggers, on the Capital Letters blog. You can subscribe to it via the box in the right sidebar.

Meanwhile, our two bloggers would love it if you read these current posts and left them a comment!

You are very likely to hear more about this program later in the year, but I did want to share what’s been done to date – and give a little heads up to the good work being done by the NLA, ACT Writers Centre, and our two bloggers.

A short post today, but I’m sure you won’t complain about that!

Telling indigenous Australian stories

This weekend is particularly significant for indigenous Australians. No, let me rephrase that: it’s significant for all Australians because what happens to indigenous Australians marks who we are as a nation. And, right now, who we are is not wonderful.

Anniversaries galore

If you’re Australian, you’ll know what I’m talking about, but for everyone else, the situation is that we have two important anniversaries this weekend. Today, 26th May, is the 20th anniversary of the tabling in Parliament of the Bringing Them Home report documenting the Stolen Generations. (On 26th May the following year, the first National Sorry Day was held to keep front and centre our poor treatment of indigenous Australians, so next year will be its 20th anniversary). Then tomorrow, 27th May, is the 50th anniversary of a referendum held in Australia to change the Constitution regarding indigenous Australians. The resounding Yes vote (90% overall) ensured that indigenous Australians would from then on “be counted in reckoning the Population”. It also gave the Federal Government the power to pass legislation specifically for indigenous Australians. And, just to add to the significance, next week, on 3 June, will be the 25th anniversary of the Mabo decision which recognised native title in Australia.

These anniversaries are, naturally, causing much reflection about what has been achieved since then, and what we (and indigenous Australians in particular) would like to achieve. The truth is that achievement has been woeful. Indigenous Australians’ health, education, incarceration rates – and so on – are significantly worse than for the rest of the population. It’s outrageous – and a subject too big for me here. However, I did want to mark this time, so am going to return to an issue we’ve discussed here before – who tells indigenous Australians’ stories. I’ve chosen this approach because of a serendipitous find in the National Library (NLA) bookshop yesterday.

Jeanine Leane's Purple threads

Courtesy University of Queensland Press*

You see, I’ve been wondering recently what indigenous writer, Wiradjuri-woman, Jeanine Leane is up to. I greatly enjoyed her book, Purple threads (my review), and was impressed by the forthrightness and clarity with which she discussed this issue of telling indigenous Australian stories at an NLA conference back in 2013. She spoke particularly about classics, and she said this (re-quoting from one of my posts):

Through Xavier Herbert, Patrick White, David Malouf & more recently Kate Grenville, who among others have been hailed as nation writers & what I saw and still see to some extent in Australian literature to date, is a continuous over-writing of settler foundation stories which overwrite Aboriginal experience and knowledge. Settlers are always re-settling and Australian literature really reflects this and the critics and scholars write of such works as if everyone reading it is also a settler reader.

Now, here comes the serendipitous bit. I was browsing the Library’s bookshop yesterday while waiting for a meeting and noticed a recent issue (No. 225, Summer 2016) of the lit journal, Overland. I find it hard to resist lit journals so I picked it up and, flicking through the table of contents, saw an article by Jeanine Leane titled “Other people’s stories: When is writing cultural appropriation?”. That was all the excuse I needed to buy the issue.

Settler narratives controlling indigenous stories

In some ways it goes over ground I’ve written on before, but that post discussed an article on the topic by non-indigenous writer, Margaret Merrilees. She argued that “questions of appropriation become issues of personal ethics, conscience issues”. However, Merrilees was approaching the topic more from a practising writer’s point of view, and she made some sense regarding the challenge confronting non-indigenous writers. If they leave indigenous characters out altogether they are continuing the dominant culture’s silencing of indigenous lives but if they include them they risk not getting it right.

Leane explores the issue from a broader political view. She’s concerned that the “Australian” story continues to be in the hands of “settler” writers and that their stories – including, and particularly, those involving indigenous characters, like Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo and Patrick White’s A fringe of leaves – become “the authoritative narrative of settler colonialism”. Readers see these books as “Aboriginal stories” but they are not, she says.

She unpicks Lionel Shiriver’s controversial dismissal of concerns about “cultural appropriation” at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival last year. She argues that Shriver’s idea of writers using “empathy” to create characters who are “other” to themselves does not recognise what this “empathy” really involves. For Leane, you don’t get this “empathy” from archival research but from social and cultural immersion. She criticises Australian writers for not having “this level of exposure” and, moreover, for not “striving for it”.

Leane accepts that the books by “settler” writers – like Kate Grenville, et al – have a place in the study of Australian literature but they need to be read and studied side by side with works by indigenous Australian writers, who are now emerging and challenging settler representations. She refers to Larissa Behrendt’s analysis of White’s A fringe of leaves in her book Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (a book I’ve still to read but which Lisa, Michelle and Bill have reviewed on their blogs).

Engagement through literature

Leane ends her essay discussing what she sees is the critical issue – which is not whether non-indigenous authors should include indigenous characters in the their books or how they can do it – but the paucity of indigenous writing being taught in schools. She argues there is a link between the higher attrition of indigenous students in schools and “the lack of Aboriginal voice and representation in the curricula”. And,  further, she asks,

if, on the whole, non-Indigenous people are not reading Indigenous self-representation, how can they write about Indigenous lives and experiences? Put another way, if non-Indigenous people are still only encountering Indigenous people via the works of non-Indigenous writers/historians/filmmakers/artists, then are they really encountering us at all? How can they even think about writing about us if you don’t really know us?

Very good question – which addresses both Shriver’s ideas re “empathy” and Merrilees’ concern about including indigenous characters.

Leane quotes Canadian scholar Margery Fee who addresses the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people. There needs to be a conversation between us, she says – and that conversation, says another Canadian, Judy Iseke-Barnes, can be had through the sharing of literature. Yes! Iseke-Barnes talks of “conversation-through-literature, of cross-cultural engagement through ‘deep and informed readings’ of Indigenous texts”. She sees this as an ongoing process. Leane argues that “this kind of engagement must precede any discussion of how to ‘write’ Indigenous people.”

She then teases out this engagement, clarifying in simple terms exactly what it means, and concludes that without sincerely trying to understand indigenous culture, it is impossible to properly represent indigenous characters. It is, instead, cultural appropriation, it’s “stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice”.

I like that Leane not only presents the problem here – and argues it lucidly – but she has a solution. And it’s a solution that would surely make sense to any reader – which presumably is all of you who read my blog? I’m glad I found – serendipitously – what Leane was up to!

This essay is available online, free, at the Overland site, but if you’d like to support them, you can also buy it at the link.

Monday musings on Australian literature: NLA Publishing, and some free e-Books

Enlighten 2014, NLA

Enlighten 2014, National Library of Australia

I was idly following links around the ‘net over the weekend and somehow ended up at NLA Publishing’s site. For those of you who don’t know, they are the publishing arm of the National Library of Australia. I first mentioned them back in 2011 when I referred to publisher Alec Bolton as the person who established the Library’s publishing program. That would have been over 40 years ago. He was a lovely man, and would surely be thrilled to see that his “baby” is still going today.

NLA Publishing is a small publisher, producing around 18 books a year. As you’d expect from a cultural institution publisher, their books draw on the Library’s collections – and they accept submissions from writers who have an idea that uses these collections. Their publications, they say, contribute to their

aims of nourishing the nation’s memory, of supporting the vitality of Australian culture and heritage, and of demonstrating a strong national focus in all of the Library’s services, products and programs.

These works “selectively interpret the Library’s collections in order to contribute to an understanding of Australian history and culture”, and are also seen as a way of disseminating and promoting the Library’s collections and services. Collecting and preserving, interpreting and disseminating is, of course, the prime function of cultural collecting institutions.

“Australian history”, defined broadly I’d say, is their main subject area, but they also cover “natural history, art, photography and literature”, and a range of children’s books including “picture books, novels and historical ‘faction’”. Their books have won, or been shortlisted for, a variety of awards.

Dymphna Cusack, A window in the darkI have bought many of their books (for myself and as gifts) over the years, and have reviewed at least one on this blog, Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the dark. Other bloggers have also reviewed their books, such as Janine’s (Resident Judge of Port Philip) review of Craig Wilcox’s Badge Boot Button: The story of Australian uniforms and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of Clive Hamilton’s What do we want: The story of protest in Australia. These are just of few of the many reviews of NLA’s books out there in cyberspace!

The exciting thing, however, is that many of their older books are now available free from the website in eBook form. Now that’s a bargain. I’ll share just a few here – literary-focused ones, naturally – to give you an idea:

  • Dymphna Cusack’s A window in the darkCusack, who also wrote novels, tells of her time as a teacher, including some of the controversies she became embroiled in while trying to offer the best, most appropriate education for her various students.
  • Rosemay Dobson: A celebration: There are several books in their Celebration series, covering such authors as Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, and Ruth Park. These small books comprise “tribute” essays on their subjects and can provide an excellent introduction to the writers. I’ve chosen the late Rosemary Dobson as my example here because as well as being a well-regarded poet, she was Alec Bolton’s wife.
  • David Foster’s (selected and introduced) Self-portraits: A selection of oral history interviews from the National Library’s wonderful Hazel Berg oral history collection. The authors Foster selected include Wilfred Burchett, David Campbell, Ion Idriess and Charmian Clift. (PS Just noticed, 10 May, that autocorrect had made her Chairman!)
  • Ann Moyal’s Alan Moorehead: A rediscovery: A biography of author, journalist, war correspondent Moorehead, who, Moyal claims, was “one of the most successful writers in English of his day” but under-recognised in his own country.
  • John Shaw Nielson’s The autobiography of John Shaw Nielson: Never published in the poet’s lifetime, the biography was included in the papers of one Harry Chaplin, a collector and “connoisseur of literary Australia”.

Presumably, over time, the list of eBooks freely available will grow, so I’ll be checking the site every now and then.

A short post this week, but I hope a useful or, at least, an interesting one.

Here I stand: David Marr’s Seymour Biography Lecture

This week Mr Gums and I went to our second Seymour Biography Lecture, an annual lecture devoted to life-writing which was endowed by the Seymours in 2005. Our first, last year, was given by Robert Drewe who discussed memoir as a form of life-writing that is differentiated from but as valid as autobiography. It was a wonderful lecture, so we were keen to attend this year’s, and particularly when David Marr was announced as the speaker.

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, NLA, Sept 2016

David Marr, as you may know, is one of Australia’s most recognisable contemporary public intellectuals. He wrote a biography of controversial politician and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick (Barwick) and the multi-award-winning biography Patrick White: A life. In recent years he has written several biographical essays for the Quarterly Essay: on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012), George Pell (2013), and Bill Shorten (2015). The National Library of Australia’s Director-General, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich said, when introducing him, that these essays represent “a new form of biography”. That sounded interesting, but it turned out not to be the subject of his lecture. Oh well … a topic for another day, perhaps?

At this point David Marr got up to speak … I’ve seen him many times on television, but I greatly enjoyed seeing him in person. He has a lovely, natural speaking style – articulate, but informally formal if that makes sense. He started by saying how good it was to be giving a lecture in someone’s name, not in their memory but in their presence! (The Seymours were in the audience).

What’s the story?

Marr commenced by describing how he was called to Patrick White’s place in 1988 during one of White’s “near-death” experiences. When he got there, other family and friends were already there, waiting for the ambulance. Eventually, Wendy the ambo arrived, walked in, and asked, very appropriately Marr said, “What’s the story?” As it turned out White lived through more episodes like this, before dying in 1990. He told us all this, not so much because it was an interesting story, but to make the point that although he was present at these occasions, and although he wrote about them in his White biography, we will not find him there. That is, he did not put himself in the room with the others. In fact, he did not put himself in the book anywhere (although he admitted, slyly, that of course he is everywhere in the book – the words, the judgements, are his).

Marr then gave us his rules for biographers, but I’m afraid I only got four of the five down. They are:

  • The voice of the subject must be clear;
  • The biography must not “muck around with time”;
  • The biographer must spare the reader his/her “homework”; and
  • The biographer must stay out of the life.

This last “rule” would be the theme of his lecture …

Be an invisible biographer

Before exploring this, however, Marr said that it is the biographer’s truth that everybody’s life is open to writing about, that no-one owns his/her life. True, yes, he said, but “mighty obstacles can be put in your way”. Subjects can:

  • Stop their friends talking to you
  • Block access to their papers
  • Withhold copyright consent. He expanded here on family ownership of copyright, and the typical family view that “what’s hidden in life must be hidden in death”. (Hence, methought, sisters like Cassandra Austen destroy precious letters!)
  • Place a curse on their biographers. Here he mentioned Greek poet, Cavafy, who wrote “From all I did and all I said/Let no one try to find out who I was” (“Hidden things”). Cavafy also said that sometimes it is better to wait, that some things cannot be understood until time has passed.

Marr said he feared every one of these obstructions when he approached White – particularly the curses! But the timing was right for White, and Marr’s biography project was, amazingly, accepted. Marr described his aims as absolutely conventional: “I was  born in Pymble after all,” he said! They included finding out who White was, where his books came from, his impact on the world and world’s on him, and so on. But White – the irascible White – saw it quite differently. He saw it as his “last reckoning”, his last chance to see where all his life passions had ended up, his last chance to see which of his many and diverse arrows had hit their mark.

Marr spent four years (I think) on the project, meeting with White, visiting places he’d been, meeting people he knew, and so on, but he is not in the book. Editors today, he said, would “tell me to get in there”, to write of his adventures in research. He described this style as “quest biographies”, and he doesn’t (generally) like them. They “inflict their homework on readers” and “they also bugger around with time”. For example, the biographer may write about being in Greece researching the subject’s life while simultaneously describing the subject’s life in that place in some time past. Biographers can also, inappropriately in Marr’s view, foreshadow aspects of the subject’s life, as in “that was the last time X ever went to Y”. He argued that it is the great drama of our lives that we don’t know what is going to happen. Great biographers make the future unknown, he said. Even though we usually know the fate of the subject, a good biographer can make it a surprise.

He gave examples of visible biographers that he doesn’t like, but admitted that rules can be broken. The “quest biography” is, for example, suitable for the life of a fraud. And there are cases where the biographer has “absolutely earned the right” to be in the biography, the perfect example being Boswell in his Life of Johnson. Boswell’s world was Johnson. He spent twenty years talking, living, arguing with Johnson. Do the work, said Marr, put in the years, and deal with yourself as ruthlessly as Boswell does!

David Marr, Power TripThen Marr admitted that he has broken his own rule – when there’s been a purpose for him to be there in the work. His Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is an example. He told of dining with Rudd who, late in the meal, asked Marr what his essay was about. When Marr told him, Rudd lost his temper, in a very controlled way. He was “astonishingly eloquent”, Marr said, speaking from his “angry heart” and Marr had to be there to be able to describe the experience.

So, there are no rules, but overall he’d like to see an end to biographers in the text. They should be in the shadows, “manipulating everything”, and saving their stories about themselves and their research for writers’ festivals and, when they’re old, for lectures!


We had about 15 to 20 minutes of Q&A but some of the questions, interesting though they were, ranged wider than the focus of Marr’s lecture, so I’ll keep this brief.

  • How do you choose who to write about? Marr chose White because he read something contradictory about White’s parents. White had always said that they did not want him to be a writer, but then Marr read somewhere that White’s parents had bankrolled a publishing project on the condition they published a book of White’s poems. He wrote his Barwick biography because he was enraged by what Barwick was getting away with. He’s an explainer he said, rather than a creator.
  • Do you as a biographer ever withhold information? Yes, said Marr. There are some private matters that have no place in biography. His deal with Patrick White, he hastened to say, was that it was his (i.e. Marr’) book and he would write what he wanted to write. Any information he withheld, then, was withheld because it was not, in his opinion, essential to our understanding of White. Legal issues, too, can sometimes result in information being omitted, as has happened with his various Quarterly Essays on contemporary politicians.

During the book signing at the end of the evening, Marr commented that his was “a craft lecture”, meaning I suppose that it wasn’t a theoretical or philosophical one on the form and its meaning. Well, “craft” it may have been but I enjoy hearing from writers about their craft and, anyhow, amongst the “craft”, as you can probably tell, we got a bit of theory and philosophy too. Another wonderful Seymour lecture, with another thoughtful, inspiring writer.