Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 3: Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler

Picture of the two conversantAnd then it was time to hop into the car, and drive over the lake for the sold-out session (as indeed was my first session of the day), Simon Winchester in conversation with Richard Fidler. There was no time for lunch!

Why did I choose this session? Why not? It’s Simon Winchester!

This session was also recorded by ABC RN for Richard Fidler’s Conversations program.

The conversation focused on the prolific historian’s latest book Exactly: How precision engineers changed the world (which was published in the USA as The perfectionists, with the same subtitle). I like our title better, as perfectionism can carry a hint of judgement, don’t you think? Anyhow, the conversation covered a number of topics, including his inspiration for the book, the history of precision, stories about precision, and the impact and future of precision. I’m going to try really, really hard to keep this one short because I don’t think I need to tell you all about the content of the book which was the main focus. I’m going to dot point some of the interesting facts I learnt.

Book coverFirst though – oh oh, will I still be able to keep this short – the book is cleverly (though probably still chronologically) structured according to increasing levels of precision (or, to put it another way, decreasing levels of tolerance.) So, Chapter 1 is Tolerance 0.1, Chapter 2 is 0.0001, right up to Chapter 9, the second last chapter, which is a mind-boggling: 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01! We are talking precision after all!

You won’t be surprised that one of the questions Winchester poses is “Are we becoming too focussed on precision?” I’ll leave you to judge.

A propos the book, too, Winchester said that he likes dredging up people overlooked by history (as he did, for example, in The surgeon of Crowthorne and The map that changed the world.)

Now, some interesting, more-or-less random facts:

  • Pioneers of precision engineering were Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), a founding father of machine tool technology, and John ‘Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson (1728-1808), who invented a precision boring machine that helped James Watt get his steam engine off the ground (as it were). Do you know them? They were instrumental in starting the Industrial Revolution.
  • Precision has a precise birth-date! 4 May 1776 (which Star Wars aficionados apparently know for another reason!) This is the day Wilkinson’s cylinder boring machine was delivered to Watt. Its precision was one-tenth (0.1, you see) of an inch.
  • The concept of interchangeability, which is also crucial to the history of precision and modern manufacturing, started in France in the 1780s with a demonstration of assembling a flintlock gun from boxes of identical parts. Attending that demonstration was Thomas Jefferson who took the idea back to America, for arms manufacture. This idea was also taken up later by …
  • Two famous car manufacturers, Henry Royce and Henry Ford, who took the idea of interchangeability to a new level. Both born in 1863, Royce wanted to build the finest car in world, while Ford wanted to build a car that would enable as many Americans as possible to see their amazing country. In roughly the same period, Royce’s company made 8,000 Rolls Royces (Silver Ghosts), of which about 6,000 are still in running order, while Ford made 18 million Model Ts, which are all gone! But, they served their purpose, eh? These two men used the same idea with different ethoses: expensive perfection versus economies of scale.
  • The failure in 2010 of Airbus 380, QF 32 demonstrates the importance of precision, being caused by the mis-machining (by Rolls Royce in fact) of a tiny tube. It was half a millimetre too thin.
  • Precision machines at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) were developed to detect infinitesimal cosmic gravitational waves predicted by Einstein in 1916. Almost century later (we must be precise!), in September 2015, these machines recorded such waves.

Fidler found the discussion of precision, interesting but also dizzying and troubling, and he had some questions:

  • Are we fetishising the idea of precision? Fidler talked about being in Iceland without mobile access and the pleasure of having to use a map again. Years later he still has the map of Iceland in his head, which you don’t get when use that precise service, GPS on your mobile devices.
  • Is our focus on such precision something we should worry about? Our modern world is based on a knife-edge of precision, driven by commercial factors. Do we need to go 5 mph faster? Should shareholders demand profits that result in pushing precision to risky levels?
  • Are we forgetting the values of craftsmanship? Does our precise environment make us want to seek the imprecise? Japan, said Winchester, keeps its feet firmly on ground, being famous for precision, but also for fine craftsmanship in materials that can’t be so precise. He talked about Seiko and its super precise quartz movement. However, there’s also a section of their factory which hand assembles mechanical watches, the Grand Seiko, which regularly wins horological awards. These don’t have the same precision, losing 5 seconds per day, but do you upbraid someone for being 5 seconds late!! (Fidler joked about the ABC’s precision and how the news fanfare will occasionally overplay him if he runs late with his sign-off. We know, we’ve seen it happen on TV). Winchester introduced us to the Japanese idea of Wabi sabi, which expresses joy in natural lines.
  • Have we reached limits of precision? No, apparently not. There’s quantum engineering and optical engineering which continue to push boundaries. Meanwhile, much is happening in the world of standards – the standard kilogram, metre and second.

Amazing, really, how something so boring sounding as precision engineering can be so interesting! All helped of course by the talents of Winchester and Fidler.

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