2012, back bar, Burke's Hotel, Yarrawonga, Victoria, Australia
This speech is dedicated to Ursula Gilbert, who invited Martin to make it
Why am I a writer? The simplest answer, I think, is because I’ve got no choice. It’s my way of understanding the world and my place in it; without writing, I’d be more lost than I already am. If I were to single out one occasion which marked my evolution as a writer I would probably say the first day I went to school in Rosebery, on the west coast of Tasmania. The year was 1964, I was eight years old and I was walking alongside my father, the town’s new headmaster. Before then, we had lived in a country town called Longford in Tasmania’s north. Longford was flat and rural and quiet. Rosebery was a mining town surrounded by mountains, not far from the World Heritage area. I didn’t feel at home in the dense bush that ringed the town. Periodically I heard sounds I’d never heard before – sirens followed by the dull thump of a blast deep underground. And I was the headmaster’s son. In Longford, where our family was well known, that hadn’t mattered. In Rosebery, it was central to my identity.
That day, walking beside my father I sensed his stiffness – he must have been conscious that all eyes were upon him as the new headmaster. Whatever, I felt a great loneliness which now, fifty years later, I would describe as existential. I seemed to know I had all sorts of questions about life my father wouldn’tanswer, so much so, there was almost no point asking. My father had endured a war crime. He had witnessed the death of 100,000 men laying 400 kms of railway track as slaves of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War 2. Among those who died were men he was close to. There was so much he couldn’t say, wouldn’t say. I count that as the day my childhood ended and “the big loneliness”, as Truganini called it, began.
There was at that time no television in Rosebery and only weak, occasional radio reception. There was an enormous amount of rainfall – more than 140 inches in our first year. I sat inside and read books. When I was ten or so, I had a go at a small hard-backed collection of Australian short stories and read The Drover’s Wife. It marked me indelibly. I couldn’t have articulated what it was at the time but now, looking back fifty years later, I would say I felt the emptiness in the story, the stoicism of the woman in the face of that emptiness, and got the story at some level because I had felt a similar emptiness that first day I walked to school at Rosebery withmy father beneath the dark towering curve of Mount Black.
I always wanted to be a writer; I never wanted to be anything else. I never thought I would become a writer because I didn’t know anyone who put words together as I did. I read my first novel, Lord of the Flies, when I was 14. Being in a Catholic boarding school at the time and seeing first-hand the terrifying lengths to which adolescent politics can go, I had no trouble whatsoever believing the plot. The following year I read The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t see Gatsby – his character didn’t make a picture in my head. He was a silly smile and not much else. The character who captivated me was the narrator, Nick Carraway. He was like a journalist – he stood like a rock in the fast-flowing river of his time describing the human debris as it swept past him. I read some Romantic poets and got a taste for what they did. I discovered Welshman Wilfred Owen, the great poet of World War 1, and was smitten. I tried to write a poem in the manner of Wilfred Owen, but it wasn’t me. There was something grand about his writing, a high seriousness based on classical European culture, which I could only imitate.
The truth is that, after The Drover’s Wife, I don’t think I saw or read another Australian work of art until I was 18 and I went and saw Jim McNeil‘s prison play, The Chocolate Frog. In that gap where Australian culture might have been was Australian sport to the extent that I have been known to say that, for a long time in this country for a lot of people, sport was culture. I always say sport is where I first encountered mythology, where I first encountered dance; it’s the first passion play I saw. I immersed myself in it totally. This was the era of Australia boxing champions Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon. Australia cricket was resurrecting itself around the figure of Ian Chappell. I barracked for the Cats and was so smitten with nerves I listened to the first bounce of the 1967 grand final sitting on the toilet.
I was good at theatre and went to university to do law but with the intention of joining the theatre society. I didn’t enjoy the theatre society. I was out of my element somehow. I wasn’t very good at football but I joined the Tasmanian University Football Club and soon felt right at home. Within a year or so, I was writing match reports of Uni games which people seemed to like. Even more importantly, I noticed that one of my brothers kept a copy of everything I wrote, storing them away like they’d be worth having at a future date. It was a serious act of respect which made me think that maybe, after all, I did have something as a writer.
I did a law degree, worked for a couple of years with parolees and kids on probation, frequently visiting Hobart prison, then went overseas for two years, wandering the world, often alone. A whole lot of things happened to me in those two years which I tried toencapsulate in my book Going Away, but in terms of becoming a writer what was most significant was that Dad wrote me a couple of letters. He’d never written me a letter before. We’d never actually talked that much – and we’d certainly never shared a creative space which you do when you write a letter, or write them like Dad did. In Mum’s letters, she always told you the news. Dad created an atmosphere of feeling. I remember telling him I was thinking of coming home overland through Africa. He replied with a quote from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:
All experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world
Whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.
I always said Dad was the best story-teller in the family because he used the least words. That’s something I learnt from him. Say it as simply as you can. And reading his letters gave me access to the flow that was his understanding of our family history – or what in Aboriginal culture might be termed his dreaming. It was like I suddenly inherited a memory older than my own. As a writer, you periodically get asked which writer most influenced you, which books? I say Dad’s letters. Last year, Dad died a few months from his 99th birthday. At his funeral, I said that if we were a family of jazz musicians and not a family of writers I’d be saying that Dad didn’t put out many records, didn’t make many CDs, but he did hit some notes better than anyone I ever heard.
If ever I speak like this publicly someone always comes up to me later and says - what about your mother? In so far as I have a gift for colour, it comes from Mum. She’s from some of the most picturesque country in Tasmania - the hills up behind Devonport. From the farm where she grew up, on a fine day you could see an astonishing amount of Tasmania’s northern coastline and the glittering waters of Bass Strait while being surrounded by grass as green as any grown in Australia and chocolate red soil. Mum had a spirit of adventure – in a word, she had spirit. She had six kids and a sick husband – it took him 15 years to get over the war. She drove like Gelignite Jack. She taught me to kick the footy. She and I fought over religion. Without knowing it, I had absorbed Dad’s religion which was the religion of the Burma Railway where nothing mattered, nothing at all, but whether you had what Dad called humanity. Mum’s 95 now, she’s had four strokes and she’s still fun to be around. It’s not correct to say her religion has gone but she holds it gently now and, more to the point, it doesn’t hold her. We don’t disagree on anything. Mum’s an optimist. I get energy from Mum and, as a writer, the older you get, the more desperately important energy becomes.
A couple of things happened at boarding school that contributed to my development as a writer. When I was 13, I was bullied and, in a moment of frailty, I joined the bullies and was an accessory to the breaking of someone. The following year, when I read Lord of the Flies, I saw all too clearly the events described in the book – that is, what happens to a group of schoolboys when they are ship-wrecked on an island during a time of war. The long-term effect of my action was that it taught me that if I cross certain lines of behaviour, I will have to answer to myself. No-one can save me from that judgment. What that meant when I became a journalist was that I had certain lines of behaviour which no-one could push me across. From one of the worst and most traumatic moments of my life came the strength I have since relied on.
The other thing that happened occurred when I was 14. It was end of term. You were meant to go home by public transport, wearing school uniform which included a hat. The punishment for breaking such rules was severe but the brave boys wore their own clothes and hitchhiked. One bright spring day, I wore my own clothes and hitch-hiked the 400 ks from Burnie to Hobart. The previous night we’d been allowed out and I’d met a girl, slightly older. Her charms were an undeniable part of the following day’s adventure. It was Tassie at its best, a cool spring day alive with brilliant sun and a blue sky that bounced off my eyeballs and directed my dazed attention to colours and sights I’d never really looked at before, like late sunshine in a yellow paddock. And every car I got in someone told me a story. Who was I? Just a kid. None of the people driving the various vehicles thought they’d ever see me again. And so they told me stories, real stories, the ones you ordinarily don’t tell people you know because it might change their regard for you, the stories that keep you thinking in the night. By the time I got to Hobart, my life had changed. I had learned about the importance of listening, of giving people the space to find the words which can carry the meaning stored up in a lump inside them. I also knew that, for me, the richness of this world lies in its stories.
My business is collecting and telling stories. In old Irish culture, I would be a shanachie – a story teller. The great Patrick Kavanagh wrote that in the old days in Ireland – before television, radio or indeed electricity – news of the big football matches was carried from one district to the next by poets who sang of the games in verse. I would have been one of them. In the culture of our time I’m called a journalist and I identify with that term also. To me a journalist is someone who understands that his or her imagining of the world is rarely, if ever, correct, and that the act of journalism involves going out into the world and taking it as you find it so that the story invariably begins at precisely the point where the pre-conception ends. That means as a journalist you are not entitled to censor reality – you have to be open to the lot – to the Holocaust, to Pol Pot, to the plight of indigenous people in Australia, the plight of indigenous people in America, the munitions industry, global climate change, the global financial crisis, the drought in New South Wales, the list is endless. It’s also the case that a percentage of journalists make careers by telling stories which attract our attention by manipulating our fears and superficial concerns. Neitzschesaid against human stupidity even the gods contend in vain, and there’s a lot that’s stupid in this culture. But as a journalist with a background in law and a regard for evidence I am here to report that so often when I go out into the world as a journalist, far from being daunted by what I find, I am moved and invigorated. There is a lot of ordinary goodness in the world and, precisely because it is ordinary, it doesn’t make its way into the evening news bulletins.
I have spent much of my career as a journalist trying to tell stories which, in the words of the English poet DJ Enright, “convey such wisdom and courage as the race has painfully acquired”. I do not deny the negative side of the world we find ourselves in but nor will I deny the positive. I reckon my father had a pretty keen view of reality. He told me not long before he died that God’s all the good people that’s ever been. I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if he had told me that when I was eight. What would I have written about?
Thank you for inviting me to speak today.