2015 Harold White Lecture: The author is not dead – she is coming to a microphone near you

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2015 Harold White Lecture: The author is not dead – she is coming to a microphone near you.

Sunday 29 November 2015

National Library of Australia

Speakers: Robyn Oates (R), Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (S), Hannie Rayson (H)

Audience: (A)

Typist’s notes: Audience questions unclear due to microphone issues

R: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name’s Robyn Oates and I’m the current Chair of the Friends of the National Library of Australia and it’s my privilege to welcome you here this afternoon. I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land and I wish to pay respect to their elders past and present.

The Friends of the National Library are very pleased to introduce our new Harold White series of lectures in 2015 as part of our celebrations marking our 25th anniversary. The aim of the Harold White lecture series is to focus on Australian writing and to provide the opportunity for an eminent Australian writer to make a significant statement on a broad subject of particular interest to them and we take it then that an interest to them is of great interest to us as well. In addition it provides an opportunity for the Friends of the Library to support Australian cultural life through the promotion of Australian writers and writing. I’d now like to invite the Director General of the National Library, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, to introduce our guest speaker, Hannie Rayson.
S: Good afternoon, Friends, and may I reiterate warmly Robyn’s welcome to you all? I’m delighted that the Friends of the National Library has decided to name its new lecture series after Sir Harold White who was pivotal to the development of the National Library we know today. Sir Harold White was a long-serving National Library staff member. Beginning his career as a cadet in 1918 and rising to become the first National Librarian, a role that he held for 23 years until retiring in 1970. Sir Harold had vaunting ambitions for the Library and with great wiliness, charm, persistence and energy he led the building of the great collections and many of the services that now make up this library, attracting scholars and researchers from around Australia and the world. During his term of office the Library staff grew from 25 to more than 600 members. Sir Harold is also largely credited with gaining the support of Sir Robert Menzies for this magnificent building which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018.
I’m thrilled that our inaugural Harold White lecturer is playwright and memoirist, Hannie Rayson. Hannie has an envied reputation and verve because of her topical, sometimes controversial complex dramas written with great wit and humour. A graduate of Melbourne University and the Victorian College of the Arts she was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from La Trobe University and is a Fellow of the Australian Centre at the University of Melbourne. Hannie’s plays have been performed extensively around Australia and internationally and some form part of the Australian theatrical canon. Her plays include Please Return to Sender, Mary, Leave it ‘til Monday, Room to Move, Hotel Sorrento, Falling From Grace, Competitive Tenderness, Life After George, Inheritance, Two Brothers and her newest play, Extinction. She has been awarded two Australian Writers’ Guild Awards, four Helpmann Awards, two New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and a Victorian Premier’s Literary Award as well as The Age Performing Arts Award. Hannie made playwrighting history when Life After George was the first play to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2001.
Hannie has survived, in fact you will see she has thrived on her first book tour since the 2015 release of her utterly beguiling memoir, Hello Beautiful, Scenes From a Life which included attending around 50 events to support the book. Today Hannie will reflect on the public role of the writer. Please join me in welcoming Hannie Rayson to deliver the inaugural 2015 Harold White Lecture on the subject, The Author is not Dead, she is coming to a microphone near you.
H: Well thank you, Anne Marie. Thank you, Robyn. So lovely to be here and thank you for coming, it’s so gorgeous out there. I feel very flattered. I’m going to begin by reading a short extract from my memoir, Hello Beautiful. Just a short piece to give you a feeling of this.
One of the great mysteries of my childhood was the phenomenon known as women’s problems. Chippy McGonville’s mother had them and they necessitated a lady’s operation followed by a spell in the country. We kids rode our bikes to the Moorabbin tip in Corcust [? 6:31]. My theory was if Chippy’s mum had a problem it was most likely to be Chippy’s dad and a spell in the country without him would be just the ticket. Then my own mum had to go into hospital. This was quite exciting for me and my brothers as my father was now in charge of domestic operations and this meant a trip to the Chinese restaurant. Every suburb and country town in Australia has at least one of these. Some are ... have names redolent of imperial China like The Golden Dragon or Jade Palace. Many have Chinese names like Wing Hing, Lo’s Family Kitchen and Ching Wa’s Wodonga. I can’t remember the name of the Chinese takeaway in Brighton but it was next door to The Hobnob. In those days if you wanted Chinese takeaway you brought your own saucepans. We took two, one for fried rice and one for chicken and almonds. I still remember the glory of that meal, driving home, nursing one big aluminium saucepan wrapped in a tea towel, the fried rice at my feet, knees warm, the smell of toasted almonds and soy sauce filling the car. Heaven. My poor mum languishing in the Brighton Community Hospital on a drip. Did we give her a thought?
At the Moorabbin tip Jim Turner was adamant that whatever the natures of the problems that specifically afflicted women he was certain it involved the removal of some form of tubing. Kenny from over the road concurred. He also volunteered that some girls use tampons and others don’t and the reason for this is that some girls are leaky. I shrugged feigning boredom with the conversation and rode off on my bike over the bobbly landscape of the tip. The prospect of leakiness was disquieting to say the least. Shame was always hovering over my childhood. The disgrace of being ignorant, the apprehension that my strong little brown body might malfunction, ooze fetid substances. The dread of being mocked. Hey you, beautiful, a boy would call out on the tram. I would look up. Not you, you idiot. Schoolboy laughter would rattle around the compartment. It occurred to me to counter Kenny’s derision about female plumbing with information that I’d gleaned from Jan Batty’s home health encyclopaedia, ‘Vitalogy’, the 1930 edition. Men leak too. They have nocturnal emissions.
In Vitalogy there were several pages devoted to the grave consequences of self-pollution. It was an unnatural and degrading business. And to illustrate the dire consequences of indulging in such an activity there were colour plates of gaunt and wasted sufferers who looked more like prisoners of war than victims of their own hand. These men leaked due to their own lack of moral fortitude. Jan Batty and I sniggered our way through many a rainy Saturday afternoon reading Vitalogy but the impediment to putting Kenny in his place was the word nocturnal. I wasn’t confident. In my mind it was associated with possums.
My mother emerged from the hospital with her tubing intact. She was however minus a gallbladder. My father decided to bake a cake to welcome her home. I can see him now wearing Mum’s apron standing at the kitchen bench squinting at the recipe book. He held aloft two eggs and read out the instruction. Separate two eggs. And stared from the book to the eggs. Separate two eggs. He placed two eggs side by side on the bench and then moved them apart.
I am so delighted to be ... thank you for that indulgence ... I am so delighted to be talking to you today first because it’s here in the National Library and secondly because it is in honour of Sir Harold White, one of Australia’s most outstanding librarians, a remarkable man by all accounts and reputably a big talker with a fund of excellent stories so that’s good, you don’t want to name a lecture after a man of few words. Also this is an anniversary of sorts for me as this marks the 50th public event as Anne-Marie said this year where I’ve been at a microphone ... that’s like the number after 49 ... giving rise to my lecture, The Author is not Dead, she’s coming to a microphone near you. And this is a retort to the famous essay written by the French literary critic and theorist, Roland Barthes. His 1967 essay is entitled The Death of the Author and in it he argues that for literary critics and astute readers you don’t want to know about the author, the text should be free of the creator. All the information about the author’s identity, her political views, historical context in which she was writing, her religion, her ethnicity, any of her personal attributes are not only irrelevant but they can be obstructionist to the task at hand and that is quite simply to distil meaning from the writing itself. To give a text an author is to assign a single corresponding interpretation and that is to impose a limit on the text, according to Barthes.
So that is the sum total of what I’m going to tell you about Roland Barthes. Suffice to say that if he was publishing in Australia in 2015 his publisher would be packing him off to the Mudgee Writers’ Festival before he could say Jacques Cousteau. In 2015 if the author is standing and breathing she will be required to talk and Tweet and blog and opine in public. Were Roland Barthes to be a contemporary of mine he would be booked to appear in Byron Bay, Bellingen, Bundaberg, Busselton, Bateman’s Bay, Brisbane, Bayside, Bendigo and the Blue Mountains and that is just the Bs. This year my book tour began on the 5th of February in Bermagui in New South Wales and from there I started in earnest at the Perth Writers’ Festival from ... and from Western Australia to far north Queensland and everywhere in between culminating here today, 29th of November in Canberra so for nine months I have been talking nonstop. And mostly about myself. But not just at writers’ festivals, radio, television, community centres, libraries, mechanics’ institutes, wineries, country town literary events, book groups, theatres, gardens, woolsheds, tower blocks, cafes, a horse stud and a women’s prison where they were reading my book in book club. The author is not dead but just about.
But in case you think this is going to be a big, big whinge. I want to say upfront that for the most part I have loved every minute of this year. Moreover it’s fitting and joyful for me to be here talking to you in this library because even though I am a person of the theatre the library is my second home. Like many writers I'm drawn to them, not just because they’re places where you can read and research, they’re also inspiring places in which to write. And my own writing place, my office, is the great domed reading room for the State Library of Victoria. I wrote this book there. So this is my usual daily routine. Most mornings I work ... I walk from house in Fitzroy into the ABC which is in Southbank ... if you know Melbourne that’s about 4Ks ... I walk with my husband, Michael Cathcart, who is the presenter of a daily radio program on ABC Radio National, he does Books and Arts Daily. Then I scoot back up to the State Library at the top of Swanson Street which doesn’t open until 10 ... irritated me ... so I spend the first two hours of my working day in the café doing all the crap that’s involved in running a small business. And in that respect being a writer is not a lot different from running a milk bar.
E. L. Doctorow says planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. I know what he means but these days if you don’t understand that writing means emails, dealing with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, booking planes, answering questions about where you get your ideas from, nominating your top 10 best reads for Christmas or writing 500 words about which vegetable you most like, if you cannot see this is all part of your job you will go mad and you will die of starvation. When I first came across Doctorow’s declaration only writing is writing I felt vaguely fraudulent but now I’ve learnt to call all of it writing. I bundle it all up and put it all on the tab, all the hours of research, all the procrastination and the vacuuming, all the false starts and I throw in reading, walking, making soup, talking to the guy at the greengrocer’s, that is my work. Doctoro is a bean counter, a pedant. Perhaps he had a manservant. And a private income. Perhaps he had a wife.
I love 10am at the library. The doors open and the crowd surges in. It’s like the Boxing Day sales. Every day. The crowd which is streaming across the foyer is as diverse as the city itself. Old people, mothers with pushers, students, toddlers, the homeless and the eccentric, people of all ethnicities. At my library there are 4,500 visitors a day, 1.8 million a year. That is more than the British Library and more than the Library of Congress in Washington. In France you have to have a postgraduate degree to use the national library. Here in this national library anyone can walk in. And they do. I come to my library most days, to the majestic domed reading room because I imagine that I might think great thoughts in that light-filled chamber. But it is not the great silence which attracts me but rather the opposite, the way it helps me to be part of a breathing, thinking, feeling city.
For me writing is not about sequestering myself away, locking myself up, it’s about joining in, watching, eavesdropping and just being amongst it. Making meaning by stitching myself into the fabric of other lives, other dreams, other people’s suffering. I’ve often felt that a life alone in a room at a desk is potentially a life inviting prejudice and ignorance. I remember when I was in my twenties I was great friends with the comic Wendy Harmer. We went travelling together to Europe and we had as you can imagine more fun than you can spoke a stick at. And she had a business card and it read Wendy Harmer, Adventuress. I wanted that on my card. I wanted to be in the adventure business. So when I hear people advising young writers to write about what they know I often find myself champing at the bit because I want to say write about what you don’t know. If you want a life of adventure then writing is your passport. Go forth, young man, young woman, find out how the chaotic churning, bubbling contradiction of humanity is playing out. You are not going to experience that in your bedroom.
We used to have a shusher at our library, a man or a woman, usually a man, who sat on a raised dais in the domed reading room and shushed you if you talked or let your bangles clink too much on your wrist when you turned a page. One woman patron was escorted from the door for that very misdemeanour. I know a lot of writers including Helen Garner who want to bring back the shusher and sometimes I feel I want to lead that campaign myself when irritating young people are giggling or talking or listening to duff-duff music which leaks out from their headphones. I want to be the first to yell shut up. But there’s also a much worse offence in my book, sniffing. But as an aside I got my revenge writing my memoir in the library. I laughed for a whole year, I laughed out loud and when people glared at me I just thought suck it up, dude, this is payback time.
Another reason I love libraries is that I love librarians. The English author, Neil Gaiman, once commented, Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one. Now I’m not sure that librarians themselves would want to be cast as always right. I mean who would want to marry such a person? But in my experience librarians are both helpful and good at suggesting where you should look. I watch people earnestly talking to the librarians at the help desk and I often wonder what they want to know. So one day I asked a senior librarian at the State Library of Victoria what the top five weirdest enquiries from library users were. In true librarian style he told me that he’d do some research and get back to me. The following morning having consulted with his colleagues he provided me with the following list.
So these are the eccentric requests that library patrons you know go to ... go and ask for librarians. Number one, my great-uncle made Ned Kelly’s boots. Can you verify that, please? Number two, do you have any information on tailless rabbits allegedly found in the western district in the nineteenth century? And number three, what was the pollen count for November 20th, 1956 during the Melbourne Olympics? A family friend had to withdraw from the race due to hay fever. Number four, what would a typical footy player’s facial hair look like in the 1850s? Number five, what pub did Prince Phillip stay in in Sunshine in 1945? And just last week ... oh that is the Derrimut Hotel if you’re interested. Then just last week a patron came up to the La Trobe desk and asked the librarian to microwave his lunch.
I think some of the tensions facing a public library today probably mirror the contradictions of being a writer, reconciling the demand to be public-spirited and outward-looking with the necessities of creating the space to be quiet and contemplative. And frankly to have the time to do the actual typing. But as I reflect on my year and the opportunities opening up to writers to have these diverse platforms to address audiences I can’t help but think that this is exciting and potentially gamechanging. Gone are the days when you might drive out to a community hall somewhere and find three people in the audience ... well mostly gone ... so I’ve got no horror stories of that nature to report from my year on the road. In fact my experience is the opposite. Where theatre companies have been less and less interested in their playwrights over the past few years, sidelining them as much as possible, the writers’ festivals have been growing and growing, not able to cope with the demands from their audiences, selling out their events. One of the most significant cultural institutions in the country is the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne which has two public events devoted to books and ideas and the audience figures there are phenomenal, even for their lunchtime events. The appetite to hear both writers ... hear from writers, both nonfiction and fiction about stories and ideas, about ethics and politics, environmental issues, terrorism, health, urban design, religion, war, domestic violence. This appetite for public discussion is alive and in robust good health.
I'm involved in running a little boutique writers’ festival on the coast in Victoria at Aireys Inlet and just to give you an idea about the public’s interest we sold 304 weekend passes in 10 days. This equated to roughly $60,000. We paid everyone, we fed everyone, we accommodated everyone. Writers mean business. Yes, authors are invited to public events and sponsored by their publishers in order to flog their books to shift units as the marketers would say. But in case you think I’m advocating for authors to become communications strategists selling information-based products books, standing at the intersection between entrepreneurship and content marketing in order to build their personal brand and grow their business let me tell you why that is shite. And here is a small ex ... another small extract from my book to demonstrate what I mean.
I heard the novelist, Carrie Tiffany, at a writers’ festival tell this story to an audience of about 300 people. A week or so after her novel, Mateship with Birds, hit the bookshops Cary flew to Sydney to visit her father. In her rush to get to the airport she’d forgotten to pack a copy to give to him so she popped into a well-known bookstore in Newtown. When she collected, found the novel and put it down on the counter the young man at the cash register said don’t buy that, that’s bloody awful. Cary was mortified. She rummaged in her purse for the money and mumbled it’s quite a nice cover. The audience at the festival gasped and laughed. My son sitting next to me whispered she’s adorable. My friend, Nellie, a marketer, leaned over and whispered why would she tell that story? At the end of the session both my mum and my son queued to buy Carrie's book. Nellie works in the media. Afterwards in the coffee queue she reiterated her favourite piece of wisdom, you are the story you tell about yourself. This is Nellie’s golden rule. On every occasion you have to present yourself as a success story. You have to boast.
My play has just finished a massive UK tour, utterly brilliant, played to packed houses every night. Fabulous notices. You don’t mention that those theatres were in Booby Dingle or Chipping Sodbury. Or that the hall in Barton in the Beans was packed because it only seats 40 and they bussed in elderly folk from the Barking Hall Nursing Home to boost the numbers. No, you must tell the good story, you must write the story of your life as if it were a press release. My brother is exemplary. When you call him up and enquire about his wellbeing he says if I was any better I’d be arrested. Always. Even after he rammed the handle of a squash racquet through his shin bone. He still says it.
So suppose it happens to me? Suppose I put my book down on the counter of a bookstore and some self-important young cultural studies student glances cursorily at the cover, pushes his postmodern spectacles back up his nose and sniffs, frankly, I wouldn’t bother. What will I do? I know I will behave like Carrie. Of course I will restage the event in the days and weeks and months that follow. In the reworked version I will triumph with withering insult. I will have the bumptious little upstart sacked on the spot and the owner will send me yellow roses with a note, I cannot express how stupid I feel for employing such a simpleton in my shop. But in the sudden awfulness of the moment I know I will forage and mumble because I always do. My first instinct is to avoid embarrassment. I must get out of the shop now for both our sakes. And only last week I was in a café with my older brother. A waiter spilt our coffees over the table and we both looked up and apologised. Why? Because we have learned that the most hideous and unforgiven human act is to make a scene. Unfortunately I am a dramatist which means that not making a scene is problematic.
Anyway the young man in the bookshop was so very wrong about Carrie Tiffany’s book, that year it won all the awards. My answer to Nell who was incredulous about ... that anyone would tell such a story against herself in public is this. In a world where everyone is networking and promoting and selling the authors I most want to read and who are most beloved by audiences are the ones who are offering us their shining guileless truthfulness. I’ve met hundreds of writers in my life and very, very few of them know how to flog their book or have any real passion about the requirements of selling. Of course they want to make money like everyone but I can see that they don’t apply themselves to the task. I know I don’t. What lights up most writers is the opportunity to share what they’ve been thinking about and this is why the public come to hear them talk.
Now why is this important? That we create opportunities for thinkers, public intellectuals, storytellers to take part in the national conversation. The spread of globalisation is bringing us new opportunities to join a worldwide conversation and we can make a major contribution because Australia is a very special kind of country. Like the USA and Canada Australia has been a country of becoming. You can travel here and become Australian. We take that fact so much for granted that many of us forget just how miraculous that is. An outsider cannot become Japanese. I doubt that an outsider can become Irish. But we have in the course of our lifetimes actually institutionalised and celebrated the process by which an outsider can become an insider.
Our cruel treatment of asylum-seekers is no example to hold up before the world, it is ... for many of us it has been a source of profound shame. The voices of fear, the voices which hanker for one uniform white breed Australia are strident and packed with menace. But in this great conversation about Australia the voices which embrace diversity and which champion tolerance are robust and that robustness has become a feature of who we are. And more than that we are a country blessed with a capacity for healing old world divisions and that doesn’t come easily, it can take generations. But the old sectarian battles of Catholics against Protestant for example have melted away. The animosity between Serbs and Croats have mellowed in the second and third generations. Of course this isn’t some magical process, it is a reality which must be defended and advocated for with vigilance.
Yes, there are rival views of what it means to be Australian but that is precisely my point. The battle about core values is a battle of who we are and these are questions which go to the heart of our identity. The real world is best with contradictions and perils and disappointments and I am couching this proposition in nationalist terms very deliberately because the battle of ideas and values in any nation state is ultimately a battle about what it means to be a citizen of that country. The people who define what it means to be Australian are the people who hold ultimate power.
So this struggle over what sort of society we want is a battle about rival nationalisms and I really have no time for the current fashion among many on the left and many it the arts world to disown nationalism, all nationalism as if nationalism is always some sort of crude prejudice practised by bigots. I cannot begin to tell you how often my argument about the need for Australian stories has been met with a kind of supercilious sneer. It’s so parochial. I don’t think we need to have kangaroos boinging about in our literature and theatre, Hannie, for it to have cachet, do you? I despise this attitude. My response to certain people in the arts is this, how dare you promulgate such views which only serve to underline your ignorance and inattention about what it means to be Australian in 2015.
In a tolerant, diverse, multicultural Australia, the project of telling Australian stories is not about Ned Kelly or Gallipoli or the gold rush rendered as opera, necessarily. It’s more likely to be about a Somali taxi driver living in Queanbeyan, a bunch of Aboriginal friends at high school, each having one parent from a different culture, a Muslim girl who falls in love with a boy who’s just bought an airline ticket bound for Syria. In fact stories which don’t embrace the diversity of Australia are missing a key dimension of what an Australian story actually is. Always in any work of art we’re looking for questions which go to the heart of our humanity and writers know this.
Now I haven’t talked at all in this lecturer about my work as a dramatist but I would like to share with you a deciding moment for me when I became a playwright. It was in 1979 and I was at the drama school training to become an actress. So let me tell you just a little bit about drama school. It was a place in where there was a kind of manifesto that we would be sending people out to make a new kind of Australian theatre, that the days of English and American repertory that were on our main stages was going to be seriously challenged. But I went in as an actress and it was you know more fun than you could poke a stick at actually apart from acting classes and voice and movement and everything else ... I learned how to juggle and actually we did stunts on Fridays so I learnt how to fall off the second storey of the building onto a mattress having been shot in the chest. So I of course as you imagined had huge recourse to use that in my professional life ever since. But it was everything ... you had to be jacks and jills of all trades, that was the idea and you weren’t to be an actress who languished at home waiting for her agent to ring, you had to be someone who was proactive in the making of work and you knew how to do lighting, box office, writing grant applications and all that sort of stuff.
But anyway one of the things that happened in drama school, and this was my defining moment, is that we had to do something called impulse work and impulse work meant that you stood against the wall like this and you’re wearing your leotards and stuff and you had to access the part of you that was completely ... like ... like I imagine it like instinctual so that you didn’t engage with a cerebral response to anything that would be happening on stage, that you would be acting like a tiger you know behaving from instinct, you would be able to access the kind of palette of emotions, anger, rage, sexuality, low status, high status, tenderness, pity, the whole thing was all available to you and so we did this impulse work. So you stood at the ... on the ... against the wall and then ... and you ran when you had an impulse and you thumped the other wall on the other side of the room and you waited until you had another impulse and then you ran across the room. So I stood against the wall for two years and I never had an impulse. I could see other people having impulses and I wanted to have one. But I never had one.
So after two years of acting classes I dragged my impulseless, sad and sorry arse up to the Dean of the drama school, a man called Peter Royston and I said you know what? Like I really don’t think I want to be an actor. He’s like alright. And he sort of pulled his chair back a bit and he stared out the window for a considerable long time. He said well what do you want to do? I said I would like to be a writer. And he said do you own a typewriter? Which I did at the time so that was good. And so he thought a bit more and then he did this single thing, he leant to the desk drawer and he pulled out the drawer and he rummaged for a bit inside and then he came up ... out and he held up a key. And he said this is the key to the room down the corridor that faces out onto St Kilda Road. That ... this is your key, go and write a play. We need playwrights. And that was the beginning of ... it was a gift that I feel ... it was a gift of courage, it was a gift of faith and in my adult life it’s a gift that I hope that I can give to somebody else because it was indeed the turning point for me. And I did, I went and began writing plays.
Next year I have three plays coming out, one in Canberra, here, which is called Extinction, one in Sydney at the Sydney Theatre Company which is part of a group of five women playwrights, all of whom are writing about power. Well theatre’s always about power, power and sex and death. And a collection of ... and I’m also writing a play at the moment based on my book to do as a one-woman show at The Malthouse in Melbourne. But I’ve loved my time in bookland and I hope to go back there again. And I’d like to finish by just sharing a personal story from my book which is what writing a memoir has actually been for me which is about being in my own skin. And this is a story of a day I spent with Arthur Boyd, the painter.
Twenty-two years ago I had an assignment for an art magazine to write about Arthur and Yvonne Boyd's gift to the nation. The gift was Bundanon, a property situated on the south coast of New South Wales. I flew to Sydney where I met the photographer, Tony Amos. We hired a care to drive the 150km south to Bundanon to spend the day with the Boyds. I was 14 weeks’ pregnant. No one would have known and I certainly didn’t tell. I don’t know why I adopted this professional woman doing a job attitude, it was so un-me. Two hours out of Sydney Tony and I were driving down the dirt road through dense bush towards Bundanon, through steady drizzle. The road was slushy and the smell of early morning rain and fresh eucalyptus was intoxicating. A river materialised at the side of the road and we were treated to the sight of creamy white sandbanks. The drizzle cleared and we got out of the car. We stood listening to the dripping forest and to the birds as they wheeled in the air and called to each other across the water.
Thirty minutes later we pulled up at the homestead and Arthur Boyd came out to greet us. He was 73, whitehaired and brown-eyed, a kind, crumply sort of bloke. Soft-spoken, shy, courteous and vague. It took him 20 minutes of pottering in the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. I assumed that a landscape painter Boyd was ... had already ... always had an affinity with the bush. Yvonne chipped in no, no, we’re very urban people. They’d both grown up in Melbourne suburbs, he in Murrumbeena and she in Caulfield. They’d also lived in London for more than 20 years. In fact in this first encounter with the Australian bush Boyd found the landscape overwhelming, sort of difficult and alien.
I’d read somewhere that despite happy and productive times in the UK and Italy Boyd had said that Bundanon was his spiritual home. With an ironic raising of the eyebrow Boyd sighed did I say that? Later, having obviously mulled over my comment, he said what do you mean spiritual home? I can’t think of what other home one might have. Tony asked do you get annoyed with people asking you about what your work means? No, no, no, replied Boyd, I don’t get annoyed, I just wish I was better at telling them.
After lunch Arthur took Tony out to the studio to take some photographs. Tony was keen to do a portrait, Arthur obliged by donning his painting gear. I went off on my own, tramping around in the bush gathering my thoughts. Arthur warned me to be careful of bulls. I remember feeling ineffably happy. After about 20 minutes I peeped through the window of the studio. Arthur was painting like a blind man, he was applying paint with both hands. I crept in and sat cross-legged on the floor. The studio smelt of oil and turps and cedar. Tony was setting up his tripod. Boyd was chatting away while his fingers massaged a landscape from the canvas. Boyd turned to Tony and pointed at his canvas. Would you like a boat? What about a goat? An animal gives a bit of meaning. Tony was caught off-balance. Far be it for me to say what you should paint, he said. Why not? Said Boyd. I’ve taken orders from a lot lower down than you.
I think that’s when it started, the yawing pain in my gut, the spotting. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. Sometimes this doesn’t mean anything, a few spots of blood, women get that in the early stages of pregnancy, I was fairly sure. But was this still early? I had a t-shirt, a spare t-shirt in my bag. I folded it up and crammed it in my knickers. We got in the car to go. Arthur and Yvonne hovered like protective parents. Have you had enough to eat? Will you promise to stop for coffee to break the drive? How could I tell these gentle people that something terrible was happening, that in their beautiful sacred place my life was unravelling?
Back in Sydney my cousin took me to the hospital and the remains of my baby were cleaned out of my womb. I flew home to Melbourne the next day. As it turned out this was the second in what became a series of miscarriages until I finally gave up. I had one beautiful son, that would have to be enough. But at that time the loss of that baby changed everything. A month or so later my relationship of 14 years was over. Arthur and Yvonne Boyd are both dead now but I think of them only with a sense of wonder and gratitude. On the way to my house I mentioned to the taxi driver that I just interviewed Arthur Boyd. What a great bloke, eh? I only wish there were more like him. Bundanon, the Boyd's gift to the rest of us has become a retreat for artists and writers. Every now and again I hear people talking about it. Friends send me euphoric emails about their writing residencies, they report amassing staggering word counts in three weeks, their novels race ahead. Or I read an article in a magazine. There it is, that name again, Bundanon. The place where I sat at the feet of Arthur Boyd. The sacred place where I lost my baby.
Thank you.
R: Thank you very much, Hannie, that was wonderful. I think we have time for a few questions. If anyone has something they’d like to ask Hannie she’s well practised at this now, this year.
H: This was special.
R: Do you have a question? Yes.
A: When you unlocked the door ...
R: Sorry, I forgot to mention this is being recorded and if you can wait ‘til the roving microphone comes to you, it will be turned on.
A: When you unlocked the door did you immediately [unclear 47:12]?
R: Into the room at the Victorian College of the Arts. I had a lot of ideas so ... I mean I remember it being quite daunting because you know the other side of that question is like mm, now I’ve got to deliver which is ...
A: Walking in, gosh.
R: Yeah, there was a little bit of that too but no, we had a kind of strategy I think in a way which was about wanting to make work that reflect the sorts of dreams and aspirations and concerns of the people you know the sort of Australian people. Quite lofty, really, but we were students and we were young and we had very lofty ideas. I still have them. And so in fact it wasn’t a question of thinking, and this is always the way with me, it’s not actually about in the theatre, writing for the theatre about plumbing the kind of depths of my own murky psyche you know I managed to do that in my memoir. No, it’s a much ... it’s a much bigger thing because you want to ... you want the th ... I do, I want the theatre to engage with the national conversation and so that means you know going out and finding out what ... what are the issues on people’s minds? You know what are the key issues for which we will not be the same again? And the sorts of turning points in the culture, I’m always looking for them, the things that you know that people wrestle with at home and wrestle with at their dining room tables and wrestle with at work, that speak to just who we are. And so I’ve always been engaged in what I would call a nationalist project. And in that though you know you want the theatre to be a rollercoaster of ... you want it to be fun, you want it to be emotionally rich and for people to express a whole range of emotions so you want all of that stuff but I spend a lot of my time in research, just going out and finding out what it’s like to be the managing director of a coal mine for example or you know someone who works at the Werribee sewerage farm, you know. I mean things that I would never know about but I want those people to be on the stage and not just you know middle class women like me who live in Fitzroy and go and drink coffee at Mario’s. Sick of them. You know?
A: How long did you stay ...
R: Oh you’re still back at the room.
A: Your impulse didn’t ...
R: No, no, I didn’t, it really didn’t, I felt joy that that was the end of it for being an actor. Although I did actually spend ... as a way of getting work after I finished drama school I did spend the next four years as a you know working as an actor. And there was like this really great moment in that too ... that was another moment that was like an epiphany ... epiphanous moment ... was we did a performance on a tram and the audience all got on along on the way in the tram and then had their interval at pub in the city and then came back on the tram. And it was such a success that we then did a second series which was on the river and it was my divorce party so it was like ... it was called Breaking Up in Balwyn. And the audience had to go in a boat, sail down the river, get off at interval and have drinks at Como House and then get back on to come back to the city and I had to get everyone back on. And there was a young man who was sitting on the banks of the Yarra and he was looking into the murky brown water and I said to him oh come on, darling, you know we have to get back on the boat, come on, choof off, you know we better ... let’s get back on the boat now. And he stared into the Yarra and he said I would rather swim. And I thought privately and I would rather drown than have to do this anymore. So that really marked the end of a rather non-illustrious career as an actress. And all grist to the mill, all important if you want to work in the theatre, you have to know about what it is to you know to be a theatre person.
A: [unclear 51:51]?
R: A girlfriend of mine who works at Radio National, she said just to think of it ... just like really do it day by day you know that sort of bird by bird stuff where ... there’s a beautiful little book about a kid who got his self ... got his knickers in a knot about having to do a whole project at school about birds. And his beautiful old man said to him you know, mate, just do it bird by bird. So I have that saying myself, bird by bird which ... that’s how I did it, really, but it wa ... it has been quite full-on because you don’t you know often you can’t just sort of turn it on, you’ve got to like address people in Melbourne about class and stuff like that and you think yes, class, of course class. In Melbourne I could just give a you know talk about class off the top of my head you know you really do need to ... and it’s good, it’s great, it’s a big learning curve for me too. Yeah. But also what kept me going was the audiences are so great. In the theatre I think that the people feel a little nervous about talking to writers, playwrights. I don’t know, as if it’s going to show them up whereas with a book that’s just about your life everybody is ... everyone was easy. Even theatre critics who reviewed it were nice to me and they’re never nice to me.
A: I want to ask you something about nationalism and internationalism ‘cause [unclear 53:35] touched on it briefly [unclear 53:34] but the way you describe nationalism seemed to me to be moving from the sort of narrow confines that some people like to peg us in towards internationalism [unclear 53:55]? Why do you feel the need to call it nationalism when you’re talking [unclear 54:08] you know that sort of ..?
H: Well it’s dicey, isn’t it? To ... because it brings a lot of baggage with it, that concept. But because I feel like there was a period in the arts particularly when ... in the ‘70s and ‘80s really there was an amazing vibrancy about new work being created and it was asking that question about what it means to be Australian and if you come up with the answer well what it means to be Australian is middle class Anglo, white bread professional then ... then that’s not a ... that’s an incorrect answer that doesn’t reflect the society. But I think that the ... that a drive to be able to ... really what interests me as an artist, what interests me is scale of ambition, is about addressing things that speak to you know to the big issues of the day. That’s all. And look, Richard ... if Richard Flanagan was here he’d be saying that things that concern Tasmanians you know that are absolutely top of their agenda actually of no interest to you know people in Broome and I can understand that too so I think that ... because usually when people talk about what it means to be Australian they mean what it means to live in Sydney. And you know that ... when you want to have Australia Day why can’t we celebrate how we founded Broome you know as the Australia Day celebrations and stuff? Doesn’t always have to be hovering around Sydney Harbour you know so there’s lots of issues, a big continent and all that but pretty much it’s to do with you know feeling like works of art that ... or endeavours you know to write and think about the big issues is what interests me.
A: [unclear 56:16] what’s happening in Syria, refugees and so on [unclear 56:20] your writing?
H: Well, they really have, it’s been a ... ongoing issue for me. My whole family’s involved in refugee activity. But my main sort of contribution was a play called Two Brothers which was the most sort of controversial work that I have done and was in the ... not the arts section but the main body of the paper for I think about 18 days in a row with letters to the editor and huge fury about it. It was a bit miscast in that people thought it was about the Costellos and ... but I was just interested in the phenomenon of what it means when you’re in a family where two people, brothers, siblings, have you know very different ideological allegiances and how does that happen? You know it’s certainly true of my family, probably true of everybody’s family here, that there are Labor voters and there are Liberal voters and you know why when you’ve all had exactly the same kinds of influences does that occur? And at the time I was writing two brothers John Howard was the prime minister and it was certainly true in his family, it was true of Ruddock and his daughter, it was true of the Costellos as well and I knew that Peter Costello had made no comments at all about refugee issues and so it was irksome that everybody kept ... fanned by Peter Costello himself, I might add, he just devoted lots of his biography to it and everything, loved telling you that I you know why did the people in the arts construct his children as being heroin addicts? And the answer to that is because this is not about you, that is the first answer, this is not about you. I mention you in my play twice in order to dissociate this character from you but he wanted it ... he was kind of determined that it would be about him.
Anyway this was about a minister for home security and about the turning back of a navy boat when it was ... I read everything about the SIEVX and I was interested in what happened. It was informed by the SIEVX. But just something interesting happens in Australia about political theatre that has been my experience, we’re not that used to it so people stood with their hands on their hips all the time about well which person are you talking about? And it occurred to me to allude to you know that British drama, House of Cards, and in that the prime minister throws a journalist off the top of the houses of parliament at the end but I don’t ... or certainly in the English version of it ... but I don’t recall anyone saying well which prime minister did that? I mean that’s just stupid. Name the prime minister who threw the journalist off the houses of parliament because that’s what happens here, that this ... that there was a sort of literal thing where you had to go well I know it’s current and I know but I am actually trying to create a universe, a universe where all our precious national tolerance is at risk you know is under threat and the most precious thing to me is under threat in ways and when you went overseas you could be incredibly proud of our records and that certainly is not the case now.
R: I think we might have to call an end to our questions now and thank you ...
H: Sure.
R: ... swap places with you. Thank you for your questions. We’ll have to call it to an end. I know some of you have questions, you might be able to catch up later with Hannie. An afternoon tea is about to begin in the foyer so I hope you’re able to stay and enjoy the refreshments on offer. Copies of Hannie’s book, Hello Beautiful, Scenes From a Life are also available from the Library’s bookshop at a 10% discount today and of course if you are a Friend you can have it for a 15% discount and Hannie will be available to sign copies for you. Please join me in thanking Hannie for her very astute and amusing lecture this afternoon.
End of recording

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