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We were delighted to welcome Ailsa Piper to the Library on Monday 30 April 2018 to deliver the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Address.
Here is a transcript of her speech.
Premier, Ministers, Writers and Readers
Last Christmas, I received a single-spaced, almost typo-free manuscript. It was a memoir entitled Many Are The Memories. The author was my father. He’d written it as a gift for his children. He has four of us, from two marriages.
Dad is, to use his word, a bushie. He grew from the soil of the wheat belt in Western Australia.
Next birthday, Dad will turn 88.
He has always described himself as a lucky man.
That’s his story.
Never mind that Dad’s damaged war veteran father couldn’t speak to his little son of emotions; or that Dad’s adored mother Molly was killed, along with her sister - both run down by a speeding car - when he was in his twenties. Never mind that his wife, my mother, fell in love with another man and left him after five years of marriage.
In the early sixties when this happened, divorce meant ugly social stigma, as well as heartbreak. He had to move to the city, where he eventually re-married. But before my stepmother turned fifty, she died, suddenly.
Grieving, and struggling to make a living in the urban wilderness, Dad raised my siblings from that marriage on next to nothing. Then, when Mum was dying of cancer, Dad kept vigil with us, and grieved again.
That was back in 1994. The ensuing decades have not been free of further sadness or hardship, but still Dad calls himself lucky.
If I left you with only that much of his story, you might pity him - or you might think him deluded! An incomplete narrative can be deceptive.
Now, at 87, Dad lives by himself. He drives, shops and cooks. He has a partner he adores, and children and grandchildren who love him. He helps out the “oldies,” his neighbours. He enjoys a beer or a red, preferably in company, and against all advice, still loves to smoke. He tells bad, and at times inappropriate, jokes, and he laughs easily.
How did that come to be his refrain?
My guess is - that was the story he needed in order to get up in the mornings. And he keeps telling that story, reminding us, and himself, that he is lucky to have free health care, lucky for the safety net of the pension…
I’ve been wondering whether Dad was influenced by reading – or misreading - Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. It was published in 1964, just as Dad was making the long drive south to find a new home in the Perth suburbs. At that time, Australians were being asked to come to terms with the shocking notion that we were an urban and not a rural country.
Never has a title been embraced with more hunger or alacrity than The Lucky Country - but has any title ever been so misunderstood? Horne himself once said: “I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase.”
Reading the text, it’s impossible to miss the irony he intended. It’s a warning, challenging readers to acknowledge that the only “luck” Australians had is that we’d got away with so much; that our “luck” was unearned. He wrote in his preface to the fifth edition that the long misuse of the phrase was “a tribute to the empty-mindedness of a mob of assorted public wafflers.”
Lack of imagination is a central criticism made by Horne in 1964. The idea of a Literary Award made by a Premier would have surprised the man who wrote that “the flavour of democratic life in Australia might seem a victory of the anti-mind.”
If that Donald Horne could have read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu or Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife – the last two winners of NSW Book of the Year - or if he could have read tonight’s shortlists, he may not have written that “intellectual life exists but it is still fugitive.”
The Lucky Country was ambitious and wide-ranging; a call to think, be and do better. Although Horne completely missed the approach of feminism, he exhorted Australians to see themselves as part of their geographic region, and to discard their “colonialist mentality.” He challenged political and business leaders to innovate and imagine, rather than be concerned with “the multiple satisfactions of power and ambition.” Regarding Australia’s lack of action in granting rights to Aboriginal people, he wrote of a “blindness of conscience…that did not understand that a lack of policy is itself a policy.”
On the fortieth anniversary of publication, Horne recalled that his London publishers originally said it was “not the kind of book Australians would want to read”. And in spite of the huge sales figures, maybe they were right. Buying a book is not the same as reading and grappling with it.
How – and why - did the title come to be a jingoistic slogan? How has it remained a self-congratulatory reflex, trotted out at school fetes and in halls of power?
Maybe we needed to believe we were lucky to loll on our white sand beaches, when much of our national narrative had been about being at the bottom of the world, away from “real” culture. Or maybe that skewed reading of the title was a way to whitewash the crimes of our forefathers.
There are many maybes...
Our stories may be the most crucial things we possess. They are us and we are them. Of course we need stories to sustain us; we need hope. But we also need to constantly assess and reassess our narratives. Maturity won’t ensue from complacency.
When children read, they’re selective. They skip over pages they don’t like, and insist on re-reading favourites. “Again. Read it again.” But maturation asks us to pay attention to the full story: to layers and nuances, to painful chapters, and to the author’s intent
You know, there’s another story, one written by a West Australian, that might also have influenced my father - Bert Facey’s A Fortunate Life. It won the 1981 NSW Premiers Award for non-fiction. Dad was just one of so many who loved, and needed, that story. It was published nine months before Facey died - at the age of 87.
Right now, it would be about 5pm in Perth. Dad’s probably doing the watering. He loves to garden. He weeds and prunes and plants.
Writing seems to me a bit like an 87 year old digging a rose-cutting into sandy soil. In spite of backaches and best intentions, there’s no knowing whether the plant will flourish, flower, struggle or die.
Donald Horne did know, long before he died in 2005, that his work was valued. I was very moved to learn that somewhere among the kilometres of wonders that make up the Mitchell Library’s collection, is the original manuscript of The Lucky Country. There’s also Horne’s writing chair, and his desk – perhaps the very one where he opened a letter saying Australians might not want to read his book. John Vallance tells me that as part of his vision to turn the library inside-out, the Donald and Myfanwy Horne room will be opened in May. I can’t wait to visit. It will be a kind of pilgrimage.
Just as it will be when I return to Perth in July for Dad’s eighty-eighth birthday.
And you know…
Maybe, like him, I’m lucky. Maybe we all are, we writers, to have been called by a wayward, infuriating, badly-paid and sometimes excruciating compulsion to make work that somehow, might plant itself in the minds or hearts of others.
Huge congratulations to all shortlisted writers, who have done just that. There was no luck involved in the creation of your work, and we thank you for it.
© Ailsa Piper – 30 April 2018