When told of the death of the philosopher David Armstrong, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had this to say: ‘David was a fine man, a deep thinker and a fighter for the things he believed in.’ In his tribute at the recent funeral service Peter Anstey noted that Exeter College at Oxford flew its flag at half-mast and that European newspapers such as the Italian La Stampa carried the news of Armstrong’s death. But still no Australian newspaper has bothered to report the news and none so far has carried an obituary.
The press reported it as a rumour but there seems little doubt about it. A couple of lefties had hoped to turn last week’s Australian Book Industry Awards Dinner into a humiliating fiasco for the guest speaker, the Prime Minister. They ran a bit of a Facebook campaign to persuade writers at the dinner to stage a walk-out while Abbott was addressing the assembled publishers, booksellers and writers. The idea did not take off and in the end they dropped it. As it happened their point was made in a more subtle way by Maxine Beneba Clarke, a promising Sydney-born writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. In her words in the Guardian, ‘I just approached his [the Prime Minister’s] table very humbly, and said, “Look I know that it’s really forward of me to approach you like this…” He looked quite taken aback, and I had a petition in a sealed envelope with a copy of my book [Foreign Soil] because I was worried that if I told him it was a petition, he wouldn’t accept… I said I’ve just published my first book, I’ve brought a copy here particularly for you, I’d really love it if you would accept the book. He hesitated and then he took the envelope, and I said, “In the envelope there’s also a letter signed by a number of prominent Australian writers and thinkers regarding the cuts to the arts industry. I feel like I’ve been really respectful and I haven’t caused a scene, and I haven’t been rude to you, and I really hope you… engage with Australian artists about the petition.” And he said thank you and I walked away…’
The petition was indeed signed by some prominent writers, although they cannot be blamed for its tendentious prose. (‘We view with dismay… devastating…robbing Australia …’). But Maxine Beneba Clarke had a point. Her ‘respectful’ approach, even if overdone and a little tricksy, was more likely to impress the Prime Minister than a crude walk-out. In his speech the Prime Minister spoke as an author. He was well received.
It can hardly be said that the announcement, after the dinner, of my appointment to the panel of judges to decide the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (non-fiction and history) was greeted with cheers in the streets. A Murdoch journalist summed me up as ‘Peter Costello’s father-in-law’ and the Fairfax summary was that I was a ‘former Liberal MP’. Neither mentioned any qualifications I may perhaps have. None (rightly) noted that my fellow panellist and old friend Ross Fitzgerald has written a book or two in the Labor interest. Years ago the late Amy Witting warned me never to serve on a panel of literary judges. She had found the experience exhausting and distressful. Never again, she said. But we shall see.
So who would take on a biographical sketch of, say, Ita Buttrose for the forthcoming A Companion to the Australian Media? Dr Carolyne Lee of Melbourne University’s School of Culture and Communication, that’s who. Or what about Trevor Kennedy? Andrew Dodd of the Swinburne University of Technology had a go. Or the Fairfax family. That went to journalist Rob Pullan. Or the Murdochs? Tom D.C. Roberts. These were among the challenges facing Professor Bridget Griffen-Foley of Macquarie University when she agreed to edit the massive Companion to be published later this year by Australian Scholarly Publishing. Her contributors, mainly journalists and media scholars, range from Eric Beecher (on Crikey), Gerald Stone (on Bruce Gyngell), Ann Moyal (on Alan Moorehead), Quentin Dempster (on the ABC), and David Salter (on Alan Jones). There are entries on Women in the Media (by Patricia Clarke), the National Press Gallery (Helen Ester), ethnic broadcasting (Chris Lawe Davies), astrology (Kate Darian-Smith), defamation (Andrew Kenyon), suburban newspapers (Nick Richardson), John Laws (Liz Gould), and Here’s Humphrey (Derham Groves). As a reference book, it will have its critics. For all his awards Quentin Dempster of the ABC, writing on the ABC, will never satisfy the national broadcaster’s critics. The fact is that Griffen-Foley has done an heroic job, marshalling some 300 contributors to complete 479 entries of 415,000 words. She herself did 15 of the entries ranging from the Packer family to student newspapers. The Companion is due out in September.
At the reception the other night for the Waverley literary awards, the Mayor Sally Betts welcomed guest speaker Gideon Haigh who won last year’s prize for his penetrating study of the great spin bowler Shane Warne. When she met Warne recently, she asked him if he had read the book. The king of spin answered bluntly ‘No!’
In September Scots will vote in a referendum on whether Scotland should secede from the United Kingdom and become an independent and probably socialist country. Some experts believe it will be a close call. On his recent visit to Australia the English conservative Roger Scruton said he wished the English had a vote in the referendum. Then there would be no doubt that it would be carried overwhelmingly!