I’m embarrassed. Last night I spoke briefly at a black-tie gala dinner of the Institute of Public Affairs. I must have forgotten I’d agreed to this and so winged it, telling how poor Gregory of Tours, a century after the fall of Rome, woke to find the Franks outside his house and turning his nice little Roman civilisation into a barbarian pigsty. (Is France the only nation named after its German invaders?)
Yes, I was feeling apocalyptic after the collapse of the spineless Liberals and the rise of a new children’s crusade – that horde of messianic children, cheered on by the ABC, who marched out of their classrooms to smite not heathens in the Holy Land but politicians in Canberra deemed not fervent enough in the new global warming faith. As I got to the microphone, IPA boss John Roskam whispered ‘be positive’, but I doubt I delivered what he needed to spring open the wallets of fired-up conservatives.
So it’s the Friday after the IPA dinner, and I’m spending my day off flying to Sydney to shoot promos for Sky News. Yes, I’ve signed on again, after feebly resolving to make time for other stuff. In truth, the prospect of more freedom terrifies me. I am a frantic procrastinator – working furiously hard to avoid doing the Great Thing, which I take to be writing the Big Novel. Or even a small one. So, not caring either way, I drove Sky a hard bargain and signed a new contract for next year with nine weeks off. Days later my wife showed me the contract I’d signed in a similar mood last year: ten weeks off.
My mood lifts during the shoot at Sky. I’m primped, petted, posed and pictured as several women cry how wonderful the images are turning out. ‘Lovely!’, Nadia exclaims in one excess of enthusiasm. I once worked at an opera house and know the drill: flatter the ‘talent’ to get the best performance. I also used to pack flowers and pump petrol, and no one there ever cried out how good I looked as I did my job. So I’m not fooled, but still grateful to be in a business where others feel obliged to fluff my feathers.
My daughter is flying home for Christmas. I fear she will be bored after student life in the UK, especially when her dad is hard to prise out of the house. That said, I had the time of my life a few months ago zipping around Scotland with her and dropping in on one distillery after another in my new passion for Scotch and its stories. Tip: drink Talisker at the seafood bar on the hill behind the distillery while eating oysters taken from the misty Harport loch before you. What a harmony of briny tastes and views – a harmony of Whistlerian proportions. And a context for creativity.
I’m a big fan of those contexts. Next year my wife and I will drive from Scotland to nearly-London and I’ve already mapped out two stops: Sir Walter Scott’s baronial home and the more modest parsonage of the Bronte sisters. Do I hope Emily Bronte’s genius will stick to my palm when I grab her old door handle? In truth, I’ve found there’s often little to learn from the homes of dead writers. Dickens’ London home was remarkably cosy but bland. Di Lampedusa’s half-restored palace in Santa Margherita di Belice was far less human than the ruins across the street of the town destroyed in the 1968 earthquake that shattered the palace, too. Most such places fail the way most biographies do – they can never quite explain how some super-nova of creativity ignited deep inside the author. That miracle stays hidden and does not leach into the desk or even the pen. All we really have is the product, not the process.
One thing I’m procrastinating about – now writing this instead – is rereading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s so complex. I read it slowly, with all senses on full alert and mind racing, because it is the last of the 10 novels that John Roskam and I are about to discuss on our Great Books podcasts for the IPA. I blame Dostoevsky, too, for me glumming up that IPA night. See, I’d spoken after another friend, Brendan O’Neill, lit up the room with a brilliant speech on the fight for freedom. Man thirsted for freedom, he insisted, with all the optimism Roskam wanted. Yet Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov has the Grand Inquisitor of Spain capturing the returned Christ and telling him he wasn’t wanted because he’d failed. People were actually terrified by the freedom Christ had given them to sin and to fall, and fled to leaders who could take that freedom from them.
See today the rush to enlist in the new tribes of identity politics. How pathetically eager those recruits are to hear their individuality is a weakness. Throw that away and no failure will ever again be their fault. Blame gender. Blame race. Last week I was publicly reprimanded by someone speaking ‘as a queer woman of colour with Filipino and Wiradjuri ancestry’, which means I cannot prove her wrong. That’s where I’d got to when Roskam said: ‘Be positive’.
I’m at our beach place, which will be our permanent home once builder Phil erects my dream – a library with bedrooms. It’s 30 degrees. The sea – Van Gogh green in winter – is now Streeton blue. The birds are queuing for the mince chicken. Sally is happy and the dogs are snoozing. Is this not enough? Sally once taped a scrap of paper to my computer with the words: ‘Who do you think is watching?’ I mean, other than you.