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Letters to the Editor

February 2007, no. 288

Letters to the Editor

February 2007, no. 288

An innocent replies

Dear Editor,

I agreed with most of Neal Blewett’s stimulating review (‘Innocent abroad’, December 2006–January 2007) of my autobiography, A Thinking Reed. I leave it to others to judge the accuracy of his character analysis and pairing me with Pauline Hanson.

However, I question the article’s proportionality, which exaggerates the political content of A Thinking Reed. Of fifteen chapters, five are personal, five political and five about ideas. The categories are not mutually exclusive: some chapters are chronological, others thematic.

Dr Blewett writes of my account of being Bob Hawke’s Science Minister: ‘He blames everyone but himself’ and is ‘wallowing in self-pity’; and ‘He could rarely bring himself to lower his sights from his often prescient visions to the nitty-gritty of the here and now … He could not be persuaded to prioritise … Above all, in matters of science at least, he lacked any sense of collegiality; his loyalty lay not to the government but to his science constituency.’ Nevertheless, he concedes that my ‘outsider’s assessment’ of the Hawke government is a ‘succinct and balanced assessment’. It is hard to see how all these propositions can be correct.

He also charges that some of my political observations are ‘self-serving’. While any suggestion that an autobiography could be self-serving will shock sensitive readers, mine is less so than most. In ‘Overture’, which set the scene for A Thinking Reed, I wrote:

I was too political to be a fully accepted intellectual, too intellectual to be regarded as an effective politician in the Australian context, conspicuously lacking the killer instinct, too individual and idiosyncratic to be a factional player … Lacking the divine gift of creativity, I recognised that my gifts for understanding and communicating were second order capacities. I am well aware of my deficiencies, things I do not know and cannot do … However, I proved to be a survivor, and many unpopular and unfashionable causes I pushed for ultimately became accepted as part of the conventional wisdom.

I was angered by lost opportunities, but tried to temper my feelings with irony, and absurdity kept breaking through. I tried to be frank but balanced about my failures, and Chapter 11 (‘Ministering to Science’) is full of such references.

Since publication in October, I have read excerpts of the book, many from Chapter 11, to some thousands of listeners in four states and the ACT. The reaction has been very striking – mostly a mixture of hilarity and incredulity. Hundreds of letters and e-mails suggest that readers interpret what I have written in strikingly diverse ways: passages which seem very funny to some are seen as anguished by others, and I am moved that so many correspondents have found my book useful in evaluating their own lives.

Dr Blewett’s personal criticisms of me are very broad, while my criticisms are very precise, or forensic. I criticised scientists as ‘the wimpiest possible lobbyists’ in their own cause (p. 387) and vice chancellors as pusillanimous (p. 369) for failing to defend their own academics over attacks on controversial Australian Research Grants Committee grants. The criticisms were not general, and never understood as such.

Dr Blewett fails to mention my account (pp. 373–74) of how in 1985 I became the first Australian minister (and so far the only one) invited to address a G-7 Summit, to be held in Canada. I thought that the prime minister’s office would be delighted by the honour. In fact, the reaction seemed to be deep irritation: ‘Why him?’ Ultimately, I had to take leave as a minister and pay my own way to Canada. I can see black humour in the incident, and my account is ironic rather than self-pitying. Even so, I am struggling to see how I could blame myself for what happened. The OECD’s favourable review (1986) of my science policies gained me no traction with the Expenditure Review Committee, nor did accolades from Nature. I speculated that that success of Sleepers, Wake! (which Dr Blewett concedes was an ‘important work’) was held against me as a minister.

As ministers in the Hawke government, Neal Blewett and I worked in the same hothouse for seven years, but, unlike mine, his political career was stellar. He learned to play the game according to the new managerial rules – and I did not. After serving as an outstanding Health Minister, he went on to Trade and Social Security, going to London as High Commissioner in 1994.

Health is inevitably a major portfolio, but Australia has not had a dedicated Science ministry since 1987. Health was a huge constituency, and its problems were urgent and personal. Treasury and Finance were never going to challenge Dr Blewett to prioritise between investing in health care for the aged or for the young, or to say, ‘We can invest in cancer research or cardiac research but not both. You choose.’ When the HIV-AIDS epidemic reached Australia, nobody suggested postponing a response for five years. Health insurance funds and the AMA were extremely powerful lobbyists. Every voter had a potential health risk to consider, urgently. Even the toughest Treasury bureaucrat had a mother or a child. It was easy to sell health care as a matter of urgency.

In Science, it was extraordinarily hard to prioritise major issues such as climate change, biotechnology, Antarctica, the social impact of the knowledge economy or population ageing, and it still is. I started talking up greenhouse changes/ climate change in 1985, but the issue was never urgent enough to dominate the political landscape, and the idea that I could say, ‘Well, I’ll drop climate change and concentrate on biotechnology’ sounds like a non sequitur.

The market-driven economic direction adopted by Hawke and Keating in 1983 caused difficulties for my research programs, which were inevitably interventionist, and I was challenging high but groundless optimism that the market would sort out scientific priorities.

Dr Blewett rebukes me for not having achieved more in my first period as national president of the ALP (1992–2000). This is puzzling, because in A Cabinet Diary (1999), he describes me (p. 188) as having been ‘both popular and effective’. My eight years in office were evenly split – half under Paul Keating, half under Kim Beazley. I saw my primary task as trying to pass on to the leadership the views of the party faithful. Keating felt that outside advice was un necessary. After 1996 I tried to persuade Beazley to join with Gary Gray, then national secretary, to promote democratic practice both inside and outside the party, and to weaken the factional stranglehold. I certainly failed in that.

I was encouraged by Dr Blewett’s description of Chapter 15, ‘Years of Exile’, as ‘brilliant’, and intrigued that he disputed the contents of my lists. I erred in not listing Handel’s Julius Caesar and Bizet’s Carmen in my favourite operas, and I should have added films by Pedro Almodóvar and Rolf de Heer.

Barry Jones, Melbourne, Vic.

The missing Kee

Dear Editor,

Did Gay Bilson really review Jenny Kee’s A Big Life at all (December 2006–January 2007)? You would never know it. Even the book’s title is omitted from the review.

Why do I find her lengthy review so distasteful? It reads like a recipe – Kee’s biography as nothing more than a list of its most basic ingredients – with a sensational cast and plot, all described with none of Kee’s stoic, self-deprecating wit or humour. Bilson’s take on Kee’s tone seems callow. Here we have a life reduced by review to a comic strip, without sympathy or compassion. Bilson trivialises Kee’s life as recounted in the autobiography. All she can find to admire are the book’s outstanding production values, surely fitting for an eminent designer’s memoirs

There is no hint of feminist sympathy for a Chinese Australian woman artist who grew up in Australia in the 1950s. Nor does Bilson give even the smallest nod to Kee’s stellar career in creating Australian fashions that were alive to our unique landscape, despite the fact that Kee’s and Linda Jackson’s designs are collected worldwide by museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum, and by fellow couturiers in Paris and Milan. Bilson ignores Kee’s account of her creative life and of the high personal toll of her success. There is no mention of the honesty with which Kee reveals the tragedy in her personal life, and its consequences. Kee’s environmental activism and the detailed account of her spiritual journey are also mocked in Bilson’s reductive approach.

When will Australian artists be civilised and generous enough to celebrate each other’s achievements without bitterness and resentment? Is there such a gulf between the worlds of high feasting and high fashion? Do Bush Culture (Flamingo Park) and Oz Cuisine (Berowra Waters) have nothing in common? Gay Bilson might have learned something from this brave publication. Readers might even find this book witty and informative, but one would never glean this from the review.

How much of the book did Jenny Kee write? Bilson meanly suggests that Kee played only a small role. Surely working with a co-writer implies more engagement in the difficult process of writing an autobiography than is acknowledged here? In fact, Kee has worked on this book for ten years.

In the same issue of ABR, Peter Rose reviewed with insightful attention two current biographies: Clive James’s North Face of Soho: Unreliable Memoirs and Robert Hughes’s Things I Didn’t Know. Surely A Big Life, written by a woman who was in London and Australia at roughly the same time, demanded more thorough and comprehensive attention.

Juno Gemes, Hawkesbury River, NSW

Gay Bilson replies:

Dear Editor,

In Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, a character says, ‘I wanted to be judged, do you see? It’s what we all want, isn’t it? I wanted, oh, some kind of summing up, I wanted my life looked at. We don’t get that, not unless we appear in court or are given the once-over by a psychiatrist, neither of which had come my way and I wasn’t exactly disappointed, seeing as I wasn’t a criminal or a nutter. No, I’m a normal person, and I just wanted what a lot of people want. I wanted my life looked at ...’

More books than ever are being read, but not books by people for whom writing itself is a creative act. Ingenuous self-absorption, when bereft of literary talent, gets the better of the printed word. The juxtaposition of the private with legitimate public histories easily turns personal triumphs and tragedies into farce. In making a précis of A Big Life, I followed Jenny Kee’s juxtapositions and often quoted Kee’s words.

What is it exactly that laying oneself out for public consumption achieves, both for the teller and for the reader? Kee’s creative output as a designer and her dogged drive have never been in doubt, and have always been on the record.

My impulse as a reviewer is not towards denigration of a life. It is towards the book which is under review and not that life, however much the telling depends on the experience.

From the New Issue

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