By now, the Robert Manne essay is a well-established form – four decades at the centre of public life will do that. Whatever the topic, his pieces tend to possess certain qualities: an almost lawyerly emphasis on fact and argument over style and rhetoric; a professor’s sympathy for the world of ideas over the muck of institutions; an unfashionable willingness to change his mind without worry or shame; and an overwhelming focus on public questions over private struggles.
Manne’s latest collection, On Borrowed Time, begins on a different note. In late 2016, after a lingering soreness, Manne learned that an earlier cancer had returned to his throat. This time the oncologist offered him a more barbed choice: remove his voice box, or face probable death. For a man who lived for debate – ‘lecturing, tutoring, speaking at writers’ festivals, launching books, appearing on radio and occasionally television’ – the answer wasn’t immediately obvious. The title essay is about Manne’s decision to operate, and the slow attempt to rebuild a life without his distinctive voice.