This morning I reading two profile pieces which held my attention and moved me profoundly. One was an appreciation of Professor Stephen Hawking, the physicist who died this past week (Cerebral Celebrity, The Australian by Dennis Overbye - paywalled).
The other article was a profile (by Jane Cadzow) of journalist and author Cynthia Banham. Her new book, A Certain Light (which I haven't read), in part details the terrible 2007 plane crash in Indonesia in which she nearly died. More importantly, it details her recovery from severe injuries including the amputation of her legs while she spent three months in a Perth burns unit.
I did not have the opportunity to interview Stephen Hawking. I would like to interview Cynthia, although I'm not sure at the time of me writing whether she's agreeable. I can imagine how difficult it would be to talk about her experiences, so the profile may be the closest I get to her.
What moved me about the stories was a sense of wonder about survival and and an acknowledgement that life doesn't always go the way you want it to.
Earlier this week, I read how Hawking lost his ability to speak more than three decades ago after a tracheotomy. This was related to complications in his condition, motor neurone disease, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 21. He told the BBC that after the operation he had considered committing suicide by not breathing, but he said:
the reflex to breathe was too strong.
Cynthia Banham says in the Sydney Morning Herald profile that she often imagines seeing the two Australians sitting on either side of her, who perished in the crash. They were journalist Morgan Mellish and diplomat Liz O'Neill.
It's like they occupy those places on either side of me permanently now." She keeps in touch with O'Neill's husband and daughter. She often imagines she sees Mellish's face in the street.
And then this about the nature of tragedy.
Actually there is tragedy everywhere you look...you can find it very easily in certain countries overseas but even when you look in your own very privileged country, it is there in every family. Whether it's cancer or mental illness or misfortune of some kind. Losing a child. Whatever. It's everywhere. And actually that's the way life is.
Life as I knew it took a vibrant twist when I left Hong Kong and became a communications student at Mitchell College (Charles Sturt University) in the 1980's. Bathurst was a long way from Hong Kong. At first I kept the curtains in my room firmly shut, because the wide-open field outside my dorm window was too confronting.
Within a few weeks, however, I had friends and that made all the difference to the girl from Hong Kong.
Without a doubt, the most terrifying person at Mitchell was our writing lecturer Peter Temple.
Peering from behind his glasses as if he were gazing out of a window, he had this soft South African accent and a laugh that was more a whinny. Likeable yet fearsome, he was by far the toughest of our lecturers.
Peter Temple used to leave our corrected assignments outside his office. The door was always shut. One day, I arrived to see a student named Tim pick up his assignment. He searched for the mark on the back page of the assignment and then began to shout abuse and kick Peter's door. Clearly, his assignment had failed to impress our writing lecturer.
"You bastard!" Tim cried as his foot pounded the wood, echoing down the hallway.
Suddenly, the door opened. I don't know why, but it had never occurred to me that when Peter's door was closed, he was actually in there.
Tim was taken aback too. He was a tall man, but Peter stepped forward, unafraid.
"Fuck off." Peter said, as if Tim was an annoying fly.
And then the tutor retreated into his room, closing the door behind him.
Years after I left Mitchell College, I started to see Peter's name in the headlines. He quickly rose to become a brilliant crime writer. Many of his books became TV series. I particularly enjoyed The Broken Shore. He was so economical with his descriptions and his stories kept you on the edge. Imagine having to suffer students like me.
It's at this point I have to post some of the pertinent and hilarious comments he wrote on my major writing assignment (on my favourite subject: chocolate) at the end of my first year:
I didn't get a brilliant mark (65% when 55% was a pass, if I remember correctly) but I passed and without that, I wouldn't have moved into Year 2 of my degree.
In 2014, I blogged about the chocolate assignment after reminiscing with my first Mitchell College friend and now crime and romance author Jaye Ford.
A few days after my blog, incredibly, I received an email from Peter Temple.
The subject heading was "chocolate box".
Just when you thought you'd got over it, someone mentions that first assignment ...
I think about it every time I see you on the box.
I was gobsmacked. At the time, apart from presenting my interview show One Plus One, I had embarked on my second book China Baby Love, but wasn't sure I'd make it to the end. This is how I replied.
Great to hear from you Peter.
I’m still a struggling writer, but it’s becoming more important for me to write. I’m not sure why.
Always grateful for the first 65%
All the best, Jane
And then he wrote this drops of magic.
Imagine being remembered only for your face or your voice?
Writing is a puny lunge at immortality.
Nice word, puny. PT
That was our one and only exchange after Mitchell College. I will treasure it. #ValePeterTemple.
I was recently asked to participate in a seminar about the writing of life stories for elderly people in an aged-care home. Residents are selected by social workers and a volunteer proceeds to interview the resident over a period of months to record, write and eventually publish his or her life story. The program's been running for almost twelve years with fifteen volunteer story-tellers.
The most experienced volunteers had written thirty life-stories. They spoke of the special bond that formed after spending an hour a week for up to six months, in order to craft the mini-biography.
I was asked how I would go about interviewing an elderly person who had lived a very simple life. It was explained to me that many of the residents don't feel they have achieved much in their lives or have had a hard-time adjusting to living in aged-care. Women in particulary, often put little value in bringing up families or supporting their husbands.
I used a simple device to describe how I gather research about a person who has little or no archival footprint:
Fishing with Onions
By recording answers to simple questions, I create a basic timeline of the person's life. That timeline might look like this to begin with.
Then, here's where Fishing with Onions comes in. Still using straitforward questioning with lots of encouragement, I 'fish' for details from my participant to flesh out their timeline. It's like peeling away the layers of an onion, eventually adding depth and context to the timeline.
Then, when I have the basics in place and I can see the twists and turns of their lives, I can become more curious with my questions. Eventually, I might end up with something like this:
After delivering what I thought was a neat little summary, the volunteers brought up some of the roadblocks they'd faced.
Residents are very happy to tell me the details of their lives, but then they insist that some of these details are not for publication.
Sometimes the stories contain inaccuracies or claims that can impact other people's lives.
And then a volunteer storyteller down the front who'd had her hand raised, sighed deeply as she confessed that she found one subject she'd been assigned to boastful and competitive. Eventually she had to remove herself from the process because she found it so challenging. She realised that she didn't like the individual.
I sympathised with her. It's impossible to like everyone.
But you can give them a decent hearing.
I remember actor Hugo Weaving saying this to me when he played the part of the much-reviled (to Australians at least) English cricket captain Douglas Jardine in Bodyline, the mini-series. Weaving said:
I don't believe in heroes and villains, I never have. In life - by and large - people are just people, everyone's pretty grey and we all have heroic and villainous qualities. We contain contradictory complex emotions and feelings and attributes.
I read Douglas Jardine's autobiography, and the last chapter was about fly fishing and suddenly you read that and there was something his daughter had written, as well. So suddenly he was a father to me and suddenly also he was a contemporary man who probably enjoyed his own company and solace and probably enjoyed nature.
I thought if he's a fly fisherman he likes being quiet, he likes the skill of something, he likes the game, the chase, he likes thinking about things. Suddenly that put everything in perspective. You can't just be the villain who wants to win at all costs.
I thought about Hugo Weaving only after I left the care home, but what I said to the volunteer was this:
You could extricate yourself or... you could try to find out what made him competitive and hard to like.
Find out what made that person into the man he was. Why was he motivated to be so tough and unforgiving? When did it happen?
When I come across an uncompromising individual in my interviews, someone who lacks empathy, the questions that open up discussions of hurt, trauma, neglect or defence usually produce answers which are the most rewarding and surprising.
I first met George Gittoes in Beijing in 1998. He had an artist's residency. I was the resident correspondent. He wanted to paint people and life. He disappeared for a little while. Then the day before he left, he turned up looking like a pizza delivery guy. Like a waiter, he held two small oil paintings up near his shoulders. They were my farewell gift and they had been freshly painted. as a gift.
This one is the Journey:
This is the little Chinese Gymnast.
George and I drifted apart. I was doing my war reporting in relative safety. He was living life large in the most dangerous places you could nominate.
Then his name popped up when he won the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize.
I discovered he'd been making documentaries and taking incredible photos to add to his incredible body of artwork.
Then in May, I interviewed him at the South Coast home he shares with his partner musician Hellen Rose (and their dogs).
He is delighted to see the little oil paintings he gave me once again and he offers to clean them.
But it was his notebooks that captured my imagination.
They are the works of art that the public isn't likely to see, yet they imprint the essence of his travels. They lasso his emotions and thoughts that then bleed into his grander canvases.
For six months a year, the beach is mine. This is how it looks when it belongs to me; just like this.
The hoards are gone. They mistakenly populate the beach at the least nice time of the year and vacate at the very best time of the year. But perhaps I won’t mention it to the hoards who don't know this.
I was about to enter a stupidly expensive ‘Delicatessen’ when a woman in a tracksuit, sitting on a bench outside, spoke to.
“Can I have some money to buy a coffee at Gusto’s?” she asked.
My brain was misfiring with the following dot-points:
The woman in the tracksuit knows the coffee shop well enough to name it
She did not look like a drug abuser, although that is impossible to tell these days
I do not like giving people on the street money except The Big Issue sellers, the Friday charity days or a few private causes, because I worry the money will be spent on drugs.
The lady in the tracksuit was very polite and I liked her
I said, “No, sorry.” That’s what I usually say.
But I really did want her to have a coffee at Gusto’s so I found $5 in coins and went outside again.
“This is for coffee,” I said smiling sternly, “not for anything else.”
“Oh don’t you worry, that’s what I’m going to get. Thank-you so much darling.”
I went into the stupidly expensive Delicatessen and bought one tin of beetroot, two raw carrots and three bread rolls.
When I came out, the woman in the tracksuit was still there. I looked surprised.
“Don’t worry Miss, I’m going to get a coffee over at Gusto’s, but if I get another $6 I can get a bagel as well!”
I smiled. She’s just wants everyone else to pay for her breakfast.
“I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I gave up smoking a month and a half ago,” she said.
I wanted to say, “What about drugs?” but I didn’t. She didn’t seem like a drug abuser, although as I’ve said it’s impossible to tell these days. People might think that about me.
I headed home past my beach, thinking about Lily Brett. I met her this week. I got to interview her and spoke with her afterwards about writing.
She thinks journalists can be very hard on themselves when it comes to writing. She was never trained as a journalist. She just started to write.
So I am going home to write and think about Lily Brett.