The challenge to perform (for Greg Dening)

In early 2001, I spent three weeks in Canberra on a visiting scholars program at Australian National University. ‘The Challenge to Perform’ was run by historian and anthropologist Greg Dening (b. 1931, d.2008). I was one of a dozen people who took part. Most of the others were well into their doctorates. Some had almost finished. I was intimidated because I had just started my research but I also felt special because I was four months pregnant with my first child.

I stayed at University House in a cheap room. Canberra froze over at night and I would get up early and take the baby for a walk by the lake. A statue of Winston Churchill had just been erected among the trees in front of reception. He was an absurd, lonely figure, a double chin on a great coat, a big brass Emperor penguin washed up on the wrong shore.

Dening ran the program but many other amazing scholars were also involved, including Donna Merwick, Tom Griffiths, Debbie Bird Rose and Bill Gammage. The themes were reading, listening, narrating and reflecting.

As with so many things in life, I did not appreciate what I had been given until much later.

Dening was elderly but the qualities I remember most about him are the ones people normally associate with a child: enthusiasm and an irrepressible sense of wonder. These qualities were expressed in his posture, the way he leaned forward, keenly, when someone spoke. The way he listened, his eagerness, his back curved like the top of a question mark.

These learned people were keenly interested in others, living or dead, and they had devoted their lives to the enormous task of really trying to know and understand what makes other people tick. Archival research, fieldwork and secondary-source reading were all paths to knowing but what was so exciting about these scholars, was their devotion to writing. Writing was the thing but Dening’s trick was to implicate the audience, so intimately, in the process.

“Nothing is written until it is read,” Dening liked to say.

I was still working as a newspaper journalist in 2001, doing a couple of shifts a week as a staff sub at The Age and writing columns and features as a freelancer. I understood audiences well enough. The first audience for my work was the section editor, then two or three subs (downtable, layout, check) and then the people who read the paper. Back then, it was 350,000 or more on a Saturday.

But Dening was talking about something more than circulation or sales or fame or media attention. What he was talking about, I think, was that most intimate of encounters, the one that happens when your eye runs over a page (or a screen) and your mind encounters the mind of the author and those words come alive for you and only you in a way that can not be replicated. And in that dazzling moment, you can be the author too, the one who makes meaning and seeks to know.

I have written two books since 2001. Neither has sold a million copies – or even anywhere near the 10,000 that is supposed to shift a writer from the kind of patronising “emerging” category to emerged – but they have been well read. I am so grateful for that.

My first book was based on the doctorate that began with Dening’s course. ‘The Parihaka Album’ came out in 2009 and it has been written by a select group of readers ever since. The writing gets better each year!

Scribe published ‘Stop Press: the last days of newspapers’ in October 2013 and the readers who have responded most strongly have been other journalists. The book they are writing when they read Stop Press is a one of loss and grief and sorrow and shock. Even Kim Hill, a sometimes abrasive but wonderful interviewer who works for Radio New Zealand, said she had shed a tear or two as she read. Many journalists have told me that book made them weep. In her review published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Fiona Capp described Stop Press “as one of the saddest books I have read for some time”.

It’s hard to know how to respond. “Hey no worries! I’m stoked my book made you cry.” Or, “I aim to depress, so that’s great.”

My oldest kid says my next book has to contain some jokes. “The death of newspapers, that was so depressing,” she says. “And the war in New Zealand, that was depressing too.”

I agree that funniness is really important in writing and in life but I am still pleased to have claimed a small moment to stop and note all that is being lost as newspapers wither. The paper-making machines that are shut, the printing presses that are abandoned, the printers who are sacked, the subs who cry with exhaustion at the end of a shift and the other subs whose work is now done by machines, the designers whose work has been offshored to Bangalore, the circulation staff whose work has been offshored to Manilla, the photographers who are now fighting for their jobs, the newsagents that are closed up, the delivery runs that are no more.

Tomorrow (Sunday 1 June) I’m speaking about Stop Press at Clunes. I’m looking forward to meeting some more readers and writers and to trying out some amazing new comedy material I’ve been working on. Maybe.




About rachelbuchanan2000

Journalist, historian, mum. 'Stop Press: the last days of newspapers' (Scribe, 2013). Creative fellow, State Library of Victoria. Project: 'The Melbourne Sirius' an artist newspaper (2014). First book, 'The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget' (Huia, 2009). New project, about doctors and doctorhood, is on the go now.
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