Audio: David Scott Mitchell Memorial Lecture |
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David Scott Mitchell Memorial Lecture

In 2002, I was asked by the State Library of New South Wales to deliver the David Scott Mitchell Memorial Lecture in Sydney's Town Hall. I delivered the same lecture again at the reopening of the Round Room in the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, and there the lecture was recorded for broadcasting by the ABC. A transcript of the lecture, under the title 'Our First Book', was reprinted in my book The Meaning of Recognition in 2005, and the same transcript can be read below, and also in the Lectures section.

This space, on the original page dating from 2008, held an audio player which summoned on demand a sound recording of this lecture from a remote media-streaming server. On rebuilding the site for this archive after its untimely disappearance in 2018, I found most of the old media files had vanished, including this one. Perhaps a previous custodian had overlooked the need for backups. Furthermore, other websites formerly hosting this material had switched some time ago to simply linking back to, a location they might reasonably have expected to remain a safe and permanent repository for Clive's work. Should copies turn up, I'll not hesitate to include them here, but for now it's just the transcript.
— Archive editor, July 2020

This year we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the first book to be printed and published in Australia. Though our first book was snappily entitled New South Wales General Standing Orders Selected from the General Orders Issued by Former Governors, it is unlikely that very many people were madly excited even at the time, and today the anniversary of its first appearance is scarcely front page news, although the book contains at least one permanently newsworthy item of information, which I will get to later on. For now we need merely note that an all-Australian book is no longer a novelty. Today we are quite accustomed to buying books that were written, printed and published in Australia. If we wished to, we could build a personal library of Australian books and if we wanted to own them all we would need a house as big as all of Kerry Packer's houses put together. In my own personal library in London I started an Australian section about twenty years ago. Every time I make a visit home to Australia I bring an extra, empty hold-all. By the end of the visit it is full of Australian books, some of them dating back to beyond the time I left for Europe in late 1961. They were the Australian books I wasn't reading when I was a student because I was too busy reading British and American ones. I didn't find Australian books so interesting then. Now I do. So back they go to London to be added to my Australian section, which by now is crowding out a whole wall of its own. My apartment is on the sixth floor of a warehouse conversion in the Butler's Wharf area south of Tower Bridge, and I have already been advised by the mortgage surveyors that if I add many more books to my library the day must inevitably come when the beams under the floor will give way and my whole apartment will collapse into the apartment below, which will in turn collapse into the apartment below that, and so on until about fifty people are wedged into the underground car-park with plenty to read while they await rescue.

The book that tips the balance could well be the Collected Poems of Les Murray, which our splendidly independent publisher Duffy and Snellgrove brought out this year. It is a big book, just as its author is a big man. I already have one copy that the publishers kindly sent to me, but I have bought another while I am here. I want to keep the first copy clean and use this second copy to make notes. This second copy, when I squeeze it into the Australian poetry shelves in my apartment, might be just enough to crack the creaking beams. It would be a fitting way to go. My dying thought as I descend, however, might well be the opposite. In the days when I was young and healthy, I never saw myself as a bookish person, just as Australia didn't see itself as a bookish nation. In fact it already was, but the fact had not yet become clear, and even today it has still not become as clear as it ought to be. If I have a single aim in this address, it is try to bring that fact further into the light. But I would not have the aim if I had not begun in darkness, at a time when I saw myself as an athlete, in a nation of athletes.

There are good reasons for our being more immediately excited by physical prowess than by spiritual refinement. Our children want to play in the sun or run to the surf more than they want to sit down to study, and we want them to want that. When we say "He's always got his nose in a book" we might say it proudly, but even today we are usually a bit worried about the "always". When I was young, "He's always got his nose in a book" was a confession of desperation about one's own son's physical constitution and an accusation of weirdness about someone else's. "She's always got her nose in a book" was less troublesome. Reading was, after all, women's business. Heroes were men and men did things. If occasionally they wrote things, it was because they had done them first. The excitement was in the doing: the excitement was in the action. There was, there always had been, and there still is, something to that emphasis. Finally it's the life of the mind that counts, and all other forms of life must lead to that: after all, the mind is the last thing we will have, if we are lucky. But I would be the last to deny that in the sentence mens sana in corpore sano it's the corpore sano that has the first appeal. Certainly it was the way I felt when I was still in fighting trim, and I want you to know, as I stand here before you — you bursting with sun-drenched vigour and I visibly the wreck of a human being — that it was only by an accident of fate that I did not become an Australian sporting hero, a successor to Murray Rose or Lew Hoad, a precursor of Ian Thorpe or Lleyton Hewitt.

The accident of fate was lack of sporting talent, but it took a while for that to become manifest. Growing up in Kogarah, on Botany Bay, I was within easy cycling distance of Ramsgate baths. I would spend the whole weekend at the baths, telling my mother that I had no time to mow the lawn because I was training for the 55 yards freestyle. In those days the races were still measured in yards instead of metres, Australia not yet having separated itself from all the other English-speaking nations including America by converting its measurement system in order to make it easier for the Japanese and Germans to sell us cars. Unbeknownst to my mother, when I was at Ramsgate baths I rarely completed the full 55 yards freestyle. What I completed was the five yards freestyle. I was among the first of my generation to perfect the tumble turn. I mean among the first of my generation of amphibian dabblers, the boys who hung around the pool and occasionally dived in, but didn't do much of all that swimming from one end to the other over and over for hours at a stretch that the serious swimmers did. But my tumble turn was almost as convincing as theirs. Unfortunately, instead of employing my tumble turn to increase my speed over a given number of laps, I employed it to impress girls. For this, five yards of freestyle was all that I deemed necessary. Starting two and a half yards from the end of the pool, I would execute a tumble turn, swim another two and a half yards in the opposite direction, and stop, trying to look as if I had been engaged in polishing a minor technical point in my otherwise impeccable tumble turn.

One of the girls actually was impressed. Her name was Alison and she looked very beautiful in a Speedo. Eventually I found that it was easier to go on impressing Alison by escorting her to the sandpit for a long discussion of my future as a swimming star, a discussion in which, you will not be surprised to hear, I did most of the talking. But her eyes shone, and that was all that counted, even if they shone with the porcelain glaze of boredom. The full story of what happened in the sandpit can be read in my book Unreliable Memoirs and I won't bother you with a précis of it now. The book is still available in most good bookshops and some bad ones, and if you want to consult the original manuscript you can find it in the archives of my kind host for this address, the State Library of New South Wales. Turn to the paragraph about what happened in the sandpit and you can see that the page is stained with tears of happiness. Sufficient to say now that almost nothing happened in the water, and that the results of my intensive training were finally revealed to my mother at the Boys' Brigade swimming carnival at Drummoyne in which I did indeed complete the 55 yards freestyle, but only after all the other competitors had left the pool. Let me assure you however, that, hard though it might be to believe, I had the physique, I had the strength, and I even had the ambition. What I did not have was the true desire, except the desire for Alison, which was a different matter. Sitting beside my mother, Alison was at the Boys' Brigade swimming carnival too and I never saw her again.

It was a similar story with my tennis. In the private schools of Australia, and the so-called public schools of England, there has always been a certain type of boy who, when he says "my cricket" or "my rugby", really means it. He is in possession of his manly sport: you can tell by the thickness of his neck and the cinema credits embroidered on his blazer pocket. When I referred to "my tennis" it was with less justification, but it can't be denied that until the age of about eleven I was a hot prospect. My ability to sustain a long rally was already attracting attention. Every day of the school holidays I sustained the rally against the back wall of our house, my only available opponent, and the attention I attracted was that of Mrs. Thorpe, who lived next door. Of delicate sensibility, she had been advised by her physicians to get plenty of sleep during the day. While I was sustaining a long rally, her head would appear suddenly over the back fence, teeth bared in a snarl and her eyeballs resembling little pink windmills. When she pointed out to my mother that sleep was made impossible by my ability to sustain a long rally, I was forbidden to practise. But when my mother was out, the lure of Wimbledon was too strong, and once again I was out in the yard hitting my tennis ball against the back wall a few thousand times while I dreamed of beating Pancho Gonzalez and Mrs. Thorpe dreamed of beating me to death. I knew I was behaving badly but I couldn't stop. Fame beckoned. I had seen Lew Hoad in the newsreels and I wanted to be him.

Incidentally, when Thomas Mann was writing his last book in California, the expanded version of that marvellous novel The Confessions of Felix Krull, he had a photograph on his desk to provide inspiration for the portrait he was creating of an irresistibly attractive young adolescent male. Remember you heard this here first, because no reputable scholar or commentator has yet spotted it: that photograph was of Lew Hoad. I offer this item of information for any PhD student who might be contemplating a thesis about the influence of Australian tennis-players on the modern German novel. Anyway, I knew how Thomas Mann must have felt, although in my case the longings aroused by Lew Hoad's freckled, jug-eared and shyly smiling dial were rather different. I merely wanted to be an Aussie tennis player victorious at Wimbledon. The back wall was my gateway to glory. But I later found that the skills acquired did not necessarily transfer to an actual tennis court, where the opponent was more mobile than a brick wall. The dream, however, has never died, and even today I can't resist giving Lleyton Hewitt my advice. Since the advice is delivered to the television set, he probably doesn't hear it directly, but thought-waves can be powerful. I'm fairly sure that my advice was the reason he eventually abandoned his habit of wearing his peaked cap backwards at all times, even in bed. As science has now established, wearing a peaked cap backwards is the universal sign of the international idiot. No matter how handsome, no young male tennis player looks good that way and Lleyton looked worse than most, especially when seen in close-up with his fist in the air pulling the intestines out of an imaginary opponent while he yelled silent abuse at his girlfriend in the grandstand, a tirade which apparently meant that he was doing well instead of badly. More recently he has still been yelling the silent abuse but the cap is no longer always in evidence. When it is, it still tends to go on backwards, and I still tend to shout at the television set, my face contorted in a way, I am told, that bears a disturbing resemblance to the way Lleyton looks while disputing a line call. The best way of putting it is that he and I have a problem and we are both working on it. But the problem would not be there if I were not still, in my secret heart, an Australian sporting hero and man of action.

The dream of being a man of action can be a fruitful dream for a man of letters to have. Hemingway had it, and among the results were "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway in real life was a great reader but he played his bookishness down, because he wanted to be thought of as a great hunter. The far less physical Aldous Huxley, in an essay called "Foreheads Villainous Low", tried to point out that Hemingway had overdone the he-man effect, and that the strain of pretending not to be an intellectual was doing Hemingway's prose no good. In response, Hemingway tried to point out that Aldous Huxley was a wimp. Hemingway's side of the argument got more support from the intellectuals than you might expect. Even among intellectuals, in fact especially among intellectuals, the idea is apt to linger that action comes first. Hamlet was an intellectual, and traced the roots of his fatal inaction to too much thinking. He pronounced the verdict upon himself: by pondering too closely on the event, he was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought. Fortinbras, who would assume the throne that Hamlet forfeited by dithering too long, prided himself on not being similarly afflicted. The idea that too many ideas will bind the muscles is an idea that comes with the capacity to have any ideas at all. Creativity is filtered through the intellect but it has its wellspring in the primary drives that made us chase and kill wild animals long before we thought of writing anything on their cured skins.

Hence the tendency of any revolutionary movement in thought or the arts to declare war on museums, libraries, and books themselves. The Futurists were only one of the 20 th century avant-garde movements who proclaimed the desirability of smashing up the museums and burning down the libraries. This intoxicating notion wasn't even new with them. George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Caesar and Cleopatra, had already said that he thought it a blessing for human history that the library of Alexandria had been burned down. Actually there were two main libraries in Alexandria, but he conflated them for dramatic purposes, principally to provide indirect lighting. When the leaping flames lit the faces of Caesar and Cleopatra it spelled the end of the old Egyptian civilization, but Shaw quite liked the idea of old civilizations ending because he thought that their accumulated fustian wisdom got in the way of founding a new one, the socialist civilization that would bring justice to all. And though our historical imaginations don't usually go back much beyond the burning of the library in Alexandria, it was by no means the first time that a civilization had died with its books.

The first libraries were palace archives, and they had all vanished with the palaces. Three thousand years before Christ, Syria and Babylon stored their records on clay tablets and catalogued them for reference. Thirteen hundred years before Christ, in the Kingdom of Hattusas, tablets were catalogued by title and author. Ozymandias founded a library, but Shelley doesn't mention it in his poem: the library was under the sand that stretched far way, and we know that now because a few of the tablets were dug up again. In Assyria, Ashurbanipal had his own library of 1,500 books, but presumably other people were allowed to consult them, because many of the tablets that still survive carry warnings against late return. Nowadays if we bring a library book back late we get fined. We have to imagine what the penalties were like then, because a tablet spelling out the punishments for bringing a book back late has never been found. We can presume that the penalties were drastic, especially in Babylon, which is nowadays called Iraq. We can assume that some distant ancestor of Saddam Hussein was sitting at the front desk, wielding his date-stamp like a weapon of mass destruction. But despite the care put into preserving the books against depredation, all those libraries vanished with the civilizations that gave rise to them. And already you can hear a warning bell to presage a heavy theme: that they had libraries was what made them civilizations. No library, no civilization. No civilization, no library.

The library as we know it now came in with the Greeks, mainly because the stone or clay tablet had given way to a technological advance: papyrus. A papyrus roll could be reproduced with some ease. It still took time, because it still had to be done by hand, but the rolls could be copied, and therefore bought and sold. Because they could be bought and sold, the papyrus rolls were available for private collection. The private library, as opposed to the palace library, took over as the model, and one of the things I want to propose is that the private library and the palace library, or call it the state library, have, or should have, an indissoluble connection. Aristotle's enormous personal library was the model for the library of Alexandria. Somewhere around 300 BC the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy Philadelphus, built the complex of libraries we call the Alexandria library, which copied every book in the world it could get its hands on and stole the originals if necessary. Any ship docking in Alexandria had its books confiscated as the price of tying up to a bollard. The Library of Alexandria had almost half a million rolls in it at the time Caesar watched it burn. He preferred to occupy himself with Cleopatra than fight the fire: roughly similar activities, as Marc Antony later testified. But Caesar had got the idea, and he commissioned a great library of Greek and Latin books to be built in Rome. He didn't live to see it open and beget its children.

Augustus built two libraries, the Octavian and the Palatine. They both burned, but the one on the Palatine was replaced by, of all people, Tiberius, otherwise a legend for destructive tyranny: an anomaly we might have to examine. As late as the 4th Century AD, the Roman Empire, by then far into its decline, held at least twenty eight libraries in the capital city alone, most of them attached to that popular gathering point for the leisured class: the baths. If Ramsgate baths had had a library next door I might have got the right idea much earlier, but let that pass for the moment, because we should consider what Shaw was saying. He was saying that no library had ever guaranteed the continuity of a civilization. What was more, the very impulse to accumulate scholarship might have got in the way of the necessary political action that would have kept that civilization fresh. It's a seductive notion. Not even Shaw was the first to have it. He was only echoing Schopenhauer's attractive idea that knowledge is better gained from life than from books. Who can doubt it?

Well, in fact they all did. Deep down under the image-breaking rhetoric, they all knew that their bright idea was merely an emphasis. Schopenhauer was a learned man who wanted his books published. If Shaw had really been certain that too many books got in the way of true learning, he would not have wanted his own books published. In real life, he was so keen on their being published that he insisted on supervising their production, taking fanatical care over their appearance, specifying everything from the type-face to the width of the margins. Nor were the Futurists, Dadaists, and all those other furiously doodling advocates of starting again with a clean slate, fundamentally averse to getting their books into circulation. Their books looked like nobody else's books, but they were still books. All the early 20th century cultural revolutionaries who sounded off against the stifling weight of a public library were at heart unfailingly keen to get their own books into it. They just thought it was a pity that all those other books were there already, silting up the shelves. The writers who thought libraries were choking them with the past but still wanted their own books to be part of the future were like the painters and graphic artists who thought, or said they thought, that museums were a dead weight. Translating thought to deed, Apollinaire swiped some small, portable objets d'art from the Louvre and Picasso kept them for a while at the back of his studio. But Picasso wasn't quite as confident as Apollinaire that the museums should be dispersed. Born as a canny operator as well as a great artist, perhaps Picasso already had a suspicion that some his own pictures were heading for that very destination, and that their presence in an official collection would help to raise the price he could charge private owners for whatever he turned out next. There is also evidence that Picasso feared the cops might come and ask him awkward questions about some of his ornaments.

Apollinaire, of course, feared the cops wouldn't come: he wanted to breathe defiance, to enjoy the thrill of his fine idea brought to life. Far into the 20th century, the fine idea kept cropping up that the most equable way for museums and libraries to serve the common people would be to distribute their contents at random while turning the buildings into meeting halls. As late as the 1960s, in the flush of student activism, the young rhetoricians of the Western universities — most of whom gave living proof that they were barely capable of organising toilet facilities for the mass meetings they addressed — loudly proposed that freedom would be furthered if established institutions were to be dismantled. But the large part of what they said had already been discredited. Indeed if further proof was necessary, their programme was being discredited at that very time, because their proposed Cultural Revolution of the West was taking for its model the Cultural Revolution in the East, the one in China. As Jung Chang's magnificent and terrifying book Wild Swans was eventually to make clear, China's Cultural Revolution was an obscenely vindictive blood-bath, just one more hideous instalment of Mao's war against his own people.

To be fair to our young freedom fighters in the 1960s, information on the tragedy in China was hard to come by at the time, especially if your ears were stopped because your mouth was permanently wide open. But the truth wasn't hard to guess. The evidence was already in, from previous totalitarian adventures in the Twentieth Century, that the future dreamed of by the Futurists, should it actually arrive, would have an awful resemblance to historical house-cleanings going back at least as far as Tamburlaine and his famous wall of skulls, lime and living men. In the first twelve years of the Soviet Union the Russian avant-garde artists were allowed to live and even to flourish. But they were already realising that there was a price to be paid for a state endorsement of their new start. Suddenly feeling not quite so young as they once had, they found themselves confronted by screaming adolescent Komsomols who had been sent to visit the art schools in order to impose an official programme called Proletkult, which seemed to be based on the preposterous notion that the avant-garde was itself part of the stifling past, and should be swept away in the name of an even newer new art dedicated to nothing except furthering the aims of social revolution as defined by the Party. The result was a forecast of an all-too typical Twentieth Century picture. Experienced artists and intellectuals who had merely advocated the virtues of destruction were horrified to find themselves taken literally by vociferous but clueless post-pubescent junior agitators all wearing the same mass-produced peaked cap. Their only virtue was that they rarely wore the cap backwards. In 1929 the commissar for Education, Lunacharsky, having been reprogrammed by Stalin, cracked down on the avant-garde artists he had previously encouraged, and their dream officially became a nightmare. Most of them realised that it already had. For some of them the crack-down might even have come as a relief: at least they were merely going to be interrogated, tortured and shot, instead of harangued by a posse of confident teenage dolts. Forty years later, in the Chinese Cultural revolution, some of the survivors found that to be the worst thing: being surrounded by dogmatic young thugs shaking their fists as they screamed excerpts from the aesthetic wisdom of Madame Mao.

What had happened to Russia happened to Germany when the Nazis came in, and this time the world found out straight away, because the Nazis took pictures: moving pictures. The burning of the books in the Operplatz in Berlin is one of the abiding images of the Twentieth Century. The sole virtue of the Nazis was that they infallibly discredited their own ideas from the moment they put them into action, and made sure the world realised it by boasting about their atrocities as if they were accomplishments. Immediately it became obvious that Heinrich Heine had been right when he predicted that any regime that burned books would soon burn people. Some of the people scheduled to be burned managed to leave early and take their books with them, thus removing many of the best private libraries from the purview of the Gestapo, who were great readers in their way, although they were always great hunters first. As Victor Klemperer tells us in his marvellous two-volume diary, the Gestapo were always very interested in what books you had on your shelves. The result was a house-cleaning, but here already the anomaly comes in that we noticed in the case of Tiberius. Not even the Nazis succeeded in destroying everything. Admittedly they were short of time. The Thousand Year Reich was fated to last only twelve years. But they didn't realise that. And we are forced to conclude that the main reason they didn't obliterate every book that they hadn't written themselves was because they had a weird urge to preserve the printed evidence that the culture they were busy annihilating had once existed. In Poland in 1942, in the ghetto of the town called Drohobycz, the great writer Bruno Schulz met his death when a Gestapo officer called Karl Guenther shot him in the head. But until that moment Schulz had been employed in the category of Necessary Jew, because he knew something about books, and the Nazis were busy cataloguing their literary loot before sending it back to Germany to be incorporated into some weird and wonderful library of superseded, decadent cultures. Adolf Eichmann himself, who took pride in his expertise on the Jewish culture whose living representatives he had been deputed to annihilate, was some kind of collector of Jewish manuscripts, which he enjoyed pottering about with almost as much as he enjoyed rewriting the timetables so that all the trains ran to Auschwitz.

Goebbels, who had a literary background and some pretensions as a novelist, kept an important private library. After the war, Goebbels's personal assistant, an ex-journalist called Wilfred von Oven, got away safely to Argentina, where he published, in two volumes, an unintentionally comic masterpiece called Mit Goebbels bis zum Ende — With Goebbels to the End. In the year 2,000 I found a copy in Henschel's great second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires. When I sat down in a café in the Avenida Corrientes to begin reading my new treasure, fascinating facts leaped from the yellowed pages. Did you know that Goebbels gave up smoking the day after D-Day? Neither did I. Apparently he had figured out that the time to give up smoking is when you are on a psychological high, and he was feeling good because he sincerely thought that with the Allied armies actually present in Europe it would be easier to reach a political arrangement with them, presumably because they were closer to hand. Whatever the wisdom of that, he took up smoking again twelve days later. But another fact is even more fascinating. He also, says von Oven, started re-ordering his library. As the end approached and the Russians were almost within shelling distance of the Operplatz where his sinister team of student myrmidons had once scornfully read passages aloud from the books he had ordered to be burned, the Reichsminister decided that his library of classic German literature should be cleansed of Nazi texts. The bookburner started burning his own stuff, but only so that the stuff he had secretly known to be better all along could keep its own company undisturbed by ideological junk. And even the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao, the biggest enemy of Chinese written culture since the mad First Emperor of the Ch'in burned the classical texts; even Chairman Mao, who encouraged the notion that his own Little Red Book of platitudes was the only book that a Red Guard in a peaked cap need ever read; even Chairman Mao kept a personal collection of classic poetry in his library in Beijing.

(Australian Book Review, December 2002 – January 2003)