BJ Barry Jones
AL Andrew Leigh
BJ Because when you look at something of Bach, like The Art of the Fugue or the Goldberg Variations and so on, the level of complexities involved is astounding. But then, you see, when you’re exposed to it, it stretches the brain.
AL My name’s Andrew Leigh and welcome to The Good Life, a politics-free podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast, we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers, about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to tell your friends or rate us on Apple Podcasts. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
86-year-old Barry Jones has led a full life. Nine years as a teacher at Dandenong High School, five years in the Victorian Parliament, more than 20 years in the Federal Parliament, including time as Australia’s longest-serving Science Minister. He’s written more than a dozen books, but that undersells it because he keeps on updating his books with new editions. Australia has four Learned Academies, but only one person who has been elected to all four of them.
He’s campaigned prominently on the death penalty and on climate change, having a little more success on the former than the latter. And he first came to prominence as Australia’s Pick a Box champion. Before there was Google, there was Barry Jones. Barry, welcome to The Good Life Podcast.
BJ Thank you for inviting me.
AL So how does one become a Pick a Box champion and how do you develop that voracious interest that allowed you to dominate this oddly archaic sport through the 1960s?
BJ Well, I’ve sometimes described myself as having an obsessive personality but not an addictive one. I’m not much into addiction but I am into obsession, so that when I see an issue, when I become passionately interested in an issue, and it might be, I don’t know, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, it means that I read everything that I can on it. I master the detail and I make connections. I think I’m quite good at making connections.
And so, the result is that often, for example, with my success on Pick a Box, something which I’m surprised with your comparative youth, it’s not just a vestigial kind of memory that’s been passed on to you by parents or grandparents.
Often, I’ll find people of your age come up to me in the street and say, my mother thinks you’re wonderful. But then I say, but you’ve never seen me. And they say, no, I’ve never seen you at all. Although, some people do look it up on YouTube. There’s apparently a number of clips there, and people think they’re very odd. But it means that if I’m, say, developing an interest in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century or American political history, the material doesn’t exist as just a number of discrete bits of information. It really hangs together in a coherent whole.
I remember in the days when I was on Pick a Box, one of my colleagues, who I liked very much and ultimately, he went and worked for the Australian Democrats, it’s another something from the past, George Black. But what happened with George was, George had a system for getting discrete bits of information so that he could remember, probably better than me, a whole series of things that had happened in years ending with the letters three two.
So, if you wanted to know what year George Washington was born in, well, it was 1732. What year Barry Jones was born in, 1932. But he had… It was a matter of linking these things together in a quite arbitrary way. I couldn’t do it like that. I had to have the whole beast. I had to have the articulation of the skeleton. And that was why… I mean, it was a general technique. If I was asked a complex question and they said, who’s the sixth president of the United States? I wouldn’t just come straight out and say John Quincy Adams.
I’d have to work… I had to think number one, number two, number three, number four, because I would see the connection of it and I’d say, yes. So, if they then went on, which was 11 and which was 13, I had to articulate the whole thing, which I did. Now, that gave me, to some extent, a negative reputation for being a know-all and a show-off.
But it also meant that to a lot of people who hadn’t had exposure to higher education, it was often that people would come up, still come up to me now, 60 years after the event, and say, oh, my mother always used to say, listen to him, that’s a model, that’s the way you should be learning. It is extraordinary how constant families said, this was the exposure to a different kind of operating about learning. And the infamous debate, which you can see on YouTube, about who was the first British Governor-General of India.
AL I was going to mention that.
BJ And on one level, who gives a toss, but on another level, it was… What had happened was that the Encyclopaedia of Britannica and various other textbooks all took the easy way out and said, oh, yes, the first Governor-General of British India was Warren Hastings. Well, that’s not really true. It was then called the… He was the Head of the Presidency of Calcutta and, later on, Governor of Bengal. And then the name changed and changed and then finally, the title of Governor-General of India was actually conferred by statute.
Now, you’ve got to have a lot of interest in that in order to pursue it and what happened, the turning point in some ways with Pick a Box with Bob Dyer, who were howdy customers, Bob Dyer, who was the host of Pick a Box. When I had this challenge, and I had somebody who was a fresh-faced female graduate, and when she’d been asked the question, who’s the first British Governor-General of India, she immediately said Warren Hastings.
And then when it was my turn and I was asked the same question, which was the way the format operated, I said, well, look, I know the answer that you’re after is Warren Hastings, but it isn’t technically correct. Now that threw him because yes, that was indeed the answer he was looking for because it was there on the card, wasn’t it?
And so, when I said, no, look they’ve all got it wrong, what was interesting was that he made a judgement, absolutely on the spot, to really take the issue up and devoted an entire 30-minute prime time programme on commercial television to devoting this rather arcane issue. He had three characters, Prof. Jacobs from Sydney University, Adriel Shaw from Monash and somebody from the Indian High Commission, and the issue was argued out for 30 minutes.
Now, that was a new way of presenting information. But it’s curious that there was that hunger for knowledge now, and I suspect that that’s gone and I…
AL But the hunger in you, where does that come from? Because I’m interested in how you take on this ambition to get your head around the world’s knowledge. You must have been reading huge numbers of books, and very fast.
BJ Well, I was. I was a very, I’d say, efficient reader, perhaps more than just a fast reader. Although I think I was very good at that. But it was always curious. I had this reputation as quite a small child for being freakish with reading. And this was very troubling to my mother. My mother somehow had this idea that… Sometimes they’d say, oh, he’s a real prodigy that boy of yours. And that produced a very adverse reaction from my mother because she thought, oh, prodigies always finish up badly, you see. So, the result is she was never very encouraging about this.
Just to segue slightly, I was very struck by the great Alan Bennett, who’s two years younger than me, but Alan Bennet the playwright and so on. But when he grew up in Leeds, he was very conscious that his parents, who were very devoted and very fine people. But the parents were always nervous that he would stick his head up above the parapet and that he would do something that attracted attention to him. And so, they’d say, Alan, try not to do anything that attracts attention to you.
In other words, there was really a profound concern about appearing to be outside the mainstream, appearing not to be different, not to be a prodigy. So, he was conscious always that if he achieved some success and early recognition, that his parents were a bit disturbed by it all and say, oh, where will all this lead?
AL And, of course, in Australia you’ve got people like Clive James and Germaine Greer leaving the country because they feel as though they can’t be these expansive intellectuals in 1960s Australia. Did you ever think about following suit?
BJ Oddly, not. I think because early on I had a very strong sense that I wanted to go into politics. And I thought that sticking around and slugging it out in the Labor Party in Victoria or in the 1950s, which wasn’t easy let me tell you, that I really had to stick around because I had colleagues who were trying to fight the good fight to open the Labor Party up to, in effect, make it a more democratic organisation. Now that’s an idea.
AL Well, this is of course Victoria…
BJ It was different in Canberra, I know that.
AL And you are from Victoria, where this is the heart of The Split and we’re talking not long after The Split. And so, the importance of having a more democratic Labor Party as distinct from the Democratic Labor Party is pretty alive. How did you balance all that you were doing at the time? Did you ease off with reading as you made your way into state politics and then into federal politics? Or have you always carved time out of the day to read?
BJ Well, there were a few other things. Well, I mean, I did practice law briefly for a while, not particularly happily, because I had always seen the law degree as being not an end in itself. I’d always seen that as something that would equip me to being perhaps somebody who could draft legislation or draft amendments, matter of fact, I really wasn’t bad at that. It’s funny, a few weeks ago I got an email from somebody who said that he was following up. He wanted to write something about some of the speeches that I had delivered in the 1970s, in the very early 1970s.
No, sorry. Let me do that again. About some speeches that I’d delivered in the 1970s, just after I’d gotten into the Commonwealth Parliament. So, I started really reading, hence online, from 1978 and a couple of things that struck me. First of all, I couldn’t help being actually quite smug about some of the speeches that I’d done because they were almost Andrew Leigh-like in their erudition.
AL Flattery will get you everywhere.
BJ But the point is, often the response that I got from the government and people was that we’re on quite an elevated level. And a couple of things really struck me when I was going through it in hindsight, and these may seem like very fresh new ideas to you. But, say, at question time, people asked questions because they actually wanted to hear what the answer was. I mean, it wasn’t simply to score a point and say, well you rotten mugs, you’ve failed to do so and so.
If you really wanted to say, what’s happened to the levels of water consumption in the Murray-Darling system, how much had gone into it, where it’d go? It was actually a desire to get an informed basis on which you could then say, well, is that the best that we can do? And I was staggered sometimes, that I would look and I’d see people, often who didn’t have any serious formal education at all, but who had a passionate commitment to reading.
There’s somebody I was very, very fond of, called Ralph Jacobi. The name may not mean anything to you, but Ralph Jacobi was an independent character in the Labor Party.
He’d been a union official, but he was nobody’s prisoner. And he managed to hang on to the marginal seat of Kingston, it doesn’t exist anymore. But he had developed, in this marginal seat… The interests that he had were not exactly what you’d think were top-of-the-mind issues in a marginal seat of Kingston. His great passion was water, the Middle East, oil, Antarctica, and civil rights in Eastern Europe.
Now, you’d think none of these is going to be an election winner in that seat. But he developed what was really quite an encyclopaedic knowledge, oh, in Corporations Law. And one of the great moments that I remember was that he had a debate in the second reading with John Spender who was a QC, Percy Spender’s son. And he made some reference about the Corporation law.
And Spender, in a very condescending way, he said, well, look, I appreciate what the honourable member said, of course as a layman, he does not understand the finer points of the law but good luck to him for trying. Whereupon Jacobi then got up and did, absolutely off the top of his head, a recitation of the variations of the position of the High Court, in a whole series of cases, how they changed their view about the Corporations Law.
And I remember, Spender just slunk off. And a number of his colleagues, including some on his own side said, good one. He was absolutely extraordinary with that sort of thing. And I remember Steele Hall, not a bad guy, who’d been the Premier, thought, oh, look, he’ll be easy to knock off. I’ve got terrific name recognition as a former Premier of South Australia. I’ll go and campaign.
Well, he campaigned against Jacobi. Jacobi knocked him off. But the funniest thing of all and I can’t help telling you this, was that even though people who were close to him, and I was close to him. When they had ballots in the caucus, he’d never reveal to anyone what he was going to do. It was absolutely up to him. There was a period when I’d say to him, how are you going to vote on so and so and he’d say, none of your bloody business. And he was half-serious, but he wouldn’t say.
Back in 1977, Caucus experimented with the idea of having a midterm election for the leadership. That’s what they do in New Zealand because you don’t get to vote on the leadership as a new member, you’ve got to wait for a year or two. And that’s quite a sensible idea in a way, midterm to midterm as the election. Anyway, what had happened was that Hayden challenged Whitlam and nobody knew how Jacobi was going to vote.
Anyway, so on this occasion, Jacobi is sitting up on the backbench and Whitlam comes up and sits in the carrel next to him. And Jacobi says, quite loudly, what are you doing here? And he said, well, I’ve come to see you. He said, well, you’ve never bloody well done it before. He said, you get back to your place. And Whitlam recoiled. He said, you get back to your place, that’s where you belong. You don’t belong here. Get down there. So, Whitlam, somewhat abased, you see, walked down.
So, that was not lost on the Hayden camp. They thought, oh, this is promising. He’s repudiated Whitlam. So, somebody went to see Jacobi and said, look, I’ve been authorised by the leaders to say that if we could have your vote for Hayden, you’ll go straight on the frontbench. So, Jacobi said, well, in that case, I’m voting for Whitlam.
But, you see, he was a person of absolute integrity. And the point is that I… And the contributions to the debate that he made were terrific. And I’ve got to say this, and I say it reluctantly somewhat. When I look back at those debates of the 1970s, it seems to me the quality of the debate was probably an order of magnitude better than it is now. And that was where you had a community that was far… Where the level of formal education was far lower. You only had… You could afford to have free university tuition because there were so few people at universities.
AL Indeed. So, you’ve covered a lot there and I’m also aware of the constraint of trying to keep this podcast politics and policy free.
BJ I thought we were going on for four hours.
AL But I am… Absolutely. [Unclear] in its scope. I’m intrigued by the notion of being able to hold a lot of information in your head. I assume you have a photographic memory and…
BJ No. No, I don’t. I’ve… It’s not a photographic memory. Some of those great people who had photographic memories who, indeed some of them were on Pick a Box, could get could a list of random numbers or something like that, and look at them. Or Melbourne Cup winners or something and then say, right, okay, now I’ll reel them off. I can’t do that. I’ve got to be interested in the subject. If I’ve got a passion and interest in the subject, then I’ve… Because everything is interconnected. They’re not discrete pieces of information.
And the point about… I remember there was a famous case of a Labor Senator who had a photographic memory. I think his name was Theo Nicholls. Years and years ago. And he was phenomenal because you could give him a page from a budget paper, and he’d look at it. He could reel it off. But he didn’t know what it meant.
AL So having a bit… You’re nonetheless able to contain vast amounts of information in your head in a debate, does that make…? Have you always seen that as your strength as an orator, being able to not have to constantly refer to notes as you’re giving a speech?
BJ Well, I’d say… I don’t attempt to… No, I mean, I do use notes, although not slavishly and I think I’m actually pretty good if I’ve got the notes there because I want to make sure I get the order of things absolutely right. Because I’m tailoring what I say to that particular audience. And it’s not my mind I’m concerned about, it’s their minds that I’m concerned about.
So, if I was giving a speech on, well, we’ll say climate change, depending on what the audience is like. If it’s an open audience, if it’s an audience of people who are strong supporters of my opposition, I’ll put it in a particular way. If it’s a sceptical audience or an audience that’s poorly informed, I’ll do it in a completely different way.
AL I want to come to the arts. There’s that famous C.P. Snow dichotomy between the arts and the sciences, but you’ve grabbed both and made them your passions. I was just looking through your Christmas letter from last year, and there’s references to Mozart, Messiaen and Brahms and Beethoven to Bellini to Debussy to Bowman to Rossini to Wilde to Beckett to Gore Vidal to Warden to Blake to Rowan Williams.
You seem to have attended every music festival in the country and a plethora of art galleries. I want to tease apart how you go about consuming culture. What you listen to, where you go and how you fit it in an order in your mind.
BJ It’s partly… It’s part of the exercise of trying to find out who I am. Just ducking back for a minute, I’ll always remember hearing Bertrand Russell in the flesh, in Melbourne, not far from where we are now. And he said three things. I mean, he didn’t only say it in Melbourne, he said it many times no doubt. But he said that there were three things that drove him. The search for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. And notice the three things that are really linking together.
The point is that if, say, having a passion for J.S. Bach… The thing that’s so extraordinary about Bach, for example, is that he had an enormous output. And even if one hears a piece of Bach for the first time… And there’s a lot of stuff that’s only just been recorded comparatively recently. I mean, after all, we’ve got 205 surviving Cantatas, for example. I wouldn’t pretend to know them all. But if I hear something that’s absolutely new to me, I know within two to three bars that it’s Bach. It can’t be anyone else because there’s that voice.
And there’s a wonderful… Something that John Coetzee wrote. He said that, in a sense, that we… That Bach is the person that one would like to have as a father who communicates something and somebody with whom you’ll have an immediate instinctive relationship with.
AL You wrote about the Piano Concerto No. 4 being important in your recovery from an injury last year.
BJ Absolutely. Well, what happened, I had this quite serious fall and actually whacked my head out of alignment. Now, I went to the left rather than to the right. Now that may not please you, but it was about five degrees to the left. And I… The worst thing about it was that I found that… Well, I thought, when I get home, I’ll catch up with my reading. And suddenly for the first time in my life, I’d lost interest in reading. I couldn’t… It didn’t make any sense.
I’d read something. It didn’t make any particular sense. I’d read it again, I’d read it a third time, then I’d give up. What really brought me back was music.
And I’d say that this extraordinary recording of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 done by Maria Joao Pires, the great astonishing Portuguese pianist. Somebody who really only became an international figure quite late in her life, I mean, well into her 60s. And so, she didn’t record this until she was 71. But, you see, what you find with the Piano Concerto No. 4, it’s the only one of Beethoven’s piano concertos that begins with a piano solo.
So that you begin with a single line and then you add a layer of complexity. Then you add a further layer of complexity to it, then a third, then a fourth layer of complexity. Then those elements interact and so on. And I must have played… I wish I could say I’d played it at the keyboard but I’m a dreadful prestidigitator, but I must have played 20 times. And the point is, every time that I did it, it had the same effect, that it really brought my mind back to what it’d been.
But I can see that by looking at the computer, for example, I went for an entire month without ever using the computer, without ever dealing with… I just wasn’t plugged in. I made a very good recovery and I think now I’m better than I was, say, at this time last year. But the music was absolutely profound. So, I’d play a lot of that particular work of Beethoven, but a tremendous amount of Bach.
If you haven’t seen it and if your podcast followers haven’t seen it, a couple of the great experiences, you can download a bit of it for free if you go to the Berlin Philharmonic website. You can get some significant bits of a dramatized performance of Bach’s Matthew Passion and the John Passion done by Peter Sellars, not as in Goon Show Peter Sellers, but where… Done by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, but done in Berlin.
And the performances, particularly the performance of The Evangelist by Mark Padmore, the English tenor. The acting is simply astounding. And I remember making, it was perhaps a mistake, but I was asked to talk to a Melbourne choir, the Melbourne Bach Choir, who were doing the St John Passion. So, I brought… I thought, oh, I’d give them a treat, I’ll play the DVD of the opening of the St John Passion.
Well, it didn’t have quite the desired effect because they were so awestruck by it or they thought, oh, we can’t. Because at the beginning, what happens in the fourth, in the John Passion is the… Because that’s something that begins where the first chorus looks towards the end so that the horror show opens up right at the beginning. And at the beginning of this Peter Sellars performance, the choir are actually on their backs.
BJ They’re riving, you see. And they say, here, here, Lord, Lord. But it’s all completely this amazing sense, this explosion of emotion. It’s so wonderful.
AL So, as a regular consumer of concerts and plays, how do you get the most out of them? How do you prepare? Do you tend to read a play script or look over the score before you go along? Do you focus on particular things? Because I imagine some of our listeners would like to get into these art forms. But particularly in the case of, say, opera, find them a little intimidating and aren’t quite sure what the best entry point is. Have you got some tips and tricks?
BJ Well, the… I think even if you read the dreaded Wikipedia entries on a lot of stuff, they’re often very useful in quite a helpful way, and often there’ll be a clip that you can follow. But, you see, the essence, I think, on why it’s so important to understand it, is that you’ve got to work out as to whether you want music to be a simply shared experience where, if you wanted, everyone could stand up and sing the lyrics. And I’ve… People tell me that with The Beatles or some of the more popular groups, you’d find everyone in the audience knows the words. Now in the case of the Matthew Passion, very few people would know the words.
The question is whether you’re looking for a mass experience where we’re all holding hands, in a sense, and sharing something. Or whether you say, no, this is me, Barry, this is you, Andrew. And you’re embarking on what might be quite a dangerous course in which you’re going to find out things about yourself, find out things about the world, find out things about destiny, about chaos, about all sorts of very complex things. But you do it with a sense of being prepared to take on an adventure.
And what you’re looking for is not a low level of complexity but a high level of complexity. Because when you look at something of Bach, like The Art of the Fugue or the Goldberg variations and so on. The level of complexities involved is astounding. But then, you see, when you’re exposed to it, it stretches the brain. And imagine if we had a situation where we said, look, let’s revive the whole concept of basic English. Who needs to have a vocabulary of 10,000 words, 15,000 words?
You can make yourself communicate with a hundred words if you just said thank you, goodbye and so on. But it does make for a rather limited level of communication. But you say, it’d be wonderful to have everyone speaking the same language, everyone cheering the same way.
AL So, you’re looking for the unique insight that the music can offer you, something it can stretch you with on that particular evening?
BJ I’m asking the question, what the fuck is the universe all about, and where do I fit in?
AL And what about poetry? Because you’re a part of a group which does poetry readings in public. Do you draw something similar?
BJ No, that’s not quite right. No, what happened is… No. No, this is a Julian Burnside concept. Every year on my birthday, providing I survive, and each is problematical, you see. 86 going on 87 and all that.
Now, Julian has this extraordinary poetry night down at 45 downstairs, that’s 45 Flinders Lane in Melbourne, and he gets a collection of readers, including me, to come along and read poems. Some of them he’s chosen, some of them I’ve chosen, and the impact is terrific.
First of all, it’s very gratifying to me and I’m touched by the kind of affection and so on that’s demonstrated. But it’s also when you hear these poems. When you hear, for example, George Hebert’s poem, Love. It’s astonishing. When you hear those Bach, when you hear the… And, oh, he also has some music, generally some Bach, played by people from the Flinders String Quartet. And then to hear Max Gillies reciting the famous Said Hanrahan poem, a poem I hope you know.
AL I don’t think I could recite it, but I’ve certainly heard it.
BJ But it’s one of the great, and then.
AL We’ll be rooned, isn’t it?
BJ We’ll all be rooned, said Hanrahan. It’s wonderful. It really is a wonderful poem. But I, in fact, read this year some Beckett and I also read three very interesting short poems by Rowan Williams, who you mentioned earlier, that… As he describes himself as a recovering Archbishop of Canterbury, but very interesting. I’d hadn’t got… I had not met him until the middle of last year in Cambridge. But now we’ve become regular communicants, if we could say that, and he’s wonderful.
There was a wonderful dialogue between him and John Gray in the New Statesman a couple of months ago about the basis of morality and the basis of ethics in politics. Now, there’s a new idea. And to one extent, even people who had described themselves as kind, caring atheists are still influenced by that Western Christian tradition. It’s a wonderful discussion.
AL What about art galleries? How do you move through an art gallery to get the most out of it?
BJ Well, first of all, particularly if you’re overseas with limited amount of time, you’ve got to really say, yes, this is the exhibition that I really want to go to more than anything else. I mean, when we were in Paris earlier in the year, it’s the first time, for donkey’s years, that I didn’t go to the Louvre. I mean I know the Louvre wonderfully well, but this was a time I thought, in the limited amount of time we’ve got, there are a whole number of other galleries that I’d perhaps want to spend more time at.
So, I spent time at the Louis Vuitton Fondation, which is astounding. This new building done by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne. And then a long time at the Gare d’Orsay and then at the Jacquemart Museum. Have you ever been to that?
AL Never. No.
BJ Jacquemart is a 19th century building, a very posh building, very close to the Champs-Élysées, but where this very rich family decided to really strut their stuff. And it’s largely a collection of Italian, more Italian than anything else, artwork. Fantastic. And it just shows this astonishing reach of some of those early capitalists in the 19th century in France. Now, I’ve only been to the Jacquemart a couple of times but last year I thought it was just absolutely wonderful.
Normally, in Paris, I’d spend quite a lot of time at the Cluny Museum. But the Cluny, actually, is going through a massive refurb, and that’s why The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were able to be shown in Sydney. Because that’s one of the great things when they do have a refurb is that somehow, there’s wonderful stuff being sent to all over the world.
AL So, you’ve given us some great insights in the consumption on the arts side. What about staying up to date with science?
BJ I strongly urge people to read my book The Shock of Recognition, because I’ve talked about all of those, yes.
AL How about keeping up with science? Do you tend to do that through blogs or podcasts? Do you do it through reading nature and science? How do you consume developments in science?
BJ All of the above. Now, I should confess that I’m, believe it or not, a member of the Melbourne Club and it would be an interesting piece of social observation for you to come along. You’d have to wear a tie, but to have lunch one day next time, perhaps when you are in Melbourne.
But for example, this is a typical illustration, we have a science group which meets every month. And I should protect the anonymity of some of the people who are there, but you’ve got a collection of, really, first… You’ve got a has-been politician in me and people were terrific scientists, you see, like Gus Nossal, like, of course, Peter Doherty.
So, it means that either we have a guest speaker, which we normally do, who’s describing what they’re doing in some particular area. And it’s always fascinating to me that often, even if it’s a medical scientist who [unclear] with a new specialist, it’s often new to other medical specialists because they’ll say, oh, I didn’t know that. That was all new to me. But I find that really very exciting. And it’s just wonderful, the level of interaction.
So, I keep in touch with scientific institution. I’ve got so many friends in organisations, and so on, around. So, I’ll never turn down an invitation to do something or to be involved where science is concerned.
AL Your collection of autographs seems to sit oddly with almost everything else we’ve discussed today. What is it about autographs that’s led you to develop what I understand to be Australia’s largest private collection of autographs?
BJ Yes. Well, we’re getting to that stage now, working out what happens next, and the answer is the collection will go to the State Library of Victoria. The paintings will go, I think, to the Geelong Gallery because I was born in Geelong, and they’re developing a really very good gallery down there.
You see, it was really a reinforcement of when I was reading stuff about, say… This is of course at the time of the quiz, but as I was becoming more and more involved in various areas like music or literature, and when I was also writing my Dictionary of World Biography. You see, the opportunity would come that I’d say, well, if I was reading, say, biographies of Stravinsky. I often noticed inconsistencies. So, I thought, well, Stravinsky’s still alive so why not write off and check a few things out with him. And to my delight, Stravinsky responded.
And although I’d never met, I did see him face-to-face, and then my nerve failed and I didn’t go up and introduce myself, but I saw him almost at the same distance that we are now. But it meant I picked up some inconsistencies which he was happy to follow up on. So, the result is that if you take the case of Warren Hastings who you mentioned earlier before, the Governor-General of Bengal. It meant that if I saw in a catalogue that there was a letter of Warren Hastings around and that I could acquire, well, I’d acquire it.
And similarly, if I came across… In fact, I was doing some photographing [unclear], so that I’ve got a photographic archive of some of those things. If I came across a letter of Strindberg or if I came across a terrific letter of Turgenev, well, I’d buy it. And so, the collection’s really quite a significant one. So that I’ve got composers like Brahms and Wagner and Liszt, but of course see, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, absolutely out of my price range. And anything that comes up for auction now will always go to an institution because the prices are so extravagant.
AL What advice would you give to your teenage self?
BJ Well, I suppose that’s one of the questions that I really can’t answer. I mean, basically, I think those three things that Bertrand Russell referred to, the search for love, the search for knowledge and that pity for the suffering of mankind. They’re the three things that, really, we should be pursuing and that they’ve got to try and keep us honest.
And I suppose what really has disturbed me about what’s happened at politics in recent years, months, even decades, is that to a large extent, the idealism and the intellectual clout and the courage has disappeared. That so often, now, you find with politicians that they can always think of a tremendous number of reasons why you can’t do something. So it’s, we can’t afford it, oh, it’s not worthwhile, it’ll go wrong, we’ve got no confidence we could… That if we attempted to make any change to anything, everything would come crashing down. I mean, even if you take…
AL But your teenage self didn’t seem to lack courage.
AL Your teenage self didn’t seem to lack courage.
BJ Well, I think that’s got a lot to do with two factors. One is the actual matter of timing, as I said, born in 1932. That means that I’m just old enough to remember The Great Depression. I’m just old enough to remember the threat of the Nazis. I’m old enough to remember the horrors of World War II. And those issues were so confronting. And I suspect that with recent generations, including your good self, you haven’t been faced with something quite such an existential challenge.
BJ And, I wrote somewhere, and it sounds as if I was being a bit of a smart-arse, but I said, I was a convinced anti-Nazi by the age of six. And that’s true. I’d read a lot about it, and I knew quite a lot about it. And I remember there was a family joke that when an aunt of mine came back from England, the first question I asked her was, what did you think of the foreign policies of Cordell Hull? Now, Cordell Hull was Roosevelt’s not very successful Secretary of State. And I would’ve been not quite six at that stage.
Now, no doubt, I was showing off but, in fact, I did have a real interest in that. And I remember… I mean, one of the appalling childhood memories is that going down to the area, a place called Dudley Flats, which is now really what we now call Docklands. I mean, it’s quite a posh area. Lots of cladding, oh, but still quite a posh area. And I remember at that stage it was really like a refugee camp because you had people who were victims of The Depression.
And I remember going down with my mother because she had a friend who was there. And I remember seeing a rat that seemed to be about the size of an Airedale, and maybe a bit of poetic licence there. But there was, really, an emotional but also a visceral reaction. And all factory reactions as well that say, people ought not to be living like this. This is an outrage. People shouldn’t be living like this.
And, you see, there was that very brief period, it didn’t last long, after the end of the Second World War, when suddenly the United Nations were being established. And we all thought, oh, it will be possible to transform things. But the inequities that were so demonstrated in the 1930s, the kind of factors that had led Hitler to rise to power, that’ll be gone. Well, within a few years that The Cold War started again. And it was the same. It was game on, once more.
AL Yes. It’s an incredible encapsulation of those forces that shaped you. When are you most happy?
BJ I think probably I’m at most happy with… Well, I do enjoy the grandchild. It’s a grandchild by proxy. No, my wife’s grandchild but I’m very proud of him. I think what I like most about him, and I’ve had absolutely so little exposure to small children. What I like is, when we’re reading something about dinosaurs and he’ll correct me and say, no, baba, that’s wrong. You’ve got… I think that’s terrific.
But I think going to concerts, travelling, seeing people. Last time… I think probably the high point of last year, I mean, last year was a pretty crappy year because I was really under the weather for a long time. But I think the high point probably last year was Shout. I hadn’t been to Shout for… I’d been to Shout quite a lot, but I hadn’t been for 20 years probably. And it was so much better than I’d even remembered. And I took some… I’m actually pretty proud of some of the photographs that I took of them. I’ll impose a couple on you, if you’d like.
AL We’ll include them in the notes. That’ll be great.
BJ All right. But the photographs… The stained-glass windows were just sensational.
AL What’s the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
BJ I’ve seemed to be on a bit of a roll at the moment, and I’ve been going through a massive revision of my Dictionary of World Biography for the sixth reprint being done by ANU. And I’d made a few… I’m very proud of some of the entries that I’ve rewritten. I’ve become very interested in Nietzsche and I’ve been rethinking Nietzsche and the way his mind operated. And I’m very, very pleased with the one I did on Florence Nightingale, if it comes to that. Or on the one on Kipling.
I mean, they’re three examples, at random, but where I did, really, a massive rewrite thinking about the complexity where they have an… What an extraordinary complex character Kipling was. Repellent in so many ways, but an astonishing writer. And it’s… I mean, even T.S. Eliot was saying he didn’t regard him as a great poet, but he regarded him as a great verse writer. Perhaps the greatest verse writer in English. Not a bad tribute coming from somebody like Eliot. And he was extraordinary.
But, the more and more, I’d been reading about Nietzsche and about the extraordinary way in which Nietzsche’s teachings, Nietzsche’s ideas were distorted and contorted by this dreadful sister of his so that he… Nietzsche was then automatically identified with the Nazis and so on. Although, if there’s anything very clear from Nietzsche’s writing, is that he despised racial discrimination and was not very far from being an antisemite. And Nietzsche is a very extraordinary character.
And I’d been reading more and more about Lou Andreas-Salomé who… This extraordinary Russian early psychiatrist to whom Nietzsche proposed twice. And she then went on to become the lover of Rilke. But just an extraordinary character.
AL And finally, Barry, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
BJ I think going back to that experience of seeing the poverty, the destitution and the ignominy of the way people lived. And these were Australians who were refugees in their own country in the 1930s. And I can’t look at them and preference them and say, well, if people come from another country, with another tradition, another language, another religion, I’ve got to treat them in a different kind of way. I find that obnoxious.
And I think that the retreat from ethics is appalling and there’s something about the corrupted nature of political discourse. It ought to be the noblest of all professions and, in fact, it’s looked pretty murky in recent decades.
AL Barry Jones, Living Treasure, thank you very much for taking your time to share your wisdom on The Good Life Podcast today.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. We love getting feedback. So, please leave us a rating or a comment on Apple Podcasts, formerly known as iTunes. Next week, I’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.