AL Andrew Leigh
DM David Marr
DM I975 was where I saw conservative Australia, supposedly respectable Australia, supposedly conventional Australia, supposedly lawful Australia willing to bet the house, willing to bet democracy itself on getting rid of Whitlam and getting into power. And the sight of that and the lessons of that have never left me.
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'll 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.
David Marr is one of Australia's great writers. Trained as a lawyer at the University of Sydney, he began his career on The National Times and The Bulletin before moving on to The Sydney Morning Herald and now Guardian Australia.
He's written major biographies of Garfield Barwick and Patrick White and penned quarterly essay profiles of Kevin Rudd, George Pell, Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott.
He's witty, historically informed and superbly read, and his repartee with Gerard Henderson on the ABC Insiders is stuff of legend. David, thanks for joining me on The Good Life Podcast today.
DM A pleasure so far. I enjoyed your exaggerations in the introduction very much.
AL So, growing up were you a bookworm? I remember Gore Vidal once saying that he hadn't read everything by the time he was 18, but he'd read everything that really mattered. Did you devour books in much the same way?
DM Absolute bookworm. Never happier on the weekend than waking up to hear rain. Rain meant you were free to read. Years and years of battles with my parents, put out the light, put out the light with just a no, look, I've nearly finished it. Put out the light. And I read and read and read.
And, like Gore Vidal, I read a lot of things that mattered when I didn't know what they were about, like Russian novels. Do you remember pouring yourself into Russian novels at the age of 15, 16, 17 when you had only a vague idea of why they mattered, but being swept away by them? And it's part of the promises I've made to myself now. I have to read.
I've read Tolstoy again, lots and lots of Tolstoy again but it is actually time to see whether Dostoevsky stands up, and I suspect it's pretty maudlin and embarrassing in there.
AL I'd be surprised if Dostoevsky didn't speak to you differently now than it did to you the first time you read it.
DM You'd hope so, wouldn't you? You'd hope it spoke differently. But there is still so much reading to do, so much reading.
AL Where did the love of books come from? Were your parents inveterate readers?
DM Mum was a reader. Dad wasn't. Dad was an engineer and he read the papers. He always had a book on the go, but mum was a reader.
And this was up on the north shore of Sydney and there were bookshops of course and there was a very good public library at Gordon, and a big event in my life was when I was allowed through into the adult section of the Gordon Public Library.
I can't now remember what age it was. I think I was about nine or ten or something, but I'd not been allowed in until then and a sympathetic librarian said, okay David, you can go through. That was a huge door for me to walk through.
My mother used a little commercial library all the way through the respectable suburbs of Sydney in those days with these little commercial libraries where you could get the latest American novels. For, I presume, a couple of shillings or something you'd have a chance to read them.
And mum had a bit of a taste for slightly racy American novels and that's what she read. That's doing her a bit of a disservice. She read more widely than that, but she loved those novels she got from that little library.
AL Which is an institution that I've never come across before, but it makes some sense.
DM Completely disappeared now, completely disappeared.
AL So, then you studied Arts Law at Sydney University. You became a barrister. What drew you towards journalism?
DM Well, I always wanted to be a writer and from the middle of my teens I was writing little plays and various things. And the idea of doing Law was I had to have something to fall back on.
And I worked as a law clerk for a couple of years while I was studying, as you had to do in those days, and I left the law very happy to put it behind me, only to discover that, although I couldn't imagine practicing law, I love the law.
I love its possibilities. I love what it can stand for. And I've been writing about the law my entire career.
I became a barrister for two reasons. One, irritation with the Law Society that dealt with solicitors in those days, because in those days solicitors couldn't advertise and they were very few, maybe only half a dozen in the country, lawyers who had gone over to journalism.
And the Law Society in New South Wales was running this insane complaint that what I was really doing was making a name for myself as a substitute for advertising and then I would go back, and I felt this is just ridiculous.
And so I wore a barrister's wig for one afternoon, got myself admitted and I've been rising steadily in the order of precedence of the non-practicing bar in New South Wales.
But to my intense irritation, about 15 or 20 years ago they ceased publishing this list. I would be right near the top now, Andrew, if they still published it, but they don't.
AL But you didn't, as you say, go far from the law. So, as editor of The National Times you infamously published a series of articles on corruption by Askin. Most famously an article headlined, Askin, a Friend of Organised Crime, came out on the day of his funeral in 1981.
DM No, it was even more dramatic than that. It came out between his death and the funeral. And there was this extraordinary argument raised by a number of very respectable people in this town that you should at least lie about somebody until they're buried.
I could never understand it myself. It caused a huge sensation. It's one of the best things I've done in my career.
It was written by a wonderful journalist, David Hickie, who went on to write a really good book on Askin called The Prince and the Premier, and it was a jolt. It really was a jolt and it made a number of people, not least the Fairfax family, understand that they had been duped by Askin for a long time.
And the narrative of, the barely interrupted narrative of corruption in New South Wales politics resumed strongly after that. I was very proud of that.
AL And the allegation was fairly serious. I think there was engagement with bookmaking, suggestions Abe Saffron had been paying the premier some five, $10,000 a week. This is pretty heady stuff and presumably somewhat scary for you on a personal level given the threats that were subsequently made.
DM No, I can't say that I... Perhaps I should have felt a little nervous but I didn't at all. I didn't at all.
The story included, in a way that only Sydney can, absolutely cliché. It included brown paper bags full of cash. These things aren't just invented by cheap crime writers of detective novels. It was reality.
But the corruption in Sydney was so astonishingly blatant in those times. It was a time when gambling casinos were completely illegal but a time when a street could be closed at night so that new roulette tables could be hoisted into an illegal casino in Forbes Street. That, oh yes, Forbes Street was closed last night for, you know.
And in a way that has always interested me, the knowledge of corruption can filter down so much that it's very easy just to take it for granted. Well, that is the weather of politics in New South Wales, stormy, corrupt, cool change coming.
I've always been interested in that, the way in which we accommodate knowledge of that kind.
AL Your 1980 biography of Garfield Barwick was striking for me because it drew out, as someone trained in the law, the deeply political nature of a range of Barwick's decisions, particularly striking down tax laws.
Yours was a pretty critical biography. He didn't much like you as I understand it, discouraged his friends from cooperating. What drew you to write a biography of somebody who you probably knew from the outset wouldn't love it?
DM 1975, the sacking, remains for me the most important political event of my life by a country mile.
1975 was where I saw conservative Australia, supposedly respectable Australia, supposedly conventional Australia, supposedly lawful Australia willing to bet the house, willing to bet democracy itself on getting rid of Whitlam and getting into power. And the sight of that and the lessons of that have never left me.
They tell me what conservatives are capable of, or so-called conservatives are capable of in this country, but they also tell me what Australians will accept.
Because that outrageous sacking, the revival for a couple of days there of the powers of Charles the first was endorsed at the subsequent election overwhelmingly by the Australian people, and that's lessons about the Australian attitude to abstract principles of democracy and liberty.
But what was done then was also for me, as I say, this deep lesson in what conservative Australia will do for power. Lately I've come to the view that it happens every 25 years. Now Andrew, this is your kind of bizarre principle. It's every 25 years.
So, in 1950-51 was the Communist Party Dissolution Act where Menzies actually proposes and tries to legislate to allow politicians to strip organisations of their assets without judicial review.
Now, in this instance the Labor Party arced up. They fought the subsequent referendum after the High Court. The High Court was good, the Labor Party was good, the people were good and that principle didn’t enter our law.
Imagine how damaging that would have been if we had that in our law, that politicians were able to strip people of their property, were able to punish people, etc.
In the early 1950s everything worked well and the conservatives were beaten. 75, everything worked badly, Labour of course fought what happened in 75, but the people endorsed.
25 years later we have Tampa, the Pacific Solution, etc. The courts have been pretty poor about that. The Labor Party has been distinctly poor about that. The people have endorsed that and so we've gone through the process again.
It's the DMAS rule of every 25 years. God alone knows what's waiting for us in about 2025-26 because the last thing has been going for almost those 25 years.
Anyway, back to 1975, my view was that Barwick had somehow escaped the retribution that was falling everywhere on the head of the Governor General John Kerr. Kerr couldn't go to cocktail parties without escorts of mounted police, which I have no doubt he enjoyed very much, the escorts of mounted police.
But Barwick was, with his gritty determination, drifting through without actually very much punishment, and I thought I was going to write a slim little book about how wrong Garfield Barwick was in the 75 crisis and what I wrote in the end was a fat book in which I found actually a good deal to admire about him.
I came to admire the man's skill, this magical skill of being able to persuade people apparently effortlessly of common-sense sounding notions that were complete rubbish.
He invented the notion of confidence of parliament to explain what happened in 1975. I mean, complete utter tosh but it sounded so convincing. Kerr used it. A number of people were convinced by it.
Anyway, so I wrote this biography. At first he did cooperate with me. I had an interview with him and all was going well, but then he's not an idiot and he worked out where I was coming from and then, yes, cut off all contact.
He tried to get his friends not to talk to me. Some of them did, provided me with no further documents and even pretended never to have spoken to me.
AL There is so much in that which I am tempted to respond to but I'll refrain and try and keep my no politics, no policy rule around The Good Life Podcast.
I want to move onto Patrick White, one of the 20th Century's greatest authors, 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature, a dozen novels, plays, short stories. Your biography came out in 1991 just after his death. Just paint us a picture of Patrick White. Tell us what he was like.
DM He was a grumpy old turd who was at that same time the wisest man I've ever come to know well. He was a man of great faults and great virtues. He could be brutal with people. He could be an intimate friend for many years and then drop people like a stone. He crushed people with that.
He could be a voice when he began to speak in the early 1970s on public matters. He was a voice that was listened to. He had a clarion voice when he used it and he used it on the whole well. And he was a great writer.
He was also gay. And one of the reasons I wanted to write that book was to write about the world, which was coming to an end and which he didn't much like coming to an end actually, a world in which everybody knew what was going on but no questions were asked.
Patrick and Manoly were obviously a couple but they didn't disguise what they were, they didn't advertise what they were, because that was the world in which I'd grown up and I wanted to write about that and I wanted also to correct White's own very scrappy accounts of his life.
I don't know whether you remember this but on the Penguin copies of every one of his novels there was exactly the same tiny little biography on the back. It was maybe at the most 200 words long.
And then in 1994 I was invited to go to the Perth Festival to talk about biography and on the way over I was reading a book that one of my fellow panellists had written about a strange figure in Australian literary history called Inky Stephensen.
Inky was a publisher, a weirdo. I think Inky was the inventor of the expression, the cultural cringe. I'm not sure about that. But Inky went to the bad rather spectacularly and sort of became a Nazi and ended up in the Second World War in internment in the Blue Mountains somewhere as a Nazi sympathiser.
Anyway, the point is that in this biography of Inky, there in 1935 is a letter from Patrick White's parents to Inky saying, we will bankroll your publishing enterprise so long as you publish my son's poetry.
And I thought, Jesus Christ, that contradicts everything that Patrick has ever said about his parents, about how they stood in his way, etc. And I thought, God, I'd love to read a proper biography and I'm going to write it.
In two seconds I was completely committed to a course of action that took eight or nine years of my life and even at the end, as we were going over the final version of the book with Patrick, he had a right to read it but not to insist on corrections, but I was still arguing about his mother and the enormous support his mother had given him all those years.
I would say, Patrick, admit it, this woman was your greatest champion. And there was a pause and he said, yes, but she wasn't your mother.
AL You had that beautiful line at the end of the book where you talk about giving him the manuscript, he identified about 25 errors of detail which you corrected, he confessed he found the book so painful that he often found himself reading through tears. He did not ask me to cut or change a line.
DM He was a professional. He knew that my best chance of doing a good job was in the end that I would be responsible for the text.
Do you know what he didn't do? He didn't correct my German. This is a grudge I have against him. He spoke German, he studied German and for one reason or another every now and again, probably only a dozen times in a very fat book there's a German phrase or sentence, and in the first printing of the book there were a significant number of German errors and he didn't correct them.
AL So, I want to take you to a couple of my favourite lines from the book because I think when people come to write biographies of you then the Patrick White biography will itself be at the core of your output.
I want you to reflect a little on what these lines tell us about Patrick White but also whether they reflect anything about you, because you were a younger man going through this in that eight or nine year period. It must have shaped you a lot.
DM It did.
AL On loneliness, you have to make the best of it. Pretend that this is what you would choose.
DM That's a line of Patrick's, isn't it?
DM That's a pretty accurate description of me from my late teens to my late 20s. It was a very crowded loneliness but it was very lonely as I was stumbling through the business of acknowledging to myself that I was gay.
It was awful. It was awful for me and it was awful for a number of other people who were hurt by this process as well, particularly the lovely woman that I married in that time.
But I did accept that loneliness because I couldn't see any way out. That way out came but it was very hard-won. It was awful.
Loneliness of course can involve all kinds of things. Constant showing off, constant conviviality, constant work and making very good friends, friends I've still got all these years later, but it's still pretty lonely.
AL You treat your friends, at least from the accounts that they've given me, with a good deal more kindness than Patrick White. Even Roddy Meagher talks about his rudeness to those who had been good to him.
DM Roddy, his cousin, who was a cousin and was so funny about Patrick, Roddy Meagher was one of the wittiest men to ever live in this country. But he described Patrick with a beanie. Well, Patrick wore beanies but it was something like the seer of Centennial Park wandering the territory with his beanie, or something like that. It was better than that. He was funnier than that.
AL You talk about Patrick saying, I refuse to go through life as Paddy White because that wasn't me. Does anyone call you Dave Marr or is that also a similar choice you've made there?
DM I'm widely called Dave Marr, but the odd thing is I don't hear it and it took somebody, it was a few years ago now, to point out to me that really hardly anybody calls you David, and I suddenly realised, yes.
But people do have names from different periods of their lives. To my close family there's a family nickname, which we won't go into in this podcast, but if somebody outside a very close circle calls me that... My partner doesn't call me that and old friends of 30, 40 years standing don't call me that, but this little circle from...
And he was Paddy to the people he knew before he went back to England to go to Cambridge. I discovered one or two people when I was researching that biography in the 1980s, so he was at Cambridge in the 1930s, and in the 1980s there were still a few people who could unselfconsciously but proudly, if you get my meaning, all at the same time refer to him as Paddy.
AL My good friend, Macgregor Duncan, who took over from me as Justice Kirby's associate was Mac before he started working for Michael Kirby and Michael insisted on calling him Macgregor and now he increasingly goes by Macgregor.
Perhaps Kirby and White have that same English sensibility that one is given a proper first name for a reason and one should use it.
DM Yes, that's true. I think David in full is a perfectly serviceable name, although I understand it's almost dropped out of the top 100 names these days chosen. But for Patrick as well, A, for a distinguished protestant family to call a child Patrick was a very unusual thing to do. There were no other Patricks around at that time.
You're talking about somebody who was born in 1912 to a really rich grazing family and born what's more in London. To call him Patrick was wilfully exotic and then to call him Paddy... I think putting Paddy behind him was another step of putting his mother behind him. That was her name, so this is I'm grown up now, I'm Patrick.
And he became of course one of those people identified really across Australia by his Christian name. He was Patrick. There was Gough and there was Patrick and there were half a dozen people who were simply known by their Christian name. He was one of them.
AL Turning to his attitudes to other people, you write in the book, so he reached a bleak but reassuring view that people in the ordinary run of things are shoddy, greedy, jealous, stubborn and contemptible as he in despair thought himself to be.
We're betrayers by nature. We disappoint high hopes. The healthy tear the sick apart. Only those who suffer can understand what life is about.
DM Yes, that was his view. It's not my view. I don't think you actually need to be in the depth of despair and suffering to understand, but from that suffering and from that despair he did understand how so many people live and he had the courage to write that at a time when the sorts of portraits, particularly of ordinary Australians, were sentimental and he was not sentimental.
He was brutally honest. But you cannot, I think, read Patrick's work without understanding his profound empathy for other humans in his writing. He might not be able to have displayed it always in life but in his writing, yes.
One of the things he would say to me is why are you bothering to write a biography about me because the only me that matters is the me at my desk, and that was the better him. But of course there are all the other Patrick Whites who had to be brought to life, including the one at his desk.
AL Then there's the attitude of success. You write, frank enjoyment eluded him. He could not forget old slights. And then you talk of success, the general message he had when success arrived was this, about time.
DM I'm laughing at my own lines. That's very vain, isn't it? I haven’t read that for a while. Yes, but I sometimes wondered whether that disdain for success, even in a way for the Nobel Prize, was a sense that no praise was ever going to be enough to really match that sense he had of his own achievement.
That's a very rough thing to say, but he feared the contentment that great success might bring. He refused accolades left, right... He refused knighthoods several times. He was very pleased, whatever he might have said, to have won the Nobel Prize.
And there was one other honour that he admitted to me he would accept and that was an Order of Merit, to become one of the Queen's select artists, intellectual, diplomat, grandees in the limited order of merit. That offer never came.
But on the one hand he had a great appetite to show his critics to be wrong, and on the other he feared what might happen to him if he wallowed in his success. He had seen it in other people too. I think he saw it as an Australian trait to be too content with accolades.
AL Perhaps the flip side or complement to that attitude, you write about his political engagement as having a commonality in his fear of the power of money. You write, White's politics and the condemnation of money were the politics of an angry monk.
DM Well, he did see himself as a bit of a monk. He also understood, having been a rich man all his life, not, I discovered after his death, hugely rich, partly because of his own generosity to people, but a rich man all his life and he knew what money could do to people. He knew how it could shut them off from life and he watched money at work.
He was, I have to say, an unreflective supporter of Bob Menzies and the Liberal Party on his return to Australia. And it wasn't until Whitlam started to whip the Labor Party into shape and drag it out of the early 1900s during the 1960s and early 1970s that he became a very enthusiastic supporter of a party that he believed now represented the best future for the country.
Let me say his disappointments with Labor from that point on were endless and his high hopes for various leaders were all dashed. He had such hopes for Hawke and those hopes were dashed. He had such hopes for Keating and they were also dashed in their way.
But he became a kind of grandee radical and with that voice, I believe, spoke a great deal of truth.
AL Did his fear of the power of money in some sense shape yours?
DM Not his. If you're a journalist any time you should be asking, what's the money doing? But to become a journalist, and I started out in the middle of the 1970s and untrained as I was and remain, you knew to ask the question of where the money was coming from. Who's paying for this? Who gets the money at the end of this transaction?
And in Australia that's always pretty clear. The ways of hiding money have become much more sophisticated over the last 20 or 30 years, but the general forces of money in this country are absolutely clear.
Look at the mess we're in at the moment over emissions trading. That's because the coal industry has politics by the balls. It's simple. It's money.
But there are other passions and I have been arguing for a long time with people who say it's all about money. I've been arguing with them solidly to say it's not all about money.
There are other things going on here and in Australian politics the power of faith, the power of fear of the future, the conservative passion for some kind of imagined simplicity of days gone by all powerfully shape politics. But Andrew, I know that we're not talking about politics at the moment.
AL We're not, although my next question is actually a tad political. I can't help asking you a question raised by my friend, Michael Cooney, who says that the appearance of a David Marr Quarterly Essay profile is like the appearance of oranges in a Godfather movie. It portends trouble about to come.
This is true of your profile of Kevin Rudd, of Tony Abbott and of George Pell. Did you anticipate that when you set out to write those projects?
DM Absolutely not. If I'd thought that these characters had a limited lifespan I probably wouldn't have set out... It was a lot of work. I love the form, about 30 to 35,000 word essays, a distillation of a political life, of a character study, of observation of... You hope there will be fine analysis and good jokes, etc.
But I was in London doing something unusual for me which was actually speaking at a conference about Patrick White which was being held at London University, and I got an SMS from Annabel Crabb saying, a good thing your essay sold well.
So, this is my Kevin Rudd essay and I thought, oh no, there's a defamation mistake in there. It's been pulled from the market. What's wrong? And she replied, he's in there now being sacked.
So look, there is a bit of a curse at the Quarterly Essay, it has to be admitted. But I think people exaggerate the role that my essay paid in the sacking of Rudd and I still believe the sacking of Rudd was a stupendous mistake.
The disciplining of Rudd was the duty of the party but that looked like a bit too much hard work, so they sacked him instead. And look where that's left the country. That's nearly a decade ago, Andrew.
AL It is indeed. Do you have to like a subject at least a bit to write a good biography and conversely, can you like them too much to be able to write a good biography? Can you be too friendly with someone?
DM Both true. I don't think I could have written the Barwick book unless I did find things to admire about him, and I was also curious. For me it's always about answering questions.
A big book is only worth doing if there are big questions that deserve explanation. For Barwick, so many questions.
At the heart of Barwick's story is how can a young man from a Labour family, what is the journey, a cliché I hate but... What is the journey of a young man who was a keen Labour supporter who ends up as a Tory chief justice willing to claw down a prime minister? What's that journey? And along that way, as I said, I found a lot to admire.
Being too friendly is a problem and certainly with Patrick I knew that that was a danger, but he knew it was a danger too. And we had a combative relationship which was fundamentally very generous on his part, but it was combative.
And there were, certainly as his health was failing and I was trying to finish writing this enormous book, because it's 600 pages long, every now and then my phone would ring and there was a voice at the other end saying, Patrick's voice, when are you going to finish that fucking book, and slamming the receiver down.
I knew that that project would fail if I began to regard myself as a friend or as a member of the family or some kind of colleague of White's, and I never did, never.
I despair of those biographers who've become absorbed much too much in the world of their subject. It's nearly always death, but always of course is the great exception which is Boswell's Life of Johnson, which if you haven't read it lately, have another look at it. It is brilliant, a scintillating document which is a record of years and years and years of intimacy.
AL You also talk about the risk of putting too much of yourself into a biography. You had a piece in a monthly recently writing that biographers should stay out of sight.
Kind writers save their readers from their homework, and you differentiate your biographical style from Tom Wolfe and Hunter S Thompson and blame David Attenborough and Brian Cox for the trend to put the biographer into the story.
Do you find that tough sometimes to hold yourself back?
DM No. I didn't at all. What I can't bear are biographers who, for instance they're writing about somebody who was in Cairo in 1940 so they do... Biographers have to go to the place. One of the things you've got to do is you've got to go where your subject was.
But I don't want reflections from the biographer about what this particular street in Cairo looks like in 2012. I don't want that. I want him to use, or her to use what they discover from that experience, the experience of being there to enrich their account of the subject's life.
I don't care that they've been in a restaurant where their subject has eaten. I don't care about any of that, but we all have to do that homework.
Nor do I care about the great research discoveries. I believe you can't communicate to a reader the boredom and excitement of research. So, you're there in a library. You're searching for two weeks for something that really matters and you find it, and the personal elation is profound.
But you've done your homework. You don't need to talk about the process of research in your book. Talk about it in essays, talk about it in speeches but leave it out of the book.
There are two exceptions to the rule though about standing back. One of them I've already mentioned. If you are an intimate of your subject and if, in Boswell's case, you have been writing down the conversations for years then your role is indispensable in the text itself.
The other, I think, is where you're pursuing a fraud. Where you're pursuing frauds, the biographer's search is a thrilling part of the project because at the end of it what you're going to be saying is there's nothing there. This was a confection, and you need to be there for that.
AL So, this is like the discovery that it was Deakin who was writing the anonymous letters for the English newspaper?
DM Sort of, though isn't that a thrilling thing? The story of discovery can be really important but on the whole leave it out of the text.
There was a wonderful, strange and celebrated biography called, I think, Hadrian the Seventh which was written by a mad Englishman.
And it's a delusion that when the pope dies there's a knock at the door and this Englishman, who's not even a priest, is called on to be pope because, as you know, Andrew, any of us can hear the knock on the door when the pope dies. I, myself, have been disappointed several times in my life that that knock has not come.
But there's a biography about the author of Hadrian the Seventh that is all about pursuing this fraud and that's very much a first person account of how the fraud is uncovered.
So, there are exceptions but I think the biographer is there in every word written in the biography. Of every scene selected, of every document chosen, they are all decisions of the biographer. You don't need the actual person wandering through the scenery. Just be the intelligence of the biography.
AL You also say shockingly, I'm a grumpy old guy who hasn't found in 20 years another big life worth writing. I write little lives these days of priests and politicians. Is that you or is that us? Have we really lost big Australian lives?
DM Look, it's me. After I finished editing Patrick's White's letters which were published in about 1994, which is over 20 years ago now, I expected that the next big subject would cross my mind and I would be devoting another five years to the next biography.
I've never found another life that I think worth spending that amount of time on. I remember the theatre director, Jim Sharman, saying to me in the course of doing the White book, this will ruin you, you know. Nobody will seem worth it after this.
And certainly I had in the White project a kind of perfect situation which I can't imagine repeating which is that despite Patrick's earnest, repeated and sincere requests to people to destroy his letters, most had not. Some unfortunately had. Most had not.
And I was able to report to Patrick about a year in, I was very nervous about this, a bit more than a year in, that I was uncovering very large private collections of his letters, that they had survived.
I took the whole future of the project in my hands and I said, I would like you to give me a letter that I can show to people saying that I can read your letters. And he said, have you got a draft? And I did and I handed it to him and he looked at it and he signed it.
That was the single most generous thing he did for me and that opened a world of letters and through me, people saying to me, what do I do with these letters, and I said, well first you show them to me and then you give them to the National Library in Canberra.
I think there are now something like 10,000 of his letters and they're wonderful letters, and for all the kind things people say about my biography of Patrick, it's very largely the careful arrangement of his own words from his letters. I can't imagine repeating that.
I'm still hoping. I'm a young man, Andrew. I'm still hoping that the great subject will come along and I'll say, yes, that's worth five years, that's worth six years. It hasn't yet.
AL Tell me a little about your writing style. Do you get up, first thing have a cup of coffee, go down to the writing shed at the end of the garden and stay there till 11 am and then leave? Do you write in cafés? Do you write on planes? How does the craft flow?
DM Not in cafés and not in planes. In my workroom at the back of the house. The best time for writing is the morning. The best time for researching is all through the day. I find my writing mind comes together again quite well towards the end of the afternoon.
I have to be a bit careful because if you work on into the night much, by which I mean much, after about 7 or 8 o'clock, you get buggered. You don't sleep properly which is annoying.
All of that sounds very civilised and the reality is that all of those rules get thrown aside as the deadline looms, as the panic mounts. Panic is a great clarifier of your thoughts and of your style and I need a deadline before I can finish almost anything.
It's good to have about 1,000 words written in a day.
AL Do you have a word target?
DM No, I don't have a word target. I read somewhere once when I was young that it's a very good idea to stop when you know absolutely what the next step is in the writing, and I've always tried to live by that and I've nearly always failed.
I've always wanted to go through to the end because it's such a morning thing. And I don't know what the biology or physiology or whatever of that is but because it's such a morning thing and because I needed all the hours I could get in the morning, in the course of the Patrick project which went for five or six years, I gave up drinking.
It gave me another clear hour in the morning and was worth it for that. It was also just worth it. It was just wonderful. But of course journalism got me drinking again.
AL Do you enjoy writing?
DM I very much enjoy having written. Of course I do. I remember my mother once ringing me saying, what are you doing today, dear, working or just writing? It's a line with great affection I used against her for the rest of her life. Dad called writing... In the way of an engineer, he called it good, clean, indoor work.
And yes, of course I enjoy it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it and I feel very frustrated with myself if I'm not writing. But the pleasure of finishing a task is profound. Finishing is profound.
I wish I could organise my time. I wish I had been able to organise my time better because when big projects are on, when urgent deadlines are on, I know that I'm not a particularly profitable person to be living with, if I can put it that way.
AL David, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
DM Oh, have a fuck.
AL In the sexual sense or in the engagement with the world sense?
DM Oh, in a sexual sense. For me the struggle to be virtuous and respectable consumed me, without going into too much detail, consumed me from about the age of 17 until I was 25, 26. It was an awful wasted time.
My advice would be to get on with what you want to do. I would follow my parent's advice still. Have something to fall back on. But God knows what that is these days.
The law is looking as though it could be fairly durable, though analogues are being developed even... Analogues? What are they called? Software is being developed even as we speak. Find something durable that will be with you, but go for it.
I'm in awe. Kids come and talk to me about what they're doing, and when I say kids, they're in their mid-20s or something, and they've got this terrific degree, they've got a fabulous CV, they've done all of this volunteer work, they're full of energy and hope. They haven't got a job yet but they just missed out here, but they're going for...
And I think how easy it was for us. I said I would rather like a job in journalism and because I had a law degree I had three offers in a day. And I didn't have a word of training, not a word of training in journalism. That was easy.
It was easy to buy a house. It was easy to do all these things. It's hard now. But my advice to my teenage self would be to give it a go. Get onto it.
AL What's something you used to believe but no longer do?
AL When did you cease being a believer?
DM It's difficult to tell. Certainly at university. I'd had a very enthusiastic God period from about the age of 14 and that was part of fighting sexuality as well. It's presented to you as a notion that you can fall in love with Jesus and Jesus will look after you. It's a very complicated attraction to the heart of the cause of the pain. I've written a lot about that.
I became sceptical partly through the sheer boredom of Low Church Anglican worship. I was at an Anglican school. And the boredom hit me. I think it's actually quite useful for kids to go to church schools. I think it inoculates you against a lot of religion.
AL It was Sydney Church of England Grammar School?
DM Yes, Shore. Where we sit now I can look across the harbour to it. But at university it was fading fast and partly it was because so much of my religiosity was based around the struggle with sexuality which I was slowly losing.
But then one day in Philosophy, it was in Philosophy 2, the lecturer said, I'm handing out bits of paper and you're going to write a little essay during the lecture. We're not having a lecture today. You're going to write a little essay and the subject is how, given the state of the world, can God be all powerful and all good?
That's a very hard question to answer for a believer and I think I emerged at the end of that hour... That put the line under it.
AL When are you most happy?
DM The perfect combination would be when my work is done, with my partner, near the sea, having some food and wine with friends. That's for that kind of bliss happiness that sometimes comes over you.
Having lunch on cold days when you're travelling, a little lunch on a cold day when you're travelling... We were recently in Brussels and it was a freezing day and there was a fish café on this square in Brussels and I thought, come on, let's...
And we stood up at an outdoor table. It was freezing cold and we each had a bowl of fish soup and a glass of wine. It was just perfect. It was just completely perfect.
Theatre can make you happy. Music can make you happy, very happy. That's a different kind of happiness.
AL You always look very happy on television too.
DM Perhaps I'm happy showing off, Andrew.
AL What's the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?
DM I get a bit of exercise. I don't drink very much these days. God, I drank a lot when I was in my 20s and 30s. I don't drink much. I'm never drunk. Friends, work, exercise, those things I think keep you going.
I would like to read more. There's this terrible thing that's happened and I blame Trump.
Instead of going to bed at night and reading an improving novel or catching up with fiction, and where fiction is in Australia at the moment is starting to completely elude me and I feel terrible about that because what am I missing here, but I go to bed and read the New York Times for the latest outrages about Trump.
This has got to stop. I've got to get back to books.
AL Do you have any guilty pleasures?
DM Some I'm not going to catalogue here for you. Well, we enjoy a number of very first world pleasures like good food and going to restaurants and making sure that the little you drink is good. They're, I suppose, guilty pleasures.
And there is still the profound pleasure of sex. When I was a young man, the notion that anybody of my age could still admit to such a thing would be unspeakable but yes, the sensual life continues and that's a source of great pleasure.
Is the next question, what gives me despair? It should be.
AL It is now. What gives you despair?
DM That this country which is so wonderful falls so short of what it might be and that we're left in this country dealing particularly with a political class which is so divorced from the actual spirit of the place.
The gap between what Australians are like and what we want, and I know that that's very varied and I know that there are... I'm very committed to careful research about the nature of this country.
Every year I read with pleasure and report with admiration the work of people like the Scanlon Foundation which looks at Australian attitudes particularly to race and immigration.
And I've worked for years looking at very good research material about Australian attitudes on censorship, on homosexuality, on religion. I'm devoted to actual objective measures of this country.
I know we are many countries in one but we are not the country represented by our politicians and particularly by our conservative politicians. We are just not that country.
I know we're not to talk about politics at the moment, Andrew, but we're sitting here in the aftermath of one of the craziest episodes in Australian political history, the tearing down of Malcolm Turnbull and that's not about any demand from the nation.
That is not a reflection of what this country wants or feels at all. It's the reflection of a little cabal that's had a very strong role in the shaping of Australian politics for a very long time, which I've written a lot about, and I'm hoping it's the death throes of that cabal, but I doubt it.
It just survives, this tiny, not incredibly tiny but this small constituency that holds Australian politics to ransom and has for most of my life. And it's still there, furious about equal marriage, furious about wind power, furious about where this country might go.
One of the reasons people loved Rudd earlier on was his sense that he was going to take this country to the future we wanted. But this cabal, their task really, boiling it all down, is to prevent the future. That's what they want. They want to prevent the future and we are not a prevent the future country.
Sure, we're maybe not so good at the prospect of change but we settle down with change at once. If the change is good we settle down with it at once. When we become a republic, within ten days it will seem inconceivable to most Australians that we were ever a monarchy.
Have you lately heard any agitation to get back to pounds, shillings and pence? I haven't. But I can remember in the mid-1960s what a convulsion that took to convert to decimal currency.
Now, that convulsion was driven by the cabal and that cabal is still driving opposition to change or most any change, and that's not us.
Australia settles down with change. We're a pretty progressive country. We're not wildly progressive but a pretty progressive country. We're intelligent and orderly and pretty well educated and we can deal with the future if we're allowed to.
Of course our great model there should be New Zealand, but we won't go into that.
AL Finally David, which person or which experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
DM God, I hope my life's been vaguely ethical but I don't know. My father, he was a sensible, deeply ethical good man and in ways that I can't really even describe because it's so fundamental to me, he shaped the way I look.
The pompous show-off side of me is my mother, but whatever ethical strength I have is him.
AL Well, David Marr, biographer, thinker and occasional pompous show-off, thank you very much for taking the time to appear on The Good Life Podcast today.
DM Always a pleasure to talk about yourself, Andrew. Thank you.
AL 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.