Historical Imagination Series, Friends Lounge, National Museum of Australia, Sunday, 20 May 2007
HELENA BEZZINA: Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. It’s great to see such a turnout for our first presentation of this new series, a public conversation on historical imagination. My name is Helena and I am a senior program coordinator here at the National Museum.
This is a really interesting new series we are starting. I don’t know how many of you actually know what we are going to be talking about here today. Historical imagination - what does that mean? It was the brain child of a number of people together here at the institution, one of whom is sitting up the back - Kirsten Wehner, one of our senior curators - who was interested in looking at how history and historical research inspired and informed the work of artists, ie writers, playwrights, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians.
This is the first in our series which is basically an informal conversation between - we are very lucky that today we have Peter Stanley, the head of our research centre; Frank Moorhouse, the writer you are all familiar with; and Lenore Coltheart, who is an historian. We have this lovely mix of different people who will explore this terrain. I am not going to give in-depth detailed introduction to these different people. I am going to hand over to our facilitator today, Dr Peter Stanley.
PETER STANLEY: Hello everybody. Friends, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Museum of Australia. This is the first of a series of conversations about historical imagination in which writers of history join with writers of historical fiction to explore where their arts meet and where they diverge in practice, on the page and in the minds of their readers.
I am delighted to be here this afternoon to introduce two practitioners of those different approaches towards our understanding of the past: Dr Lenore Coltheart and Frank Moorhouse. I will introduce both of them presently.
What will we do this afternoon? First of all, Frank will speak about fiction and history, then Lenore will speak about mostly history. I will attempt to do a ‘Parkinson’ and facilitate an open conversation between Frank and Lenore, and then we will open the conversation up to you. I hope you will take notes and be able to chip in and to start this open discussion about the relationship between history and fiction, two subjects which I certainly share a great interest in and I am pretty sure you do because of your presence here this afternoon.
Today is a special occasion for me because it was just three months yesterday that I commenced to work at this wonderful institution to run the Centre for Historical Research. One of the great pleasures of working in this place is that we come into contact with visitors who come to the Museum, both visitors like yourselves and visitors like Frank whom we have invited to come in and work with us. One of my pleasures this afternoon is to introduce a man I met very shortly after I arrived and I am now pleased to introduce to you.
Frank Moorhouse is a distinguished Australian man of letters. He is the author of many novels and collections of short stories. Some of these works he has turned into screen productions - The Americans, Baby; The Coca-Cola Kid and The Everlasting Secret Family. He has written a couple of memoirs: Days of Wine and Rage and Martini. But the particular reason he is here this afternoon and the reason he has been at the Museum for the last couple of months is because of two novels he has published: Grand Days which appeared in 1993 and the sequel, Dark Palace, which appeared in 2000. I would like to quote a little from Dark Palace before Frank gets a chance to talk to you, because the Note to Readers in the front of the novel informs our discussion about the relationship between history and fiction today. Frank, I hope you weren’t going to quote this, but let me do it for you:
This book is, in part, based on dramatic reconstruction of real people identified by their actual names and on fictional characters who sometimes embody features of people who existed at the time but who are essentially fictional. Where people who actually existed say anything substantial, their words are taken from documentary sources or are constructed within the context of existing evidence. All the substantial events depicted and quite a few of the insubstantial events are inspired by documentary sources but the book is above all a work of the imagination.
There you have the essence of this series expressed in this note. One of the things that has impressed me about Frank is how seriously he takes history. He is not someone who whizzes in, reads a couple of newspapers and then makes it all up. It is very strongly grounded in the actuality.
Frank was awarded a Visiting Fellowship at the Centre for Historical Research this year. He is about to give us one of the public products of that engagement with the Museum and its collections. I would like to invite Frank to talk to us for a while, musing on this theme of history and imagination.
FRANK MOORHOUSE: I suppose one of the questions that springs to mind is: what is a fiction writer doing in a museum as a fellow? It is a great tribute in my estimation that the National Museum has invited a fiction writer into this temple of Australian treasures. When I tell my friends that I am a fellow at the Museum, they say, ‘Are you in a glass case? Do people come and watch you? Do children poke you with their finger?’ In fact, I work in the Centre for Historical Research, which is a new centre that Peter has been brought here to run, and we are in one of the old hospital buildings. The security guards patrol the whole of this area. They have a patrol timetable and they come by my office window at a certain time and they wave to me. So I feel I am in a glass case for the security people. They now know who I am. They smile at me.
As Peter says, I have published two novels, Grand Days and Dark Palace, which through a character, an Australian woman Edith Campbell Berry, uses the League of Nations. Remember the League was the first attempt at international organisation that the world had ever tried. It was set in Geneva, and the League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations. Edith Campbell Berry is an Australian woman who goes there because she wants a career in diplomacy, and that seems to be the only place she could possibly do that.
‘Edith 3’, which is the third volume of this trilogy, continues Edith’s story after the collapse of the League of Nations. The League of Nations officially closed down in 1946. Curiously, we had the United Nations and League of Nations both in existence for about a year. The UN was set up in 1945. Then the League handed over all its property and files to the newly formed United Nations.
My character, Edith Campbell Berry, returns to Australia to live in Canberra in the 1950s. The new novel is in part the struggle to establish a new capital in the bushlands of Australia and its attempt to evolve an aesthetic which is dignified and at the same time functional - and in an especially Australian way with no grandiose buildings that you might find in other cultures - but with a special Australian style. She becomes fascinated with the idea that we are attempting to build a very special designed city, which now, I think, has virtually been completed with the building of the new Parliament House. With every major institution now in place, Canberra is very close to being finished, completed now.
Don’t get me started on this, but I think we have achieved a remarkable thing in Australia of producing this aesthetically pleasing and triumphal capital. I know a little bit about some of the problems of Canberra. But it’s a remarkable achievement. And sometimes I think, ‘My God, how did we pull it off?’ How did we create this city from nothing and do it so well? It’s a tribute to not only genius in the case of Burley Griffin but also to something that never gets a tribute, and that is the combined intelligence and good judgement of committees. Committees never get praised, but I am praising them. I think in many ways the capital city is an example of the good judgement of many, many committees and of many, many people who argued, fought, worried and dreamed about Canberra. It’s a dream come true.
So in many ways this is where I come into the Museum. Remember that the novel is not even midstream; I am working on it still and it will be at least a year or maybe two years before it is finished. But as I said when I was talking to Peter about the novel, it is an examination of Australian aesthetics, mood and thought in those immediate post-war years of the 1950s and that I would try to somehow expose myself to the collection here. But what I have realised is the most important thing is that I expose myself to the curatorial staff, because the collection often doesn’t exist until it comes out of the mind of a curator.
As part of my application I sent a chapter from Grand Days which is called ‘Mrs Dickinson’s chair’. This is a chapter in the book set back in the mid-1930s when the League of Nations had decided to hold an international competition, just like Canberra, to build the palace of nations and this was to be the headquarters of the League of Nations. It was the first building that the world ever owned in common; it was the first time we ever owned a building as a planet.
This building, the Palace of Nations, was completed in 1936. It captured the imagination of the world. Australia was the first nation state to actually offer gifts to the Palace of Nations, to the League. This was an extraordinary, spontaneous thing. This wasn’t part of the deal. There wasn’t an appeal for these sorts of things. Quite on the contrary: the architects had designed everything inside the building; they had made all sorts of rules about how the interior should be dealt with and designed; and the last thing they wanted or expected was that countries would start contributing things.
We stole the game, surprisingly. This was [Prime Minister] Joe Lyons. The question I should be able to answer but I can’t is: who actually came up with the idea that we should send something there? We sent the podium and all of the wall behind the General Assembly. The two key pieces of the whole machinery of the League of Nations were from Australia. The podium and the backing were in various Australian timbers - you probably wouldn’t get away with that. So we were the first, and then Norway, Sweden, Denmark and every other country contributed a room and started to send across examples of their furniture.
Citizens then started sending in things. People designed flags for the League of Nations, which didn’t have a flag until very late in its history. It was worried about having a flag because it made it look like a nation state - only nation states have flags - and they had a committee on this for many years. People sent in designs and examples of clothing of what the judges of the world court should wear; what uniform the international soldiers should wear; what robe the President should wear; and so on. People flooded the League with gifts. There are warehouses of these gifts. But remember the architects had already decided there should be no paintings on the walls, there should be no embroidery, but basically they bowed to the idea of national rooms. There was one mural commissioned in the council.
I was over in Geneva and in France for a number of years (three years or more on and off, but one year full-time) researching the archive of the League of Nations going through the files. I found the files were informing my work in quite an electrical way. I couldn’t wait in the morning to get in to the archives. One of the files I came across was a Miss Dickinson who was an English woman up in Serbia running an orphanage for children who had lost their parents in the First World War. The children came up with the idea that they would design a chair for the President of the Assembly of the League of Nations. The children worked on this for two years. They carved it in Serbian monumental imperial style and put their hearts into this. Then Miss Dickinson wrote to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations and said that the chair was finished and that she would like the children to come to Geneva with it.
In fact, this went against the policy of the League. The League had to have uniformity in its chairs and every other piece of furniture, unless it came through a nation state. The League of Nations could only talk to nation states; it couldn’t talk to individuals. All the individual letters were not answered. There are some sad stories that I could tell about that but, essentially, part of its covenant was it could only deal with nation states. So it couldn’t deal with orphans up in Serbia, and the correspondence simply went into the file.
The chair eventually found its way to Geneva and ended up in the International Labour Organization (ILO). It had another little bit of history and it ended up in the Museum of the League of Nations. If you ever go to Geneva, you can go through the Palace of Nations and there’s a museum. I read this file and my heart stopped when I read about this wonderful chair. In the book, my character in fact gets the chair into the League of Nations - and this is where imagination takes over. She forges - this was against every principle she holds - the Secretary-General’s signature on a letter accepting the chair into the League. Even though there was no Edith Campbell Berry who signed this letter, informal influences got the chair into at least the warehouse. Then I read in the file that a plaque had been made and had been placed under the chair indicating that it came from these orphans.
I thought ‘where is that chair now?’ and went and asked the archivist. He said, ‘I think that chair has found its way into the museum’. I went in there and there it was. I lay down on the floor and looked under it and there was the plaque saying it was from the orphans of this school. There the chair was. It had never been used. The file had never been opened since 1931 or something. No-one had ever read this file. No-one ever would. But there were many files that were like this and that caused me to create a chapter. At one point I rang my publisher in London and said I thought that we should change our tack and, instead of me writing these books, I would select files and we would publish the files. I remember him saying, ‘I think you should take a break.’
PETER STANLEY: And so will we. Thank you, Frank. If you want to read the chapter, it is the ‘Accepting of gifts, Miss Dickinson’s chair’, here in Grand Days. We need to move on to Lenore. But there are many themes we will pick up in discussion between us and the company generally.
Can I introduce Dr Lenore Coltheart? Lenore is a political historian who taught at several universities for about 25 years and then moved to Canberra where she worked for the National Archives of Australia as research coordinator. Now she has retired for the second time and is working freelance as a heritage consultant. She’s been working on a biography of the Australian socialist feminist Jessie Street for many years and is in the final throes of completing that biography.
The reason why Lenore is here is that she was working on Australian women and the League of Nations while she was senior lecturer at Adelaide when Grand Daysappeared. I am sure Lenore will tell the story, so I will merely say a friendship with Frank flowered as a result of the conjunction of those interests. It has led to a relationship with Frank to this day, and this conversation is only the most recent product of it. Lenore, can I ask you to talk to us for some minutes about your interest in history and fiction?
LENORE COLTHEART: Yes, it is perfectly true. I was writing a history of Australian women’s involvement in the League of Nations in 1993 when I was at the University of Adelaide and, to my horror, saw that this new Frank Moorhouse novel was about to appear and that the central character was an Australian woman at the League of Nations. My fury knew no bounds that my topic had been stolen, a topic that no-one in the world could possibly think was interesting, except me. I decided, as one does, that I would get a review copy of the book and I would write a review. That would make me feel better. So I did get a review copy of the book, I read it and I published a review of it. But it was a very different review than I thought I was going to write.
I thought a work of fiction could only trivialise the role of women in the League of Nations and then, like so many readers of Grand Days and Dark Palace, I was absolutely captivated by the fictional character Edith Campbell Berry based, as Frank said, on a real person but not an Australian at the League of Nations. As a result of that, Frank and I had a conversation about that review at an Adelaide writers’ festival probably early in 1994.
Then, as a result of that conversation, my own research trip which I had been planning for 1994 took on quite a difference. I had worked out a way I was going to Geneva and was going to work in the League of Nations archives. Through Frank and Frank’s contacts there, I was able to get a flat from someone at the United Nations who was on a mission and able to stay there almost three months, much longer than I would have otherwise. Plus Frank gave me all useful tips like which bus to get, you get an orange pass for the train, not to buy any food in Geneva but to go over the border to France on a Saturday morning on the bus and shop at the market - all tips I dutifully followed.
When I was working at the League of Nations archives in the Palais des Nations and I also went to New York to work in the League of Nations, I was still writing a work of history about Australian women in the League of Nations. If anyone wants to take on this topic, they are welcome to all the boxes of files that I still have about this topic as a result of that research, because something happened to me as a result of Edith Campbell Berry - I blame her. Instead of publishing the book that I was writing, I published a piece on Edith Campbell Berry called ‘The idea of Edith Campbell Berry’, after giving a talk on that at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies in London.
I had a problem then writing the kind of book I thought I was writing. It started to seem terribly heavy and the kind of very impressive thing that a political historian would do, leaving nothing out. Every woman that ever had anything to do with the League of Nations - there were quite a few - was going to have everything about her dealings, influence and achievements included in this book. Fortunately, I realised that this was very boring and I stopped being interested in it. As a result, I took early retirement as an academic and thought, ‘I can’t write like this. I have to write so I am communicating more directly the thing I want to say and not writing to impress the person looking over my shoulder.’ I am sorry to all the academics in the room but I felt at that stage not only was I doing that but I was teaching my graduate students to do it as well and I wanted to stop. This is Edith’s fault.
I moved to Canberra and was offered a job at the National Archives and immediately took it because I thought, ‘I am an historian and I am in the toy shop. It is wonderful.’ It was a tremendous experience working at the National Archives.
Frank referred to the important role of committees. You know, committees sound boring but committees do have a very important role. Committees sound as boring as government files and the functions of government. Yes, these things look boring. But they are the most fascinating and powerful things we have. In the National Archives, working with the files of federal government, the record of functions of government for Australia’s first 100 years was kind of a dreamland, especially for someone who didn’t any longer want to include absolutely everything. This is a real problem when you get into files if you do want to include everything.
I would say the first ‘Edith’s effect’ and then the National Archives effect was very big. I realised that, instead of writing about everything, I would write about one thing: I would write about one woman who had been at the League of Nations and who had also been involved with the United Nations. This would enable me to show something that, I think, is tremendously important; that is, the humanitarian work that was achieved by the League of Nations which became the foundation of the human rights work of the United Nations. Because the League of Nations was seen as a failure; it didn’t prevent the Second World War. The separation which Frank draws so vividly in Dark Palace was complete. It was seen as being no connection. So the legacy, of all of those people and all those women that I know so much about and am never going to do anything with, was lost. It just became an invisible hole in history.
So I thought I will choose one of them, Jessie Street, and I will try to show how this happened. That was fine up until about 2002 when Jessie Street’s family, knowing that I was writing about her, commissioned me to produce a revised edition of her autobiography that was published in 1966. She died in 1970.
I was advised by anyone who knew anything about this book not to touch it, and that was my own inclination too. It was written towards the end of Jessie Street’s long life. It was written at a point where the illness that she suffered in her later years, dementia, had started to take hold. She wrote that book as a matter of public duty and at the great argument of her friends and former colleagues to put something on record about her amazing work. And she tried to do that.
The book is very repetitive. There is no chronological structure, and all those bad things. But two important things: she didn’t have a research assistant when she was writing it and, second, she had had great difficulty finding a publisher. Eventually it was produced by the Australasian Book Society as a kind of left-wing favour without the benefit of the publisher’s editor. We all know as writers that researchers and publisher’s editors are your angels - and Jessie Street didn’t have either.
I decided I would take this commission from the family to revise the edition of the book because I am a good researcher and I am a good editor. I put a great big photograph of Jessie Street, my favourite photograph of her - her 1945 passport photograph - over my desk and I talked to her. I talked to her as I would have if she had been around and I had been her researcher when she was doing this book. I talked to her very sternly, as I would have if I had been her publisher’s editor when she wanted her very messy manuscript published. And I tried to get the voice. I tried to give the book structure. I made it into chapters and I took out the repetition. I started to correct the many, many errors of date and name. What our memories do when they start to fail us is that they knit up the gaps wrongly - beware of the memory that is doing this.
That experience made me realise that I needed to listen to someone who was actually becoming a person in my life. At the time I said, ‘I am channelling Jessie Street’, but I stopped saying it very quickly when I saw people’s looks. But I did talk to her and she did help me, and people were very happy with the final result. It was 2004 when it was finished. Then something else happened: I realised I didn’t want to write an historical book about Jessie Street’s role in the human rights legacy of the United Nations; I wanted to write about this woman; I wanted to bring her back to life. I realised what I was doing was transforming my messy manuscript into a biography.
Luckily, there are some very good historians around who have made this transition or in the process of making this transition and, with a fellowship at the Australian National University (ANU) in the research school, I was able to work with some of those people. That was a tremendous help to me. But, sadly, Frank’s influence, many conversations with Frank and Edith’s influence hadn’t stopped this process because, as well as learning to hear her voice from a dead person, to ghost write for a dead person, I realised that I was starting to listen to objects.
I am so glad Frank talked about Miss Dickinson’s chair because objects tell stories. Some objects talk; some of them speak softly; some of them sing; and I think some things dance. This is a problem for an historian. It is especially a problem for someone who is involved in the heritage area. Or is it? Because things talk to me. I realise it’s the desire of the imagination for this connection to happen and that it has nothing to do with a lack of reverence for the past and a lack of reverence for evidence. It has everything to do with what the imagination can do that overcomes that problem of trying to knit up gaps in our past memory or what we know of the past. The imagination takes us somewhere beyond the fallacy you can get into if you try to knit up gaps.
I think that imagination is what gives the past a future. As you can easily see, I am very indebted to Frank for his friendship, for his fiction and, like so many other readers of Grand Days and Dark Palace, I am dying for the third volume, the Canberra volume. But I hope I finish my Jessie Street biography by then so I can be inspired into some brand new field.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much, Lenore. What I would like to do now is to get these two talking to each other. I was delighted that Frank introduced Miss Dickinson’s chair because I happen to know there is a slide of a chair. With your permission I would like you both to talk about this chair and the things that have emerged since Frank arrived at the Museum. This hasn’t been pre-arranged. This is an entirely spontaneous gesture, but I happen to know this slide was here. So between you, would you like to tell the story?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: I will tell the first bit, because Lenore has a deep knowledge. Letting a writer loose in the treasures of the nation was a very bold move by Peter and the committee. One of the great privileges I have is to go to the National Museum’s warehouses, which are in Mitchell and contain many thousands of treasures, from Bob Menzies’ Bentley, which I was allowed to get in and sit in as long as I wore white gloves and white trousers and a hair net. I was allowed to sit in it. I know you will want to know this: I looked for the bar, to see whether there was a bar in that Bentley that pulled out from the back seat, but there wasn’t. If there was, I couldn’t find it. It was secret. It probably required a secret switch.
So I went through the warehouse. From the old school of anatomy there were some 1000 body parts in glass jars that had been found their way into the National Museum. Some have lost their label because they were in a fire and the water washed the labels off. These warehouses have thousands of items and as we were strolling through I came across these chairs. The curator who was with me said that they thought these were from the Lodge. I had a look at them - they took the covers off - and I said, ‘My God, they are, they are from the Lodge. These are from the entrance hall of the Lodge. I said, ‘They were there in 1927 because I have seen the photographs’. [Stanley Melbourne] Bruce was the Prime Minister at the time and the Bruces were the first people to live in the Lodge. The furniture, I knew through Lenore, was designed by Ruth Lane-Poole who was the official furniture designer for the capital. She designed the furniture for the Lodge and for Government House. I said, ‘My God, they are Ruth Lane-Poole’s chairs.’ They had been labelled ‘dining room’. I said, ‘No, they are from the entrance hall,’ and there are photographs of these. I said, ‘We have to get Lenore in to have a look at these.’ There was also a cheval mirror. There were other pieces of furniture, too, from the old Lodge. I became very excited about this. These were in a sort of limbo because a label saying ‘discard’ was pasted on them.
Each Prime Minister’s wife is allowed to renovate the Lodge and, at some point, these chairs had been taken out of the Lodge because the Prime Minister’s wife wanted different furniture. They had been put in a public works storehouse and eventually they decided to discard them. These were designed by Ruth Lane-Poole. This is not the National Museum that is discarding them. When the Museum looked at its records, it found that in fact in 1978 they were advertised for sale with a lot of other old furniture from the public buildings, and at the last moment someone said, ‘My God, they are important chairs they were in the first Lodge.’ So they were pulled off the auction list at the last moment and then they ended up in a roundabout way in the Museum. I will turn you over to Lenore now.
LENORE COLTHEART: It was very exciting. Frank phoned me and said, ‘I think I’ve found the Ruth Lane-Poole chairs.’ I was very sceptical because this has been a search for a while, and in fact we had talked about trying to set up a team of detectives to comb antique stores and second-hand stores. Where had the stuff gone? It is perfectly true that prime ministerial wives, and the same thing is true of Government House because Ruth Lane-Poole designed the interiors there too in 1927. The change just taking the furniture out and putting it away meant that some of it wasn’t retrieved. So there is a whole household full of Ruth Lane-Poole furniture from the Lodge and a very large household full of Ruth Lane-Poole furniture and furnishings from Government House that are public assets, to say the least, and objects that will talk, sing and dance for us, but their whereabouts are unknown.
If you go to an open day at Government House, there are four or five things that are on their inventory list but they don’t connect them to Ruth Lane-Poole. The research needs to be done so everyone knows this. But the National Museum has the four chairs from the entrance hall of the Lodge. [Refers to slide] This photograph was actually taken in 1930. The reason I know that is because of the position of the grandfather clock. Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Ethel Bruce were the first occupants of the Lodge. When Bruce lost government and his seat in 1929, James Scullin became Prime Minister. Because of the Depression and as Labor Prime Minister he had objected to the expense of the Lodge, he wouldn’t live it. It was an interesting story about where he lived in the Hotel Canberra. Apparently Sarah Scullin, his wife, took lots of the silver and various other bits from the Lodge to decorate their suite or use in their suite at the Hotel Canberra and of course they were seen to be abstemious by not living in the Lodge.
But the problem was something had to happen to the Lodge, so it was advertised for rent. This photograph was taken in 1930 to appear in the Australian Home Beautiful magazine that Ruth Lane-Poole wrote for, as an advertisement for those people who were interested in renting the Lodge. Ruth Lane-Poole specified that clock was actually on the other side of the staircase. There is a photograph that shows it on the other side of the staircase but at some point it was moved over there, and this photograph as taken to show how beautiful the Lodge was. There you can see the exact chair that we just saw. There are four of them: two have arms and two don’t. Stanley Melbourne Bruce touched these chairs. I said to Frank, ‘He sat in them’, well maybe he didn’t, but maybe he flung his spats, tossed his top hat or maybe he just brushed past them. I was very careful when I was taken to see those chairs in the repository and I made sure I brushed past them a little bit for the connection. I listened as hard as I could. It’s a tremendously exciting find.
FRANK MOORHOUSE: We have to find the clock and that table.
LENORE COLTHEART: We do. The clock is particularly interesting. There is a grandfather clock in the (National Museum) repository, and we were shown this. But when you get a good photograph like this, you can see it is not exactly the same grandfather clock. But I know when the grandfather clock was moved out of the Lodge and who moved it out - it was Patty Menzies in Menzies’ second term in office because she found it so lonely in the lodge with ticking of the clock. It was so loud that she asked for it to be taken out.
PETER STANLEY: Lenore, you just used the phrase ‘desire of the imagination’ and you have given a perfect example of it where the chair isn’t just a chair; it’s a chair that has associations with people - in this case a real person - but, equally, the fictional characters whom Frank will populate 1950s Canberra with as well. Each of you represent, if you like, a real and fictional character. Frank’s great character is Edith Campbell Berry whom those of us who have read these two novels really warm to and are desperately keen to know what happens to her in the third volume. And Lenore, you are the living embodiment of Jessie Street having channelled her through the manuscript. What would happen if these two women of Australia in the 1930s had met? Have you speculated about that, about the different characters and different political perspectives?
LENORE COLTHEART: First of all, I have to say I don’t think I am the embodiment of Jessie Street. It is a very interesting thought. [Refers to slide] Jessie is the second of the alive people in this photograph, second from the right in the front with the hat and white shirt. There are actually many other people we know in this photograph: Betty Archdale is there next to Jessie Street. Her mother Helen Archdale is the statuesque woman without the hat. The woman in the front holding her bag with the fur collar is Alice Poole. The large woman is a German delegate. This is in 1938 outside the Palais des Nations. You can see how elegant it is. These women are international delegates of women’s organisations who are there for the General Assembly of the League. A photograph like this really does give you an idea of how extraordinary this time was between the wars. We can imagine somewhere inside the building is Edith, Jessie walks in, and they meet each other. Okay, Frank?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: If I was rewriting the book, I would put Jessie Street in it. I would be in a lot of trouble if I didn’t put Jessie Street in. Some other delegates from Australia were in the book. Every year we sent delegations. Usually because of the expense, if anyone was overseas - any professor, any scientist, no writers (wouldn’t be allowed), any politician who was in Europe - would be raked into the delegation.
PETER STANLEY: That is a fascinating encounter to speculate on. At this point I would like to open it up to our audience. Here is a golden opportunity to interrogate two practitioners of the two arts that we are interested in. I was interested that this series has been couched as history and imagination and not as historical fiction. There is a big discussion going on in various places at the moment, most recently in Quarterly Essay, where Inga Clendinnen wrote ‘Who owns the past’, in which she got stuck into historical novelists pretty drastically so clearly there is some bone of contention between historians and historical novelists. All of us read history and read fiction, so I would hope we’ve all got questions or points to make.
QUESTION: My name is Robyn. Given what you have said about the importance of imagination I am interested to ask you how much you think history itself is imagination?
LENORE COLTHEART: I am a great believer in the evidence; I am a great believer in the files and the objects. I am not a writer of fiction so I don’t have the ability to do what I would like to do with your question. We need to understand that communicating history is part of the process. It’s really hard to communicate to many people weighty evidence with no imagination in it. It is interesting now that we have some very good films made that have an historical basis. But clearly the film-maker, camera person and those visualising the scenes can’t have been there, so it is coming out of their imagination. That is an extraordinarily powerful way to get across the historical story. For instance, that wonderful film series of the Lewis and Clark expedition in the United States of America where the whole film came out of the letters and reports that Lewis and Clark sent back to Jefferson who commissioned them to do this. The paper reports - they didn’t take photographs or anything like that, yet this astonishing filmic communication was made out of it. I feel I am kind of sidestepping your question because I am a little nervous about answering it. I am a political historian so I can’t make things up; but I now can’t write to the denial of my imagination either.
FRANK MOORHOUSE: You have hit the most interesting and contentious part of the whole process that we are here talking about - what is the imagination? When Peter read out the note that I have in both books about how I used resources, sourced material and have fictional and non-fictional people clearly identified but then I have that line at the end saying, ‘but above all it’s a work of the imagination’. Whenever I read or hear it, as I did today, I think ‘Oh my God’. It’s curious that imagination is not a very clearly defined human capacity. It’s a function of intellectual function. It’s a capacity but there is very little written about its psychological nature. As a process I see it as a tool of inquiry. It’s a search engine. It uses many pathways but in my case it is informed - there are lots of different ways of approaching fiction historically but in my case I used a lot of research because I found that enriching. It wasn’t an intellectual obligation alone, although I saw it as a bit of an obligation, it was also dynamic.
All historians draw on the documents, photographs and objects - we have been talking about objects - but the imagination also draws on the unconscious, if you accept a Freudian interpretation of the structure of the mind. And the unconscious is an archive. All of our unconsciousnesses are contained. They are, if you like, a wax cylinder of whispered conversations we heard as children, of arguments we might have heard as children, of buildings we have seen, objects we have sat in, towns we have visited, and so on. In working with the imagination, the construction, the process of actually writing sets up a pathway to the unconscious.
Other things that the imagination works with is intimacy. Intimacy is a very powerful tool of knowing. How we know another person deeply is through intimacy, and empathy as a more general term for connection with others and observation of others. Interestingly enough, an imagination has often been imbued with spiritual or supernatural qualities. Great poets love to invest it with being a special gift, and for a long time there was the creator. The only two creative acts were God and the poets.
But we all have imagination. That’s how we can tell lies. Every time we tell a lie we’re using imagination. But the actual integrity of the imagination as a tool of inquiry and its credibility depends hugely on the impact, the exposure that that imagination has had to the material it is working with and to the particular special talents of any given fiction writer. And that is assessed. My books have to be argued about by historians as well as general readers. Most of us have had access to some of this period, the 1920s and 1930s through our parents and grandparents. There is a lot to be said about the imagination but it’s an understudied intellectual capacity.
QUESTION: My name is Anne, and I am interested in what role you think the historical imagination plays in helping us appreciate our past and in contributing to that role. Does it matter that it is not strictly factual, the role of the imagination and fact?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: Some things it does seriously matter, in terms of my method. There are some things that I desperately want to get correct. It seems to me there was no point in inventing some things - obviously, chronologies and historical events that without doubt the thing started then and finished then. The League of Nations finished at a date in 1946. But essentially things that seem to me to matter should be grounded somewhere.
PETER STANLEY: The things you call ‘substantial’ in your note to the reader?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: Yes, and of course the archives are so rich. I think Lenore said this - that the National Archives is like a castle of sleeping stories. I have worked there, and quite often you just want to turn around and say to the rest of the room, ‘Come over and look at this’. Then, as I say, the act of the imagination is to create a narrative and to produce an engagement with the historical material, and this engagement comes out of story telling. Religions are all narratives about why we are here, what we are doing and where we are going. These are narratives and they are sacred narratives for some people.
PETER STANLEY: It seems they can act at the level of selection. Lenore talked about the National Archives as a toy shop where you were in your element. Frank, you have also talked about the riches of the archives. You spend not just a day or two, you spend months in imbibing detail and digesting the sources. It seems the thing that connects you both is the principle of selection: selection for significance in the case of an historian and perhaps selection for the narrative for the plot for the novelist. You want to get the detail right but you want to get it right for the purposes of your plot. Both of you are selecting things, although possibly on a different basis.
LENORE COLTHEART: I am glad Frank brought up the ‘unconscious’, especially before Anne’s question, because in a sense writing history is like writing fiction in that you, unfortunately, discover more about yourself - perhaps more than you might want to know. You can be very selective about the facts you are looking for, even when you think you are being totally comprehensive and evidence-based historian, and it catches you out. In a way, the imagination helps save this or maybe allows you to understand it because you are more aware of the role of your unconscious.
I am thinking of a particular argument I had with Sebastian Clark who I went to school with for one year at Ainslie Primary School. When I met him years and years later back in Canberra he greeted me with, ‘Yes, I remember you, we were editors of the school magazine in 1951’. I said, ‘No, we weren’t’. He is a mathematician. I am a historian. I said to him, ‘I’m the one that’s right.’ I would know. But I was puzzled after that. He said it was called Ains Leaves and that his mother Dymphna had actually thought of the name. But he remembered very clearly that he had reported this name at school, and everyone was so thrilled with it that he took the credit for it.
I thought if he remembered that, so the next time I was in the National Library I did check and found the 1951 first edition of the school magazine, with on the bottom of the front cover ‘Editors: Sebastian Clark and Lenore Coltheart’. I was completely shocked. But the minute I saw this - remember that old Xeroxing Gestetner sort of stuff - I saw the porous paper with ink soaked into it, I could smell turning the handle and I knew he was right. So I photocopied a copy for him and a copy for me and I very humbly presented it to him and said, ‘You are absolutely right’. I know that’s because somebody who really loves the facts loves being dogmatic too and loves being right.
QUESTION: My name is Bruce. Could I just ask you both to comment perhaps on: how imaginative do you think is the making of the Australian nation? I ask that partly because, in the first two volumes of Frank’s trilogy, it seems to me that the act of comparison is very important and also accident seems very important. I am just wondering how they fit into notions of any unique nationalism or the creativity of making a nation?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: That’s a big question, too. I think it was Cezanne who said in some sort of Parisian discussion when he was asked a question and he said, ‘Do you have any smaller questions?’ One of the things about the imagination - and I was trying to describe its capacities, and not all imaginations are equal, and not all imaginations succeed when working within the constructions of traditional forms like the novel, the short story or whatever - but ultimately the one thing we share with academic historians is that our work is an hypothesis. From my work and my mind and my talents, this is how I think it happened and this is how it works and how it worked. That is probably what I mean by ultimately a work of fiction is that ultimately it’s a hypothesis. This was an effort to imagine.
LENORE COLTHEART: I want to have a go at that big question. I like little ones too. It made me think: it depends who is doing the making of the nation, how imaginative it is. When you said that, my first thought was standing at Ubirr rock and looking at the amazing tens of thousands of years old artwork there and that imagination in the making of Australia which non-Indigenous Australians are now turning to in understanding the making of Australia today. The idea of comparison and accident: the terrific thing is when we realise it is real people who create those files. They touched them, signed them and they were sitting in a chair. We live our lives in this way because of accident - being late, running into a tree or whatever it is - and being absorbed in the work in a way that real people are coming out of it, is being attentive to the role of coincidence, accident and comparison.
QUESTION: I have a small question. My name is Kamala. I have a very small question. Often when I read historical novels I feel the writer takes too much poetic licence and creates his own imagination and puts it into the book and calls it an historical novel. But at the same time I have read novels where the writer doesn’t have too much imagination and depends a lot on history, and the book falls flat. So what is the optimum blend?
FRANK MOORHOUSE: You call that a small question?! Yes, it’s a matter of incorporating, marrying the imagined work and the factual. There are academics here - not only academics but anyone - to whom even using the word ‘factual’ is disputed and contested, let alone ‘nation building’, and so on. So in a sense everything is a hypothesis, we are waiting until more information floods in. There is a biography of a guy called Lytton Strachey written by Michael Holroyd, who has written it three times because more information keeps being released into the world. But marrying those together is a matter of intuitive judgement by the story teller.
I was going to answer Bruce further about nation building, because it is one of my favourite stories. When I was researching Dark Palace and Grand Days I was living first in Geneva and then nearby in France in Besancon. I was walking with friends in a small French village, and we came to a patisserie. The cakes were all out in the window, this wonderful French pastry. I looked at them and said, ‘Isn’t this marvellous! There is a Woodrow Wilson cake, a (Georges) Clemenceau cake and an Aristide Briand cake. Look, the French remember their history through the gastronomy. They eat their history every day and they understand nation building is through gastronomy’. I got so excited that we went in and talked to the woman who was running the shop. I praised her and said, ‘This is wonderful, magnificent, that you have these memories. I am writing a book with these people in it. Now you have a cake shop with these people in it’. She said, (in French) ‘No, it is not true. It’s not true what you are saying’. I just stared at her. She talked in French to my friends who could speak better French than I. Then I realised she was saying, ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong. The cakes are named after the streets of the village’. So much for the grand French theory that I had about the French nationality!
QUESTION: Was the Lodge ever rented?
LENORE COLTHEART: No, it wasn’t. It sat there - ‘Canberra’s white elephant’ was the headline in The Sydney Morning Herald.
PETER STANLEY: Think of the revenue we have forgone in the last 11 years.
LENORE COLTHEART: Immediately after the Scullin government fell, it was very much lived in through the 1930s by the Prime Minister described by a German prime minister at the time as ‘the world’s most child-rich prime minister’, the Lyons’ and their ten children.
PETER STANLEY: I have had a very enjoyable and stimulating afternoon. I hope you have been taking notes, because some of the things that Lenore and Frank have said have lodged in my mind. Talking about the intuitive judgements of story tellers, I think you said Frank, you pointed to similarities in the process. Although the form of the product is so different, the raw material is the same in many cases. The value to the reader in both sorts of material you produce is equally nourishing, possibly more nourishing than the cakes you stumbled across, because the ‘desire of the imagination’, as Lenore called it, is to find a product that rings true. In your different ways, you have both talked about and described work that helps us to understand history in a way that rings true. Frank’s history rings true even though Edith Campbell Berry sadly did not really exist. An historian’s work rings true because we recognise in it truths or insights into the human condition.
This, I hope, is the beginning of a stimulating series of conversations amongst different practitioners and amongst readers of the products of those practitioners which will enrich us all as the year goes by. There are three more conversations to come.
HELENA BEZZINA: The next one is on Sunday, 24 June with Libby Robin, an environmental historian, and Nick Drayson, a fiction writer from Canberra who wrote the book recently called Love and the Platypus. That should be really good.
PETER STANLEY: Thank you all for coming along this afternoon bringing curiosity and questions and making this event the success it has been. I hope to see you at future events.
HELENA BEZZINA: Thank you for all for attending. I would like to thank the speakers for sharing their Sunday afternoon with us.
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Date published: 11 January 2008