Author Talk with Michael Leunig
Ducks for Dark Times
Talks / Lecture
Modern life can feel like an injury. Where do we turn for hope when all seems dark? It's times like these we need the consolation of art and ducks. Join us for an evening with Michael Leunig - cartoonist and philosopher - for a glimpse into his twentieth collection of cartoons Ducks for Dark Times.
Explore the mind of one of Australia's most treasured artists and find the wisdom and resilience needed for anyone who is losing faith; who's becoming exhausted or fed up with the news, and for those of us who feel we could do well to laugh or weep a little more.
*Speakers: Nicola Mackay-Sim (N), Michael Leunig (M), Kim Mahood (K)
*Location: National Library of Australia
N: Well good evening. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. My name is Nicola Mackay-Sim and I’m the Acting Senior Curator of the Pictures and Manuscripts Branch. As we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
I’m delighted to look into a sea of happy and expectant faces this evening. We were really pleased that so many of you could join us to hear Michael Leunig’s – about Michael Leunig’s latest publication, Ducks for Dark Times. Michael has been a very special friend and visitor to the National Library for many years now. In fact I recall in 1997, some of you may have been here for the Library’s production of the publication of Celebration, of Michael’s work and the events and subsequent book signing was a great lesson for us in how to manage queues that wrap around the building. It was a good precursor for the blockbuster International Treasures exhibition a couple of years later.
More recently Michael has participated with the National Library during the Enlightened Festival where he explored the fascination of the night sky with none other than Nobel Prize Laureate and astrophysicist, Professor Brian Schmidt.
The Library hosted the 2013 launch of his publication, Holy Fool, and again in 2015 to discuss The Wayward Leunig, Cartoons That Wandered Off. And last year the Library happily welcomed the arrival to the pictures collection of 70 of Michael’s most iconic drawings made between 1974 and 2013.
Joining Micheal this evening is Kim Mahood. Kim is an award-winning Australian writer and artist. Her memoir published in 2000, Craft for A Dry Lake won the New South Wales Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction and The Age Book of the Year for Non-Fiction. Her most recent work, Position Doubtful was shortlisted for the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Australian Book Industry Award for the Small Publishers’ Adult Book of The Year. Please join me in welcoming Michael Leunig and Kim Mahood.
M: Well thank you. I first want to say am I audible? Can you hear me? Oh thank you, I'm confident now, I just need to know I’m not talking to myself. Okay. Kim, how will we start to talk?
K: Well I did say to Michael earlier I was a little daunted, it’s not – I haven’t actually been on stage with a sort of living national treasure before and probably won’t be again so – but we very quickly launched into a conversation about all sorts of things which I hope we can pick up sort of where we left off. But I did want to – I did my research, I looked up your website, did the things we do now and I notice you’ve got a quote there by D W Winnicott who is an old sort of hero of mine.
M: Oh is that so? Yeah.
K: And I was going to read the quote and get you to speak to it a bit because being on stage as we are at the moment is sort of one of those dilemmas we deal with. So in the artists of all kinds we can detect an inherent dilemma which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found. And I just wondered about how you’ve balanced that for 50 years essentially of communicating and at the same time trying not to be found?
M: Yeah, it’s a very profound quote that – and before I say anything further I forgot to say I appreciate you being here you know and all the audience and I just do hope it’s worth your while. No, I know it means a lot to come out at a time when you otherwise would be home enjoying your dinner perhaps but let this be a meal. Now back to Winnicott. Winnicott of course – I don’t know whether you’re familiar with Winnicott who was a marvellous kind of paediatrician and later a psychoanalyst whose major concern was early childhood development and the relationship between the mother and the infant, I think would be the way of des – and he made huge contributions in looking at the mother child relationship and how the very early baby develops and what is happening in that early time. And I think, Kim, that he had a lot of thoughts about the idea of what is the healthy individual or what is a life – a full life and you know what – maturing into some full, real, right and true life. It’s hard to encapsulate –
K: Well the notion of the good enough was one of the things he came up with as opposed to perfection, excellence and so on.
M: Yes, the good enough mother rather than the excellent mother and he was famous for that. He used to broadcast on the BBC, he was a great believer in talking to ordinary people and he rejected jargon even though he was a brilliant sort of researcher and – he was a gifted man and he was a fan of The Beetles too, I might add.
So he had this thing that he spoke a lot about the origins of creativity etc and he did say this thing about he regarded the artist as a sort of – there was some achievement as he would say of wholeness and some – he had admiration for the artists and as an archetype, I suppose, or as a psychological archetype but – yeah but this thing of – to communicate this impulse, this need which is so fundamental and central in all of us to some degree. We’re here because I presume this is about communication and this rich thing going on between us and it’s a bit one-way at this moment obviously but one feels the presence of an audience, it’s a very tangible thing, what one can feel. And so yes, to be here and public and speaking like from a position of deep privacy somewhere and the deeply personal and what is idiosyncratic and peculiar in me is hope I think of blessing the same thing in each of you and valuing and sort of speaking for that peculiar self you know this authenticity, I suppose.
So I think that – the desire never to be found is another way of saying desire to preserve that really sacred self and yet the paradox of wanting to be a citizen if you like and in a world and responsible for each other and caring for each other and yet you know to have – that’s in one hand and on the other hand to be profoundly deeply personal and sort of almost alone.
K: Well I wonder whether in a way you hide in plain sight in the characters of Vasco Pyjama and Mr Curly and you know who reveal their sort of preoccupations but in their way are these kind of quite private secretive characters who wander through the pages of your notebooks and out into the world for us.
M: Yes. Well I think their privacy if that’s what you mean, the kind – is their peculiarity. Now look at a child, look at a young child, they’re very peculiar, beautifully peculiar. If you let them be they will – before this go to school they will be just delightfully peculiar and I think it’s the most spiritual – one of the most spiritual times of life and it’s also very creative in that what Winnicott would say a good enough start you know if you’re fortunate, the parents are reasonable and there’s a bit of home and security and that’s not the case for a lot as we know but a child is very peculiar and has this little dream world and its fantasy and it believe in the pixies and the fairies as I still do you know in a way.
And so they’re unperturbed by science and all that, they have their own science and their own knowing and their own relationship with the spiritual world and I think it’s – we would call this innocence, we would call this innocence and that’s not a dismissive thing, I think that innocence is at the very – is a little sort of like – it’s so precious and so powerful that it can persist right through our life, sometimes hidden away and I call this mature innocence, a capacity to have our access to our innocence in maturity. And so I think that innocence is that bit that doesn’t want to be found or exposed too hard to – in a hard and difficult world which can be abrasive and not – and dismissive of these things of that dimension. And yet from that dimension in us all comes our creativity, I think, our – and our capacity for love.
K: And that’s something that I mean you have been working in the – this field for such a long time now but it must have been quite extraordinary as a young man to end up working in the newspaper game and I mean how did you manage to preserve that sort of innocence back then? Was it just accident? Was it luck?
M: How did I preserve that innocence? In a newspaper. Well it was harder compared to working in the slaughter yards where I worked previously to work in newspapers because at least the abattoirs was about life and death and it was extremely shocking and sad and powerful atmosphere and that brings you to life too. I mean I’ve often said if working in an abattoirs brutalises some it deeply sensitises others ‘cause it’s life and death. But – so you go into newspapers and journalism and I believe in journalism and I believe in the media or its possibilities as a democratic kind of you know as a democratic important – an important part of democratic society. You go into a world, I think – I didn’t go to university but for those of you who did and I'm sure there’s a lot you start to – people – very clever you know it’s very tricky and clever and it’s very cerebral and it’s – it can be difficult and there’s a lot of tricks going on and – in newspapers of ego and ambition and competition and – so that was difficult ‘cause I was not born to it, I didn’t have that in my background so I had to stumble but a cartoonist is allowed to be the village idiot.
And in a sense – and I say that with some reverence for the idea of the village idiot – that you are granted a freedom to be an innocent and a bit of a fool and you don’t you know all the journalists are in the main game you know like the main game is here in Canberra perhaps at Parliament House and that’s what’s important and the male world of strutting about and we really know what’s going on but you – and they pat you on the head a bit and say you know when you’re 24 and say you just keep drawing your ducks you know you don’t need to worry about all these important things. And so it’s not so difficult to retain your innocence, you say alright, if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll draw ducks. And so – well I was a duck out of water basically and -
K: And that’s probably I think one of the reasons that people do respond so much to your work. I’ve written down here that you represent a sort of baffled everyman with – occasionally accompanied by a direction-finding duck and I’m kind of curious about the duck because you know this is a book that says Ducks for Dark Times but anyone who finds it expecting it to be lots and lots of cartoons about ducks there’s very few ducks in it. There are a few and they – particularly Vasco Pyjama has the direction-finding duck and I'm sort of wondering what that duck represents.
M: Well you see the duck originated in my work, in my cartoon work in a serious page of the newspaper where it’s discussion of politics and you know civic affairs, I put a duck in there once. In desperation and cartoonists spend a lot of time in desperation with a clock ticking and you know the reason is, Kim, that you put a thing in drawings or in paintings as you know simply because you like them and they don’t have to have a clever – a calculated meaning. There’s an impulse to say look, what – there’s something missing in this drawing, in this newspaper there’s something missing. What can it be? What can I contribute that is missing in all these football players and politicians and criminals and etc? And I say [clicks fingers] a duck. And honestly I swear this is true, it is – it’s like almost the imagination just wants to escape from the oppressive nature of all this brainy stuff going on and all this ah tangle of power and ambition and it’s like a retreat or a regression back to innocence you know ‘cause who can argue with a duck? And whoever says a bad word about a duck? I don’t know and similar with a teapot. Who – a teapot, you can’t argue. It is a good thing. And so yeah, it’s a cheeky act of creativity, it shouldn’t be there on the paper with your serious letters there and the editorial here about the budget and you know all this and you say no, this is silly. It’s important but I want to put a little duck in there. So is it impulse? And it’s a cheeky impulse. I think Winnicott would love the idea of that impulse, that little thing from within which is essentially well meaning, it’s not a nasty thing to put into a paper and it’s a healing thing, you think.
K: But you obviously have a hierarchy of birds in the sense that I mean the rooster got a really bad rap a few years ago in your bag of roosters, the rooster was a sort of scapegoat.
M: The poor rooster you know the rooster struts about and crows and all the hens go oh there he goes again etc and they don’t have a good reputation, the rooster so – but I feel a bit sorry for them.
K: They certainly got a hammering in The Bag Full of Roosters, flogging across the paddocks and so on.
M: Yeah, they’re just one of the birds, they’re one of – well there’s - a lot of males are like roosters and a lot of females are increasingly like roosters too, I might say. Once again you see my natural impulse to wander into dangerous territory.
K: Well let’s reel you back from that and you describe what you do as inventive playfulness and you know but there must be times when it’s difficult to be inventive or playful you know what happens then? Does that sort of overcome you and what do you do?
M: What, when you run out of that capacity for spontaneity and invention and – don’t know, I’m still looking for the answer but I think you have to calm yourself and regress. Don’t try and compete with the world and don’t try and be brilliant, don’t try to do excellence. I think there’s been too much emphasis on excellence. I think excellence is achieved naturally, don’t have to encourage it, it has its own life and it’s okay. I think a lot of people live in fear that they’re not good enough or we you know you got to keep up with this intensity of you know being outstanding and award-winning. I detest the world of award-winning, I can’t – God help me if ever I win an award and – or ever – if ever I enter an award, I don’t do it. And so one is trying to alleviate this tension all the time, you just think what good can you do as a cartoonist? What good? If you have a public voice what – how can it help? I think that was just an old impulse and I think most of us know of this, what use can we be?
Because I think if we help or think we are helping life has a different meaning then, if we attend to some – you look at people, if there’s an accident or a disaster you see people just rush to help quite often and they find qualities within themselves ‘cause life suddenly takes on great meaning and so I think this is universal and it’s external in the human spirit, I think. Strangely to say in these – what would appear to be selfish, self-serving times and grasp for power and luxury and dominance and importance and fame and prestige etc, we live in these sort of qualities now so – and it gets more and more selfish and probably we get more and more ashamed of it, deep down.
So what does one do to help and what can a cartoon do to help? And I think what I came to, I didn’t want to be – I gradually didn’t want to be into this clever cartooning where you mock someone or be the clever dick who sort of see you know nails it. And I don’t like nailing it, I like to pull the nails out, let it open up and I think that’s been an impulse and I think that is a help because that blesses the idea that we can just let go and open up and so I thought maybe I can confess my sins so to speak you know say I too am a vulnerable human, I too am sad about life, I too am happy about small things. And I think that’s not the traditional role of a cartoonist, some would say but the editors didn’t stop me, they just let me keep doing that sort of thing and I think I felt I was trying to bless these qualities which make us human, I think.
K: There’s – I think - when I opened this book and you know it’s got the sort of – the subtleties and the humour and the occasional belly laughs and so on but in talking about nailing or not – or by pulling the nails out I think that you do sometimes do that and I'm actually going to read the cartoon, it’s such a cracker and it does so many things simultaneously. It’s a guy who’s you know gone to see his doctor. He says help me, doctor, I’m having these episodes of compassion and the doctor says a little bit won’t hurt. No, this is serious, it’s full-blown, it’s spilling out all over the place. You mean it’s indiscriminate compassion? Yes, I’m feeling sympathy and sadness for humans regardless of their race, religion, nationality, politics. Oh dear, have you tried xenophobia, the old traditional remedy? That doesn’t work, I just have to face the fact that I feel sorry for everyone. You may have been abused as a child, too much love and understanding perhaps. And I just think that – I mean it speaks to what’s happening here in Australia in politics you know and - but at the same time it also you know has a nice little poke and you know the over-psychologising and you know all of that so I mean it just does so many things and I think this is why you are still – you speak sort of beyond the ordinary political cartoon in doing something like that.
M: Thank you, Kim, but yeah so if I go back and say now what was I doing when I did that? I was probably lost and at the desk and there was a deadline coming and I’d read all the news, you see, I’d read the news and I – it’s my terrible duty to read the news every day and I’d read it and I’d thought about it and the more I read it the more I digested it and moved away from it and moved back to this regressive position of not going up and high but going down and become more primal and then you get to the emotions when you do that. They said what am I feeling about the world now? And oh it’s unbearably tragic at the moment, this moment I’m in. This is what I would have been thinking and that would have matched my feeling of despair ‘cause the deadline’s coming, you see. And so you’ve really – raw to your feelings and to the world and I don’t know the news events that preceded that but it would have been something about that there was a great sadness about what was happening everywhere and maybe it was a time of some particular war you know the presence of wars and human conflict that we’ve been exposed to I find gruelling and -
K: And yet you know by processing it in that particular way out emerges this incredibly funny and touching sort of little tale that we again all respond to because I think a lot of us feel exactly that, you know.
M: It’s a fine line between making a joke about something which kind of dismisses us and making a little humour about it which opens us to it and it’s sort of a form of poetry perhaps to open us and humour is a way or subtle humour that people are very good at amongst themselves and around their kitchen table and in their conversations, that wry comment which is bittersweet or – humans do it very well. The professional comedians don’t do it nearly as well as ordinary people trying to make sense of life because it is bittersweet and so I have to come back to being a human and not a professional when I’m working like that and I have to dare to sort of put my vulnerable humanity on the page ‘cause I think the best cartoons for me are when I’ve been very vulnerable and uncertain of what I’m doing. I’m saying this isn’t a punchline, this isn’t a cartoon, this is me being corny, that’s what I’ll say, I’ll whip you know whip myself, I'm being corny and I'm not making a witty joke. But time sorts them out and sometimes I see the value of it, sometimes like that one you read out, I say oh yeah, I see what I was trying to say, yeah but it’s a primal moment when you make art or a – it’s a primal thing, one has to come – go down rather than up.
K: So given you’ve been doing it for a very long time now and commenting on Australian society in the process has – have you noticed – I mean has your process changed at all and also what have you observed in Australian culture that – the most striking changes or not?
M: Oh anyone who grows old laments a bit about what seems lost in their culture and in their society, I think. You can’t help it and there’s a lot of lament in me, that the Australia I grew up in and the interpersonal – the connections between people, the more – the humbler, more ordinary world I knew is still a lovely memory and I - every time I feel it’s disappearing and there’s this fa - it’s got faster and faster and more intense and desperate and anxious. I mean to make these generalisations could be very wrong, I don’t know but some days it seems a lot harder now, life is harder in – in the big cities it is and so this speed thing and this noise of life. I mean when I was a boy I didn’t hear much noise going on. There was the sound of a ship’s whistle somewhere or the factory whistles and the odd car would pass by and oh well I grew up to the sound of explosions from the nearby quarry and machine guns from the nearby ammunition factory where they would test the bullets but I thought that was normal. But you see the sound, the tone, you would hear – you would walk down the street and hear a woman singing a song as she hung out the washing on the line. That was amazing, a song being sung, acappella, beautiful old sentimental song. Or the rubbish man whistling a tune. You can’t hear it anymore –
K: And this is in Melbourne where you -
M: This was in the western industrial suburbs of Melbourne. I worked as a paperboy from a very young age. I got up early with my father, he was going off to the meatworks and I’d go off and sell papers at the – I’ve been in newspapers a long time – and I’d go off to the factory gates and sell papers to the you know the workers and it was – yeah, working-class. Every – factories, people going into work, industrial society and it was a different Australia. People weren’t so clever, we didn’t have art back there, there was no art galleries that I knew of or arts festivals or music festivals so it was more make do and – but – and probably very bigoted too amidst all the kindness of – as well, a very funny paradox. And I would go off to Sunday school and sing little hymns about mercy and forgiveness and you know all these lovely ideas and it’s all sort of seems to be gone. I don’t know. And then there was no television, there was no television so now I’m just sitting here reminiscing, aren’t I?
K: I was going to say – I mean I don’t know Melbourne, really but I have some friends who grew up there and they do seem to be obsessed with football and you don’t seem to share that, there are some serious cracks at sport in this and I was – I thought no, not all Melburnians are nutty about football.
M: Well no, they’re not. Look, if people enjoy their football that’s alright but I also remember when football used to be on the back page of the newspaper. It’s not like that anymore, it’s on every page of the newspaper, it’s on – certainly on the front page. Now it’s become a different game obviously. I lived near the Footscray football ground, I used to go to training nights and get all the autographs of the players and then in 1954 I saw Footscray win its first premiership and as I’ve often said before, the experience was so satisfying I never had to go back to a football match ever again. No, I think it brings – I don’t think it’s the happiest part of Australia or the – it’s – I’m not proud of what footy has done to our nation and the sort of money involved and the sort of madness and violence, I think you know it really – and it sort of exemplifies the split society, our tribe against your tribe you know them and us, we’re good, we win, you’re bad, you lose. I know that’s being too earnest about it but it still is a little metaphor or a big metaphor for the way our politics goes, it’s the way we – international politics goes, the wars we’ve been involved, those are the people and I think footy is a kind of a model of that in a way. This makes me sound very earnest and pious but I don’t like it and it’s so violent, it really is.
And people pretend that it shouldn’t be violent but they kind of love it and you see a violent incident, you’re standing in the fish and chip shop where they’ve always got a match on up on the screen and there’s a violent incident and people you know are so horrified that it has to be played in slow motion again and again and you think there’s a lot of sadism going on in this violence, there’s a lot of rejection. And same it was I felt at the time of the Iraq invasion, that how does a nation go to war unless there’s a sufficient body of hatred in that nation? In those good people, my Australian good people, you know? And they’re sort of – I know a lot of people protested, a lot of people but somehow there’s a lot of people who said yeah, it must be done knowing full well that a lot of people would die and be maimed and traumatised for generations. How can this be? How can we do this? And if you say oh there's a residual sadism in ordinary people they say oh, this is ridiculous, of course there’s not, we’re civilised. I say no, I’m interested in the primal elements that still reside in the human heart hidden and tucked away and smoothed over.
And so it’s this thing of you know we are good, they are bad, I’ve always had trouble and I think that lies at the heart of a lot of cartooning, that - let’s get to the heart of the matter, let’s open this thing up. Are we really the decent society we think we are? Then why this - inequalities which is getting crueller and crueller and yeah, these – this is the cartoonist speaking you know the social justice person. And what is my part in that? We’re all caught up in it, it’s – and what do you do about it? Etc. And is our politics addressing it? Etc so there are big questions and complex questions. But I'm not a very good – I’m not very good on ANZAC Day or on Australia Day. I’m not particularly – join in even though I feel a deep bond to this whole country and the culture and the land and you know I suppose I love it in my way and care for it but I’m not proud of our – this patriotism and stuff that is whipped up, it wasn’t the patriotism that I learned about. That was what the Americans did, we said, back in the ‘50s or the – they said oh Americans, they’re always bragging and they’re all full of themselves and they’re – but we don’t do that and that’s what we used to say. Or I don’t know, that’s what the working class I heard say but now it’s different, I think it’s -
K: Yeah, I mean I don’t recall any great nationalism when I was growing up either you know and it seems to me that you can be an Australian and really you know deeply attached to this country without you know being nationalistic or jingoistic or wanting to watch football or you know there’s a whole lot of things that – and I think maybe that should bring us to - you talked on radio quite recently about your experience of going up to Lockhart River and encountering the – sort of the old girls as you called them, the Aboriginal women and - the painters and you seemed to have sort of observed something there that was very reassuring to you.
M: Yeah, it’s interesting, the time I’ve spent – amongst indigenous – in indigenous communities, it’s my good fortune to be – to have found myself and had opportunity to spend time in communities in the centre and up top end. Yes, I suppose it’s undeniable that this great struggle goes on for what has happened to these people and this great sorrow and suffering remains and continues and complicates and I don’t know, it’s just this thing of – that interests me. I suppose human suffering – like Winnicott would be interested in what is behind this, how did it get like this? And it’s an interest of mine. People say oh you’re too negative, you’re looking at – be happy, come on, be happy. I say yeah, it’s alright, I can be happy, I’m perfectly capable but I’m curious about the human heart and the psyche and why we suffer emotionally and why people find themselves in tragic situations and doing things they regret and caught up in events and you go into an indigenous community and there’s a lot of evidence of people you know their children have committed suicide or there’s – they’ve – children are in jail etc, etc, there’s all those well-known problems and yet in spite of this there’s a sort of vitality in the face of great sad history and suffering and there’s this kind of truth that’s coming through all the time and warmth and care and frankness and truth-speaking and I observed a lot of this.
And I recall in Lockhart River, because I had a good vehicle – it was so-called dry community, no alcohol but there was what was called a canteen on the outskirts and it was open for a couple of hours a night and you could buy a couple of cans of beer and the old girls, as they call themselves – these are the old women who used to come to the arts centre as a bit of refuge for cups of tea and painting – they’d say oh Michael, you’ve got a car, you take us to the canteen and I say oh alright you know and so you’d pick up this one and that one there and that one there and you’d have a big load of the old girls and get to the canteen, they all pile out. They say come and have a drink, I’d say no, no ‘cause I’d been warned don’t go in there. And so the next night this’d continue until about the third night, they said Michael, come and have a drink. And I said alright so I go in and then there you start you know and there you end up sitting on the concrete floor ‘cause there’s no chairs and the old girls’d all have a few drinks and they would start singing and they would start crying and they would start telling you stories of their grandchildren who have gone and you know the suffering and sadness and I made a pretty glib remark to myself there, I said oh if the white fella drinks to forget, these people are drinking to remember, I thought. That’s how it appeared to me at this particular night.
So you know it’s a very humbling exper – my time with indigenous community and I’m curious about these subqualities I can’t name and I came to the point where I thought gee, these old girls are so much like my grandmother. This happens in Australia and her whole way. I thought what is this? And then I remembered that my father used to be called - they’d say – I remember a neighbour saying hi Bernie – Bernard was my father’s name – Bernie, you're a bit of an Aborigine, aren’t you? And my father would say no, I'm not and you know deny it and – so I’ve wondered to this day. My grandma, who was such a delight, and it’s where I learned to draw the teapot, by sitting at her table just starting at it, yeah, I’ve wondered whether there’s some affinity there or whether any person growing up in white Australia would go amongst those people and be very impressed. And when I found out that Uluru statement had been rejected I thought why reject it? This could be such a blessing because I don’t know, I don’t want to romanticise people but I found these qualities in the indigenous people generally and – which I really like, which I really like in spite of troubles. It’s something unique and distinctive which is probably –
K: Well this incredible –
M: I’ll just finish that because I just thought of it – which I think have been imparted – if indeed there is an Australian sense of humour it’s my theory that a lot of it has come across in the early days when the interface between the whites and the indigenous was not with the big well financed search parties like Burke and Wills, it was with the mavericks who were the bird trappers, the gold prospectors who went into the centre and needed to connect to the indigenous people to get through that country because it’s so hard and you had to know where the water was. And I think there must have been a great influence, came across.
K: I think you’re absolutely right with that, yeah.
M: Yeah and I think we carry it more than we understand and I think to see the value of it and the beauty of it and the uniqueness and the spirit of it would be very wise and any government which could bring it in, not because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a good you know it’s a valuable thing to do. It’s a blessing to us, not because we’re being good to these people but because we want something of the wisdom and I really believe in it so that’s the tragedy of this rejection of say the Uluru statement. Try it, it might do us the world of good eventually, who knows? Sorry.
K: But it would probably take a kind of naivete or innocence that our politics is bereft of at the moment.
M: I think you’re dead right.
K: I think you’re quite right, it’s what we need but I think we’re a long way from knowing even how to begin to do it.
M: Well that’s right and you say it because I think we have lost that innocence, that mature innocence, the capacity to be open and genuine like it’s also tough and cynical and hard and strategic, that you just shut off a whole lot of brilliant possibilities ‘cause you can’t see them anymore when you’re in this desperate combative mode which is so tangled and twisted and so that is afflicting our politics. And if – even to say the word innocence in any proximity to the Parliament House they just laugh, you know? It elicits laughter ‘cause they don’t understand what innocence means, they – people think it’s about being a fool and being – it’s a divine state, it’s a divine - it’s the divine within us, I believe and it’s there and it’s possible and it resides in us covered up and - but who dares to act upon it or to speak from it or listen to it in other – and who dares have it? Certainly not the political system.
K: I'm aware we’re getting to the point of people asking questions. Should we go there now? I was just going to – yeah, okay, it’s alright, you go for it. No, just one comment I wanted to make and this sort of brings us back to Winnicott, is that all through this book are the little references to you know ordinary days where nothing remarkable’s going to happen and you know that there isn’t going to be a celebration or people that get sort of arrested for not going to a public event and so you clearly have a bit of a bee in your bonnet too about the number of compulsory celebrations and –
M: Well it’s all overblown, I think. I think we’re suffering from too much of everything. I mean it’s hard to reduce and come back but every day is International Kindness Day or Internationalist Day, there’s always something, you think oh please leave me alone, I want to just sit and look out the window or something, you know? There’s so much coming at us all the time and I think it’s crazy where they don’t want us to be sane, they don’t want – who they are, I don’t know. It’s a funny dynamic that’s built up, it’s like a kind of a ferment that’s taken hold of us. Too much, too much of everything.
N: Shall we move to question time, then?
M: Oh okay.
N: We did have some microphones so just pop your hand up if you have a question. And wait for the microphone. Gosh, oh there’s one, two.
A: Look, it’s been great listening to your tales and that and I'm particularly interested in your like or dislike of ANZAC Day and those days that you don’t particularly like to commemorate. Growing up as a child it was the big day. Nowadays where some people say you seem to be glorifying the wars or war - every day of the year we have a commemoration for something. Do you think you’d be able to, using your creativity one year, to get the powers that be to cease that we have a commemoration each day for maybe trees or sunsets or ducks? Thank you.
M: Well I don’t think I’d have a hope. I think it’s all off and running now, isn’t it? Look, when I say I have a difficult time at ANZAC Day, I grew up with ANZAC Day, my headmaster was a Gallipoli veteran, Mr Golding. I used to watch him, he was burnt and he was – went to France and was wou – you know hurt with gas, mustard gas and I remember once going to the – being sent to his office with a note from the teacher and there he was bandaging, he had a long bandage hanging from his hand and he was slowly winding it over ‘cause he had these wounds from the gas on his hand.
And he said wait a minute, boy, I’ll be with you in a moment and I watched him as he wound this bandage and I thought oh, I’ve seen a Gallipoli veteran dressing his wounds, yeah so I have a respect of course for all the men and women and families who were affected by this gross cruelty and bar – you know monstrosity that was war of course and I grew up with so many war refugees – I won’t drag this out – and it was a big part of my background but I grew up with so many Russians, Poles, people from all over Europe who had the most horrible wars and I heard the tales. My family had people in the first world war and the second world war and died and all this sort of thing so I don’t dismiss this thing, it’s just I think we commemorate it very poorly and it’s become some other sort of thing and there’s no genuine solemnity about the vast resounding consequences and I – it’s just mishandled, I think, and it’s fallen into sort of a theatre of the – it’s ridiculous, it’s a disservice to the trag – you know to all that happened and it doesn’t – it sort of seems to foster the next war just a little bit and the idea of heroic violence and stuff.
So I do my best for the trees and people are pretty good at looking after and caring for trees too but I don't think there’s much profit in it or for power or something for governments and I hope we grow through this thing as we mature and mature. Maybe, maybe it’s – who will know? So I'm not sure whether I’m answering that question but go on.
N: Lady in the green.
A: Hi Michael, I just want to say thank you so much for all you are and do in the world. I wanted to ask how do you keep on sharing your big open heart with the world even when you just get massive amounts of shit thrown at you?
M: How do I keep on caring when I’m – get a lot of stuff thrown at me? Yeah and I have, I’ve had a lot, I’m getting a bit lately too but – well I try and care as much as I can. I’m not a saint you know I think – look, who doesn’t care?
K: I think she said sharing.
K: Yeah, how do you keep sharing –
M: Oh how do you – sharing? Oh sharing and caring. Sharing, look it’s a compulsion, is it not? What does the artist do? There’s – I suppose there’s a kind of – would you say there’s an ar – there’s a sort of an artistic kind of archetype as a person who wants to create and to express. An interesting one I’ve heard, I’ve probably said it here before, that the artist’s work is to express what is repressed, to express what is repressed and find what is repressed and what is repressed can be painful or it can be joyous too, we often repress our beautiful qualities. So it’s – that is a compulsion, to express it, you – and as a boy I remember thinking oh I feel this, does that person over there feel that? I wonder, I wonder what it’s like to be someone else you know what it’s like to be that other person there? Do they feel what I feel? I see the dead bird on the road and I’m sad, does the other person think that?
So this is eternal human curiosity and a lot of good things come of that empathetic curiosity and so that’s partly why I share because I was always doing it, was a child and I see the value of it, that we all share our experience without becoming too boring about it but you know if our heart is aching can we tell someone or find when someone else’s heart is aching? Can we cry with our friends? Etc and I wondered why so many people were not allowed to cry or felt it was really good to keep a stiff upper lip at a funeral and I wondered why can’t you cry? Etc, all that sort of thing and why are we so repressed about our divinity? We don’t just repress our demons, we repress our angels too. So I don’t know why but that’s probably something.
N: Two questions down here, yeah.
A: How do you reconcile your outlook with sort of this – Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest and probably most vicious and nastiest?
M: What was that last bit? The –
A: The survival of the fittest or I could say of the nastiest or the most egocentric or whatever you like to call it.
M: Yes. How do I deal with it?
A: Sort of reconcile the sort of the meek inheriting the earth against what seems to happen in nature.
M: Yes. I don’t know, I mean every day I wonder about similar and the meek – meekness is a beautiful quality sometimes too you know the heroics of the modern day I have no time for, the sort of – the bombast and the sort of – it’s a tragedy, you know? Life’s a tragedy too, it’s a joy, it’s both. I think that to see power dominating and being so well armed and so ruthless and so beastly, we live in this world and how do we bear it? How do we deal with it? Who’s got the answer? There have been many, many prophets and people in history who’ve spoken to this all the time you know the beatitudes, blessed are the poor of sprit for they shall know God and all this sort of thing and it is a very interesting fact that people who don’t have power, who don’t have wealth, who don’t have success, who have failure and loss and grief somehow have something else as well, I mean this is Taoism, isn’t it? This is Laozi, there is a divinity in suffering and not that one wants to encourage it or to bring it about but the world is full of suffering and it struck me as a child how people in their sadness would seem more beautiful than people in all their triumphalism and their pleasure-seeking and I – so it’s an ironic thing in human history and in human behaviour that people in their sorrows, in their sufferings, in their losses are often – kind of have a profound dignity and that wealth does not – and power does not buy that or guarantee that.
And then you say well what is worth having? What is this life? You know it’s an existential question, what are we doing here? What is worth having or being or – big question and how do we end up – how do we die? How does an artist create? And whether – or how do you create a garden or a family or a relationship? All creative stuff and what is required? Money? No, not so. Is power? So it just depends what do we want? What are we here for? That’s what a child says, what is this? What is it, they say.
K: Maybe that inability to reconcile and the constant attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable is what fuels the creative process.
M: There’s a tension there in that of saying what’s going on? And I think it’s an old – it’s a sort of a Buddhist question is it not to say what is this? Whatever it is you know what is this? And this opening of the mind and just seeing it, feeling it and I think to keep on doing that is quite a – that’s mature innocence also. And there’s such depth and richness eventually in that, I think that’s a life worth living to some degree and I don’t say that from a position of comfort, my life hasn’t been so comfortable, particularly in recent years and I – but I wouldn’t have it any other way, who would? Who would have their life any other way? I suppose we’ve all got reason to want a holiday.
N: We have a gentleman in the middle here whose arm must be about to fall off.
M: Yeah, I see that.
N: Can we pass the microphone into him?
M: I thank you for your strength –
N: Sorry, we have someone at the front.
M: Where is the microphone?
A: It’s here.
M: Oh yes, it’s here.
A: Michael –
M: Yes –
N: That’s alright, it’s with a lady at the front.
M: I was reassuring the man up the back that there’ll be another –
N: We will come back to you, sir.
A: I’d just like to say keep doing what you’re doing but I want to know what sort of shit do you get and who’s giving it to you? And what do you do about it?
K: And where do they live?
M: It’s always been the case, I mean oh hang on, how can I say this? Look, there’s the fact of – there’s so many levels of shit if you like that come at you. Yeah, I’ve been in court a number of times for obscenity when I was younger, that’s when it was still possible to be charged with obscenity and this is back in the ‘60s when it was our purpose to sort of confront the prudery, hypocrisy thing and try to open up and so opened up so wide that I think oh God. Yeah so I had that so when you were in trouble with the law that’s a feeling then I’ve offended religious sensibilities and you can underestimate that. And I might say that the offences I’ve caused pretty much have been – I’ve been – I hadn’t realised that I was offending, I thought I was saying a good thing. I thought I was making a nice point and wow no, the sky falls in so - and you get – like hate mail is not a happy thing when you get it sustained. There are certain political questions in this world which if you go near them you watch out and then I’ve had the death threat thing and I don’t know how seriously to take it but it sort of unnerves you, goes into your unconscious and it’s there.
It got to so bad at one point during the time of the Iraq war, if you oppose militarism you’ll waken some dark instincts which lie latent in times of peace. When the flags are flying, the drums are beating, people become very bold and become very sort of menacing. And so they do get at you and the threat’s made and then you offend you know gender politics, you can easily stumble into a thing, any sort of politics, any sort of politics, whether you know identity politics, you can offend people. We’re living in a time of offence, people get triggered as they say and reactive and quick to judge and to punish and you see it in social media, there’s kind of that troll sort of thing and I think what is all this acrimony? What’s the hostility? What is this anger in society? And I think well I think I know where it stems from a lot, I mean the pace of life. You only have to drive to work as many people do through traffic you know 360 days of the year through horrific traffic and you know it’s hard going and people build up a sort of frustration, anger.
Life is not conducive to peaceful tranquillity and in some – and then they’re going through personal troubles and frustrations and we live in a world like that and so you got to have someone to take it out on some time – people get very energised with anger, their last source of energy left to them sometimes. And so yeah, I’ve had a lot of that, I’ve had a lot of it and hostility and it comes and goes and it’s sort of – and then there’s intellectual snobbery, you know? Oh you’re just drew – you draw cute ducks, don’t you? Why don’t you address the real issues and you Mr Cutie or you know something you do, Mr Curly and sort of – and that is envy, envy’s everywhere. You don’t have to be brilliant to be envied, you only just have to smile and someone will envy you. As they say if you’re happy don’t wear it too much on your sleeve, someone will not like you for it. And that is true, that is true and – but look, mostly there’s – people are lovely too, I’ve been in a position that through my work I have been able to enter into people’s – to get an insight into how people feel and how they live and how they suffer, how they die, how they – it’s been a great ins – my work has provided me a lot of you know access to people’s realities which otherwise are not seen. So that’s lovely so that makes all the nasty stuff very bearable but it outweighs the nasty stuff by a big margin and –
N: Okay, we can probably – sorry to interrupt – one last question from the gentleman in the middle with a microphone but then upstairs you will get a chance to speak with –
M: But there’s the man with the tired arm.
N: Yes, the man with one arm.
A: You’ve given us a beautiful hour reminding us that we must look for our innocence but how do you do that? You don’t come over as a meek person, you come over as a very brave person prepared to retain your innocence against the flood of human thought in the modern age. How do you do that? How do you fight against it and say I'm going to stay the way I am?
M: Well if that is the – and thank you for for that impression you have of me – well for a start I didn’t have a university degree, right? Or an education worth speaking about so I had to have some other resource, I mean it’s foolhardiness too, I mean it’s like do or die. I don’t have much to fall back on except my interior self and my – I thought I’ve got to live with – from this and I had no precedent, there were no artists in my family, there were no educated people, there were no – they were just – so that’s fantastic, you’ve got nothing looming over you, you can – the world is your oyster you know I mean - and I mean that, it was a humble background. I wouldn’t have called it so then but now I look back and yeah, that was unusual. I thought that was my normality and it wasn’t much to live up to – no, I don’t – that’s come out wrong. I really admired the people I grew up around but I didn’t have to prove some damn thing you know and my father wasn’t a brilliant surg – he said he was a beef surgeon, actually just for a job and he wasn't a brilliant surgeon and something like this, I didn’t have to go off to a good school, get a – so I had to make do, a great Australian tradition, you have to sort of work with what you’ve got and if it’s bravery maybe that is just what you have to muster to stand up and be a lone voice.
And I don’t think that’s heroic, I think – or anything like that like I didn’t grow up with a model of that, oh I want to be this guy who talks and that, it just seems a natural consequence of a boy in a schoolyard who says a stupid thing and gets the strap for it, you know? And it’s a similar - that it’s natural to do this, to want to speak to your society. Shouldn’t everyone want to speak to their society? And why – it’s not like why do I but why don’t other people? Well other people do, actually and they do it in a more constructive and orderly way but I – this is the only way I could do it, I didn’t inherit the skills of knowing how to have a good life from my father, he didn’t say oh you invest your money here, you do that, you do – I didn’t learn any of that.
And I just had to make do and I'm now paying the price. I was sitting having a coffee in you know central CBD of Sydney and there’s around me all these business guys sitting having coffee sitting there, got their computers and they’re exchanging documents and they’re talking, they’re dressed in lovely suits and everything and I thought I didn’t learn any of this, how do they do it? And they’ve probably got all these investments and stuff happening and I thought my father didn’t tell me this stuff, he told me how do you sharpen a knife or something that’s of no use to anybody much these days. And you know like you don’t know a man ‘til he’s been your boss and those were the wisdoms he passed on to me etc, etc, heaps, fantastic education in those things but I don’t know whether they’ve served me well. But I don’t know whether that answers your question but we all have to be brave. As a dear old friend of mine, John Hepworth, a writer, used to say, be brave, comrades, life is joyous and I’ve always kept that in my mind, it’s a very positive feeling. You might as well be brave. Or have a shot at it but deep down we’re all pretty frightened.
M: And that’s what courage is, isn’t it? When you know how bad it can be and how dangerous it is, if you can still stand up that’s courage.
N: I knew it’d be difficult for us to stop but I think we’re going to have to down here anyway. I’d like to invite you all to come upstairs to the foyer for some refreshments. We have learnt our lesson from the – 20 years ago where we had a book signing with Michael. Michael has actually already signed some of his books and they are actually on sale upstairs in the bookshop right now with a 10% discount so – and Michael of course will be available to have a chat with you upstairs when you come up and have a drink as well. Thank you very much, Kim and Michael.
End of recording