Richard Fidler presents the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture Telling and Writing the Story, outlining some of the tensions that come into play when bringing someone’s life story to a listening audience and comparing it to the freedoms and constraints involved in writing biography for a reader.
Richard Fidler hosts Conversations on ABC Radio, an hour-long interview show. His guests have included astronauts, authors and scientists, but the program often features remarkable people unknown to the wider world. More recently he's written several historical books, including Ghost Empire and Saga Land (co-written with Kari Gislason), containing short biographies of historical figures from Byzantium and medieval Iceland.
The Seymour Biography Lecture is supported by Dr John and Mrs Heather Seymour AO.
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Richard Fidler (R)
*Location: NLA Theatre
*Date: 28 September 2018
M: Ladies and gentlemen, friends, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the annual Seymour Biography Lecture. I’m Marie-Louise Ayres, Director General of the National Library of Australia. As we begin I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet tonight, and I thank their elders past, present and emerging for their continuing care of this land from which the Library does its work for the nation.
It’s a great pleasure to see so many of you here for this year’s Seymour Biography Lecture which is a highlight on our spring calendar and I'm sure many of you will have been to a few of these lectures over the years. Tonight is a celebration of telling true stories about people’s lives but it’s also an opportunity to explore the craft of life writing in all its forms.
The lecture is a gift to the Australian community by John and Heather Seymour who have both told me not to mention their names and they know that I was going to disobey them. But they’re both with us this evening and I think it is a real gift to the community to have this opportunity to kind of consider this on an annual basis. What is this thing that we call biography and life writing? And we certainly could not do the lecture without them.
John and Heather are passionate supporters of the Library and really are knowledgeable advocates for the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoir. Many of us share this passion especially when we’re trying to understand personal, familial and cultural milieus, the things that made leaders tick or when we are trying to engage with a life experience that reflects our own or indeed a life experience that is very far from our own.
But John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in this form through their support for the lecture and also for an annual scholarship which gives a young scholar the opportunity to work here intensively for six weeks as part of really becoming a life writer of the future so John and Heather, thank you.
Now we’re very privileged to have broadcaster, Richard Fidler, presenting this year’s lecture and I have to say it’s the first time I’ve heard people clap as the speaker steps into the theatre – no pressure. So Richard of course hosts a brilliant hour-long interview show, Conversations, on ABC radio and I suspect that I’m not the only person here tonight addicted to it you know either live or as a podcast and perhaps you, like me, have been thinking today about your top three Richard Fidler Conversations.
Richard’s guests have ranged from renowned politicians, authors and astronauts to little known yet remarkable playwrights, mountaineers, restaurateurs and beekeepers and that’s only in the last month. In addition to radio Richard has written historical books with Ghost Empire and Saga Land both featuring short biographies of historical figures from Byzantium and medieval Iceland. So he’s a man of – certainly of many talents and we’ll be hearing about his consideration tonight or an exploration perhaps of the tensions that come into play in the different forms of writing lives and perhaps particularly bringing a living person talking about their lived experience to a listening audience. So please join me in welcoming Richard Fidler to present the 2018 Seymour Biography Lecture. Thank you.
R: Hello. Thank you very much for that very kind and warm introduction and I want to thank the Seymours again of course for making this lovely event possible. It’s a wonderful thing and I’m honoured and delighted to be here.
I’ve called this lecture Telling and Writing the Story because I’d like to illustrate some of the differences between presenting someone’s life story on the page and on the air. It’s been a while since I lived in Canberra as a grubby undergraduate at ANU and I'm afraid I have written this lecture as an ess – not like an essay with a thesis and a whole bunch of tightly argued paragraphs with a compelling conclusion. It’s that I thought I’d take you through some of the things I’ve discovered while presenting a radio program. It’s largely biographical and how that work affected the writing of two books, Ghost Empire based around the medieval empire of Constantinople, and Saga Land which I co-authored with my friend Kári Gíslason where the action takes place around the sagas of medieval Iceland. Along the way it’s a process that’s taken me through the slums of Istanbul, the remote northwest fjords of Iceland and the dank and holy confines of an ABC radio studio.
Firstly though a warning about the dangers of biography. In April 1988 I was a young 20 something browsing through a bookshop in St Mark’s Place in New York city and I picked up a copy of The Path to Power, the first volume of Robert A Caro’s multivolume biography of the life of Lyndon Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. The book was handsome and pleasingly weighty in my hands and like all good biographies it was big enough to stun a burglar. The Path to Power was a wholly absorbing biography for me, Caro introduces us to a Lyndon Johnson who is as oversized as Texas, tall with huge hands, long arms and ears and a domineering, smothering personality. We meet the young Lyndon Johnson fleeing from the poverty of Texas hill country, propelling himself frantically towards significance and political power.
In Washington Johnson becomes a congressional staffer and then gets elected to his own seat in Congress and he takes care to select talented staff members who are as desperate as him to escape the humiliating poverty of rural Texas. But they soon find they’ve exchanged one form of humiliation for another as their frantic overbearing boss comes to dominate and subsume their lives. Johnson’s staff would be expected to work from dawn ‘til late at night, their smallest errors would be screamed at by the boss or treated with wounding derision. Even as President Johnson would order speechwriters and stenographers to follow him into the bathroom where he would give dictation while seated on the toilet. Robert Caro spoke to staffers who were still haunted by Johnson’s domineering personality long after he died. One talented speechwriter had left Johnson’s office after just six months. He told Caro he knew that if he stayed he would wind up having Johnson’s portrait hanging in his living room and he would have to name his kids after the bastard so he got out.
I wonder if Robert Caro though failed to heed the warning of that staffer? As I bought that first volume of The Path to Power 30 years ago, 30 years ago. I bought the second volume when it came out in 1990, the third in 2002. The most recent volume called The Passage to Power – of Power, appeared in 2012 and that just covered his Vice Presidency and the assassination of JFK and the transition into the Presidency. Earlier this year Robert Caro said the final volume might come out in two years or 10 years, he’s not sure. Robert A Caro is now 82 years old. From beyond the grave it seems Lyndon Johnson has managed to gobble up yet another man’s life. There is a warning in this I think for biographers. If you're going in make sure you keep an eye on the exits.
I’m relatively new to the business of presenting people’s lives on the page but I’ve been doing it for some years now on the radio. My program, Conversations, is often biographical, the life of the guest is compressed into an hour. It’s really a format that lives somewhere between biography and autobiography, it’s the guest telling their story, not me but my producers and I have worked hard to shape that story and make it flow through the course of the hour.
I imagine myself while I’m going to air as a convenor of an intimate conversation with just three people around a tiny little café table, a very, very small café table peopled by just three people, myself, the guest and the listener. There is a heavy load of work that goes into every single show. Often the guest is unknown to the wider world and there’s very little about them on the public record but the nature of the show is I think very subjective. The voice you hear is human and fallible and I think that’s understood by listeners. We do take some precautionary measures before we bring a guest on air, we ask ourselves is the guest’s version of events too self-aggrandizing, too self-contradictory? Too many [illisions] 9:23 around a tricky subject?
Presenting a life on the page though is a very different business. There are several narrative liberties I discovered that are affordable to the author that are denied to the broadcaster. On the page, the written page, the narrative can sprawl back and forth in time much more easily. Individual stories can run in parallel then intersect and then run off in different directions. Radio however is much more linear, much more linear. It requires more narrative discipline. But it can roll forward with enormous didactic force and momentum and it has the lustre and texture of the human voice to bring you in, to hold you in, to beguile you.
Radio narrative tends to move like a shark, knifing through the water in a linear manner in search of blood and horror. Actually that last bit’s not true, I just added that to make it sound more impressive. But the narrative of written biography seems to be more like a Portuguese man o'war, floating along in a stately manner, tangled with all sorts of bits and pieces, pulling them all along more or less at the same time.
The different exigencies of these two mediums presenting a life through the voice and the page were really brought home to me a few years back while making a radio documentary series in Iceland. I travelled to Iceland in the summer of 2015 with my good friend, Kári Gíslason. He and I were there to make a series for Radio National called Saga Land which we later expanded into the book. Kári’s lived most of his life in Australia but he was born in Iceland and he loves the country of his birth with all the tragic passion of the exile. He and I became friends after he appeared as a guest on my radio program. I’d read his memoir and so I kind of knew his life before I even met him which is an odd and slightly stalkerish way to begin a friendship.
Kári has a doctrine in medieval Icelandic literature like so many people here this evening, I know. And one night while we were drinking in a bar in Brisbane he mentioned in passing the sagas of Iceland. Now I’d imagined the sagas were tales of you know warriors and fantastic monsters like Beerwolf and he said oh no, that’s not it at all, the sagas are not fantasy, they’re not Tolkien, they’re the family stories of the Vikings who first came to Iceland a thousand years ago. They’re about real people who actually existed.
The sagas merged from a poetic storytelling tradition brought to us and by the Norwegian Vikings when they came to settle on that remote island way back in the 9th and 10th centuries. In old Norse the word, saga, simply means a telling. And in the frozen dark of the winter months Icelanders would sit in their long houses and remember dark family feuds or the loss of a beautiful child at sea or the revenge of a mistreated woman. And these family stories were told and retold and retold and no doubt they grew in the telling.
I asked Kári that night to tell me a saga story right then and there in the bar and this is how he began. This is what medieval Icelandic biography sounds like. This is the beginning of the saga, we call it Of [Guner] 12:37 and Helgeth. [Guner] [Eftheverendi] 12:41 was a gifted, brave and capable young man. He swam like a seal. He was powerfully athletic. They say he could jump as far backwards as he could forwards. When he mounted his horse he would run up behind it with his halberd and pole-vault himself into the saddle. He was slow to make friends but loyal to those who were close.
[Guner] had just returned to Iceland from Norway where he’d won some fame as a warrior even though he hated to kill. In the summer [Guner] made the journey to Thingvellir, to the annual assembly. As he walked through the [rift] 13:20 people couldn’t stop looking at him where he seemed to have everything. He was handsome and wealthy and well travelled. [Guner] arrived at Thingvellir wearing a fine cloak and a golden arm bracelet given to him by the Earl of Norway. He followed the path by the stream and there he encountered the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her name was Helgeth. He sat down next to her and they began to talk and after an hour or so [Guner] said to her, Helgeth, are you married? And she said you can’t possibly want to know the answer to that question. And he said but what if I do? And she said then you better go and talk to my father.
So he went a little further along the path and met Helgeth’s father and said he wanted to marry his daughter and the father said [Guner], you’re a good man, we like you, you should not marry Helgeth. She’s already had two husbands and both of them are dead.
You could feel the momentum of narrative there and that’s just a lovely thing. Now we do know for a fact that [Guner] and Helgeth were once living, breathing human beings. Their names are recorded in Íslendingabók, the Icelandic genealogical database which goes all the way back to the 9th century and contains the name of every Icelander that ever lived. But could [Guner] really leap onto his horse like that? Is it possible for anyone to jump as far backwards as forwards? This historical Viking farmer was already straining at the leash of plausibility. Was this biography laced with hyperbole or fiction based on a real person? Well saga scholars are still arguing over that one.
The sagas as they were told between family members were memorised and passed down by generation after generation until the 13th century when they were put to paper at least, most probably by Icelandic monks whose names are lost to us. Iceland was approaching a crisis at the time which may have galvanised them into recording these tales in case they became lost. The authors scratched them onto sheets of hideously expensive calf skin vellum and crucially they wrote them down not in Latin, which was the scholarly language of the time, but in the Icelandic vernacular. It was intended they should be read aloud, enjoyed and passed on. Clearly the sagas were not ornaments on the fabric of their lives but part of the fabric itself. And like all biographies they spring from that deep-seated human need to understand the context of our own lives by remembering the world of our ancestors, the people who came before us. They also allow us to indulge in a bit of time travel which I think is the real deep secret pleasure of writing and reading biography.
Today every Icelander is brought up with the sagas and they learn them like we learn Shakespeare. It’s said that without the sagas Icelanders wouldn’t know how to be Icelandic. It’s made them a particularly literate people. There are more published authors in Iceland per head of population than in any other nation in the world. They spend all their time essentially writing and reading each other’s books. Icelanders have a saying, [Allir Íslendingar hafa bók í maga sínum] 16:42, which means every Icelander has a book in their stomach.
By the time the sagas were put to the page in the 13th century Christianity was then well entrenched in Iceland and the paganism of their ancestors was somewhat abhorrence to them but still the saga honours – saga authors honoured their ancestral debt by presenting these people to us as fully human rather than as wicked and ignorant brutes. It’s an astonishing achievement. If the sagas fall short of modern standards of biographical rigour they do succeed in illustrating larger truths of what it meant to be alive and walking around on that impossible island in the middle ages.
The English poet, W H Auden, admitted he was obsessed by the sagas. He used to like to say he was never not thinking about Iceland. Auden was startled by the uncompromising and violent tenor of life described in the sagas but as he discovered there’s a great deal more to the lives of these Vikings than extortion and revenge. Those of us who grew up with a caricature of the mindless Viking brute hacking and slashing his way through medieval Europe are likely to be shocked by the emotional complexity and the intensity of feeling which the saga authors lend to these historical figures.
Jorge Luis Borges discovered the sagas as a boy in his father’s library. Borges felt compelled to make several pilgrimages to Iceland in his life. The great Argentine author made his last trip to Reykjavik when he was blind and 71 years old. Nonetheless the awesome bleakness of Iceland stirred some deep romantic impulse and he summoned the courage to kiss his assistant, Maria Kodama, who later became his wife and then his widow. It was the first time Borges had kissed anyone in nearly 50 years.
Borges and Auden saw the sagas as I do, as a compelling means of escape into another time and place and perhaps into a – ever so slightly different way of being human. An historian whose name I can’t recall once said of the ancient Romans that the ancient Romans are about 90% recognisable to modern humans but the remaining 10% is quite alien to us and so it is with the Vikings in Iceland. They share all our modern preoccupations with family and love and politics and work and status, all that stuff but there’s one aspect to their lives that seems strange and that’s the highly charged concept of honour in the Viking world.
Viking honour is not something that grows and flourishes like love or Christian goodwill, honour is more like currency, it’s finite and there’s only so much honour to go around. Honour can’t be earned, it must be taken from someone else and this is [Guner’s] problem at the start of his tale, he’s returned to Iceland with a fine cloak and a bracelet, he’s won fame as a warrior which is even worse. [Guner] has too much honour and so he’s asking for trouble. And so – spoiler alert – the saga does not end well for him.
Anyway the saga of [Guner] and Helgeth that Kári told me that night was enthralling and it helped me and the half a dozen eavesdroppers who were listening in as he told me this story at the bar, all of us quite still. It was obvious to me in that moment that these sagas, these Viking biographies, would translate so beautifully into a radio program and to a podcast. There’s something so pure about that oral tradition and that’s how he and I came to be in Iceland in the summer of 2015.
Now our plan was to record four stories about four people from the sagas, stories of people who lived and walked around that island a thousand years ago. And we also had a family mystery to solve, to find out if there was a blood connection between Kári and the greatest of the saga-holders.
Kári and I spent our first week in Iceland travelling to the spectacular old Viking parliament site at Thingvellir which takes place in a rift between two tectonic plates in the earth’s surface. And then we went to the grassy slopes of [Guner’s] farm in [Thethorenthi] 20:57 which is still a working farm today. The first two sagas we’d recorded adapted very easily to the radio format, they had distinct central characters, a strong narrative spine and they sounded magical when recorded beside a trickling stream or in a field of high grass.
But then we came to the third saga story that Kári had chosen. This was the life of Gisli, the fugitive. That’s where we hit a bit of a snag. At this point we were staying in a cabin in the south of Iceland. Now the coastal lands of the south of Iceland are so spectacular. On the deck of that cabin on a summer’s day I could see in the distance the flat cone of Mt Hekla, a volcano so fierce it was once believed to be the hell prison of Judas Iscariot.
Further down the road was that other volcano you know the one that exploded in 2010 sending plumes of ash all over Europe? It took several weeks of patient tutoring from Kári to enable me to say its name which is – I’m still getting it wrong, I’m sure – Eyjafjallajökull. Before then I was calling Eyefayurklegurkle which really annoyed him.
So that afternoon in the cabin Kári was telling me – he’s telling me – he was having a bit of a struggle to assemble all the events of the story in a kind of a linear manner for the radio and maybe I might want to read the saga in its original form myself – in its translated form, I should say – so I can see if I could come up with some ideas.
So I flopped down on the couch in the cabin and I read his Penguin Classics translation of Gisli’s Saga and as I read and as I turned each page I became more and more worried. After 10 pages I wondered if we’d ever figure out a way to present this Viking story to a radio audience. It certainly wasn’t lacking in drama. Hell, no. The question we had to answer was how do we take this sprawling and complex family story and pour it through the narrow funnel of spoken narrative? And this was an odd question because the saga had begun its life as a spoken narrative.
But the narrative was wickedly complex. Gudrun Nordal, the saga scholar, had a lovely phrase for it. She said the people in Gisli’s saga are doomed in these intricacies. Well we had to find a way to make those intricacies understandable. The saga of Gisli begins with a conclave of four friends. They go to the local assembly and these four guys make a bit of a show of themselves and this irritates the onlookers and one of them predicts ominously those four young men won’t be as close in three years as they are now. Now Gisli, who was one of the four, overhears this and he decides that he’ll refute this by binding his friends to him and each other through a four-fold pact of blood brotherhoodship and so they cut their arms to let the blood drip onto the soil and to mulch it up with their hands. That’s the ritual.
Now straight away as I’m reading this – that sounds great but four is not a great number for radio, four friends, okay? Three is much better. Listeners who might just hang on for a third name tend to switch off after that and the names were tricky. For a start there’s Gisli then there’s his brother, Thorkel, then his brother-in-law, Thorkrim who’s married to the sister, Thordice, and the fourth man in the circle is Gisli’s best friend, Virsten. Now can you picture what that name, Virsten, is? Can you even remember now the names of more than one of those characters and how they connect through kinship? Even the most enthusiastic listeners would struggle to sustain that Venn diagram of relationships in their heads and I knew people would get lost.
Now on the page it’s not so bad, the eye can scan the previous page, go backwards and forwards, you can check who’s who and you can still remain immersed in the narrative. But the radio listener can’t do that and if you’re listening to it as a podcast well you might want to tap the 15-second rewind button to check back on who was the brother again? And who was the brother-in-law? And who was the best friend? But that’s not good because the podcast listener has then had to snap out of the medieval world of blood brotherhood and cold iron and icy seawater and is now standing in the middle of the cat food section of Coles searching for a button on their iPhone.
So what to do? Well on an audio medium when you’re confronted by a problem of overwhelming narrative complexity sometimes it’s simply best to step back and confess the problem to the listener. So I thought when we introduce the saga I’ll just have to say something like okay so there’s four men, Gisli, Thorkel, Thorkrim and Virsten. It’s complicated, don’t get too hung up on the names right now, what matters here is that some of these friends are feted to kill each other. That’s a bit better, that’s okay, right? We’re still listening here, aren’t we? We’re still with that, okay.
So still lying on the couch I pressed on with Gisli’s saga and then the tangled web just got more twisted. It turns out that Thorkel’s wife, Asketh, used to have a thing for Virsten who happens to be the brother of Oth who’s the wife of Gisli – are we keeping up with this? And Oth it seems once had a thing for Thodgrim, Gisli’s brother-in-law. Yike, the web of interrelationships was beginning to look like the Canberra Action Bus map. But it’s important to the narrative, it’s this crush of family and intermarriage that’s going to give the drama that follows all its energy.
The most shocking thing in Gisli’s saga sits just below the surface. It’s the unspoken implication that Gisli, the chief protagonist and our man of honour, is partly driven by an incestuous attraction to his sister, Thordice, and she can’t admit it to himself, of course. And this is the moment in the saga, and I knew we could make it work for a radio audience, is Gisli decides he must avenge the death of his best friend by killing Thorkrim, his brother-in-law. So in the dead of night he creeps into the farmhouse with his spear. The room is perfectly dark. Gisli approaches the bed, he slips his cold hand under the covers and places it on his sister’s breast. She thinks it’s her husband and she says do you want me to roll over to you, Thorkrim?
So Gisli has to stand there silently in the dark listening to them couple with each other while impotently clutching his spear – how Freudian is that? Waiting for the couple to finish making love, his sister to make love. Gisli waits for them to fall asleep again and the saga says he raises his spear and plunges it into Thorkrim’s chest so hard that his spear lodges in the planks at the foot of the bed. You see now you’re listening. Now you want to know what happens next. Again – spoiler alert – things don’t end well for Gisli.
Gisli in his final years hides out in a remote fjord in the far northwest of Iceland so Kári and I went all the way out there just to see what it was like, this bleak, rocky fjord, it’s like a moonscape. On the day we were there there was a fierce wind blowing in from the North Atlantic, cold enough to sting the ears but nothing in the landscape moved, it was that lifeless, just little tufts of weeds. The saga records that Gisli and his wife, Oth, built a ragged little farm on the water’s edge while they were hiding out but one night two killers came looking for Gisli at the farmhouse but by then he’d escaped into the hills.
So the killers confront Oth in the farmhouse and offered her 300 pieces of silver to give them his whereabouts. After he's killed, they said, we’ll arrange a better marriage for you. Maybe you’re right, said Oth, money is better than grieving so the killers tipped the silver into her lap. She put the pieces into a small sack and asked one of the men if she could do whatever she wanted with the money. Of course, he said, it’s yours. So she got to her feet and swung the bag of silver into his face smashing his nose. Now, she said, you can tell everyone the fine story of when your nose was broken by a woman. That’s awesome, isn’t it? I mean that’s amazing. It’s not hard to imagine another generation of Vikings chortling over there just like you did now.
By the time we finished the radio series of Saga Land I was starting to write my first book, Ghost Empire. Ghost Empire is a history of the city of Constantinople, the second Rome, the capital of the later Roman empire which historians called Byzantium. The modern-day version of it is of course Istanbul. Sometimes the phrase biography of a city is employed for such books and it’s not a bad analogy you know the city is born, it flourishes, weakens, recovers and in the case of Constantinople it experienced a terrible, violent death after a long decline with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in the year 1453.
A great city has a complex, many-sided character and it can engender a kind of love in people. When you live in a city for a long time a comfortable intimacy sets in, bit like a marriage. Ghost Empire was peopled with short biographies of great historical figures like Constantine, the Great, and the imperial power couple, Justinian and Theodora. It was also a pleasure to meet some compelling but lesser known people like Irene of Athens, Anna Komnene and the very last of the Roman emperors, Constantine XI who died at the walls of Constantinople in 1453. And the story of that last emperor, Constantine XI, just haunted me and I still think about him all the time. Constantine XI possessed deep reserves of courage and fortitude that sustained him in the city’s terrible final ordeal. It was his awful fate to inherit the throne just as the empire’s final crisis was already engulfing it.
I think biography at some level should be a profound act of sympathy extended across time and space to the subject. So I went with my son to Istanbul to see the sight of the last stand of the last emperor for myself. And as we stood atop the ancient Theodosian walls that course through the suburbs of modern-day Istanbul I tried to imagine the last emperor’s sense of horror and futility as he looked down upon the vast army of the Ottoman empire pressing at the gates. And the more I read of the doomed emperor, Constantine XI, from the multiple primary sources that document the fall of the city the greater the affection I felt for him as someone who made the very best of a very bad situation. Writing about him created a strange sense of intimacy with him which of course is entirely illusory because the poor bugger is dead and he’s in no position to reciprocate my affection for him. Yet when I wrote the last sentence of that book I felt a small pang of grief to leave him there, to leave his bones there buried under a wall in Istanbul.
After I finished Ghost Empire Kári and I got to work on the book of Saga Land. We decided to write alternating chapters. One of the narrative tasks I was assigned was to write the life story of the greatest of the saga authors, an Icelander from the 13th century named Snorri Sturluson. Now Snorri Sturluson is revered today in Iceland, he wrote three classic works, a family saga, a history saga and most significantly he wrote the prose, Edda. This is the source of much of what we know of the Norse gods. All the stuff you’re seeing in Marvel comics movies these days, Thor, Odin, Loki, Hela, this all came from the pen of a well padded Icelandic lawyer writing in a remote farmhouse in medieval Iceland.
Neil Gaiman’s bestselling book on Norse mythology owes everything to Snorri Sturluson. Snorri is Iceland’s national hero. There’s a shrine, a statue, a street and a beer named after him. And he was - a good beer too – and he was murdered in his cellar by his enemies in the year 1241. One of our missions in Iceland was to find out if something Kári’s father had once told him was true, that Kári is a direct descendant of Snorri Sturluson’s. I thought we better go looking for the historical Snorri instead of the statue and I found a primary source in Sturlunga saga which happened to be written by Snorri’s nephew. The nephew, Sturla, has a slightly flat writing style but he is decidedly not in awe of his famous uncle which makes him a reasonably reliable narrator.
Snorri’s story appears in dribs and drabs throughout the Sturlunga saga and I found that when I pulled these bits and pieces together Snorri came sharply into focus not as a builder, not as a national hero but as a wrecker. Unlike Constantine the more I read of Snorri the less I thought of his reputation. Iceland in Snorri’s time had moved a long way from its egalitarian habits, power had become concentrated in the hands of a few powerful families. Snorri, who was the cleverest chieftain of his time, was as responsible as anyone for this awful social distortion. He loved power and wealth and honour too much.
Icelanders treasure their early history when the island was an independent commonwealth in the middle ages but I discovered that Snorri connived to sell out Iceland’s independence to Norway so long as he would be appointed the first Jah of Iceland. He undermined the republic so he could be an uncrowned king. An ardent republican, I naturally found this repugnant. Snorri, I discovered, screwed his allies, enemies and family members alike and was shocked when they came after him for revenge. Even so, just like the last emperor of Constantinople, the moment of Snorri’s death is poignant. Hiding in his cellar Snorri is discovered by his enemies. The seething assassins unsheathe their swords. Snorri is an old man in his 60s armed with nothing but his chiefly authority to bring to his defence.
The saga records that Snorri’s last moment was a defiant one. He utters a command, you will not strike. The men hesitate. Again he commands, you will not strike. One assassin edges forward and then thrusts his sword into Snorri, more sword thrusts follow and then the cleverest man in Iceland lies dead of his wounds on his cellar floor. Today’s Snorri’s old farm estate at Reykholt in Iceland is a national shrine to the great man, it contains a museum, a church and a library. The statue of Snorri out the front is pleasingly modest but ultimately quite absurd, they’ve dressed him as a saintly Lutheran even though Lutheranism didn’t even exist in the 13th century. Snorri loved food and beer and sex and conversation and power way too much to be considered a pious martyr.
Around the corner Kári and I found Snorri’s old outdoor thermal bath, such things are common around Iceland. And there was a small tunnel that connected the bath to his farmhouse. Kári and I sat in that tunnel trying to imagine Snorri’s awful squalid death and I wondered then if his last words had been mistranslated. If instead of you will not strike he really said don’t strike which would have been perfectly understandable under the circumstances. I soon had my answer to that question, whether Icelanders could cope with the idea that their national hero cowered in his moment of death, if they could cope with that idea, I soon found the answer to that question when I entered the museum. As I was looking at a panel in the museum that described these last moments of Snorri an Icelandic lady sidled up next to me and she whispered you know I’m very certain Snorri never said you will not strike. And I said really? What do you think he said? I think he said thou shalt not kill and my priest agrees with me. I had to take Kári out very quickly before he said something very rude at that point.
Now when I’m writing I don’t try and place myself above my subject very often. In my mind I’m really sitting beside them in the car asking them questions about the scenery as it passes by. It’s only when I’m finished that I like to take the view from 30,000 feet and draw some conclusions about the life in full and I try to do the same thing as a broadcaster with my radio program, Conversations.
I began with Conversations back in 2005 and right at the outset the program had a foundational ethic and aesthetic. To create more space and time for storytelling and reflection and most importantly that it would regularly feature people who were unknown to the wider community, everyday people who had seen and done remarkable things. We found listeners particularly loved those stories because they felt they could measure their own lives against them more easily than against a Hollywood actor or a powerful politician. But such guests are hard to find and sometimes when we do find them they struggle to tell their story coherently to assemble all the elements of their lives into a shape that would make sense to a listener. And that’s hardly surprising because life is messy, it’s not like a curated museum of memory where everything is in its place.
Life is more like a teenager’s bedroom with dirty clothes all over the floor, rotting school lunches stashed under the bed and a vague troubling smell lingering over the whole environment. It’s messy, that’s life. If you reflect on your own life for half a minute you’ll find long stretches where nothing much seems to happen but small achievements build up and some problems are allowed to metastasise. There are moments of love and kindness as well as moments of indifference and mulish stupidity. There are things that have been said and done that make no sense and would require a decade of therapy to understand. And how reliable is memory anyway?
I have sat alongside a friend while he regaled a dinner party with a funny story about me where this friend was front and centre of the action except I knew for a fact this friend was not there at all, he had once heard me tell this story and had somehow transposed himself magically into the scene. When he finished I quietly said to him – I waited for him to finish and I said you weren’t there, you just weren’t there. I can’t tell you how shocked he was when he realised he had not indeed been present, he had co-opted one of my memories as his own without ever being aware of it. [Lem Sesay] 40:05, the British poet who I spoke to recently in Byron Bay, told me that - his definition of family is kind of interesting, he said family for him is a group of disputed memories between a group of people over a lifetime. It’s a bunch of people arguing over the same photo.
On Conversations we have to take that messiness of life and the subjectivity of memory into account and make some allowances for it. Most of the time basic chronology gives us a structure to make the mess of life seem more rational than it really is. One event after another, after another, after another, after another. I think the subjectivity of memory is understood and accepted and taken into account by the listener partly because the story is carried by the voice. Human fallibility is built into the texture of the human voice, much more so than on the authoritative page. Listeners can hear authentic tenderness, brokenness, regret, evasiveness, disingenuousness – almost didn’t get that last syllable there – and delight. As a presenter I try to subtly underline the subjectivity of the experience for the listener. This is why so many of my questions are couched in terms of what do you remember instead of simply asking what happened?
The moment I know it’s really working with a guest is when a memory suddenly seems to flicker in front of the guest’s eyes like a movie and the guest falls into a kind of a reverie narrating the sequence of events as they unfold before their eyes. When that happens that’s so lovely, it makes such beautiful radio and while it’s happening I try to almost not breathe, I don’t move at all and I try not to breathe at all, absolutely do nothing to break the reverie of that guest. One of my favourite examples of this is when I had Angela Lansbury on the program. Now normally we’re a bit allergic to famous actors because they tend to go oh what’s this show? It’s Australia, I’ll calibrate a bit of energy and I don’t think you guys really want to hear how amazing it is to work with Steven Spielberg, do you? Really?
So I was a bit sceptical funnily enough but then I looked into her life and career and I realised that no-one had ever given her a good interview. She’d been interviewed by Larry King and he talked two-thirds the way through the interview. This is Angela Lansbury, yes, from Murder, She Wrote but who was also in Gaslight, who was the wicked mother in The Manchurian Candidate, who was Elvis’ mother in Blue Hawaii, who had an amazing career in Broadway as well, who’d seen and done amazing things and she was so ready to talk. And right at the start I asked her what she remembered of her childhood in London and she gave me a complete evocation of what London was like near Regent’s Park in the 1920s.
She talked about the coal man coming around and calling out co-al, co-al. She talked about the sound of horses clip-clopping on the cobblestones. She described the smell, the shape of the streets and it was so there right at the start of the interview and I was so excited, I was almost shaking by this but I just didn’t dare move a muscle. And she went in that lovely reverie where she wasn’t even seeing me, I think, it was a movie playing in front of her eyes and in her ears as well which she was narrating to us, the listener. It made such lovely, lovely radio. These moments never fail to move me.
I’m also conscious on the radio that there’s some artful deception in the narrative arc of the hour. Such arcs are satisfying, again because they give shape to the chaos but life doesn’t proceed in a narrative arc and it continues to bump along after the interview is over, it’s not finished. So there is some art in the transmission of life into a life story. The story we present to listeners is not the mess itself but more like an audio presentation of the mess. Like the teenager’s bedroom on that one day when the real estate agent had to come ‘round and do the house inspection, that’s the day. The portrait is not the person, it’s just a portrait.
The everyday non-famous guest that we love so much are treated with great care, particular care by our producers, Nicola and Michelle. These guys will conduct a long pre-interview with the guest over the phone for several hours. As they do so they help the guest shape their stories, they assemble the facts into coherent narrative and sometimes gently challenge them on the parts of the story that seem a bit contradictory, improbable or too self-serving. During the pre-interview the guest will sometimes arrive at a new insight that momentarily floors them. For the producer this pre-interview process can be exhilarating and harrowing at times but the process does reassure the guest that they will be treated fairly and sympathetically and that we’ll do all we can to make sure that they’re fully understood. When the guests arrive at the studio they’re made to feel as welcome as possible. It’s really easy to forget the ABC can be an intimidating place for people who’ve never spoken on the radio before, who are worried they’re not important enough or famous enough to be on the show. And listening to someone for a whole hour is a really powerful thing.
In 2011 I went to meet Ira Glass, the host of the consistently brilliant show, This American Life, in New York city in their offices and he asked me how our show worked and I said – I told him and he said wow, he said that’s an incredibly powerful thing to listen to someone for an hour, to let someone talk for an hour. He said that he loved his wife very much, lovely person but he reckoned the amount of time she was prepared to let him talk uninterrupted was about 45 to 60 seconds, he figured. And so an hour, you give someone an hour, that’s amazing, it’s really powerful. Fortunately for us people are more likely to open up in front of a microphone than they are in front of a camera. Radio is a far more intimate medium than TV, it comes to you not blaring across a room but mysteriously, almost like from somewhere inside your own head.
Radio’s also profoundly democratic, it places the great and powerful at the exact same level as a guest for the compelling story whose name is unknown and we treat them exactly the same way. So you don’t get a head start if you’re a famous person in this kind of a format, no-one can see how beautiful or famous or rich you are on the radio, that’s one of the most beautiful egalitarian forces that exist in the world of public radio, in particular. There’s a kind of noble nakedness in all of this. Jay Allison, one of the pioneers of public radio in the United States, once said, and I'm quoting him here, radio gets inside us. Lacking earlids we are defenceless, vulnerable to ambush. Sounds and voices surprise us from within. Our tool as radio producers is oral story, the most primitive and powerful. Invisibility is our friend, prejudice is suspended while the listener is blind, only listening.
We podcast Conversations right from the start but I have to admit that for the first years of the show I didn’t bother to listen to a single podcast. We treated the podcast as just another damn thing we had to do at the end of the day that would stop us going home half an hour earlier. It was around 2007 that I finally bought an iPod – remember those? And downloaded some outstanding public radio shows from the United States like This American Life and Radiolab and this changed the way I make the program. I imagine now when I do the show, at the start of every program it’s a bit like the moment when you go to the movies when the trailers have finished and the lights dim and the curtains part a bit more and then the movie starts. It’s like you're going into a kind of a dream world almost.
The ABC began to make promo spots with the tagline spend an hour in the life of someone else because that was the pleasure of it. Listeners could take a brief holiday from their own lives, from the burden of selfhood, from the quotidian business of everyday life, reverse parking, making a sandwich, picking up the kids and they could travel weightlessly through the life story of a guest and then return refreshed into themselves once more. Like I said radio can have enormous didactic momentum but that momentum can be easily derailed by cliché and sentimentality. We keep a watching brief against lumbering try hard adjectives like tragic and worse still, iconic. I try to avoid polite euphemisms. When people die I say they’re dead, I don’t say they’ve passed away or worse still that they’ve passed. Passed what?
I avoid guests who are prone to sustained humourless polemic. I don’t much care for gurus or sanctimonious people. For my own part I try to avoid talking to listeners like a priest or a priestess, the old radio presenter model where you impart knowledge down from on high like some godlike figure who knows everything. Ira Glass calls this the mask of omniscience and it’s a terrible lie. Worse still it makes you afraid to express curiosity, vulnerability, discovery and humour.
When I started at ABC radio the standard thinking was that no – I was told this – no interview should go longer than seven minutes ‘cause after that people will just tune out but it turned out there was a great hunger for a well curated, long conversation, particularly in a media environment where so much space is taken up in a boring and destructive culture war where as one comedian put it, everyone is angry about everything all the time.
As profits continue to shrink there are plenty of media operators who have figured out their best hope of survival is to provoke fear and rage by goading people to run towards their tribes and I think public radio at its best can take the nation in a different direction. Public radio, as it does engage with the great diversity of modern Australian life, tends to create shared sympathies between people across the nation, between people who might otherwise mistrust or disdain each other. The ABC with its strong connections to rural and urban people, to young and old Australians, to the first Australians and to those of us who came later is constantly attempting to construct a kind of commonwealth of shared sympathies. The ABC at its best tries to convene the nation in conversation and to acknowledge our shared humanity.
And I’d like to finish with this thought, Australians continue to place a great deal of trust in the ABC. This trust rests on a fundamental expectation that ABC journalists will speak truth to power. That in turn rests on an expectation that the ABC’s board will act to defend the broadcaster’s independence against political interference from Ministers who believe it is they who fund the ABC. They do not fund the ABC, it is you who fund the ABC and we, the employees, are your servants, not theirs. I hope what’s left of the board of the ABC will never again lose sight of this. Thank you very much. Thank you.
M: Actually this is two firsts, first, they started clapping when you came in and second, they started clapping just before you finished. So thank you very much, Richard, for your extraordinary and enlightening lecture and for linking up so beautifully for us that long oral storytelling tradition with the beauty of the voice and of the invisible and I'm looking at my colleague here, Kevin, whose great love for oral history has always been around the invisible and the beauty of the voice so thank you for bringing those two things in together for us. I think we also give you a prize for pronouncing more Icelandic names than have ever been uttered in this theatre before.
Now we have time for a few questions and as always please can you wait – put your hand up and wait for a microphone to come to you. Up the back here, Stuart, so that we can – those using the hearing loop can hear you and we can record you.
A: Good evening, thank you, Richard, I just wanted to know what you were going to say at the very end.
R: At the very end?
R: Oh right, that last sentence? Oh you didn’t hear it. Oh bloody hell, I’ll have to bring it up again. It was really important, whatever it was. I just wanted to underscore that it’s the Australian people who fund the ABC. We, the employees, of the ABC are their servants, your servants and I hope what is left of the ABC board will never again lose sight of this. That’s all I wanted to say there.
R: That’s the end of the questions then, that’s good. Happy to take more questions, though, anything you like.
M: No, we always have shy people, Richard. There we go.
A: Hi, good evening, Richard. How do you find the people you have conversations with?
R: Producers hang around in the streets just mugging people occasionally. No, we have a thing on our website where we invite people to suggest a guest. We’re always on the lookout too, we ask a lot of people. It’s always – it’s a real beast to feed, making a daily program so between Sarah Kanowski and I, we’re always asking around, our producers are always asking around. We have suggestions through the website. Only about maybe one in 50 of those suggestions will be right. A lot of the time people want to suggest really lovely, good people who deserve a pat on the back but you can’t pat someone on the back for an hour. And then you end up with a show that’s full of saints and that doesn’t feel like real life.
So they’re the majority of the suggestions we get. This person deserves. I won’t be listening on that day, they think but you know yeah, this person should be on the radio. So it’s quite hard to find. But when you do find them oh my god like – best two examples I can think of is Gregory Smith who was a – we were contacted by the University of New England and they said we’ve got this academic with this interesting background, history of mental illness, lived in a forest for 10 years on his own. Recently featured on Australian Story after he came on the show and has written a wonderful book too and – so we found out about him and went oh my god.
Jill Hicks is another amazing example. Jill – I found out about Jill Hicks when I went to lunch with a friend in London who said oh what’s your show about? And she said oh you should do Jill Hicks. I’m doing you know she’s amazing person, I’ve heard her speak. Where does she live? Adelaide. Oh my god. So we had Jill on and she was incredible so it’s through that process, really, of emails, asking around. It means when I go to the supermarket people bail me up and I say oh I’m just trying to buy cat food and I can’t concentrate on when – can you send me an email? So that’s how it goes most of the time, yeah. It’s not an easy process, we are very reliant on books, published authors. When there’s a book I read the book or Sarah will read the book if she’s doing that guest and we write the brief out of that and that’s – they’ve done all the work of you know composing their life into an order but not all books – some wonderful books – memoirs won’t work for our program and that’s no issue with the memoir or the book which might well be a wonderful book, it’s just ‘cause I can’t figure out – like with Gisli saga - how to turn it into radio, that’s it. More questions, please. Gentleman with the stylish eyepatch there, hello, sir.
A: Thanks, Richard. I just wanted to congratulate you on your interview style, the way – I think you're the master of the open question and I –
R: Thank you.
A: - wanted to ask you to imagine yourself with Constantine XI in your studio, what question would you ask him?
R: Oh my god, I would – oh I – wow, yes, oh – well there’s so many stori – I mean I – how do I even start? I mean I’d want to know a lot more about his early life ‘cause I couldn’t find a thing out about that. I knew he was a governor of a Greek – of the Peloponnese before he was brought into the throne. How reluctantly he assumed the throne ‘cause the accounts say that he was very reluctant. His brother had died and that’s why he’d become emperor and he knew the final crisis was almost upon them. He didn’t know how bad it was ‘til he got there, he didn’t realise how badly the city was surrounded by the Ottomans. He almost succeeded – they almost succeeded. The final invasion was won by the Ottomans by the most narrowest of circumstances. They almost did it, they almost held out but even if they’d held out it would have been overrun maybe five years later after that, I think. I wanted to know – I would want to know where he got all that steadfastness from.
He did agree to absorb the Orthodox Church into the Catholic Church ‘cause that was the Pope’s price for help. The Pope was really bloody-minded about that but he didn’t mean it and I’d like to ask him if he did mean it ‘cause I don’t think he did. I would like him to describe the final service that was held in the Hagia Sofia. This is the last Christian service that was ever held in the Hagia Sofia which – it was flooded by people, they knew what was coming later that night and it was filled with – people who’ve been to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, I think it’s the most beautiful building in the world and this was an evening service and the emperor came in, sat down, took part in it. I think he kneeled, I think he received the sacrament, stepped back, so the account goes, bowed to the congregation and then walked out and a great wail came up from the congregation because they knew what that meant.
I would also like to ask about the weirdness of the last week. It turned out there was a volcano that erupted somewhere in the Pacific a year before the last siege and it seems like it’s likely that it – this was the reason why there were these bizarre atmospheric disturbances over the city of Constantinople, over most of Europe, I suppose in that final summer there. Strange – a strange appearance of St Elmo’s fire on the spire of the Hagia Sofia which of course looked to them, this ring of electricity going up the spire, looked like God had left the city. There was an awful rainstorm that came down that dropped big black drops from the sky – oh god, it sounded like they’d been so wicked in giving over - themselves over to the Catholics that God was going to kill them all.
They couldn’t help but draw that conclusion. I would love – the most pleasurable thing about writing that is to honourably enter the medieval mindset and I don’t do that patronisingly. I think it’s really wrong for people, historians, to sit back and go oh they were so superstitious back then and we know better now, we’re cleverer now than people - we’re no cleverer than they were. My view is that we are just as they were, people trying to live their lives with limited information about the world around them, that’s it so I could keep answering this question for ages but I probably shouldn’t but thank you for that question, it’s a really good question. Another mic, another question, please. Gentleman here. Two mics. If you use both of them that’ll be very rock’n’roll. Hello.
A: First I’d like to thank you again for your radio program because it’s been a great inspiration. I’m an English teacher and at the start of this year I had my Year 7s interview an elder and put it into a podcast of less than 20 minutes and I got 60 stories of people from all walks of life in a similar way as you have and that was a great honour for me to be able to listen to those stories. But my question was similar to the statement before, your open questions, what one piece of advice would you give to a young interviewer?
R: Keep the question really short, as short as you can. I break that rule all the time and I feel terrible when I listen back and I hear oh God, stop blathering, I mean God, just stop blathering. I can hear it and I go oh it really bothers me. So ideally keep the question short. Two of my favourite questions are why and really? Seriously. Why for obvious reasons. If you go why people actually can’t help but tell the truth if they don’t have much time to think about it, they tend to blurt out the truth. And then respect the answer you get. This is a flaw I sometimes see in political interviews, you get an honest answer from a politician and they go ah ha but your leader says the other thing, ah ha and so then you feel this retreat from candour into talking points, blah, blah, blah. What was that about? You go in an interview. So if you get an honest answer respect it, I think and don’t try and make it impossible – don’t try and tie up the person in knots.
Really is another good one to ask as well because if it’s sort of bumbling along and someone’s sticking to their talking points and you go really? They’ll either go well nah. And that’s better. Or they’ll go yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah and again then – and now they’re being natural and now they’re talking like a normal human being. Another thing is just try and keep my mouth shut a lot of the time, I really do, I really try and keep my mouth shut. Like I said watching Larry King interview Angela Lansbury and thinking he was more – I don’t think I’m more interesting than Angela Lansbury, I just don’t and Larry King isn’t more interesting than Angela Lansbury and when you’ve invited someone to tell their life story but you want to take up all the time saying what you think about this and that, God, it’s a bit embarrassing, it’s a bit you know bit like mad uncle at the Christmas table, isn’t it? I mean yes, thank you.
M: I think we have run out for time now but I think we’ll remember that ask short questions and respect the honest answer, they sound like pretty good life lessons, actually. We have run out of time but I hope you will join us for refreshments upstairs. Tonight you certainly have the opportunity to purchase Ghost Empire and Saga Land from our bookshop for 10% discount tonight and Richard has kindly agreed to sign copies of his books. Now of course it’s through the generous support of our friends and supporters that we can do things such as tonight’s wonderful lecture and I know you want to thank me – join me in thanking Heather and John again for supporting tonight’s lecture and in thanking me for our inspiring, challenging and certainly entertaining 2018 Seymour Biography Lecturer, Richard Fidler.
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