Little voice

From the age of five or six, I knew that I should be a writer.From the age of five or six, I knew that I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. I was a somewhat lonely child and I soon developed disagreeable mannerisms which made me unpopular throughout my schooldays.

Although I didn’t make it clear at the start—well, all right, I deliberately omitted tell tale quotation marks and ellipses—those are not my words. They are George Orwell’s, in ‘Why I Write’. I sort of hoped you’d immediately recognise that, even if you didn’t know the writer in question. ‘That’s not Matthews’, I fancied you saying. ‘Lonely child?’ I imagined you expostulating. ‘Disagreeable mannerisms? Never!’ Far from being disagreeable, once I recovered from a broken jaw, caused by the over-zealous application of forceps to overcome my reluctance to enter this vale of tears, I was particularly lovable and nice. As no-one knew I had a broken jaw, however, my incessant howling lasted for about 12 months until, presumably, the old jawline painfully settled into the lopsided orientation it has borne ever since. This made it difficult for anyone in the vicinity to recognise that lovableness and niceness lay beneath what appeared to be a small bundle of acoustic catastrophe.

More seriously, I would never have owned to Orwell’s opening sentences. I did not know I would be a writer and I would not have regarded being prevented from writing as outraging my true nature. I might have thought roughly along those lines at times but I would never have admitted to them.

I grew up among people who were full of rich vernacular, of story, anecdote, florid rumour, hyperbolic speculation. If I did know anything at that early age, it was that these stories were worth telling, but I had not the faintest idea how to go about it. At university, ambushed by an exquisite range of attacks on my lushly romantic temperament, I became a bad poet. I would have qualified for Spike Milligan’s ‘Worst poem ever written in English’ competition (though no doubt would have conceded the laurels to the eventual winner, a poem by an ‘Indian gentleman’ entitled ‘On The Death of Queen Victoria’, which ran: ‘Dust to dust/Ashes to ashes/Into the grave/The Great Queen dashes’. Nor could I have matched a swooning student’s offering, entitled ‘Love Poem’: ‘Ever since Autumn/I have loved you from the bottom/Of my heart’. But all that’s another story.)

Infatuated with, but spurned by, the Muse, I abandoned the divine afflatus. I stopped writing poetry not only because I had no idea where I was going with it and every idea that it wasn’t any good, but also because I became a university teacher of literature and I began to write books and essays of criticism or literary history.

Unlike Orwell, I did continue to write, but I wrote within clearly delineated textual and critical boundaries. All the time, though, I felt a pressure, a kind of yearning to become what Peter Goldsworthy used to call ‘a primary producer’—not a commentator on, but an originator of, literary work. That I went on and on, year after year, not doing so I blamed on the requirements and nature of academic responsibilities. But the fact is, I came to know that that was not the answer.

There was some more important obstruction, some primal interference.

It was a species of diffidence that looked from the outside to be a pleasing modesty, an unassuming character, but was, when seen and felt from the inside, crippling; silencing. Diffidence is not—or is not necessarily—lack of self-esteem. It is a personality trait that comes to have an almost moral dimension. Diffidence seems proper because humility is proper, modesty is proper. Diffidence is a kind of puritanism that afflicts the intellect and not the soul. I might have grown up among spruikers and yarn-spinners but they were also people who regarded ‘story’ as indulgence, mere embroidery: life was much too tough and unpredictable to allow storytelling to be anything other than froth, rare icing on scarcely graspable cake.

As if to prove this to me, my brief flirtation with poetry at university seemed the very essence of dilettantism. So, though I had become accustomed to, and quite skilled in, academic discourse, I could not credibly imagine myself having something to say outside its safe and structuring boundaries, and I couldn’t imagine how I should justify spending time on ‘story’ even supposing I managed to write some. Thus diffidence edges very close to the idea of ‘knowing your place’ and imagination appears subversive.

Suspicion of the unbridled imagination is a recognisable cultural phenomenon in 21st-century Australia. It has had the beneficial side effect of bringing about a boom in the writing and reading of literary non-fiction, especially biography. But it is a subtext of the growing official dismissal of artistic endeavour and creativity and of humanities scholarship, and, conversely, of the insistent promotion of ‘outcomes’, ‘bottom line’ philosophy and vocationalism. The decline of public language into obfuscation, meaninglessness and empty pomposity—a process spectacularly intensified by the unpalatable truths of wartime—is one of the more persuasive reminders of the contemporary retreat from the imagination.      

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.



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