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The Consolations of Biography

Improbably, given my interests and the subsequent direction of my life, I come from a sporting family. It is that quintessential Australian world that informs my book Rose Boys, as it goes on informing my life. My father, Bob Rose, played for the Collingwood Football Club in the 1940s and 1950s. His four younger brothers all played for Collingwood, too. They were known as the Rose Brothers. Dad won more Copeland trophies than anyone before him, he helped win a premiership in 1953, he was the first Australian Rules player to be dubbed ‘Mr Football’. Later, after a stint coaching Wangaratta, where I grew up, he returned to coach Collingwood into some of the most celebrated grand finals on record, including the 1970 grand final, perhaps the greatest individual game of them all. Sadly, Dad lost all three grand finals, by just a few points. He later coached Footscray and had a second stint at Collingwood in the 1980s. He served on the Collingwood committee for decades. When he resigned in 1999, his official connection with the club had lasted for more than 50 years.

My family’s link with Collingwood didn’t end with the Rose brothers. My brother Robert—my only sibling, three years my senior—also played for Collingwood. Promising though he was as a footballer, Robert was a much better cricketer. Even as a young schoolboy, much was expected of Bobby Rose Junior, as he was known. He realised much of that potential in his teens, first playing cricket for Collingwood, then for Victoria. By 1974, when he was 22, Robert seemed to be on the verge of Test selection.

Apart from his precocious sporting prowess, Robert was an adventurous young man, to put it euphemistically. He was hedonistic and immensely popular. He wasn’t called ‘Rambles’ (after the Nat King Cole song) for nothing. Trevor Laughlin, one of Robert’s cricketing mates at Collingwood, remarked many years later that he and Robert had always thought of themselves as ‘bullet proof’ in their wild days. I was struck by this. I had no such sense of recklessness or invincibility. When I was an adolescent I was bookish, morose and abnormally isolated. The contrast between my innate fatalism and Robert’s boundless assurance was the first of many I examined in Rose Boys.

Robert was alluring to many because of his undoubted humour and charm, but also because of the glamour that sport confers—almost uniquely confers—on the young and athletic in our society. When I interviewed people for Rose Boys, many of them referred to Robert as a ‘golden youth’, unconscious of the fact that our father had been described in exactly those terms half a century ago. So many of the journalistic tropes used to describe Dad’s prowess were later applied to Robert—all those floral allusions. If I had shown any sporting ability, they would doubtless have sprung them on me too, a kind of banal birthright.

Had that been the innocent end of the story, had Robert Rose gone on to play for Australia, and achieved a certain average, followed by the cricketer’s usual apotheosis—a lucrative contract as a television commentator—I wouldn’t be speculating about the consolations of biography. Robert and I were both irascibly close and boisterously competitive as children. We had little in common. I didn’t like the way he treated people, especially women, and I’m sure he was frustrated by my bookishness, my isolation, my general weirdness, as he saw it. Quite possibly we would have drifted apart as grown men.

My reasons for writing Rose Boys were quite different from those of a conventional sporting biographer. I knew it would be possible to write a straight biography of Robert (just as someone is now at work on a biography of my father), but I had no interest in being the one to do so. Although sporting references pervade the book, and although Victoria Park forms the affectionate tribal backdrop to the early chapters and my adolescence, Rose Boys is essentially about other themes: family, obligations, moral limits,
disability, masculinity, and above all, mortality.

For the reality is that my brother’s life—all our lives—changed forever in 1974, when Robert was 22: blithe, blond, sunny, interested chiefly in the nirvana of sport. That’s when Robert was involved in a car accident and broke his neck, instantly becoming a quadriplegic, with one of the highest levels of paralysis it was then possible to survive—from the neck down. For the next 25 years, until his death in 1999 at the age of 47, Robert was totally dependent every minute of the day on other people, and totally dependent on modern medicine, which had kept him alive in this depleted condition—something that would have been impossible just a few years earlier because of the nature of Robert’s injuries. There followed a quarter of a century of fluctuating health, long illnesses, wretched pressure sores that kept Robert in bed for years at a time, intermittent depression, an almost inevitable divorce (Robert’s wife was 19 when it happened), and the numberless daily frustrations and indignities that any quadriplegic suffers.

But those years also brought the many rich insights that perhaps only the grievously disabled and afflicted among us can fully attain: new friendships, several years of relatively even health, a second major relationship when Robert was in his wheelchair, richer moral qualities in my brother, his extraordinary courage and stoicism, and the profound rapport he enjoyed with our parents.
Indeed, mindful of those warm and emotionally fulfilling years for the family, I kept reminding myself as I wrote the book that I had a duty not to produce an unalleviated ‘library of lamentation’, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s description of his post-prison book, De Profundis. I hope I haven’t done that, but I know that the tendency in a relatively short biography is to dwell on starker moments and the more critical passages in the subject’s life. For a poet-biographer, this may be even more of a temptation—an occupational hazard, if you like. Wilde again, this time to André Gide: ‘Il faut vouloir toujours le plus tragique’ (‘One must always seek what is most tragic’).

Seamus Heaney put it another way: ‘The true subject is loss.’

From the outset, I thought of my book as an exercise in fraternal juxtaposition—part autobiography, mostly biography—in which my own life experience would be a factor, obliquely, but always secondary to the major theme and the major interest of the book, which was Robert’s ordeal. Most writers want to do things a little differently, but it’s not easy, given the riches and burden of literature, in all its consolidated forms. I knew that there had been few if any Australian books about two very different brothers written by one of them. The Wherretts’ book comes to mind, but there are clear differences, the collaborative nature of it being the most obvious. I was also aware of the surprising dearth of books about that intense, internecine and intoxicated world of Australian Rules.

Why I wrote Rose Boys—why I wanted to write it—why I needed to write it—is another story, and still something of a mystery to me. I realise that people entertain sundry, even conflicting, motives for writing any book, from the metaphysical to the prurient, from the commercial to the lyrical. Writing a book about one’s dead brother, about a hard death following two decades of sorrow and slog and survival, is rather different. Putting oneself through it is one thing, but putting other people through it—forcing them, if they choose to read it, to relive traumatic events and their painful aftermath—is even more dubious. My parents are still alive. We’re very close. I have responsibilities. My father may, like all canny sportsmen, have enjoyed publicity, understood it, and used it to his advantage, but my mother is an extremely private person, with a powerful dislike for publicity and the exposure that comes with Australian Rules celebrity in Melbourne. My mother doesn’t actually believe in airing secrets about other people. Hadn’t she endured enough prying into her private life?

This is the challenge, the everlasting moral dilemma for any writer of family memoirs, especially one that deals with profound affliction and highly delicate material, and that sets out to tell the story in blunt, journalistic detail.

For a time, the irresolvability of these ethical questions had a paralysing effect on me. I found it impossible to start the book, and reached a point when I thought I would have to abandon the project. I kept finding ever more ingenious reasons for not beginning. Research can be a wonderful excuse.

How to write about the living, the dead, a brother who did not give me permission and who might not have approved of such an intimate portrait—one that shows him, I trust, in a noble light, but also discusses painful and tragic incidents in his life. How to reveal Robert’s story to his only child, Salli, my adored niece, who was only eight months old at the time of the accident. The most disconcerting moment in my research came when I interviewed Salli, one of several interviews I undertook with Robert’s family, partners, friends, sporting colleagues and medical carers. Salli chilled me by admitting that she had no memory of her life until she was about 12—none at all. The reasons for that kind of amnesia weren’t hard to deduce, for Salli’s infancy and childhood were shadowed by great trauma and unhappiness, but it was chilling nevertheless. Was I to endow Salli with a memory, a memory laced with sorrow and conflict? Was I the one to tell her about the circumstances of her parents’ separation two years after Robert’s accident?

And why go over a story as terrible as Robert’s? Why force people to relive it? Why relive it myself? Why did I so want to be in the car when Robert had his accident? Why did I feel I had to describe that night? Why such dreadful actuality? I went as far as Far North Queensland in fact, and tracked down one of the two men who were in the car with Robert and who survived the accident. (Robert Bird, who was also playing for Collingwood at the time, gave me a remarkable interview—the first time he had discussed that night with anyone.)

Why did I choose to describe Robert’s death in such graphic detail—punishing detail, I know from readers’ letters? Why did I describe my mother unpeeling the sheet as Robert lay dying and revealing his network of scars? Why did I need in my book to go back to the coroner’s office and identify Robert the night after his death, recognising him as in the dream that provided a sort of leitmotif for the book? At some level, this was undoubtedly morbid work, with a pathology of its own.

I suppose all I can say by way of explanation is that I belong to a generation of writers—a generation of human beings—accustomed to openness and unfettered analysis of the emotions and personal dilemmas. For me, in a way, there was no choice. The book was there. It was a fact. The subject was irresistible. We all have our reasons and our needs. This is the biographer’s questionable but inalienable urge—the need to pursue his or her obsessions.

Henry James, subtlest of novelists, played with the idea of writing a ‘brotherly autobiography’ about his relations with William James. Unfortunately, he never wrote it. But he did leave us two late, densely textured, masterly memoirs of his own, A Small Boy and Notes of a Son and Brother. Of his reasons for writing them he said: ‘I did instinctively regard it at last as all my truth, to do what I would with.’ That ‘at last’ is telling—the note of belated retrospection, possibly of tardy tribute—and ‘the all my truth … to do what I would with’. They are the biographer’s and the autobiographer’s responsibilities, and dispensations, and audacity. Summing up one’s own life is hard enough, ludicrous enough in a way. Daring to reduce another random complex breathing life to ink and paper, to careful phrases, to anatomies of emotion, is even more temeritous. But go on doing it we surely do, in increasing numbers. The attractions are considerable; the liberty is large.

Candour, this thing called candour, is all we have. It is clearly what the reader—and the publisher—expect. I often thought of those lines from Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Epilogue’: ‘Yet why not say what happened? … We are poor passing facts, / warned by that to give / each figure in the photograph / his living name.’ In writing my book, though previously an incorrigibly non-visual kind of writer, I found myself relying on old family photographs, for corroboration of my themes, and sometimes for new themes. In doing so, I too was trying to give each figure in the photograph his or her ‘living name’. This act of remembrance and evocation proved to be the first of my consolations in writing Rose Boys. Until then, I had never written about my childhood or adolescence, except for a few random and often occluded personal poems.

Rose Boys begins with several chapters about my upbringing in Wangaratta and later at Victoria Park, where I seemed to spend most of my childhood when not at school. Later chapters, especially those describing Robert’s accident and the shattering consequences for him and the family, were of course far from enjoyable to think about or write, but those early chapters were quite different: celebratory, nostalgic and surprisingly fluent.

Previously, I had never really thought about my sporting background, the profound influence it had on me, and the paradoxical nature of my membership of such a milieu. Perhaps, to a certain degree, I hadn’t wanted to examine those personal implications, of membership and unsuitability. Now I was free to roam around in my imagination, going back to those charged clubrooms and grandstands, remembering the fervour and absurdities of organised sport, renewing conversations with all those idols and elders and journos and players’ wives—the teeming and affectionate tribe that was Collingwood for me in the 1960s and 1970s:

When I was young the first question strangers asked me was, ‘And are you going to play for Collingwood?’ Like all mantras it never changed: the wording, the intonation, the expectancy, the profoundly innocent goodwill. They cocked their heads and waited for an answer. How could I disabuse them?

My memory, normally unreliable, suddenly became vivid and insistent, with a new kind of automatic spring. Nevertheless, I was under no illusions about the sanctity or veracity of memory. Although I was able to draw on a huge body of journalism written about my father and brother, plus the interviews I conducted with the survivors, in the end I was left with my own impressions, fully aware how capricious, elegiac and downright apocryphal they can be. This was highly subjective work. ‘Each man is a memory to himself,’ says the poet-figure in Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Marina Tsvetaeva, the great Russian poet, went further when she said: ‘The memory is compliant, and for me is identical with the imagination.’ That very compliance or plasticity was the key.

Of all the consolations I drew from this, for me, new genre, the most surprising and welcome was the literary transformation, or should I say relaxation, that was required. Before this, I had only published poetry. Most of my poetry is fairly densely textured, relying on allusion, association, obliquity, and employing a reasonably ornate diction and range of references. Some of my poetry, I’m well aware, is quite obscure. It’s a kind of poetry that goes so far in divulging its meaning but leaves part of the work of deconstruction up to the reader. Let me illustrate this with a poem that demonstrates some of these qualities. It is titled ‘Greening’, but is not about environmental matters:

Let’s not watch the main event,
let’s watch the people.
There we shall be beautifully private,
each lake with its own suicide,
those grand disclosures
aching on a beach.
Your beauty is the last quotation,
an available dark.
In the forest, single lights flicker,
day rapturously evokes night.
Soon we shall descend
into the public acre,
a rhapsodist will forfeit
his throne by the view.
So let’s postpone matter for a while:
the ritual caper, an auspicious turn.

My reason for citing this poem was not to deprecate the power of poetry nor to disown this particular poem. But Rose Boys clearly had to be written much more directly. My brother, the focus of the story, was a laconic bloke without any side. His story was too stark and confronting to be sugared by me. To have ironised Robert’s condition in the modern fashion would have been ludicrous. (I like that quote from Henry Louis Gates: ‘We live in an age of irony … even the mediocre lack all conviction.’)

I was determined to avoid any trace of sentimentality, which is not easy when you are writing about terrible events, a pitiable condition, the slow destruction of a family member.

Thus began the challenging but illuminating process of paring back the story to its essence, gradually eliminating all those digressions and allusions and quotations we writers love to employ. For me, it felt paradoxically liberating to be writing in a language that was not exclusive or marginal, a language that took the reader into my confidence and did not merely address the air. I hoped that something of the universality and suggestiveness of poetry would inform the memoir, and I did draw on that early poem about my brother in which I belatedly recognise him in a dream, but generally I knew I had to find a plainer and franker voice to tell Robert’s story. My discovery of the pleasures and rewards of that kind of candour has been belated, but profound.

Readers are turning to memoirs and biographies in increasing numbers, making it one of the dominant genres of the decade, but they expect openness in the narration, a lack of tonal complications, and they certainly won’t put up with authorial evasion or condescension.

Putting these literary considerations aside, I wanted above all to place on record a frank, sympathetic account of what happened to Robert, and the terrible repercussions that profound disability has for the victims and their families. I wanted to show the reality of quadriplegia—the daily grind, the inconvenience, the humiliations, the domestic, financial and emotional consequences. I wanted to break down some of the ignorance about spinal cord injuries. I wanted to portray Robert’s second life—the sorrow, the struggle, but also the goodwill and the devotion and Robert’s astonishing courage and lack of self-pity.

I took up an editorial from the Melbourne Herald in May 1974 that was headed ‘The message of Robert Rose’: a plea for greater care on our roads, and better funding of our hospitals. My challenge was at last to determine what the message of Robert Rose had been for me—what we had
actually meant to each other:

It is time to listen to my brother whose message, laconic but self-evident to many in his life, I somehow never fully heeded. If I am to overcome these eternities of maladjustment, as a friend put it when Robert died, I must try. Brothers so close yet so incongruous meet improbably in this shifting text.
One of my modest hopes for the book was that it might help other families who were going through what we did. I remembered that no such book had been available in 1974—no books, no counselling. So Rose Boys had a modest political aim, as well as satisfying an obscure and perhaps indefinable personal need.

I also hoped it might assist the work of a new charity we have created to help people with spinal cord injuries—the Robert Rose Foundation. Perhaps, I thought, if people read my book and were moved by Robert’s story they might want to help other young people in his situation. Not that I delude myself that I will ever fully understand what my brother went through. It is impossible to exaggerate the difficulties that quadriplegics have to face day after day, year after year. Disability on such a scale is just like war in Graham Greene’s epigram: ‘The nearer you are to war, the less you know what’s happening.’

As for the ultimate consolation I derived from thinking about Robert’s life and about the way disability transforms the victims and the people around them, let me look to another quotation from Henry James. It doesn’t come from one of James’ novels, but from a remark of his to his nephew Billy James, son of the great philosopher. Billy had asked Henry what really mattered in life. I’m always rather moved by Henry’s response, by its grave simplicity. It was the summation, after all, of a life almost abnormally devoted to literature, to the art of fiction at its most sophisticated, to the grandeur and terror and subtlest shadings of human consciousness: ‘Three things in human life are important,’ Henry James said to his beloved nephew. ‘The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.’ ?

Peter Rose is editor of Australian Book Review. This is an edited version of the 2002 Colin Roderick Lecture, delivered in Townsville and Cairns in July 2002.



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