Alison Dellit: Good evening, everyone. A very warm welcome to the National Library of Australia and to one of the highlights of our events calendar, the Seymour Biography Lecture. I'm Alison Dellit. I'm the Acting Director General of the Library while Marie-Louise is on a very well-earned overseas holiday.
Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge Australia's First Nations peoples, the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and to pay my respects to their Elders past and present, and through them, to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people listening tonight. Hundreds of us have gathered tonight in this lovely building on gorgeous Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. And through the wonders of technology, we are joined from across the continent on the lands of all Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And through the world, I will add, to the lands of many First Nations peoples.
It is a particular pleasure to see an almost full theatre here tonight for the Seymour Biography Lecture, this sold out event. This lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour who are here tonight and whose support has made this and all our previous lectures possible. John and Heather are passionate supporters not only of the library, but of the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography, memoir, with all their capacity to shine light on who we are, where we've been, and where we're going. And I know that that's a passion that many of us here tonight share. Tonight's lecture is bittersweet as it will be the last in the series. John and Heather will continue to support a scholarship for biographical research as part of the library's fellowship programme for early career researchers. And through that, will continue to develop the life writers of the future and to keep our heritage alive. Heather and John, to both of us, who also don't love the attention, we would like to thank you so very much for your support over the years and ongoing. And what a journey through the written word that this series has been. Throughout, we have been privileged to hear the voices of extraordinary biographers who've shared insights, research, and passions with us. The first Seymour Biography Lecture was held in 2005. And since 2010, the National Library has been proud to be its home.
Although Marie- Louise was quite disappointed not to be able to host tonight, I was personally particularly thrilled to be able to address you, as I realised I have attended all but one of these lectures since I started at the library in 2006. It's been a personal highlight for me in our annual calendar. The first five Seymour Lectures hosted by the Australian National University's Humanities Research Centre were Dr. Brenda Niall, Dr. Lawrence Goldman, Professor Jill Roe, Richard Holmes, and Dr. David Day. Professor Frances Spalding opened the National Library's chapter of the series and was followed by Robert Dessaix, Professor Jeffrey Meyers, Drusilla Modjeska, Professor Ray Monk, Robert Drewe, David Marr, Raimond Gaita, Richard Fidler, and Emeritus Professor Judith Brett. As with most things, the series was then disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and no lecture was possible in 2020 or 2021. But the love of this significant event and its content was strong and it made a return last year, with Jacqueline Kent.
It is now time to add the 17th name to this list of distinguished life writers who have delivered the Seymour Lecture. Professor Chris Wallace is a political historian and biographer at the Faculty of Business, Government, and Law at the University of Canberra. After a decade of political and economic journalism in the Canberra Press Gallery, Chris turned her attention to longer format and to life writing. Her critically acclaimed biography of former liberal leader, John Hewson, "Hewson: A Portrait," was published in 1993, "Greer, Untamed Shrew," followed in 1997, and then in 2004 came "The Private Don," an exploration of the relationship between Don Bradman and his close friend and confidant, journalist Rohan Rivett. Between her works of biography, Chris has published the political explainer, "How To Win An Election," and was the official cabinet historian for the National Archives of Australia between 2020 and 2022. Her most recent work, "Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers," is a study of the impact of biography on the careers of our 20th century leaders. It was shortlisted for the 2023 New South Wales Premier's History Prize. Please join me now in welcoming Professor Chris Wallace to present the 2023 Seymour Biography Lecture.
Chris Wallace: Thanks so much, Alison. I too would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and honour their Elders past and present, and also any other First Nations people attending tonight or viewing online. That was a lovely introduction.
I too am a regular attender of the Seymour Lecture Series in this room, over the last nearly 20 years, and what a delights it's been. With biographers, you never know what you're getting. Are you getting a Tony Academic? Are you getting a kind of raffish journalist? Having read all the transcripts of the lectures over the last month or so, again, many of which I was here for in person. I've got to say, I'm not mentioning him tonight, but do go onto the National Library website and read the transcript of David Marr's Seymour Lecture. It's a cracker, not least for his anecdote about having dinner with Kevin Rudd while he was researching and writing his quarterly essay on him. Keep reading until you get to the point where dinner is about to end and Kevin asks David Marr what he's gonna write about him. It's priceless. So thanks, Alison, for the kind introduction and thank you too, to Luke Hickey, who did so much to organise tonight.
As a University of Canberra Professor, I'm glad to see a UC alum like you in the upper echelons of one of Australia's most important cultural institutions. Luke is an assistant DG here. Well done, Luke. And of course, a special thanks to Dr. Heather Seymour and Dr. John Seymour, the patrons of this remarkable series, the Seymour Biography Lectures. I'll say more about the Seymours and the series towards the end of my remarks this evening.
My contribution to this series is called "Honouring the Biographers Contract". That sounds really dull, doesn't it? The alternative title, which I'm not going with is "Biography: It's Part in our Downfall". First up, I'm going to invite you to join me in a thought experiment, and I do this with some hesitation now that I see A&E philosopher Bronwyn Finnigan in row three. Nevertheless, I'm gonna invite you to join me in this thought experiment. It's 2053, 30 years hence. To recap, Rupert Murdoch has been dead for 19 years. He passed away peacefully at 103 years old, the same age as his mother, Elizabeth, whom he uncannily resembled. In 2034. I've done the maths, that's a real projection. His estranged wife, Jerry Hall, with whom he reunited, was bedside at his death. Elizabeth Murdoch succeeded her father as the head of News Corporation, and immediately realigned the reporting and commentary of its media outlets with reality. News Corp under Elizabeth Murdoch's leadership has fought the good fight to save Earth for human habitation in the face of accelerating global warming, but she's come to the top job too late. Decades of News Corp gaslighting, literal and figurative, has enabled an exponential rise in temperatures on Earth. Extreme weather events are the new normal, habitat destruction and species extinction is generalised, and homo sapiens is next.
Nicola Forrest, like Luke Hickey, another University of Canberra alum, graduating Bachelor of Arts, majoring in economics in 1981, has liquidated her entire Fortescue Metals Group holding. With the proceeds, she's bought X, formerly known as Twitter. And SpaceX from Elon Musk, in a fire sale after banks and regulators close in on him over chronic liquidity and governance problems. Forrest renames them XX and SpaceXX. She restores proper labour standards and defeats disinformation on her XX social media platform. Elizabeth Murdoch and Nicola Forrest have combined forces to evacuate Earth's citizens to Alpha Centauri before we're all wiped out. Murdoch runs the comms on the operation, marshalling support for the exodus and keeping morale up. Forrest runs the evacuation on the SpaceXX fleet. Each country has its own exodus leader linked to the team. In Australia, its long-serving Prime Minister Tanya Plibersek. In the US, it's President Michelle Obama. Gives you hope, doesn't it? Exodus leadership is not confined to politicians. In Britain, the Exodus leader is Tilda Swinton, whom it's generally agreed, people will follow anywhere. And in any case, Tilda's mother is Australian and heaven knows, hybrid vigour is going to be important on Alpha Centauri. The SpaceXX shuttles begin. Shunning XX, shunning SpaceXX, and choosing space transport companies run by their libertarian bros instead, Elon Musk, Lachlan Murdoch, and their plutocratic peers, struggle to leave Earth in time. These company spaceships, put together shoddily by non-union casuals employed through labour hire firms on sub-minimum pay rates, have a high failure rate. Who knew? Musk, Murdoch, and friends, have to make hard calls about which is riskier, blowing up in one of their libertarian bro's spaceships trying to get to Alpha Centauri, or trying to survive long-term in a subterranean bunker on New Zealand's South Island?
Calculations on whether their cellared Pinot Noir stocks can last out until the weather improves prove pivotal. After all, global warming, it's just a woke delusion, isn't it? And if you've got enough wine put down, anything's survivable, right?
Writers, artists, and musicians are prominent among those shuttled to Alpha Centauri by SpaceXX. You can't transplant and rebuild a shattered species on a new planet without a good starter culture. These particular Earth refugees are vital to homo sapiens' future. But what of the past, the recent disastrous past? On Alpha Centauri, the biographers get together. An uncomfortable question arises, did we contribute to this? Is it something we did? Or is it something we didn't do? Did biographers play a role in the downfall of homo sapiens on Earth?
The Seymours must be terribly worried at this point. It's gonna be fine. The biographers contract, many Seymour Lecturers have canvased the ethics of biography and the ethical obligations of biographers, less so its impact and effectiveness. Ethics and ethical obligations are on biographers' minds all the time. Positively, because of its intrinsic importance, and defensively, to avoid legal action, a real and ever-present threat in the work we do. And of course, I see Hancock Sydney out the back, another fellow, Patrick Rita, it's one of the conversations that occur regularly in the Special Collections Room of this building, am I gonna get sued? What am I gonna do about it? How can I express something that I know to be true without getting sued? It's a very key issue. With the thought experiment at the back of our minds, I wanna turn to three of my predecessors' lectures, those of Frances Spalding, Ray Monk, and Richard Holmes. In her 2010 Seymour Lecture, "The Biographer's Contract," the distinguished art historian, Frances Spalding, biographer of amongst others, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Stevie Smith, conducted an expansive exploration of the literal and figurative dimensions of biographer's contracts. She concluded that, quote, "At the heart of the biographer's contract lies the recording of truth and an attempt to commemorate it." "Is this still possible in the age of relativism?" Spalding asked, and replied, "Not only possible but urgently needed, for the truths contained in any unpretentious report, be it a record, or a parish outing, or a school report, remain the foundation of all literary endeavour." I agree with Spalding on this.
I want to draw to... I want to draw attention to two particular aspects of the lecture though, one at this point in it, and I think I neglected one earlier on. Spalding refers to biography as an aspect of literary endeavour, completely understandable given her distinguished position in the canon of English literary biographers and the dominance of literary biography, the life-writing tradition, in English letters. But that's not the only tradition. There's also the historical tradition. For much of the 20th century, biography occupied an ambivalent position in the discipline of history, something which resolved into a secure position only over the last few decades. Much biography is written by historians and it has properties distinct from that written by biographers working in the literary tradition.
Professor Melanie Nolan, Director of the National Centre of Biography here in Canberra, and the current general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, argues this point strongly. Her new book, "Biography and Historiography," makes fascinating reading, which brings me to the second of Frances Spalding's points to which I wanna draw attention tonight. As she said in this room all those years ago, "There is rarely a moment when a biographer is not faced with some kind of responsibility, to the facts, to ethical issues, to the past, the future, one's audience, and to one's craft. The material has to be sifted with intelligent alertness, not just for facts, names, links, and connections, but also for the inner life of one's subject. You need an open mind and an open heart to note with feeling, intellect, and intuition, what is being said, and to hear also the tone of the voice being used." All true. It's a beautiful encapsulation of the biographers task, especially as conceived of by a literary biographer.
It segues nicely into Ray Monk's 2014 Seymour Lecture, "How Can I Be a Logician Before I'm a Human Being? The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals." Monk's lecture focuses on his biography of Cambridge-based Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "The Duty of Genius," published in 1990. One of my favourite books. If you haven't read it, do. Follow it up with Benjamin J.B. Lipscomb's, "The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foote, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch, Revolutionised Ethics," published last year. Monk's Wittgenstein biography is so good, it began for... It began what for me, became to feel like a personal relationship with Wittgenstein. Surprising, since his attitude to women was not very good and I'm a committed feminist. Wittgenstein did rate fellow philosopher, from Oxford rather than Cambridge, Elizabeth Anscombe. At first his student, then his lifelong friend and intellectual interpreter. Wittgenstein and Anscombe are buried diagonally-adjacent to each other at Ascension Paris Burial Ground, All Souls Lane, Cambridge. And when I'm there, I like to visit and spend a few moments with them. And after you read Monk's book, perhaps you will too.
Frances Spalding and Ray Monk are very different people. One an art historian, the other a philosopher. Monk, in fact, specialised in the philosophy of mathematics, which he observed in his Seymour Lecture you might think is as removed from biography as possible. Yet, the spirit and affect of Spalding's and Monk's biographies, at least as far as Monk's biography of Wittgenstein is concerned, they're very similar, embodying the approach described by Spalding, which I quoted earlier. Ray Monk had a specific purpose in writing "The Duty of Genius." In the 1980s, he'd worked on Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics and concluded that the interpretations of it, dominant at that time, by Michael Dunnett and Chris Binwright, were flat out wrong. "They," Monk said, "seem to me to misunderstand Wittgenstein's work, but..." and this is crucial, "...misunderstood Wittgenstein's work in a particular kind of way, and it struck me that they'd misunderstood Wittgenstein. Not a case of misunderstanding as it were, the words on the page, but rather a case of misunderstanding the spirit in which Wittgenstein was writing.
It's a question of misunderstanding Wittgenstein." In writing "A Duty of Genius," Monk wanted to open up an understanding of Wittgenstein in a way that would allow the Dunnetts and Binwrights of the world to attain a full rather than fallacious understanding of his philosophy of mathematics. Now, a key part of Wittgenstein's philosophy is that understanding consists in seeing connections. Monk proceeds very much in that spirit in his book. Along the way, readers get a good grounding in Wittgenstein's philosophy. An example is the famous duck rabbit picture from Wittgenstein's work, later published as philosophical investigations. Said Monk in his Seymour Lecture, "The duck rabbit you see is an ambiguous figure. You can see this is a duck on the right-hand side of the picture, as the beak of a duck. Or you could see that bit of the picture as the ears of a rabbit. And you can at will, switch between one and the other. You can see it now as a duck and now as a rabbit. But now ask yourself, 'Well, what changes? What changes when you see it now as a duck and now as a rabbit?' In some sense, you're seeing something different. Or rather, you're looking at it differently." "And that," Wittgenstein says, "is what the philosopher is trying to achieve.
The philosopher is trying to get you to see things differently, and that leads him to this notion of the understanding that consists in seeing connections," crucial for Wittgenstein's work. Monk then canvassed Wittgenstein's concept of family resemblance. Used of course figuratively in philosophy, Monk cleverly explained it to the Seymour audience using a literal example instead. A composite picture known as a Galtonian photograph, Wittgenstein had made it of him and his three sisters superimposed on each other. Ray put this up on the screen and said, "The point Wittgenstein had in mind was to see the connections between himself and his sisters in super imposing one upon the other. You can see in a quite literal sense, the connections. You can see the family resemblances." "What does all this have to do with biography?" A relieved audience finally heard Monk ask, right here on that night in 2014 when he delivered his lecture. I know they were relieved, I was in the audience. Said Monk, "It struck me that in my quest to get across what kind of person he was, so as to enable people to read him as it were in the right spirit, what I had to do was not to theorise about Wittgenstein, but to describe various things that he wrote and that he said, and that the art of biography is to structure those things so the reader now can see the connections, just like somebody looking at that composite photograph can see the connections." I want you to hold that thought about connections. As Wittgenstein put it, the, quote, "kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections." Monk argued that this is the kind of understanding that Boswell achieved in his famous "Life of Samuel Johnson." Said Monk, "Sometimes Boswell's method looks haphazard or random. You don't know why he's suddenly talking about Samuel Johnson talking about actresses or whatever, but there's a method to his madness. And you realise at the end of the book, that what you've been given is a way of looking at Samuel Johnson, a point of view of him. Samuel Johnson now makes sense," Monk continued, "and that making sense is not just an accumulation of facts, it's an arrangement of facts, and that it seems to me, is the art of the biographer. The art of the biographer is to arrange the facts without theorising, without analysing, but arranging them so as to present not just what happened, but a way of seeing a point of view of what happened."
This would be a good moment to return to the thought experiment I set up at the outset. Is any of this useful in helping the biographers sitting in Alpha Centauri in 2053, looking back at Earth, wondering if something they did or didn't do had contributed to their necessary exodus from an Earth too hot to sustain human life anymore? I think it is. I think it is in this way. It begs the question, what is it about biography, the way we practise it, that made us miss the connections that led up to and necessitated the exodus in our thought experiment? I'll repeat that, what is it about biography, the way we practise it, that made us miss the connections that led up to and necessitated that exodus? It's not as though related matters have been absent from the genre. Richard Holmes, for example, in his 2008 Seymour Lecture titled "Biography: The Past Has a Great Future," good title, said, "The intensity of concern about the planet, about global and environmental issues, has put the biographical element back into science with a vengeance, leading to an explosion of biographical interest in the creativity of scientists and the historic context of their work." That included of course, Holmes's own "The Age of Wonder," published to acclaim that same year, 2008. But has it helped us make the connections to stop the catastrophic climate trajectory we're evidently racing along right now, in 2023? Evident in extreme weather event after weather event, cunningly rationalised in news reports as "once in century events," or "once in 200 year events," insinuating they've always happened, and avoiding mention of their escalating frequency. I would say not.
And I return to the questions of our biographers on 2053 Alpha Centauri, did we contribute to this? Is this something we did? Is it something we didn't do? Did biographers play a role in the downfall on homo sapiens on Earth? Richard Holmes, in his Seymour Lecture, drew attention to what he described as the great tradition of popular biography, both in Australia and Britain, which he argued has, quote, "Has proved significant in shaping our national identities, giving us role models, but also questioning the nature of our societies." I reserve comment to a later date on biography's role in, quote, "shaping our different national identities," and quote, "giving us role models," both gigantic topics in themselves. But without delay, I'd like to disagree with Holmes that biography has been effective in questioning the nature of our societies. I would argue that biography, the way it is now written, almost without exception, persistently reinforces the way things are, and that that's a problem, and also that it need not be so.
Ian Donaldson in his 2006 Australian Book Review Latrobe University Annual Lecture titled, "Matters of Life and Death: The Return of Biography," gave a wonderful account of five anti-biographers sceptical of the genre. I'm not an anti-biographer, I'm a biographer who does not want to have to decamp to Alpha Centauri in 30 years time. I've concluded there are things biographers and historians generally, can and should do to make that avoidable. And I don't mean taking trenchant ideological positions and ramming it down people's throats, something Frances Spalding explicitly cautioned against in her Seymour Lecture. But I've concluded there are things biographers and historians can and should do to do their work better. And this won't be popular with biographers, because who likes being shaken out of their familiar models and modes?
The first is to do fewer single-subject biographies and more dual and collective biographies. The overwhelming focus on the individualistic heroic quest story in single-subject biographies needs to be supplemented urgently with collective heroic quest stories if we had to get out of the mess we're in. Contrary to dominant media narratives drastically privileging individual freedom over the broad collective good, we will only get out of this mess by working together. Biography needs to show that this has been done and can be done again, rather than cling to and reinforce the model of the compelling individual. David McInnis reviewing Margreta de Grazia's "Shakespeare Without a Life," in the current edition of ABR, paraphrases one of her key points beautifully. Quote, "Prior to romanticism, it was possible..." Sorry, "Prior to romanticism, one had a genius for something, post- romanticism, it was possible to instead, be a genius." I'll repeat that. "Prior to romanticism, one had a genius for something, post-romanticism, it was possible to instead, be a genius." Romanticism did humankind no favours with that shift, as well as reading de Grazia's terrific book. Those interested in this topic will be richly rewarded revisiting Isaiah Berlin's brilliant, "The Roots of Romanticism," in which his 1965 Mellon lectures are published.
The second thing is to look for and include in biographies the negative space of subjects' life stories. Don't just tell us what they did, tell us what your biographical subject failed to do, the consequences of that failure, its relationship to success and failure in others, and the implications of that for us all.
The third is to include the future in these stories of subjects past and if still alive, present. And that's necessarily speculative. But include alternative speculations and exercise judgement in weighting them on what those negative space issues have led to or not.
Looking back from Alpha Centauri, our doleful biographers looked back on the biographies of political leaders from recent decades, for example. The absence of attempts to see the negative space in their stories and the failure to make connections between policy failures with a strong family resemblance amongst them, as Wittgenstein will put it, is striking. Had these occlusions been brought to light, there's a greater chance something more could have been done to change path.
Now, is this a biographers job? To that question I say, if not biographers, who? And I would enjoin my fellow biographers to reflect on Frances Spalding's observation that, quote, "There is rarely a moment when any biographer is not faced with some kind of responsibility to the facts, to ethical issues, to the past, the future, one's audience, and to one's craft." Note, "To the past and the future." "As we seek to better know the past in order to do the future better, biographers need to find ways to honour more completely the biographical contract and play their role more fully in it."
So the last section of my remarks tonight is with great melancholy subtitled, "Last Rights for the Series." It has a very sweet melancholy about it because, you know, all great things must end, all lives must end, and it turns out, all great lecture series must end too. So just developing a few of your remarks from earlier, Alison, the inaugural Seymour Lecture in Biography was delivered by Brenda Niall in 2005, titled "Walking upon Ashes: The Footsteps Of a Modern Biographer." You can tell her subjects are all dead. Not so mine. Much, much more dangerous. Brenda Niall, biographer of the Boyds collectively, and Martin Boyd individually, of Georgiana McCrae and Judy Cassab, was an excellent choice as the opening lecturer.
Ian Donaldson, then director of A&U's Humanities Research Centre wrote in the introduction to the published version of the lecture, that Niall, quote, "Found that she had more to say about the practise of biography than could comfortably be accommodated in a 15 minute address, and had been spurred into further activity, preparing a monograph for Melbourne University publishing on this subject." "Walking Upon Ashes" would eventually grow into Niall's book, "Life Class: The Education of a Biographer," published by Melbourne University Publishing in 2007.
Commented ABR editor Peter Rose, reviewing it himself in ABR, quote, "It is good to have Brenda Niall's lucid account of her gradual transformation from academic to biographer. My own path has been the reverse, from biographer to academic. There are distant serendipitous links between the first and last Seymour Lecturers that speak to the permeability of Australia's cultural class in a good way, I think. Georgiana McCrae's great-granddaughter, Marty McCrae, was my landlord in Sydney in the early 1980s. Judy Cassab was a drawing group partner of my friend, Margaret Fink in Sydney. Fink was a dear friend of the late Ian Donaldson and his thankfully still alive wife, Dr. Grazia Gunn, who's currently working on a very interesting book. Ian and Grazia, whom I met through Fink, came to the opening of my then bar, Das Kapital, in the early two thousands. Grazia and I would bump into each other and chat when she was here at the NLA, researching one project or another. Tomorrow morning, I'm going to a meeting in Melbourne at Niall's publisher, MEP, but that's a whole nother story."
Unlike in the old country, as earlier generations used to refer to Britain, where class dynamics dominate, these links were democratically and meritoratically forged. While from a book-loving family, when I first arrived in Canberra aged 16 years and 51 weeks, to enrol at ANU, I had never met the author of a book. I recall finding in the stacks of Chifley Library, a recent book by my Burton Hall non-resident tutor, Dr. Cameron Hazelhurst, then young and handsome. That's not in the script. It must be acknowledged. I remember finding it and holding it reverently in my hands, in wonder. It was a hardback on Lloyd George, published by Cape. A little later, my first boyfriend had a hardback on "China's Perspective on the World" in print with ANU press. Extraordinary. Books were, and to me, remain magical objects. They engage, they enthral, they can make things happen. If you are not born to the bookmaking world, that is and remains an incredible thing.
I've been an NLA reader now for 46 years. Some things have changed. The old card catalog's gone for one, and that that was a very bad move, NLA. We loved that card catalogue. Of course we love Trove now too, very much, but can't we have both? Some things have changed. The caf used to be on the fourth floor. It was definitely a caf, not a cafe. You'll get a sense of it knowing that donuts used to be sold in cling wrap. Nevertheless, some of the more important conversations of my life happened in that daggy, now long-gone fourth floor NLA caf, not least ANU historian, Dr. Don Baker, in fatherly tones, dampening my aspiration to be a manning clark research assistant one day. It wasn't until reading Mark McKenna's prize-winning biography, "Manning Clark: An Eye for Eternity," that I understood what Baker was getting at. One of Clark's then research assistants, Dr. Lindel Ryan, was my tutor in first year Australian history. Ryan's tutes were in her office with an ever-present plate of Iced VoVos, a gesture unique in my experience across three universities. What a welcoming gesture it was to young, nervous students. Ryan's career culminated during her tenure at the University of Newcastle, leading the project to research and interactively map colonial frontier massacres in Australia, 1788 to 1930. It's a depth charge in the reformation of Australia's national identity that we have barely yet, but will profoundly, feel the impact of.
To conclude, I return to the benefactors who have made this long running biography series possible, John and Heather Seymour. This is how they were described in the publication of that first lecture by Brenda Niall nearly 20 years ago. "Dr. John Seymour was a law lecturer first at the University of Auckland and then at the Australian National University. He also served as a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission. He's the author of numerous books, reports, and articles on juvenile justice, children, and the law, and medicolegal topics. His most important book was "Childbirth and the Law," Oxford University Press, 2000.
Heather Seymour practised as Dr. Heather Munro as an obstetrician and gynaecologist in Canberra from 1976 until 2001. She was the first woman president of the Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1997 for her services to medicine in obstetrics and gynaecology and to the college. After her retirement, she served as the president of the Medical Board of the Australian Capital Territory. The Seymour's contribution in endowing this series cannot be overestimated. They're professionals, they're not plutocrats, yet their active citizenship has brought to our community of thinkers, readers, and writers, over the course of 20 years, this extraordinary list of biographers; Brenda Niall, Lawrence Goldman, Jill Rowe, Richard Holmes, David Day, Frances Spalding, Robert Dessaix, Jeffrey Myers, Drusilla Modjeska, Ray Monk, Robert Drew, David Marr, Raymond Gator, Richard Fidler, Judith Brent, Jacqueline Kent, and me.
And now concluding not just this Seymour Lecture, but also the long running series, I'd invite you to join me in saluting the Seymours and the outstanding writers they supported to come to the National Capital over those decades, with a very warm round of applause.
Thank you. I'm tempted to say "Speech! Speech!", but I know they wouldn't get up. So I think we now have time for a discussion between us if anyone has comments, questions.
Audience member 1: Thanks so much, Chris, for a beautifully crafted and really quite magical lecture. I wanna take you back to that challenge you issued to us as biographers, and the importance of pursuing the collective. And surely, all lives do travel in parallel, so I take the point in that. But I wonder whether there's another challenge implicit in that, and that is for biographers to work collectively and embark on collaborative excursions into a life, explorations of a life. I'm thinking of what Heather Goodall has done on the life of Lucy Woodcock, where a team of scholars work on a life rather than an individual. Do you think that's another challenge for biography?
Chris Wallace: That's a very good point, Bruce, and reminds me of one of my favourite examples of that... Heather Goodall's a great example, another is Professor Bruce Mazlish at MIT, an historian at MIT in the sixties, who was very concerned about the potential of Richard Nixon to become president. And he actually wanted to put together an interdisciplinary team to do a profile of Nixon that could anticipate his presidency, that could be published, that could be shared in order to inform voters better about how they should cast their vote. Not for or against Nixon, but here is our profile of him from various perspectives, make your own decision, which is very much in the spirit of, you know, including the future. You know, Frances Spalding, it's so important she said that, but then she's kind of skated off and didn't develop it, and that's what we need to do now.
And of course, had Mazlish's project got funded and happened, who knows how that presidential election would've turned out? He didn't get the funding, he instead wrote his own psychological profile of Nixon ahead of the election. And subsequently, how the Nixon presidency unfolded was uncannily predicted by Mazlish's psychological profile. So we don't have a lot of time left to get things right, so you're completely correct, we need to work collaboratively more often, to much greater effect, with much greater impact. I'm adding that to my list. More teams of scholars working on biographies. Good one.
Audience member 2: Thank you. Thank you for a fascinating lecture. My question is about the relationship between audiences and potentially speculative biographies. Do you think there's an inherent tension between the expectations of readers of biography and the prospect of writing in a speculative fashion? Or do you think it's simply a case of, if you build it they will come?
Chris Wallace: The critical thing is to be clear what you're doing as a biographer. If you're being speculative, say so, and that's whether you are being retrospectively speculative because there are gaps in the record, which is usually the case to a greater or lesser extent, but especially so if you are trying to cast forward, as I suggest. I've been thinking while I've been writing the lecture, how would I do that? 'Cause I'm guilty of these sins too, and I have to correct my biographical practise, I think, and develop it more in this direction. And I think one of the crucial things with speculation casting forward is to not speculate on one path.
You know, it's that classic fail that you see companies and governments do so often, and individuals for that matter, think of a problem, think of a solution. In this case, look at the trajectory, project where it's gonna go. In fact, it could go five different places, so spell out the choices and let the audience engage constructively, speculatively, with the author's speculation, but with great clarity that that's what's happening, that it's just speculation. If we were doing that now with, for example, the biographies of political leaders, if we were looking at seeking out the negative space, looking at the absences and failures, the gaps, the inactions, and then casting forward from that, I think we would be galvanised much more to do what's necessary to make sure the Alpha Centauri move is not necessary.
Anyone else? I'm expecting some... I wouldn't mind some violent opposition from biographers outraged by my proposals, "How dare you criticise our very well developed craft?"
Audience member 3: It's a broad question, Chris, but what's the purpose of a biography for you?
Chris Wallace: That's a really good question. Wow, that's a hard question. You've gotta really care about a subject to spend years with that person in your head, you know? You're living with them, you spend more hours of the day with them than you do with your spouse, because, you know, when you're with your spouse, you're with your spouse, but in addition, you know, you're thinking about your work, like it becomes extremely dominating. You've really gotta have a good reason to do a biography.
In the case of my first biography of John Houston, I was extreme... It was a very much a public interest exercise. I was extremely concerned that the polling showed John Houston was likely to be elected prime minister at the 1993 election. And all my then colleagues in the Canberra Press Gallery, and I knew about him was that he was an economist, that he drove a red Ferrari, and that he liked champagne. That seemed to be a super worrying basis on which to elect someone prime minister. So I thought, "I've gotta find out, who is this guy? What does he think? Why does he think it? How does he think?"
And so it was a real crash tackle job. I'm actually very proud of that book, it was... The research, interviews, and writing occurred in the space of 18 weeks, and included flying to Saskatchewan in Canada in winter, and driving from Regina to Saskatoon in a blizzard for 500 kilometres, behind a salt truck that was defrosting the road, to get to the University of Saskatchewan where John Houston had recycled himself from a very underperforming honours economics graduate at Sydney Uni. I think he actually got a third. Pretty sure he got a third. But he was ambitious and determined and he enrolled at University of Saskatchewan in a master of economics, and did well enough to be able to transfer to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for their MA PhD programme. And from which he graduated successfully, and then joined the World Bank, and then came back to Australia and went, "Hmm, which party will I join? The Labour Party or the Liberal Party?" And he found as many centrist kind of candidates, including Malcolm Turnbull, find that it's a lot easier to get pre-selection in the Liberal Party than the Labour Party. As someone I know jokes with the Liberal Party, you've just gotta show up. It's a little different now.
So it was a very strong public interest motivation and that was the reason for the first one. For my second one, Germaine Greer, I was looking with that second book to explore the life of an Australian who had impacted on the world. And if you exclude sport, there were only two Australians at that time that were known across the Anglosphere. One was Rupert Murdoch, and there were already a couple of good biographies of him, and the other was Germaine Greer. Laterally, Barry Humphreys joined the list, but there was still only three non-sporting Australians who were known throughout the Anglosphere. And that was a hell of an experience, it really tested my metal as a biographer, because Greer was so opposed to anyone doing her biography while she was alive. Of course, I was a completely innocent financial review journalist in the press gallery, a solid feminist, wrote to her with great optimism and said, "Dr. Greer, I would like to write your biography, looking forward to..." Got this to torpedo letter back, "How dare you?" It's in the Mitchell Library. My paper's in the Mitchell Library. And she made some interesting arguments amongst which were, you know, "Can't you leave me alone? Don't strip my life." And of course, Germaine had been writing about other people's lives in her own work for her entire career. Her other big argument was, you know, basically, these things are best left till you are dead. I wrote back and tried to engage her and said, "Look, with a life like yours, isn't it really important to be able to check facts before you die? There are so many scurrilous stories." And I got another blistering letter back, but this time signed by a proxy, not by her, so that the letter itself had no subsequent value in terms of, you know, selling papers and so forth. Innocently and, you know, with strong heart, I charged forward, it was a pretty traumatic experience. Even though I was a fan of Greer's, I admired a lot of her... What she'd achieved in life, I just wasn't an uncritical admirer. I was paying her the respect of taking her and her work seriously, and it took me a long time to understand the opposition.
But I realised in the end, it wasn't about any fear that something could be revealed about her that hadn't already been revealed. Everything had been revealed. It was more about an intellectual defensiveness that if someone worked seriously through her irve, they would see a series of unreconciled inconsistencies that might undercut her stature, particularly in the academy where she was trying to survive in England. But I remain an admirer, a critical admirer. I know she read the book. Every so often she comes out and has another go, but often, her timing's wrong. I remember during the process, she threatened to knee cap me if I spoke to her mother, but her mother was the very first person I spoke to. And that book was published in Australia and Britain and in the US by Faber & Faber. It's in a very beautiful edition, so that was thrilling. The Bradman and Rohan Rivett book, it's very much a National Library event. These two men had... Rohan Rivett was the former editor of the Adelaide News. When Keith Murdoch died, Rupert flew back from Oxford into Adelaide, and Rohan Rivett was the editor of the Adelaide News, and his job was to help Rupert become a publisher. And they worked very well, as Rupert usually does with his senior people, for some time. And then after a while, Rupert decided he knew better than Rohan Rivett and he sacked Rivett.
And of course, he's done that with practically every editor he's ever had. Rivett moved to Melbourne, and this extraordinary 30 year correspondence occurred between the two men, and I knew there were these 96 letters, I think it is, that were embargoed in the Special Collections here, and I applied to have them opened. And I recall so strongly, going to the old Special Collections room in its old home, which is now I think the East Asian Collections room area, or I think that's been changed again since then. But I remember that morning, going and beginning to read the letters, and I arrived thinking, "Don Bradman was a right wing Tory, old cardigan-wearing bastard. By lunchtime, I was a complete Don Bradman fan. And this is the thing about being a good biographer, about being a good historian, ask good questions and go where the data leads you, you know? The worst kind of books, the worst scholarship are the pre-cooked, predetermined, I've got a point to make and I'm gonna marshal the evidence to prove my point. It was was Cameron Hazelhurst who taught me that at Burton Hall all those years ago, ask a good question and go where the evidence leads you.
And Bradman was revealed in these incredibly intimate letters as a really decent bloke dealing with a lot of difficult things, and with this extraordinary rich, honest friendship with Rohan Rivett. It's a beautiful thing. "How To Win An Election" wasn't a biography, strictly speaking. But there's a large element of life-writing in that I preface each chapter with a short kind of mental imagining of an opposition leader who's trying to win an election. It could be Bill Shorten, but I never say that, and just what's in his head. So there's a little bit of that there. But of course, that book, "Political Lives," which I'm very proud to say, is on the shortlist to win the New South Wales Premier's Prize for History tonight, is really a biography of political biography in 20th century Australia. It's really an alternative way of writing political history through biography. And of course, that's the great thing about biography, everybody wants to read it. They'll read, you know, all respect to historians, I'm an historian too and I love you's all. You know, we are as one. But when, you know, I occasionally do advanced historiography workshops at ANU, and the thing I get the students to do is say, what's your current project and how are you doing it? And wherever it sits on the pure history, pure biography spectrum, I get them to switch it and imagine how'd they do it the other way. 'Cause I think the most successful histories include a lot of... A big biographical element, and a lot of successful biographies include a huge biographical element. And good historians, good biographers, know how to move that slide and do both. Any last question, comment? No revolting biographers who wanna tell me I'm completely wrong? Not yet anyway. Thank you. Can I sit down?
Alison Delitt: Part of my role is always to be the bad guy, so I will say, we are out of time. I will have... Although we have just thanked Chris, I'd like us to do that again, for such an incredibly reflective lecture that managed to combine synthesis and provocation in a way that was quite extraordinary. So can we have one more thank you, please? But before we finish up, we do have one very special treat for this audience. John Seymour has agreed to say a few words, so I think you've an idea of how special this is. I would like to invite John to come up and address the audience.
John Seymour: I will be brief. Chris, thank you for your kind but somewhat embarrassing words. Chris took us back to the first lecture by Brenda Niall, and she has talked already about "Walking Upon Ashes." She's also mentioned that this was taken from that wise old standby, Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson had an opinion on everything. And I want you just to think about what he said under that heading of "Walking on Ashes." The words surprisingly, are not from Boswell's "Life of Johnson," but rather from one of Johnson's essays on the lives of the poets. And he was pointing particularly to the problem of writing about a life of a contemporary. "I begin to feel myself walking upon ashes under which the fire is not extinguished." And he recognised that it will, quote, "Be proper to say nothing that is false, rather than everything that is true." Now in her lecture tonight, and particularly in her book, "Political Lives," Chris has echoed this concern. The dilemma posed by Bob Hawke's comments about wanting a "Warts and All" biography, is an example and of course, echoes her statements about the biographer's task of recording the truth. Chris has underlined how sensitive is the task of writing a life. A biographer must embark on a probing and intrusive process. Like a good doctor, the biographer must be aware of the danger of doing harm. Chris has thus produced a pleasing symmetry, and I do thank her for this. Thanks are also owed to you, in this audience. Heather and I are most grateful to the many friends who loyally and regularly supported the Lecture Series. I know that many of you attended Brenda's lecture all those years ago. Thank you. And finally, of course, we are most grateful to the dedicated, enthusiastic, and imaginative staff of the National Library for their support. They have been unfailingly knowledgeable, efficient, and helpful. The National Library of Australia is a luminous institution, we should cherish it.
Alison Delitt: Thank you so much, John. I hope everyone can now join us in the foyer for refreshments. Chris has kindly agreed to sign copies of her books, which will be available for purchase from the library bookshop. The bookshop will be open this evening, and I would like to remind you about the most important part of supporting Australian stories, which is buying them. As we bring the formal proceedings to a close, I will ask for one more round of applause for both Professor Chris Wallace and also John and Heather for their incredible support of the Seymour Biography Lecture Series over so many years. Thank you.
The Seymour Biography Lecture provides eminent 'life writers', living in Australia and elsewhere, with an opportunity to explore the business and craft of biography, autobiography or memoir.
In 2023, the lecture was delivered by Professor Chris Wallace and titled "Honouring the Biographers Contract".
The Seymour Biography Lecture is supported by Dr John Seymour and Mrs Heather Seymour AO.
About Professor Chris Wallace
Professor Chris Wallace is a political historian and biographer and is in the School of Politics Economics and Society, Faculty of Business Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her books include Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and Their Biographers (UNSW Press, 2023), How To Win An Election (NewSouth, 2020), The Private Don (Allen & Unwin, 2004), Greer: Untamed Shrew (Pan Macmillan, 1997) and Hewson, A Portrait (Pan Macmillan, 1993). Wallace was formerly a longstanding member of the Canberra Press Gallery, and her political analysis and commentary currently appears in Nikkei Asia, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Saturday Paper and The Conversation.
About the Seymour Biography Lecture
The annual lecture, with associated activities, including seminars and workshops, was hosted by the Biography Institute at the Humanities Research Centre between 2005–2009.
In 2010, the Lecture moved to the National Library of Australia as part of the Seymours’ ongoing sponsorship and support program. The Seymours also sponsor a Summer Scholarship in Biography at the National Library for young postgraduate students.
Learn more about the Seymour Biography Lecture and previous speakers.