Writing about politics or issues of social importance and making it sound thought-provoking requires elite skills. For me two such writers are Don Watson and David Marr.
Don Watson first came to my attention as Paul Keating’s speech writer. He wrote two of the finest ever Australian speeches. ‘’The Redfern Address’’ which spoke of the plight of Aboriginal people and ‘’Funeral Service for the Unknown Soldier’’ for the 75th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice.
He also wrote the most definitive political biography I have ever read. ‘’Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.’’ Keating never forgave him for his revelations of his time in power. However, Watson produced a work that put the reader in the room so to speak.
Another brilliant work of his was ‘’American Journeys’’ . A book that explains the average American’s connection to their country’s politics and constitutional complexities that affect their daily life, like no other.
David Marr wrote ‘’Patrick White a Life’’ , an authorised biography of the Nobel Prize winning author. I had not read any of Whites work when I read this work but I was taken by the intelligence of Marr’s writing.
For me he is able to turn the mundane into something exciting. He does it with a clearly distinctive style that can at times read like the fiction of mystery. I read his book ‘’The High Price of Heaven’’ in which he describes the church as the enemy of pleasure and freedom. I found myself agreeing with him.
He has also written a number of Quarterly Essays. ‘’His Masters Voice’’ which addressed, as he describes it, the lack of public debate under John Howard. Another was ‘’Power Trip’’ which tackled the persona of Kevin Rudd and ‘’Political Animal’’ in which he applied his incredible ability to sum up the character of those he writes about. This time it was Tony Abbott.
“An aggressive populist with a sharp tongue; a political animal with lots of charm; a born protégé with ambitions to lead; a big brain but no intellectual; a bluff guy who proved a more than competent minister; a politician with little idea of what he might do if he ever got to the top; and a man profoundly wary of change.
“He’s a worker. No doubt about that. But the point of it all is power. Without power it’s been a waste of time.”
All of which brings me to his latest essay titled ‘’The Prince. Faith abuse and George Pell.” This is a compelling read. Marr doesn’t reveal anything new about the Churches abuse of children in its care. What he does do is to chronologically place all the events in a sequence that brings reflection and clarity. He highlights the historic indifference of the churches attitude. The cover ups, the moving around of guilty priests. His writing puts the reader in an ‘’how would you feel if it were your child or indeed if you were in the child’s position.
Whilst reading it I had to stop many times and reflect on the enormity of the sins of the fathers. More than once I shed a tear whilst uttering the word, bastards.
But this essay is as much about Pell (I don’t feel the need to be particularly aware of protocol and use his title) the man as it is about child abuse. When all is stripped back we see a man of very little love for flock but great love for the institution of church, the privileges that come with it and the power it commands. Consequently Pell is adored by the church but despised by the people.
David Marr has this extraordinary way of summing up the individual he is writing about. He is fair but is more often apt to say what he thinks with a cutting tempestuous tongue.
‘’I wonder how much of the strange ordinariness of George Pell began fifty years ago when a robust schoolboy decided, as an act of piety, to kill sex in himself. The gamble such men take is that they may live their whole lives without learning the workings of an adult heart. Their world is the church. People are shadows. Pell is one of these: a company man of uncertain empathy. He has the consolations of friendship, music and a good cellar. And he has what inspired him from the start: a place at the highest level of the church and a voice in the nation. He has power. His mitred head nods politely as he passes.’’
With the assistance of Abbott and Howard, the Catholic Church has managed for many years to avoid punishment for its sins. Even the God in which it believes has refused to punish.
You can make what you want of that.
As for Marr’s essay. Well a free copy should be handed out to every person attending mass next Sunday. I often wonder (perhaps unfairly) why anyone would want to remain in an organisation that commits the most abominable acts of cruelty. But it seems they do.
David Marr is the multi-award-winning author of Patrick White: A Life, Panic and The High Price of Heaven, and co- author with Marian Wilkinson of Dark Victory. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Monthly, been editor of the National Times, a reporter for Four Corners and presenter of ABC TV’s Media Watch. He is also the author of two previous bestselling biographical Quarterly Essays: Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd and Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott.