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Meditation on the life of the mind and spirit

11 April 2015 134 views No Comment

Memoirs of a Slow Learner: New Edition
By Peter Coleman
Connor Court, 190pp, $29.95

Writing a memoir doesn’t mean you have to spill your guts. Sometimes what is left unsaid can be as interesting and even more intriguing than what is revealed.

When this book was first published 21 years ago, some reviewers complained Peter Coleman was far too reticent, especially about his personal life. This, it seems to me, is a misunderstanding of the nature of his memoir, which is neither a confession nor a listing of his individual achievements but essentially a meditation about the life of his mind and, in the broadest sense, his spirit.

I’m not surprised Coleman is an admirer of the work of George Orwell, who once wrote: “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.

Born in Melbourne in 1926, the prolific Coleman has had several careers. He’s the author of 16 books about politics, history and culture and was editor of ‘The Bulletin’ from 1964 to 1967 and thereafter of ‘Quadrant’ until 1990.

As well as being at one stage the administrator of Norfolk Island, Coleman was a NSW state Liberal MP from 1968 until late 1977 when he was elected the 30th leader of the NSW opposition. This was until he lost his seat in the Labor “Wranslide of 1978. From 1981 to 1986, Coleman was the federal Liberal member for the then blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Wentworth. After he decided not to contest the 1987 election, the hapless John Hewson took his place. The ambitious Malcolm Turnbull now holds Coleman’s old seat. Coleman is also Peter Costello’s father-in-law and helped the former treasurer write his memoirs.

With the benefit of a further two decades of living and thinking, in this revised edition Coleman claims to understand, rightly in my opinion, that the fundamental genesis of ‘­Memoirs of a Slow Learner’ was his immersion in the poetry of James McAuley.

Until his death in 1976, McAuley was Coleman’s co-editor at ‘Quadrant’. In 1980 Coleman published ‘The Heart of James McAuley’, a response to the poet’s work and to his life, which in some ways echoed the author’s own. Both had distant Protestant mothers and freethinking fathers, although in Coleman’s case his radical dad was also a problematic heavy drinker.

Both Coleman and McAuley were educated at selective state high schools and the University of Sydney. Early on in their intellectual lives both were influenced by the ideas of libertarian Sydney University philosophy professor John Anderson, and both shared an interest in communism, anarchism, dada, mysticism and Christianity. But whereas McAuley found a resolution of his quest for meaning in the Catholic Church, Coleman explains that, throughout his life, he has endeavoured to persevere with secular liberalism, or with what he sometimes terms “liberal secularism. As Coleman confides, some of McAuley’s poems still affect him deeply. This applies especially to the long and deeply autobiographical poem ‘Letter to John Dryden’, published in 1956.

As well as writing tellingly about being a publisher, author and biographer (including his fine 1990 study of Barry Humphries), one of the delights of Coleman’s book are the pas­sages where he focuses on his time spent working in England and the Sudan before arriving at the Australian National University in Canberra. He then settled down in Sydney.

From my perspective as a social and political theorist and a political and cultural commentator, what I find particularly revealing are Coleman’s insights into being, at the same time, a public intellectual and a politician. Towards the end of this memoir he notes wryly: “You quickly learn how little interest Parliament has in your philosophic ideas. Your heartfelt speeches will be delivered to an empty chamber or to a handful of dozing or chattering Members. Your insights may provoke roof,raising laughter from your opponents. The Minister may brush aside with a joke your most telling Question without Notice. Sadly, more often than he would have preferred, some of the most hurtful derision came from his Coalition colleagues.

As I read this new edition, I realised the parliamentarian I was most reminded of was former Labor minister for science Barry Jones. Like Coleman, Jones, an intellectual and one-time quiz show champion, also had a stint in state parliament. While Coleman’s insights into politics and publishing provide food for thought, it is his responses to McAuley’s life and work that supply the most substance and nutrition in this compelling book. Coleman’s ‘The Heart of James McAuley’ features four of my favourite lines of Australian verse, from McAuley’s 1945 poem ‘Celebration of Love’:

How is it then that you can keep
All of my lust contained, unless you be
Akin to bird, beast, mountain, tree,
Of wide creation an epitome?

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, April 11-12, 2105, review, Books p 21.

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