By: Christine Kearney
Tim Winton has the audience in the palm of his hand.
The white-haired lady in front of me leans forward in her seat for the entire hour and a half lecture and discussion with Winton at the National Library of Australia.
This morning’s audience know what to expect from Winton and are not disappointed by his disarming mix of self-deprecation, wit and insights into writing, masculinity and Australia.
His most recent book, The Boy Behind the Curtain, is a memoir and a meditation on the forces which made him. It is also a sifting through of the ‘prangs’—the traffic accidents—which shaped his family, himself and in turn, Australian literature.
One fateful night, Winton says he accepted a lift home from an 18th birthday party. The driver ‘put his Valiant through the front wall of an Anglican girls schools. That was our little blow for class warfare…. I woke up in hospital and I wasn’t the same person’.
While he knew from the age of 10 that he wanted to be a writer, he says he squared away his choice of this ‘dud gig’ by promising himself that he would earn a living doing honest, physical work.
But after the accident, he realised that a day’s hard labour would have put him in bed for two weeks. He was forced to make a go of writing on its own—and write he did. He produced an extraordinary body of work in the first decade of his career, including classics like An Open Swimmer and Cloudstreet.
From the writer’s life, the discussion loops back and forth into other Wintonesque themes including the physical world and the world of objects, familial and laden with meaning—his father’s .22 Lithgow rifle, the family’s 1954 Hillman Minx and the desk on which he still writes.
But the topic of his ‘old man’ is something to which he returns again and again, as though he is yet to unravel the whole of what it means to be a man in this culture and at this time.
Wrapped around the discussion of masculinity is also a discussion of the C-word—class. Winton pillories the idea that class is no longer a useful lens through which to view the haves and the have-nots.
In Australia, the rot set in, he says when ‘we stopped thinking of ourselves as a society and started thinking of ourselves as an economy’.
Comments about the state of the nation, delivered in his deadpan style, bring laughter followed by reverent murmurs of approval. The audience love his writing, they love the man and they love his take on the vanished Australia of the Cloudstreet era and the Australia of today.
When the lecture is finished, a long line of fans snakes past the refreshments, to the table where Winton sits signing copies of his book, going at the task with an honest physicality, the would-be tradie who pranged his way into Australian literature and recast it forever.
Christine Kearney is a Canberra-based writer.