A great read, but ...

Carmen Lawrence

Talented artist sells his subject short

The reviews of Don Watson's memoir of his life as Paul Keating's speechwriter, Recollections of A Bleeding Heart, have all been very approving, even rapturous. Romana Koval has described it is an "intriguing account of a time and a place and a man - from a vantage point that is so unusual, so close, and by such an intelligent and partisan witness, as to make it unrivalled in the annals of Australian political writing". This accolade is deserved, although the last point amounts to faint praise since the quality of writing about politics and political figures in Australia is so universally abysmal. Perhaps, in fairness, it is inherent in the form. While Watson does better than most - and he writes like a dream - I don't think that even he has found his way into the meat of the life of politics, or into this particular political life.

This is, in part, because the events are still too close and their effects too uncertain to allow a confident reading of Keating's impact. There is too much unfinished business; without other material and other witnesses, Watson's exploration of Keating PM, and his reading of the experiences that formed him, are necessarily incomplete.

As I read, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the claim that these were "recollections" - the word suggests that Watson is recalling only the events to which he was witness when, in reality, much of what he writes about is second-hand, hearsay - and sometimes partial or inaccurate. Further, although Watson kept detailed notes of what he saw and heard, and no doubt recorded his reactions at the time, that is precisely what they are - reactions to or reflections on the events he observed (and participated) in.

What Watson has written is an engaging and witty self-portrait. His recollections are sharp and uncluttered by others' perceptions. The narrative is pacey and detailed, linking the diary notes he took during the years he spent as Keating's speechwriter with material from the public record and from the speeches themselves.

What he has definitely not written is a biography of Keating, despite his subtitle - A Portrait of Paul Keating PM. Rather it is a vehicle for Watson to display his considerable narrative and descriptive talents. No other voices or perceptions are enlisted in the task of making sense of Keating the man or the prime minister. Neither is it a history of the Keating government or a commentary on its influence on the nation.

Its appeal lies in the fact that Watson is a political innocent and an astute commentator, an outsider who questions many of the easy assumptions of those, like Keating, for whom politics is both work and life. The second chapter, which should be required reading for all aspiring MPs, is a superb distillation of the atmosphere - the reality and the theatre - of the federal parliament. He documents the bizarre intensity of life in a PM's office, the "tunnel vision" required of advisers and the sometimes uneasy relationship between a leader's office and other MPs. His "outsider's" vision makes his reading of Question Time and the effect of the media on the day-to-day operation of the Prime Minister's office particularly acute: "Time was punctuated by TV stings and reality defined by what the news said reality had been in the preceding hour, or day or week, and what, as a consequence of this, it was likely to be in the foreseeable future. Between real and recorded time there was never more than a thin transparent membrane."

Sometimes, Watson's insider-outsider status appears to limit his understanding of what is going on around him. Perhaps his concentration on recording the events actually prevented him from fully perceiving what was happening - a bit like people who interpose a video or a camera between them and what they're recording, narrowing the frame and reducing the angles before viewing the scene in its entirety.

The "5-x4-inch" card technique shapes the book, providing a running commentary on events and personalities. It has the urgency of the media chase and the corridor encounters which comprise much of the story. Characters, many of them bit players, move in and out of the narrative without much explanation. It's a fair bet that many of them will soon be little more than names, even to insiders. Keating himself has said the book resembles a "black box recorder" on a plane, revealing a great deal about the voyage but little about why it was undertaken. He regretted the lack of interpretation and the absence of a long view.

However, the technique does give Watson many opportunities to comment on events as they unfold. He produces a series of political treatises which could easily be published as stand-alone essays: "the relationship between business and government"; "society is more than the economy"; "political language and its function". In going beyond his immediate experiences in these discourses, he helps situate himself - and Keating - within the larger community, with all its struggles and contradictions. These are engaging and well-constructed arguments and Watson (the "bleeding heart") often uses senior economic adviser Don Russell (the "pointy head") as a counterpoint in his analyses.

Watson returns frequently to what he sees as Keating's predisposition to melancholia and advances a number of psychoanalytical explanations for this behaviour. However, perhaps some of the dark moods he ascribes to Keating are simply part of the "gazing into the void" that goes with the excitement - and terror - of politics. As John Button wrote recently about life in the federal parliament, "While there can be long periods when nothing much happens there, people are constantly on edge, waiting for the first hint of a political development and terrified of missing it when it comes. There are moments of great elation and equally great despair; the mood is intense and manic, switching constantly, but unpredictably, between highs and lows."

Watson's portrayal of Keating as some kind of a melancholic wafting around Elsinore is lopsided. I think he sometimes mistakes seriousness for depression, moments of "reflection" after manic activity for "bewildered solitude". While Watson is bruisingly accurate in capturing many Keatingisms, he doesn't always succeed in capturing Keating's tone of voice, his flamboyance, his intense enthusiasms, the colour of the man. Keating's sense of mischief and the excitement he so often generated in those around him is recorded, but not celebrated. For example, Keating's love of music is described, but the intensity of his feelings is not fully realised - it "inspired" him, it "humbled" him, "it reminds me that what I have to do is just a speck of sand". I think music was more than that to Keating. In my (only) three conversations with him about music, I was struck by his knowledge and his exquisite sensibility. But even more compelling was the realisation that for Keating, music was the wellspring of his creativity, it helped him make sense of his life, more than any idea or ideology.

Watson, who is almost unfailingly generous in the many quick sketches he offers, often manages to sound disapproving, particularly when Keating "wilfully" ignores his advice. There are times when he speaks as Keating's conscience, maintaining an intrusive commentary on his behaviour. This is one reason why the work falls short of being a portrait of Keating, although we get glimpses of him when Watson mutes his commentary and allows Keating to speak for himself.

Watson has said that he felt a "kind of love" for Keating, that unless you loved him you wouldn't work for him without going crazy. In some ways, Watson's rendering of the experience has the disappointed air of a plaintive lover. Pervading the memoir is a melancholy refrain about what might have been had Keating been a different sort of man. This is the man that Keating might have been had he more closely resembled the "bleeding heart" of the title. The recollections read like an act of therapy, as if Watson is trying to write Keating out of his system and reclaim his place in the academic world.

It is alleged that Miles Franklin once said that the thought of biography added a new dimension to her fear of death. How much more unnerving to be forced to confront the results of the biographer's "critical eye". Even someone as accustomed to public scrutiny as Keating must have approached the prospect with some dread, especially given the privileged access afforded to that "eye".

In a recent interview with Koval, Watson said that in his study of "the character of Paul, and trying to crack him ... I tried to get a cold psychological eye on him, I suppose. And for the office as a whole, you had to think anthropologically, in a way".

He says that "when behaviour was particularly peculiar in the office" he would have to remind Keating that he was writing a book "about this". To which Keating would reply, "Oh, are you mate?" This remark suggests to me that Keating was thinking of another kind of book altogether and would have been surprised by the one that emerged. Although the depiction of him is largely sympathetic, Keating may have had good reason to feel betrayed by some of the revelations about his life. It seems unlikely that he would have been quite so insouciant had he known that Watson the anthropologist was at work, rather than Watson the historian. I wonder if, for such a private man as Keating, the price of Watson's employment might have been too high.


Carmen Lawrence is the Shadow Minister for Reconciliation; Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Affairs; the Arts; and Status of Women; and the federal Labor MP for Fremantle. This review of Recollections of A Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, by Don Watson (756 pp. Knopf. $45), was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 19 July 2002.


 

Suggested citation
Lawrence, Carmen, 'A great read, but ...', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 2002<https://evatt.org.au/news/great-read.html>