DON WATSON There It Is Again: Collected writings. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
There It Is Again is an anthology of Don Watson’s sharp-eyed observations on political and social issues in the 21st century.
While Australia is the prime focus, the first of these 47 essays, ‘Rabbit Syndrome’ is devoted to American politics, and the United States is the subject of a further four: ‘Faith, Freedom and Katrina’; an excerpt from American Journeys; ‘Palin Politics’ – a precursor to Trump, and ‘American Berserk’.
Anthologies are dip-in books and ‘Once a Jolly Lifestyle’ is a good place to start, with author Don Watson getting an early morning hair-cut in the Victorian Wimmera town of Horsham. ‘So how’s your day been so far?’ his female hairdresser enquires.
The answer goes like this:
There was a time – a very long time – when country people rarely asked more of another human being than how he or she was going. In this same time there was often the whiff of damp hay, dogs or sweat around country schoolrooms, churches and picture theatres. Country people – this was before they were called rural and regional Australians – were the living embodiment of their work and environment, somehow even of their faith. They were as seals are to rocks and owls are to night, the elemental Australians.
But now, as Watson says, that question ‘becomes pretty well mandatory’ for ‘customer-focused businesses, worldwide, and the world now includes the Wimmera’. It also induces a ‘state of mindlessness’.
Mindlessness is at the core of the use and abuse of the language, and politics and the English language are key concerns here. It is hardly surprising that the author of Death Sentence, Weasel Words and Bendable Learnings should mourn the loss of verbs and their replacement in speech and writing by such clichéd words as ‘commitment’, ‘accountability’, ‘strategic’, ‘values’ and ‘outcomes’.
I can also relate to the hairdresser’s question as a shortened version of it – ‘How’s your day been?’ used to be put to me by a friend, a public servant, in a city pub at the end of a working day. And I found it intrusive – as if I was being held to account for my work (or lack of it), and had to mark off some KPIs (key performance indicators) in a social setting.
It also reminded me of the mid-1980s when I worked for a year in local government and a colleague used to spend five minutes every hour documenting what he had been doing for the previous 55 minutes. A historian, he was shortly afterwards seconded to an internal management team working on restructuring the organisation. Several years later I returned to the same body and the same man was still working on management reviews. Whether any recommendations from his reviews were ever implemented, or any benefits resulted from them, I do not know.
As Watson comments in ‘National Trust Heritage Lecture’:
The language of management – for which we read the language of virtually all corporations and companies large and small, public-service departments, government agencies, libraries, galleries and universities, the military, intelligence organisations, and increasingly politics – is language that cannot describe or convey any human emotion, including the most basic ones like happiness, sympathy, greed, envy, love or lust.
In sum, it is dead language, vague and vapid.
One thing that can be said of Don Watson is that he is grounded. Grounded by growing up on a Gippsland dairy farm in the 1950s, expanded maybe through reading and work as an academic historian, but grounded again in different ways as a satirist, then working in the Prime Minister’s Office as Paul Keating’s speech writer, and in his writing life beyond.
Whatever he writes, Watson certainly has an acute ear. Take this example from The Bush extract in this collection:
The mental images have not faded. The subject cannot be separated from the settings in which he worked: the hills and the trees and the fences and wooden sheds and yards and the cattle and crops and the back porches with their boots and coats, the smell of mud and manure, and the rush of the westerly in the pines. In a dry spell he would tap the tank beside the kitchen window. He tapped the barometer just about every day of his life. In the evening the wind moaned in the Chinese cedars, the calves bawled, the bulls roared their lust. At night the possums rattled their throats in the trees, fighting for territory, discouraging owls and dogs. The dogs barked, howled sometimes. Magpies welcomed the mornings with a warble, the thrush with its thrill of a song.
Or this from ‘Aussie Icons’:
Two or three days after Steve Irwin died, while standing in airport queue I heard a man say to his companion that Germaine Greer had ‘tried to gut an Aussie icon’. His companion was astounded to hear that anyone should be so insensitive. ‘I mean,’ said the man, ‘I wasn’t a big wrap for the bloke, but he was an icon and you have to respect that. You don’t go round gutting an icon.’
Or this from ‘War on Terror’:
It’s the word ‘war’. From the moment ‘war on terror’ was declared everything went fuzzy. Australians persuaded themselves that refugees from terror might be agents of terror. American soldiers went to fight in Iraq believing they were avenging 9/11. The whole world was conned into believing Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
An icon was originally an image of a saint or hero but it has now come to mean the actual person. Watson is not a pedant opposed to the evolution of language, merely the confusion that sometimes attends it. War is generally regarded as armed conflict between nations but terror is a state of mind which may be prompted by terrorist acts. Imprecision regarding a definition of war allows atrocities to be committed in its name
Don Watson disdains being described as a public intellectual and tells us that even after he’d been earning a living as a writer for 20 years he found it difficult to describe himself as such. Real writers were the Tolstoys, Prousts, Hemingways of the world, not scribblers like himself. He has no need for such modesty.
Tom Keneally has employed a pithy phrase – ‘dazzlingly elegant and perceptive’ – to describe Watson’s writing and that is a deserved testimonial. I have read virtually all of Watson’s books and many of these articles when they originally appeared in The Monthly. Even so, it is an enormous pleasure to have these pieces gathered together between two covers. Don Watson is a wonderful recorder and prophet of our times. Long may he be so.
Don Watson There It Is Again: Collected writings Vintage Books 2017 PB 352pp $34.99.
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is The Official MCC Ashes Story.