The Godfather: Peter Corris on the things people say
My mother, who was not given to philosophical pronouncements, once said of some behaviour totally alien to her, ‘Well, we’re all different and I suppose we have to be.’ Not especially tolerant, it was her struggling attempt to embrace diversity and I’ve used it myself, ironically, when appropriate.
When Jean and I first got together in Papua New Guinea in 1972 we spent a fair bit of time walking on beaches, sitting drinking in the shade and talking about books we’d read – reading being a matter of great concern to us both. I mentioned how depressed George Orwell looked in the standard photographs. ‘Down in the mouth in Paris and London,’ Jean said. If my attachment needed clinching this did it.
At that time I was a Research Fellow in the Department of Pacific History at the ANU. The Head of Department was urbane, well-read Jim Davidson, New Zealand-raised but Cambridge finished off. He was invariably kind to me but I was told he could be waspish. I saw it once when, in response to something a staff member ventured, Jim said, ‘That is an ignorant remark,’ delivered with an Evelyn Waughish relish. The recipient defended himself, I’m happy to say. I’ve never forgotten this biting rebuke and the manner of its delivery. I’ve heard many ignorant remarks since but have never felt felt I had the right style to use it.
When my daughter Ruth was in the early years of primary school she attended a religious instruction class. When asked what had happened one day she said that they had coloured in a picture of the nativity scene – the manger, baby Jesus, the wise men, the camels and the donkeys. She was asked if she believed in this story and her reply was, ‘I believe in the camels and the donkeys.’ When I heard this I said, ‘That’s my girl!’ It’s a story told and re-told in our resolutely secular family.
English journalist David Leitch was a contributor to the National Times when I was working there as Literary Editor. David had an interesting CV; he’d written a memoir entitled God Stand Up For Bastards (1973) in which he told how his unmarried mother had sold him as an infant. He’d been a war correspondent in Vietnam and had contributed to a major book about Kim Philby. He occasionally rang me about reviewing, and always began, ‘Peter, mon brave …’ I liked the touch and have sometimes used it myself in contacting a friends but I doubt I’ve captured much of Leitch’s louche drawl.
The late Professor Fred Hollows said many interesting things in the time I knew him but one in particular has stayed with me: ‘Tobacco has been a great comfort to me.’ He’d faced many physical challenges – climbing mountains, working in the outback – and professional ones from recalcitrant academics and bureaucrats. Although he was suffering from emphysema and his pipe stem had half worn away a front tooth, I thought I knew what he meant and that, whatever its malign reputation now, tobacco probably has been a great comfort to many people over the centuries.
After the publication of one of my books, I was interviewed by journalist, editor and critic Rosemary Sorensen. At one point she said, ‘You’re such a lazy writer, Peter.’ I forget what I replied but I thought about the remark. I think she implied that that my books lacked depth. Perhaps that was true, but if so it wasn’t caused by laziness. I had a mortgage to service and three children. The advances and royalties were my only source of income. I was not a lazy writer, I was a busy one. I had to be.