Thomas Keneally, Ubud Writers Festival, October 2010. Pc. Bob Gosford
Thomas Keneally, Ubud Writers Festival, October 2010. Pc. Bob Gosford

I caught up with Tom Keneally yesterday afternoon after an hour-long “In Conversation” session with Chris Hanley of the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival on the last day of this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

As soon as he came off stage he was swamped by loving fans with books in one hand for signature and cameras in the other for the usual “Proof that I met a living legend of Australian literature” picture.

Then Tom gave a long interview with a TV crew making a documentary film on climate change (yes, that’s what I though as well), another with a journo from the West Australian and yet another with a young local reporter. By the time that I caught up with him he’d been talking pretty much continuously for almost three hours and through all of this he had been charming, attentive, informative and funny.

Here he is…

The Northern Myth: Tom, what do you sing in the shower?

Tom Keneally: Oh, definitely folk songs. One of my favourites is “Twas Christmas evening in the drunktank”, a line out of “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues. “The boys of the NYPD choir were singing Galway Bay, as the bells were ringing out for Christmas day.

TNM: And Sunday morning music?

TK: I’m big on baroque. I like Bach cantatas and I like plain chant – Gregorian chants. I have an IPod on which there is either Mozart, Bach, Palestrina Scarlatti, Handel or folk music. But I have lots of Bach cantatas, I’ve got cantatas coming out of my ears…

TNM: So we could say that you have a catholic taste, with lower case “c”?

TK: Oh yes. I’m rock-illiterate. I wish I wasn’t. I don’t “get it”. I went to a Kiss concert with my adolescent daughter once, but that was partly to convince her that if I went they must be uncool.

TNM: Did that work?

TK: No, no (laughs).

TNM: This might be redundant because of your previous answer but do you have a Saturday night song?

TK: Maybe an Irish fold song sung irreverently by Ewan MacColl...

TNM: Dolores Keane?

TK: Yes! Absolutely. Also another Saturday night record would be Mozart’s Requiem with someone like Victoria de Los Angeles

TNM: And a Desert Island Disc?…a piece of music you couldn’t do without…

TK: Yes, it would definitely have to be…despite what I said about baroque…the Emperor Concerto by Beethoven.

TNM: When did you last break the law?

TK: About a month before I left Sydney I was caught doing 61 km/h in a 50 km/h zone.

TNM: In your Volvo?

TK: No. I got rid of the Volvo because it…even though it was great for transporting grandchildren. It was too hard on fuel and I thought that it was…I’m not an eco-hero by any means but I really did think that it wasn’t too fuel-inefficient. So I was in a Subaru – a most respectable car.

TNM: Why didn’t your beloved Manly Warringah Sea Eagles NRL [National Rugby League] team win this year’s premiership?

TK: Well, they won the Premiership two years ago 60 to nil….sorry, 40 to nil. A record score, but generally teams have to take their turn now because of the salary cap. Unless of course they are rorting the salary cap.

TNM: And why the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles rugby league team?

TK: Well, I am a former “fibro” [a term describing both supporters and rugby league teams from the western suburbs of Sydney] and I moved to the northern beaches – as every fibro wants to – in 1972.

I had a daughter who was a sportie and I was a mate of [Sydney sports journalist and successful league coach] Roy Masters.

I didn’t want to follow Manly but she insisted we go and I got emotionally involved through her. And then the club committee noticed me on the hill so they invited me to sit with them one day and I behaved my backside off and ultimately became their No. 1 ticket holder, which is one of the highest states to which a humble Homo sapien can rise short of actually playing first grade rugby league (laughs).

TNM: And Wendy Harmer and the “Eagles Angels” do wonderful work…a remarkable expression of women’s power and influence in what could sometimes be very difficult circumstances…

TK: Yes, yes. And they are very maternal with the players. And Sarah Murdoch is also a member of the “Eagles Angels.”

TNM: This is the only serious question I have. You talked with Chris Hanley earlier about the failure of Australia as a country to reach an appropriate accommodation with indigenous people.

Do you have any thoughts about why we struggle with that issue and what we could do better?

TK: I’ve got no expert thoughts at all, but I thought that Fred Hollows’ statement that “I’m not a bloody missionary and when I start these eye clinics I’ll hand them over to the Aboriginal people to run.

I think one of the recipes might lie somewhere in there because we’ve been making up our minds and making mistakes…in good-will…even the Stolen Generation was a good-will mistake.

That didn’t mean that it shouldn’t be apologised for but it was done by people, however brutally, by people who thought they were doing good. There were far more naked uses of power on the frontier, the use of the Mounted Native Police in far north Queensland and the Northern Territory.

The other thing I wonder about is if I’d been an arse-out-the-trousers Scot or Irish or Englishmen that went to the Victorian western districts in 1840 and had a bit of capital and was able to occupy as much land as I had stock for – and then my stock started to be speared. What would I have done?

Particularly given the 19th century obsession with stock. In the wild-west they used to hang the cattle rustlers without trial. And we shot the Aboriginals without trial on similar grounds.

TNM: Chris Hanley asked you before about your “fascinations.” What are you currently fascinated with?

TK: At the moment I’m doing Volume two of my three volume history of Australia. I’m certainly fascinated by the damage that World War One did so instead of recounting the battles, I’ve recounted the damage…which comes home and continues right after the war and into the Depression.

I’m also working on a book about World War One nurses. So the two are well connected.

TNM: My last question. Where do we go when are dead?

TK: Certainly we know that we go into the genes of our descendants and we hope that we contribute something to the species that way. But if we go anywhere I think it is unspeakable because we can’t imagine anything that is not in terms of person.

And the great terror of death is the loss of person-hood. We are very ambiguous about who we are but…and sometimes we hate ourselves. But when it comes down to it we don’t want to lose it unless we become suicides, when we’ve chosen to lose it.

And the loss of person-hood…person as a category from this world…but from the world of infinity and eternity that world its categories are unimaginable.

So if there is something we go to its indefinable and unutterable and unknowable. And thats scary as as the big blankness. So sometimes I think it is the big blankness, sometimes I think it is the indefinable.

TNM: Is that why we have heavens and paradises?

TK: Oh, sure – if it were not mortality. One of the things that interests me is our lack of belief in our own death. If we really believed in our own death we wouldn’t do anything, we’d be immobilised.

Particularly at my age. You’d be in constant fear and dreading the moment but some chemical imbues us with a sense of immortality. And then we get the shock.