THE ART OF BIOGRAPHY
Three personal rules of writing
Ihad a call one afternoon in 1988. Patrick White had collapsed and they needed a hand at Martin Road. I rushed over and found the whole household mustered in his attic bedroom. It looked like a stroke. For the umpteenth time in their lives together, Manoly Lascaris had packed White’s bag for a dash to hospital. The ambulance was on its way. White lay silent. He had shrunk in the past few days. His hand gripping the blanket was a knot of bones and veins. His teeth were out. Once or twice he murmured in a soft, clear voice, “Oh dear.” Birds were making a racket in the garden. The smell of jasmine filled the room. It was a perfect spring afternoon.
I’d come very close to this man over four or five years working on his biography. He was growing impatient. “When are you ever going to finish that fucking book?” he would yell down the phone. I was nearly done and now, as far as I could see, he was dying.
I was poleaxed. But I was already wondering how this would be written. One thing I knew for certain: I would not be there, a figure sobbing in the corner. This scene belonged to a dying man, Manoly and the sweet angels of the ambulance service, led by a stocky New Zealander called Wendy who strode into the attic asking the perfect question: “What’s the story?”
Behind her came a big bloke called Troy who held Patrick’s wrist very gently to take his pulse. They didn’t hurry. Everything was calm and orderly. When they were ready they lifted Patrick between them in a boatswain’s chair to carry him down the narrow, twisting stairs.
This is what I wrote:
He was breathing very heavily and his arms kept dropping. Wendy said, “No, Patrick, mate, hold me ’round the shoulders.” They gave him a spell at the head of the stairs and then began to manoeuvre him down, pausing to rest every few steps. It took five minutes, perhaps more, for them to reach the hall. The back door was unbolted and in the light that streamed into the house White looked like a sack of bones, his face was blank but his eyes were full of fear. They carried him through the garden and down to the ambulance waiting in the lane.