“How many famous people die in a normal year, Dad?” That’s what the 11-year-old asked me this week when I mentioned pop star George Michael had died. I didn’t know the answer. He guessed six, which was kind of sweet. It has been that kind of year, from David Bowie to Carrie Fisher. My son perhaps hears about it more than most kids because I work in the media, where deaths are part of the daily record. The obituary should note the death and, bad seeds apart, respect the life that was lived.
Newspapers like to have a collection of pre-written obituaries, ready to go into print when the time comes. This year saw an unusual example of that habit when the Irish writer William Trevor died in November, aged 88. The obit in The Guardian was by the London-based Australian poet Peter Porter, who had died six years earlier. It was a beautiful celebration of Trevor’s life and work, but it still felt a bit weird to be reading, in a daily newspaper, a dead poet writing about a just-deceased writer.
Anyway, death is not what I sat down to write about. I want to write about the living. In recent months I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, talk to by phone, or correspond with well-known writers of a certain vintage. I like to keep them in mind as we approach the end of this difficult year, to think how much I value them and their work. I’m writing a few days before New Year’s Eve, so anything could happen to anyone before these words are in print, but even so I want to end 2016 thinking about the living, starting with Alex Miller, who turned 80 on Tuesday.
I recently spent a lovely day with Alex and his wife Stephanie at their home in Castlemaine, Victoria. I wrote about it in this newspaper on Tuesday, to mark the milestone birthday of the dual Miles Franklin Award winner. Alex said something that stuck hard, not least because it cohered thoughts I’d been having myself. Nodding to Marcel Proust, he said people of his age were in “time regained”, a period where the obsessions, thrills, disappointments and angers of youth seemed trivial. He is a fine writer — with a new novel coming — and a gentleman. I’d like to grow up to be more like him.
I had a pleasant dinner not long ago with David Malouf, who is 82. He is charming and wise. I went on a bit of a rave about his brilliant 2009 novel Ransom, which reimagines parts of The Illiad, not being eligible for the Miles Franklin. He did have some interesting thoughts on the matter but rave he did not. Homer may have written, perplexingly, about a wine-dark sea but Malouf is an ocean of calm. Now, that’s not a description I’d use for the exuberant Tom Keneally, who is 81. I spent a day with him some weeks ago at his home in the Sydney beachside suburb of Manly. He’s fit and well — so much so he took me on a lively tour of the nearby cemetery — and continuing to do what he’s done for more than 50 years: write good books. Keneally has a couple of Miles Franklins, but not as many as David Ireland, who will turn 90 in August. I like to call him up now and then just to chat, and to know he’s still going. I do the same, via email, with the ill Clive James, who is 77. I’ve also liked recent emails with historian Geoffrey Blainey, who is 86. He’s so polite.
I know I haven’t mentioned female writers here. Sadly, two who I had some contact with, Inga Clendinnen and Shirley Hazzard, did die this year, along with youngers ones such as Gillian Mears. And others who I email from time to time, Helen Garner, say, are not being put in the 80-plus “certain vintage” category! Nor is Carmel Bird, a much-deserving winner of the Patrick White Award. I’ve met Elizabeth Harrower, who is 88, only once and she was delightful. Let’s hope for more books from all of these superb living writers.
Happy new year to all readers. Your engagement with these pages is a pleasure. I will be taking a few weeks off in January but the Claws resolve to clack again in February.