It was a wonderful evening – packed with ex-patriot Australians, a ‘token pom’ (as Winton described the lone British questioner), and me. He’d come from Australia to Waterstones at Trafalgar Square to speak about his new book, a collection of essays, entitled The Boy Behind the Curtain. The event was compered by Philip Hensher who has been a fan since a dozen people pressed a copy of Cloudstreet on to him on his first visit to Australia. Hensher has written an introduction to the Picador classic edition of Cloudstreet.
Tim Winton has always written, knowing that he wanted to be a writer even before he’d met one. It wasn’t a natural career path for a working-class boy from suburban Perth to pursue. But perhaps that helped him. Since nobody knew the precarious nature of the writing life, nobody knew to dissuade him from it.
A concerned member of the audience, a fellow West Australian, asked for advice for her son who is completing a science degree but who wants to be a writer … Winton acknowledged that in Australia it’s much harder to be a writer than it was when he was starting out.
Still, it wasn’t easy when he began in the late 70s. Winton explained that he didn’t have any contemporary colleagues for the first 15 years of his career. (In The Boy Behind the Curtain, he describes meeting Elizabeth Jolley when he was a student – she was at the beginning of her career but by then she was nearly 60 … But then everyone in Australia was writing in the shadow of the lone master Patrick White.) Editors in Sydney would ask for glossaries to explain West Australian phrases to those on the eastern seabord. A glossary for fellow Australians!
(As if the pressure to make it in the northern hemisphere – to travel, to be published, to be reviewed and win awards – wasn’t enough.)
Philip Hensher said that one of the pleasures of Winton’s work is the vicarious experience of animals and landscapes and activities that we will never undertake ourselves. Giving voice to these things is a gift. Hensher shared Martin Amis’s insight that we’ve never known what it’s really like to be in space because nobody who has done it has been able to write about it convincingly. We can know about bluebones and sousas, and believe in them, thanks to Winton. His ‘patch’ was unique and remains so.
All in all, for nearly 40 years, Winton has used his isolation – his life on ‘his patch’ – to his advantage. He has been able to write. And still does, if the weather’s bad and he can’t surf or dive or fish or chase wildlife away from his lettuces. He just writes – best in the mornings. But there’s been no plan to his career, it would seem. He made himself up as a writer as he went along.
But there’s been a big development. Writing about the natural world – which is the theme of many of the essays in The Boy Behind the Curtain – has emerged from the recent education which Winton has clearly delighted in. He is foremost an artist, and is proud of that – actually, modestly, he seems to be more proud of his readers for allowing creative lives to flourish – but has become aware of a need and ability to make an entirely different contribution to society. He’s become an environmental campaigner, devoting time and energy and money into protecting the world he loves.
Tim Winton learned about the world through William Blake and others, through his own writing, and now he’s learning more through the world of politics and campaigning and the kind of intense social interaction that isn’t the typical lot of a writer.
He says he’s been fortunate, these past four decades. We’re fortunate to have his books. Read him.
MY TOP THREE TIM WINTON TITLES: Dirt Music (which divides fans, I know, but I love it); The Riders; Breath.