The Short Story
After a lifetime working in the book business (mostly educational publishing) I now concentrate on my writing. The focus in my fiction and non-fiction writing is on social, political and religious themes.
One of my most exhilarating and formative experiences was living in Holland for two and a half years. On returning to Australia, I resumed my studies, completed a major in Dutch Language and Literature at Melbourne University and then transferred to La Trobe University where I studied through to a master’s degree in philosophy. My studies and immersion in another culture and language, together with my Catholic faith, form the biggest influences on my writing. But shaping those influences are my mother and father. One could not have wished for better or more principled parents.
My master’s thesis was on Edmund Burke whose thought enters my writing in one way or another. My preoccupations are social and cultural from a Catholic and (Burkean) conservative point of view. This reflects my acceptance of the Catholic idea of the reciprocal relationship between faith and reason.
My favourite fiction authors are Dickens, Austen, and Waugh. Evelyn Waugh’s style and mastery of English have been my biggest influence – not in vain, I hope. My favourite modern non-fiction author is philosopher Roger Scruton. I spend my leisure time reading and occasionally walking along the nearby shores of Port Phillip Bay. I love opera, musicals, and the ballet (The Nutcracker is my favourite.) I enjoy fifties rock ‘n’ roll, forties big band and the American songbook. Mozart is my favourite classical composer but I am acquiring a liking for Bach.
Bringing all the influences together on my fiction writing, I would describe the genre of my novels as ‘the Catholic novel’. (See The Catholic Novel page.)
The longer Story
Admitting you’re ‘still in the fifties’ to a particular class of people is like saying you’ve been in jail for the average person, with the difference that the disqualification from the first group would be irredeemable. Luckily, that does not worry me .
To boast that one is still in the fifties is of course not to entertain some grandiose idea of transporting our Western Society in some sort of Star Trek mechanism back through time. There is no beaming us back in that sense – to state the obvious. But there is the ethos of the 1950s – an outlook that still exists, even if only as an ideal for some people who (mistakenly) think it lost forever. It is that framework of manners, law, custom, convention, (Christian) religion, morals, politics and the intellectually undefinable that my mind is rooted in and is far more than an abstract ideal. As manners and custom can be rejected, they can always be accepted again, regardless of the time.
Saying I am still in the fifties is a satirical (even provocative) way of saying I am in that stream of Western Civilization that has come through from the British Isles to that land mass now called Australia. Australia is a unique form of that stream.
That framework governs all my writing. All my writing (fiction and non-fiction) is about that great rupture in Western Society which occurred around 1970. My books are all connected by this theme.
It seems readers like to know something about the author of the books they like. Some, I am assured, want to know something about the author whose books and attitudes they hate. As my books likely fall into both groups, I provide here a brief biography that will give some clue as to why I did not modernise as most of my peers did.
I was born in 1946 to devout Catholic parents and named after the patron saint of pregnant mothers, St Gerard Majella. It never occurred to me to ask my mother if there was any story behind that. A difficult pregnancy? It’s too late now.
Except for two arriving on the First Fleet in 1788, all my ancestors came to Australia in the early 1800s, none later than great-great-grandparents. Most were from different parts of England. There were three Irish great-great-grandparents and two Scottish great-grandparents x 3, the Protestant Burgesses, husband and wife with their two children from Aberdeen. They were free settlers, literate people with elevated ideas of how one should behave. They exercised a significant influence on my mother’s family line, and consequently on our family.
Among my original Australian ancestors from the British Isles I have found nine convicts, all of whom made good, one with suitable irony becoming a judge’s tipstaff or law clerk. Convict labour and perseverance often in harsh circumstances formed the backbone of Australian colonial society and was determining in the culture that developed. Knowledge of my ancestral background, particularly of the convict element, has exercised a profound influence on my self-perception (see Prison Hulk to Redemption).
My childhood in Lane Cove, an inner suburb of Sydney, was idyllic. My father, a World War II veteran and the most principled man I have known, was hard working, having only the family welfare in view. My mother similarly gave her all to the care and organization of the family which included six children. In the 1960s, my parents took on the care of a state ward which brought the final count to seven children. We were far from wealthy, but it seems that looking back we had all that a family in the fifties could have expected. Apart from never ever receiving a ‘pump-up-tyre’ scooter for Christmas (a present every 1950s boy would have walked through flames for) I was never conscious of being deprived. How could I? My childhood now appears as one long sunny summer of endless innocent activities with my brothers and sisters and the neighbourhood kids, particularly with my life-long best mate, Pete, who lived two doors up the street. The reminiscences of those times are the subject of parts three and four of my family history (see my books page).
My school education was in Catholic schools of religious orders. I owe an enormous debt to those religious nuns, brothers and priests who provided me with an excellent education. The majority of those religious were conscientious and dedicated people of outstanding character. I can remember in all those years only one occasion when the conduct of a religious brother was reprehensible, an account of which I will give in my childhood memoir.
Despite a fun-filled trouble-free family life and the example of a caring mother and father, and despite my good education, I arrived at Sydney University in 1964 with a teaching scholarship and, alas, a regrettable immaturity. To demonstrate the pitiful orientation of my mind, I went about making a complete mess of my studies, and just about every other responsibility an eighteen-year-old carried. But it was not left-wing politics that had me in its thrall, causing me to erupt obnoxiously – as one may be inclined to think, considering the times. Just ordinary teenage immaturity.
As green and callow as I was, though, I was not beyond being impressed by the nastiness, hypocrisy and ideological bigotry of the sixties radicals – and I saw them close-up. It was the first indication I was sadly out of step with my contemporaries, reflections of which would make their mark in my first two novels almost forty years later.
Nor was I beyond recognizing the futility of pursuing my studies while I could not organize myself. I discontinued university studies without having a clear idea of what I was doing or where I was going. In this spirit, I wandered until December 1968 when I met a Dutch girl who had recently arrived in Australia on a working holiday. My mother said Ineke was the answer to her prayers.
A year later we married, and another year later we set off for Holland without any plans of how long we would stay there. The immersion in a different culture and different language was exhilarating. (See My Holland Experience page.) Again, reflections on what I experienced and learned in Holland would appear in the same two novels. Despite the intellectual and cultural invigoration of living in another country, I decided with two children now on the scene we would be better off in Australia. This was another life-changing decision.
On our return to Australia, I could not land a job in the airline business where I had been working. It was January 1974, and there was a worldwide fuel crisis, the result of the Arab states withholding their oil. I was forced to look around for temporary work and in a short time found myself on the short list for three representative positions with educational publishers. I took the first position offered and found after a mere six weeks that Providence had led me into work that my education, ability, and interests made just about an exact fit for me.
A couple of years later (1976) I returned to part-time university study. My major studies were first Dutch Language and Literature and then philosophy. I ended up studying through to an MA in philosophy. The title of my master’s thesis was Natural Law Conservatism: The Epistemological Foundations of the Political Philosophy of Edmund Burke. I am slowly revising and updating this work under the title of Edmund Burke: Knowing and Reasoning in Politics.
About halfway through my secondary school days, I began scribbling – both fiction and non-fiction. A big influence was my English teacher, Fr Timothy Kelly, who until he died surely had no idea that his enthusiastic classes on the novel exercised such a decisive influence on me.
I remember commenting to friends in 1964 that I wanted to be a novelist but would have to have broad experience in life before I could begin writing. Around forty years of age, I said, would be a good time to retreat to the garret, trim the oil lamp and sharpen the quill (excuse the clichés) – a feeble excuse to prevaricate, which I was good at in those years. As it turned out, I eventually summoned up the self-discipline and sat down to write in 1982 when I was thirty-six. The feelings had been building for a long time, and my head was full of thoughts that had to be got out. I had scribbled around 350 foolscap pages before I decided I had written a lot of rubbish. There was something missing. I needed to clarify my thoughts in a moral and political sense. It was then that I switched from literary studies to philosophy. Another crucial decision.
I was entranced by the texts of the great philosophers: Descartes, Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, and others. Nevertheless, there was something unsatisfying about it all. I found myself in an intellectual dead-end of scepticism and moral relativism, both in contradiction of my faith – yes, miraculously I retained my faith which for me makes sense of the world – and of the everyday reasoning of ordinary people. The rabid lefties around me raged against the oppression of bourgeois capitalist society. They could not think their rage meaningless. The philosophy lecturer who hammered the scepticism angle appeared oblivious to the fact that he arrived promptly at the right time in the correct lecture room after never doubting the multiple true decisions he daily made from leaving home until he arrived at his intended destination. Enter another person who had a decisive influence on my intellectual development.
Professor John McCloskey of La Trobe University’s philosophy department took pity on my struggle against the intellectual tide and suggested some fruitful avenues of reading. Among others, I was introduced to the writings of one of the 20th century’s great political philosophers, Michael Oakeshott. His essay Rationalism In Politics gave me the clue. Modern philosophy had got is all wrong, I decided, the method of rationalism being the culprit. For me, there was a short step from Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism to Edmund Burke, father of modern conservative thought.
Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, which amounted to an attack on the mode of reasoning of the French radicals, was convincing. And I aimed in my thesis to show just that. On the way, I was introduced to the great tradition of classical realism and was led back through Hooker, the scholastics (the greatest of whom was Aquinas) to Augustine and to the source, Aristotle. Intellectually I was home.
With my thoughts clarified, particularly about the different modes of knowledge a person relies on depending on the field, and the harmony between faith and reason strengthened, I returned to my writing. But it was to non-fiction that I turned. I wrote two books on the media (The Media of the Republic and The Telecard Affair: A Diary of a Media Lynching). These two books were an application of the themes in my thesis on Burke. They received good reviews, particularly the first. With these two non-fiction books completed, I told myself it was time to get serious and return to my first love: the novel. My favourite novelists – and the biggest influence on my writing – are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Evelyn Waugh. My twelve favourite novels are here (I hate the soulless metric system).
I threw out the 350 pages of rubbish and began anew. The story that had been floating around in my head for twenty years very quickly became an idea for a trilogy of novels. The first two books, The Castle of Heavenly Bliss and In This Vale of Tears received favourable reviews and an enthusiastic response from most readers (see the ‘books’ page for comments and reviews). I am continually asked when I am going to finish and publish the third book in the trilogy (it’s coming).
Update: I have re-organised the Winterbine series. The plan is for two more novels in a tetralogy (see My Books page).
My third novel, Seeking the Divine Spark: A Satire in the Style of Evelyn Waugh, was different from the other two novels. I rewrote, reorganised and expanded this novel under the title THE WITCH HUNTERS. It is a satire and much shorter in length.
I am a little undisciplined as a writer. I have no trouble sitting down to the writing task. In fact, I love the process of writing with a cup of coffee not far from the keyboard. I occasionally have trouble remaining with the one idea. Presently I have a number of works in different stages: two family history titles (I have just released the second); a revised Edmund Burke: Knowing and Reasoning in Politics; a novel (Editing Constancy), a modern version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion; and Times of Distress, Book One of the Winterbine series. Fortunately, I do stay with the task.
This year I released two books, Tony Abbott and the Times of Revolution, available on Amazon in ebook and paperback, and on Smashwords in ebook format, and the second family history title War Depression War, available at this stage in ebook format on Amazon and Smashwords.
I am around two-thirds of the way through TIMES OF DISTRESS (see My Books page). I should stick have the manuscript ready by April 2020.
Updated November 2019
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The featured photo is of the Lane Cove gang taken in December 1949. From left to right: John and Christine Allison, Michael Wilson, Peter Allison, me, and Marie Wilson holding Narelle Wilson. The Lane Cove gang will feature in the third and fourth books of my family history series.