“The most important political event of my life was the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975,” says David Marr. “It taught me how ruthless, how daring, how unscrupulous the conservatives in this country can be in their pursuit of power. It’s been a guiding light for my entire career.”
On the day of Whitlam’s dismissal, David, then 28, was reporting for Australia’s weekly news magazine, The Bulletin. “A wonderful Canadian lady who worked there came around to my cubicle and said, ‘David, the Governor-General has just dismissed the Prime Minister’.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. It doesn’t work like that’. She said, ‘David, I think it has’. I said, ‘No, no, no. The governor-general can’t just dismiss the prime minister’. She said, ‘Oh David, I think it’s happened’.”
Lifting his hands in the air, as though still incredulous, David Marr says the event drove him to write his first book, Barwick (1980), a biography of Sir Garfield Barwick, the Chief Justice who advised Sir John Kerr that he could legally sack Whitlam.
“I had to understand how that man could have done what he did. I wanted to work it out for myself and explain it to others, which is the mechanism for all my big works of non-fiction.”
Since the Barwick biography, David has published seven books, including Patrick White: A Life (1991), The High Price of Heaven (2000), Dark Victory (2004) and The Henson Case (2008), as well as Quarterly essays on John Howard (2007), Kevin Rudd (2010), Tony Abbott (2012) and George Pell (2013).
As a journalist, he has worked for The National Times, Four Corners, Media Watch, Radio National’s Arts Today, The Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian Australia. He is now writing a Quarterly essay on Bill Shorten, to be published in September.
The year of Whitlam’s sacking was a catalyst, but David’s political inclinations had been incubating since childhood. His father, “a fine and adorable man” and “a good employer”, was, nonetheless, the owner of an engineering business and so he found himself at loggerheads with trade unions. And his “roughly left” leaning son was at loggerheads with his father, albeit “childishly and ludicrously”.
“My mother was a spectacular creature of middle-class brio and confidence and etiquette. She was very funny, very camp and a believer in doing the ‘right thing’. She was a contradictory woman,” he says.
Then came the self-realisation that he was gay. “There are two ways to deal with it. One is to accept it and get on with your life. The other, with the influence of a family who believes deeply in conventional behaviour, in not disturbing the neighbours, is to fight it. And I fought it. When it was all over, I was a questioner of society, with a deep interest in fairness and equality. And no tolerance at all for unnecessary cruelty, unnecessary censorship, unnecessary restriction. I was one of those young gay men whose sexuality led them to question the way society worked.”
David now lives in a rambling terrace in Newtown with his partner, Sebastian Torosiero. Outside, a camellia bush crowds the front yard, inside books and paintings crowd the walls. He writes daily, starting at dawn.
“My mind works best until about three in the afternoon. If I were more disciplined, I’d simply stop at that point. I keep reading this in the biographies of great writers, of real writers. Thomas Mann used to work for three-and-a-quarter hours and that was all. But I often sit there until 5.30, squeezing out three more sentences or making inappropriate rewrites. Overwriting can be a real problem. Fortunately, I have a wonderful editor at Quarterly, Chris Feik, who tends to send back my third or fourth draft, saying, ‘You have dis-improved this’.”
Most Wednesday mornings, David and Sebastian have breakfast at Deus, a friendly café, attached to the Deus Ex Machina motorbike store on Parramatta Road. “I always go with the intention of having something new and I always have the scrambled eggs and gravlax. I’m a prisoner of scrambled eggs and gravlax.”
And, contrary to accusations, David Marr never orders a latte. “Doesn’t it strike you as proof of how out of touch rampaging right-wingers are when they accuse people like me of latte sipping? When was the last time anybody of any pretension to political toughness or intellectual rigor drank latte?” He drinks macchiatos – and rarely more than two per day. “After that, everything gets exaggerated. If I’m hyperactive, I get more hyperactive. If I’m anxious, I get more anxious. It just pushes things a bit far.”
For those within earshot, that’s likely to mean even more listening than usual. David admits he can’t stop talking. “I do a lot of work by talking, endlessly, about what I’m writing. I’m grateful to my partner, my family, my friends, for the patience that they’ve shown, as I’ve gabbled on and on and on and on and on and on. I don’t think I talk in my sleep. I think that’s the one, merciful time for others, when I don’t talk. ‘Put him to sleep! Shut him up’.”
Despite having turned 67 in July, David is yet to feel the effects of age. “I don’t think there is an ‘old’ feeling,” he says. “I don’t have a sense of feeling differently about me, or the world, now than I did when I was 20. Except that I’m infinitely happier, while being perhaps a great deal less optimistic than I once was.”
Less optimistic? “I’m speaking mostly of the past 12 years, writing about Australia’s toxic response to refugees doing the absolutely ordinary thing of making their way to a country of refuge by sea. The politics of it just get worse. It really starts to test your faith in argument. Facts just have no traction. Yes, we’re being cruel to children. No traction. Yes, we’re denying people legal rights. No traction. Yes, we’ve broken our promises to the UN Convention. No traction.
“This country is going to look back on this with profound shame. I want to lessen that as much as possible by somehow bringing the people to their senses now. The longer it goes on, the more shameful it is.
“I want whoever looks back at this time to read my work and see that it is unequivocally right. Don’t you admire the early voices, whose clarity is undiminished all through the history of a cause?
“I want to be as clear at the end of this as I was at the beginning. Maybe that’s just vanity; I don’t know. But I hope it might achieve something.”
David Marr was in conversation with memoirist Alan Cumming yesterday at the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. He will speak with theatre critic and historian Katharine Brisbane on today, 4.30 to 5.30 pm at Wharf Theatre 2.