Talking under water: a professional requirement

Saskia Tillers

Broadcaster Richard Glover: always up for a challenge. Picture by Marco de Grande

Broadcaster Richard Glover: always up for a challenge. Picture by Marco de Grande

Talking under water: a professional requirement

“I was interested in writing from as early as I can remember; lots of terrible adolescent poetry and early attempts at plays and musicals. Best left in the drawer, I think!”

At 56, Richard Glover’s skin is smooth and free of wrinkles, save for the myriad fine lines next to his eyes that appear when he smiles – the mark of a life lived happily. A keen and shrewd observer of contemporary human existence, he manages to illuminate the comedic aspects of everyday life.

“In my stories, the aim is not actually to write about the peculiarities of our family. Rather, the impulse is to try and pick the things that will get a snort of recognition from the readers, the parts of our lives that intersect with other people’s lives.

“I think the best compliment you can get about a column is when people say that it felt exactly like I had a tape recorder in their car,” Richard says.

He uses his right hand to gesticulate while he speaks, whipping the air and upsetting the gold-rimmed glasses that hang from a cord around his neck. Articulate and effortlessly funny, Richard Glover seems made for a career in storytelling.

In 2004, he was given the Broadcaster of the Year Award for ABC Local Radio, having hosted the afternoon Drive program on 702 ABC Sydney since 1996.

“Radio is gloriously chaotic and yet it has moments of transcendence when the right person rings up and an amazing thing happens on air. It has a power occasionally that can last a lifetime in the ears of the listeners.

“Of course, the trouble is that because it is genuinely live and genuinely unpolishable, these transcendent moments are separated by moments where it doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped, and it is boring and you’ve asked the wrong question or you’ve talked too much, or you’ve talked too little and there’s no going back.

“So it’s an imperfect medium but an exciting one. You’re left in this state of failure or of exultation depending on how it has gone. Whereas, I don’t think writing is like that.”

With such a love for the medium of radio, it may come as no surprise that in 2013 Richard set himself a rather unconventional radio challenge.

He says he got an idea out of the fact his father ran a newspaper in Papua New Guinea called The South Pacific Post, which got into the 1965 Guinness Book of World Records for being ‘The Most Smoked Newspaper in the World. The locals bought the paper for the sole purpose of using the pages to roll cigarettes.

In an effort to keep family tradition alive, Richard began thinking about how he could join his father in the coveted ranks of the Guinness Book of World Records.

“I’ve listened to Peter FitzSimons on the radio for years and noted his amazing ability to talk under water and so I looked up the record for the world’s longest interview and it was 16 hours held by somebody in Spain. I though ‘Pfft, Peter and I can take that on!’”

After 24 hours of non-stop conversation broadcast live on ABC digital radio, exhausted but jubilant, the pair succeeded in their feat.

“I was absolutely shattered and Peter said ‘Let’s go another 24!’ He was entirely undaunted.”

Richard laughs and rolls his eyes. “And, of course, whenever I try to boast to people about the achievement, everyone just says ‘With Peter? What did you have to say? Hello?!’”

And yet, while he is drawn to the world of radio, Richard is definitely not ready to put away his notebook and pen yet. With 13 books under his belt, as well as another to be released this September entitled Flesh Wounds, he’s really only getting started.

There is a youthfulness in the way he talks about writing, an enthusiasm and excitement that seems more usual in a young writer just beginning their career, compared to someone who has had his own immensely popular column in The Sydney Morning Herald for almost three decades.

“I do love the way that sometimes with good writing you can capture something quite wonderful. It’s like pinning a butterfly on a board. It could be beautiful, it could be sad, it could be funny, but you can find a form of words that capture something so perfectly and, in a sense, forever.”

His left leg jiggles unconsciously. On the polished wooden table in front of him sits the program for the Sydney Writers’ Festival. He’s come prepared. While he speaks, he fiddles with the staple that binds the newspaper together, twisting and pulling at it until he eventually dislodges the tortured wire.

Richard pauses. “And what’s so magical about it is that it’s really just this system of marks on paper, and yet when you read a perfect line of Shakespeare or Tolstoy or whoever, you think, ‘That is the most perfect expression of that particular notion about life’. And you can read Anna Karenina, and even though you’re from a totally different time and different place and even of a different gender, you can read it and feel these enormous waves of empathy reaching over this period of generations all from a series of marks on a page. It’s quite miraculous.“

When asked about how he finds being married to a fellow writer Debra Oswald, Richard seems genuinely amazed that this relationship dynamic could possibly cause any problems.

“I don’t quite understand people being jealous of their partners. I don’t know why you would be! You just think ‘Wow! I’ve got this girl! I must be pretty smart to be married to this one!’ I’ve always been incredibly proud of her success.

“We obviously read each other’s stuff and she helps me a lot. There’s always this moment where she reads my column and laughs and I think ‘Oh, that’s great!’ but then she says, ‘I was just laughing at your spelling’.”

He stretches his arms up towards his head and runs his hands absentmindedly through his silver-grey hair. He’s still sporting the George Clooney haircut to which he is a recent convert. It is the very haircut, in fact, that prompted the title story for his most recent book George Clooney’s Haircut and Other Cries for Help.

“I think that writing is really quite a difficult thing, and it should feel quite difficult. There’s a great quote from Thomas Mann, which is something like ‘Writing is a task for people who find writing difficult’. It should feel like you’re really reaching for something that is slightly beyond your own grasp.

“It does mean that you’re constantly quite keen to get up from the desk so the pain in your brain ceases for a moment. Debra and I do argue a lot about who gets to put out the washing or unpack the dishwasher. It’s quite good really, we have a very clean house!

“I always think, y’know it took Flaubert seven years to write Sentimental Education, but oh, you should have seen his shower recess by the end of it!”

Richard Glover appears with Rick Stein discussing ‘On life, Love and, Of Course, Food’, today, 4.30-5.30pm, Roslyn Packer Theatre.