2016 / Sunday

To hear the real stories you’ve got to really listen

May Rizk

Martin Flanagan: listening is a survival skill

Martin Flanagan: listening is a survival skill

Martin Flanagan, author of 16 books and a regular columnist for The Age, urged the crowd to listen: he said listening has enriched his life and became an essential part of it, a “survival skill” in fact. He was speaking from the Curiosity Stage at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

“I grew up in a culture that was very silent, where nothing said really interested me,” he said. The only thing that did interest him was sports: “It was the only culture that made sense to me and I listened with an enormous appetite. I think I always had a hunger for listening; I just found it so satisfying, and if you want to hear the real stories people got to tell you, you’ve got to listen.”

Although he came from a family interested in history, the past was shrouded in silence. No one spoke about the family’s convict ancestors buried in his hometown of Longford in Tasmania, or about the Aboriginal people who came before them. “We don’t know them as people. The past is not merely hidden in the place where I grew; it’s taboo.”

Going back to his childhood, he remembers the drumming of water filling a bathtub, his father taking a call on the telephone in the hallway outside his bedroom, and listening to waves that broke like thunderous ovations. They were some of is favourite sounds. “Back then, I wasn’t aware of listening, I didn’t listen hard, I listened easy,” he said.

At the age of 14, Martin escaped his boarding school and hitchhiked 350km from Burnie to Hobart. Being caught truanting was a serious matter, and cost him six strokes of the cane. Regardless, he took the risk. “I discovered the world outside and tasted its excitements.”  He continued listening and travelling over the next decade both in Australia and overseas.

Being told stories made him feel calm, happy and content, he said. It was a privilege to him and he learnt that if he was quiet enough, “quiet as a tree, people will camp beneath your branches and tell you stories you would never otherwise hear”.

After graduating from law school, Martin worked for two years in welfare. He often visited Hobart prison where he met criminals, many of whom he thought were honest. He wandered the world for a couple of years and came back and got a job in a newspaper. He recalled the day before he started his job, his father told him that he would soon find a soul mate. And he did find one. He was a schizophrenic photographer and is still his mate: “I’ve learned a lot listening to him.”

The veteran journalist said writing for a newspaper meant speaking a common language. One of most serious criticism he ever received was from an ‘old bloke’ while he was writing for the Launceston Examiner. The man told him, “I like what you write but I didn’t understand that one you wrote today. I’m not educated like you”.

Listening, to Flanagan, means hearing what is said, what isn’t said and the way the words are spoken. “I want to write stories that last,” said Mr. Flanagan.

He said journalism was about being aware – aware of the United States refugee-blocking wall, aware of the death of another civilian in Syria. It was a reality he couldn’t escape, and the only way to stay sane was through listening to people’s stories, “the ones that tell you what makes them laugh, what makes them cry and what gets them through the night.”

Martin talked about writing The Short Long Book, his biography/meditation on the life of former Essendon player and man of few words, Michael Long. “Michael is a great listener, being with him was like being out in the bush at night, the quiet spreads up to the sky,” he said. “The thing about Aboriginal people is that they’ve got soul.”

For the past two years Martin Flanagan has been travelling the world: he discovered there is a “universal language of the heart; the Aboriginal Australians would share that with me”. And he ended his address by telling the audience he often talks to his dead parents. Michael Long had told him “the stupidest thing people say is you can’t speak to the dead”.

Martin Flanagan’s words will be part of ‘On Listening’, the first publishing collaboration between Penguin and the Sydney Writer’s Festival.