This paper was presented by Leonie Star on 21 May 2014 at an ‘Open Forum’ event organised by the NSW Chapter of ISAA.
What lies behind a book? This topic will be examined through a relatively limited prism, omitting fiction and that majority of substantial and essential works written by academics to further knowledge in specific areas. So I am left with those intriguing publications that are non-fiction and spring from motives other than the purely educational.
Factors that may stimulate a writer to create such a book include: love of the subject (or hatred of it, according to one eminent English biographer); a desire to reform or have a say in current controversies; bad and good luck, even boredom. Ideas suggested by others sometimes motivate, although in my case the occasions where I have acted on others’ suggestions have had less than impressive results.
Underlying these spurs to action lie two basic requirements. There must be sustained interest in the topic, enough to support the writer through the flat and tedious days where writing does not come easily and nothing seems to flow. Of equal importance is basic curiosity. This motivates a love of research, which need not be scholarly but includes a desire for information about and thorough examination of all manner of things. Without research, non-fiction of the kind I am describing would not exist.
The incentives lying behind my various books will shape this talk. Not unusually, my first serious writing was for an academic purpose. In 1969 I enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of New Brunswick and spent the next five years immersed in Elizabethan Theatre studies. My supervisor was a relatively erudite man whose chronic alcoholism intruded into my progress only intermittently. On sabbatical leave in Oxford in the late 1960s, he was peeved when, at precisely 2.40 pm, he was thrown out of a cosy pub where he had imbibed a mainly liquid lunch. This unfriendly act was a direct result of the contemporary restrictive liquor laws.
So, on the streets of Oxford at 2.41 pm, with no respite until hours later, he meandered into the library of Worcester College. There he found himself the recipient of abundant good luck. He unearthed previously undiscovered Inigo Jones architectural plans for the restructure of the Cockpit-in-Court, a multi-purpose building within the grounds of Whitehall Palace. As a result of my supervisor’s generosity I, rather than he, researched and wrote a detailed history of this theatre based on Jones’s amazingly preserved plans. My introduction to extensive research over several interlocking fields, bolstered by intense interest in what was then an emerging area of English studies, was an excellent apprenticeship.
Events, including obtaining a law degree, occurred in relatively quick succession in the next few years. By 1983 I was writing legal material for a commercial company. Then bad luck kicked in. I was diagnosed with an illness that prevented me from sustaining a full-time job. And I was simultaneously hit with another major whammy – intense boredom.
To keep some hold on sanity I took several courses through the Sydney University Extension Board, where good luck starting cancelling out the bad. One course was given by the formidable Barbara Thiering, whose unique analysis of the Christian gospels fascinated me. My association with Dr Thiering took me on a very exciting journey, assisting in the filming in Israel of a documentary for the ABC. The intellectual stimulation provided prompted me to write my first non-academic work. Here her provocative conclusions were presented in an accessible format, bolstered by a close enquiry into some of the hundreds of letters she received after the documentary was broadcast.
But the event that really cemented my new direction was the death of my most revered law lecturer, Professor Julius Stone. He was a brilliant thinker, vastly underestimated in Australian legal history and as yet unheralded. I remain a staunch follower of his then controversial jurisprudence and wanted to examine this within the context of his life. To outmanoeuvre another lawyer I approached Stone’s widow Reca, herself of formidable mental capacity. She extended a typically warm Jewish welcome: ‘Darling, of course you can write Jules’s biography – come and see me tomorrow.’
Writing this work changed my life. I was thoroughly challenged. Stone’s written works, comprising over a hundred publications, are notoriously complex. There was no supervisor to go to for support, no structure to what I wrote except what I devised myself and no help in establishing filters for the enormous amount of data I had to deal with. My premise was to present Stone’s ground-breaking theories about jurisprudence so that intelligent non-lawyers would both understand them and realise their importance in establishing equity in legal systems. Research into Stone’s law and life was undertaken on four continents in major university and public libraries, and also involved interviews with the academic and practising legal elite, politicians, family members, secretaries and anyone who might give me an insight into my subject. I moved to Canberra for six months as Visiting Fellow in the History of Ideas Unit at the Australian National University, in order to read every page of every document housed in 436 archive boxes in the Julius Stone Collection at the National Library. I ended up awash with material.
Some lighter incidents occurred. The then prime minister crawled behind his desk to plug in my tape recorder, then turned it off so that he could gossip with me off the record – a useless interview as it turned out. The High Court judge I most revere also ended up on his knees, mopping up the tea I had just spilled all over his beautiful Indian carpet. Unexpectedly he has become a supporter. The Stone biography, for the many avenues it opened up for me and the steep learning curve it took me on, is the first ‘book of my heart’.
I was hooked on writing. I love planning the interlocking personal and professional themes in a person’s life. Unfortunately I was thwarted from undertaking a second biography when my proposed subject, an eminent Australian woman, told me she was not ready to have the story of her life written by anyone. The editor of the Stone book, in my opinion a far better poet than editor, then suggested that I write a history of the Family Court for its 20th anniversary. Having been divorced in New Brunswick under a law so archaic it was laughable, I was drawn to the innovative and humanitarian Australian legislation introduced by Lionel Murphy in 1975. My basic interest in that area of law was strong and remains so and I enjoyed the research, although reduced almost to tears reading the written testimonials housed in the Court’s archives. However, the book was not a commercial success. The suggestion that I had blindly acted upon failed so what did I do next? I fell for another one. A family friend going through a divorce found the intricate and confusing rules of practice that had built up over twenty years hard to fathom. He suggested a ‘How To’ book for litigants on negotiating their way through the labyrinth. Taking up this challenge was a particularly bad decision as I know little about the practice of law and had to muddle my way through with the constant help of a current practitioner.
Another book was totally different. The catalyst this time was a gap in currently available knowledge. I am one of a small group of people who, though having been born with two hips, have had four hip replacements. My first was before the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of helpful manuals so prevalent today. This was a time when surgeons, in particular my surgeon, told the patient absolutely nothing about the procedure. And I was too naïve to ask, ending up bewildered and totally unprepared. Due for my second replacement two years later, I decided to research my own experiences for a book written to enlighten other people going through this operation. I took a notebook into hospital and recorded in detail every single event, to the extent that one entry, made on a Saturday, a thin day in the weekly hospital routine, records that absolutely nothing happened. I sold more copies of this book, Hip Replacement: A Consumer’s Guide, than of any other I have written. So much for the life of the mind!
I then wrote a memoir of a mentor, Dr Margaret Mulvey. She deserved to be memorialised, not only for the way her practice of medicine was in advance of the times but also for her devotion to the cause of furthering women’s education. She was above all a practical woman who did not leave behind a body of written articles, thus precluding a full-scale biography. The memoir incorporated a social history of New South Wales and in particular of medical Sydney during her long life. It also provided an appropriate context for me to commit to paper my impressions of the Women’s College in the 1970s, when I was Principal. In writing both the Stone biography and the memoir, love and admiration for my subjects was a significant motivating factor.
I have finally come to the other ‘book of my heart’, my latest, on England’s ethnic cleansing of the Jews. While researching Stone, I came across a single sentence alluding to this event. I was appalled. This stunning but little known story was crying out to be brought to the notice of the general public, both Jewish and non-Jewish. I have been obsessed with the topic ever since, although it took me years to build up the courage to write about it. The subject matter is immense, involving English as well as European medieval history, competing religious tensions between Christians and Jews and the foundations of the modern British economy. Again the research component was widespread, and for practical reasons had to be carried out mainly in Australia from secondary sources. However I believe the book fulfils its promise as it is designed for the non-specialist, I make no claim to breaking new ground and have scrupulously acknowledged the work of scholars in the field.
What a quarter of a century of focussed interest and research have taught me is that I cannot function without having a book in progress. At the moment I am compiling the history of my mother’s family, starting with information from the 1830s from the Family Records Office in London and the Lloyds Business lists in the New South Wales State Library.
What does the writer get out of the exercise? The reward is when you hold the paper offspring in your hands. It does not matter whether you sell hundreds of copies or a single one. The satisfaction, even joy, is ultimately based on the knowledge of a well-completed research project and parallels the comfort that reading brings to the committed bibliophile. I can best describe it by quoting from Cecil Roth’s book, A History of the Jews. I should preface this by telling you that when I read it to my daughter recently I burst into tears. She strongly suggested that I leave it out. In ignoring her, my usual stance when my children give me advice, I hope that you will be considerate if the recitation gets a bit watery:
"So for generation after generation, the wits of the Jew were sharpened by continuous exercise from earliest youth upon the Talmudic dialectic. But the Talmud [the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law] meant much more to him than this. It brought him another world, vivid, calm and peaceful, after the continuous humiliation of ordinary existence. It provided him with a second life, so different from the sordid round of everyday. After each successive outbreak was stilled, and the shouting of the mob had died down, he crept back to the ruins of his home, and put away his Jewish badge of shame, and set himself to pore again over the yellowed pages. He was transported back into the Babylonian schools of a thousand years before, and there his troubled soul found rest." (Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews, Schocken Books Inc., New York, 1961, p.205.)