First published

Doing this is like sitting naked in the bath while a television crew films you for the 'Today' show. A dreadful experience. So why do it? Vanity? It is an act of vanity, yes. But I must put in a plea of guilty with extenuating circumstances.

Heaven knows how many times I have thought about my great-grandfather John Dunstan, a tin miner who was born in Penryn, Cornwall, in 1833. He arrived in Adelaide with his wife, Nanny Collins, on 20 August 1854 aboard the William Prowse, and from there they proceeded overland to Ballarat. Almost certainly John Dunstan would have been at Eureka, but I know nothing of his life, not a thing about that huge adventure of leaving home for ever, sailing out to the new colonies, establishing a life at the diggings. Was he filled with fury over the injustices he found in the young colony? Did he and young Nanny have their triumphs? Did they turn up any gold? Who knows? There are no diaries, no letters. All gone.

Or what about another great-grandfather, Henry Mitchell, a miner also? He came from Brunswick, Germany, in 1855. In 1861 he married Harriet Ann Andrews of Portreath, Cornwall, at Brown's Diggings on 3 March. What a fascinating occasion that must have been. But I know practically nothing about them except that Great-grandfather Mitchell died young. Just ten years after his arrival in Australia he was riding from Scarsdale to Smythesdale near Ballarat when a dog frightened his horse. The Ballarat Star of 10 January 1885 described it as a 'yelping cur'. Henry fell, suffered a kick from his horse and died. How did Harriet Ann and their two children survive after that If only Harriet Ann had written something down.

Every family should have its own historian, biographer, diarist, someone to keep records of lives that may have seemed ordinary in 1850, 1880 or 1900, but are fascinating to us now. There is a modern craze for genealogy, a great desire to know about our ancestors, but most genealogists only uncover bare bones - births, deaths and marriages. We need to put humanity on those bones.

I believe lives are being eclipsed more completely than ever before. When I started in journalism obituaries were all-important. The newspaper's library had its 'dead' file, its morgue. Often there were moments late at night when the journalists appeared to be idle. It was then that the Chief of Staff would cast a searching eye around the reporters' room.

'What are you doing, Dunstan? What are you up to, Bennetts? Have you finished your last story, Tucker?'
'We're not doing anything, Mr Travis.'
'All right, I want obituaries on Mr Chifley, Thomas White and Dr Hurley.'

All three gentlemen were alive and apparently healthy, but it was the custom always to have obituaries of leading figures ready and waiting. That does not happen any more. These days eminent politicians would still get an obituary, but not middle-of-the-road successful citizens. Obituaries have gone out of fashion, and the majority of us live and die without our stories appearing in the newspapers. The best hope of having an obituary published is to have been a Test cricketer or to have played Australian Rules football.

The dearth of information extends further than that. Diaries are not as fashionable as they were in Boswell's day. We do not write letters any more, not the way Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son. We call on the telephone. Or, if we do write letters, we do not keep them in a box as Auntie once did, simply because we do not have the space. Letters are burned, shredded, put in the wastepaper bag for recycling.

So that is one excuse for writing this autobiography. As well, I plead forgiveness for indulgence because this story is designed to evoke an era, a time, a style that has now almost disappeared. We have lived through a period of moral, social and technological change that has been very nearly more rapid than any other in our history. At first it did not occur to me that school life in the 1930s could be interesting to those living in the 1990s, or that a Second World War career in which almost not a shot was fired in anger was worth recalling. For forty-five years I kept dark those events in which I contributed not a whit to the downfall of Hitler or even Emperor Hirohito. They were something to be ashamed of. Then I began to realise the events should be told because to another generation they would seem odd, indeed.

The suggestion for this autobiography came from my son, David, who has a very strong sense of history, and my publishers, but for fifteen years I avoided the idea, gave priority to countless other projects. Not now, next year. Oh yes, there will be more time next year. Only in 1989, while spending six weeks at Montisi in glorious Tuscany, did there seem to be a chance. No longer was there any excuse for escape.

The truth until then was this: an autobiography was too hard, and I had neither the skill nor the courage to write it. A good autobiography requires an honesty, an intensity of emotion, a readiness to reveal things that most of us really do not want to reveal. At least when one becomes older self-revelation is easier. Even self-humiliation causes no pain. But the mind can play many tricks. I found long ago, when writing books such as Wowsers, Ratbags and The Amber Nectar, that there is always a blend between fact and fantasy. I would take down many a loving memory on the tape recorder, then check the facts in newspapers and other records, only to discover the events never took place. An event can be created, nurtured and cherished with such passion that the creator believes it actually happened. In a mysterious, psychological way I suppose it almost did.

So an autobiographer must watch himself, be a stern examiner and strive for honesty. Two of the Australian autobiographies I most admire are Donald Horne's The Education of Young Donald and Xavier Herbert's Larger Than Life. Here there is no fear and one senses the truth.

After the writing there was the hunt to find the right title. 'A Fortunate Life' would have been ideal, but unfortunately it had already been taken. 'Tandem' I liked because for more than forty years my life has been in tandem with my wife, Marie Rose. We love tandem bicycling. The cyclist who rides number two on a tandem is known as the stoker. This life would have gone nowhere without Marie Rose as the stoker. Finally we went back to the words of my old science teacher, Charlie Cameron, who had tried valiantly to teach me the mysteries of chemistry and physics. One day in desperation he had said: 'Dunstan, you are stupid. You have no brains at all. But you do have guts'. There is something in that. Even if it does not require superior brain, just possibly it takes guts to write an autobiography.

Continue to chapter one: A nice suburb

The opening for his first book of memiors, 'No Brains At All'.

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