Peter Costello

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Launch of "the Unexpected Elements of Love" by Kate Legge, Melbourne Museum, Carlton

LAUNCH OF
“THE UNEXPECTED ELEMENTS
OF LOVE”

BY KATE LEGGE

MELBOURNE MUSEUM
CARLTON

SUNDAY, 30 JULY 2006

Inside every AFL footballer there are three goals and a Norm Smith Medal to win the Premiership at a critical time. Inside every cricketer there is a century to turn an Ashes Series and to clinch the game for his country. Inside every MP is a glorious Prime Ministership waiting to get out if only they are given the chance. And inside every journalist is a great novelist, the great Australian novel yet to be written which will change the world as we know it.

The trouble is, that most journalists write their novels in their journalism. They invent a few anecdotes, they add a little bit of colour, they ascribe motives that aren’t necessarily there. And so I think it would be therapeutic for the media proprietors of Australia to demand every political journalist write their novel before giving them the job as a journalist rather than let them try and learn on the job.

Of course we know that Kate Legge, having now got this novel out of her system, will be one of the most reliable purveyors of political fact in Australia over the next decade.

Now this is a story of two families who are incidentally connected. One family has mother, father, two young children and they are coping with a hyperactive child who we know is going to be diagnosed with ADHD. There is another family a mother, a father and two adult children which are trying to come to grips with the odd behaviour of the father which we suspect is going to end in dementia.

But as in life, nothing is quite clear. The older man is a sculptor and an environmentalist. Such people are natural oddities. Is he really suffering the onset of dementia or is this just creative eccentricity. And the young boy who in this age will be the subject of diagnosis and medication, in another age would just have been accepted as a high spirited lad who gets up to high jinks. A little unusual like his aunt but not the subject of diagnosis and treatment. And our mother, the narrator of this story is filled with guilt about what she should do with their son. She wonders as follows:

“Maybe the wonder drug would have turned Cassie into the kind of girl who’s easier to love: not too greedy, or too careless, or too hasty. Janet’s head crackles as she argues with herself endlessly. One moment she is furious for bowing to those who favour medication – the teacher, the doctors, Nick. The next, she subdues her revulsion, willing to do whatever it takes to help her son. They tell Harry that the tablets are like wearing a pair of glasses – they’ll help him focus on the blackboard. No harm in the trial, she’d agreed; if she had refused and the unravelling had advanced, she’d be damned.”

And the older couple, it is also the wife and the mother that bears the responsibility and the guilt for looking after the man who she knows is sliding off in dementia. In this novel the men have the problems but women bear the guilt and the responsibility for dealing with them, just like life you might say to yourself.

Of course if you know the author and her family you will think you can recognise some of the characters especially the steady, caring, gracious husband.

This is a trap – novelists don’t set out to write about themselves. However like us, they are all a product of their own experiences and emotions – experiences and emotions that they have led to (inaudible) much like a political journalist would have. The question that our generation, the post-war generation, is going to have to come to grips with is represented in this novel. The problems with our children, the problems with our parents. Our parents are living longer, they have much better physical health and medical care. Because they are living longer we will have a higher incidence of dementia and the families of today are feeling squeezed between those generations.

But it is going to get worse, the post-war generation – our generation – will live longer still and we will suffer high rates of dementia yet again. But we will have fewer children who can take responsibility for our care. We are coming up to a great generational crunch.

Now at this point I would normally launch into a spirited speech on the fertility rate, the ageing of the population, the need to fund the great generational crunch but you have heard it all before. So I won’t. I will make an observation about novels. Why do people read novels? People read novels to take them out of themselves, to fire their imagination, to reflect on characters and relationships. And if you read this novel you will be asked to reflect on the unexpected elements of love. Unexpected elements of love like trust, loyalty and sacrifice.

And you would fire your imagination, you will fire your imagination not just with descriptions about the women but with pictures of places that are familiar. This is why it is important that Australia have its own novelists to fire our imagination and to help us to see with new beauty the environment around us. This book has inspired me even to fine beauty in Canberra.

Winter has beaten them to Canberra, disrobing the poplars that stand sentry around Lake George.”

That is a lovely expression isn’t it “disrobing the poplars.”

“Roy has always liked the national capital for its sharp seasons, for the cherry blossom in spring and the dry intensity of summer’s heat, when strips of eucalypt bark peel off and shed their skin. In autumn the liquidambars and claret ash preen then moult as public servants rug up in fleece and scarves.”

“Canberra has none of the shout and sparkle of Sydney’s harbour, or its metropolitan scruff, but there is a sense of proportion to the artificial lakes, tree-lined avenues, roundabouts and memorials. The bush is boss, for all the spick and span of officialdom.”

“Canberra rules the nation but runs like a country town.”

Now I know that because I am launching this book and I am being a critic I should now tell you what is wrong with it. I should point out the typographical errors or I should point out the unfinished characters or I should tell you how the plot should have ended much better. But I couldn’t be bothered to do that. To do that would be to behave like a feature writer on a colour magazine.

A feature writer who finds a thoroughly loveable character, perhaps even a politician and feels they had better find some critical comment, somewhere to put into the story just to please the editor. Something that the editor can pull out and put on the blurb on the front page of his newspaper. Well life doesn’t have to be like that. We can all be generous. Leave people where they are and praise them for what’s good about them. We know that bad news sells better than good but we also know that good comes out of taking ourselves out of reflecting on relationship and character and being uplifted.

“The Unexpected Elements of Love” by Kate Legge is a great book. It is a great read. It will give you insights into our situation, into our cities and into many of the modern issues that will be confronting the generation that Kate and I are part of although she came 10 years after my generation.

I wish her and her family all the best and it is a great pleasure to launch “The Unexpected Elements of Love” – Kate Legge.

30 Jul 2006

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