The magnitude of Minitudes

Veteran literary editor Barry Oakley revives an artform with attitude - the personal diary

By Murray Waldren
WITHIN THE HUSTLE OF DAILY PRODUCTION, newspaper days are indistinguishable. Not July 28, 1988, when Geoffrey Dutton was introducing his successor to the arcana of The Australian's literary editorship. As the distinguished duo neared the sub-editors' bench, I turned to greet them. And Barry Oakley froze: nothing personal it turned out, he'd just glimpsed the ancient computers on which we worked. For a man who considered the typewriter a new-fangled contraption, this was a "Houston, we have a problem" moment. His Persil white hair and beard suddenly had more colour than his face.

In Minitudes (Text Publishing), his collected diaries from 1974-97 released this week, he recalls Dutton asking whether he could "use the machines". 'No.' 'Don't panic.' But when he took me to the newsroom and showed me 'how simple it all is', I did. His fingers pecked at codes and symbols totally foreign to me ... it looked like a nightmare.

It remained so for the nine years of the "Cybermaster's" editorship. But as in his other career manifestations in stage, radio, publishing, criticism, advertising, film and journalism, Oakley survived his technophobia - his diaries are a virtual bluffer's guide to how chutzpah and humour overcome such triflings as expected expertise and experience. I still remember his triumph weeks (or was it months?) after he started: "Watch this," he chortled as he one-fingered at the keyboard. "Did you see that? I just xt-ed (deleted) a sentence." And his indignant "Of course I'm ringing from outside the building" comment to the copytakers as he phoned through from the next office handwritten copy for a news story.

While his wit and character analyses could be lacerating, they were seldom fatal. And the jocularity of manner disguised his deep knowledge of art's incestuous entanglements, a true love of language and a determination to maintain - and fight for - high standards. So it was not exactly as a disinterested observer that I went to talk to him about his book.

The day sprouts a mirthful edge as Oakley shuffles doorwards. His slow-waltz owes something to his slippers, knitted in folk-culture rainbows by a Czech neighbour ("You may laugh," he sneers at my smirk, "but you can't come in if you're going to mention them"), more to the previous evening's funeral observance. My "Wake last night, wake in fright this morning" aside on his pallor is savagely edited. Plus ca change ...

The Melbourne-born Oakley, whose defection mid-career to Sydney was considered treasonable in culture's close-knit circles back then, always had "the desire to record life's more bizarre moments". He had kept a schoolboy diary of "this immortal literary kind: went to school, algebra homework, beat brother at Monopoly." Later there was a late-adolescence diary, "hideously embarrassing, which I burnt". Then life overtook him (see the book's frontispiece family photo for one reason - or six).

It was only in 1974, after forays as a teacher, university lecturer, advertising copywriter and public servant, that he began again. He was then 43, a playwright/novelist of satiric note ensconced in Richmond amid a liveliness "of literary energies, of Pram Factory involvement and lots of drinking and arguing." For the next quarter-century, his peripatetic career saw him mingling with an eccentric lode of artistic movers and shaken, "but you still have to have that childlike delusion that life circles around you to write a diary," he laughs. Very soon his daily hit "moved from an interest to a habit and then became an obsession - once that happens, it's extraordinarily easy to maintain."

By 1998, this obsession had engendered 750,000 handwritten words. Graham Powell from the National Library heard of them and arrived early one morning to assess the 24 volumes. "That evening he stumbled out, his eyesight ruined forever, saying 'you've had an interesting life' and looking at me strangely ..." The library bought them for their archives, "luckily with a long enough embargo for there to be no danger to me ... or my pocket", and gave him photocopies from which to compile his book. He culled the material to 175,000 words - "needless to say, I handwrote every one" - then with editor Michael Heyward (and the lawyers) trimmed those to around 100,000.

That product is a seduction of magpied recollections, on-the-fly personality assessments, gossip, snippets, small jealousies and large quirkinesses, with the odd retrospective revenge thrown in. Many anecdotes have a morning-after feel, the flotsam (it seems) from an era of copious alcohol and intense rivalries. "There are a lot of good stories in there," Oakley agrees, "which I hope transcend their time - it doesn't only go to people who were largely addled with drink and dope in the 70s and 80s."

For those involved in the arts, it is compulsive reading. Those not in the know may find the sometimes bare introduction to so many people confusing; most will enjoy its edginess and calculated appraisals. The diaries also (if inadvertently) reveal the diarist, the confusions and changes, doubts and resolutions that mould a life.

But it's "neither historic nor", he pshaws, "was I silly enough to record anything intimate - some of its personal but never intimate." Apart, that is, from the period when his marriage was temporarily derailed and his vision turns inwards. This virtual "diary within a diary" chronicles "how I became very depressed and had a hard time for five months. In the long run it did me a lot of good, although I didn't think so at the time. But it would have been dishonest not to include it."

Generally, his is "a social perspective, of people I meet, lunches we might have, a bon mot for instance that you might - rarely - come out with and I'll scribble it down. And attribute it to me." And the temptation to reinterpret for publication? "Never of the facts," he responds, "but a little buffing and polishing of the prose might have occurred." His aim was "for social and personal observations, with a bit of cruelty here or there ... I might have been a bit sharp about some people but it's not to say I don't know my own failings. I've put some of those in to cover myself."

It's why he called the collection Minitudes, "the opposite of magnitudes", and why he's retained "observations that I wouldn't have made now. And I do sometimes appear nave ... as I was never writing for publication - I know all diarists say that but it's true - that means you say what you like about people because no one is ever going to read it ..."

Still, I suggest, diaries are virtually an archaic art form in today's email world: is there a market for such personal endeavours? "I'm sure there's a market for them," he booms satirically, "and my publishers second that opinion."

There's no little personal courage - or perhaps hubris - involved in releasing the work: some individuals will be deeply disturbed by his assessments of them, others will wonder why they were ignored. The 17-page index measures the cavalcade of those who weren't. "We considered issuing the index as a separate volume," intones Oakley, "or making it chapter one so people could quickly see whether they are in."

His book is more than a name-dropper's paradise - it's a largesse of weird behaviours, friendships, feuds and pithy pen portraits: Shaking (Xavier) Herbert's hand was like pulling a poker machine - words came tumbling out like coins until you were knee-deep in them.

Or Patrick White, his face carved and caved under a knitted dairy farmer's beanie, his flesh a companion that seems to have stayed with him too long. You can only admire such flair.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 4/11/2000

Copyright 2000 Murray Waldren

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