THE CONSUMMATE BACKROOMER, Morag Fraser has been a significant if until recently unspotlit force in Melbourne's intellectual milieu.
Through think-piece journalism and book reviews, a role as Victorian Premiers Literary Award judge, regular radio and tv spots (on literature, politics and religion), her involvement with the Australian Theological Forum and her editorship of the magazine Eureka Street, this daughter of a master mariner and a musician has won (often grudging) respect as an honest broker in both literary and religious affairs. She challenges (and sometimes infuriates the more conservative within) the hierarchies of both - in moments of indiscretion, in fact, some church leaders have bemoaned, sotto voce, the tenacity of "that Marxist Morag woman". To compound the contradictions, literature's young turks count her among the conservative bastions.
In recent times, her literary and liturgical profiles have become increasingly higher, more national, as she has stepped out from backroom moving to frontline shaking. She co-edited Save Our ABC in 1996, is the editor of the just-released anthology Seams of Light (Allen & Unwin), and is contracted to edit the Oxford Book of Australian Reportage.
She's at her Richmond workbase when I phone (coincidentally interrupting a call to Allen & Unwin checking final corrections to Seams of Light). Here she edits Eureka Street (has done since 1991), a bimonthly magazine "which comes out from an entity called Jesuit Publications, with those mysterious dark and satanic forces providing the funding ..." a certain irony here, I suggest clumsily. She laughs, loudly. "Oh Jesuits have a very interesting reputation - people quite don't know how to handle it; it has a healthy intrigue factor."
I've rung to get the low-down on the highlights of the Morag Fraser story. "What does everyone say? They've always been a jackaroo or a fencer or something exotic. None of that for me, I'm afraid." She then staccatos off "Adelaide-born 1944, educated by Brigidine nuns at Kilbreda College in Melbourne for 13 years, BA Melbourne, MA and Dip Ed at La Trobe, English and fine arts, although in the end it became pure English, with a treatise on Chaucer."
Suddenly, she becomes animated. "Studying Chaucer was actually extremely useful. No one believes me but it's true."
"Useful in what way?"
"As a way of looking at the world - it added depths to my philosophy. And it was interesting to be involved with a writer who, like Chekov, had another job. He had that Robert Menzies' stuff, the cinque ports, the flotsam and jetsam, in charge of ditches and dykes ... my sort of bloke really.
"His real value was that he was a supreme ironist ... and it was beneficial, considering my breeding, to encounter someone who was a hell of a lot better at it than I am and from whom I could learn something."
Her breeding, she explains (her father was Scots, her mother German-Irish), "makes me a particularly ferocious combination. A pretty dreadful person really." Then, as a bemused aside, "Someone told me I was a puritan the other day. And it's probably true ..." For a puritan, her laugh has a very earthy grounding.
"Do you mean morally?" I ask. For the first time, she pauses, before responding quizzically. "I don't know - the Scots blood does give you a very dark side, a dark way of looking at the world. But it doesn't last very long. My mum's a very bright, effervescent person, and that helps. Scotland's a very dark country."
"I don't think so ... you can only speak of personal experience and Australia's been very nurturing for me. I felt a bit strange in it for a long time but I don't anymore. I'm of the generation that was educated with an English head, which made it difficult to "belong" here. It was only when we bought a house "in the bush" in 1972 that I began to adjust, when I had to get used to living with creatures, and become attuned to the landscape ..."
The other part of the "we" is Frank Jackson, now professor of philosophy in the ANU's Research School of Social Sciences and based, obviously, in Canberra. Married "in 1965, or was it 1966?", they have two daughters, Catriona a journalist and Siobhan a painter, and one grand-daughter, Isabella. So how does this Canberra-Melbourne axis affect their life? "We move a lot, always have (including intermittent years living overseas as careers and choice demanded). He'll be down tonight for instance, and then I'll go back with him to Canberra in a couple of days. Both Canberra and Melbourne are home - home tends to be wherever each one of us is. The only problem with having two houses is you never know where the parsley is.
"We get a lot of time together but I wouldn't recommend it as a way of living. Both of us are hermetic - or is that hermit-like? - and like spending time on our own, but we spend it on own together more happily than we spend it on our own apart, if you know what I mean."
Seams of Light, her collection of varied and wide-ranging essays on aspects Australiana, is the result of sifting "through everything that was sent to me and what I could find. The 18 selected were what bubbled up to the top. What was characteristic of them all was a funny refractory or perverse or slightly off-centre way of looking at things, a skewed perspective that was essentially Australian.
"Basically though, they all share the essential criterion of being sparkling writing, the kind of pieces that after the first sentence you want to keep on reading."
The rationale behind it, she says, was "to give space and place to the extraordinary discursive writing that's around but is not often collected in this country. Much of our better writing becomes ephemeral - it appears in magazines and journals but does not necessarily remain to be picked up and referred to.
"These writers have something to say, and they often do it very trenchantly. After you've read it you can't go back to the day-by-day simplicity prevalent in much of the media or disseminated by politicians. I'm looking for a way of recording this, by writers you read compulsively but from whom you also learn something you might not otherwise have encountered. That's the puritan streak you see ..."
Spirituality is pretty important to you, I essay. "Ah, gosh, yes, but I didn't go looking for a set of spiritual essays, that's not what they are at all." Yet iconoclastic and trenchant are words that recur ... "They're not bad words to recur, though, are they? They're certainly characteristic of this group. Australians can be ruthlessly funny at their own expense ..."
Why so, I dorothy dix. "It's a pretty tough place, both physically and emotionally. And there's the extremes of Australia, the experience of the Blacks, the experience of Irish convicts, the experience of Scots immigrants, the whole thing ... it's hard to define. I know it as I encounter it and then you start building patterns after the event.
"In the book, you wonder what a contributor like David Marr has in common with John Clarke, for example, and you think it could be the religious background that has something to do with the bite of the writing. The same with Les Murray, Peter Porter ... there's a snap and a crackle in all of it that is to do with an awareness of the darkness.
"I believe things emerge from whole-hearted discussion, but never from partial discussion nor political lip-service. There are people in Australia with a lot to say - deeper thinkers whom I don't think lie and I don't think coerce although they may well try to persuade. There's a crying need for those voices: Seams of Light, for instance, is a set of essays on Wik, although I doubt that word is ever mentioned. But you can't read this book and be simplistic about race relations ..."
From your perspective as an editor and antholgist, I ask later, how do you judge the standard of writing generally in Australia? "I'm very sanguine about that. I see a lot - I get 50 manuscripts a week - and I publish and read an awful lot. Across the board, it's of a very high standard, and occasionally you get the jewel that sparkles. But interestingly, much of it is now in non-fiction, and that boundary between fiction and non-fiction can be so blurred. Overall, there is a depth of perception, and a sparkling style."
What about the sense of disenfranchisement of younger writers by so-called cultural guardians?
She sighs with raspberryish intonation. "I don't know who they are. I suppose I'm meant to be one. Look, I think good writing gets out, ultimately, and the complaint of baby-boomers controlling access (and I'm too old to be a baby-boomer), or of cultural cliques, is not valid. All editors I know bust their gut to publish as much good writing as they possibly can. They're gate-keeping at all."
So what's the essence of good writing?
"Writing that engages your attention, in the way the words are linked so that it forces you to look at things differently. The way it can present a plain argument, or the way it reveals a part of the world you hadn't known before. It can be as bread-and-butter plain prose as in Bernard Schlink's The Reader, for instance, yet so charged all the time .. something like that is very humbling to read. You must read it now. Stop talking to me, go home and read it, read it ..."
Let's talk about editing, I counter.
"I have done a fair bit ... I seem to have always been mucking about with other people's writing, I even edited Farrago at uni. I like the back-room stuff - I've spent a bit of time backstage in the theatre too - I like making things work, love the interaction with people. I love teaching for the same reason." (She taught for a decade, and was an HSC examiner for several years.)
And there's also that sense of effecting the cultural direction in Australia?
"That sounds a bit ambitious but yeah, why not!" A positive guffaw of defiance erupts. "I don't think you set about deliberately to do that, but you do choose to work on magazines you hope will set agendas or alter the way people think. It would be disingenuous of me to deny that."
Another aspect of the puritan streak?
"I'm not that much of a puritan really," she laughs "... just a bit stern. I hate bad writing, I hate bad argument, I hate ..." and here she pauses so long I begin to think she's hung up, "subterfuge. I don't mind people disagreeing - I've kept friends for years with whom I profoundly disagree but for whom I have a lot of intellectual respect. I also live with an extremely acute thinker, and it's a bit difficult in that environment to let one slip through. We both care about finding out what's true, and I do believe there is such a thing as truth, even if it's very complex.
"On a simple level, there's simple factual accuracy. On a higher plain, things to do with values - at some stage you have to assess that this is right, this is wrong. I think for instance that capital punishment is iniquitous ... do you see what I mean?"
Personal values you hold to be particularly important ...
"Yes, but the arguing for them is particularly important too. They need to be transparent so that you can convince people of them - you can't just say I know what's right so therefore you should do this."
So you're a democrat in the true sense?
"Yes, although it's very tricky in the Catholic Church, but there you go."
Your lifelong membership of the church must have exposed certain dichotomies, I lead. "Hu-u-u-uge dichotomies. It's a massive, ancient, creaky institution with every contradiction known to man within it."
Frustrations? "Constant, constant. I'm female. I mean, how could I not feel frustrated with it? The counterbalance to that, and why I stay and am still religious - (she blows out a breath, then speaks very quietly) it's been very nurturing for me on all sorts of occasions that were very important. The people in it, the individuals that have been most important to me over half a century, have never simplified or lied or sought to evade scrutiny."
Is such an exposure generic?, I ask.
"It's not uncommon. But for something that's trying so hard to be so aspirational and still to be getting so many things wrong ... still, it's very good at death, it does great funerals. The Catholic Church buried my father who was a Presbyterian without the slightest pretence that he was anything other than he was."
Essentially though, I surmise, Catholicism comes back to faith - how do you reconcile this thing called faith, which would seem outside the intellectual rigours you bring to bear on everything else, as a basis for your belief? Isn't that a leap into the mystic?
"It's certainly a leap into the unknown, but most intellectual endeavour is ..."
Faith is not intellectually based, though, is it?
Fraser sighs lengthily. "You're asking me if I have deep-seated firm reassurance of belief. I don't.
"Yeah," she says ruefully, "but it's not that hard to retain. There may be terrible things but there are also so many good things - people love you and they go on doing that ... faith is difficult but I do go by hope a lot, not just in religion but in life - that's part of the human condition. The other side of Calvinist darkness is a recalcitrant hope. You see that sometimes in particular authors or painters ...
"Australians appear secularly minded but underneath there is a longing for the spiritual. We just don't have the language to express it ... that's our laconicism. I don't want to sound too Pollyanna-ish about this but you see it in many aspects of our life. Multiculturalism, for instance, and the sifting for common ground.
"It's a hard country in that everyone gets treated pretty much the same, and that's sometimes well and sometimes harshly; the upside is everyone gets treated pretty much the same ..."