An abiding passion for books (part 2)

Paul is well known for his talks. He has a natural gift for telling history so vividly that the characters seem to burst free from their letters and journals, suddenly alive in the room, brushing page, ink and the ages from their clothes.

‘I’m flattered and honoured when people comment on it,’ he says, ‘but I’m not conscious of doing it.

‘My parents influenced me in my love of history. They seemed to know a lot when not a lot of Australian history was really known.

‘They took the family to the few places of historical interest there were in Sydney at the time: Vaucluse House and the Experiment Farm at Parramatta.

Vaucluse House. Photo © Brett Broadman, for Sydney Living Museums
Vaucluse House. Photo © Brett Broadman, for Sydney Living Museums

Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust)
Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust)

‘That’s where my love of Australian history came from. I love British history too, but the history of where you live is different. It’s relevant to your current life – you can’t understand what’s happening now without knowing the history.

‘I’ve also had the benefit and privilege of reading the original letters and journals of the people I speak about. I’ve come into personal contact with their writings. I believe very much that it’s individuals – with their quirkiness, faults and strengths – who form history, not great movements (although individuals can form those). You need to present them as real people.

John Curtin in London, 1944 (Courtesy Vrroom, National Archives of Australia)
John Curtin in London, 1944
(National Archives of Australia, A5954, 661/12)

‘When I was a student, explorers were treated as cardboard characters, there was no background at all. But Flinders’ main motivation in first coming to Australia was to get enough sea service to become a lieutenant and earn more money – he needed money before he could do anything.

‘Some people wanted glory, honours and money, of course, but historical figures aren’t super heroes or gods, they’re mere human beings. Biography’s such a strong genre now, because it’s an excellent way to get into history. You read the story of someone like John Curtin or Ben Chifley and you learn all about the period they lived in.’

Ben Chifley, 1948
Ben Chifley, 1948

Paul’s been involved in acquiring many significant items and collections for the State Library over his career. Why do humble artefacts – like diaries, letters, mementoes and manuscripts – still hold so much power for the public, for libraries and for private collectors?

‘When we look at paintings, we can admire and appreciate them, but we’re not all artists. We’re once removed from them,’ he begins.

‘But manuscripts, diaries and letters, written in pens or on typewriters – these are all ordinary things. We’ve all written them and used them to write with. We relate to them.

‘We look at a letter written by Cook the great explorer, to a friend. Or a journal entry. We’ve all done that, written those things ourselves. Seeing the actual letter, the paper and ink, has a fascination and magic for us.

‘Libraries are motivated to preserve the memory of the nation and to display it. They take pride in securing these great treasures for the nation. They also acquire the material for use in research, and to build collections.

‘And a collector might be fascinated by an era and want to own objects from that era – to possess a letter by an explorer, for example. Then their interest changes – they’ve enjoyed the object and will donate it to the library. And then start again on a new collection.’
[Interview continues in Part 3]

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