The papers were records of thoughts, ideas, rhymes, commentaries and the odd grump about the world, product of the active, fecund mind of Ken Scully, also known as John Dawes, journalist, commentator and poet.
One room was exempted from our search-and-clear mission: my father’s study. This was a closed sanctum, entry into which during his life released the unreasonable tiger caged in my father’s psyche.
There were bowing bookshelves, all but groaning under the weight of publications reviewed, given, donated or cast aside in Dad’s professional work and personal reading. The desk was piled with papers and layers of dust that attested to my mother Norma’s vow, repeatedly challenged as fallacious by Ken, that she never went in there.
For all that, if he failed to locate something in the uncurated chaos of the room, Norma would be accused of having moved it while she was cleaning. She would not even allow the home help, who came as they both aged into frailty, to do more than hoover the floor.
It was this room that contained the treasure trove of a lifetime’s work. And it became my task to open drawers of a filing cabinet that were stuffed with materials—clippings of articles he had written, notebooks, a handwritten draft in pencil of a novel, plays, poems. It was a cornucopia of material that we all knew would be bigger than a family’s personal momentoes.
Ken had been the editor of The Catholic Weekly, had been a key figure in the Australian poetry scene in the 1950s but somehow did not make the cut to established presses. For his efforts, he had been made a Knight of St Sylvester but Pope John Paul II. He was a major player in a minor league.
Over the next week or so, I did a preliminary sort of the material in the office. It seemed overwhelming in range, substance and topic. It was clear, we could all see, that to cherry-pick the papers for sentimental reasons would be a travesty.
But who would take on such a burden? It so happened that the Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Br Julian McDonald cfc, had been at Ken’s funeral, which had taken place four days after his death.
Julian had been my English teacher at high school and he was an inspiration and has remained a friend to me ever since. I called him and was pleasantly stunned and relieved when he got back to me after making enquiries to tell me that the ACU would be delighted to be the custodian of this literary heritage.
It was another surprise to find that collection was done by the Chancellor himself. Dad’s lifework was packed into the boot of a car and driven to Sydney, where the papers remain at the Strathfield campus of ACU.
A few years later I was able to spend time with—and complete the archive by adding some material that had been overlooked or excluded on Norma’s insistence—as part of a sabbatical in Sydney. This led to my writing Three Angry Men, which is available free on the Books page. It is in this form because, like much of my work, it was praised but turned down by a number of publishers (something a repeated strain in my writing life, but no matter.)
The weight of paper hangs heavily on writers of a certain age. What to do with as one moves on, either in accommodation or circumstances, is an issue that needs to be addressed.
For the famous and renowned, it is easy: there will be institutions almost gagging to be allowed to be custodians of first drafts, revisions, stabs and failed attempts, along with the published canon of an author’s work. Eleven years ago Alan Bennett announced that the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, where he read History, is to archive his life’s work. He is rightly acknowledged for his place in the world of letters and, as such, deserves the space to store his cast-offs.
But what of the work of minor players, among whom I have to count myself? For years I have held a personal archive of work in my office at home. When I moved to my current post—one which is midwife to many others facing the dilemmas of downsizing—I faced the same challenge.
There is the digital solution, of course, but that involves quite a bit of fuss for those with hard copy back catalogues, not to mention those (like me) have reverted to doing a lot of first drafts in pen an paper. This stuff adds up. But maybe I am just putting off my own bonfire of vanities?
There is the family, of course, but who really wants more stuff when they are going to face the same challenges? I suppose I could ask the editor of The Author to commission an article on the matter. After all, it is another aspect of mid-list and lower order writers who, along with the luminaries, make up The Society of Authors? Or would it be a waste of paper?