In this extended version of Anything But, an interview series published on The Brief, Julia Baird discusses beauty, resilience, happiness and stoicism with PM host Mark Colvin.
Asked if his affection for Twitter is in fact addiction, Mark Colvin laughs. “I am,” he says, “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles,” quoting from a character in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.
It’s true that his online feed at times resembles a curiosity shop, though there is very little about Colvin that is either unconsidered, or trivial. Colvin, who has been the presenter of flagship radio program PM since 1997, is one of the most respected journalists in Australia. He has a particular love of Shakespeare; part of a lifetime pursuit of words and the sounds of words.
Radio executives joke about his 60,000 strong “Twitter army” who follow him, and his “trifles”, with a particularly strong loyalty. Ever since he returned from Rwanda and Zaire with a rare – and nearly fatal – inflammation of blood vessels in 1994, Colvin’s audience, colleagues and friends have followed his often gruelling battles with his health, with hip replacement and kidney disease. When, after many years of dialysis, Colvin found a kidney donor, the news trended on Twitter; it was one of the most talked about subjects in the country.
It was somewhat of a challenge: to talk to a polymath about Anything But his area of expertise (everything). We steered clear of the news, and instead we spoke of the stuff of life: beauty, resilience, happiness and stoicism.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
I think sometimes beauty can flower by contrast with ugliness…
It was coming back from Ethiopia in 1990 on what had been an extraordinarily arduous trip during which we were delayed greatly, largely because we had to travel at night for fear of Ethiopian bombers. We were travelling through Tigray, a rebellious region of Ethiopia, and the trip took much longer than we thought. We got back to Sudan during Ramadan and they wouldn’t issue us an exit visa, and during that period I had seen a lot of children die of starvation, and I’d seen the damage done by war, and I was stuck in Sudan and my wife was due to have a baby in about a month or six weeks’ time.
I was certainly due to be back in good time for the baby, but the baby arrived very early and in very dangerous circumstances, and I was told on the phone that he’d been born, and I was absolutely devastated by that. It was just an extraordinarily horrible moment, but then eventually we got the exit visa and flew back, and I saw my son William for the first time and that was the most beautiful thing I can remember.
Did you cry?
I think I was smiling too much. All the photographs of me show a smile so broad it looks as if the top of my head is going to fall off. I remember his stare … he had this stare, it just went straight into you.
You do read a lot – is there a character from literature that you have an empathy with or you would like to meet?
The person I would most like to meet is Shakespeare. The thing that I would do if you gave me one wish is go back and spend a day quietly following Shakespeare around. I am absolutely fascinated by Elizabethan London and that whole period from late 1500s to late 1600s. I wouldn’t mind spending some time with Pepys. Pepys, I adore. He’s not a character in fiction, but as a diarist he’s almost like a character in fiction because he’s so frank and so flawed like a character in a novel … really, really interesting.
Is there a quality that you would really like to have that you do not?
One of the principles I’ve tried to live my life by is not having any regrets about anything because I’ve had a few things you could have regrets about, you could dwell on, you could go back – if only that hadn’t happened, if only I hadn’t gone here – and you just get stuck.
I think you have to look forward. But if I did that, I would like to have been born as a healthier person. I was quite a sickly child. I had a lot of problems with my health – chronic bronchitis, I broke my arm when we lived in Kuala Lumpur when I was about six, and got something called osteomyelitis and was in hospital for about six months, and I was quite sickly.
And in the last 20 years or so I’ve had a huge amount of time in hospital. Yes, robustness is the quality I would have liked to have had.
Writers who were sickly as children say they developed an inner world – it was a very formative time for them. Did that happen to you ?
I think what happened to me was that I became even more of a reader. I learnt to read so fast that the teachers actually asked my mother to stop bringing the text books home because I was a term ahead of the rest of the class, so then I just started reading through my parent’s library. Being ill, I just read and read and read and read.
How would you define happiness?
When you’ve had a lot of pain and a lot of illness over a long period, you tend to define happiness in terms of absence of pain. If you’re going to survive as a person with chronic illness and chronic pain, happiness has to be a moveable feast. You have to find it where you get it.
In one way, I have been incredibly fortunate … over the last 20 years it’s become much easier to have a life, a kind of a social life without having to leave your house. I feel much less lonely than somebody would have in the same circumstances a long time ago
How do you learn the value of resilience?
I’ve probably had to learn the value of resilience much too early. I was sent off to boarding school when I was seven. My parents were in Kuala Lumpur because my dad was allegedly a foreign service officer but in fact a spook, and that’s what was done in those days – if you were being carted around the world, then the government would pay for you to go to boarding school.
I was very, very lonely and very, very cold because I was used to living in the tropics and I went back to a freezing school in England where they made you play rugby even after a three-foot fall of snow. And basically it instils an unhealthy stoicism I think … something you have to work through the rest of your life. It instils a sense of abandonment and a difficulty in trusting people, and a feeling that people are going to leave you and dump you and something you have to be aware of and work on for the rest of your life.
But how do you go from stoicism to resilience?
I think stoicism is something you have to work towards. What the stoic philosophy meant in Roman times was, at it’s very essence, that idea that you have to put back into the world more than you take out from it. So you get that, and clearly that education was meant to send you out to rule over the colonies or whatever…
You learn a baseline of toughness and then you have to work the worst of the toughness out of yourself. If you’re bullied, you have to be careful not to bully. You have to be careful not to be arrogant. If you feel that you are abandoned or lonely, you have to remember that not everyone else has been through the same things. You have to learn empathy.
What do you do when you are feeling melancholy?
One of the things you learn when you nearly die, and I have come very close to death a number of times because of my work and my illness, is that you learn something about yourself because you want to live. Because there were several times where I could have just given up. It would have been quite easy to give up.
In 1994, I was very, very close to death … my own doctor said if you had stopped trying, you would have been dead by now. That’s not something that’s afforded to many people to know that, and suddenly after that, it’s baked into you, it’s something that you know.
I could not be crushed by depression or melancholy or whatever. I could not be crushed by anything. I will soldier on, I will carry on, and also I want to know what happens next. That was one of the things that got me through, just that sense of I’ll never find out what happened.
Is there something you do to cheer yourself up?
One of the things that got me through in 1994 was the radio. I am a real radio addict. BBC Radio 4 at that time was particularly good, I think. One of the things I like about it is that it has an extraordinary mix of news and comedy. The radio has kept me going. Comedy is definitely one of the things that keeps me going … probably my greatest comedy hero is Peter Cook on his own as Mr Wisty, with Dudley Moore in Derek and Clive. Anything that Peter Cook ever said made me laugh.
Is there a sound that you love or can’t do without?
I do love sound and I love the sound of the human voice telling stories, and I’m really quite obsessed with this.
I think quite rightly all radio producers focus very strongly on the idea there should be good audio, music, effects and natural sound running through a story, but I like good writing, a good voice, telling a story well – it’s underestimated. Beautiful words or words put together elegantly are really important. Just when I sit down and write PM every night, I like to think that there’s one to two sentences in there that are just perfectly balanced. I’ve just rewritten that sentence so it’s exactly right. The voice telling a story is a sound I can’t do without.
When was the last time you were speechless?
I used to act at school, and I was rather girlish as a 16-year-old, and they always gave me girls’ parts. And as I entered puberty, I became more and more uncomfortable about this, and I developed really bad stage fright, and I remember drying on stage and being utterly speechless, and that was a feeling that didn’t leave me for a long time. I have dried while doing a piece to camera to television with a lot of people watching or doing live television, and that lasted for quite a long time.
And then for some reason, I think it’s connected to a near-death experience, I can do live television, go on stage and give an impromptu hour-long speech and not dry at all.
Do you have any guilty reads?
I like reading good spy thrillers but even then I’m a bit snobbish. I don’t confine myself to Le Carre, but I’m always happy when I find somebody I know can write really well.
I can’t stand badly written books, and I’ll probably offend half the population of Australia by saying I absolutely loathe … I can’t get beyond five pages of Dan Brown. I found a spy thriller set in China the other day called Night Heron by Adam Brookes, it’s absolutely brilliant. I read a lot of detective fiction. I always come back to PG Wodehouse. The line about the hangover where he says “a cat stamped into the room”. (Laughter.)
A lot of people tuned into the ABC when you were telling the story of your kidney donor. How are you now?
I’m well. The kidney is absolutely fantastic. It will be two years in March since the kidney has been working. The best thing is the three days I get back. You have no idea … you might think, well, that’s only six hours in the chair, but it actually stretches out, the travel time, putting the needle in, and then there’s the awful stuff of when things go wrong and you bleed for an hour afterwards and things go even wronger, and you get septicaemia and you have to be in hospital for a number of weeks.
I’m rid of all that, touch wood. And that’s really good. I have a lot of arthritic pain but other than that I’m absolutely fine.
And I guess going through all of that has probably taught you about other people as well as yourself.
Yes. Absolutely. I do spend a lot of time thinking about other people.
Because I have a very rare disease, I do try to talk to people with the same disease because I remember how difficult and lonely it was without the internet. There was very little on the internet in 1994 when I got ill with this disease and it was very hard. There’s an extraordinary comfort to be got talking with someone who has been through exactly what you’ve had. I became great friends with a chap in the Netherlands who was my age, my height and who got the same disease at exactly the same time. I try to give back.
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Julia Baird is an author, broadcaster and journalist, currently hosting The Drum on ABC 24. View her full profile here.