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A Private Life: Philip Waldron

Phil Waldron

Phil Waldron, 1998
Photo: Mike Lim

Philip Waldron died on 27 November 2017. He was an exceptional and unusual person, and the principal influence on me as a writer. He was my mentor, and later my friend: a person whose clarity of self, capacity for love, independence and intelligence will remain with me always.

If you google Philip Waldron, you will not find him. It would amuse him that a famous jockey shares his name. For a man whose career spanned decades in university teaching, in an environment in which academics were told to publish or perish, his research output, as publications are sometimes termed, was almost nonexistent. His passion for literature was articulated on the unfashionable humanist end of the critical spectrum, and he felt only impatience for literary theory. He never bothered to do a PhD, and was one of the last lecturers qualified by MA only in the Department of English at the University of Adelaide. He sounds like a misfit in the modern university, and in many ways he was.

He was a contented, somewhat comical figure. Witty and rotund. He wore terrible clothes – any cartoon of Phil would have to include the ubiquitous chequered flannelette shirt-jacket. He loved fine wine and restaurants and travelled with his wife Bronwen to France when they could. Their house spoke of a huge love for music (his CD library was extraordinary), a love of books, and of cats. Small cat figurines dotted the living room: I suspect all of them presents from people he cared about who knew he loved cats.

I first encountered Phil as a second year university student. Phil mumbled in speech and in lectures, so I sat near the front to be able to hear. I entered university with the old sense of it being a hallowed space, and the study of English Literature being one of the finest endeavours. Hampered by my inability to write well or articulately, and the desiccating experiences of intellectual bickering over a book, I was striving and drowning when I became Phil’s student. After his first lecture, I didn’t miss his classes. His love for the word and the work drew me back again and again. There was a finesse to his knowledge of how words worked: nothing grandiose, nothing even all that arcane: just love and a depth of knowledge.

He was a slightly intimidating tutor: seemingly somnolent and expectant at the same time. Chatting with a suppressed joy with the students who engaged in discussion with him afterwards, and sitting, large and still in his chair; waiting, it seemed, for one of us to show ourselves. I realised later how ready he was to guide any of us into what he believed to be important, but he couldn’t without that strange intellectual invitation that must come from the student.

I stopped attending tutorials when I found my first major essay impossible to write and sat further back, invisible, in his lectures. I asked for extension after extension, first in person, then in little notes. He ran into me in the corridor, and I nearly fainted. I squeaked a final extension request, and he glimmered at me and mumbled, ‘Just write the bloody thing.’ I did. My essay was a compressed, charged, inarticulate thesis on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for which he gave me the highest mark I had ever received, and the comment, ‘This is startlingly good’, followed by extensive feedback. From that essay, Phil had his invitation, and I had my mentor.

It was Phil who goaded me into becoming a writer. He showed me how he read, but it was much more than that. He helped me to find my voice, something he never named, but understood better than anybody I have ever met. How to wield sentences and paragraphs, how to understand verbs, adjectives, their powers and their weaknesses. He showed me a love of literature that both says something and says it well. He made me unsatisfied and hungry, or perhaps licensed and liberated my dissatisfaction and hunger.

He was one of my supervisors for my MA on TS Eliot, and, at my request, for my PhD, which was on the Thousand and One Nights, about which he knew nothing. By then I wanted his criticism, the pressure he exerted, the dissatisfaction he encouraged. By then I had my own readerly and writerly style emerging.

‘Just write the bloody thing.’ I found out this piece of advice was a legendary motivator in Rosemary Greentree’s history too. She went to him with writer’s block, and this gem broke it for her – so momentously that it became a phrase for all purposes in her family. I remember Dr Greentree as a quiet and keen older scholar studying the Middle English lyric. Phil became her advisor and mentor too, not just while she was a student but from then on.

He was the right teacher for the student who didn’t fit. Elizabeth Leane was another: a gifted student, intellectually at ease in science and humanities; vastly cross disciplinary before it was a thing. She is now Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Tasmania, writing and publishing still between, or encompassing, science and literature. She wrote to me of her memories; of his influence, early career support, and later his friendship. She said something I thought astute: ‘Phil, who used to joyfully call himself the ‘derrière garde’, was an unostentatious mentor and enabler of young women long before it was fashionable.’

Sharing memories with Elle Leane is amusing. We both felt undereducated around Phil: sometimes intimidated by his depth and breadth of reading, musical knowledge, eclectic literary passions. But he always made us laugh.

He enjoyed, relished literary criticism, admired some. But it wasn’t the main game for him. ‘No-one ever said on their deathbed I wish I had read more literary criticism,’ he said.

Phil didn’t read books to mine them for error or expose their authors. He loved them, much as he loved music: with a deep, unashamedly personal response, and a breadth of knowledge acquired and remembered because of that response. He had an awareness of style, punctuation and the music and effect of words that I have not met in anyone else. His remarkable ear for word and music, and his precision as a reader and listener show clearly in his article ‘The Music of Poetry: Wagner and The Waste Land’, published in The Journal of Modern Literature in 1974, when he was 36. (In 1974 he also published an article on Katherine Mansfield’s Journals in Twentieth Century Literature).

Phil read a text at least twice, and then knew it down to the smallest nuance. He read each of my manuscripts, and I joked that having been my supervisor had cursed him for life. I dedicated DogBoy to him, and, as edition after edition, translation after translation appeared, I said he would need a whole bookshelf before I was done. He would duck when I walked in with yet another edition. He tried to find people to give various foreign language versions to, but I didn’t relent. I am guessing he didn’t find anyone for the Marathi edition, and he complained about the Turkish. I never received Russian copies, and finally recently purchased two online, one for me and one for him. His is still on my shelf.

Phil took delight in my books. He celebrated my successes but never let them define me as a writer. He was the most supportive mentor an early career academic or writer could have. He wrote references, gave advice, an occasional grounding comment, and much reading matter. At the beginning of the PhD he gave me a present: a garish comic of the Arabian Nights. Amidst all the music, prose and poetry that fed him, Phil also liked comics … and racehorses.

Cats, cockatoos, and horses. He loved them. The magic of Black Caviar’s and Winx’s abilities were a delight to him. He rang me every time Winx was to run, and often afterwards as well. I sent him photos of the foals here, and tales of farm life, and he talked of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost. When I travelled, I tried to photograph cats for him, when I remembered. I wish I had photographed more.

When Phil wasn’t mentoring me, reading for me, arguing with me, he counselled me. He supported me when I believed I had to be political, and he supported me when I retreated from public life and stopped writing altogether. I think I told Phil things about my life that I shared with no one else. I knew he was always on my side, and that he would give his broad and deep compassion to anything I threw into it. He usually sent me home with books to read. For Phil great books were the mirror and support to all joy and suffering, until he lost Bronwen.

Phil’s own life was told in fleeting sketches and I don’t know all that much. He had an unhappy first marriage. He was born in NZ, and studied philosophy. He was hated by his masters at school, I think for being a smartarse who didn’t care to prove himself intelligent.

He lost Stephen, his son from his first marriage, to suicide. He spoke to me about his grief once, when helping me with my own griefs.

His life led him to Bronwen. Phil and Bronwen were one of the great loves, one of the great marriages. He told me that when she walked into his lecture one day, he was gone. Could barely finish his lecture. Then she came up to him to apologise for walking in late, then she drove him home. That was it, for both of them. His marriage to Bronwen was to some a scandal, but for Phil and Bronwen it was a grand and luminous beginning so huge it was beyond all rules that might confine them. Bronwen was articulate, passionate and beautiful. She became a criminal lawyer and had a career fighting cases on the more grim fringe of society. She was acknowledged as the foremost advocate in SA representing the mentally ill in serious criminal matters. She smoked, laughed, was warm, funny, sane and clever. Phil never really got the hang of email, although he read them. Bronwen would email me on his behalf; joyous, funny, wry emails. She reread all of Jane Austen as a holiday ritual every year. I reread Jane Austen after she died.

I feel reluctant to say much about their relationship. Phil was married to Bronwen for 43 years and they had two sons, Tom and Michael. I know their story; the delight and amusement Phil felt being the partner of so striking a woman, their shared world of books and music, their equality and their love. Bronwen’s rapid illness, decline and death on 3 November 2014 just after she retired left Phil with a grief that was in itself strangely luminous. He spoke of her as if everything about her was still a wonder to him, including the loss of her.

He read parts of The Last Garden manuscript a few months after Bronwen died. ‘There are no great books, I have found, that truly deal with grief,’ he said. He had been seeking solace in many books and found none. He talked memorably of Bronwen that visit. He gave me a platter they had chosen together on their travels, and a photo of her from when he had first met her. She stares out of the picture with intense directness, her long fingers spread on her hip. He wanted me to know how lovely she was to him but I also know who she found once she got to know him, and how fortunate she felt herself to be.

I have very few photos of him. I have one image, taken by Bronwen, of him turned from the camera in the embrace of a large and charismatic cat in Paris: I think of it as two cats; and I have a couple of him at the launch of my first book Hiam, dressed in his grey plaid.

Something I now miss most is the lilt and catch in his voice when he talked about a writer he loved. I went on a George Eliot binge recently. ‘What a mind! What a subtle, extraordinary gift!’ he said. As he gave me his copy of Daniel Deronda, he recapped its critical reception and his disagreement with how it was often read, and sent me on my way, also laden with a biography of Colette, Flaubert’s letters and Henryson’s poems.

I knew he was frail. He read The Last Garden, but admitted to me that he could no longer concentrate properly and would read it again. I am still not sure he had finished telling me what he thought was wrong with it, but I know there was something. He told me of many passages he loved, and for some reason they stand out to me now too. At the same time he read a small short story I have never published, and thought it ‘perfect’. The story was, among other things, a play with verbs, and I knew he would see and hear it straight away.

How can I explain fully what he did for me? When I now read his Wagner and Eliot article, I recognise what he gave me. This ear for the melody of words, and this keen eye, were mine, for my work, from when I was nineteen and could not write, to now.

Phil’s was a private life, but not secretive. He was filled with passion and wonder, and a delight in creatures, music, art and literature. He gave freely to me everything I needed as a young artist and intellect, and everything I asked as a mature writer. He helped me to grow independent, flourish and be dissatisfied.

He was my champion, my critic and most of all my friend.