After Libertarianism: An Interview with Michael Wilding
Syson, Ian, Australian Literary Studies
IS: Could you tell me about your life prior to your coming to Australia?
MW: I was born in Worcester in the English west midlands in 1942. My father was an iron moulder. His father was an iron moulder and his father before him. A skilled but very dirty job. He died of emphysema, though the post mortem said there was no sign of any industrial disease. My mother came from a family of servants to the aristocracy, her father was head groom to a brewing lord. She was very conservative. My father was more critical of the social order. He came from that English oppositional puritan tradition. He was the eldest child and his brother and sister went to university, another sister to teachers' training college. He was sick at the time of the grammar school scholarship exams. He left school at twelve and after a year on his maternal grandfather's small holding went into the foundry. So though he valued higher education there was inevitably some resentment at having been deprived of it. At some point he became interested in the stock market and began investing. He became totally committed to the capitalist system. For a while this made for conflict between us, between his commitment to the system and my opposition to it, an opposition based on what I perceived as the exploited, hard life he had had to lead. I won a scholarship to the local grammar school and then to Oxford. It was a privileged education but you - or I, anyway - always felt conscious of being on the outside of that world of privilege.
IS: When and why did you come to Australia?
MW: I first came in 1963. I'd done a B.A. degree at Oxford. In the last year my tutor, Wallace Robson, said `Have you ever thought of going to Australia?' I said, `No.' He said, `Well, there's a job going at Sydney University.' I'd thought of journalism and rejected that. The alternative was I could do graduate work at Oxford, but I'd be on a postgraduate scholarship, not very well paid. My father was on short-time work at the time, he'd had to give up the foundry, he'd damaged his back, and he was working as a storeman and packer, so there was no way I could be supported by my family. I could either be on 450 [pounds sterling] a year as a postgraduate or I could take up a three year contract lectureship at Sydney on 1100 [pounds sterling] a year. What I wanted to do was write. I didn't want to be an academic, I didn't want to do a postgraduate degree. The models for me as a writer were Lawrence, Isherwood, Durrell, people who'd gone into exile. You know, expatriation, travel around the world. Great idea. So I came.
My grandfather had come here around 1908, worked putting in fencing posts around Crows Nest in Queensland. He only stayed six months. The conditions were too harsh for my grandmother. My father, aged five, had been out here, so there was this family romance about Australia.
IS: Were you interested in Australian literature before you arrived?
MW: It wasn't really known in England. Adam Lindsay Gordon had gone to the same school as me so I knew some of his poems. And I'd read one of Rolf Boldrewood's novels I'd got in a second-hand shop. This was 1963. Australian literature as such had no real impact. When I arrived at Sydney University there was only a handful of Australian books scattered through the syllabus -- Slessor, White. Australian literature, as such, was not considered `real' literature in the academy. And it wasn't commercially available in Britain. Still isn't.
IS: You seem to have done a remarkable job in educating yourself quickly in Australian writing then.
MW: It wasn't that quick actually. But gradually I started to read things. In the sixties I reviewed for the Bulletin and Southerly and London Magazine and that way encountered writers like Judah Waten, Tom Keneally, Hal Porter, and Christina Stead. In the early seventies I read the work of my contemporaries, people I knew like Frank Moorhouse, Vicki Viidikas, Robert Adamson, Don'o Kim, Peter Mathers, Peter Carey, and I've written about them. …