Cultural Exploration: Publishing the Donald Friend Diaries

Paul Hetherington, Courtesy of Hetherington and

Preamble: The Australian Review on the weekend about a fortnight back had a cover story about Ian Britain’s discovery of two of Donald Friend’s lost diaries from his war years. The Australian editors informed me that “The Australian doesn’t allow others to reprint its material.” This is surely a mark of the rigidities of the Australian bureaucratic and legal order. Personally it is anathema and a restriction on the circulation of knowledge to my eyes, the more so because any cyber-reproduction would have acknowledged the original source. So readers are referred to for that essay.

 Be that as it may the story paved the way for links with both Ian Britain and Paul Hetherington. Hetherington is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Writing Research Cluster, School of Writing, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. He has edited the 2nd, 3rd and 4th volumes of Donald Friend’s Dairies. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce two of his essays on Friend.

 The first volume of The Diaries of Donald Friend was edited by Anne Gray. The diaries themselves repose at the Australian National Gallery. My interest in Friend arises from the fact that Vijitha Yapa made arrangements with John Keell’s for a segment of Friend’s wall mural on the port of Galle in the late nineteenth century to be deployed as cover design for my late sister, Norah’s book Galle As Quiet As Asleep. Some glimpses of that book will appear soon on this site. Significantly, there are four reproductions of rare scenes of Galle in the late nineteenth century within that book provided courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia’s generosity. Michael Roberts

 Cultural Exploration: Publishing the Donald Friend Diaries

In what is often talked about as an age of new technologies, there are many different ways to publish. We have heard in today’s session about the opportunities provided to publishers by the Internet, and about changing relationships between publishers and ‘creators’ – and about changing patterns of scholarship. We have heard about how information is being distributed differently than it once was. These changes promise new possibilities, and new freedoms for publishers and creators alike. Because information in electronic form is very portable, it can also be used flexibly. Just click on the button of an email, or type a URL, and information passes inwards or outwards at extraordinary speed. Web sites fly through the ether, defying international boundaries, institutional frameworks, social taboos. Books appear on screen, some with sophisticated illustrations, and are able to be downloaded quickly, directly to the reader. What’s more, much of this information is inexpensive or even free.

So what does this mean for so-called traditional or conventional publishing? (I should mention here that publishing traditions and conventions are changing in many ways all of the time, but that is another story for another paper).

I think that the advent of the Internet means very little for the book, the death of which has been predicted many times, but which is selling in ever-greater numbers world-wide. While the Internet holds the promise of new ways of doing and, perhaps, of thinking, the book will remain unchallenged as the premier vehicle for delivering a great deal of what we all like to read. In many cases, however, the book, the Internet site and the exhibition will sit side by side – not as competing vehicles for information delivery, but as complementary strategies for providing access to complex cultural material.

Today I would like to give one example of what I mean – which will take the form of some brief reflections about a very complex project that the National Library of Australia has embarked upon.

This is the project to publish an edited version of the 44 Donald Friend diaries, held by the National Library. In the limited time available to me today, I can only touch on this project’s intricacies, so the slides that accompany this presentation will give an indication of the nature and quality of the drawings in the Donald Friend diaries.

I should add, however, that there are about a million words in the diaries – as well as the more than 500 drawings – and they are magnificent, incisive, meditative, suggestive, illuminating words. They represent the personal vision of an important Australian artist, but they also document Australian culture from the 1930s through to the 1980s in fascinating ways. In this sense, they are a particular and compelling, although partial, record of our nation.

Here, for example, is a quote from the diaries about some of the attitudes in Australia in the 1940s.

Recently much amusement was caused by a policeman who in evidence said that he considered the nude paintings in the National Gallery to be obscene. I wouldn’t mind betting that a large proportion of the population agreed with him. One of our least advertised but prominent, national characteristics is wowserism. I recall the letter written to the Herald suggesting that the nude bronze centrepiece of the Archibald Fountain should be draped in bathing trunks in the interests of public decency. Also another ‘mother of nine’ epistle to the press, in which a harassed matron complained that when she took the children to the gallery one Sunday, she was constantly obliged to dash past whole walls of pictures that would have lost her brood their innocence and perverted their morals at a single glance. Perhaps the most ridiculously silly example of this prudery occurred in the nineteen thirties, when a collection of paintings by Modigliani and other masters of the modern French school was banned for public exhibition, because a law exists that nude paintings or statues showing any pubic hair may not be shown publicly. The idea is so fantastically totemist. Why not forbid the portrayal of lips, or noses or hips or backsides?

Making the Donald Friend diaries accessible to readers who use the Manuscript Reading Room in the Library building in Canberra is a simple enough task. Lending a few of the diaries for exhibitions held in other institutions throughout Australia is also easy enough to do – within certain limitations. What is much more difficult is to formulate successful ways of publishing the diaries so that they will be widely available while simultaneously providing an adequate representation of their subtlety and complexity.

Publishing facsimiles of the diaries is not the answer. Such facsimile publications would be prohibitively expensive to produce in the first place, and very few people would be able to afford to buy such volumes once they were published. In any case, with 44 diaries, there are too many to publish in this way.

Another way of publishing this material would be to invite a commercial publisher to put a book, or books, of diary material together for the Library. There are fine publishers in Australia that would no doubt be delighted to undertake such a task, but there are potential impediments to any such arrangement.

The difficulties in publishing this material are of a number of kinds. The diaries have been microfilmed, but they are yet to be transcribed. Choosing and editing 700-800,000 words for publication will take at least two years of an editor’s time. The cost of publishing the selected diary material in books that will last is very considerable. And there are a number of other issues that I do not have time to explore today. Added together, this project has costs and complexities that few commercial publishers would be likely to embrace.

Further, the task of editing the diaries – of choosing material for publication, of researching references, and compiling a final text for publication – is extraordinarily involved and demanding. It is also a rather overwhelming and unpredictable task – a kind of ongoing adventure, with many questions to be solved along the way. Success in this enterprise lies in a close and trusting relationship between the editor of the diaries and the Library as custodian of this material. This is not, fundamentally, a commercial relationship. It is, rather, a cultural exploration of a particularly fascinating and complex kind.

The Library has engaged Dr Anna Gray as editor for this project. She brings to this task the qualities of a highly skilled professional editor, conversant with contemporary publishing practices. She brings the knowledge of an expert art historian and curator, and the skills of a social historian. Importantly, she has a sophisticated ‘feel’ for the nuances of Donald Friend’s highly literate and ‘literary’ language.

For, perhaps above all else, in his diaries Donald Friend created himself as a great writer – as a chronicler of his times and as a subtle stylist. His command of language in the diaries is superb and his writing is extraordinarily various. Let me quote the following passage:

I am rather furious with myself at the moment. I have the opportunity to write and an empty mind – or rather a mind full of unrelated stuff with no focal point, comments on this and that with no relation to the day and hour. This is a ghastly waste. There is nothing to do but sit in the pale afternoon sun and improvise until I think of something. You see, I have not lost one whit the obsession that has given an urgency to everything for this last year and a half – the feeling that each hour may be my last of leisure and privacy. So at such times as this, when I have time to set down something which will preserve my shape for the future, and yet am oppressed by mental inertia, are an exasperating torture. One somehow feels that by recording all these trivial things they are somehow given permanence and body. Why should it matter at all? Why bother to give a lasting (how can one even know it will last?) form to the jiggle of memories and comments, so that other people at other times can read what I was thinking about, and what I knew. Well it is futile. But anyway I do it. I try to tell myself I do it entirely to satisfy myself; but at its best, that is only half true. If I were doing that I’d probably invent a complete language of my own, and go the whole hog and write down everything – but everything. And such a record would turn white the hairs of he who read it, as do all stupendous experiences, such as hanging all night over a chasm suspended by a rope that is slowly being sawed through. And furthermore, I am lonely enough without indulging in such an extreme introversion.

This is marvellous writing – evocative, analytical, charged with feeling and beautifully composed. It also gives us some of Friend’s own thoughts about writing his diaries. Dr Anna Gray has to read over one million of these words and to select about 70 to 80 per cent for publication in four volumes, the first of which will be published next year.

And this brings me back to the overall publishing strategy of the Library where these diaries are concerned. The Library’s Directions for 2000-2002 document says, in part, that in order to

– foster a broad understanding of the importance of libraries, and of the National Library in particular, and to communicate the value of the Library in underpinning Australia’s cultural and intellectual life, [the Library] will

  • selectively interpret the Library’s collections in order to contribute to an understanding of Australian history and culture
  • promote knowledge and use of the Library’s resources

In the case of these diaries, such selective interpretation and publication will provide access to a very important set of items in the Manuscripts Collection. The Library intends to make the diaries available in five books – a high quality book of drawings compiled by Lou Klepac, which will be released in December of this year (you can see some of these drawings in the slides that I have am showing today) and the four volumes of selections from the diaries edited by Dr Gray.

These four volumes will be illustrated but will be published in a smaller format than the single book of drawings. All five of these books will be published to the highest possible standards and will be available on the general market through booksellers across the country, combining the Library’s reverence and care for its collections with its wish to make this material as widely accessible as possible. The Library is fortunate in being able to fund these publications through its Morris West Trust Fund and revenue from these books will, in turn, be returned to the Fund.

As well, the Library is planning a major exhibition of the diaries in 2002 and – to return at last to new methods of publication – an extensive web site that will allow world-wide access to parts of the diaries, and which will also be enhanced by a variety of links to related web sites, along with additional material related to Donald Friend’s life and work.

Only through this strategy, which will employ both new and old means of publication, does the Library believe that it will be able to do full justice to the Donald Friend diaries in terms of both research and accessibility. Commercial partners may join the Library in parts of this enterprise, but the Library will ensure that it maintains appropriate control of the main publishing projects.

In more general terms, then, publication of the diaries illustrates some of the responsibilities and issues that attend to the Library’s important role (in association with other cultural heritage institutions) in keeping and making available the nation’s memory. In large part, this is the memory of Australia’s developing and dynamic culture, and of the activities of individuals within that culture. It is the memory of our society, of our politics, and of our attitudes towards ourselves and others.

Such memory – such remembering – is crucial to maintaining and continuing to reinvent and renew an understanding of ourselves as a people. In a profound sense, our histories are our future, because it is through the records of our pasts, and the metaphors that we make from them, that we can glimpse futures for ourselves and imagine new possibilities and new pathways.

This is only true if what is stored is made visible; if what is preserved is made available. Without access – and access can be provided in many different ways (publishing is only one of many options) – the nation’s collections would only be so many remains in a mausoleum. Access is critical.

Publishing the Donald Friend diaries is one way of embodying the Library’s mission to provide knowledge of its collections to as wide an audience as possible, and to contribute actively to the nation’s cultural life. It is a task which transcends any specific media, or publishing vehicle and which will employ old and new technologies; old and new methods; old and new purposes and judgements. What is most important is the material itself and its availability. Donald Friend’s vision in his diaries, compelling and inventive as it is, both private and public as it must be – will soon touch all of us.


PAUL HETHERINGTON holds a PhD in literature and has published eight collections of poetry. He edited and introduced the final three volumes of the National Library of Australia’s four-volume edition of the diaries of the artist Donald Friend. He was founding editor of the quarterly humanities and literary journal Voices (1991–97).

Paul’s doctoral thesis explored the extent to which Emily Dickinson’s poems may be read as autobiographical texts and, more generally, the ways in which Dickinson might, or might not be identified with her poetry’s personae. His volumes of poetry include the verse novel, Blood and Old Belief (2003) and It Feels Like Disbelief (2007). His poems have been published in anthologies, literary journals and magazines in a variety of countries, including the USA, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Japan.

Paul was a finalist in the 1993 Antipodes Poetry Contest (USA), has twice been shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Australian Capital Territory’s Poetry Award and was winner of the 1996 ACT Book of the Year Award (for Shadow Swimmer) and the 1997 ANUTECH Poetry Prize. He was awarded a Chief Minister’s ACT Creative Arts Fellowship in 2002. Blood and Old Belief was shortlisted for the 2003 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards and the 2003 Colin Roderick Award. Volume four of The Diaries of Donald Friend was shortlisted for the Manning Clark House 2006 National Cultural Awards.

From 1990 to 2008 Paul edited the monthly magazine National Library of Australia News and he is a former editor of the Western Australian monthly multi-arts magazine Fremantle Arts Review. He is a member of the Board of Australian Book Review and a former member of the Editorial Board of Conversations, published by the Australian National University. He has written articles, essays and reviews on literary and cultural matters, including the use of new technologies and ways of providing access to cultural materials. He has an abiding interest in the visual arts.

Paul is a former director of publishing at the National Library of Australia where he organised a program of conferences, seminars, readings, concerts and talks. Currently Chair of the ACT Cultural Council and the ACT Public Art Expert Advisory Panel, he was one of the founders and is former Chair of the ACT Writers Centre. [].

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