Not Dark Yet - Securing Australia's place in Asia
Professor David Walker has won a major ARC grant despite being legally blind.
Professor Walker's project will "examine the broadening debates of Australia?s Asian futures from 1972 to the present".
It will analyse the way in which 'Asia' has been defined, imagined, represented, promoted and resisted.
Professor Walker will look be looking at the way Asia has been depicted by politicians, journalists, Asianists and travel writers while seeking to explain how threats to security have been perceived out time.
The study will focus, though not exclusively, on representations of Japan, China, India and Indonesia.
How threats from political Islam have been understood in Australia will inform a wider history of threat perceptions extending from the mid-19th Century to the present.
Interviewed recently by Ramona Koval on ABC Radio National?s Book Show, Professor Walker talked about what being 'legally blind' mean to him in his career, and his life in general.
This is an edited transcript of that interview.
Ramona Koval: While reading The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch, David Walker noticed the lines on the page wobble. This was the first sign of macular degeneration of his retina and he is now legally blind. As an avid collector and reader of books, David Walker talks about his relationship to books and reading as a result of losing his vision.
I don't know if you know Bob Dylan's song Not Dark Yet about a man in a phase of reviewing his life. Well, that phrase 'not dark yet' is how David Walker sums up the effect of losing his sight, on his life and in his reading life. David Walker is Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University. He's also the author of Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939. But as a result of losing his vision he's embarked on a different way of writing that's less academic and one that weaves Australia's relationship with Asia through a personal journey of his book collection and his family's own history. It's his way of viewing his life.
David has begun this new journey in an essay called 'Not Dark Yet: Reading and Seeing'. The essay is in the latest Heat literary journal. David Walker joins me in the studio now. Welcome to The Book Show David.
David Walker: Thank you, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: What about that song, Bob Dylan's Not Dark Yet? Did that just strike you when you heard it?
David Walker: Well, it did strike me when I heard it, but that phrase took up lodging in my brain, I didn't ask it to go there or stay there, but it did so. And it just recurs, unbidden. So I'll be sitting there thinking about the meaning of life and along comes Bob, and he does It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. But it's interesting how people have read the essay because some see it as optimistic and hopeful because it ends up with therapeutic possibilities that are good, but 'not dark yet' is not necessarily a hopeful message when it's followed by 'it's getting there'.
Ramona Koval: That's right. Let's trace this journey you've been on. You first noticed this wobble in your vision while reading this book The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch, but you thought there was something wrong with the page rather than with your vision. Talk about that.
David Walker: I thought there was probably some kind of typographical problem, and I guess it's also the male response to this kind of thing. There can't be anything dire happening here, there's got to be some simple and easily remediated answer to it. So I sort of waved the page around and I closed one eye and saw how it all went and so on, and then realised that this wasn't typographical, there was something else happening there. But I still at that stage imagined that it was just some kind of temporary blip in the system, that there was nothing dire going on. And while a typographical problem would have been the perfect answer, I then reached for something that was curable or easily sorted out, and that proved not to be the case as well.
Ramona Koval: This essay that you've written which sort of plaits your reading and collecting and writing with the state of your sight all through your life...so I'm now going to talk about the book, like your approach is to your essay. You bought The Asiatics at a fete, and you'd been looking forward to reading it.
David Walker: Yes, I'd known about it for a long time and I just hadn't come across it, and then I was wandering around in one of these church fetes and they had the trestle tables out there and all the books are lined up...
Ramona Koval: And they're mostly not that interesting.
David Walker: That's right, I've never been a great Georgette Heyer fan but there are always truckloads of them. I have read a certain amount of Tom Clancy because he has the Asian theme and terrorism and all those sorts of dramas running through a lot of what he writes, and they're easy to find because they have about a foot-wide spine, so you can't miss them. But then there was The Asiatics and I sort of leapt upon it.
Ramona Koval: I haven't read it but I've read about it, and this was a book that was recommended by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
David Walker: It was, that's right. Gide and others had their comment on it on the spine and ?
Ramona Koval: And is it some kind of road journey?
David Walker: It's a travel book in a way. He travels across Asia and reflects on the nature of those travels and the people that he encounters along the way. He wrote it in his early 30s, so it's a young chap's book but it's just a wonderful reflection on life and its meaning and the cultures through which he moves and the adventures which befall him, which are many.
Ramona Koval: So you get this book and you look forward to reading. How far were you into reading it when the wobble happened?
David Walker: Yes, I got about a third of the way into it when the wobble happened, and I can remember precisely where I was, I was about a third the way down the right-hand page, and I was into...I'm not absolutely sure which part of the world I was into but I can remember how far I was into the book. At that stage it did seem to...it was an impediment to reading but it didn't prevent me from reading at that stage, it was just an irritation. So I plunged on, I kept going, and I actually finished The Asiatics with that getting in the road but not stopping me reading.
Ramona Koval: How long before this irritation became an impediment?
David Walker: I'd imagine that it was about a month later that the great collapse happened, that was November 2004, and I started that week reading and driving and doing the things that people normally do, and ended the week legally blind. I didn't get the label until a bit later because you have to go through lots of tests of course and people have to be confident that you're entitled to be so called. But that's how that week ended. So over about three days the sight just fell away, and that made reading exceptionally difficult. I can't pick up a book and read it. I can read on screen because I can blow up the text, but I can't now pick up a book and read it.
Ramona Koval: Back to the book collections, you've collected books since the 1950s.
David Walker: Yes, that's a bit of a stretch, I think. I'd like to be able to claim credit for the 50s...I suppose I was getting into it in the mid 60s and Dr Thomas Ure's Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, a book which I don't think too many people are reading now, published 1834...
Ramona Koval: But it's a beautiful book, by the sound of it.
David Walker: It's a beautiful book, and it's a paradoxically beautiful book because it's about the factory system which was not a beautiful system. So it's got a lovely embossed cover and a floral design, which struck me as being inappropriate for the...
Ramona Koval: Counter-intuitive.
David Walker: Yes, that's right, it wasn't quite right for the substance, but it is a beautiful book and it's a book that does pick up the theme of the factory system and introduces the factory system and how to do it, and of course I wasn't about to start a cotton manufacturing business in Adelaide which was where I was growing up, but I loved the book and I loved the fact that it was 1834 and I loved the fact that I got it for a shilling.
Ramona Koval: So you love books, and you begin to collect books about Asia, which is what you love as well.
David Walker: Yes, that's right, and the Asia related collecting came a little bit later, but that's right. Books like Alfred Deakin's Irrigated India came along, and there's also his...
Ramona Koval: They don't make politicians like that anymore, do they.
David Walker: They don't make politicians like that anymore, no. He wrote Temple and Tomb in India as well, which I don't have.
Ramona Koval: But you'd like.
David Walker: Which I'd like, yes, so anyone out there with spare copies, please send them in.
Ramona Koval: So let's talk about your relationship to sight and the family, because short-sightedness, which you were when you were a boy, was considered a flaw by your mother when you were growing up. You write about this humorously but I thought this would have been really hard growing up in a house like this. Tell me about that.
David Walker: My mother, Glassom Maude Wallace Bourne Walker.
Ramona Koval: Was she like that too?
David Walker: A bit like that, yes. She was interested in physical culture, a trainee teacher in the late 2s and 30s. The physical culture movement was pretty big on eugenics and racial fitness and so on, and I think she probably got a big dose of the idea that the racially defective shouldn't be reproduced...
Ramona Koval: And therefore she could not reproduce anything that was going to be racially defective herself.
David Walker: That's right, I think she had views along those lines, although she didn't articulate them very clearly to me but I sense that's part of what she was about. Then she had three children and we're all short-sighted to various degrees. And, as I say proudly, the most defective of them all was the third and myself. That, I think, troubled her, that she had brought three short-sighted children into the family or into the world.
Ramona Koval: And she wouldn't let you wear your glasses at home.
David Walker: No, because that telegraphed the defect. I think there was also that sense that wearing glasses weakened the eye muscles, there were a whole lot of mad theories floating around, most of which, unhappily, my mother latched onto, I think. She latched onto that one, she latched onto the idea that glasses weakened the sight rather than strengthened it.
Ramona Koval: And, David Walker, you got used to pretending you had 20/20 vision.
David Walker: Yes. Well, 20/20 is perhaps a bit much but I got used to pretending sight, so I got good at faking sight.
Ramona Koval: So when you were tested, when you went to the doctors you went over to the eye chart, memorised it and then reproduced it.
David Walker: Yes, this was a special gift.
Ramona Koval: Was this to save your mother embarrassment or something?
David Walker: It was to save me embarrassment me really, because I think I'd internalised her sense of embarrassment and the shame that she felt about short-sightedness, and it seemed like an easy way to do it. There was the eye chart. My father would always take me to these infrequent visits to the optometrist, and while he was doing the meeting and greeting I'd check out the eye chart, and I could normally get down three or four lines or further without any trouble.
Ramona Koval: You even tried to get into the army.
David Walker: I didn't try to get into the army, no, the army saw merit in me and they wanted me, which I can quite understand. So my marble came up for Vietnam and, again, I'd sort of formed the view that the ANZAC was barrel-chested and ran up perpendicular cliffs stabbing Turks and so on, and I knew that I hadn't done a lot of that and I suspected that I wouldn't be good at it anyhow. So I went into the army medical very confident that I would fail.
Ramona Koval: But they loved you.
David Walker: They loved me. They thought that they hadn't seen a finer specimen for a long time. And of course my sight was terrific because I'd memorised the eye chart which was my habit and practice, which in retrospect I don't think is gifted behaviour, but we are trapped by our habits.
Ramona Koval: In your essay about losing your sight you write about people's perceptions about how someone legally blind should act and behave. At your father's eulogy...you say; 'I apparently gave such a good speech that some people wondered if I was blind at all. I hadn't realised that giving a bad funeral speech was yet another sign of blindness.' Are you surprised by people's expectation of what happens when you lose sight?
David Walker: Yes, it is one of the really fascinating dimensions of the whole business in a way because...I'm not saying that people behave inappropriately in this regard, I'm not sure that I would have been any better. I didn't know what legally blind was until I achieved it myself. But there is a sense, I think, in which people know what blindness is and know what blindness looks like, and if what they're seeing is not in conformity with that then they begin to wonder.
Ramona Koval: And doubt.
David Walker: And doubt. And the term 'legally blind' ...
Ramona Koval: Do you have to walk into walls or something to prove it?
David Walker: I think so, I think that's not a bad idea if you're legally blind, a small word of advice for the legally blind is to do a bit of that I think. But there is an understandable sense that people are going to behave in a way that signals lack of sight, and I'm often being told by people, 'You don't look blind,' but I'm the one that's doing the seeing. They can see me, you can see me, but I can't see you very clearly, so what is looking blind?
Ramona Koval: You're a professor of Australian studies, as I've said, so you're able to work, but how do you go about your research when, as an historian, you'd be looking at microfilm and documents and that sort of thing?
David Walker: I'm doing much more on research material, getting research material online now because you can blow that up and so on. A lot of material that I used to work with is now difficult for me to access. I have a lot of tea chests full of those badly photocopied gestetner notes from the 1950s.
Ramona Koval: Oh yes, they probably still smell.
David Walker: They do smell, that's right, and that's how I know where they are. But they're difficult, and that's also part of the reason that I've changed the approach. So this kind of writing is a new way of managing that condition.
Ramona Koval: What kind of writing do you mean?
David Walker: The 'Not Dark Yet' essay explores in a more speculative way the connections between family and memory and the Asia related theme, and it permits me to draw more upon memory and the impressions that are lodged within, so that I don't necessarily have to go to the filing cabinet quite as often.
Ramona Koval: Do you think that your loss of sight makes your memory sharper?
David Walker: I wonder about that. I think it does force you back upon memory much more, you have to use it more, and I think in using it more you may draw upon it more and sharpen it and improve it.
Ramona Koval: Do you visualise more in your head?
David Walker: Maybe so, maybe so. I'm not sure about that. People often ask that, it's a question that often comes up actually. One of my flippant answers is the one about one door opening and another closing, to which I reply, 'When you're legally blind you still walk into the closed door.' So I'm not sure that you get the compensatory effect, that if something shuts down then other things improve. But certainly you inhabit that territory much more, you go into that zone much more, that zone of memory and recollection and reflection.
Ramona Koval: Do you feel that it's a liberation to declare this in your essay, this public declaration of the state of your sight, given your years and years of covering up? Your mother didn't even approve of reading very much, did she.
David Walker: No, not really, because reading might aggravate the condition, so she was not terribly much in favour of that. Yes, in a way...and it's always been a subject that I've wanted to address in a sense, I've always been interested in where that phobia came from in her and what its implications were for me and my sister and brother, and just what it meant. So writing about it...it was always a subject lying there for me, but when I achieved legal blindness then it sort of sat up and said take notice of this and write about it because it did present itself as a subject then in an unequivocal way.
Ramona Koval: So finally, will it all go dark completely?
David Walker: No, it won't. The eye specialist says that my peripheral vision will hold up and that's likely to remain the case. The centre of the field of vision will continue to deteriorate, so that will worsen. Of course the other possibility is I might get glaucoma which he's also treating me for which is where the site starts to deteriorate peripherally. So that's the worst case, but we won't think about that at the moment.
Ramona Koval: Because you've got lots to write about in the interim...and very interesting. Thank you so much for talking to us today, David Walker.
David Walker: Not at all, my pleasure.
Ramona Koval: David Walker is Professor of Australian Studies at Deakin University. His essay 'Not Dark Yet' is in the latest edition of Heat literary magazine, and he's the author of Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939.