Don Watson has been an academic historian, a speechwriter and a satirist. What has linked all these different stages of his working life has been his astonishing ability as a writer.
Watsonia is a compilation of Watson’s writing that racks up an impressive 500 pages. The book covers Watson’s writing on politics, sport, nature and a myriad of other topics. The book includes addresses, articles, editorials and essays. His range of interests moves from a complex relationship with the United States to an intense fascination with Australian political life, sport, nature, and writing. The compilation shows a man interested in everything around him. Watson comes across as a person who enjoys life, and all it has to offer.
Looking back through many decades of writing, the most striking aspect of the speeches and journalism is the wonderfully high standard throughout. There is barely a lazy sentence or a misused word. It is simply a pleasure to read.
While he covers a wide range of topics, it is politics that is his lifeblood. In most cases, accounts of political leaders by their staff are of little value – aside as primary source material for other biographers. But when Watson wrote Recollections of a Bleeding heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, he showed that a staff member could provide insight into one of Australia’s most important political figures. No future writer on the Prime Minister can hope to avoid this work – such is its importance. In this book, Watson discusses his famous dispute with Keating over the Redfern speech, which helped define the former Prime Minister’s legacy on indigenous issues. The section in his biography started a dispute over the authorship of aspects of the seminal speech. This section is a fascinating insight into the dynamic between politicians and their speechwriters.
More than political recollections, Watson is a superb commentator. The compilation includes Watson’s 2001 Quarterly Essay Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America, which deservedly won the inaugural Alfred Deakin Prize in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. It is a piece of astonishing political insight, underpinned by excellent writing. The essay shows great scholarship and a finely honed mind dissecting the American relationship with the United States. Weaving in observations from John Updike’s Rabbit books, Watson produced an essay that still says something profound close to 20 years after its release.
Prime Ministers over the decades are the subject of strong critical analysis. With every insight – particularly those of the Labor camp – Watson produces a mixture of rage and razor-sharp thinking. The politicians may have the power, but people such as Watson will write their epitaph. Watsonia will not be comfortable reading for those political leaders that followed Keating.
When he writes about the United States, Watson shows a clear love-hate relationship with the country. His essay on the impact of Hurricane Katrina shows how the United States’ individualistic culture can fall apart – bringing forth comments that the USA has become a failed state. In light of recent events, his view seems highly prescient. You can feel the regret as he writes about the United States’ failure to plan for or deal with the disaster. The book was compiled while Covid was ravaging the United States, but Watson had already spelled out American self-destructive nature.
As a worthy successor to George Orwell, Watson is a clear defender of plain English and firmly set against the bureaucratic language that is strangling political and civic thought. His pieces on writing form another important part of his writing legacy. Through a series of books and some commentary pieces, he has railed against the dead hand of bureaucratic speech and thought.
We can only hope that this book does not represent the end of Watson’s writing career. In an age dominated by Fox News commentators’ squawking, it is a pleasure to read an intelligent, perceptive commentator with a wide range of interests. Watson is not afraid to quote writers such as Hazlitt and uses terms like ‘neo-Hellenist’ and uses them properly.
The one flaw is that the book lacks an index, which is annoying as Watson is an important thinker, and it would have added to the book’s value to be able to compare his thoughts on people or issues over time.
Overall, the book is a wonderful compilation of intelligent responses to the past few decades’ issues and events. In it, Watson has further cemented himself as a formidable man of letters.
Watsonia: A Writing Life is out now through Black Inc ($49.99).