the speaker asked and then named my father, "Read any Patrick White?"
Nobody in the room put their hand up.
I can remember, at age fourteen, feeling faintly embarrassed by this - and who, I wondered, was Patrick White? Did he matter?
My father had to study White as part of his university degree in English. White came in under the compulsory unit on Australian literature or it is likely that even my father would not have read any of his work.
It is the centenary of White's birth this coming week. He was, until JM Coetzee became an Australian citizen, our only Nobel Prize winner in literature. Along with Christina Stead he is regarded by some as a towering and highly influential figure in Australian literary history. He is an academic's novelist.
I suspect that the vast majority of Australians have no idea who he is and have never read any of his work.
At the time of publication it was regarded as "unAustralian" - whatever that may mean.
I also suspect that his homosexuality made many people uncomfortable in an age when same-sex relationships were considered much less acceptable than they are now.
I would probably have taken very little notice of him except for the question put by the speaker at a gathering of the public to hear an author speak. At fourteen I was not interested in reading him anyway.
I did not study English at tertiary level. I was never required to read White. I have not read him. I have tried but his writing simply does not interest me. I met him. That was enough.
I was fortunate enough to meet many writers through my friendship with Judith Wright. In later years Judith, growing increasingly deaf, would sometimes ask me to accompany her to an event so that I could -discreetly - interpret for her.
Patrick White, a notorious non-attender at many things, happened to be present on one occasion. The two of them clashed but they were both involved in something and they needed to speak to each other. Judith had to speak to someone else she knew well. She decided that Patrick White could wait but I could entertain him - or he could entertain me. She introduced me with the words,
"This is Cat. And be polite to her. She writes too."
White was not in a congenial sort of mood at all. I believe he rarely was at functions he had to attend. He looked me up and down. Naturally I was tongue tied, all too conscious that I could not say I had read any of his books - or that I liked them.
"Write? I suppose you can put two words together if she says you can. You might be able to write something when you are as old as I am."
It was, I believe, a typical sort of comment. I wonder if I will ever be able to read his work?