Christopher Pearson

In March 1984, a young Mark Jamieson founded a magazine known as The Adelaide Review, editing it from a small office at number 13 Hindley Street in the city. The fledgling publication aimed to “reflect the intensive motivation and enthusiasm of innovative people who believe in freedom of speech and the public’s right to alternative news sources.” After half a dozen issues, the magazine fell on hard times and one of Mark’s writers, Christopher Pearson, took up the reins.

Mark Jamieson had written in that first editorial that many independent publications had been started in South Australia, yet none had survived; next year, 2014, The Adelaide Review will celebrate 30 years of contribution to the life of both Adelaide and the nation. That longevity is due in no small part to the remarkable achievements of Christopher Pearson. This month, we pay tribute to the recently departed, central figure in our publication’s history. The Adelaide Review asked some of those who knew Christopher Pearson well, and worked with him across his career, to pen words by way of tribute. I have given up on fathoming how the universe plies its trade. A short while ago I found myself locked in one of those intense conversations with Christopher. The subject was an obit he was writing on Howard Twelftree to appear in the following day’s Australian. In a curious reversal of roles I found myself at Christopher’s invitation ‘editing’ bits of his piece for accuracy and balance. The tenor of this conversation weighed heavily when I read a day later of his sudden death. It was Howard who suggested I turn up at Paringa Building in Hindley Street for a launch party of something called The Adelaide Review. On a ‘let’s see what you’ve got’ basis, Christopher took me on as the Review’s visual art writer for the princely sum of an occasional bottle of Petaluma which Michael Vanstone somehow managed to keep from Pearson’s grasp for the contributors. I recall that the general mood of the gathering. It seemed that I had walked into a Thomas Rowlandson early 19th century print with ‘Lord’ Pearson holding court in the company of various sparkish gentlemen. From my experience he was a gimlet-eyed but supportive arts editor in that he rarely slashed or rewrote, even when confronted with my attempts to explain such things as installation art to a skeptical public (and editor). Only on one occasion did he weigh in, when my review of a tepid Blake Prize show aroused some public ire because I quoted William Blake to suggest the organisers have a good look at themselves. In formulating a response Christopher was in his element. When the legacy of the Review’s significant coverage and promotion of visual arts and design in Adelaide over the last thirty years is evaluated Christopher’s editorial role deserves full measure. John Neylon I met Christopher in 1996. It was a bit like meeting a rather grand ruin, and this was matched by my experience of his crumbling nineteenth century country house at Delamere. There one would progress from rather impressive front rooms to the bedrooms, with their damp patches and mice, to the kitchen where anything left out would draw the attention of larger rodents. As a former book publisher himself, Christopher was very kind to me then, and this continued when I wrote my biography of Tony Abbott. He did mention once that he dropped people who no longer interested him, and that was my fate years later, when I turned from politics to the writing of detective fiction. He was never a man for popular culture. But we were friends for a long time, and I valued this deeply, not least because there were so few conservatives in the arts, then as now. He was very generous with his advice and a fabulous conversationalist. He was an exotic creature, and there was something magnificent and brave about his complete dedication to the pleasures of the table and his determined lack of interest, by the time I knew him, in all forms of physical activity. I always thought of it as a form of defiance against the spirit of the times, although it might well have had deeper psychological roots. In one of our last conversations, when he was typically stoical about his cancer, he told me how he’d had to tell a doctor who’d prescribed a ridiculously moderate quantity of painkiller that he was a “bottle and a half a day man”, and would need something stronger. I miss him very much. Michael Duffy   The Adelaide Review may be Christopher Pearson’s chief monument but it is certainly not the only one. Under Christopher’s editorship, the Review was not only a lively chronicler of the life of this city but also sought to influence national debates, in part through giving a platform to members of parliament who Christopher thought had something useful to say. I am indebted to Christopher for a monthly column that ran in the Review for about a decade and also for priceless, lasting lessons casually imparted over the phone in how to write better: make every sentence count; always know exactly what you want to say and say it clearly; never use ten words when one will do; and if it sounds contrived, don’t let it appear in print. Christopher was a fine writer but he was a peerless editor. There has been almost nothing that I have drafted since becoming an MP that Christopher did not cast his expert eye over. He inspired the writing of my first book, The Minimal Monarchy, which was edited around the kitchen table at his beloved country house at Delamere. My most recent book, Battlelines, was edited in his upstairs room at Hurtle Square. For twenty years, he was my editor but first and foremost he was my friend. To know Christopher well was to have a grandstand seat at the clash of mighty emotions as well as to have the benefit of a fine mind and a good heart. For many, certainly for me, the world is now painted in richer, truer colours thanks to Christopher. His spirit lives on in the hearts of those who loved him. Tony Abbott His friends feel the loss of Christopher more and more with each passing day. I first got to know him in the mid-1990s. It was Auberon Waugh who brought us together, or more precisely Senator (as she then was) Amanda Vanstone who had invited Waugh to South Australia to promote the wine industry. Waugh introduced me to Christopher. He said I was ‘a brother.’ (I think he meant we were all editors – Waugh of the London Literary Review, Christopher of The Adelaide Review, I of Quadrant.) Christopher thereupon recruited me as an occasional writer and later regular columnist for The Adelaide Review. I found him a sympathetic and always helpful editor – one of the best I have ever worked for. In 1996 I was able to persuade him to contribute his brilliant autobiographical essay on homosexuality to a symposium I was editing for the publisher Jennifer Byrne called Double Take; Six Incorrect Essays. His chapter, ‘The Ambiguous Business of Coming Out’, was at once memoir, manifesto and harbinger of his conversion to the Catholic faith. A couple of years later Christopher persuaded me to serve with the late John Wheeldon, formerly a Whitlam minister, on Tony Abbott’s ‘Australians for Honest Government’ which Abbott had set up to combat Hansonism. In recent years he wrote a weekly and characteristically unpredictable column for The Australian. His was a unique voice in our newspapers – liberal and conservative, learned and stylish, generous and discriminating. The column had far more influence than he seemed aware of. A few weeks ago Nick Cater invited me to a small party at his home in Sydney where Christopher was to be one of the guests. Unfortunately I was unable to make it. For the rest of my life I will regret this last and missed opportunity to say hullo to an old and irreplaceable friend. Peter Coleman 300 words on the subject of Christopher Pearson? Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 30,000 words and Christopher probably wasn’t far behind, but they wouldn’t be enough to do him justice. Here are a few, often contradictory: erudite in his speech, epicurean in his appetites, elephantine in his memory of poetry and grudges, but equally and often instantly forgiving. He could be malicious, he could be generous and loving. He was a serious hypochondriac who also had more serious co-morbidities than could fit on his death certificate. He was a wind tunnel of gossip about his friends, but when we were in trouble there was no safer harbour. I was his often astonished confidant, he was an uncle to my children. He was a reliable Miss Manners in matters of social etiquette, who was also often personally rude. In other words, he was like most of us, but even more torn. And not so much larger than life, as larger than any attempt to understand his life. He was a sexual libertarian who became an abstinent Catholic. He was a wild young man who stood for parliament after changing his name by deed poll to ‘Pure Fruit and Nuts’, then later became a speech-writer for a conservative PM. He contained multitudes. He was Rumpole, Mr Micawber, Machiavelli. I often shaved off bits of him for my characters: a gay IVF embryologist in a novel, a sexually secretive medical professor in a short story. I split him in two to create a lesbian couple in my last novel, but I only scraped a parodic surface. I fondly remember him at the opening night party after the stage adaptation of Honk If You Are Jesus, sharing a drink with the actor who played ‘him’ and offering advice. He had been an altar boy at St Augustine’s Anglican Unley, and St Augustine was great touchstone for him, from his early years – ‘Lord make me chaste, but not yet’ to his later look-back-in-pained-surprise years. I urged him for a decade to break his addiction to the daily breathlessness of Canberra politics, and write his own Confessions, the story of his astonishing intellectual and emotional trajectory. I desperately hope that the manuscript turns up among his papers, or his hard discs. It would put to shame everything the rest of us can write about him. Peter Goldsworthy   ‘Uncle Christopher’ was a fixture of my childhood, but I came to know him better after I finished school, and began proof-reading at this newspaper. The Adelaide Review was Christopher, and contained all of his contradictions. He was a gifted collector, and stocked its pages with talent. It presented a version of Adelaide that was enlightened and urbane, committed to the examined (if chardonnay-soaked) life. Proof-reading it was an education, when I allowed myself to pay attention to meaning. When not out to lunch, Christopher seemed to spend his days on the telephone: king-maker, town gossip, consigliore. He could be stern – as when I allowed an errant ‘n’ to sneak past in restaurateur, a misspelling that terrifies me to this day – and was always keen to engage me in office politics. But he was also generous. After a few months, my name appeared in the inside cover, in very small font but nonetheless – as I’m sure he anticipated – gloriously. Sometime later I resigned, in order to concentrate on the piano, and he dressed me down as a ‘scapegrace’. But he forgave me enough to publish me occasionally over my student years, and then monthly. I cannot think of a better first byline. Anna Goldsworthy   In 2008, after nearly a quarter of a century as a parliamentarian and Cabinet minister, I began work as a visiting professor of politics at Adelaide University. Within weeks of holding this august role, I read a circular email from a fellow academic asking the academic staff in the School of History and Politics to explain why all academics were left wing. I cautiously sent a brief explanation that relatively low paid pedagogic work was less attractive to bright, ambitious young people than the professions, banking and the key areas of public service like Treasury and Foreign Affairs and Trade. It seemed a reasonable reply but the email sender replied aggressively that the most intelligent people are left wing. Wow, I thought. I didn’t know academics were society’s most intelligent people! But I do know that in Australia the academic and intellectual communities have been hijacked by social democrats, socialists, Marxists and other variations of paternalistic left wing sects. It’s the fashion and has been for decades. Enter, stage right, Christopher Pearson. He was a man of the right. And he was a true intellectual: well read, fascinated by the central theological and political debates of our times – and earlier times – and determined to explore through scholarship truth as he saw it. Christopher was not just a scholar; he was a writer of rare ability. He had the capacity to describe what these days are called complex issues in simple and clear terms. But he could do more than that. He could combine his scholarship, his clarity and a prodigious vocabulary to articulate a compelling argument. I’ll let you into a secret. Twice I used Christopher to write speeches for me. The first was the Sir Thomas Playford lecture at Adelaide University which was a call to the churches to promote theology and hope rather than play ephemeral politics. The other was the Earl Page lecture at New England University which challenged the leftist and seemingly accepted version of history denying the huge achievements of conservative leaders from Hughes to Lyons to Menzies to Howard. On both occasions, Christopher came to my office and we discussed at great length the ideas I wanted to articulate. He then crafted the speeches, draft after draft, like a painter trying to get the right tone in his work. The speeches themselves caused the predicted and desired controversy. My advice to all young people is simple: live a useful life. Christopher Pearson did more than that. He was one of the defining intellectuals of our age. His premature and unexpected death was, yes, a disaster for so many of us. Alexander Downer The papers tell us Chris Pearson died peacefully in his sleep. I hope it was peaceful. These last years, since losing control of his life’s great work, The Adelaide Review, he generally looked quite glum to me, on my rare visits to Adelaide. Would that he had died hereafter – or found revival in another high project. To give some idea, our very last talk, during last year’s Adelaide Festival, was about cremation versus burial. I was for cremation, till he informed me it had been pushed in late Roman times as a pagan defiance of Christianity, which held the body sacred. In the high days of his journal’s fight against the left’s cultural hegemony in Australia, our yarns had been merry, full of the clatter from his city’s best stables. And I still owe him for at least two great favours. One was several years ago, when I’d been invited to the festival but was not really welcome: he arranged a reading for me away from the mob-ruled venue. The other was when I’d embarked on a very long verse novel and, having seen only the first of its five sections, he undertook to publish the whole thing serial fashion. Each year, a whole book of what would be titled Fredy Neptune appeared in The Adelaide Review’s centre pages. No critical needles, no pleas for abridgement: his trust in his author was total. And five successive payments by installment added to an eventual advance and royalties were a very real help to our family’s financial survival. Les Murray  

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