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off the shelf: interviews with our book donors

Peter Dowding

Peter Dowding was the 24th Premier of Western Australia. He has worked for several law firms during his career, specialising as a barrister in the areas of family and native-title law.

Our beautiful Centre for Stories reading room and library was made possible with book donations from generous people, including staff, volunteers and friends, all with one very important thing in common: their love of books. We decided to sit down with three of our donors who have delivered us books by the box load on several occasions. Their love of the written word is inspiring, thought-provoking, and will remind you how powerful books really are.

Peter Dowding was the 24th Premier of Western Australia. He has worked for several law firms during his career, specialising as a barrister in the areas of family and native-title law. He was appointed as Senior Counsel in Western Australia in 2002.

Centre for Stories: What got you into reading when you were younger?

Peter Dowding: Everyone read. We didn’t have television and my father prohibited comics on the basis that they were somehow bad for you. I could never quite work out what the aetiology behind that was. Of course I rebelled and read them anyway. But books were always really exciting things. The books that I particularly loved and hit with a passion were the Swallows and Amazons sequence. I loved those books. They were really escapism. So yeah, I used to read avidly.

CFS: Is there a book in the collection that you gave us that is particularly special?

PD: I haven’t given away any of the ones that stand out as special to me! Obviously a lot of these books are historically very important, and they contain a huge wealth of Australia’s history. A massive wealth of Australia’s history. One would hope that people would read all of this stuff. I mean in a sense, you say “well I know it”, but I mean, you don’t know it. You know bits of it, and if you were doing a research project you’d want to dip into them. They’re terribly important bits of stories.

CFS: So the books that you’ve kept at home in your collection, why did they make the cut? Why are they the special ones?

PD: Why didn’t I give those away? Well there were four categories. The first was books that were too trivial to give away. Then there were the books which were hand-me-downs from my mother, who died when I was young, and were her prizes at school. I’ve kept those obviously. And then there were the books in my general collection which have a number of sub-categories. There’s the West-Australiana that I’m very, very interested in. Then there’s the sub-group of explorers’ yarns that I quite like. That is the discovery of places, which I’m interested in because it’s the way in which people observe things and the way in which they’re unaware of what they’re seeing and they interpret them in different ways, and I quite like that.

And then there are books about the second world war, and books that relate to the operation of the escape route organisations during the war. And then there’s my collection of John McCrae and novels that I go back to when I’m feeling gloomy and reread. I confess to now owning a Kindle, and buying a lot of stuff on kindle that I don’t particularly see the need to retain as a physical book. But if it’s a book that I want to be able to keep, or search rather than just read, I might buy it on Kindle as well as the physical copy.

CFS: What role have books played in your life?

PD: There is such a wealth of experience out there for anyone that reads. You wonder now what experience people are going to get when they’re limiting their knowledge and information to five lines in a limited form of communication. It’s such a different thing. I look at the kids that I work with in the law, I get a lot of young solicitors between the age of 25 and 40, and I don’t think any of them read. I don’t think any of them read books. And that’s crazy. That’s just a weird environment, and a closed environment. You’re not even getting a daily feed to take your mind away from stuff, you’re just limited to the space that you’ve living in. I think that’s very bad.

CFS: Why do you think that is? Why don’t you think they read?

PD: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if that’s a learned laziness, a learned thing. I mean, you’re not satisfied by just reading tweets, but Donald Trump seems to be. But there you are, I mean for the head of the second most powerful country to be primarily communicating by watching an appallingly known biased television resource, and then to be communicating with the world with something that allows 180 characters or something, it’s so bizarre. It’s so far away from anything we could imagine. So it doesn’t compute. So you ask why people don’t read, I have absolutely no idea. I think the other aspect of it is reading on a computer screen versus reading a book. I think that reading on a computer screen is pretty tiring, and you’re also conflating two activities.

You’re combining this technology that is light and fast and wonderful, and maybe I’ll check my emails while I’m about it, with an experience that goes inside a book. Kindle I think is very different to reading on a computer screen though. It’s quite similar to reading a paperback, there is a book experience reading on a Kindle. I don’t know how many books I have on my Kindle, I’ve got quite a lot, and I find it’s a great way to read.

“There is such a wealth of experience out there for anyone that reads. You wonder now what experience people are going to get when they’re limiting their knowledge and information to five lines in a limited form of communication. It’s such a different thing.”

CFS: Can you pick two or three books that have had a major influence on you?

PD: Well it depends which stage of this life you’re talking about! I think in the first instance it was books like Winnie the Pooh, Arthur Ransome and so on. In my teen years, I don’t really remember the standouts until I got to the genre ofCatch 22, and that sort of thing. That would have been during the ages of 15-17, when we were sort of pretending intellectual resistors. And then, later on, Kerouac and those sorts of people were influential. Also, in my youth I read a lot of books around returned servicemen about the outrages during the wars. Philip Roth, of course, D.H. Lawrence and so forth, they were all pretty influential. And then I’ve always been influenced by people like Graham Greene and John McCrae who tell stories in a way that gives you a really good insight into the place you live.

CFS: In terms of your interest in Aboriginal history, what kind of books reflect what really happened, or are fairly true in terms of colonial history?

PD: Well that’s the funny thing about it, one of the rants that I had in the Upper House when I was elected was about the West Australian year book of 1982 or 1983 or something. One of the rants I had about it was that it described in detail the development of the gold fields, the cattle industry, the fishing industry, this that and the other, and then it had one line about Aboriginals, “oh they were a bloody nuisance and killed a lot of sheep in Pinjarra”. That was the limit of the analysis of it. So when people like Henry Reynolds and to a lesser extent, Tom Stannage, wrote about those things, they produced really electric outcomes. Often it was written about in a really university language, and it didn’t convey the outrage. There was an anthropologist called Rowley who wrote a series of books which, in retrospect are a bit limited in their world view, but really started to uncover and layout just the injustice that existed. I think there were three books that he wrote about indigenous affairs, and they were really fascinating. And they’re some of the books that I’ve collected from people who have come from overseas who were here just after the turn of the 19th Century. They were so much more perceptive than the English and Irish settlers, so much more. They were just horrified of the way people behaved and conducted themselves towards Aboriginal people.Copyright © 2018 Peter Dowding

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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