Dark Yet - Securing Australia’s place in Asia
David Walker has won a major ARC grant despite being legally
Professor Walker’s project will “examine the broadening
debates of Australia’s Asian futures from 1972 to the
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.
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
Ramona Koval: So you get this book and you look forward to
reading. How far were you into reading it when the wobble
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
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
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,
David Walker: They don't make politicians like that anymore,
no. He wrote Temple and Tomb in India as well, which I don't
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
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
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
David Walker: Yes, this was a special gift.
Ramona Koval: Was this to save your mother embarrassment or
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
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
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
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.