We think in language: Don Watson

Language barrier: Author Don Watson a wordsmith at heart

DONALD Watson - former political speech writer, historian, author and polymath - speaks from a presence that is moulded from a lifetime in academia and politics.

But his language - the words, tone and humour - is still grounded in the hard dirt of the Gippsland farm where he grew up.

It's around 6pm and Watson takes to the stage of the old museum in Brisbane to promote his latest book There It Is Again, a collection of 25 years of writing, and discuss a topic close to his heart: language.

Dressed in a long sleeved white shirt, minus the tie, replete with grey business pants secured by a thin black belt, Watson looks very much like a bureaucrat who has just finished a long day at the office.

In some ways, Watson fulfils the original idealised version of a civil servant - a man who puts service to king (or equivalent) and country above himself in whatever area of government he has taken up employment.

At 78 years old, Watson has spent a good deal of time out of bureaucracy, but for four years from 1992, when he was in the position of Paul Keating's speech writer, he seems to have adhered to the version of dedicated, talented, if not brilliant public servant. 

Yet, today, the man he served, has renounced him. 

The relationship snapped after Watson, in his book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM (2003) revealed that Paul Keating read, word for word, arguably Watson's most famous political works: the speech better known as the Redfern speech.


Don Watson said that, despite the fallout from his public battle with former Prime Minister Paul Keating, he
Don Watson said that, despite the fallout from his public battle with former Prime Minister Paul Keating, he "loved the bloke". Gail Forrer

Keating took umbrage and claimed the speech was a joint effort, worked from numerous conversations together. But Watson explains his statement as simply stating the pleasure a speechmaker feels when it seems the speaker has given him total approval.

The dispute over authorship meant Watson, who said he could have once imagined Keating and himself sharing good company together in old age home, has now developed into alternate views. These day's his future vision includes a scenario, where the two of them if parked next to each other in wheelchairs, would result in Keating letting let loose of the brakes and watching calmly as his former ally flew off a cliff.

Still, while that story provokes a bit of laughter from the audience, he adds another dimension to the narrative: "I loved the bloke."

And Watson says what he means. This is, after all, the author of Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Can't & Management Jargon (2004). 

On stage, he laments that language no longer has 'a sense of the sacred', that politicians, public servants, corporate organisations and the media a treat language 'as a bit of trash'.

There's plenty that Watson finds disturbing in our world, but mentions several times the things he finds calming, such as taking a bigger view of the world; he doubts that technology advances are bigger than ever and compares the arrival of the refrigerator to the iPad.

His view of the current political landscape doesn't support a positive mindset: He thinks current politicians are not culturally specific enough, that their politics are simply poll driven, rather than sprung from strong personal convictions. However, he names Penny Wong as the rare politician who displays some nous.

Moving from the bigger view to the personal, he says he's in agreement with the words of Oscar Wilde: "The Trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings."

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