LATHAM AS LITERARY DIARIST
THE LATHAM DIARIES: A Book Review.
SO how does The Latham Diaries stack up as literature?
Has a writer and diarist the calibre of Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank avoided the radar of the international publishing world in the form of Mark Latham, and suddenly come into bloom?
The published diary is a perilous form. You either have an astonishing story to tell (Frank), or you possess a genius to portray yourself and your age with scrupulous detail and honesty (Pepys).
If those two prerequisites are absent, you must at least be very, very famous.
Firstly, the story Latham has to tell is not particularly astonishing. The tale of a former city council honcho from western Sydney and his struggle to overthrow the leader of the day, and failing, is about as enticing as quick-drying cement. That he never even manages to secure the ultimate crown would be considered, by any reasonable publisher or editor, a plot flaw.
Secondly, Latham’s prose style is so completely devoid of colour, and details of place, and psychological observations beyond the orbit of his own cranium, that he may have invented a new genre. It is breathtaking to read a diary that claims, in its introduction, to be a “fly-on-the-wall” record, when its only anchor to time and place is a sequence of calendar dates. No fly, just blank wall.
Latham states, in his Author’s Note, that the diaries “were not originally written for publication”. There is a whiff of mischief in this declaration.
The diaries open with young Latham’s elevation to Federal politics via the Sydney seat of Werriwa. Latham claims the idea of keeping an occasional diary came to him by observing another diarist, Senator Stephen Loosley.
The years 1994 to 1997 are covered in 68 pages. The year 2004 occupies 145 pages. It can be argued that Latham’s attachment to his diary grew the more historically significant he thought himself to be. It is curious, though, that the busier he became in Australian political life, the more time he had to devote to his diaries.
More importantly, around the year 2000, Latham’s prose style undergoes a subtle shift. The years prior to this are largely quick jottings in present tense. Post-2000, however, the prose leans heavily towards past tense. This shift in the diary’s tenses is a coda to some sort of post-event hindsight, a signpost to some form of revisionism rather than the immediate present-tense snapshots of earlier years.
This stylistic fissure suggests that Latham either became more ponderous and reflective in the way he approached his diaries, or he refashioned his journal at a later time. The shift in tenses suggests the latter.
The suspicion that Latham fleshed out his diaries in retirement is supported by the text’s sudden turnaround of authorial voice. In the lean, early years, Latham’s voice is naïve and seemingly reactionary to the day’s events.
In the final years, this changes profoundly. Somewhere the text crosses an invisible line, and Latham begins addressing not himself – as a diary by definition should – but some sort of nebulous reader.
He says, for example, of ABC journalist Liz Jackson. “You know the type: upper-class background, thinks she’s an expert on poverty…” But who is the ‘you’ he’s addressing?
In another example, he talks of the “filthy” rumours about him and writes: “Should I tell Janine (his wife), or just ignore it?” To whom is he asking this question? An omniscient reader of this diaries originally written not for publication?
The diaries, too, are striking for their sheer volume of childish and adolescent references to defecation and other bodily functions. Everything is shit and crap to Latham, and he even uses an unsourced quote from Mao Zedung about farts. Not even this throws colour at his lifeless prose.
There is too, repeated evidence of Latham’s immature psychological make-up. He is constantly querying why people aren’t coming to his defence, or are leaving him “stranded”, and questioning his “survival”. “Somebody save me…” he writes tellingly.
One of the book’s primary themes, too, is something that echoes from 1950s Australia. He constantly badgers on about working class people up against the snobs, the elites, the well-heeled from the “upper” class. This simplistic attitude informs much of Latham’s behaviour.
Curiously, the diaries feature many quotes from or allusions to great and menacing figures in history, both factual and fictional. He quotes Ulysses S. Grant (in relation to Kim Beazley’s interest in the American Civil War): “The best man for the job does not go after the job. He waits to be called.”
But could he possibly mean the actual Grant quote, which reads: “"It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may expect the most efficient service." That Latham feels at liberty to lazily paraphrase a former US President and historical heavyweight says something about his self-image.
At one point, too, Latham is unhappy with a press photograph of himself which he claims makes him look like Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the Marlon Brando figure in the film Apocalypse Now. He also asks, at one point, if he is a “prophet”.
As a read, the only thing giving Latham’s diaries any real interest are their timely associations with current recognisable names in the Australian political and media landscape. It is, then, the perfect book for our times – titillating, gossipy, bitter, hollow and totally of the moment.
It is not difficult to imagine tattered copies of The Latham Diaries filling shelves in second-hand bookshops in five years’ time, when the bulk of those names in the book’s index have been forgotten.
It is similarly likely that in a decade from now, someone will pull a copy of this book out of a discount bin and ask – who was Mark Latham?