Tucked away between two imposing buildings in Pitt Street in up-town Sydney is the The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts (SMSA). I doubt many Sydney-siders even know this little gem of a place exists. But before you jump to the conclusion I had enrolled in a class on how to tune my car, I should tell you the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts is Australia’s oldest lending library (opened in 1833) and home to the Tom Keneally Centre which houses the research collection of the world-renowned author, Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List). The room is cosy and inviting and reflects the look and feel of Keneally’s original library.
You are probably wondering as I did, the history of the library’s origins and why the word “Mechanics” features in its name. The SMSA was founded in an adult education movement which originated in Scotland in the 1820s. It quickly spread throughout the English-speaking world. “Mechanics,” was used in this context, as a reference to people working in technical trades or as artisans. There was a belief at the time that society would benefit from a better-educated working class. The movement eventually evolved to include middle-class professionals, merchants, shopkeepers, clerks and office workers and provided a means of recreation for their members.
Now, to return to the reason why I was in the Tom Keneally Centre. I was invited by Kerry, a writing buddy of mine, to attend a talk by Australian mystery and crime writer, B Michael Radburn. I had just finished reading his first novel, The Crossing, a gripping tale of redemption set in the Tasmanian wilderness, so I jumped at the opportunity to hear him speak. I was not disappointed. Radburn was an engaging speaker and a loveable character who began writing in response to a troubled childhood.
Apart from his successful writing career, Radburn is also a talented musician. I knew we were in for a treat when he sat down on the sofa and began strumming his guitar. He explained to the audience how slowing down the pace of the lyrics of a song can take on a completely different feel and meaning. He cited Janis Joplin’s song, “Me and Billy McGee” as an example. Radburn’s rendition was a slow lament, calling up memories of past lives and lost loves. I hope nobody noticed that rogue tear that trickled down my cheek during his performance.
As writers we all know pace is a crucial component of fiction writing. It controls the speed and rhythm of the story. To deliver drama the pace speeds up, to express emotion, the pace slows. If you read the following lines to “Me and Billy McGee” slowly, Radburn’s point about pace becomes obvious.
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,
Nothing, that’s all that Bobby left me, yeah,
But feeling good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues,
Hey, feeling good was good enough for me, hmm hmm,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”
What did I take away with me from B Michael Radburn’s talk? Writers write for all sorts of reasons but mainly because they need to.