It is an observation of mine that often the people I meet who possess a rich appreciation for history also tend to be great commentators of the present day. I’m not sure if it’s the ability to contextualise against past events with such authority or if it’s just that they happen to possess a curious mind. Within the first few minutes of sitting down in a local cafe with Michael Veitch it was evident he is one of those people. He has an academic knowledge of history with a slightly intimidating mind that is nimble across current affairs. The conversation immediately twists and turns, meandering down the path of family stories then swiftly changing to observations on current political events and a multitude of snippets in between. Some of us would be familiar with Michael’s work on Fast Forward, D Generation and Full Frontal, or maybe you caught him as he fronted the Sunday Arts show for four years on the ABC, but more recently he has been writing. Of course there is also the work in radio and performing in theatre. A multi-talented character that clearly thrives on a project.
Michael is from a family of journalists and clever minds. The pursuit of knowledge and a desire to chronicle events seems to be a trait that he has enthusiastically and skillfully taken on. It only took moments before I was swept away in a story of his father, including finding his old watch in my hand and trying to read the inscription on the back J C V. His father was apparently a determined man with not much time for a childhood, as was often the case for that generation, and ended up running a newspaper by the age of sixteen. “Dad was in no way perfect but he was an affectionate man for his day, was relentlessly, even foolishly, optimistic. He was the first born son of a poor family, self-made and self-educated and so had the self assuredness that follows.” There is more than a hint of the raconteur about Michael and I ask if it was always his plan to move more into writing as his vehicle for storytelling.
“It’s a kind of icing and cake thing. I see the writing as the thing I have always been meant to do, but I do like the acting side as well. It’s fun and when I feel like I’m on top of it, it’s a huge buzz. Writing is more of a slow-burn buzz but ultimately deeper and more satisfying. They’re totally different activities, utilising utterly different compartments of my brain, and changing from one to the other is like assuming another personality entirely. With the Flak project I get to do both and it’s extremely satisfying, perhaps the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”
Flak is a book Michael wrote in 2006. He spent twelve months travelling around Australia interviewing old aircrew from the war. Gathering the very personal accounts, from men often in their eighties, of what it was truly like to be a part of the Second World War was an enormous challenge. The result is a compilation of stories that are at times touching, sometimes filled with horror, but always overwhelmingly honest. A particularly personal project that was inspired by a lifelong love of the aircraft from the era. This obsession, coupled with a sense that a generation of extraordinary stories was potentially about to be lost, compelled Michael to complete the project with some haste.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and something I feel an enormous sense of responsibility for it, as though it was a task I was predestined to do, even though I don’t really believe in any of that business! What started as simply an act of story-gathering, almost voyeuristic in a way, has evolved to me feeling like the custodian of these wonderful mens’ most dramatic memories.”
The book has been adapted into a play that is touring Australia and has also found it’s way into the Victorian schools system, such is the strength of both its dramatic and historic value. ‘Fly’ was written as an extension of Flak in 2008 and then the captivating, ‘The Forgotten Islands’ was written in 2011. ‘The Forgotten Islands’ follows a journey that started out as a childhood story told to Michael as a twelve year old boy by a rather morally dubious but infectiously charming family friend. The reader is taken on a terrific, slightly magical, expedition through the little known islands that sit between mainland Australia and Tasmania. Michael chronicles the search for the story as narrator, enthusiastic explorer and often as the victim of the incredible forces of nature. It has the impetus of a great ‘boys own adventure story,’ but also holds the disappointments that come with what actually happens when we chase dreamlike stories into remote areas, both figuratively and literally.
The hills of the Yarra Valley make a great backdrop to the craft of writing. In a region that is growing artistically stronger and more diverse it seems the perfect place for Michael to have moved. There has been a strong affiliation with the Yarra Valley for over fifteen years and he has lived out in the hills of the outer Yarra Valley permanently for the last two. Immediately becoming a welcome and warm part of the local community it seems like this place is a natural fit. Michael lends his vast repertoire of talents to local groups and participates within the area with the willingness of someone that understands the importance of strong communal ties. It’s certainly a change of pace for someone who has spent most of their life in the thick of Melbourne.
“I realise I was always much more of a tree person, indeed a hill/mountain person than I ever realised, even though as I kid I always loved the country more than most of my friends. I lived three years in Tasmania recently, so coming back to the city would have been hard. Indeed it wasn’t something I was looking forward to, even though I love Melbourne and feel myself a part of it. What’s really amazed me is the extent to which I haven’t missed living in the city at all, in fact I think the city has finally started to ‘wash out’ of me.”
For the time being the Yarra Valley is a welcome retreat as michael engages in in the process of writing yet another book. Michaels particular skill of being able to tease out personal accounts of place and time, then offer them up to an audience in a completely accessible and engaging fashion are being utilised again. The current work is another recording of other peoples stories but quite different from the war stories of the first two novels. The meticulous detail, the vast and thorough interviewing process and the attention to detail required is worlds away from the work on television in the mid eighties and early nineties. Was this what that young man expected to be doing at this stage of his life? Has the view changed very much of where your talents would take you? “No, the view of myself hasn’t changed, but sadly the view in the mirror has.”
Words and Photograph Brook Powell