House debates

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


Courtenay, Mr Bryce AM

7:00 pm

Photo of Simon CreanSimon Crean (Hotham, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I want to pay tribute to the admired and much-loved author Bryce Courtenay. He died last week at home in Canberra aged 79. Bryce Courtenay was a master storyteller. He left an indelible mark through his writing on Australia and, for that matter, on the world. He was forever endearing, continually animated and always passionate about writing and a good yarn. He was a mentor, a friend and a true advocate for storytelling, the importance of reading and the importance of literacy. Above all, Bryce Courtenay's writing encouraged countless people to discover or rediscover the joy of books and reading.

Bryce Courtenay always wanted to be a storyteller. That, according to his publisher and friend Bob Sessions, was his calling from the age of seven, when he wrote his first story. Despite growing up in a small village in the Lebombo Mountains in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, Bryce fell in love with words when he learnt English after his mother tongue of Afrikaans. This love of words would take him to the London School of Journalism, where he then met Benita Solomon, whom he followed to Australia. Clearly, growing up with the backdrop of World War II and the beginning of the apartheid era had a huge impact; it showed through his first and bestselling book The Power of One.

He was always good with words and he developed his craft as a copywriter and a creative director. He in fact was also an advertising man. There is no question that he was creative and talented. In marketing he is associated with Louie the Fly, still an advertising icon—I saw one the other day—and the Milkybar Kid, another long-time icon. But these were everlasting marketing concepts. But, whatever the call of marketing, storytelling was his real calling. He loved to entwine a yarn.

He wrote more than books; in many cases they are tomes! But they are such engaging, intertwined stories. He worked 12 hours a day writing them, publishing a book every year after The Power of One was first published. He loved to tell the story, the history and the characters and stretch it through the eras, and that is what made him so endearing to his Australian fans. He wrote about his adopted home of Australia, including the Australian Trilogy: The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk and Solomon's Song. He ignited an interest in Australian history in people who had never had one before. And he wrote about personal tragedy. In 1993 April Fool's Day was published, telling the story of his youngest son, Damon, who was born with haemophilia and later contracted HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion. From the ripping yarns to the heart-wrenching stories, his books adorned the Christmas trees and bookshelves of millions in Australia and the world. The annual report of the Australian government's Public Lending Right Committee shows that, of the 100 highest-scoring Australian books since 1974, 15 are by Bryce Courtenay, with four in the top 10.

As a wordsmith Bryce Courtenay developed his craft as a copywriter and director first with George Patterson and, later, his own firm. I was delighted to see Bryce Courtenay together with his wife, Christine, at the Prime Minister's Literary Awards in July, supporting new and established Australian authors. He was there at the awards the year previously, and it was there that, in discussions with him, he offered his services.

As it turned out, we were embarking on the National Year of Reading campaign, which is run all through this year. I asked him to become a national ambassador for that campaign. He agreed immediately and was, as always, an enthusiastic ambassador to his love of story telling. Not so long ago, we celebrated the success of the Year of Reading, which started with an ambition of 1,000 events to be run nationwide through the year. In fact, it achieved 3,700 nationwide. No doubt, that growth in numbers was in part due to Bryce Courtenay's ambassadorship. The ongoing legacy means that there will be a new national campaign to promote early literacy and reading skills, with the Love to Read campaign and the Let's Read national campaign coming together to include literacy and promote libraries across the country.

He was honoured with an Order of Australia in 1995 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Canberra in October 2012. It was Peekay in the Power of One who said:

Man is a romantic at heart and will always put aside dull, plodding reason for the excitement of an enigma…mystery, not logic, is what gives us hope and keeps us believing in a force greater than our own insignificance.

Bryce Courtenay will be remembered for the excitement he brought with his books, with their romanticism, with their mystery and with their hope. My thoughts are with Bryce's wife Christine, his family and friends at this very difficult time. We salute a great Australian storyteller, a great Australian icon.

7:06 pm

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Bryce Courtenay once wrote:

Intelligence is a harder gift. For this you must work, you must practise it, challenge it, and maybe toward the end of your life you will master it.

Today, as we mourn his passing and celebrate his enormous contribution, we can reflect on how Courtenay mastered that intelligence and inspired all who read his books. Bryce Courtenay was a splendid storyteller whose legacy will live on as long as the printed word endures. His tales of South Africa and his adopted country, Australia, were extensions of his own life, although frequently embellished. Like his character Peekay in his award-winning book The Power of One,Bryce was born in South Africa and brought up partly in an orphanage. During this time, Bryce often told stories and, just like Peekay, learned how to box to avoid being bullied.

Born Arthur Bryce Courtenay in 1933, he spent most of his early years in a small village in the Lebombo Mountains. In 1955, while studying journalism in London, Bryce met his future wife Benita and eventually emigrated to Sydney. They married in 1959 and had three sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Upon arriving in Australia, Bryce was able to secure a job in journalism and so he started writing advertising copy. According to him, his plan was to work until he was 35 and then write novels but with his son Damon being a haemophiliac, he needed a regular income and eventually reached the top of the advertising business. His award-winning campaigns included Louis the Fly, the original Milky Bar kid commercial and the Australian Labor Party's 1972 successful election campaign, It's Time.

In 1989, Bryce achieved the goal of writing 'the great novel' with the release of his first book The Power of One based loosely on his upbringing. Bryce Courtenay had a knack of writing and telling a story, but it was his 1993 tale of his son's struggle with haemophilia and later his death from acquired immune deficiency syndrome that inspired April Fool's Day, brilliantly articulating a father's struggle with the death of a child.

Over 23 years Bryce wrote 22 novels, aiming to release a book every November—just in time for Christmas. Even in his final weeks he managed to finish his final book Jack of Diamonds. I am sure it will be a best seller. Bryce Courtenay told many a marvellous story of country Australia but one of my favourites would have to be his 1998 novel Jessica. Set in Narrandera, in the heart of my Riverina electorate, Bryce Courtenay penned the historical story of a young girl growing up in hard times. Courtenay painted a beautiful picture of this vibrant region which had fallen on hard times, in which Jessica's trials and tribulations were lived out near the banks of the mighty Murrumbidgee River. Narrandera is a place solely reliant on the water from the Murray-Darling system to sustain its growth and prosperity. The hard times those people face are, again, a cycle which unfortunately never ends for the hardworking and good people of my electorate, and it was certainly brought out in Bryce's wonderful book Jessica.

Vale, Arthur Bryce Courtenay, a great storyteller of our time. His stories will be cherished through time and he will continue to be loved by children and adults alike. May he rest in peace.

7:10 pm

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

A little over 12 months ago Paul Keating told Leigh Sales during a Lateline interview:

Well, it's all about telling the stories. You gotta be able to tell the stories, I think.

Today I pay tribute to one of our greatest ever storytellers. Australian author Bryce Courtenay lived in the suburb of Reid in my electorate, a few kilometres from my electorate office. Last week he died of stomach cancer, aged 79. He was a prolific author. In his 23 years of writing he wrote 23 books—almost one a year. I say 'almost' because the only time he missed his annual deadline was last year. He was upset by this even though the arthritis in his hands were so severe he could only perform two-finger typing.

As somebody who has a couple of books with my name on the spine of them I can only marvel at a man almost 40 years my senior who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for months on end to tell us his stories. I remember once reading a book about fiction writing which said that if you want to be a good fiction writer you have to be at the desk every day: some days the muse will come and sit on your shoulder and you will write beautiful prose, while other days the muse will not come and nothing will come out. But you have to be there, otherwise the muse will turn up and you will be off somewhere else.

Bryce Courtenay was there day in, day out, waiting for the muse to land on his shoulder and produce those wonderful stories. Great storytellers like Bryce Courtenay can inspire us. They fill us with vision and sometimes even tell us things we do not want to hear. Bryce Courtenay's power to tell a compelling story saw him sell more than 20 million books worldwide—nearly a book for every Australian. He wrote 12 of the most borrowed books in Australia's public libraries. It is estimated that one in three Australian households have a Bryce Courtenay book on their bookshelves.

What was it about Bryce Courtenay the man and the writer that so enthralled us? I believe it was his ability to tell stories about the strength and triumph of the human condition. His own life was testimony to that. It is hard to read The Power of One or April Fools' Day without being touched by how he spoke to us on this eternal theme. In The Power of One he wrote:

The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may previously have demonstrated.

These are powerful words from storyteller who could reach out and grab the heart of the reader.

Bryce Courtenay, like all of us, was very much human—a man with his own imperfections—and he showed us through his life and his writing that we should not hide from them; the imperfections and hardships of life are what makes a story worth celebrating. Two weeks ago Bryce Courtenay posted a final message on YouTube to his readers. Here is part of what he said:

Well kids, here we go. The book coming out this year, Jack of Diamonds, is my last book. It is my last book because my use-by date has finally come up, and I've probably got just a few months to live. I don't mind that—I've had a wonderful life—but part of that wonderful life has been those people who have been kind enough to pick up a Bryce Courtenay book, and read it and enjoy it and buy the next one, and be with me in what has been, for me, an incredible journey.

He paused before continuing:

All I'd like to say is, as simply as I possibly can—

with his voice now starting to break—

thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I say here to Bryce Courtenay that it is we who should thank you. Vale, Bryce Courtenay.

7:15 pm

Photo of Dan TehanDan Tehan (Wannon, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commend the previous speaker for his words and also those of the previous speakers who went before him. I was one of those Australians who picked up a Bryce Courtenay novel and are all the better for it. My favourite book in life is ThePower of One. It is a book which, as a young man, grabbed me and I just loved it. I thought it was fantastic. It is loosely based on his own life and upbringing but, to me, it is a story that is told with perfection. It struck me when I read it—and it has never, ever left me—how the young 'Peekay' earned respect in life. He had to overcome extreme hardship, poverty and cruelty, yet he was so determined. He had that inner strength and inner belief and was absolutely determined to get through it all and to achieve.

Ultimately, the way he was able to do this was through his boxing. The description of the boxing matches in that book never, ever leave you. The descriptions of the combination punches that ultimately enabled him to overcome everything that was thrown against him were inspirational. It is a fantastic book. As I said, it is my favourite book. I wanted to come here tonight to the chamber to say thank you to Bryce Courtenay for writing such a book.

As has been told by the previous speaker, the member for Fraser, in his little YouTube clip Bryce Courtenay thanks those Australians and those people across the world who picked up his books and read them. I would like to say thanks to him for writing his books and, in particular, ThePower of One. It has had a big influence on my life and, I think, on many people's lives. He was a great storyteller, he was a great author. He has left a legacy with his books, which will mean his life is remembered in time immortal. Thank you very much, Bryce Courtenay.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 19:19