Reflections on Robyn (Plant Portrait XIX*)

I read Robyn Williams’s (of ABC RN Science Show fame) latest book, Turmoil: Letters from the Brink, in early September, a few days after it was published. I enjoyed it, on my Kindle. I’ve left it until now to post my few words in response, waiting for a more pensive time of year. This is it.

I consider Robyn a friend, although we don’t cross paths often. He is always polite to me, seems to enjoying talking to me on and off air, and has always been ready to assist any organisation I work for at the drop of hat. He was a driving force behind getting my Talking Plants summer series accepted by ABC RN (although when I read about his relations with senior management it could have been a mixed blessing – still, I sense even those who must find him impossible to ‘manage’ would respect his broadcasting skills and acumen).

After two seasons the ABC decided to not fund any more summer series, or at least not mine, and I moved on to other RN contributions such as In Season with Matthew Crawford and now occasional contributions (as a ‘Friend of the show’) for Blueprint for Living (working with the wonderful team of Jonathan Green, Mira Adler-Gillies and Buffy Gorilla). Robyn has been always supportive and encouraging, including when I queried him about the loss of staff at the ABC and whether someone like myself should be filling the gap when I was doing it either gratis (for panel contributions) or a small fee paid to the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (for packages). He said yes, do it. It's important.

I'm equally comfortable disagreeing with things Robyn thinks or expresses, such as his diatribe against screens and phones and that kind of thing. Not that he doesn’t have a point, just that he makes it too strongly and with (to my mind) too little of the scientific open-mindedness he admires. As it happens, my social medium of choice is Twitter, which I can dip in and out of, like visiting a noisy party. I promote my blog there, as well as other places. Facebook, and Facebookers, are irritating but serve their purpose sometimes. WeChat has proven perfect for sharing the day-to-day machinations of our grandson Sidney, living in Sydney while we live in Melbourne, and for all the immediate family to share more personal stuff. And so it goes.

On the matter of social media and screen-time, then, I’m more in the in the camp of (as listed by Robyn) Christopher Hutchens, Ben Goldacre and Richard Dawkins. Apart from a few foibles, not bad company. That is, I like it, mostly, and use it, for good. It also suits my slightly anti-social tendencies – I love to talk to big groups, to sometimes have good conversations/arguments one-to-one or with a few people, but I enjoy the calmness and forethought that can go into an email (yes, it doesn’t always work like that and we should all bail out after one or two exchanges on the same topic…).

I enjoy the fun things you can do on your phone like identify (roughly) plants and listen to my noisy music. I'm guilty of web surfing during those times when I should be sitting and thinking, or perhaps better still sitting and not thinking. Still, I like that photograph that circulates occasionally showing people in a train carriage a few years back all reading the paper, compared to another with today’s crowd all hunched over their device. No difference really, no-one talking to each other then or now, although the devices may arguably be providing a more social interaction.

While I like my device, I love books. Particularly the papery ones, even though I read mostly on Kindle these days for convenience (and the bonus of looking up the occasional word or historical figure). I’m an old-fashioned newspaper reader, though, even reading it in ‘replica’ online (when I travel for example). I read The Age over breakfast each morning and The Guardian Weekly when delivered on a Thursday night. The Monthly is delivered as the name suggests. In between I get updates and interruptions from various news sources. I like ABC TV News in the evening but I'm willing to accept that too is a (nice) habit. 

Robyn’s book is a rant, and he admits as much. He knows he’s an old white bloke, like me. I’m heading into the territory of being a boring old fart so I'm watching his style and approach with interest. For example, I like to think I’m with Robyn, and not his brother Shwn, when it comes to holding grudges – that is, don’t. 

I do tend to self-promote and enjoy a good celebrity encounter. Robyn name drops like mad but then disarms you by saying, every now and then, I know I do it. It’s me, he says. And it is. He’s confident, not quite self-deprecating in the way Australians find particularly comfortable. But then he is also not blokey and definitely has good self-awareness. For example, he likes Oxford, for all the reasons I think I would have liked to have spent some time there, but mocks it and its inhabitants mercilessly (well, with some mercy) when they deserve it.

So Robyn, thanks. Keep it up. To everyone else, Happy New Year and may you enjoy what you enjoy without harming others or making yourself too stupid and boring.

*Occasional posts are called Plant Portraits (in brackets after the blog title and marked with an asterisk). These are usually about things other than, but including at least passing reference to, plants. Often they will be inspired by a book or something else in my cultural life. The idea is borrowed (very loosely and with due deference) from Milan Kundera's 'Novels, Existential Soundings', in his Encounters. These essays were as much, or more, about things other than the book being reviewed. In my case, it could be that every story has a plant to tell...

Images: Cable Beach (WA; 2010) at the top and Bondi Beach or thereabouts (NSW; Sculpture by the Sea) at the bottom. I gather Robyn likes the beach, and it's summer after all.


Unknown said…
This sounds like a true friendship: you aren't a sycophant when it comes to opinions and you will express disagreements with honesty and without being personal.

Social media has been a boon for people such as myself living in isolated conditions. For example, your blog means I can read what you are thinking, just like our literary discussion decades ago walking to the station, and I can reply as I am doing now.

Social media has meant we can interact with those in other countries. In some aspects, and if you are liberally socially minded, you can understand and empathise with conditions not expressed locally. The Pink Pussy hat movement early 2018 is a perfect example with rallies simultaneously across the globe.

I think it is a little unfair of us to accuse Williams of name dropping. If he is hanging around celebrities, these are the people he will discuss. Name droppers are really those that barely know a celebrity & brag like they are the lost cousin.

Hoping you & Linda have more adventures seeing family & botany this 2019
Talking Plants said…
Thank you Peter. Fine words and a good time to recall 'talking books' on our way to Flinders Street. Yes I agree that social media is but an extension of such rambles. As someone not inclined to share my feelings a whole lot I do find some of the social channels a little intrusive. But, it's part of the mix.

I guess with the name dropping comments I'm after perfection in my subject, which is never going to be the case (and would be boring if it was I expect). And I see the trait in myself and don't find it my greatest attribute.

Ah, well we must all strive. For something.

Have a very happy and botanical 2019 Peter.
Liz said…
I met Robyn at Bendigo writers festival and he was utterly charming and open. Lovely to meet someone in the public eye so open. He happily posed for photos with our volunteers and also at other times . More like him making our world a better place and a more informed population. The science show is wonderful.
Talking Plants said…
Quite right. I agree Liz - we need more of him (and his science show)!