We are sitting in her simply furnished Suffolk kitchen. Blackburn looks down at her hands as she speaks, and you have to strain to hear her. Her absolute belief in herself could be mistaken for arrogance until you realise that she regards her writing as a vocation. 'Often I don't know I have had a thought until I have written it down. But once I've put it into writing, it makes sense, because I can see it.' Blackburn is an unusual and exceptionally talented writer. Her four books of non-fiction combine detailed research with a haunting personal voice evoked by memories, conjectures and emotions. Each book has taken her on a personal journey, and the result has been a strikingly new form of biographical writing.
Her first book, The White Men, was an anthology of stories about how the white man was perceived by the black and brown peoples he encountered on his travels. Her second was a biography of the Victorian traveller and conservationist, Charles Waterton. Both show the keen powers of empathy and observation that have become the hallmarks of all her work. When she began writing The Emperor's Last Island: A Journey to St Helena, Blackburn turned her back on decades of biographies that had concentrated on Napoleon as a warrior, and focused instead on the final years of his exile as he waited to die on the island. A magical collage of history, biography and travel writing, thick with allusions to Shakespeare's and Lewis Carroll's mad kings and mad hatters, The Emperor's Last Island is also the tale of Blackburn's journey, with her family, to the isle whose primal innocence has given way to the enforced squalor of civilisation.
Her new book, Daisy Bates in the Desert, is the story of an eccentric old Irish woman who told grand tales about her life. Few of them were true. But even the undisputed facts of Daisy Bates's life are extraordinary. She was briefly married to Breaker Morant, the fantasist and adventurer who was court-martialled and shot during the Boer War and in 1913, already middle-aged, she went to south Australia. It was not a fleeting visit: she spent the best part of the next 30 years scratching out an existence in the sands, fighting the cause of the dirt-poor native population. In 1938, she published The Passing of the Aborigines. She received a CBE in 1951 and died later the same year, aged 92.
The book begins with Blackburn looking at photographs of Daisy, flicking through the pictures from youth to old age as if she were laying out a sequence of cards. If by the end of The Emperor's Last Island, Blackburn's empathy for Napoleon gives you the feeling she knew him personally, by the end of Daisy Bates in the Desert, author and subject have become so subtly fused that Blackburn seems to be recalling this other life as if it were her own.
Blackburn is the voice of Daisy Bates, who in turn is the voice of the Aborigine victims of modern civilisation. She speaks so eloquently for a culture that is being crushed that it is almost impossible to tell who is speaking. Bruce Chatwin, whose Songlines covers some of the same ground, seems a passing traveller by comparison.
Julia Blackburn was an only child. Her parents were a painter, Rosalie de Meric, and the poet Thomas Blackburn. A dark, brooding man who quenched his despair with drink and barbiturates, Blackburn was a loving father, but a volatile husband. 'The world I inhabited - flat dish of a world that is inhabited by children - seemed to me to be such a dangerous place,' she writes in Daisy Bates. 'My parents inhabited a wild, chaotic place. My father was very, very wild and violent,' Blackburn says now. 'I remember myself the whole time, night and day, waiting to see what was going to happen.' Blackburn believes her profound empathy for her biographical subjects grew out of that childhood watchfulness.
Although her parents separated when she was 12 and she went to live with her mother, her father remained an important influence. 'He was a great believer in the magical power of words to make sense of things that otherwise didn't make sense.' Blackburn read English at York. Though she left the university after a year, going first to London and later to Amsterdam, where she met her husband Hein Bonger, she managed to complete her degree by correspondence.
Blackburn is now planning to write about her own childhood and the early lives of her father, whose tormented life included several spells in mental institutions, and his father. Her grandfather, the son of an English missionary whose task was to stamp out fornication in the Seychelles, came from a family that had settled in Mauritius and inter-married with Creoles. As a child he was so dark that his parents wouldn't let him go out for fear that his skin would betray the family's mixed blood. Their son, Julia's father, had black eyes and an olive skin which his father would wash in bleach to lighten it. In her next work, The Book of Colour, Blackburn will explore the many darknesses, both physical and spiritual, of her extraordinary family.
'Daisy Bates in the Desert' is published by Secker at pounds 15.99.
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