on 21 February, 2014

Remembering Libby Bishop

(1950 - 2014)

written by Helen Barnes-Bulley

Libby Bishop If conversation, as is often claimed, is one of the most pleasant and enriching pastimes in our society then conversations with Libby were always a source to me of anticipation and delight. Our shared passion for literature and the musical and visual arts were the foundation of the continuing discussions we had over a period of years, but which broadened out to encompass all kinds of other issues and areas of interest. Our shared connection to Varuna came about through writing and because of Peter’s appointment as Director. Although she had no official role Libby became a vital presence at Varuna and made many friends amongst the writers who came to stay over many years. Both in their own home and in the Writer’s House she and Peter were fine hosts, and she contributed through her calm and gracious presence to its welcoming and unique atmosphere.

It was Carol Shields who brought us into a more intimate acquaintance and cemented a connection that sprang from our lives as women, as mothers, and later on as grandmothers. I remember Libby’s favourite of Shields’ novels was The Stone Diaries; I had just finished Larry’s Party, and from there we went on to share many wonderful conversations about authors, and especially about the way they portrayed the complexities of family life. From Austen and Eliot and Woolf to Munro and Shields, Helen Garner and Penelope Fitzgerald, we journeyed through varied depictions of domestic life, the intimacies and betrayals, the expectations and disappointments, and part of this ongoing narrative was a discussion of our own roles as wives and mothers, and the experiences of our own children as they moved towards maturity and independence.

Libby was immersed in family life but always interested in the world beyond it. She was a gifted artist, a shrewd, clever and original critic, and it was always a pleasure to hear what she made of what was happening in politics and society. We talked about history and science, art and philosophy, and the last conversation we had was about Pope Francis, of all people. She admired Francis of Assisi and was pleased that this new pope had chosen to adopt the eccentric saint’s name. We shared our separate experiences of visiting Assisi, how beautiful it is, and reflected on the exploitation of the saint’s virtues. As someone with a Catholic background but a non-believer, she was hopeful that things might improve in the church with a man who seemed genuinely concerned about the welfare of the less fortunate people on the planet. Perhaps the abuse of children might be properly addressed. I was surprised, and also moved by that. Somehow it seemed to signal that quality Libby possessed of both intense immersion in the personal and her concern for the wider world. Her love for her own children propelled empathy for other children.

Because of this humanitarian concern she was motivated to help other families, and took up studies in Social Work at the Blue Mountains TAFE College, and became involved in work with members of refugee families who had been settled in the Mountains after seeking asylum from war in their own countries.

She was compassionate and thoughtful in her judgments; she possessed a gravity that compelled her listener; she was someone whose opinion you felt was always worth hearing.

I will treasure those conversations we had over a number of years, and I know so many writers who have visited Varuna, as well as her family and those friends in the community who knew and cared for her, will remember the many fine qualities she possessed, from her beautiful smile to her shrewd sense of humour, her deep intelligence, her grace and her dignity.