Black and white picture of Paul Dalgarno, looking sideway, against a wooden fence.


We would like to acknowledge the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation as Traditional Owners and Custodians on the lands on which we record, and pay our respect to their Elders past and present.

Welcome to Why Write, a super short podcast that asks writers just that, why they write. Hi, I’m Noè Harsel, a writer and Chair of Writers Victoria, and I’m excited to chat to a diverse group of writers and simply ask, why write? I’m glad you’re here with me.

Today I have Paul Dalgarno. Paul is an author and journalist. He was Deputy Editor of The Conversation (Australia) and a Senior Writer and Features Editor at The Herald newspaper group in the UK. He has written for The Guardian, Big Issues Scotland and Australian Book Review. He’s Scottish by birth and upbringing and has lived in Australia since 2010. His most recent publication is a Country of Eternal Life. 

Welcome to Why Write Paul. As a talented writer with a career in both fiction and nonfiction, you have a wonderful ability to address subjects from these very different points of views and ways of writing. I am of course, thrilled to chat to you today and find out all the secrets to all the well-deserved accolades you receive. So let’s get right to the big question. The reason why we are here. Tell us Paul, why do you write?

Thanks, Noe, it’s lovely to be chatting to you. So, I have thought a lot about this question in the run up to this interview. And, you know, the thing is, I didn’t come from a reading background at all. There are no writers and my family, my family’s actually kind of staunchly working class Scottish family. My dad’s worked in a manual trade and became a became a sole trader, a kind of small business owner, my mum largely raised me and my sister, but also worked in various jobs throughout to kind of make ends meet. And, you know, my grandparents were all working class too, which, which I think, traditionally is more of a designation in the UK than it is in Australia. Although, that’s debatable whether the class system is the same in Australia as it is in the UK, people kind of like to think that it’s not. Anyway. So, partially because of that, I think I grew up really, without reading many books at all. 

What basically happened with me, is I left school aged 14, so very early, before doing any school exams, which cost me a bit of bother later on when I tried to get back into university. And I left school at 14 to become a painter and decorator apprentice, which I did for a year, at 25 pounds a week was my wage. And after six months of washing brushes in freezing cold water on a building site, my wage went up by, I think, two pounds a week. So I did that for a year. And then after that, I started working as a service engineer, which is a fancy name for somebody who fixes people’s washing machines, which I can’t really do now in case anybody wants to get in touch. I’ve kind of, I’ve retired and officially retired from that. Then I did that for a couple of years, maybe two and a half years. And really, at some point, well, well then all of that. I’ve always loved music since you know as a young kid, I was really into Madness, then I was really into Queen and you know, just absolutely adored music. 

And then when I was about 13 / 14 I heard Bob Dylan for the first time and that along with the Beatles, kind of later music, really captured me, kind of set my mind alight with, with kind of language that was really evocative, but as well refused to be pinned down to one, to one thing, you know, the lines and Bob Dylan, like, ‘the ghost of electricity howls and the bones of her face,’ it’s kind of really hard to know what that actually means. But certainly as a teenager and even now as a middle aged guy, I love that kind of line. I love that somehow doing something with, with language that drags me kind of to the next place. 

And, and as a result of that, plus the fact I fell in love with a visiting Italian student to Aberdeen, my hometown, who was learning English language, I kind of thought I really wanted to dip my toe back in the water of learning. And I wasn’t really thinking of university at that point because I didn’t even have the basic school leaver exams, so there was no way to go to university. And so what I did was signed up for a night class in English literature, that kind of end of school kind of level of class. And that was on a Tuesday night at a local community college in Aberdeen. And the kind of reality of that was I had to rush there after fixing people’s washing machines all day. So I’d arrive in this brightly lit class in the evening, dark outside, as it usually is in Aberdeen, regardless of the time of day, and, you know, basically smelling like peoples’ laundry, and whatever water had flooded out of the washing machine while I was trying to fix it that day, and sit in this class with, with about three other people to start with all of whom seemed a little bit bored or not that into the class. 

But the teacher, that year was a man called Donald Cunningham, who, he was in his very last year of teaching. And I was this kind of, you know, in my very first actual, conscious period of learning in my life, and as people drifted off and stopped going to this night class, it was almost always me and Donald Cunningham in the class on our own. And I didn’t think of it like a kind of buddy cop movie at the time. But he was very much the kind of cop that was about to retire. And I was the rookie. And I had never, but because the type of man in particular, but men and women, you know, that I was around, weren’t particularly ideas, people and quite often rarely said kind of anything, really, there’s a lot of kind of silent, insular people in my life growing up. To see this man wander back and forth with his eyes to the ceiling, kind of excitedly talking about Romeo and Juliet, or, you know, Catch 22 was one of the books that we did, and Huckleberry Finn was one of the books. And to kind of see that and to kind of watch him as this kind of a one man show and me the only person in the audience for an hour a week, was a bit mind blowing for me. I kind of, and I didn’t have the, I had no vocabulary at that point, really. So I would kind of note and was probably sitting there with a very red face, just, you know, mortified for existing, but at the same time, I, I was just so excited by the fact that at least one person in the world did this, you know, that was their job, they got paid for that. They got excited about it, they had little, you know, bundles of kind of photocopied handwritten notes that they had, you know, developed throughout their careers, to give to people and, and really, you know, I just fell in love with that idea of books at that point. 

And then, after that year, I decided to go back and do my other exams to get into university and ended up doing an English Literature, joint degree with Spanish and English Literature. But really off the back of that experience with this man, Donald Cunningham, who I kept in touch with all the way through university. So I’d go out to his house. And, you know, he knew whatever I was studying at that point, whichever the text was, and when it got there, you know, his wife would bring us, you know, a little tray with a cup of tea on it. And we’d go into his study, and he had his, again, photocopied handwritten notes about Gulliver’s Travels, or Paradise Lost, or whatever the text was we were doing at the time. 

And so I remember it, you know, 2001 is when I finished university. And when I finished by that point, it had been a five year degree. And I wrote a letter as I often did, I was back and forth living in Spain at that point, because that’s where my parents lived. And I wrote a letter to Donald Cunningham saying, you know, I’ve just finished my degree, I’d actually I think I’d like to try and be a writer, like, I don’t really know how to do that. But what do you think? Do you have any thoughts on that, or any advice on that? And about two weeks later, a letter came back. And I noticed the handwriting wasn’t his, it was his wife’s handwriting. And so I opened the letter. And she said, I don’t actually know if Donald’s written to you yet, but I know he was thinking a lot about what to say to you. But he actually died a couple of nights ago, while he was watching Italian football, and it was a peaceful day, and all the rest of it. So at that point, I felt kind of, okay, so I can’t really get the answer from the one person who I think would have given me a, I don’t know, I really don’t know what his answer would have been to that question.

And so really, for a year or two after university I was I was a bit kind of lost as to what to do because I didn’t have anybody that could really advise me on next steps or anybody that worked in you know, the so called professions to go to, for internships or anything. And over a period of time, I just kind of struck me that journalism might be a way to get paid to write, which really was kind of my ambition or the romantic idea for me that I would write something and somebody would pay me for that writing. And so instead of cleaning paint brushes in a freezing cold vat of water on a building site, you know, I could write something and get paid for it. And so that took me off on that journey to study journalism, to get into that to move away from news writing, which I was never very passionate about, into feature writing and colour writing and interviews and more that kind of the longer form space. 

And really, it was off the back of, I had a column for, I wrote features, I interviewed celebrities. And I had a weekly column that ran for a couple of years and a Sunday newspaper in Scotland. And when I left Scotland to come to Australia, in 2010, suddenly, I no longer had an outlet or any context, and certainly nobody that knew who I was, or would commissioned me based on my name, as I finally managed to get in Scotland. And so really, I started writing a blog from there, keeping up the same kind of rhythm I’d be doing, had been doing with my, with a fatherhood column, I’ve been writing in Scotland, and that fatherhood column morphed into my first book, which was published in 2015, which was really about moving to Australia, and what it was like becoming a dad, and being in this brand new country, and you know, my own relationship with my own dad. 

And really, from there, even though, you know, that book sunk without a trace from there, that was my first glimpse that maybe, you know, just maybe I’d be able to write books, and nobody at any point, including right up until the novel that’s just been published now, nobody has ever said, ‘Paul, please write another book.’ So it’s just really, and you know, this is like three, three books, three publishers, for me for various reasons, the main one being that the publishers have been in financial difficulty that the two previous ones, so really, that, overall. 

I would say the spark of everything started with Bob Dylan went through this lovely gentleman called Donald Cunningham, and really, since then, I’ve just been trying to find my way and just keep doing it really. And for me, the main motivation to write books is that somebody will let me write another book. So it’s just a self-fulfilling, onward journey where the goal is to be allowed to keep doing it really, there’s nothing, there’s nothing much more beyond that, because I enjoy the actual process of writing, of sitting at a desk with my headphones, writing what I want to write and seeing where it gets to.

Thank you, Paul, that was so beautiful, and really a profound story listening to it about finding a real love of learning, and discovering that passion of writing through a lifetime and a passion that it sounds like, you’re still in the middle of and working your way through it. And I really thank you for sharing that with us and being so honest, in that in that story of that discovery. Thank you so much for telling that to us.

You’re welcome, Noe.

Thanks for listening. We would love to hear why you write, tell me at

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