Where to start with the story of a life? This is the challenge for any biographer, especially when the subject is no longer with us and has finished living his whole life.
On what would have been Ross Langmead’s seventieth birthday in August 2019, I made an offer to his wife, Alison, to try writing his life story. The prospect was daunting and being Ross’s sister did not necessarily give me an advantage. I left home when he was eighteen and we spent little time close to one another after that, both literally and figuratively. Is it better to know someone intimately, or to write from a measured distance that might encourage objectivity? Although I genuinely believed there were better people for the project, there was only one way to find out.
Primary documents are the foundation of true story writing; Ross left a treasure chest. He wrote journals and kept diaries from his teenage years until his death at sixty-three. An awesome collection of reflections, thoughts and questions from a mind that never stopped working!
First, we had to find them. Alison hunted down box after box of diaries, journals and notebooks. Digital journals and travel diaries were added, and the ordering began. The first hand-written journal is from Ross’s rite-of-passage and epic trip as a seventeen-year-old to outback Queensland in a vintage car with his cousins, of whom only one was old enough to drive. His daily entries about their adventures in 1967 make amusing reading, with their larrikan episodes interspersed with Bible studies and prayer gathered around a picnic table.
Through his uni years, Ross began using small appointment diaries, and then in the eighties, upsized to A5 diaries with room for to-do lists. He also began journalling on his very early Kaypro computer and added hand-written journals in the nineties, along with matching A5 notebooks of information on almost everything. He carried them everywhere, which meant that for the rest of his life, we have a collection of primary documents that make it possible to cross reference most of Ross’s significant life events, responsibilities and travels. His last journal entry was written the week of his death in 2013. He didn’t know it would be his last, and reading it made me wonder what I would write in mine if I were to know it would be my final written words.
The next valuable source has been his letters. As a family, we began to write regularly to each other when we began leaving home; a remarkable habit, no doubt a result of our mother writing weekly to us all. Using multiple carbon paper copies in the pre-computer era, we each chronicled our lives and shared our thoughts on the world. Ross was particularly regular and detailed, and the letters doubled as journal records for him. These were not letters about mundane life: we have summaries of his studies and theses, theological discussions, rants from his leftist views on poverty and unemployment, stories of his children’s exploits and jokes and cartoons for added value. Every letter was kept, and, together with the epistles from the rest of the family, they capture a wonderful longitudinal picture of Langmead family history. They also evoke a nostalgia for those times before we knew how life would unfold for us all.
Envelopes full of memorabilia, treasures and keepsakes from over the years also provide confirmation of events as well as enriching information. Mementoes from childhood, school reports back to kindergarten and many degree certificates, newspaper cuttings, invitations, job applications, references and work reviews and lots more. These are like cameos within a life and add colour and detail to events.
Other primary sources are photographs, Ross’s articles and books and his original music. Images capture moments in time and unintentionally add authenticity, details and context to events. The impressive list of books and articles creates a trajectory of his academic progress and thought life, with new emphases and areas of research developing in time. By cross-referencing his extensive body of original songs with the dates they were written and what was happening in his life and who they were written for, fresh insights emerged, and I hear new and surprising things when I listen to Ross singing his own songs. His voice is its own powerful primary source that is amazingly evocative.
These sources became the building blocks of the book that emerged: Living For Shalom: The Story of Ross Langmead.