When Bob Ellis died on 3 April Australia lost its most engaging provocateur. The Labor Party lost the truest of its true believers, the description Ellis coined in 1988 to entitle a miniseries he wrote about the party’s history. A decade later he was attracting attention over the pulping of his book Goodbye Jerusalem. Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and their spouses claimed to have been defamed, and then there was the fathering of a baby to scriptwriter Amanda Long, the sum of it sufficient to inspire the cover story in a national magazine. Sadly that magazine folded in the very week of May 2000 when the Ellis story was to appear and it was never published. Its author Jan McGuinness reprises that lost tale here, a time capsule for perhaps the last Australian scallywag, profiled at the height of his powers.
He sits in a corner of the empty restaurant, tipped forward, writing something in a notebook, hair on end, a beer at his elbow. Australia’s own Norman Mailer minus the pugnacious streak. There is nothing big about Bob Ellis except that ballooning stomach and even it is deflating due to the fat-burning diet he’s followed since being diagnosed as officially obese. He has tiny hands, matched one supposes by tiny feet, short legs and no bottom, his trousers held aloft by an inverse gravitational pull. He also has astonishingly blue eyes and lovely skin.
On a later occasion he’s on his hands and knees thrusting his lightly tanned features in my face and demanding to know if this unveined visage could possibly be that of the boozer his detractors say he is. But today he is wary and withdrawn, shy even. Does he think I’m a journalist shrew bent on betrayal or the sort of metropolitan sophisticate with whom he says he never feels at ease? Whatever, he loosens up after a few beers. The rolling and rubbing of eyes, the long pauses and slapping of the brow give way eventually to a more relaxed and normal mien.
Perceptive, articulate, impressively well read and the repository of a convincing stream of facts and figures, he is entertaining company. Except for the bullshit factor punctuating the flow like a nervous tick that you anticipate, recognise and are unsettled by.
To be a Renaissance man is better than not as many have found. Gough Whitlam has gone from failed politician to being the noblest stand up comedy act of our time.
We all have travelling players in our heads, one of whom takes the lead at various times.
Thus does Ellis explain the disparate voices running through his tome So It Goes: Essays, Broadcasts, Speeches, 1987–1999, and by extrapolation, himself. Thespian, film director, actor and producer, writer of books, speeches, plays, film scripts and journalism—all of his creative acts are informed by his many selves: carousing sensualist, husband and father of four including a well publicised love child, lefty, madman (certainly when it comes to conspiracy theories) and, yes, moralist because Ellis writes with compassion and insight about moments that matter.
Yet he is probably best known for the sum of these disparate parts, his chaotic life and its occasional spills into the public arena. Australian columnist Frank Devine described him as the most poisonous man in Australia. Preposterous, says Ellis, when the competition includes Martin Bryant. But depending on society’s forbearance he is loved or loathed, rarely unnoticed. Just being Bob Ellis, character at large, is enough to guarantee him fame, if little fortune.
Once the landscape was littered with ratbags who spoke up and played up, made jokes and occasional sense. In the age of economic rationalism (his special hate), the corporate state and political correctness, Ellis is a dinosaur marked out by unruly 57-year-old behaviour.
Elusiveness is not a quality one associates him with. His ubiquitous court and curbside presence throughout the Abbott and Costello defamation case, his haunting of political events and readiness to opine on current affairs including his own, suggest access and availability. But no. It has taken the best part of a year to pin him down although we’ve had many phone conversations beginning at the height of the baby business.
As the saga resolved, sort of, Ellis interspersed his updates with fascinating gossip, post Abbott and Costello self-justifications, alarming conspiracy theories and dire political predictions, most of them to do with his heartfelt hope for John Howard’s political demise. Now that he has a book to promote we meet finally in a Melbourne pub.
Politician-turned-writer John Button describes him as a boulevardeer. But inside that Falstaffian frame lurks the provincial nine-stone Seventh Day Adventist from Lismore, north coast New South Wales—the Noah Taylor character portrayed in the 1992 film The Nostradamas Kid, written and directed by Ellis.
‘Out of curiosity I went back to church at Lismore recently and found the theology didn’t matter a damn,’ he says.
But the music and sense of gossip, benevolence and community did. It struck me as not a bad place to grow old, not that I’m going to, but I can understand people who tiptoe back to their religion.
On the other hand, it was a serious waste of 20 years. I should have been reading books and arguing about socialism, not the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, which I now suspect is not going to happen.
As it was, he argued about the factuality of the flood, attended church until he was 19, didn’t drink until he was 24, and never smoked. Church was traded finally for the theatre when it conflicted with rehearsals for a student production of Twelfth Night in which Ellis played alongside Bruce Beresford and John Bell. But the fundamentalists’ theatrical hyperbole impacted lastingly on his demeanour and portentous utterings, if not his confidence.
‘It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been to Knox or Cranbrook,’ he says of life’s slings and arrows. ‘I would have been steeled for it. But not when you come from woop woop, have overdosed on religion and aren’t sure what hat you should be wearing.’
The same applies to his close friend Les Murray, who is also a ‘surging cauldron of insecurities’, he says. Provincials revise themselves on an almost daily basis, and Murray has written sonnets describing Ellis drafting self after self.
He has certainly provided plenty of interesting material in a life punctuated with high jumps and pratfalls. Getting to Sydney University on a scholarship declined at the last minute by another was a ‘benign miracle’ that changed the trajectory of his life, placing him in the company of a generation (Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Beresford, Richard Wherrett, Murray, Richard Butler) that took over and is still running things.
‘There are about 60 of them who are famous now but then we were in different coffee shops avoiding each other,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t one long party with our clothes off as people suppose.’
Ellis made a meal of it. Enrolled to study English and history, the better to teach them, he was so drawn to theatre, writing and films that he couldn’t take study seriously, wagged classes and behaved badly. In between, he co-edited the student newspaper Honi Soit with Laurie Oakes and had affairs with two women simultaneously. ‘It’s the difference between the city and country, in the country it’s clearer what your priorities are,’ he says. ‘In the city you can fall in love four times a day if you work at it.’
Later, when it came to paying off the education department bond that prevented him joining Bruce Beresford and Clive James on a ship bound for London and expatriate glory, Bryce Courtenay hired and fired him as a copywriter. ‘Why? For proposing preposterous commercials like filling up Sydney Harbour with soap suds and disquieting clients by sitting at a desk in the corridor looking filthy, eating thick milkshakes and listening to the cricket.’
A cadetship on the Sydney Morning Herald came to an abrupt end two weeks in when he caused 500 people to miss a London-bound liner, but as luck would have it an offer from the ABC he’d forgotten seeking arrived the following day. There he lasted seven years until 1970 and is remembered as being bright and colourful.
‘He was eccentric, but they all were then,’ says former ABC producer Vera Wasowski. ‘He had a huge ego and was very alert, a bit of a smart arse who always made it clear he expected to end up doing bigger and better things.’
So when his play The Legend of King O’Malley was a hit Ellis contrived another sacking by writing for the Bulletin about the ‘claret pickled pontiffs’ in management. Thus did Ellis become the ABC’s first permanent officer ever to be fired. He has freelanced since. But by then the reputation, the character, the persona were well in train. That’s just me, says Ellis, referring to a handful of celebrated disputes and incidents that have carved him out as a curiosity over the decades since.
But a good deal of my life has been as a father and family man, living in a house, dining at home and writing unexceptional stuff. I’m not even self-regarding. There are no Ellis characters in 38 of the works I could name. Fatty Finn is not an autobiography. People just get hooked on one or two things, ignore the person and print the cartoon. They will try a number of things on you and get you by an unremembered accumulation of them.
Part of the reason I contrived a documentary about me and Les Murray was to let it be known that he speaks eight or nine Aboriginal languages. Yet people think of him as a racist. Part of the reason for Goodbye Jerusalem was to pitch odd facts and confuse people’s misconceptions. I’m an irritant and people keep trying to work out why.
When we meet again it’s at the familial habitat high above Palm Beach with the sort of spectacular 180-degree views reserved for Architectural Digest mansions. But this timber dwelling of pitched roofs, wide windows, bare boards and unlined walls is a work in progress. The original house burned down in 1993 and this is as far as Ellis and his wife, scriptwriter and novelist Anne Brooksbank, have got replacing it. Perhaps his mention of a $400,000-plus mortgage is not the customary hyperbole I took it for.
Newspaper headlines of various Ellis escapades adorn the walls and every available surface is covered with books, magazines (Quadrant, Private Eye), newspapers and tapes. Open draws, birdseed underfoot and two doted-upon purebred Pekinese lend new meaning to the term ‘lived-in’. Since Ellis and Brooksbank write everything in longhand there are no computers. Ellis says the internet is a potential white elephant and his only electronic gadget is a projector on which he runs old 16 mm movies for friends.
But this is home to son Tom, 15, and a base still for his tertiary student siblings Jack, 21, and Jenny, 19. Home too to hundreds of lorikeets that squawk about the deck while I strain to hear Ellis explain his love of language and dodge the droppings.
It began aged ten when Ellis withdrew into writing after his sister’s death. It has drawn him into speech writing for Kim Beazley and Bob Carr and into an improbable friendship with Kamahl, who performed in Ellis’s recent The Word before Shakespeare celebration of ‘muscular language’. It extends even to a regard for his nemesis, Bronwyn Bishop. ‘Most Australian women under 25 chirp like fucking budgerigars—not a problem—but Bronwyn has a superb speaking voice.’
Finally the birds drive us inside to a couple of sagging couches around a television set submerged in tapes. Ellis fidgets as the dietary fat-burning hour approaches and he anticipates a loaf of bread and vegemite. All the while Anne, his wife of 34 years, is working quietly in the background, fielding phone calls, making coffee. Quiet, withdrawn, shy and, like Bob, slow to smile, she is the rock around which he eddies.
A newspaper editor once told me how Anne had transcribed Ellis’s copy filed from Adelaide in short grabs onto the home answering machine. Such are the burdens computer luddites impose upon themselves but it does reek of devotion above and beyond.
How can she tolerate this man whose domestic scene is as disordered as his private life? Quite cosily, it seems. They’ve been at Palm Beach since 1976 but for a few years back in Sydney and live the local life of bird feeding, dog walking, restaurant and movie going removed from Sydney’s rich whose summer playground it is. Removed also from Sydney, which Ellis hates (‘it’s full of people who tell lies’) but visits more than she does. ‘When you’re in town you tend to be at home and available, which is a problem for writers,’ says Brooksbank:
The last straw was when Bob was writing a musical about Jack Lang with Malcolm Turnbull who was then about 19. He arrived one day at the end of a long stream of visitors and we didn’t open the front door. So he went around and kicked open the back, which is why we moved.
‘It might sound odd but we have a quiet, peaceful centre,’ says Anne. ‘Bob’s not that hard to live with and he actually doesn’t drink much, it’s kind of a myth.’
Memories of the bottle of scotch he nipped from during a television interview years ago come to mind. Ellis takes a pre-performance tipple to stir his thoughts but is otherwise a moderate drinker, at least in his circle of politicians, writers and filmmaker mates, says his wife.
It’s perversely hilarious that given he has been described as shambolic, malicious, bragging and a self-indulgent, womanising, lying, drunken bully that it is the drunkenness that offends him most. In vintage Ellis retaliatory mode he held a press conference in a pub to refute it with testimonials from, among others, South Australian opposition leader Mike Rann and former New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore.
Anne is much less eager to discuss Bob’s marital shortcomings for fear of refuelling the story of his love child with scriptwriter Alexandra Long and giving her and her agent, Harry M. Miller, cause to respond. Sources close to Anne, however, say that after 30 years infidelity is neither a surprise nor an issue. It wasn’t a big deal. Ellis told her he might have an affair before it happened because he loved Long’s film Thank God He Met Lizzie. What happened when the media got hold of the story was certainly a big deal but Anne never regarded it as a threat or a potential threat.
She does say it didn’t impact greatly on the family. Tom is at a liberal Steiner school and didn’t get a hard time, and the older children understand their parents’ views.
Bob beards the issue like an unreconstructed hippie recounting how he and Anne met in Melbourne in 1966 twice within the space of two weeks.
She was engaged to an epileptic sheep farmer but programmed to go to Florence and be a painter. I told her to go to Europe but she wouldn’t and followed me to Sydney and we’ve been together ever since. It was a near-run thing, two months later and we wouldn’t have met.
They lived together for a decade before marriage and children. Anne took up writing in competition with Bob but says that’s not how it is. Their fields are different and they’ve both done all right in their own ways, the advantage being that one can support the other in downtimes.
As for the living arrangements, Ellis says that back in 1966 they agreed adultery was inevitable and should be entrenched. ‘After three days the house rule was to ring in if staying out overnight.’ Though this pre-childbearing ideal is long past he concurs that affairs shouldn’t be an issue among mature adults.
‘But this was and she wasn’t too good for the first three hours, after the baby story broke in the newspapers, which was not intended, and I thought we might break up. By the fourth we were giggling and planning spin doctor lines.’ Indeed, Anne wrote all the press releases and statements and did most of the talking to the press because ‘Bob tends to be too honest with journalists on the hop’.
This includes threatening them and telling them to fuck off as duly reported when the baby story was running hot. Unsurprisingly, he detects some resentment in their treatment of him:
It’s resentment for someone who’s tried a number of things and not done too badly at some of them whereas they’re locked up in their zoo writing 300 words for Murdoch. Plus I have permission to write with passion and some honesty so they try to get something on me. It’s really a kind of road rage and always from people I haven’t met. The one thing that would really hurt is if they got me on hypocrisy, but they can’t find it.
So how does his support for free speech sit with efforts to suppress reference to his affair with Penny McNichol, daughter of the Bulletin’s David McNichol, in her book Penny Dreadful?
My objection was not so much about what was in the book but what was left out. We had engagement and marriage plans, which explains my harassment of her after we split up. I had no particular agenda, the publisher wanted me to sign something saying I wouldn’t sue so I read the book and discovered this thin, ugly, unpleasant character full of violent villainy who bore no resemblance to me.
It would be as if Ted Hughes wrote memoirs ignoring his marriage to Sylvia Plath. She left out our plans because it would have made it a more normal story and turned the break-up of a teenage couple into what amounted to Taxi Driver. There were about 70 things I wanted changed, they changed 28 and published anyway and I didn’t sue.
At the time, it was another of those confidence blows Ellis is prone to:
The fact she discarded me became the driving force of my life for the next couple of years. It’s a big thing to make plans to marry someone. I had an interview with David McNichol, who said I was becoming a bit loopy and should break it off. The idea of being marginalised by the power elite of Sydney I wanted to be part of was devastating.
Ellis settled instead for being on the fringe of another and quite different power elite—the Labor Party. Writing for National Review in 1971 turned him onto the seduction of politics and there’s barely a big moment he’s missed since.
It’s the drama of seeing people in penultimate moments of their anguish and the randomness of decisions. I was there the day Whitlam was sacked and the night he resigned, in the tally room when Hawke won, at Blacktown when Keating won and lost. Those are irreplaceable experiences. Like others follow Test teams to the West Indies, I follow politicians.
And yes, he says with a big sigh, hands clasped as always across his tummy, he’s much happier when Labor is in. ‘Look what happened in ’83. Within months we had The Gillies Report and A Night with the Right. There’s oxygen in the air and freedom under Labor which people don’t dare to aspire to under conservative governments.’
There is an audience for his musings on this and countless other topics. Even if he doesn’t get a very good press, Bob Ellis is well read. His latest book was reprinted before publication and has sold more than 7000 copies, meaning there must be a good number of fading females with cats and young male students with all their disillusion ahead of them, which is how he describes his following.
Perhaps by reading him they’ve discovered that Ellis improves on acquaintance. The last word on this score goes to Noah Taylor, who didn’t want to play him or have anything to do with an Ellis project until persuaded to read the script of The Nostradamas Kid.
People love to focus on Ellis the clown, but not much is ever said about the Ellis who fights for what he believes in, Ellis the moralist, Ellis the humanitarian. I’ve seen Ellis be the fool, but I’ve also known Bob to be one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. If Bob had moved to London in the sixties à la Clive James, Barry Humphries et al., I have no doubt he would be a very rich and famous man. But he stayed because he loves Australia and Australians and has fought for them and written for them and made a lot of people laugh for a long time. Viva Ellis!
Bill Shorten’s epitaph delivered 16 years later at a memorial ceremony for Ellis was based on decades of Ellis friendship, criticism and correspondence. ‘If I had a dollar for every killer line Bob has sent me over the years in unions and politics, I’d almost be able to afford the legal costs to use them,’ he told the crowd of 400 including Germaine Greer, former Labor premiers Barrie Unsworth, Nathan Rees and Mike Rann, Graham Freudenberg, former union boss Paul Howes, Rhys Muldoon, John Doyle and Marieke Hardy.
‘He belonged to a generation of Australian genius whose irreverent disregard for convention helped sculpture an independent and confident sense of identity free from the cultural cringe. He helped write and tell our national story.’