Monthly Archives: October 2013

JFK Plus Fifty

Why did Oswald kill Kennedy?

He had no reason to. He spoke admiringly of him. Pro-Russian, he saw him help Krushchev out of a fix in Cuba. A father of two girls, he wanted to see more of them. He did not take a pistol to the Book Depository, he went home for one, after the shooting. He did not skip town, or hide. He went to the pictures.

The limousine was washed of its blood and brains. Film of the President’s autopsy was destroyed. Records of Oswald’s interrogation were destroyed. Jackie heard four shots, not three. Witnesses heard two come from behind them, on the Grassy Knoll. Yet Oswald acted alone.

He was the first assassin with children, a rarity.

He had no motive to do it.

Had he wanted to showcase his beliefs, he would have started to do so in his appearances on television. He didn’t. He said he was innocent.

It is said his motive was a feeling of failure, and disgruntlement with America. This motive would have brought under suspicion Bob Dylan, and twenty million other young men who were unfulfilled shortarses, like him. He had no more motive than them. And he had two daughters.

And no motive, in fifty years, has been supplied.

Other people in Dallas that day, that week, had a motive. Nixon. Johnson. Dulles. Hoover. George HW Bush. Twenty thousand armed racists fearful of black freedom, which Kennedy was helping along. CIA men like George HW Bush, who lived in Texas and feared the CIA would be dismantled. Hoover, whom Kennedy would sack, he swore, in 1965, if he lived.

But no, it was Oswald who did it. Who spoke to his wife and mother, in gaol, only of his girls, and made no mention of Kennedy.

Give me a break.

He had no motive.

Give me a break.

Orwellian Manoeuvres In Katoomba And Kabul

My lunch a couple of weeks back with Ian Masters has been much on my mind. The brother of Roy, Chris, Quentin, Sue and Deb and the son of Olga, he does a radio show in LA, syndicated across the US, that looks into politics. I shared a room with him in 1962.

He says when the the planes hit the towers it was not just Bush who dodged out of sight, went into hiding, it was Rumsfeld and Cheney and Condaleezza too. They all of them thought they might be disgraced and shamed and, maybe, imprisoned for failing to protect their fellow citizens from lethal attack by men the FBI knew were taking flying lessons, but not landing lessons. As the officers responsible, they might go to gaol.

So they hid for a while, till their spinmen worked out a plan and told them what to do. This was to turn the whole thing into a religious occasion, with a black female choir singing America, America and Billy Graham praying at Gound Zero, a sacred site thereafter and a national anniversary.

And they got away with it.

It was around then the word ‘politicise’ came into abundant use. We were told that politics had no place in a discussion of al-Qaeda blowing up America. That was too ‘serious’ for politics.

Lately, when the Australian Army burnt a lot of the Blue Mountains down, we were told it shouldn’t be ‘politicised’. An act of national destruction by the nation’s official protectors must not be looked into, we were told, that was ‘politics’, and politics had no place in a question of political failure, of catastrophic political failure, costing billions. No place at all.

One by one, good neutral words are soiled and slimed. Communist. Socialist. Liberal. Left-leaning. Political. One by one these words are targeted and made to look evil by the Right. We are told we can’t say it was wrong to go to Afghanistan, and lose a war there. We are told it was ‘bittersweet’. Wasting seven billion dollars, forty lives, levelling mud villages, killing children, immolating crops, killing goats, and enriching Karzai’s drug-dealing brothers was not wrong, it was ‘bittersweet’.

We should, because of this word ‘politicise’, and its kissing cousin, ‘playing politics’, not call it ‘wrong’ for us to be in Afghanistan, we are told. But it was wrong. And it is not wrong, therefore, surely, to politicise it. In a democracy we elect politicians to sort out things. It is not wrong for them to do their job. And to call it ‘playing politics’ is to attack democracy itself. We shouldn’t do that.

We shouldn’t say some things are ‘above politics’. Nothing is. It was politics that got us into World War One, and out of it. It was politics that got us to the Moon. It was politics that funded penicillin, and the saving of a billion lives. It was politics that obliterated Hiroshima.

‘Politics’ is not a separate thing from life, it is life itself, life in action, discussion, legislation, ratiinal debate. It is taking responsibility for how a nation behaves. To demean it as Abbott does, and Murdoch does, is a form of treason. And in wartime they would go to gaol for it, And this was wartime until Monday.

Confucius said the first duty of government was to ‘rectify the language’. Orwell explored this in Nineteen Eighty-four. Fox News rectifies the language every day, as when they turned ‘suicide bombers’ into ‘homicide bombers’.

And so it was that 9/11 became not an avoidable military defeat with investigation, impeachment, court martial and public trial of Condaleezza in its wake, it became a religious occasion, celebrated yearly, like Thanksgiving.

And so will these bushfires too, ‘depoliticised’ into a welter of national pride and hymn-singing grief, when major generals should be court-martialled for it, and the Army fined a billion dollars. There should be a Senate inquiry into it, and army generals publicly stripped of their medals before the Cenotaph and sent to gaol for ‘accidental terrorism’ and schoolkids publicly shamed as ‘deliberate terrorists, however ignorant’, the product of a bad bringing up, and put in gaol for a couple of years.

We would save a lot of property if we ‘politicised’ bushfires, and linked them to global warming. We would save lives, and lessen trauma like my children’s when our house burned down.

Let’s hear it for ‘politicisation’. Of everything.

That way democracy lies.

And the pursuit, old friend, of happiness.

Certain Housekeeping Matters (62)

I beseech all who can to come bearing seventeen dollars to the Riverside Parramatta to see, at 7 on Tuesday November 5, The Word Before Shakespeare, a play by me, Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Thomas Wyatt, Thomas More, Thomas North, Thomas Nashe, William Tyndale, Plutarch, Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, David, King of Israel, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth II and Richard III, and starring me, Paul Bertram, Terry Clarke, Jane Harders, Denny Lawrence, Nathaniel Pemberton and Natasha Vickery, or do likewise on Tuesday November 12. It will become a standard entertainment, like The Hollow Crown or Cowardy Custard, for the next four centuries and you should get in early; not least to experience, behind widening fingers, my Charles Laughton, Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and Frank Thring.

Hurry, hurry. Selling out.

Abbott V Obama

‘Amateur Hour’ was how Paul Keating disdainfully defined the Whitlam government, of which he was a minister for a month or so, and it fits, thus fa, the Abbott government, now fifty-six days old. The Chinese, the Indonesians, the Malaysians, the Pacific Islands and most of the Europeans think them idiots, but worst, perhaps, or worst thus far, was Abbott calling the Rudd and Gillard governments ‘wacko’ in the esteemed American newspaper The Washington Post.

It is known in the White House that Abbott favoured Romney, the Mormon, who believed for half his life that Negroes do not enter the afterlife, nor possess like the Whites their own planet, over Obama, a half-black man of tepid Christian convictions, at the election a year ago this week. It is known he disdains ‘the science of climate change’ as ‘crap,’ which Obama does not, or not lately. It is known he despises Indonesia, where Obama spent his fairly happy childhood. It is known he favoured the Iraq War, which Obama, at the risk of his tremendous career, said ‘should never have been authorised and should never have been fought.’

It is known both Rudd and Gillard were friends at some level of Obama’s. And Abbott has called them ‘wacko’ and withdrawn troops from ‘Obama’s war’,  Afghanistan, whooping that they will be ‘home by Christmas,’ only yesterday.

In what way does he imagine he has been helpful to US relations? He opposes, for instance, gay marriage, which Obama momentously favours, and will ‘annul’ two thousand gay couples by Christmas. He favours ‘the Newman Solution’ of locking up in solitary for twenty-five years any member of any club of which he, Nooman, does not want to be a member, and refusing civil rights to any immigrant brownskinned person brought up Muslim (like Obama, a brownskin) in Indonesia, and leaving (like Obama) Indonesia fast snd scared as an ‘economic refugee’. And, lately, some Vietnamese as well.

Is Tony Abbott now ankle-deep, as he seems to me, in senility? Has the brain-buffeting of his early amateur boxing so reduced his capacity for connective thought? Or was it the anaesthetic of his recent facelift that so injured his intellect?

Or is he just a fool?

It may be the latter. Or it may be just that he has been obliged, in the past year, to straddle so many policy positions, and go so often against his conscience, that he blurts out what he thinks now and then, thinks truly; though what he thinks has been ill-considered.

It is hard to think of a policy that has been well-considered.

We are in, old friend, the unusual position of being in the grip of a mob of crazies, many of them religious fanatics, who don’t know what they’re doing, on even a basic dot-joining level, like ‘don’t offend America,’ and ‘don’t offend China.’

It will be interesting to see how they look by December 12.

Which will be a hundred days from their election.

America, America …

The twelve-year war in Afghanistan and the ten-year bugging of Merkel make us ask the question of what the fuck the Americans think they are doing.

Are they defending democracy in a Muslim land? No, they are propping up drug lords, and arming fanatics. Will women be freer and more fulfilled when they leave there? No, and some will be killed for their presumptuous new literacy and published essays. Are women better off in Iraq than they were? No, Saddam gave them university educations, and Christians religious freedom, and the present pious mobsters do not, and every marketplace is a war zone, and twenty million Iraqis are sorry America came. What the fuck do they think they are doing? And by what right do they tell other countries how to live?

It is not as though their country is a good example. It has, per capita, more encarcerated prisoners than any other nation. It kills, by gunfire, twenty-eight thousand of its citizens every year. It sold warplanes and cluster-bombs to Assad. It mutated with Agent Orange ten million foetuses who had done no wrong. It denied health care to thirty million Americans, including Obama’s mother, who needed it, and died for want of it.

By what right then does it kill with drones other people of different opinions? It is hard to see how that right is automatic. Fifty thousand children killed at Nagasaki and Hiroshima did not confer it. Twenty thousand children dying a day of global capitalism do not affirm it.

It is time America got out of other countries’ affairs. It’s time they stopped listening to their leaders’ phone calls. They look madder and madder every day. Since Clinton left office, they have been bombing to shit other countries they have no business in, and losing wars right and left. Trillions that could have been spent cleaning up their own act, paying good schoolteachers to do good work in the inner cities, giving Blacks good reasons not to shoot each other, were spent blowing up instead sleeping children in Kandahar, and cows in Uruzguan, and it was money evilly spent.

Until Americans get into their thick skulls that death is a serious penalty for wayward thought there will be no good done by their agents anywhere. Bombs and bullets make no-one change the way they think. The Blitz did not convert Londoners to Nazism. Pearl Harbour did not convert Americans to Shinto. Flat-screen televisions showing CNN and BBC might change a few young minds. But why bother? Why bother? Iran and Afghanistan were adequate emerging social democracies before Americans stuck their bib in, and so was Chile. They should get the fuck out of everywhere.

I watch each night of late Jed Bartlet deciding what to do with other countries’ internal affairs. And I wonder why he bothers. Denmark doesn’t do this. Sweden doesn’t do this. Austria doesn’t do this. New Zealand doesn’t do this. Bhutan doesn’t do this. Why does he? Is his advisors’ expertise better than, say, Hans Blix’s or Kim Beazley’s or Bob Carr’s? Why do they presume to know how to sort things in other countries, when twenty-eight thousand of their own people die of gunfire every year, and half a million are traumatised by it, every year? And thousands of black men await for decades their lethal injection?

Why don’t they clean up their own house first, with money they’re wasting on the trashing of others’?

Just asking.

Australian As Vegemite

It is Tony Abbott’s belief — some would call it a ‘thought bubble’ — that bushfires are part of the Australian way of life, and eight-year-old firebugs, of course, are therefore affirming that way of life, and anyone who is against this process is, well, unAustralian; and anyone who says warm air has anything to do with it is unpatriotic, it’s not warm air, it’s just Australia, and eight-year-old firebugs are as true-blue Australian as Vegemite; and anyone who wants money if their house burns down isn’t getting any, it’s unAustralian to ask for it.

Is he indeed already as mad as this? It would seem so.

It would also seem that by calling bushfires normal, Australian and part of the experience of being Australian he’s encouraging those eight-year-old terrorists with matches and petrol to keep up the good work, and he should go to gaol for it. The Attorney General of the ACT or Tasmania should order his arrest for inciting terrorism and deny him bail.

It’s got as bad as this, old friend, in only fifty days. Had Rudd been Prime Minister still, and the election on November 30, compensation for burnt-out home owners in the Blue Mountains would have been a campaign issue in this, the campaign’s opening week, and Abbott’s minginess, his cruelty to Australians, would have assured his defeat in all the adjacent western suburbs, and across Australia likewise.

And there you go. Bruce Hawker saved Abbott by going too early, and history, now, will record this.

And he should have waited for this particular ‘light on the hill.’

And so it goes.

Ellis Observed

Somebody called Derek Parker has reviewed The Year It All Fell Down for The Spectator and finds nothing good in it. He says I ‘bizarrely’ quote myself, though my two co-authors, Ramsey and Spruce, do likewise and are not cursed for it. It is what you do in a book with three authors; how else would he do it?

He thinks I am wrong to criticise Rupert Murdoch. Billions do; he did not say why we should not. He believes the imprisonment of Strauss-Kahn did nothing to endanger the world economy, which he was in part in charge of, in the crucial seventeen days he was out of action, and he says I cursed Gabby Giffords, to whom the book is paradoxically dedicated. I of course did not. He says I connected her shooting with Sarah Palin. Well, so did the world, and she lost the Presidency because of it. He says I believe 9/11 was conspired by Bush and Cheney. I of course do not. There are lots and lots of lies in his review. I wonder why he told them.

One is I made my name as ‘a speechwriter for various Labor people.’ No, it was by co-writing King O’Malley, Newsfront, Goodbye Paradise, Fatty Finn, The True Believers, Man of Flowers, My First Wife, A Local Man, Autopsy On A Dream and Bastards From The Bush, and writing and directing Unfinished Business, The Nostradamus Kid and Run, Rabbit, Run, and winning many prizes with them. About one fiftieth of my writing has been for politicians. There are twenty-two books as well, three thousand uncontentious film reviews, two hundred songs, a hundred broadcasts, and sixty-eight unpolitical screenplays. How dare he. Who is he?

He says I detest all Americans. No, three thousand words of the book are in praise of Obama, and quotes from him; a chapter wryly admires Arnold Schwarzenegger, others praise Tony Bennett, Aaron Sorkin, John McCain, Mark Kelly, Danny Strong, Julianne Moore, Jon Stewart, Woody Harrelson, Steve Jobs. He says my writing is famously nasty and snide. A thousand actors, directors and authors disagree with this, cherishing my acclamations. He seems to think my opinions are ‘typical of the Left,’ though I oppose abortion, favour the Monarchy, abhor Kevin Rudd and famously once praised a book by Tony Abbott, who called me ‘Australia’s best writer’ in a phone message I by mistake alas erased. I furthermore style myself a Katterite Protectionist’ and have co-authored a film with Sir James Killen, a book with Bob Brown, and several speeches by Kamahl. He says I ‘have no evidence’ the SEALS who killed Bin Laden ‘detested Obama.’ I got it from Time Magazine. He says I weirdly allege Anders Breivik was ‘inspired by John Howard.’ Well, the selfsame mass murderer said so in his diaries and he ought to know.

Who is this lying piece of filth? He says there is ‘nothing new’ in the book, and professes shock at eighty of its revelations. He says there is no left-wing conspiracy theory I do not believe. Well, I don’t think Oswald acted alone, and neither does he. It would be good to know which ones he disbelieves. Perhaps he could list them. More to come.

The Fire This Time

My house burned down once, and my wife, whose lungs were damaged in her infancy, is coughing a lot because the bushfire smoke she is daily breathing has oils in it that worsen her suffering, her doctor says. She may have to go to hospital soon, though the Prime Minister thinks, no doubt, that she is ‘talking through her hat’ when she connects these fires, the first in October after the hottest September on record, with global warming.

It’s personal for me now. My life has been traumatised by fire, and the Prime Minister assures me these fires are a usual Australian experience, which means my wife will die sooner than she would elsewhere. And he says these fires have nothing to do with global warming, and he ‘has a mandate’ to abolish our principal weapon against global warming, the carbon tax. He is keen my wife die sooner, it seems, and more people go through suffering like we did when our pets were killed and our photos burned.

How dreadful a man he is turning out to be. Like many a sadomasochistic athlete, he wants to widen the scope of human pain. Like many a Catholic, millions of whom thought the earth was flat, he scorns the science that all other leaders believe in, and thinks hellfire, not global warming, is coming for most of us including his sister, the sodomite. He is worse in that regard than the Pope, and it is amazing he is in charge of anything. He does not deserve to Mayor of Katoomba let alone Prime Minister. His utterances encourage terrorism (setting bushfires is terrorism in its purest form, discuss) and he should go to gaol for it.

Let us not mince words about this. He has claimed that bushfires are a normal Australian thing, and eight-year-olds are setting them now. This is not just irresponsible, it is criminal; and his continuing, persistent hot pursuit of the unhappiness of his sister, by forbidding her to marry in Canberra (marry a woman, that is), approaches the psychotic.

It is hard to think of a good thing the Liberals have done. They once tried to take away the property of anyone two Ministers declared to be Communist and put him in gaol. They once pulled birthdays out of a bucket and sent off tens of thousands of teenagers to atmospheric poisoning in Vietnam, and fathering mutant children when they got home. They declared the Opera House a disaster and sacked Utzon for it and bungled its inner sanctums and acoustics. One of them, Julie Bishop, defended for years the makers of mesothelioma. Another, Malcolm Turnbull, is dismantling the NBN. Another, John Howard, called Medicare ‘unaffordable’ and helped make war on a country that did not have nuclear weapons for having them, killing or displacing four million of its people, including all the dentists. Another, Tony Abbott, thinks bushfires are a normal thing, and we shouldn’t do anything legislatively about them, and we should dismantle, in fact, the one thing we have done, however feebly, the carbon tax.

This is an awful government already, corrupt, internationally derided and borrowing more money than any in our history.

It is wrong that it should survive more than a couple of months, and I urge the ‘lame duck’ Senate to use its present numbers to bring it down,

Classic Ellis: Bob Carr, 1996

(From Goodbye Jerusalem)

Ten days after the election, on the Monday night, I dined at his forceful invitation with Bob and Helena Carr in a small eating-house in Darlinghurst. We ate pasta and drank, to my mild surprise, a glass each, no more, of throat-ripping house white (there were differing views on whether Bob was currently a teetotaller and now I had eyes-on proof).

I asked him if he’d been in touch with Keating. He said he had and he’d found him pretty shocked and shredded, not so much at the defeat, but at the size of it, until his old friend and comrade Bob, whom he’d known since they were teenagers in the Labor right wing — and, for the want of a better word, mates — had offered him a measure of mordant solace.

‘Imagine,’ Bob said (or something like it), ‘that someone had told you authoritatively when you were sixteen and you’d just joined the Labor Party that you’d be a federal MP at the age of twenty-five. You’d have been over the moon. Imagine he’d told you then that you’d be a member for twenty-eight years, and a shadow cabinet minister, and then a federal Treasurer, then deputy leader of the party. You’d have said, even better. Imagine, then, to crown it all, he’d revealed you’d be Prime Minister for four years, and elected once in your own right, and you’d have the opportunity to change forever the direction of your country for the good. You’d have been filled with pleasure. Well, it’s happened. Be thankful.’

This, I divined, was Bob Carr’s prehumous bedside manner, his own private system of glad tidings when visiting the doomed, or their grieving widows, he’d had a lot of practice with it of late, on those parliamentary colleagues who had suffered fatal illnesses, or, in one case, that of John Newman, assassination. He’d done it with Andrew Ziolkowski, for instance, his Sports Minister Gabrielle Harrison’s husband when he found that Andrew, though a young state MP, was dying of cancer at the age of thirty. Take comfort, Bob said, from what you won’t have to see, the ecological doom of the planet. The economic ruin of the West. The physical destruction of Yugoslavia. The Prime Ministership of John Hewson.

It was as good a way to talk to the spiritually shattered, I decided, as any other — as discussing, for instance, how they would spend their leisure time in Purgatory, or the possibility of preserving their head in the fridge for eventual resurrection. Keating had taken his proffered comfort in good part anyway, and later in his resignation from Parliament had heartily asserted he wouldn’t have missed any of it, not for quids.

‘You know, it’s a strange life we lead in politics,’ Paul Keating said, confiding in me, or seeming to, a week before the sudden calling of the 1983 election. ‘When Parliament’s sitting you have the equivalent of five serious fights a day. But I don’t mind that,’ he said, and looked at me with amused aggression, ‘I like a little blood.’ Then noticing I had flinched, he quickly added, ‘But when you get to our age, Bob, to middle age,’ (I was exactly forty), ‘and you’re mellowing, and you have to be,’ (he was thirty-eight and a half, and looked nineteen), ‘it gets to be a bit of an exhausting way to make a living.’

I heard the words he was saying, but didn’t altogether believe them: they seemed to me like the simulations of ordinary decent humanity that Soviet leaders and black dictators and ideological apparatchiks put on for foreign journalists; a careful rehearsed denial that ambition is their nature, ambition and the love of contest. And from this efficient, fast-moving and frightening skeleton all superfluous human flesh has been stripped away. The flesh is only the costume they wear off-stage; and some of them wear it well. How quickly, I thought, and after how long a holding out, the Labor has fallen into the hands of what might be called ‘the Professionals’, and what a mixed blessing that is, Keating’s transparent white skin, dark appealing eyes, slanting teeth and pink nether lip disturbed me. He looked like Lucifer to me, a fallen angel, deprived by John Kerr of his due advancement as Whitlam’s youngest minister, and in this Hades of his banishment now capable of anything. The next Prime Minister but one? I wasn’t sure. I could get to like him, I supposed. When it comes to famous men I’m the equivalent of a cheap drunk. I wondered if Whitlam when young gave off a similar impression — of dark, ambitious precision, heaven-sent but unwelcome, bound to succeed and bound in the end to be good for the Party, but someone whose presence in the Party for a moment made you wince.

- The Things We Did Last Summer, 1983

We talked a good bit about Proust then, whose classic novel sequence Remembrance of Things Past we were by agreement jointly reading. Its characters, the Premier pensively owned, had become more real in the final election weeks, as he read on through successive mournful midnights, than people he knew in life. Then over the chocolate mousse he asked me what I thought were the lessons of the poll result.

I took a deep breath.

‘There is no leeway,’ I said with emphasis, ‘no leeway for a Labor leader in government. No leeway to sell Qantas or the Commonwealth Bank, to scorn the Press Gallery of enflame Kerry Packer, to increase the woodchip licence or bankrupt tariff-dependent industries and ruin country towns, or,’ I added with reisling-fuelled cheek, ‘to evict the Governor from his palace or suddenly decide not to cancel road tolls.’

He watched me expressionless, holding his teaspoon.

‘You have no leeway,’ I continued, ‘to be anything else, anything other, than a Labor givernment, playing a straight bat, hitting the ball in the middle, not slashing out in all directions, a six here, a leg-bye there, because you don’t have the media tgere on your side, or not enough of it, explaining what you’re up to. All you can be up to is the obvious, social reformist agenda, with safety nets all over the place, of traditional Labor. There is no leeway for anything else,’

Or something like that.

It penetrated anyway, as I glumly deduced in the following weeks on those Mondays when I had a brilliant idea and Bob would shout down the corridor, ‘There Is No Leeway! Bob Ellis, the twelfth of March 1996!’ and he grew more sly in power and less mischievous. I liked this odd, perpetually studentish bloke and always had, in the eighteen years of our distant acquaintance (‘We are intimate,’ I once told the press, ‘but not close’) despite our disagreement on many things: he admired Thatcher, for instance — or he used to — for her long-shot usurpation of power and subsequent massacre of the Tory establishment; I’d travelled with her and found her fucking mad; he opposed euthanasia and legalised heroin because, perhaps, of his brother’s overdose; I liked the word ‘Socialism’, he choked on it.

I found honour in him, dutiful concentration, a first-class political temperament and a broadcast voice — classless, dark and trust-inducing — that Keating once said he’d kill for. He had as well that irreplaceable quality John Kennedy called Fortune that is known in shabbier environs as dumb luck, wading through seven years of quicksand and mutiny to a majority of one and then, to everyone’s amazement, three. ‘A brilliantly disguised man of destiny,’ I called him one drunken night in response to John Singleton, who’d called him a dud. ‘A man with a hint of greatness in him, a Chifley for our time.’

It was Carr’s worst Monday thus far of his public life. Barry Jones the night before on Meet The Press had been tempted into agreeing that, yes, there might need to be an investigation by the look of it ino the New South Wales Right Wing over its millions-losing real estate foul-up in Sussex Street, and that selfsame machine, with Bob as its titular head, was seeking election to government that very Saturday; and trailing in the polls.

He flew into Coolangatta in a tiny swift Lear Jet on hire, it proved, unbeknown to his minders, from Kerry Packer, and with the local doomed-but-buoyant candidate Trevor Wilson for whom I’d done some desultory campaigning for home town’s sake. I met him at the airport. ‘Bob Ellis!’ he shouted, ‘What a boost!’ And I tagged along on the bus and the gloom deepened. His minder, Graeme Wedderburn, confided that Barry in his usual predictable whiskered vociferous fuddled bombatic fashion had probably done for them; without meaning to. He was very reliable in that way.

We approached Murwillumbah hospital, across the cul-de-sac from my unremarkable weatherboard birthplace, on which Bob with a splash of lime suggested there should be a blue plaque. Then underneath the round-cornered, orange-brick hospital building I recalled from my earliest childhood, in a green park of unblooming jacarandas (and looking out at the blue remembered mountains over canefields and canefields forever) he held his most crucial press conference.

‘Barry Jones was yesterday’s story,’ he said gravely, or something like it. ‘Today’s story is New South Wales’ hospitals, in which I hereby pledge I will halve the waiting lists within the first year of government, and if that target is not met I hereby promise to resign.’

‘Will you put that pledge in writing?’ enquired a dubious reptile.

‘I will sign in my own blood if necessary.’

‘Does that go for your Minister of Health as well, Dr Refshauge?’

‘It goes for the entire cabinet,’ he asserted, without missing a beat. ‘We will meet a year from Saturday’s election, and hand round cyanide capsules.’

There was murmur and merriment and then a silence and history hung — if the hospital story did not get up, and the Jones story persisted, he was dine for — in the balance. Then the Opposition Leader was asked if he was aware that he was flying in Kerry Packer’s jet, and what favours the Great He-Warthog would ask in return. Containing an impulse to rip out the reptile’s throat, he said the jet was hired for the media’s convenience, an act which, in view of their present ingratitude, he might not fucking repeat, through an unremarkable middle man who had, as it happened, not revealed it was Packer’s.

Then someone asked, ‘Did you talk to Barry Jones last night?’

Bob stayed completely deadpan. ‘Yes, I believe I did.’

‘What did you talk about?

‘As I recall it, we discussed the disposition of the hidden corridors of the Great Pyramid, the theory of the quark, the hereditary insanity of the Bourbon dynasty, the canals of Mars, the persistent traditions of the Samurai in modern Japanese society and the musical compositions of English kings.’

‘Did you talk about the interview he gave on Meet The Press?’

Not a blink. Not a flicker.

‘Yes, it might have come up.’

It was no more, of course, than a pollywolly-vaudeville routine, delivered with Sir Humphrey sang froid, and they liked it and over the ripple of laughter, aloud or suppressed, that followed on his jest, the possibility of further Jones headlines or what would have been much worse -CARR SLAMS JONES headlines and LABOR SPLIT LOOMS ON POLL EVE — receded and faded, and his Hospital blood oath took the day. I admired his temperament then (First-class temperament? First class intelligence? probably) and his tactical acuity — only blood would rinse the foolhardy blustering ex-quiz king out of that night’s newscast and blood, therefore, was promised — and I hitched a ride on his Lear jet south.

My heartland, slow and green, passed under the plane — Brunswick Heads, Bangalow, Lismore, Grafton, the yellow beaches and canefields and red tiled and fibro houses and the candidate and I, between bursts of interview with the unstoppable Craig McGregor, talked of W.C. Fields and Nabokov and Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer and how Roosevelt’s America had died at Chappaquiddick and what the Gilded Age had made of Abe’s America and the movies he might see (I recommended Natural Born Killers and he saw it and said he would never forgive me) — avoiding all talk of the election. I showed him two passages from All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and he was astounded at how good they were. We got out at Coffs Harbour and hung round a mall with Bruce Clarke, the uneasily confident doggy-eyed local candidate, eating yoghurt with plastic spoons. As always in street crowds the Carr Factor changed votes. He was taller, and better-looking and shyer and nicer than anyone expected, and had that self-abnegating Clark Kent quality, that capacity to relax the potential voter into feelings of shared and flattered equality. I remembered watching him doorknock in the vital by-election in the Entrance — standing on doorsteps and conversing gently with Jimmy Stewart body language, and old ladies with blue hair changing their votes in forty-five seconds. I remembered the night it was won, and he came across a spotlit recreation field out of the darkness with Helena and the local crowd roared and it seemed there was destiny there to be had. I suppose life is made up of such remembered moments and no final victory is ever had. As Neville Wran said, you’re going to be chucked out some day, and the only worthwhile question is how you go.

NIDA’S Triumph: Bone and Kelly’s Osama The Hero

Osama The Hero is as good as any play I have seen in sixty-five years and I urge all who can to see it at 8 tonight or tomorrow or Friday, or at 2.30 today or Friday.

Set in a housing estate, it shows us the dreaming of the unskilled, the unlettered and the underemployed in a time formed by 9/11, a time of unfocussed rage when anyone who looks different might be a terrorist. Gary, a brown-skinned schoolboy, is chosen by some neighbours who have had their garages burnt out for capture and questioning, and we see what happens to him.

His dreaming is of gaining repute by pleasing somebody, somehow, anyone. Like Frank in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, he seems a bit daft, and socially and mentally desperate. He does a school project in praise of Osama Bin Laden and his ignorant neighbours, one of whom likes to watch a beheading on the internet, come after him. Their only territory, their personal kingdoms, their garages, have been torched, and they know, they truly know, who did it, whatever the evidence; and he like Bin Laden in his compound is killed for it, though evidence is lacking that he had anything to do with it.

Dennis Kelly, the playwright, grew up in a London housing estate in the 1980s, a time when envy conspired with helplessness to produce the soccer-hooligan mobs which trashed England’s good name worldwide. And we see in this play, full of violent solutions to nameless frustrations, how this came to pass.

The trouble with being poor is that not much happens to you, and whatever does happen to you becomes your theology. Francis was made to behead his dog because it attacked his sister, by a stern father whose memory he still reveres. Louise remembersthat same father bashing up a pervert who molested her. These, not ski-ing holidays, are the memories they have. Mandy and Mark have retreated into a fantasy that they are television stars, she a fashion designer, she a celebrity chef, after their baby dies for want of a second kidney, Mandy being thirty years younger than Mark, who seduced her when she was a teenager in, yes, his garage, his private kingdom, and she will not let him touch her now, any more, though he begs to, over and over.

Capitalism makes killers of us all, discuss, because only by territorial conquest can we affirm ourselves and soothe our pride, if we are not born to territory, like the aristocracy, and we must murder, maim and pillage till we get it. Or, like John Fowles’ Collector, kidnap and rape till we find somebody, anybody, who loves us back.

The performances are all of Oscar standard, and the actors, Devon Currie, Nicholas Hiatt, Vanessa Cole, Lauren Pegus and Matthew Pearce, show us the raw, beating heart of our times. Lots of laughs are involved, and a verbal technique one would call ‘Pinteresque’ were it not so much better used than in the early, ominous, grimier work of that overpraised wanker. Here we have Pinter plus actual politics, actual social analysis, plus a national dreaming, a global nightmare made plain.

NIDA is to be praised for it, and the director, Nicolas Bone, flown out to do it, especially commended for his majestic, Shakespearian realisation (like the eye-gouging scene in Lear) of the nightmare we all of us are in, and our civilisation may die of.

Especial acclaim is due to the set and costumes designer, Georgia Hopkins, who has given us a mental, interior, burnt-out world of claustrophobia, sorrow and revenge.

The Horror, The Horror: NIDA’s October Season

Were Cymbeline put anonymously in a play competition, it would be the first culled. Were it shown to a theatre company with Moliere’s name on it, or Tennyson’s, or Rattigan’s, it would be contemptuously rejected. Were it called a ‘work in progress’ by Hare, or Stoppard, or Brenton, it would not be funded. This is because it is an awful play, a dimwit, clubfoot soft-shoe shuffle, in Samuel Johnson’s words, of ‘unresisting imbecility.’ Its plot, Othello meets As You Like It meets Guys and Dolls, is tasteless, pantie-sniffing and bizarre.

Why then is NIDA producing it? The young actors in it are being airbrushed from world history by its awfulness, however talented they are, or may be. The designer, director, lighting man and composer are stained by it forever. Why do this to them? Is the administration insane?

Sucking Dublin prompts this question too. In accents no non-Irish can understand, this dimlit cacophany of ranted soliloquies by prosperous drug addicts, one of whom rapes his girlfriend’s sister while rap music pounds and jaded women chunder, affords some fine young actors no other option but to repel all sympathy and, in the audience, all possible future employers; and I don’t see the point. Is the NIDA board mad? Just asking.

My diatribe, howbeit, stops here abruptly, with good news elsewhere in the building. Woyzeck, a dark slumside musical by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Robert Wilson from a play by Georg Buchner and trailing whiffs of the subsequent opera, is as good as theatre gets and it vanishes tonight. Were Brecht and Weil resurrected, and the Berliner Ensemble of 1956 set working on the Buchner text, they would harass and engage and uplift us no more surely than this company and this director. The cast are Christian Charisiou, Zoe Jensen, Matthew Predny, Olivia Charalambous, Jason Kos, Jessica Vickers, Skyler Ellis, Emele Ugavule and Emily Havea, and the musical directors Andrew Ross and Nigel Ubrihien, and the director (already as good as Peter Brook) Imara Savage. It deals with suicide, wife-murder, slum prostitution and an impoverished whore with a baby, and its violent Hogarthian darkness reminds us of both Brecht and Blake — to whom Tom Waits’s grimy, soaring lyrics are sibling-close; he has long seemed to me a late eighteenth century London poet, slipped in time.

Rarely have I been so dumbstruck and purged in musical theatre, and my fellow witnesses Jim Sharman, Ron Haddrick and Chris Puplick agree with me.

Hinterland, by Jane Bodie, a former NIDA teacher, is, however, if anything, even more impressive, at least on the level of intellectual debate. Set among primeval rocks and lagoons and sudden gusts of rain in the Atrium, an outdoor space adjacent to the foyer, it concerns a heretofore unsuspected fair-skinned tribe of forest-dwelling Aryans and their end-of-time religion, and as well some timid, uncertain anthropologising documentarists keen to discover them, learn from them, and, perhaps, either willingly or unwillingly, erase their way of life.

Ambitiously, the story is told backwards, and we see in the second act the moral altercation that precedes the expedition, the high-minded millionaires that fund it, and the lacerous, lashing doubts of Ruth, a perhaps unstable defender of wilderness people hitherto disrupted, lied to, displaced and exiled by oil companies and other corporate imperialists from the only reality they know, and who believes, with anguished caveats, the expedition should not take place if she does not lead it and control it.

Experienced in this order the first scenes, involving a hanged man on a rope and a naked young woman walking slowly towards a brimming lake, an unfathered pregnancy and a secret journey to a remote and sacred destination, have Biblical force, and though the situation thereafter slowly clarifies, the first, fine rapturous impact is not, I think, diminished by what follows. Like an Arthur C. Clarke book, or a Werner Herzog film, or the recent adaptation of The Secret River we are drawn into a moral universe beyond our metropolitan suppositions, our post-Christian sympathies, our correctness, our lazy, shallow table-talk and foyer-talk, and we do not know what to advise.

The direction, by Julian Meyrick and the acting by xxxx are superb. It is a play for the ages, and it should be seen.

Carr On Sunday

The national acclaim for Autopsy and my mutinous rumbled gravitas narrating it continues, but I missed it, having been commanded by Senator Carr to Circular Quay to see Hostages, which was of course not on, after which I strong-armed him against his bellowed protests into Gravity, which he enjoyed. It was the first film he had seen in eighteen months, (he has been mostly ere this on bumpy flights to Outer Mongolia) and he proposed to recover his wits after our perilous modular descent by eating kangaroo. It was however no longer on the menu, or so we were told by abashed young woman who mistook us for persons of influence, and, having roundly cursed in a whisper the management and the sushi train it rode in in, he was firmly told by Helena, his patient wife, he was in the wrong restaurant, and by her guided to the right one, where I cravenly and supportively beside him ate grilled marsupial, medium rare, baying like him for English mustard and green vegetables, but sipped Peroni alone.

We avoided politics in our subsequent argumentative talk, favouring, as one does these days, plastic surgery (I ‘snouted’ Sandra Bullock, and the telltale widening of her nostrils in middle age), and as well the future willingness of strapped New Zealanders to accept five million economic refugees from the parching deserts of the Sydney Basin, the Hunter Valley and the Ilawarra; and Brett Johnson, who was with us, recounted with genial malice the famous, terminal hissy-fit of Kim Williams (‘I’m just so OVER you!’ he raged at Louise Herron) before he stormed out of the Opera House Trust and a subsimian drongo much like Davis Hughes replaced him.

It is good to exchange such frank opinions with old friends over slaughtered kangaroo (Brett hates The Best Offer, I love it, and Carr is wrestling with pitiful indecision and may not see it) and to plan, as we do each year, a night at the Wharf Revue. Carr and I are both in it, and he, though dismayed to be shown as a Straw Man in The Wizard Of Oz mini-musical at the end of the show, will suffer it with me sometime in November. I gave him one of our scripts for Anthology Theatre, and he may or may not appear in it. It is called What I Heard About Iraq, and echoes his rancorous views on Bush and Rumsfeld, the yellowcake, the burning libaries and the levelling of Babylon.

He gave no sense of when he would go, or who he would strive to put in his place. I suggested Beazley; he laughed mysteriously. And so it goes.

Bushfires: An Exchange

Bill Dowsley October 19, 2013 at 9:11 am

That was some of your most beautiful writing, Bob. Too, it showed the man you are, Bill.

SWF tragic October 19, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Did Rees deliver it as is?

Glow Worm October 19, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Beautifully put, Bob.

I knew someone who knew an arsonist many years ago, a young man who enjoyed, in the middle of the night, setting fire to schools. When I asked my friend why he did these things, his answer was simple: he hated schools.

At the root of it, is it a hatred of their environment? I wonder if they just see endless bush, and feel no affinity whatsoever with their land, trees, animals, scrubland. Disconnected. There’s a psychopathy involved, and we must, I agree, try and find a way to reach these people. Punishment is not enough.

Doug Quixote October 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Some people just like lighting fires. Perhaps a psychopathy is involved. Most of them (at least those halfway sane) are appalled by the eventual results of their firelighting.

Interestingly, a lot of them join volunteer firefighting groups; they are attracted to fires, and who gets closer to fires than firefighters?

Of course I do not want to denigrate those wonderful people who give of their time and labour to help fight fires, but some of them are inevitably borderline pyromaniacs, just as some scoutmasters, some priests, some teachers are paedophiles.

We are complex creatures.

Helvi October 19, 2013 at 8:01 pm

Nothing to do with hating anything, just some young louts , bored and dumb; in America they shoot by-passing joggers, here they start bushfires.

Glow Worm October 19, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Helvi, I’m not sure it’s just about boredom. Idle louts break windows and pinch ciggies from the shop, or steal cars. There’s more in play – a destructive malevolence.

Anyone with half a brain would know what the consequences of lighting a fire on a hot, windy day would be – these boys/men have other motives.

gerard oosterman October 19, 2013 at 8:10 pm

More likely the progeny of zinc alum suburbia. Bored shitless. Miles of sameness, dreariness beyond belief. What to do? Get drunk or sneak away and start a fire, anything for relief.

gerard oosterman October 19, 2013 at 7:51 pm

And now this, on top of everything else. Terrorists are fiddling with Dick Cheney’s heart.

Rome is burning

Doug Quixote October 19, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Damn – all that work wasted.

gerard oosterman October 19, 2013 at 10:11 pm

It took hours but doctors finally found Cheney’s heart. It was made of granite with traces of lead, hatred, and copious malice in the left ventricle.

chris hunter October 19, 2013 at 8:55 pm

According to DQ, Jsa is sulking about our lack of support re climate change. Well, here is a small piece piece I wrote in 2000 and I offer it as evidence regarding my long term hopes, a return to a healthier, less polluted planet:

Death’s fragment is our inheritance
bashed through time
from bard to preacher,
seldom does our raga of hate weaken
in this snivelling watered down version
of living
we take on board as something precious,
Defend with armies; fighting since
the first erected cross
stained the last bleeding hill.

I wonder and I wonder
as the stars must wonder why they
gravel the universe in such prolific
or the crab wonders as his wounded meat
too polluted to eat;
he can only scuttle and remain infertile
in less cluttered company.

It’s not hard to slip into despair,
forget the reason why we are here
and substitute our own ideas;
intricate laws
too intricate to maintain, they are changed
and changed
but who do they really protect,
and what has been protected?

The one-winged bird cannot perfect its flight,
nor the half-tailed fish its style,
as we perfect ours while wrecking the ball
slack jawed when the big mushroom spores

Be aware of that thief in the night.

gerard oosterman October 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Well done Chris. A poet hiding in the long grass.

Classic Ellis: The Black Saturday Fires, 2009

(A speech for Nathan Rees)

The enormity of what occurred on February 7th is becoming plain to us by now. Relative to population it could be seen, if we chose, as our 9/11 – certain planned acts of terrorism that ended the lives of a similar percentage of our people, left tens of thousands of witnesses in trauma, and concentrated in quiet rage the minds of a nation.

That so much harm can be done with a match or a cigarette lighter beggars our sense of proportion. That so much lifelong grief can be caused in a minute or two, grief and regret and self-blame that does not begin to recede for years, is one of the questions we must now address as Australians, as neighbours and governments and human beings.

There are kids who lost their dogs, grandparents who lost their family heirlooms and family albums, men who built their houses brick by brick over years who are staring now at blackened ruins. There are small towns that lived on the tourist trade that will not hereafter be destinations again. There are educations interrupted, life ambitions ended, small businesses ruined, mothers waiting for days to identify the corpse of a child. There are looters and similar vermin seizing the hour to profit from catastrophe. There are horses wandering in blackened forests lost and far from home.

And worse, I am told by those who have been through fire and come out the other side, are dreams that come back again and again. And this time the hose is long enough, the car keys found in time, the family photos got down off the wall in time, the school prizes, the war medals gathered up in time, the animals released from the yard in time, the inscribed book discovered unharmed in the ashes, and the loved one turning up alive, out of the burnt forest, after many days. And the dreams do not abate for a decade or more, and the self-punishing memories do not cease. As with the surviving victims of other holocausts, the flashbacks do not relent, and the guilt goes on.

So we, their neighbours and fellow citizens and distant acquaintances – and everyone in this chamber knows someone who knows someone who died in the fire – have obligations, I think, beyond the last wisps of smoke, and the last skin-graft in the hospital, and the last funeral service of a corpse too long harassed by the coroner. We have duties of care to the injured surviving victims, in their loneliness and grief, in their rebuilding of their homes and the words they say to their children, that may continue for years of neighbourly comfort and long phone calls and memorial songs at annual services on the day. We must agree to stay in touch, and be there when we are needed, until in the survivor’s mind a change comes, and they are able to move on to other things.

Mr Speaker, it is a pity, and it is a particular sorrow to me, as a former Minister for Emergency Services and one who saw as a boy growing up the fire-sunsets over the Blue Mountains almost every other year, that, as the globe warms and the continent dries and the lightning storms maraud down the mountain valleys and the snowfields recede and the rivers dwindle and the dust blows, that these ecological enormities, these unstaunchable annual furnaces will multiply, and more and more Australians will get to know firsthand how it is to be surrounded by flame and praying for help that may not come, and to know as well, as the panic increases, that this may have been man-made, and the culprit may not be found. It is in my view, Mr Speaker, a terrible pity, and I note it.

Of the necessary things now happening, Mr Speaker, in these lovely little towns – the bulldozing of landmarks, the putting down of injured cattle, the cutting down of tall beloved trees, the setting up of caravan communities with water, electric light and toys enough for the children to play with, the explaining to children of where some friends have gone, and why some pets may not return, we in this government and our tireless fieries, and volunteer nurses and social workers from this state will play, of course, some part.

But our larger duty, I think, and I choose my words carefully here, our larger duty in this worst of bushfire summers is to begin to effect some change in the minds of the restless boys and the thwarted old men who divert themselves over Christmas with this unimaginable atrocity.

For it is not a thing done, I believe, in full knowledge of its consequences, of the loss of life and the years of misery that follow in its wake. It is in the mind of the culprit a careless, trivial act like graffiti or breaking windows, or the bombs flung and the guns fired in children’s cartoons. That it can devastate a nation is not at first imagined, or even, I fear, eventually learned. And it is a vast educational responsibility we must embark on in our schoolrooms and churches and kindergartens if it is ever to cease. Even twenty-five years in gaol for one or other of the convicted arsonists will not do it. We must enlist other methods of persuasion, of conversion, and find out what they are.

Mr Speaker, we see as always Australia at its best in south-west Victoria in these late hours of tribulation. We see comradeship and neighbourhood anew. We see young men who risk their lives to save not just a stranger’s life but his property. We see the gathering of goodness as communities rally and money pours in from towns and cities far from the scene of catastrophe. We see and applaud that Australia as we can condemn the cause of this convergence of goodwill. And we join our voices here in this house in the general commiseration, in the world wide sympathy for this, our worst peacetime disaster, our most painful embrace of need, and offer our help to those bereaved, and those deprived of their lifelong dreams in a hellish, roaring moment of accident, misfortune and regret, and whatever words and a listening ear and a text message and a card can do to reduce the suffering of so many.

Mr Speaker, I commend this motion to the House.

A Night At The Opera

It took forty-five years for the notices to come in, but the standing ovation in the Concert Hall of the Opera House last night, fuelled greatly by my rancorous baritone, proved Autopsy On A Dream a considerable success, and the ABC’s recovery of it from oblivion (the BBC after litigation chopped it up with a meat cleaver, but various bits of it survived from an earlier cut, and some of the sound track, and I read out the narration again: after forty-five years, take two) was a Third Age triumph for John Weiley, its auteur, who, having been fired from the BBC for it, went on to invent IMAX and make films on the sun, the Blue Mountains (burning as we watched) and Antarctica, and the memorable Iron Man feature film Coolangatta Gold, for whose title he paid me fifty dollars.

I have not felt so affirmed since the opening night of King O’Malley in May, 1970. My roommate of 1962 Ian Masters (brother of Roy, Chris, Quentin, Deb and Sue and son of Olga) edited it, my mentor Donald Horne appeared in it (his lost voice dubbed by an actor), my sleekly handsome campus rival Ron Blair and the young Harry M. Miller, who was snide and funny in a familiar, stirring way. I was up to my armpits in Utzons by a long night’s end (one said she lived near me for years and glimpsed me often but dared not approach me) and hopeful perhaps of getting an ally for the Rudd miniseries which needs from an Australian broadcaster a single sentence alleging they would interested to read it.

Curious, the tricks Time plays. What would have seemed in 1968 (the year of Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Monte Python, Brideshead, 2001, Jesus Christ Superstar, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Hair) no more than an adequate documentary, seems now a miraculous apparition, a Sphinx rising out of the sand. What seemed then, in Muggeridge’s and Murrow’s wake, but a vigorous, editorialising narration pungently snarled by an angry young man of the day, seems now an Old Testament eruption of worldly wisdom from a couple of 26-year-olds, and an editor barely 23.

Like World War 1, the shredded Utzon vision hangs long in the national memory, as does its dim dread boofheaded Haig-like butcher, Davis Hughes, a Rushmore-craggy granite-witted precursor in sub-simian reasoning to Barnaby Joyce. To see him grumble of squandered hundreds of pounds is to hate anew those muddying saboteurs of our glorious Labor enormities which, like the Opera House, made this, for a while, a country we were proud to have been born in.

And now, no more.

Queensland Is Different, Discuss

It is reasonable to describe Queensland now as a fascist state. If you live there and belong to a club your government dislikes, ten thousand days can be added to your prison sentence, all but one hour of those days to be served in solitary. If your club is, say, Wikileaks, or The Gay Sweatshop Theatre, or the Zionist International, or Wicca, or the Church of Christ, the government, after an hour’s debate, could legislate that you suffer likewise.

Today it got worse. Now a Minister can decide when you get released from prison, if ever. If you are, say, Keith Wright, the currently encarcerated former Labor leader, or, in the future, Peter Slipper, or Peter Beattie, or Clive Palmer, or Bob Katter, or Wayne Swan, or Kevin Rudd, in gaol on trumped-up charges of rorting taxi rides or speaking uncivilly to an air hostess, you may have more years encarcerated in solitary than a serial killer and rapist of babies.

When, in the 1950s, the Menzies Government proposed that any two Ministers could declare you Communist, and seize all your property and put you in gaol without a jury trial, a law that was not enacted after its narrow defeat at a referendum, they did this in the context of US McCarthyism and the anti-Communist war in Korea. Here there is no such context, and only one Minister is called on to ruin you, and your family, by so proceeding.

It shows, I think, what the LNP is like — insane; insane as Campbell Newman; insane as the US Tea Party — and why Clive Palmer did so well in Queensland in the federal election, and so many Labor candidates were able to survive.

This LNP is three years old now, and has, I think, no future. It would lose any poll comprehensively now, and should be thrown out by the Governor.

And if Tony Abbott supports it, he should say so.

Certain Housekeeping Matters (62)

It is my present intention to write less of politics and more of film and theatre in the coming year, and do some acting and directing in the theatre. I ask all who would like to, to come to the Parramatta Riverside on November 5 and 12 to see The Word Before Shakespeare with me, Terry Clarke, Paul Bertram, Jane Harders, Denny Lawrence, Nathaniel Pemberton and Natasha Vickery and await further news of subsequent productions of our new series, Anthology Theatre, one of them, perhaps, a one-man Tennessee Williams with Gerry Connolly and a piano, and the fine text What I Heard About Iraq by Eliot Weinberger with additional music from The Desert Song, and a re-run of The Hansard Monologues if the testy director will ever let it out of his codpiece, and a sub-Shakespearian confection, After Gielgud, with me, Terry Clarke and poor Pemberton (we are calling ourselves The Three Old Men, and he is barely twenty-one) gamely assaulting the lordly heights of Sir John Gielgud’s Ages Of Man.

I urge on all who care for great theatre Whoops!, the latest Wharf Revue, and especially its take on Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, with a Hamlet-Shorten singing, in fine voice, Empty Chairs At Empty Tables Where My Friends Will Meet No More. Simon Burke, who plays him, also nails Abbott as the corrupt and smarmy Actor-Manager from Stoppard’s fine play, the first performer thus far, I think, to get that shambling, stammering, scaly Satan right. Drew Forsythe also plays Ellis, a bad habit of his by now, effectively and affectionately saying, ‘Kiss me Hardy’ at world’s end to Mareike, the way you do.

I will see, God help me, the Schmiz Hamlet and review it, and the new crop of NIDA productions.

And so it goes.

Bill Shorten, Day One

Journalists and union men make the best Labor leaders — Curtin, Chifley, Carr, Hawke and Rann come to mind — and backroomers, diplomats and lawyers (Evatt, Evans, Rudd, Gillard) do less well as a rule. Shorten, who is both a union man and a lawyer, with some of the qualities of a negotiating diplomat, will soon look more ‘old Labor’, I think, than any federal figure since Chifley.

Bruce Hawker’s theory that a Labor leader must be ‘bigger than the Party’ (he cited Whitlam, Hawke and Rudd), and somehow above and apart from it, has had its day now, I suspect. Shorten’s disdain for messiahs, and embrace of the fair go, the hand up and the second chance, is Labor to its boot-straps, and temptingly welcome to all who glumly deserted in battle smoke the tattered standard five weeks ago. He shows, as Freudenberg said of Beazley, unusually, for a Labor leader, no serious, corrosive neurosis whatever (not always politically a good thing, Freudy added), and a way of thinking policy through, and a capacity to be intellectually converted to an unpopular view that puts one in mind of Carr, and Wran, and Curtin.

He has arrived in an unusual historical space. A government already discredited, a Prime Minister disesteemed and catcalled among the nations, a Cabinet largely talentless, medieval in thought and washed clean by its Torquemadas of worthwhile policy, makes him on this first day preferred Prime Minister already, and his party winners in any immediate federal contest. He needs only to minimise his errors, and attack where appropriate his opponents’ manifest corruptions and abundant stupidities, preferably in Senate inquiries, to achieve, by the time he is fifty (the age at which Beazley nearly made it) his goal.

I’ve known him for seven years now and I like and admire him. I wish he had challenged Rudd and Gillard sixteen weeks ago. But, ah well, I can see why he did not. And it’s a pity.

And so it goes.

Waiting For Albo

10.10 am

Kevin Rudd and only Kevin Rudd could have worked out a scheme that left the Labor Party decapitated, headless and flapping about for a month, an Abbott-honeymoon month, and after that bequeathed it a leader that either the caucus or the membership did not want. It is yet another hand grenade he has rolled under the bed before sauntering out the door smugly humming ‘Poor Wand’ring One’ with an iced vo-vo in his hand.

What a ghastly cunning proud vengeful person he is entirely. He has truncated thus far the careers of Beazley, Crean, Gillard, McKew, Faulkner, Debus, Kelly, Kerr, McMullan, McClelland, Beattie, Bradbury, Melham, Jenkins, Thomson, Slipper, Cheeseman, Adams, Roxon, Emerson, Evans, Combet, Smith, Swan and Carr, and hopes to do the same no doubt ere long to Shorten; and also, probably, Albo, who once had the gall to prefer Beazley to him, and Latham to him, and Crean to him, and he does not forget, he never forgets. He believes like Billy Hughes that he is bigger than any party he joins and ruins.

I used to like him once, but I now curse the day he was born.

12.30 pm

My calculation is that if Shorten has the 52 caucus numbers he seems to have, and he gets 50 percent of the vote in Victoria, he has to get less than 37 percent in each of the other states and territories to lose but I could be wrong. It may come down to Rudd’s one vote — for Albanese — that does for him. As Rudd, of course would like. Of course he would.

It is hard to imagine a more detestable talented man. Is he CIA, I wonder? Why else would he give all those Liberals jobs, refuse to investigate the WMD fraud, or the Wheat Board bribes of Saddam Hussein, or take up any of the good suggestions of the 2020? Can there be another reason?

I wonder what it is.

1.50 pm

With qualms, I’m calling it for Shorten. Albo 58.8 of the vote, Shorten 60.4 percent of the caucus.

2.26 pm

It could even be a tie.

2.43 pm

Albo got 59.2 percent of the vote (I was 0.4 percent wrong) and Shorten 63.95 percent of the caucus (I was 3.55 percent wrong), meaning 55 not 52 votes.

The extra three I suspect were Plibersekite females, Macklin and so on, voting in secret the unofficial Bill-Tanya ticket.

4.30 pm

Elvis Presley had a twin brother, born dead. Liberace had a twin brother, born dead. Bill Shorten has a twin brother, who is a banker in England, prospering. Discuss.

How little we know about people, yet we judge them nonetheless. I know Bill fairly well, and I write torch songs for his wife and her act, the Champagne Sisters, the way you do, and I drank all night with him once but I would not presume to know his heart or his innermost convictions or the deeps of his intellect or personal theology, though I like what I see: a capacity for sympathy and wile and strategy missing thus far in the recent Labor leaderships — of Keating, Crean, Latham, Rudd and Gillard — but present, of course, in his hero Beazley, and his role model Hawke, and few others. We have at last a Labor leader who looks and sounds and thinks like one, and comes from a background — Catholic, migrant parenthood, union oratory, passionate advocacy of the genetically disadvantaged, personal tragedy, law, university, factional shuffling, strike, lockout, wharf disputes, mine rescues and conscienceful, sorrowing decision — that is more like what the party was than what it became.

I will write more later, but it is good to see what he is — a contender — at a time when we need no less than a contender, and can win with one.

How We Can Win From Here

Awaiting Slipper’s appearance on Insiders, and noting Fair Work Australia’s offer to settle with Thomson, I ponder again the possibility that the election can be disallowed by the High Court, and won easily by Labor before Christmas or by next June.

For what it was run on, the rorts of some members and Labor’s waste, prove now to be in sum no more than the Coalition’s rorts and their present crooked, craven budgeting. And their policies, concealed until after the Blackout, show cheating I think of a litigable sort, and could cause the re-run perhaps of every seat.

If this occurred Clive Palmer would pick up another seat in the House and two more in the Senate, Kelly come back to Eden-Monaro, and Brough, disqualified while awaiting trial, revivify Slipper, and you never know. Sheikh or Ludlum or Beattie could take it to court, Geoffrey Robertson and Julian Burnside argue it, and Palmer pay for it.

Any takers?

The Way She Was: Hirschbeigel’s, Jeffrey’s, Snell’s and Watts’s Diana

Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana may not be, like his Downfall, the best film ever made but I liked it a lot and suspected after a while that its bollocking by some of the British media derived from British politics more than, well, artistic differences or fumbled historical detail.

Diana campaigned against landmines, and Britain made a lot of them, and sold them to almost anyone; and when she posed with mutilated children in Syria and Lebanon the vast British arms industry became nervous and quietly, stealthily revved up, I would think, the whispering-campaign that she was an airhead, an hysteric, a dippy nymphomaniac, which continued after her death and persists even now in this, the honeymoon of her son Wills, a fine future king by any standards, in order to sell more bombs to dictators. This is not to say they had her killed, but they strove, I would think, to smirch her ever-brightening legend with rumours that Phillip or Charles or Camilla connived her rubbing out, or those neo-Malvolian Sir Humphreys of MI5, appalled by her serial tupping by Muslims and the risk of a likely Prince Mustapha ascending, after some terrorist atrocity, the Throne of England and roasting corgis on a spit in the palace forecourt, facing Mecca.

One of these Muslims was the Chang-trained heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, a devout mother-fearing Pakistani with a big extended family which Diana must woo, and win to the cause of his infidel marriage to a divorced world celebrity with suicidal tendencies and mobs of pursuant paparazzi. In an utterly plausible sequence we see her do this, in a leafy, lamplit setting of crowded, familial, Subcontinental warmth (she bowls a cricket ball to little boys underarm), and almost succeed. But, as with her other, broken families (her feckless mother’s, her imperious mother-in-law’s) she fails again, and hates herself as usual for stuffing up her love life, and he vacillates and curses and ignores her calls and rages and parts from her; and, while trying to taunt him to jealousy with Dodi she dies, the way you do, in a Paris tunnel, and so it goes. It is hard to believe it did not happen in precisely this way. She summoned the Furies, and they pursued her, and caught her, and rended her, and consumed her. And so it went.

Wisely, Hirschbeigel, and his writers Kate Snell and Stephen Jeffries, leave Charles out of it, and Camilla, and James Hewitt and Her Gracious Majesty; and, a bit surprisingly, the little princes, though she speaks of them a lot, and we see them at the end, being dolefully put on a helicopter and ascending out of her life; and they concentrate instead on her famous, game-changing, high-risk BBC appearance (we see her rehearsing her ‘three in a marriage’ line in a mirror), the media-management of her abashed and baffled spinmen, and, of course, her affair with Hasnat, the heroic surgeon, who wants no fuss and loves his work, putting small knives into beating hearts and wanting a better world, and emerges now and then from the boot of a car to whang her in some sylvan setting, the way you do.

In the 1950s he would have been played brownface by Peter Sellers, goodness gracious me, and Di by lookalike Liz Fraser. In the present era he is played by Naveen Andrews, in a manner you might call retrieved-Kamahl or sunburnt-Rossano-Brazzi; the nice thirtysomething doctor every mum wants her teenage daughter to marry in white in the Taj Mahal. Will they make it into the sack? Of course they will. Can it last, with the News of the World on a long lens recording their every coital gasp? Probably not.

This is a very good film, nodding now and then to Truffaut and Richard Curtis and Roman Holiday and Notting Hill and The Thick Of It, tiptoeing though minefields of taste and undress (we see his chest, but not hers) and narrative arc and motivation (we see Dodi oft in faraway telephoto shots but almost never hear him speak) and what Naomi manages under this cruel, unforgiving microscope on populist legend is remarkable. We utterly believe, after fifteen minutes, in the smirched, resurgent Cinderella we see before us, and her bruised goodness, her humanitarian decency, her learnt-on-the-job unsnotty empathy for all creatures great and small, in a gig as hard, and as educational, as that of Tim Costello or Fred Hollows or Mother Teresa, and her warming to the wretched of the earth.

This is after all the young woman who first embraced, and hugged, and caressed AIDS patients, to show it was safe to do so. And it was she who helped enact landmine-banning treaties in 161 countries (not Britain though, or the USA) and halved child deaths from that barbaric weapon world-wide, and would, this year or last, have got a Nobel Peace Prize for it, had she lived. And so it goes.

It is wrong to belittle her, or this movie. Go see it.

Classic Ellis: On Swearing, 1999

Kenneth Whalley, an Adelaide headmaster, will hereafter suspend pupils who swear, he says, for two weeks, if they do so ‘with aggressive intent.’

He does not name the languages they may not swear in. Clearly an aggrieved boy bodylined at cricket saying ‘thy mother mated with a camel’ in his own Kurdish dialect would go unpunished and this, I think, is unfair.

So too is the whole idea. For it presupposes that some words have evil, magical properties while other words, describing the same things, do not. ‘Fornicate’ and ‘vagina’, for instance, will not be removed from this article, though two vivider synonyms would be, though they have peppered the ordinary speech for over a thousand years of over a billion ordinary people.

Yet they are still thought to be magic and malign and anyone who uses them in John Piery Secondary School will have his education interrupted now and his whole life, therefore, possibly wrecked. He may have arrived at school exhausted after listening to his parents fighting all night because his father was made redundant and he may have lashed out at someone who mocked his untidy sad appearance, and now he may miss his mid-term exams, and may leave school, and not get to university, and so on.

This is amazingly unjust. For swearing is one of the few consolations the wretcheder classes have for lives that are hard to bear. It gets them through bad times – with intractable machines, or down coal mines, or digging roads, or failing interviews. It is a suspiration of fraught feelings, a way to get through the minute, and the hour, and the day. Its very forbiddenness, and its verbal violence, is what endows it with power to salve ills and soothe wounds. Like alcohol and marital sex and, yes, masturbation it is one of the reasons we are not all murderers. Prove that I lie.

And Mr Whalley would take it away. What a monster of rectitude he is. A Malvolio at large in the twenty-first century, attacking modern misery and its pressures by shooting the messenger, the local English dialect, and its eloquence. How dare he.

In the mid twentieth century, when I was at school, the words you couldn’t – or shouldn’t – say included ‘blasted’, ‘flaming’, ‘bum’, ‘God’, ‘hell’ and ‘damn’, and the impact of ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’ and ‘bastard’ and ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ is now hard to describe. When at the end of Gone With The Wind Clark Gable said, ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’, the audible shock was world-wide, and any other studio head but Selznick would have fearfully changed ‘damn’ to ‘darn’. And I recall the amazed laughter of my high school class when the words ‘bloody deeds’ were read out by the teacher in a Shakespeare lesson.

Things change, in short, and Mr Whalley will be seen soon, quite soon, as we now would see a headmaster who in 1951 expelled a boy for saying ‘damn and blast it all to hell’ after dropping a shot-putt on his foot – as a very foolish man, a petty tyrant, and one the boy could now sue for damages in millions, probably – and Mr Whalley should therefore watch it.

The f-word and, lately, in Woody Allen films, the c-word, are common now in cinema seen by teenagers, and used by heroes and villains alike. The idea that Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder can use words on screen that their young fans may not use contradicts the entire history of hero-worship, and the whole notion of free speech.

In previous eras ‘gee’, a contraction of ‘Jesus’, ‘gee whiz’, a contraction of ‘Jesus’ wisdom’, ‘blimey’, a contraction of ‘God blight me’, ‘gosh’, a variant on ‘God’, ‘by Jove’, a variant on ‘by Jehovah’, ‘Marry’, a mispronunciation of ‘Mary’, and ‘bloody’, a contraction of ‘by Our Lady’, were thought to threaten the speaker with hellfire, though the f-word and the c-word did not.

So things change, and languages evolve, and should evolve, and often what happens to them is political. William Tindale was burnt at the stake for daring to print the Bible in English when it was well known that Latin was the only fit language for God’s book to be in. English itself then, like Kurdish now, was a mortal sin, and men died for it.

In Adelaide they get suspended for it, and eventually expelled for it maybe, or some of it, by Mr Kenneth Whalley, a foolish man, a petty Cromwellian tyrant who does not know, probably, the evil he stands for and propounds.

He would not dare do so had there not been in the past ten years the long fierce pyrrhic battle for political correctness in human speech by the feminists and humanists and multiculturalists who believed that some words incite violence and so should be banned, and are in the end as misguided as he.

For freedom of speech is indivisible or it is not freedom, and either you believe every copy of Mein Kampf should be burned in the public square of every city of the world because it incites and justifies anti-Semitism, or you do not. And if you believe, and then declare, that anyone should be able to read, if they want to, Mein Kampf in a public library, or take it home from the library and read it aloud to a group of friends, then you cannot simultaneously believe and declare that certain abusive words about other religions and nationalities cannot be said aloud. You must either burn all books that incite violence (and the Bible must be on the list of such books, for it urges its readers to slaughter without mercy the men, women and children of rival nations and religions groups, and the speeches of Winston Churchill, who urges bombing raids and bloody mayhem on what he calls ‘the Hun’), or you must allow anything to be said, and said out loud.

Bazza Holds His Own, a fine funny film, is full of abusive national stereotypes – Australians are drunks who suffer impotence and urinate everywhere, the Poms are unwashed pillow-biters, the French conniving lechers, and all East Europeans Communist vampires – and were it written now it would never have been funded, and this would be a pity. For its freshness of language (‘he’d root the hair on a barbershop floor’) and the vigour of its humorous abuse (‘dry as a Pom’s towel’) show us how much innocent hope and freedom of speech we have lost since 1974 to the constipated fashions of our times, to this new Orwellian watchfulness that hides behind ‘inciting violence’ and ‘demeaning women’ and the like, a desire to frighten and punish young people for their energy and humour and their ordinary verbal exuberance.

Words do not have magical properties, I believe. And it was therefore wrong for church elders in Jesus’ time to stone to death anyone who said ‘Jehovah’ aloud. And it was wrong in our time for certain Muslims to try to murder Salman Rushdie – and successfully murder two of his translators – for a less than funny joke about Mahomet in his dreary book. And wrong in my lifetime for certain Russians to be sent to rot in the Gulag for telling jokes about Stalin, and for Lenny Bruce to be gaoled in America for talking to paying customers in a nightclub about oral sex, and so on.

It is wrong to punish speech, for anything it says. It is not wrong to argue back with countervailing speech. That is democracy. That is discussion. That is debate. That is freedom. What is proposed by Mr Whalley is tyranny; or tyranny based on boon dock superstition. What we used to call the heathens behave like this. We should not.

And if words do have magical power, they are losing it, and gaining it, restlessly, unpredictably, all the time. ‘Dago’ is no longer harmless, and ‘wog’ somehow more acceptable than it was. ‘Bugger’ is now innocuous, though it describes a hurtful, intrusive, sometimes violent and sometimes fatal act, one thought by the ancient Romans to cause earthquakes. ‘Wanker’, once an appalling libel, is now an amiable greeting. ‘Bastard’ is positively affectionate. ‘Arse’, once a loathsome thing to say, is now frequently (surprisingly) broadcast (as in ‘smartarse’ or ‘arse-kicker’ or ‘up to our arses in’), though not yet, I think, entirely acceptable. ‘Arselicker’ still seems magical and malign, ‘arse-kisser’ less so; and so on. ‘Bum’, as in ‘bums on seats’ or ‘Fergie’s bum’ has none of the startling impact it had when used for shock effect in 1958 in the cheery kids’ film Smiley. The f-word appears now in the respectable English magazines The Spectator, The Literary Review and The London Review of Books but has not yet made The Times or The Daily Telegraph except in the theatre advertisements. And after years on Triple J it has now, amazingly, lately, unofficially, been banned – in fear, I am told, of Richard Alston, who is himself in fear of Brian Harradine. And ‘pansy’ and ‘poofter’, except when used ironically by a practising homosexual, are absolutely blacklisted, though ‘queen’ and ‘queer’ are somehow acceptable again, and even ‘faggot’ and ‘pussy’. ‘Nigger’ is not, except when used by black American men as a form of amiable greeting. ‘Black’, once insulting, is now universally acceptable. ‘Abo’ is not. ‘Kike’ is not. ‘Tyke’ is. ‘Dyke’ is not, quite. ‘Bike’, as in ‘town bike’, is not. An Aborigine may not speak the names of the dead. An Anglo-Saxon is obliged to, but always favourably. In certain suburbs you had best not call anyone ‘towel-head’.

The effect on you of the above paragraph is a measure of the varying power to move and stir us English words have, and so is any episode of Good News Week or any performance by Barry Humphries or Gerry Connolly or Gerry Adams or Paul Keating or Nelson Mandela or Gough Whitlam or Hung Le. But this is the medium we as human beings are in, and are born to live in, and the faculty that makes us better intellectually than most of the animals. And to censor that faculty, or squeeze it, is like banning certain musical notes from the piano or strings from the violin, like cutting vocal chords or perforating eardrums to limit what is heard. We must hear it all, and be able to say it all, to ring all the notes of its beauty and vulgarity, or we are not fully human or fully alive.

Mr Whalley’s pupils should tell him to go root his boot. I will debate him on the subject anytime, anywhere.

The West Wing Revisited, Episode 30

There are no blow-jobs in The West Wing; discuss. There is not even the lingering hint of one. This is in contrast with Homeland, The Sopranos, Deadwood and Breaking Bad in which the possibility is always, I would submit, your Honour, inherent in any story, blowing, as the man says, in the wind.

I may be wrong about this. But after thirty episodes watched, in order, in maybe twelve days it occurs to me that Sorkin’s purpose is more puritan, civic, and, as it were, Rotarian, prim and High School in flavour than it was cracked up to be. No infidelity occurs; no falling off the wagon; no use of cocaine in office hours or afterward. There is a sexual act with a hooker but Sam didn’t know she was a hooker and their dealings thenceforth are as proper as those of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.

All the men, moreover, are SNAGs, and all the women mocking and strong and mostly taller than those awkward males they delectably tantalize. In any dispute the woman comes out on top, especially the President’s wife, who from time to time injects him with something to maintain his vital functions, and also calm him down. No discussion of sexual position or member size afflicts the dialogue, unlike any other modern television series. There is no non-specific urethritis, as in the JFK White House, no situational impotence, no unattained orgasm. It is as proper in this regard as a novel by Trollope or Galsworthy. Though the President has a degenerative disease, he has no trouble in getting it up.

What, then, is going on here? In the ‘detached’ 9/11 episode at the start of Season Three there lies, perhaps, a clue. In deepening silence the staffers tell visiting high school graduates how Democracy works, in tremendous local Washington detail, and the students pay attention.

It is possible Sorkin’s aim, like Shaw’s, was educational; and he banned the two-backed beast from his pitch and his deliberations on storyline, theme and character arc, and his producers agreed with him and out it went.

He was wise perhaps to do this. Begun in the wake of Lewinski’s infamous eleven blow-jobs of a sitting lascivious First Magistrate, and continued in an era when Edwards, Spitzer, Foley and several top righteous Christians were unveiled in varying sexual postures and complications, and Hillary Clinton was accused of murdering her lover, it may have seemed advisable to leave the odour of ill-gotten semen stiffening on bedsheets out of a Liberal Democrat administration.

But there you go. It is the one flaw in a great, long-running work of art: that the way of a man with a maid in it is more like that of Doris Day and Rock Hudson than it is like George and Martha, or Blanche and Stanley, or Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln. It is rinsed and airbrushed, fondled a bit and then put away in a toybox under the bed, not thought of again. They josh, they tease, they flirt, but they keep their clothes on, always; even the President’s horny daughter and the black young aide she so yearns for.

I do not particularly criticise it, but I note it; and I invite contributions.

Abbott After Forty Days

The always accurate Morgan Poll shows Labor — though briefly, latterly, leaderless — beating the Coalition by 50.5 to 49.5 and Abbott therefore a lame-duck Prime Minister, amazingly, already. This despite his half-successful trip to Indonesia, his pitiful apology to Malaysia, his pre-emptive grovel to China, and his many photo opportunities on the Harbour among the fulminating battleships of the known world. There are some reasons for this.

One is his gaping-mullet way of answering questions, like an oxygen-deprived mud-dwelling fish or coelacanth, his visible grapple for evasive locutions which take a while to click into place in his bruised, fist-pummeled brain. As with Gillard, each answer seems an awkward, clenched contrivance, a wrenching struggle against ever-mounting odds for the appropriate untruth in a way that contrasts with his hero John Howard’s banal, thudding certitudes and his enemy Kevin Rudd’s coy limpid smug one-liners. He looks nothing like a Prime Minister, and a good deal like a forger with an armload of Van Goghs assisting the police with their enquiries in a grimy Marseilles basement and it is not, after a couple of minutes, a good look for a nation’s leader to have while addressing, say, the United Nations or kissing the hand of the Queen.

It is hard hard to imagine him being there in a year’s time, but so it seemed with Robert Menzies in 1940 also, and he was still there in 1965.

As I write this paragraph it is October 10, only thirty-six and a half days from Rudd’s Ode To Gay Love and it seems a lifetime. He, the fool, could be Prime Minister still, with forty days of his second term to go still and photos of him and Bryce and Harry on the spume-swept bridge of some tossing hovercraft under the Bridge and the unemployment figures unchanged and no boats on the way from Indonesia and the Indonesians daily bucketing Morrison and Slipper suing the travel-rorting hypocrite Abbott for malicious libel and winning millions.

Why go so soon? Why put up for judgment a fresh government not tested yet, not even by forty days in office? It’s exactly what Gillard did, in almost exactly the same time-frame (thirty-seven days not forty) when she, too, could have hung on till November, trounced Abbott twenty times in the House, as Rudd could have, and won handily.

As Rudd could have.


And so it goes. If Shorten wins on Sunday, and it will be close, he will be within a fortnight preferred Prime Minister and the Coalition on about 46 according to Morgan, the only accurate, honest poll.

And we will see what we shall see.

Classic Ellis: Predicting Elections, 1999

On Saturday night, unlike the rest of the world, I got it about right. A hung parliament, I said at 6.30 in the Tally Room, to 3LO as I had to Sandy McCutcheon the day before, then weeks, maybe months of confusion, and an eventual Steve Bracks government in Victoria. When asked why I had made this preposterous prediction by a mocking compere, I said, ‘The Australian people are not fools, and bad policies lose votes.’ I then waspishly asserted that I’d been right in twenty election predictions, right each time within four seats, and dead wrong five times. I later added it up, and am ashamed to confess I was right only sixteen times, right within four seats, and wrong five times. Though it is still the best track record on earth (and includes Keating’s win of ’93, Harold Wilson’s surprise resurrection of ’74, the New South Wales hung parliament of ’91 and Tony Blair’s huge margin of ’97) it is not as good as I said. And I’m sorry.

Bad policies lose votes. I think now (I didn’t always) this is all that happens. A set of policies that hurt people cause a government to be voted out. A new government is installed, whatever its leadership. That government is re-elected because it is believed they need two terms to prove themselves. Then the bad policies hurt, or hurt too much, and the government is voted out. Or their good policies keep them in office. And when, eventually, the policies hurt too much, they are voted out.

And leadership has nothing to do with it. Or personality. Or eloquence. Or imagery. Or spin. Anyone could have won the election of 1992 given the financial disaster. Anyone could have lost last Saturday’s, given the sold-off schools and the rundown hospitals and the cancelled ambulances and the money spent on casinos and autobahns that was needed elsewhere. And the stifling, in a twenty-five day election hidden under football and gagged ministers and censored reports, of democracy itself.

Personality and leadership and eloquence did not save Keating after he’d sold off Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank and ignored the bleeding of the country towns. It didn’t save Whitlam after his tariff cuts wrecked so many businesses, and the sacking of so many of his ministers unnerved the nation. It didn’t save Churchill from the wrath of the servicemen he had put, with his addled strategies in Crete and Italy and the Far East, in harm’s way. It didn’t save Piggy Muldoon from a man, David Lange, half as popular as he. Because personalities have nothing to do with it. Policy is all – plus the ethic of the second-time fair go.

Thus I was sure in 1983 that Fraser’s policies were hurting, and Hawke could be elected, and called the exact size of the majority, 25. And in 1987 and 1990 that Hawke’s policies were good enough, and he would survive. In 1993 I among very few others was right because I felt that the hurt of Keating’s policies was less than the feared hurt of Hewson’s.

Guessing the margin is harder. I do it by reading the opinion polls. And if the Undecided is, say, 12 percent, I ask how many of those 12 percent are really hurting, and add them in. And that’s an intuitive or anecdotal guess based on talkback radio and letters to the editor and the unemployment figures and the number of garage sales and businesses for sale in the main street, and the number of drunks on the street. And if, as here this month, the undecided is huge, over 20 percent, that in itself is a measure, probably, of people hurting, and not wanting to think about it yet. But they will by election day.

And so it is that Howard cannot survive. His fair-go second term will end, and the Timor cock-up, the GST cock-up, the IR cock-up, the education crisis, the attack on the ABC, the punishment of migrants, and the widespread wrecking of the morale of Australian families will take him – or his chosen successor Nick Minchin – out in a punishing landslide. Carr will survive because of his adequate management of small suburban matters and the larger Olympic Games. Beattie and Bacon will get their second terms, and Bracks his two terms. Olson and Court (those enemies of trees and public utilities) will go in landslides that, like Chikarovski’s, will bring into doubt the Liberal Party’s very survival.

Because the Liberal Party’s policy of greed before all, and individual profit before the common good, is a policy only 10 or 12 percent of the people support. And it is therefore likely that they will go altogether, and a more hard-nosed mix of Democrats and Nationals take their place, on either the right or the left of Beazley Labor – which will have two terms till people hurt, or not.

See if I’m wrong. I sometimes am. Bad policies lose votes, and the people are not fools. And a big Undecided nearly always means a government will go. And governments usually fall after campaigns that bore the commentators – those experts we pay so much to get it all so wrong, as they did last week. And in 1993.

They should bone up on the rudiments of politics. But they won’t, of course, they’re the experts, they study ‘spin’. And I’m an amateur, and a dilettante, and a ratbag, and I wouldn’t know.

But I was the one who was right.

Bad policies lose votes. And the Undecided eventually decide. And they have reasons.

And it’s not that unusual for five people in a hundred to vote against policies that hurt them.

It happens all the time.

Classic Ellis: On Love, 2001

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

A plausible theory I read once (in Penelope Lively’s slim sweet novel According to Mark) is that love is a virus that passes like the flu. It infects, takes hold, brings night sweats, is treated, subsides and at last is gone.

This seems to me to fit all aspects of the case, in youth and age. But so too does the theory that love never dies, but returns in a kind of glowing flashback every seven years or so, and can be enjoyed again for a night, a week, exactly as it was.

Love fits a lot of definitions. The best I know (from The Reader’s Digest 1955) is ‘fullness of response.’ This allows it, as it must, to change, transform itself, in an hour or so, into hate, stalking, pursuit, a suicide pact, a murder. It evokes too that claustrophobic enclosedness, that hot obsessiveness, best seen in Hitchcock’s vertigo, or in Shakespeare’s poison sonnet on the troubling adjacent subject of lust.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner, but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad,
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof – and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream:
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The sexual component of love seems mostly to presage its undoing: Hamlet spurns Ophelia, mocks her, bids her go to a nunnery once he has bedded her (‘I did love you once.’ ‘Indeed, my Lord, you made me believe so’). Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction satisfies himself, then is haunted and stalked by a kind of disease that will not go away. That most erotic of films Betty Blue starts with a vivid, limbs-clenched consummation, then goes on to chart a nightmare, as the hero finds the beloved is mad.

Love without sex as a rule is better, or seems so in retrospect. One girl I loved first when I was sixteen – if loved is the word – and took out, courted, proposed to, met again, courted again, for seven years, I found in Canada in 1968 and got at last to bed in Toronto. And because the relationship was built on a kind of hovering pleasured incompleteness – a kiss, a fumble, an intense long talk at night by Bondi Beach – once pushed to its logical end was soon, in another year, over. Love is best in youth because of all that incompleteness. The boy in Cinema Paradiso who waits for ninety-nine nights beneath the window of his beloved to the music of Morricone best reminds us of what it was like, and the heart soars and tingles.

Oh do not call it love though thousands praise
These primy thoughts of thee on edge of sleep
That fill with naked thees my hidden ways
And mock me like so many counted sheep.
O do not call it love though I do sing
Archangel-sweet of slumbering on thy breast
And half-convert the nations of the West
To worship at thine icon in the Spring.
Oh do not call it love and do not weep
Though I do plunge the world five fathoms deep
In adoration of thy bridal trove
For love requires a giving back to keep
The barren age at bay in one joint sleep;
And lacking that, oh do not call it love.

The above, amazingly, was written by me – in imitation, I suppose, of Shakespeare of Donne – to an unhad beloved – still unhad – when I was young. I had long thought it burnt but it turned up, and there it is. It’s a measure of what fruitfulness comes with unconsummation, what sweet sorrow. It’s a measure, too, of what it was like for us who are old now when, in our youth, the custom was unconsummation, and yearning, and letters, and phone calls with long pauses, and lingering on the doorstep, or those comic half measures in the front seat of the car that we saw with such glum recognition in The Last Picture Show, that best film of what it was like in the fifties. Behave now. All that can wait till after we’re married. Oh, Emmy Lou….

Love is a word that covers too many meanings, too many, as the novelist might say, wild shores of the heart. The Inuit have, I think, twenty-eight different words for different kinds of snow, but no one word for snow as a generality, and it were best for us if we had more words for different loves, and none for the generality.

There is puppy love, and carnal love, and shipboard passing love, and old love returning (Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado), the love of pets, the love of brothers, the love of grandchildren, and these need no explaining. There is love unconsummate in old age between a widow and a widower, finding and looking after one another in their last extremity. There is enduring love between those who dwell together, and have children together, and go through buffetings and trials together, bonding (as the dull word is) into that super-loyalty that is wedlock, married life. There is the love of a mother for a baby at the breast. That is fullness of response. That is greater love than all. She will turn her back to the bullet to shield her baby. She will do it instinctively.

A great unspoken fact of love I think is its situationality, its proneness and vulnerability to geography. As a student you shared digs, or a tutorial groups with someone, and you see them often, and soon you are in love. An arranged marriage of the Greek or Jewish kind grows eventually, ineluctably, in a shared house with children, into something like love. To spend time with someone – to go, for instance, on a camping trip with them, or a sailing trip, or even a train journey – is to begin, somehow, to love them. To know a person is to love them. You cannot stay forever bonded to the girl who left for England eight years ago, and writes a letter now and then. She has to be here, or you have to be there, in the room. You have to engage.

Is love replaceable then? I think so. I have seen too many pleasured widowhoods, in my aunties, in my mother (whose great love, Wal, died on Monday night) to think that anything else is true. When asked the difficult question of who of a widow’s three dead husbands will be her husband in heaven, Jesus of Nazareth, giving it up, said there be no marriage in heaven. It improved the religion’s popularity immensely, I imagine – beyond the pearly gates, the orgy. But what else could there be. Each new love was true, and it passed into death, and was replaced.

Since the publication of the first Lancelot-Guinevere stories in the thirteenth century we have been obsessed with stories of adulterous love, and this leads me to believe (and I have no proof) that at least as a yearning it is an almost universal fact in married lives. For David and Bathsheba, for Antony and Cleopatra, for even Henry VIII’s long seven year quest for the enjoyment of Ann Boleyn, there is a sympathy in women readers that suggests at least a knowledge, a participative dreaming of the dangerous chase that shows what we loosely give the name of love to be more promiscuous, more adventurous, more game than some in pulpits and courts would have it, and there is a lot of it about (prove that I lie), and much enjoyed and contemplated, and much in old age remembered, and as Yeats put it,

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The Travels Of Anthony Abbott, Author, Unpaid By MUP

I put this up a few months ago, and it gained in relevance lately.

My wife Anne Brooksbank, a prize winning screenwriter and runner-up in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for a young adult novel in 2012, noticed what Tony Abbott had hidden in travel expenses, and what the relevant department had asked him to pay back, and wrote me at my request the following letter. This is what she said:

Dear Bob,

I think there really is something in this. If it were not for the treatment of Slipper over his travel expenses, and the fact that he is being pursued through the courts about it, it would probably slide past. But I think Slipper is right that Abbott got seriously preferential treatment.

You and I know author tours at first hand, both Random House and Penguin. Every book has a budget, including a budget for publicity. Over the past twenty-five years or so, the publishing of books – printed books in particular – has become much more costly and publishers can expect much less in the way of returns. That is why so much of the publicity for a book happens on radio – the author doesn’t have to travel anywhere but can do an interview either over the phone or, in the case of the ABC, from a Tardis Booth in one of the capital cities.

The author will be consulted on the publicity, but in the end the costs v. sales equation applies. Once the schedule is drawn up, other requests for interviews, book signings or speeches, either interstate or at country festivals, will usually come in. The publicist will say, well, if you can get there and find somewhere to stay, we’ll set up the interviews, but there is no more in the budget for travel expenses. Melbourne University Press, who published Battlelines, would be no different in this from the larger publishers. Their budget may even be tighter.

These requests for an author to come in person and speak at different gatherings in interstate or country venues are tempting. It’s not about the money you as the author make on the books you sell in these circumstances, which is usually only a few dollars, but on the wider distribution of your books – something every author, including Tony Abbott, cares about. When this question arises it is then up to the author either to refuse to go or pay his or her expenses. As you and I know, you weigh it up and decide either to go or not.

Tony Abbott would have been told that Melbourne University Press could only pay for a certain amount of travel. He must have known that these further trips were outside his normal parliamentary work. He must have noticed that he was flying somewhere to publicise the book. He must have noticed that he was riding in a commonwealth car either to the airport or to the occasion itself. (I think the commonwealth cars are particularly significant in this case. Why not catch a taxi?) He must have noticed when he was staying overnight in a hotel for a speaking occasion next day. He must have known that the publisher was not paying for these things. Maybe he combined some of it with parliamentary business, but, since he had to pay back $9,400 in travel expenses, it is clear that a number of these trips were conclusively shown not to be in connection with his parliamentary duties. Anyone in his office booking the trips for him must have known that. I don’t see how he could not have known it as well.

No-one would much want to see him dragged through court over it and he has, or so I understand, paid the money back, but it still comes down to the question of why Slipper has been pursued in court for limited travel expenses and Abbott, for a much larger sum, has not.


To this statement I would add: If what Anne says is true, and it seems to be, then Peter Slipper, who is still facing a gaol sentence for less than a thousand dollars of travel expenses, has been treated with massive injustice, and Tony Abbott with extraordinary leniency.

Classic Ellis: On Acting, 2001

‘Dreaming to order’ was how Ralph Richardson described acting, and that’s about right I think. To be, once a night, for an hour or so, someone else. To have his gait and voice and priorities, to dance or twitch to his inner music, to share his fate, his fall, his last grim howls before witnessing strangers and, worse, old friends. To filter that other person through your veins and larynx, to know him often better than yourself and to ‘give’ – the verb that actors use – your Hamlet, your Willy Loman, your Homer Simpson, or whatever, to the world. To do that is to be seized, possessed, self-mesmerised, channelling, and yet at play, and giving delight. There’s nothing like it. It’s as good, some nights, as being suddenly in love.

This all came back to me when I was asked to play the role of Puck, this week, by the Bell Shakespeare Company. ‘But isn’t Puck a kind of…grasshopper?’ I said, ‘I couldn’t leap about at my age and weight.’ ‘No, no, no,’ said the implacable German lady director, ‘This Puck is fat and somnolent, and always enters dragging his chair behind him. Then he sits on it.’ This convinced me, and voicing certain calendar constraints, I said I’d audition.

And then I realised it was forty years ago, to the week, when I first saw John Bell on stage, at the Wallace Theatre, at Sydney University. He was in the spry young Robert Hughes’ portentous verse play Dead Men Walking (‘Hamlet meets 1984,’ sneered Clive James in honi soit), and I witnessed a thin pale nervous boy I knew from tutorials transformed into this arresting heroic presence, and I felt, even then, history moving. And it was only three weeks ago, I realised, that I saw his James Tyrone – a grandiose, proud (‘I never missed a performance’), pound-foolish old actor-manager – in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and the continuity was amazing from the one to the other (and his Coriolanuses – Coriolani? – of 1964 and 1996, for I saw both) and of course I said yes to Puck. It will cost me money, but there’s nothing like it.

I was last in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1956 and ‘gave’ in the school assembly hall a good loud blustery Bottom I am told – the character is himself a incompetent ham – and acted last with Bell in 1961 in the play that opened what is now the Footbridge Theatre, Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, a production also starring Richard Walsh, Mungo McCallum, Arthur Dignam, Bruce Beresford, John Gaden, and a young law student called Brian Donovan, whom I so terrified with my (scripted) bayonet lunge at him that he hurled himself off the stage and ran from the theatre screaming. ‘It was the look in your eyes,’ he said later, over coffee. I was the Fool in a Lear to Bell’s Gloucester, and in Twelfth Night watched as the Second Officer (Bruce Beresford, erect and clear-hearted, was the First Officer, and plainly outshone me) John Bell’s astonishing Malvolio in 1960. His face nearly purple, his neck veins throbbing, his voice shredding, he bayed in his final anguish, ‘I’ll be revenged…on the whole p-p-pack of you!’ This was my first appearance on the Sydney stage. I later appeared as a blue-eyed negro slave in South, an emaciated Egyptian slave in a verse play by Fry about Moses (my thinness and wide shoulders, my wife said, made me look exactly like a hieroglyph), a shrewd old butler in Travellers Without Luggage (by Anouilh, with Arthur Dignam), the wise old Petey in The Birthday Party, the first Australian sighting of Pinter, the third Tempter in Murder in the Cathedral, and so on. And several roles in a revue that Clive James wrote and directed, one of them a send-up of Louis Fiander, whom I first met only a year ago, and he complimented me on my imitation of him thirty-six years before, his tone pretty icy, I thought.

I love these continuities, the way real actors do. I acted first with Arthur Dignam in 1960 and last in 1998 and directed him on film in 1960 and 1991 and am writing him now a one man show on Phillip Larkin. I co-wrote, and Bell directed, The Legend of King O’Malley, that in 1970 powered the coming of the Nimrod Theatre, whose building I and my wife bought and ran for ten years. In its cast was Robyn Nevin, who starred in my Goodbye Paradise and will direct (I hope) a musical, City Lights, that Chris Neal, Denny Lawrence and I have lately written for the STC. Elsewhere in its cast were Kate Fitzpatrick, John Hargreaves, Sandy Gore, Penne Hackforth-Jones Garry McDonald, Nick Lathouris and Gillian Jones whom I have written other parts for, not all of them consummated on film. Penny Cook began her career in our theatre and my wife wrote for her in Country Practice. Mel Gibson sang and danced in it once, and Max Cullen and Anne Tenney and Robert Menzies played in it, wonderfully, and Away opened in it, and so it goes. We meet again in different places, in Green Rooms, at political events, in coffee houses in other cities, with all this memory behind us, enmeshing us in past and future ache and delight and we know each other better than other workmates and talk therefore more intimately. It is no surprise to me that sexual connections can begin with rehearsal and end on closing night. It is like that, a dream, a midsummer night that ends in early sunrise. Play-mating I suppose you might call it. It happens. ‘Darling,’ we say in the aftertime, and we mean it.

Love-making on stage and film is a funny thing, and not always with great gusto enacted. I have directed more young naked women in beds in movies than perhaps I should have. One of them, Michele Fawdon, was in bed the large, shy, hairy John Clayton, whom she had only just met, and clearly uneasy, and so was he. I, the director, determined to soothe them through it. I sat on the end of the bed, and in the clear loud voice of Frank Thring said, ‘NOW I WANT YOU TO IMAGINE I’M NOT HERE.’ They fell about hugging and laughing and were fine after that and were nominated as best actors at the AFI and narrowly missed, and so it goes.

Under similar stress in a Bill Bennett film I was dressed as a tramp in a soup queue and suddenly asked to improvise a thirty-eight second soliloquy in character beginning now. I got through it, but I meet Bill now with murder in my eyes. You shouldn’t do that to an actor. He should always, as he does on stage, have weeks to think it through.

Some roles are there to be Everest-conquered, like Hamlet (the only actor born to the role, I think, was Nicol Williamson), and there are some that seem made for you alone, precast genetically, like Rumpole for McKern and Marlowe for Mitchum and Stacey for Barrett in Goodbye Paradise. If an actor has luck he (or she) gets that role early, as Garry McDonald did Gunston, and Judy My Brilliant Career. Robert Menzies, a great actor, lacks the luck of his grandfather, and so did not play the young Norman Lindsay I wrote for him. And so it goes. All actors need this luck and all I think would fly to stardom with it, and very few get it, like Sacha Horler in Praise, or Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I. You can be lucky. Or chosen.

I was off the stage for twenty-four years, and though playing on film and television various tramps, drunks, pornographers, editors, pederasts, thieves, conmen, a fairly good perverted South African psychiatrist in Man of Flowers and a excellent castrated bloodhound in Down Rusty Down did not really think of myself as an actor, even a part-time, until I was asked to play Brendan Behan in The Human Behan in Newcastle in 1995. It was the lead, it had more words than Hamlet, I had to sing, dance, smoke cigars, sodomise a shop dummy, have delirium tremens, betray the IRA and die of diabetes, things I have not thus far done in life. I thought I would not even get the lines down, but I did. And what followed showed me why it is most actors would work for nothing in a lead role anywhere, so great is the rush of oxygen it brings.

Some call the best night of theatre they had seen, one of them a federal cabinet minister. Irish fiddlers jumped on stage unbidden to accompany my awful singing. A female producer eight months pregnant saw it three times. For once in my life, as the song goes, I caught the lightning in the bucket, and I knew I had.

Some nights, though, I was really bad. One was the opening night at the Bondi Pavillion, when our musicians’ car broke down and held up the opening curtain for twenty minutes, and I had one Guinness and forgot – and groped for – the second sentence of my opening speech, and Doug Anderson decided I was no good, and said so in the Herald. And these are the breaks. I was proud of the accent, but some Dubliners lately told me it was nothing like Behan or any Irishman of any county but it had, like the voice of Yoda in Star Wars, an integrity of its own.

And so it goes. I’ve had many offers to do it again, from the Brendan Behan Hotel in particular, but my wife fearing life on an actor’s wages won’t let me. It will be, perhaps, a riotous memory, like the opening night of O’Malley. And so it goes.

Richard Burton used to say of his life as an actor, ‘My name is writ upon water,’ in that thrilling voice, quoting Keats. And it’s like that for all actors but the few, the very few, who manage greatness on the screen, like Branagh and Hopkins and Streep and Davis and Wenham and Neeson. I would give up a lot of Diehards, though, to see Judy Davis’s STC Hedda Gabler up on screen and I know I will not.

And the wind and the dust blow past the stars and soon we are nothing, unremembered. And it’s a pity.

I’m going to record Shakespeare’s sonnets on audio-cassette, I think, in my off-Richard Burton voice. Or is that a good idea. A one-man show as John Donne perhaps. Or a Micawber In Australia. Or Fred Daly Tonight. Or a Les and Bob Do Scotland. Or whatever. Or Bob Ellis Tonight.

You get infected, you see. And it’s lifelong.

Classic Ellis: Hello, Jerusalem, 1999

There are bananas growing on the side of the Mount of the Beatitudes and Australian stringybarks a few feet from where Jesus said blessed are the meek, and they that mourn and the peacemakers, and everywhere low hills and trees that Streeton might have painted overlook the lovely flat clear silent lake that is Galilee and the rumpled grey-green mountains above it that prove, under sonic booms, to be the Golan Heights. In Tiberias, a holiday town now like Surfers Paradise, you can eat, lightly grilled, in waterside cafes what is now St Peter’s Fish, as the Saviour did not so long ago, and feed the scraps to grimy, sly, shrill tiger cats, starved and fractious around your ankles, demigods no longer as they were in Cleopatra’s day.

In the Negev Desert barramundi grow in fish tanks twice as fast, because of the filtered sunlight, as they do in Australian rivers, and delicious cherry tomatoes because of the brackish underground desert water that mysteriously, triumphantly encourages new sweetness. Camel milk when slightly altered becomes delicious long-lasting icecream, and cures, it seems, diabetes and maybe, touch wood, AIDS. Parachute-drops from low-flying aircraft of sterile fruit flies in swarming millions mate with females uselessly and so, as in Australia, bring down their pestiferous numbers. Anguished efforts to build tick gates throughout Israel, an agricultural necessity, fall on deaf governmental ears. So does camel milk for diabetes, because it is not kosher.

Jericho, the world’s oldest town, has a casino now. Armageddon is a flat inviting ever-fertile plain. The rail bridge Lawrence of Arabia blew up is broken still, and unrepaired. Nazareth is a grimy traffic-jammed honking nightmare of pizza parlours and pawnshops and hoons on motorbikes, worse than Parramatta Road. By the road to Cana there is an open sepulchre millennia old with a round white stone you can roll across it, as in the Bible, and an echoing amphitheatre where, our stern guide swears, Jesus may have watched the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, which performed year round. Galilee is shrinking, a few feet each year now, because of global warming. It is most of Israel’s water, and soon may not be there.

A Chinese bishop sings Mass at dawn inside what some believe is Jesus’ tomb itself, and in the ancient gloomy church that overarches it, a bored little altar boy, like Toto in Cinema Paradiso, wiggles and dozes and sneezes out censer smoke till the whole choir chokes with stifled laughter.

A didgeridoo is played in a Jerusalem street of fashionable cafes. In the kosher Mexican restaurant I ask a waitress who looks like Sophie Lee if she is from Australia. No, she says, from Belarus. An Arab taxi driver has never heard of the Mount of Olives. A female Holocaust survivor-guide at the museum reveals her name is Eva Braun.

This is the world’s most multicultural nation. Every day a hundred more assisted migrants, teenagers mostly, preceding their unconvinced parents, from Latvia, the Ukraine, Ethiopia, begin an absorption process that includes learning Hebrew, three years of college, and three years in the army in a time perhaps of war (here it is always perhaps a time of war), and a desert country’s resources are further stretched, more so when, as they must, they give up the Golan Heights that so many died for. It is not easy. Three politicians ask my fellow traveller Mike Rann and me how a referendum works, for a referendum, Rabin vowed alas, then Barak after him, must approve the final shameful surrender of the Golan. It won’t get through, we tell them comfortingly, and Barak will thereby be toppled, and all hell return as it always does to the Promised Land. And so it goes.

It is most multinational on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, an embattled Palestinian satellite of Jerusalem with army checkpoints, body-searches, a long night walk up a dusty Arab boulevard with a wartime feel, empty of cars and full of young men with tommy guns to hear black American gospel singers, an Italian diva and a local half-dancing choir sing thrillingly Oh Little Town of Bethlehem under spangled trees in Manger Square, where Checkers, an Arab equivalent of McDonald’s, has just opened. The pum-pum of what seems to be mortar fire and the squeal and thud of rockets intersperse the diva’s rendition of Silent Night, Holy Night and it is explained that firecrackers end each day of Ramadan, coincidental this year, alas, with Christmas when I almost, but not quite, dive for cover. It is so unfortunate, complains a desolate shopkeeper, that the two million expected have not come to this safest of towns tonight because of beat-up stories of danger by CNN, and the likes of you.

Chastened, we pass through the body-searchers and phone-confiscators to the Church of the Nativity where grim old cardinals, their faces like Spencer Tracy, Jim McClelland, Anthony Quinn and Edward G. Robinson in gorgeous garments under sandstone arches and a simultaneous television broadcast of a sickly, tottering Pope having trouble with his lines, reiterate in different chanted languages their joy in the Holy Birth. To this repetitious pleasure Yasser Arafat wisely comes late, his beauteous blonde wife preceding him into their front pew. It continues for three hours.

All around on the moved old faces religion seems redeemed, and however cantankerously executed, Christianity, schismatic, contentious, domestically tyrannical, seems to have a future, and here in the Holy Land at least, a proud engulfing place.

In the Old City most of all. In arched and cobbled medieval subterranean crowdedness, its olivewood rosaries and spices and mints and cakeshops, its hanging sides of lamb and ancient Arabs playing chess, its glowing Jesuses and 3-D images of the Saviour with piercing blue eyes, its family shops still selling suits after four hundred years, its running children and donkeys and uniformed teenagers with machine guns and lazy smiles, a labyrinthine city intricate as Venice but older, the feeling of eternal magnetism (Lord, I believe: help Thou mine unbelief) is always there. In Jerusalem, an old judge told us, God is only a local call away.

You stand on the Mount of Olives above the crowded, almost jostling graves of those Jews who hoped on these holy slopes to be resurrected first at the Latter Day, and look across at David’s City in sunset’s golden hanging dust, the late light etching its towers, domes, ramparts in a noble Arthurian way, and the slashes of red cloud rising like Gabriel’s wings over it, and you see why down millennia differing faiths would struggle and fight and die to possess it. Street lights under the ramparts come on, and headlights race round its massive walls, but it persists, a dream, a goal in the mind, ever there, ever beckoning.

Next year in Jerusalem? You bet.

Classic Ellis: The Dead Kennedys, 1999

Four plane crashes now, only three of them fatal – for Joe Junior in 1944, John Junior yesterday and Kathleen in 1948. The fourth, in 1964, broke Teddy’s back, and his recovery, like Jack’s survival of many spine operations and two Final Unctions, was a minor miracle. An assassination attempt in 1960 when a gun a few feet from Jack’s face was snatched from the gunman’s hand. Two assassinations, one on the day Bobby saved his son David from drowning. The coincidence deeply depressed David, who overdosed on heroin at 29. A stillbirth to Jackie in 1956 and the death of a son, Patrick, three days old, in 1963. The death in a plane crash in 1973 of Jackie’s stepson Alexander whose father Aristotle Onassis then said she had the ‘evil eye’. A death in a game of touch football in mountain snow of Bobby’s son Michael, at 39. A case of bone cancer for Patrick, Teddy’s son, which lost him a leg at twelve. The alcoholism of his wife Joan. The dementia of his sister Rosemary, made mad by one of the world’s first prefrontal lobotomies. The Addison’s Disease of Jack, a condition resembling AIDS, whose amphetamine treatment by the White House quack,’Dr Feelgood’, may well have unsettled and inflamed his mind. A massive stroke for the patriarch, Joe Senior, that saw him speechlessly watching the murders of two of his sons on television. Three runs for President by three brothers, one successful. Two for vice-President, by Jack in 1956 and brother-in-law Sargent Shriver in 1972, both unsuccessful.

Two cases of suspected murder, of Marilyn Monroe in 1962 and Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969, both almost certainly unfounded. One case of rape, more likely. Mafia links to old Joe’s bootlegging fortune that made it seem to some that the Mob had had Jack hit when Bobby, as Attorney General, went after Joe’s accomplice Frank Costello, thus demonstrating ingratitude. A girl shared by Sam Giancana, the mobster who ensured, perhaps, Jack’s election with forged votes in Chicago, and Jack when he was President.

Lots of other girls. Marilyn, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn – whom Jack would have wed had she not been Protestant – Angie Dickinson, Marlene Dietrich, the secretaries Fiddle and Faddle that Jack would romp with in the White House pool. Old Joe’s First Honourable Mistress Gloria Swanson, indulged like royalty in her special suite at Hyannisport. Jackie’s affairs while Jack was alive with Bobby, Leonard Bernstein and Mike Nichols, and her netting after Bobby’s death of the world’s richest man Onassis, allowed in his marital contract sexual access only twice a year. Her prescient purpose was to keep her children in Europe ‘safe from America.’ Jackie’s enduring world celebrity, though she gave no interviews for thirty years. Rose who saw it all, and managed much of it, and died at 104. And John-John, who saluted his father’s coffin as a little boy on his third birthday and might have had his job by acclamation had he not died yesterday, at 38.

What does this Kennedy curse-and-legend add up to, this bright brash mix of Irishry, Popish piety, clan loyalty, big teeth, touch football, drug abuse, alcoholism, immortal oratory, spin-doctoring, Harvard elitism, Cold War populism, hectic fornication, left wing grandstanding and pulp celebrity such as the world has never seen? Celebrity recorded by a million times more words in this half century than, in his lifetime, Jesus Christ? Not too much, perhaps. A lot, maybe.

Some of it is the world’s memory of the extended families that are no more, who are always there for you, and caring for you, in your extremity of sickness and personal trouble. Some of it is the royal princedoms that so many Cinderellas dreamed of marrying into, and so many Monica Lewinskis dreamed of touching, however briefly, in the night.

Some of it is plain spin-doctoring, by the century’s masters in that field. The word ‘charisma’, for instance, was exhumed from the ancient Greek to describe the Kennedys. It had no modern currency before them. The cult of youth-in-politics was invented too, to justify a man who may not have had long to live, and the slogan ‘vigour’ to cloak his chronic illness. The TV debate was invented for him, and the backstage political documentary. Some of it was the best speechwriting – by Sorensen, Goodman, Schlesinger, Galbraith – of the century. Some of it was the luck of the Kennedys’ film star looks and the arrival of the medium, television, that altered politics into something more like game shows or celebrity interviews. Some of it was Joe’s belief that a family is a partnership down the centuries whose purpose is an enduring brand name, a name that has clout. He certainly succeeded in that.

Some of it is our need to have others live our lives more glamorously, and more dramatically, for us, to go through sickness, crisis, romance, despair and triumph more grandly, more poetically, more powerfully, than we do. The need for heroes includes, as a rule, the need for the heroes’ deaths.

But much of it, I fear, is Irishness, and Boston-American Irishness. The piety, boozing, deal-making, vote-rigging, skirt-chasing, rule-bending, devil-may-care audacity of purpose, and the singing, as Jack, Bobby and Teddy did in trio more than once, of Those Wedding Bells are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine in the bar that never closes on a snowy winter’s night.

Many Catholic Irish families of Belfast have lost as many sons and brothers violently as the Kennedys. Many last century were hanged or hunted down or flogged or starved to death. Once you see what the Irish have put up with, and hoped for, and dreamed of, and lost forever and sung of, you will understand more clearly this grand soap opera, ending now with the century, that has so absorbed the world.

Classic Ellis: A Thousand Years Of Sex, 1999

It’s hard enough to imagine the sex lives of our parents let alone our distant ancestors but some things are known – from diaries, letters, wills, church records, medical texts and the birth certificates of babies of shot-gun marriages, like Shakespeare’s. The number of Breach of Promise cases – you swore if I did it you’d marry me – adds up to a lot of unwedlocked sex in medieval times and after. So do the orphanages, most of whose foundlings were illegitimate babies left, like Rousseau’s, by lovers having second thoughts. So does the amazing fact that most Popes till recently forgave abortion – the abortion, that is, of the ‘unquickened child’, a child not yet ‘formed and animate’ – until 1869 when Pius IX infallibly declared it murder. This means, must mean, that unsought pregnancy was frequent, and dealt with in the usual way.

The diaries of Simon Forman, surgeon, herbalist, astrologer and reader of dreams, show vividly a filthy plague-ridden fifteen nineties London where pregnancy was often fatal, the ‘Great Pocks’ always fatal and contraception unknown, yet extra-marital swiving so common that Forman did it with many of his lady patients – who presumably waited out the month in panic before (as his diary triumphantly shows) coming back for more. Wherever history is uncensored – and Mother Church in particular erased from the record a good deal of her own uncelibate, priapic priests and Popes – the story seems much the same, of the Primal Urge overspilling institutional stiflings and finding an hour, a night, a hedge, a haystack, to do the Nameless, and then a few nights later do it again. Samuel Pepys’ glum affair with his housemaid Deb (ended when his wife caught them kissing, then briefly started up again) is a story too often told.

Boredom I suppose was at the heart of much of it. A world with no television, potatoes, tobacco, football, refrigeration, newspapers or even – for 95 percent of the people – reading matter in it had little else that was exciting to do but pant in the cornfield or gasp in the broom cupboard or gossip about it or dream of it. Those noble dames that could read books overwhelmingly favoured the Lancelot and Guinevere novellas in translation, or Abelard and Eloise, at a time when it was believed that adulteresses ended shrieking in eternal flames or, like Anne Boleyn, on the executioner’s block. With long widowhoods or husbands away at Crusades these refined ladies read, and reread, their nightly steamy romances or reinacted them with stewards and stablehands. With a life expectancy of 25 to twenty-seven years time was short, and each hot tumbling night a precious boon.

The chastity belt, therefore, was invented and tightly clicked into place by the grim departing Crusader for a damn good reason. It dealt with a fear that had some basis, the fear of a manchild that was not the master’s own, and the passing at his death of his farm or manor to this vile spawn of his cuckolder, a fate surely worse than cuckolding itself. There were no DNA tests then, and one had to be sure. Property was involved.

Societies varied, however. On Sweden’s Midsummer Night, the pagan custom of an annual twelve hour orgy continued in Christian times, condoned, revered, officially denied, and the consequent foetuses dealt with one way or another. Bligh’s young mariners in the 1790s were amazed to find in Tahiti beautiful, cheerfully available girls in grass villages untroubled by questions of paternity, since the whole village raised the child, and they mutinied on the Bounty to go back to them. In some Mediterranean villages it was customary for a man to deflower his daughter at fourteen. Among most peasant communities a lad’s first act of sex was with an animal, often a taciturn, ruminative mule; among American slave holders with a young black woman – or an older one, experienced with gormless male virgins. In parts of medieval Europe the bride on her wedding night was breached not by her husband but the Lord of the Manor, a practice known as droit de seigneur. In colder places, the Inuits’ arctic habitat, for instance, wife-lending to visitors was a common courtesy.

But one way or another, sex occurred, and with the affable connivance of the women – not always, but often – in centuries when female orgasm was unknown or, if it happened, fortuitous or self-induced, a fact about womankind that has always puzzled me: with so much risk, and so little pleasure, and such brute partners, why do it? And yet they did, and do, even now, when AIDS, like syphilis then, is lethal, the desire for the sense, the illusion, of even a moment of love carrying all before it.

It’s not known when first oral sex arrived in Europe, but the example of hunting dogs with busy tongues could not I think have been too long ignored, and Henry VIII’s seven years of ‘uncompleted sex’ with Anne Boleyn points to something of the sort. Anal sex, rumour has it, was long a furtive habit of the Greeks that in Christian times became a contraceptive practice and a way of preserving the fiancee’s virginity until the wedding night, so bloodied sheets the morning after could be joyfully displayed. Male homosexuality was attributed to King Edward II, whose queen had him killed by a red hot poker in the foul offending place, and Christopher Marlowe was famed for his membership of a School of Night that was given to sodomy, black magic and atheism. James I was a bugger, and William III and Arthur, heir to the throne in the 1890s, whom some still suspect was Jack the Ripper. Male-to-male sex was so often practised in the better boarding schools that it became known in England as a universal phase that one gets over. Armies were hives of it, prisons, navies, merchant fleets, monastries, sometimes for want of women, sometimes for preference. There was, as always, a lot of it about.

This fecund multiplicity of sexual practice outside of marriage and the hiding of its consequences is not too surprising given the usual human condition of what Scott Fitzgerald called ‘romantic readiness’. What is surprising is the years when there was genuinely less of it and the countries where the puritan ethic took hold.

English Puritanism derived in part from the misogynistic sexual revulsion of St Paul, who may have been impotent (‘I wish,’ he said, ‘all men were even as I am’), but more I think from the fatal venereal diseases that Columbus brought back from America. Puritan theory asserted that women were ‘beautiful temples built over a sewer’ and, from the time of Eve, unstable temptresses of the stronger, milder sex. This rancid, noisome, foul-minded cult, which attracted the ugly, the impotent and the socially inept, seized England in the Civil War of the 1640s, closed theatres as houses of whoredom, banned strong drink, whipped heretics, slaughtered the Catholic Irish, colonised Massachusetts and murdered Red Indians, hanged women accused of carnal knowledge of Satan, and made adulteresses wear a scarlet A on their clothing. Though its official power over England was broken by the Restoration of the monarchy of Charles II and a return to public fashion of elegant powdered licentiousness, it cast over Britain, its rural chapels, industrial towns and grimy slum dwellings, a prudery in the lower classes that lasted centuries, and its hypocritical voyeuristic salacity persists in much of America (ask Monica) till this day.

This ethic of gnashing chastity returned in force in Victorian times, when the young Queen’s early widowhood added a pall of grieving marital propriety to a sternly driven commercial age of muscular Christianity and imperial conquest. Though in practice the colonial officers had native mistresses and mulatto children, and fine young women wore petticoats but no panties and squealed like groupies over Byron and Liszt, and the ruling classes were as wayward in morals as ruling classes mostly are (Disraeli once belonged, for instance, to a menage a cinq, Gladstone consorted with prostitutes, then guiltily flogged himself, and the sadly syphilitic Lord Randolph Churchill shared his wealthy American wife with the Prince of Wales) the earnest face of premarital chastity (masturbation causes blindness, discuss) led many of the educated middle class into observing it. The generational slaughter of World War I, and a surge of carnal atheism caused the Twenties, and sex was briefly back again with a lot of frisky new dances, and it lasted through World War II (girls find it hard to refuse a warrior off to battle, discuss).

But in the fifties prudery returned, and virgin bridebeds, and heavy petting, and pop groups with wimpy piping voices, till the Pill unleashed after 1962 the agreeable twenty-year orgy (‘that quite unloseable game,’ as Phillip Larkin called it) of first-date sex and hygienic abortions and middle class fellatio (reportedly caused by John Updike’s novel Couples) that AIDS ended after 1983, with a new age of fearful puritanism now fading, I think, into cautious coitus again.

It could be argued, though these things are hard to prove, that Puritan eras come hard upon times of massive social disruption – the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the wrecking by World War II of Europe and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the fear in the wives that their returning husbands have seen Paris once too often. But it’s more likely, I think, that medical knowledge moves most of it – the Pill brings on Swinging London and HIV ends it, the death in childbirth of women justifies for centuries an ethic of prebetrothal chastity and safe and comfortable contraceptive practice unleashes at last the demons and the angels of the flesh. The discomfort of squashy condoms caused much of the fifties’ prudery, I suspect, and much of the women’s detestation of their drunken husbands, and much of the bedtime unease of the youth of today. Morality is sexual comfort ten years later, discuss.

But it is hard to know what has happened in any era. Roy Ladurie’s remarkable time capsule Montaillou, the detailed portrait from Inquisition transcripts of a fourteenth century French village, shows a priest as the welcome bedmate of several married women, and a form of contraceptive diaphragm already confidently in use. And the documented bisexuality of many great Englishmen, from Byron to Keynes to Churchill to Waugh to Betjeman to Gaitskell to Macmillan, hints that there may be more of it about in other cultures, and other elective ministries (Adelaide under Dunstan springs to mind), as if that matters.

Some things have improved these thousand years. There are fewer deaths in childbirth. Longer lives. More orgasms. More contraceptive wisdom – foams, Dutch caps, vasectomies, a Male Pill soon. Fewer children. More consideration of the human female. More honesty about gayness. More outing of incestuous rape. More books on how to do it.

But the cult of Beauty is worse than ever, and the daily torment of working mothers, rushing through their double duties and cursing each in turn, leaves them unfit for sexual effort by 9 p.m. Nearly half of the West now suffers divorce, and a frantic search for a better partner that often fails. And there are many more beautiful childless women than ever before, remembering in their fifties abortions they now regret.

What is clearest, I suspect, from this millennium is that sex will out, it cannot be contained, or it should not, since its painful stifling tends, as in the
Muslim world, and in pistol-packing fundamentalist America, and in the army troops that raped and mutilated their way through East Timor, to give birth to monsters.

Let it be.

Classic Ellis: Russell Crowe, 2005

Russell Crowe’s status shrinks each month. Though thought by almost everyone a fine actor and by some – particularly me – the best male actor in the English-speaking cinema (I have no way of judging the Russian or Polish cinema), he is derided, resented, smeared and, in Helen Garner’s case, belittled for causes which a hundred years from now will seem very puzzling.

He threw a phone at a hotel clerk after trying to phone his wife and baby son from a room then costing him $4,500 a night. He closed down a movie whose naive teenage central character was fat-headedly changed to a thirty-seven-year-old divorcee still cravenly obedient to the wishes of her daft father, citing ‘creative differences’ and putting a lot of people out of work. He cursed and grappled backstage with a television director who erased from a public speech of his a poem dedicated to his friend Richard Harris from whose boozy Irish funeral he had just come. He stole Meg Ryan from Dennis Quaid then left her for his old love Danielle Spencer, co-star of his first movie, wed her and upon her begot, with some fanfare, a healthy child. He punched his bodyguard, and some hoons in a Coffs Harbour pub. He sang in a band that some thought inferior songs that some thought indifferent, hitting all the notes, as he did, in a pleasing Howard Keel baritone, in a rock clip duet with Chrissie Hynde.

And…he demanded script changes in two movies, LA Confidential and Gladiator, that were, in spite or because of his impertinent interference vast worldwide successes. Never, to the best of my knowledge, did any of his films go a year over schedule because of his tantrums (as did, for instance, two of Marlon Brando’s films), or even a month, or a day.

What then is the fuss all about? Was Frank Sinatra, say, who regularly punched reporters, threatened producers, consorted with murderers, humiliated Marilyn Monroe and fixed up whores for John F. Kennedy, by any known measure a better role model? Was the finicky pederast Charles Chaplin, two of whose movies were five fiddly years in the making? Was Warren Beattie, with his bevy of casting couch women and bombastic Presidential longings, or Jack Nicholson with his cocaine orgies, sudden unexplained absences and goofy sadistic behaviour on several Oscar nights? Any reasonable observer would say not. And any conspiracy buff worth his salt would at least consider that somebody was out to get Russell Crowe.

The tobacco industry, for instance, might be after his film The Insider set in train a series of lung cancer lawsuits that may in due course bankrupt and imprison a good few of them. Did they perhaps send out agents in vengeance to hound him, bribing ‘victims’ and bystanders to testify against him, delve into his peccadillos? I would in their shoes. Or the Hollywood agent of a rival star, perhaps, keen to swell his client’s status by shrivelling Crowe’s, like the shrewd, lewd agent who spread the story of Richard Gere, the condom and the gerbil? Or a studio head that Crowe, at a party, once insulted for his right-wing politics? It’s possible.

For one way and another Crowe is doing things in politics and public advocacy that some powerful people want stopped. Did Cinderella Man’s pugnacious joust with American capitalism, and what it did to ordinary working stiffs in the Depression, speed its critical mugging and consequent commercial massacre? It’s possible. When one sees reports that his phone-throwing could get him seven years in gaol – twice what Alan Bond got for stealing a billion dollars – one has to consider the likelihood that the fix is in.

My own dealings with Russell Crowe, mind you, have not been of the friendliest: I wrote for him to direct a screenplay he eventually sacked me from, and thus far despite many rewrites and reschedulings hasn’t made. But I’ve known him slightly for fourteen years, have drunk with him all night only once and have come to a view of him, as man, citizen, singer, co-writer, script editor and actor that contrasts fractiously with that of Helen Garner, who doesn’t know him at all.

Now Garner is a fine, very fine author and critic whose books The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation I praised on television not least because they shamed the current fervid feminist correctness of the educated Left and wrestled it into some human perspective. But her Crowe piece shows that she, too, can be shallow, dismissive, ignorant, fashion-fardled, proud and prejudiced as the dimmest blithering lady columnist, and it’s a pity.

Does she really, for instance, remember no more of Crowe in Romper Stomper than a violent fuck? Did she somehow miss a majestic, simmering, Euripidean performance as good as Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or Burton in Look Back In Anger? Does she remember no more of A Beautiful Mind than ‘I felt manipulated. I think I cried’? Did she really, really, I kid you not, miss Gladiator (‘just lazy’) and The Insider (‘don’t know why’) altogether? If I were writing a piece on the art of Laurence Olivier and breezily boasted of missing Hamlet and Richard III I might, just might be judged as big a fool as she.

For in Gladiator Crowe, easily outclassing Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Richard Burton in The Robe, Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, Yul Brynner in Solomon and Sheba, Paul Newman in The Silver Chalice and Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar, somehow inhabited and made known to us, known to us inwardly, the world of bloodstained Roman warrior-honour, death-daring fealty to the emperor and the shadow-world of the afterlife as no actor so cast had previously. To play it, he took off the three stone he put on for The Insider and feverishly body-building and swordfighting became the first Hollywood gladiator to flex, as one producer put it, ‘arms big enough to look okay in a Colosseum.’ And to play with such conviction, amid such daily physical injury, a good man who is also a serial slaughterer of lesser men and still win our sympathy in these weak, piping, pacifist times is achievement indeed.

Even more remarkable, though less massively honoured, was what he did in A Beautiful Mind. This was not only to play a man in his teens and his twenties, then thickening and coarsening his waist and face a bit, his thirties, his forties and his hunched, regretful, pensive seventies, but to play him sane, mad, medicated, relapsed, in denial, in withdrawal, homicidal, remorseful, wasted, triumphant and sad. In one scene he is fighting off a schizophrenic episode while greeting old friends and joking with them about his schizophrenia while simultaneously battling its onset, a quadruple-masked display of twitches and sudden revisions unprecedented in cinema. If there is a better acted scene of doubt and inward struggle (in all the screen versions of Hamlet for instance) I want to know what it is.

Garner, the fool, saw Gladiator and Master and Commander on the small screen, which is a good bit like not seeing them at all: the Colosseum roar around you, the cannon blast behind your shoulder, the sea-spray in your face were not for her, she had better things to experience in the five or six months they each were available to her.

She quite likes Master and Commander though, even Russell’s violin playing; ‘this was the first time I’d liked him,’ she regally allows. She didn’t admit the exactitude with which he impersoned, and somehow made flesh and bone, a man whom other men would follow round the Horn and through the very gates of Death while simultaneously knowing his quest was immoderate, deluded, foolish, that he was possibly killing them all for no sufficient reason. That charm, that quietude, that ocean-gazing authority, that melting of the mutinous impulse in a single authoritative glance, that – let’s use the battered noun – charisma, he gets with few words (‘Carry on, Mr Lamb’) and an attitude that, when so placed, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson in their various Bounty voyages never came near. Crowe always gives us men of honour from systems of honour that are not our own. Cinderella Man is another such, a working class man who gives back the dole.

In this film and in others too (in particular The Sum of Us, in which he plays a naive teenage homosexual) he gives us what few actors, and no American actors, can do any more, and that is innocence, or rather that valid innocence (in John Hepworth’s phrase) that infused many men in the 30s and 40s of last century. Noting it in LA Confidential I once asked him, ‘It was Bob Mitchum you were playing, wasn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, mate, Sterling Hayden. Sterling Hayden was the best.’ With exactitude of this behavioural precision, with trans-generational channelling of this order, it is hard for me, if not for Garner, to find fault.

Why is he unique? This 1940s quality offers a clue. He gives, I believe, black-and-white performances on colour film. Such is his precision, his pared-down minimality (we hardly notice, for instance, from role to role his change of accent, his change of body shape, his change of stance and look, so thoroughly does he inhabit his characters), that what you get is a spiritual experience in a way that few screen actors (Laughton is one, De Niro another, Paul Scofield a third) ever give.

Grudgingly, and I think a little snootily, Garner at last admits that The Insider is a good film and gamely asserts that Crowe’s offstage buffoonery (what offstage buffoonery?) should not overshadow hereafter his art. That his is great art and the best art, or nearly, of these past eighty years of English-speaking sound cinema she does not even venture near the beginnings of saying. Her article – blithe, smug, self-touting, dismissive, jokey, trivial, tossed off – adds to the injustice done to an in-depth performer who, like Depardieu and Smoktunovsky, has in his language-group and medium no peer. And her flippant sneers have made less likely a Crowe Coriolanus or Odysseus or Macbeth or Von Braun or Fred Hollows or Johnny Cash or Nye Bevan or Willi Brandt or Willie Loman or Brutus that we may now never see. Like Lazlo Toth she attacks without reason, restraint or precision a work, and a monument, that was fine, very fine, without her. And her kind.

Shorten/Albanese, The Update

All that needs to be asked comes down, I think, to three questions.

Is Robbo more likely to win the 2015 election than Nathan Rees?

Is Albo more likely to win the 2016 election than Bill Shorten?

And, in what way is it good to lose, and bad to win?

In what way is losing preferable to winning?