In His Own Words

BOB ELLIS In His Own Words (compiled by Anne Brooksbank). Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

This anthology of Ellis’s writing reflects his wide range of interests and concerns.

Scene 1: A man came up to me in a pub. I was reading Goodbye Jerusalem or Goodbye Babylon – one of the big books. ‘He’s an angry man, Ellis,’ he said. ‘He’s much to be angry about,’ I replied.

Scene 2: I was drinking coffee at Café Bravo, Norwood (an inner-city Adelaide eastern suburb) and reading either Goodbye Jerusalem or Goodbye Babylon – one of the big books – when I spotted Ellis at an adjacent table. I approached him to say how much I was enjoying it. ‘How far have you got?’ ‘Page 606.’ ‘You’re sticking with it then,’ he said. We spoke for half an hour.

Scene 3: An actor friend was appearing in Ellis’s play, Shakespeare in Italy, which he was also directing in a small back-street theatre in Hindmarsh, an inner-west former industrial suburb of Adelaide, now mainly consisting of derelict warehouses, a soccer stadium and a cemetery. Ellis greeted patrons in the foyer when they arrived. I reminded him of our earlier meeting. When the play began Ellis positioned himself to the centre and rear of the small auditorium and laughed at his own jokes in the script. I’m told he often did this.

Scene 4: After Ellis died in April last year I met with the actor friend and a few others whereupon a toast was raised to him as the ‘Falstaff of Australia’. I have a feeling Ellis might have approved, in part as a man who frequently played court to the mighty, and could sometimes be perceived as a jester or fool; conversely he was a man of great wisdom, fearlessly expressed.

Ellis’s body may have deteriorated over time but as the back jacket picture and interior photographs of In His Own Words reveal, he was handsome in his youth and even in middle age. There was certainly no evidence of a mind having gone to seed, and in compiling this impressive anthology Ellis’s widow, Anne Brooksbank, has included material written as recently as eight days before his death.

I was glad to see the rich praise in a jacket note from Guy Rundle: ‘Bob Ellis is not merely the finest prose writer Australia has produced, he is probably the finest three or four of them.’ When people have asked me about why I read Ellis I have often said that in a 600-page book there is a great sentence on every page. I can think of some writers who don’t produce a single great sentence in a book or even a career.

The text is divided into 10 sections, some chronological and others thematic: Childhood, Growing Up, In the Midst of Life, Politics, War, Thoughts and Ideas, Saying Sorry, The Wider World, People, On Time Passing and Endings. The material is drawn from newspaper and magazine articles, from previous books, speeches – published and unpublished, and his final words from blogs. Most of the writing is prose although there are a few rhyming poems and excerpts from play and film scripts.

Politics and Labor Party history were central to his being and we are fortunate that Ellis was present at Parliament House when the Whitlam Government was sacked on 11 November 1975. He remembers the end of that bruising day as a world going mad:

And then it was late, and by lamplight we were singing ‘Solidarity Forever’ on the steps, and it was Labor and it was a fuck-up and we were history. Soon we were all drunk as shit, and people driving home were running into trees and rooting total strangers, and that was it, the end of an era. The end of hope. The beginning of a new professionalism, the Wran Rethink, the Richo machine. (Goodbye Jerusalem, 1997)

Hope springs afresh and 24 November 2007 spells the likely end of the Howard Government. Coincidentally, Ellis’s son Jack is being married that afternoon in a Kirribilli park and Ellis hasn’t written his speech. In the morning he despairs while doing poll duty in Cremorne in Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney:

Voters are coming past in their hundreds, all of them Liberals, scorning our leaflets. Where do these people come from? There’s so many of them. The clam-faced bearers of haemorrhoids, I call them. They sit in their rocking chairs behind their green shutters and come out once every three years to vote for John Howard and they all look just like him, the men and women, and go back home for three years. Put on their cardigans, eat Vegemite sandwiches and play Kamahl’s Greatest Hits … We’re going to lose this. (And So It Went, 2009)

No one can quite unload on Liberals like Ellis.

However, he taps his typewriter with more than vitriol. He summons up great sensitivity when writing about love in So It Goes (1999). It might seem odd that the best definition he finds is in The Readers Digest of 1955 – ‘fullness of response’, but he enlarges on young love. ‘It’s a measure of what fruitfulness comes with unconsummation, what sweet sorrow.’ He further suggests:

Love is a word that covers too many meanings … and it were best for us if we had more different words for different loves and none for the generality … A great unspoken fact of love … is its situationality – its proneness and vulnerability to geography.

Many people (perhaps on both sides of the political divide) might regard Ellis as a ratbag. But no mere ratbag could write this. Only a poet, a lover, a family man could do so.

The subjects in this selection are various: speeches on turning 40, 50 and 70; ancestors, friends, childhood, death and losing the family house; writing a love letter for a friend; seeking work – a letter to a prospective editor; the Sydney of the early 1960s; overseas travel – USA 1968, UK 1974, USSR 1988, Eritrea and Nepal 1994, Vietnam 1995; as witnesss to key events – Maralinga 1985, the waterfront dispute of 1998, the Olympic Games of 2000, Tasmanian wood-chipping, Tampa and 9/11, the Walk Across the Bridge of 2000, the death of Saddam Hussein, the Beaconsfield Mine Disaster of 2006, Sorry Day 2008; black and white versus colour film, the state of the language, the free market and the national anthem; politicians – Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Turnbull, Bronwyn Bishop, Mike Rann, Beazley, Abbott, Costello, Howard, Carr, Dunstan; and people – Les Murray, Don Bradman, Barry Humphries, Lindy Chamberlain and Francis James.

Above all, however, the charm of Ellis lies in his passionate argument and deft phrasing: sometimes running on for pages, at others providing minor gems.

Who else could write of Bradman in the week of his death?

Strange that an artist whose art was never seen – apart from the six or seven sweeps and late cuts caught by the newsreels – could be so beloved by so many for his art. A Michelangelo whose Sistine Chapel was never viewed. A Shakespeare whose Hamlet was never acted. A Dickens never read. A Caruso never heard … He defied the rules of the universe … And he crossed as heroes did … the line between fact and fiction.

Or encapsulate the spirit of the Sydney Olympics as ‘a kind of two-week national honeymoon, or a protracted Mexican wave, that enriched and pleasured all our memories’ or convey a grittier resolve at Beaconsfield:

I looked around the faces in the pub. They were big, burly, mild, self-mocking, no-bullshit blokes with Bob Mitchum and John Meillon faces, like my father’s generation – it’s September 1951, I thought, and all’s well – a time capsule, like most of the rest of Tasmania, of family men, shooters, weekend sailors and fishermen, shotgun-wed a few of them, I guessed, and copping sweet the decades of mortgage, skrimp and grind that followed. My father, Keith, was a coalminer for a while in Maitland, an Anglo-Celtic monoculture like this one, and I felt at home. (The Australian Worker, July 2006)

In addition to Ellis’s own words are heartfelt tributes in Anne Brooksbank’s Foreword, the Introduction by his son, Jack, and a poem by his long-time friend, Les Murray.

For readers familiar with Ellis this collection is a book to be treasured. For new readers let us hope it leads them back to his previous works, the big books and the small. If I can make a recommendation for one or the other it would be to start small with The Ellis Laws published as a Penguin Special in 2014. Almost an alternative Ten Commandments, it can be read in an hour and benefits from constant rereading and discussion.

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