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.


Adelaide Oval: A photo-document 2009 (2017)


The new Adelaide Oval has many admirers. ‘Graceful’, ‘charming’, ‘refined’, ‘modest’, ‘an exquisite jewel’ were words and a phrase used to describe the old ground. When it became evident that the old western stands were due for demolition in 2009 I took several hundred photographs (116 of which are reproduced here) to provide a record of a lost place and time.

Critics might argue that the Oval could not be left in a time-warp, that bricks and mortar don’t matter, that real history is what occurs on the ground. However spectator experience stretches further than this to social occasions on the mounds (north and south), in and behind the grandstands, as well as to the parks outside.

People are largely absent because I want the viewer to experience the ground in repose, to reflect, to feel a gentler place. Captions are few because I do not want to direct the viewer to specific objects and places but rather to create an impression of an enchanting whole. The result, I trust, is something like a poetic tribute to a grand old ground.

The book is published in two forms: as an ebook for $4.99 and as a hardback for $90.

E book from

Hard copies from

Sport in Adelaide 1855-80 (2016)


The subject is Adelaide sport beginning less than 20 years after colonial settlement. It is a time of rapid transition as cricket, football, horse racing, swimming, hunting and many other sports establish clubs and associations to promote the wider interests of therir members and competitors.

South Australian Cricket Reminiscences (2016)


I have just republished Clarence Moody’s 1898 book in a limited edition of 80 copies. The book is a little gem drawing on the memories of old-timers as well as the author’s own observations from the end of the century. It deals with the foundations of club cricket, the formation of the SA Cricket Association, the establishment of Adelaide Oval as well as early intercolonial and international contests.

Their Brilliant Careers

RYAN O’NEILL Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress


I’m tempted to describe this book as a parody of Australian literary history — so I will.

Taking the piss is very Australian. It’s also very British and the practice is diffused to various corners of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In taking up any book for review I read the jacket notes, and here I discover that Ryan O’Neill ‘has written a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers’. Mmmm. I’m invited to meet three – Rachel Deverall, Rand Washington and Addison Tiller, ‘The Chekhov of Coolabah’. Mmmm. I’m told that Their Brilliant Careers is a playful set of linked stories, ‘a wonderful comic tapestry of the writing life’ which takes ‘Australian writing in a whole new direction’. Be prepared, as Lord Baden-Powell might have put it.

But I stay on the back cover, for there is a small head shot of the author looking like a stand-up comic (or a CSIRO scientist) with biographical details attached. According to this bio Ryan O’Neill’s ‘internationally acclaimed fiction and nonfiction have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, and translated into several languages. His work is studied in universities around Australia, and has been adapted for radio and the stage’. He apparently lives in Sydney with his fiancée, Anne.

I’m about to turn the book over when I note in tiny print that the author’s photograph has been taken by Rachel Deverall. Is this the same Rachel Deverall ‘who unearthed the secret source of the great literature of our time – and paid a terrible price for her discovery’, the same Rachel Deverall who is one of the (invented) Australian writers? Could be.

Warning bells ahead.

Open the book. Half-title page, pass. Books by the same author, check. Google as everyone does. Fiction – The Weight of a Human Heart: Stories was published by Black Inc in 2012 and it won literary awards; pass. Non-fiction – three books listed which don’t exist. Forthcoming – a book with a very long title co-written with Anne Zoellner. Google again. Find a Mary Ann Zoellner, four-time Emmy award-winning TV producer at NBC news in the United States. She could be a worthwhile co-author to promote the new book internationally. Keep turning pages. Dedication – ‘For my late wife, Rachel’. Sad. Coincidence? Contents – Foreword by Anne Zoellner (here she is again), the biographies, acknowledgments and index. Index? Ever read a novel with an index before? I mainly read history and even substantial works of scholarship don’t have indexes these days, nor footnotes, nor are they edited, and so one can blather on and on and on. But a novel with an index promises to be a novel novel.


I find myself drawn to the index to begin with and being a contrary kinda bloke the last entry will come first and the first last.

Zoellner, Anne:

affair with Ryan O’Neill 129

betrayal of her best friend Rachel Deverall and providing Ryan O’Neill with an alibi 136-7

Have you ever started reading a novel at page 129? Is there mention of Anne Zoellner’s affair with Ryan O’Neill on that page? No. Are either of them mentioned on that page? No. Is there mention of Anne Zoellner betraying her best friend and providing Ryan O’Neill with an alibi on pages 136-7? No. Did I say this book was a piss-take? Something along those lines.

When I get around to finally reading the 16 biographies there are actually 15. Although listed under Contents for pages 261 to 262 the chapter on Sydney Steele is entirely blank. Why? Probably for the same reason his index entry reads: ‘Steel, Sydney, Blank’.

So what is this book about? A lot of make-believe characters with connections, plays, substitutions, witty epigraphs, much ado about plagiarism, jokes galore: Quarter for Quadrant, Northerly for Southerly (or Westerly), Overground for Overland, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Souci’, ‘Whingeing Matilda’ and those books which flow so readily from Frederick Stratford – Odysseus, The Sun Comes Up Too, The Prodigious Gatsby, Ooroo to All That and Long Time No See, described as a ‘picaresque satire on Parisian life’ told without using the letter C on any of its 734 pages. Stratford also launches lawsuits against James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Graves, among others, for breach of copyright.

Of the curiously named experimental writer Arthur ruhtuA it is said, ‘Poor Arthur: The only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent.’ Of editor Robert Bush we learn that Bush’s favourite copy-editing symbol was ‘Delete’. And the spirit of Addison Tiller’s prose is encapsulated in the line,”‘Wot a larf, eh Pa?’ howled Pete. ‘Wot a larf!’

There are other laughs (and minor amusements). Addison Tiller (Henry George Watkins) might stand for Steele Rudd, Edward Gale for Keith Windschuttle and Donald Chapman for Ern Malley. Like Rudd (Arthur Hoey Davis), Tiller is an ‘authentic voice of the Bush’. And as Davis chose Steele as a first name because of his admiration for the English essayist (The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 1985, p 603) so too did Watkins choose Addison, Steele’s friend and fellow essayist. Pa and Pete, of course, can readily be recognised as Dad and Dave

Do we know what Their Brilliant Careers is about? Sort of. But how was it written and is this a proper question to ask? Did the author take up the Australian Dictionary of Biography and sieve through it for literary entries on which to make variations? Did he examine the aforementioned Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, extract a bit here and tweak a bit there? Has he made a close study of the subject as a whole or merely a close study of Geoffrey Dutton’s The Australian Collection: Australia’s greatest books?

Should the reader be offended that these biographies are of people who aren’t real? It is a novel: it is fiction. Offence is most often taken when fictional characters are real. The publisher (if not the author) has been straightforward, on the back cover at least.

As for the author, finally, will the real Ryan O’Neill reveal himself? I had begun to think he might be a former Goldilocks Hollywood actor who had lost the plot and forgotten how to spell his own name, so I googled again. I find that the photograph taken by the non-existent Rachel Deverall is repeated on the Black Inc website and purports to be of a man who was born in Glasgow, is married with two daughters, and teaches at the University of Newcastle.


Quiet man of cricket: a tribute to Johnny Gleeson

 Another good man leaves us.

Remember the days when Australian Test cricketers carried an air of mystique. When they weren’t thrust upon us. When they went about their business with quiet dignity. When bowlers obviously had plans to dismiss top-line batsmen on the other side and didn’t blather on about ‘targeting’ them. When there was a little more grace in the game.

Around a dozen years ago when working as South Australian Cricket Association historian I proposed Johnny Gleeson as one of a number of guests for our annual Test match dinner, a black tie affair which regularly attracted 1000 diners. Often it was the quiet men – another was Ian Redpath – who’d been out of the public eye for a long time who made the most impact. On this occasion it was Gleeson’s laconic outback humour which was most memorable. Asked by MC Mike Coward about Warney’s range of a dozen deliveries (and working on new ones) he chuckled and replied, ‘That’s bullshit. A spinner has three deliveries: one breaks from the leg, one breaks from the off, one goes straight on.’


Gleeson made a late start in first-class cricket at the age of 28 as a mystery spinner after having been a batsman/wicket-keeper in country cricket until his mid-twenties. Fascinated by a photograph of Jack Iverson’s grip he perfected a technique of bowling leg-breaks with what appeared to be an off-break action. The leg-break remained Gleeson’s stock delivery whereas for Iverson it had been the off-break. Gleeson’s nine seasons in first-class career yielded 430 wickets at 24.95 from 116 matches. In 29 Test matches between 1967 and 1972 his strike rate wasn’t quite so good but was still eminently respectable with 93 wickets at 36.20.

It has to be admitted that he ran into some good batsmen at the top level. In England in 1968 Boycott, Edrich, Cowdrey, Graveney, Dexter, Barrington, Milburn and D’Oliviera all played at some time in the series; in Australia against the West Indies in 1968-69 he met Fredericks, Sobers, Kanhai, Nurse, Butcher and Lloyd; in South Africa in 1969-70 he was confronted by Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. Gleeson took 26 wickets against the West Indies but I was at Adelaide Oval in 1969 when he was savaged in the second innings when they made 616 and he finished with 1 for 176. At Durban the following year when Pollock made 274, Richards 140 and South Africa 9-622 declared Gleeson suffered to the tune of 3 wickets for 160. A couple of beltings like that muck up anyone’s averages.

I had a special affection for Johnny Gleeson because he inspired me to have another crack at cricket. I had put the game aside to concentrate on golf at the age of twenty but seven years later after experimenting with Gleeson-Iverson’s flick-finger spin I thought I’d give it a trial. Presenting myself at the Adelaide District Cricket Club I turned out at the Adelaide Oval No.2 nets under the watchful eye of club coach Rex Sellers.

At one point I tossed up a flighted leg-break which landed on leg stump, lured the batsman forward,  and he got a faint edge which would have been swallowed by first slip. ‘Beautiful ball, Bernard’, said Rex. How good is that? A Test cricketer saying, ‘Beautiful ball, Bernard.’ Of course, the next six balls came out as hopeless half-trackers, no flight, little spin, which the batsman mongrelled to the mid-wicket boundary and that was about the end for me.

Not quite.

Occasionally Gleeson’s memory and method would cause me to dust off the creams. A half-season for Old Scotch in my mid-thirties and a game for Old Iggies (St Ignatius) in my forties – no, I didn’t attend either school – brought the odd analysis of 3/0/25/1 but nothing significant enough to tempt me away from the golf course or lawn tennis court.

My last game of cricket was played in twilight on a delightful college ground in Blackheath, London the night before the Lord’s Test of 2009. Again I folded the fingers and flicked the ball. Two overs 0 for 14 is a pretty good average in my one and only game of T20 but would’ve been far better if a butter-fingered wicket-keeper had not mucked up a simple stumping chance, and a stiff-jointed mid-on not dropped a sitter. 2 for 14 would’ve been eminently respectable.

There is also a post script.

My one brilliant delivery at the Adelaide Oval nets partly inspired a poem which I entered in a national sports poetry competition in 2012.

dream ball

a flick of the wrist
a snap of the fingers
the ball described a perfect arc
well directed too
pitching on leg stump
luring the batsman forward
spinning hard
catching the edge
carrying to first slip’s pouch
pocketed with ease

no need for appeal
the batsman nods          awe-struck
‘too good son’              takes his leave
‘great ball lad’ says the old ump
white-washing hat tugged hard
over his ears
lizard skin blistered
from so many years
baking under a brutal sun
firm jaw creasing now
into a weary grin

‘you’ve made my day, tiger’
‘you’ve made my day’

It didn’t win but I’d like to think Johnny Gleeson would’ve given a nod of approval.


© Bernard Whimpress

Posted on on 14 October 2016