Never meet your heroes, they say. Happily I’ve never put much stock in such censorious rules, and neither has he.
Bob Ellis is a writer. That sentence seems better left unadorned because it is so central to understanding a man who, for many decades, has been unsurpassable in his style of journalism, speech writing, film making, and script writing. Some of the works you will know: The Legend of King O’Malley, Newsfront, Goodbye Jerusalem. Others expire namelessly and thanklessly at the podium: the many speeches for Bob Carr, Mike Rann, Kim Beazley, and Paul Keating, the countless film reviews, the nitty gritty of the writer’s life.
It began, of course, on these very pages, when Ellis “staged a coup” as he puts it, to become the editor of Honi Soit in 1963, with Jim Coombs and Laurie Oakes. It was a blessed time for Sydney University: his contemporaries also included Clive James, Germaine Greer, and Mungo McCallum.
Ellis watched Les Murray burn poetry in the flat they shared in Bondi. But there was little delusion of grandeur or sense of destiny as they set about foraging their way into the adult world.
“We believed that we might become an adequate Woy Woy school teacher who had written a novel over a number of years,” Ellis tells me. And needless to say, the campus movers-and-shakers were not glued at the hip.
“We were not in one fucking room. We were in different coffee shops despising each other.”
He needs no prompting on how university life has changed since then.
“I’m appalled. If things close at 7 and you can’t get a fucking drink in the Union, then that is almost the death of civilization, and I’m not understating that. Unless you can do those things that have been for 600 years done after hours at university, then you will not have another generation of Monty Pythons or Doug Anthony All Stars or Chasers, and you won’t have a Bell Shakespeare company, and you won’t have those small miracles that come out of Adelaide University drama societies and so on.
“You won’t have a generation of novelists that might else have emerged timidly from the possibilities shown to them by universities after hours.”
Ellis says he had no idea whether his undergraduate polemics were good or bad, but he found the act of writing compulsive. In the same way that the late Christopher Hitchens described it as not merely something one wants to do but that one feels they must do, Ellis says writing is his “medication”. “If you begin to write and do not continue to write, you may well top yourself.”
If you can write you can talk, they say, and Ellis talks exactly as he writes:
deliberately, emotively, laden with verbs, and in a deep voice, as if constantly beside a fireplace nursing a scotch.
Through the ensuing decades the Ellis pen traversed mastheads such as The Nation Review, The National Times, and The Sydney Morning Herald. These days he furnishes his blog, Table Talk, with daily observations on a world going mad. When we meet on a windy, unseasonably cold Friday afternoon, it is the week’s tumultuous events in Canberra weighing foremost on his mind.
The forcing of Peter Slipper from the Speaker’s chair, Ellis argues, sets a scary and dangerous precedent for what is considered public material or fair game.
It is a position we share: does this now mean we have the right to sift through the private text messages of a minister? Of any member of parliament? And this, from the same people who only months ago were calling for heads to roll at News Corporation over the hacking of mobile phones?
“Apparently it is wrong to reveal that Princess Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, has nipples,” Ellis analogises.
“As the second highest official in Australia, Peter Slipper outranked her, and yet he had no privacy at all.”
The implication of his persecution, Ellis says, means that “two billion males who have derided the female part and are still living must be removed from their jobs”. The hysteria and the overreaction stem from what Ellis calls “wowser feminism”, and it incurs a wrath he might have once reserved for old enemies like John Howard.
“It’s a threat to everything. It has thus far destroyed the world by impinging on the electoral chances of Al Gore through the unhidden scandal of the blowjobs of Bill Clinton. Gore would not let Clinton, as he begged, campaign in Arkansas, which was then lost.
“The Gore presidency would have saved the world from global warming [but] wowser feminism destroyed the Gore presidency. And it may do worse. It’s horrible.”
Ellis goes on to blame ‘wowser feminism’ for the destruction of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and thus the European Union. “He was locked up on a fabricated charge of non-consensual oral sex, which is impossible without a gun…and he was for nine crucial days in jail when he was supposed to be sorting the world economy.
“So wowser feminism has firstly destroyed the world, secondly the world economy, and now it’s coming after Australian freedom of speech.”
While it might sound like an extreme reading of history, Ellis makes a salient point about the daily plethora of new rules which seem to be imposed, unpredictably and retrospectively, about what constitutes acceptable public conduct.
“We now have a rule that if a stand-up comedian says something vulgar about a sitting politician, we have to leave the room. Where’d that fucking rule come from? It’s never been in force in world history until this week, and they’re behaving as though it’s what must happen.”
Ellis refers here to a joke supposedly told at a Union event about Tony Abbott’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin. To such ridiculous heights has the sexism furore risen that Coalition members were demanding Wayne Swan apologise for not storming out of the event, even though he was the keynote speaker.
Ellis doesn’t think much of the so called gender wars: he has known Tony Abbott a long time, does not believe him to be a sexist, and convincingly explains his own animosity towards Gillard as a function of her political ineffectiveness (“she just gets so many things wrong”) and her detachment from the liberal arts (“she’s never been to a play, she’s rarely been to a film with subtitles, she hasn’t read a novel since she was 18”).
He has “some contempt” for those who accuse him of misogyny. An unapologetic Obama supporter (“the greatest orator who ever lived”), Ellis wrote during in 2008 of Hillary Clinton’s “towering frigidity”, describing her as “a stranger to consistency, sincerity and (at a guess) oral sex”.
More recently he questioned the seriousness of sexual harassment claims levelled at members of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“Women, it seems, are tough enough for service on any battlefront but not tough enough to be peeked at in the shower,” he wrote.
I think Ellis’ critics too often overstate the case. In the same way that Labor’s positioning of Tony Abbott as woman-hater is almost certainly wrong and appalling, to label Ellis a misogynist is a serious charge that demands serious evidence. How fair is it also for a younger generation to condemn an elder for not subscribing to the absolutist feminism of today? Ellis’ lot in life has been to dwell within, or at least adjacent to, the literary elite: a world that in Ellis’ time boasted precious few women – his wife of 44-years, the award-winning author Anne Brooksbank, being a notable exception. And despite this, Ellis can count among his political heroes a number of talented women: Carmen Lawrence, Natasha Stott-Despoja, and Cheryl Kernot, all of whom he believes would have made excellent Prime Ministers. It’s a pity, as he would say.
At 70, Ellis is beginning to exhibit some of the insecurities of the ageing. He has lost weight to fight off his diabetes, and asks optimistically: “Do I look 70 to you?” He laments his failure to become a true ‘man of letters’, a status he awards to heroes such as Gore Vidal, though there is still much forthcoming. A successful theatrical production, Shakespeare in Italy, just wrapped in Adelaide and may live anew in Sydney or Melbourne, lauded as “better than 27 of Shakespeare’s plays”. A new book script, The Year it All Fell Down, has been sent to the editor. And he remains intent on usurping Gerard Henderson’s column to return to the pages of the Herald.
As for going quietly into the sunset, that is the only project not on the table. “I don’t believe I’m ever going to die,” Ellis says, deadpan. “But there is some evidence that you do.”