Bob Ellis fills in as diarist-at-large. By Bob Ellis.

Papaling the house

Our ambassador to the Vatican, John McCarthy, is a good and generous man, and a supporter of expatriate talent working in Europe in music and the arts. In the latter mode he forcibly invited George Pell to the opening night of the John Adams opera I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, conducted by a talented Australian, Alexander Briger.

Imagine, then, the consternation of Pell, already planning to set himself up as anti-Pope in Avignon and reimpose the punishing, puritan mood of mediaeval damnation on the Catholic faith, when the curtains opened on a giant, rising penis, over which a soaring soprano was trying to force a huge condom against a background suggestive of a moist vagina, and twilit angelic figures raising bananas.

The evening was a triumph but Pell, grown haggard, excused himself from the post-performance party, regretting only briefly the fine champagne, which McCarthy much enjoyed, and scuttered flapping whitely into the night.

1 . Cardinal singe

This story was told to me by an eminent ambassadorial person, in exact, erotic, salacious detail. Another eminent person, however, our ambassador to Italy, Mike Rann, attended the same performance and swore that none of the above was true or even close. “There was no giant penis,” he insisted. “No giant, rising penis at all.”

He did agree, nonetheless, that Pell did wish to make himself anti-Pope, so incensed was he by the present Holy Father’s heretical milksop-Marxist ways. “He models himself,” the good cardinal is said to have said, “on Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in Going My Way.”

“If he did become anti-Pope,” Mike excitedly calculated, “there will be three simultaneous Vicars of Christ in the one era, a new Guinness record.”

2 . Pre-posthumous history

From the desk of the undersigned.

Bob Ellis has been warned that his latest and as-yet-unreleased book, Tony Abbott: The Worst Sixty Days, A Political Fiction, is “libellous in its every half-sentence” and must, like an earlier work, be rapidly pulped lest his aggrieved old buddy Abbott litigate again.

“I had expected it to be posthumous,”
Ellis explained, “and my impoverished corpse not worth suing. But it seems I am to live, and this my masterwork must wait alas until its characters are no longer vivid in the public mind.”

It is written in the style of Evelyn Waugh, and it proffers, as an instance, the Malvolio-like yearning of the yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered Peter Hartcher for his ever-coquettish Olivia, Julie Bishop, under whose candlelit window he bellows up love sonnets in vain.

It moreover calls Peta Credlin “Abbott’s giant Nubian body-servant” who all too frequently “settles him down” with her “special tea” whenever he gets frisky and runs on the spot and punches the air and shouts obscurely, “Ah am de greatest!” and “Rope a dope!” in an accent few comprehend.

It also calls Dutton “the first free-elected mandrill in the Western democracies” and pictures him “conducting his press conferences while hanging with prehensile toes on a parking meter and yelping and grunting and thumping his chest in defiance of humankind”.

If Ellis’s medication ceases to assuage his cankered liver, it is his plan, he swears, to choose a date and at the Wharf Theatre perform the text of the book just once and afterwards in an appropriate Chinese restaurant submit to an act of consensual euthanasia “among friends, and some fine red wine”.

3 . Noblesse obliged

It’s time again for my old friend and best man Les Murray to be thought a candidate for the Nobel prize in literature.

It’s not, however, the reward it used to be. At $1.3 million it will buy you, perhaps, a two-bedroom flat in Surry Hills or earn you in interest $58,000 a year, enough to pay rent and go with your spouse to a meal in Chinatown and a 3D movie at Hoyts, once a week, plus parking.

Les and I have a small bet that I will get a Nobel in economics before he does for literature. The size of the bet? A Chinese meal with our spouses in Taree, and an adequate Hunter red wine.

4 . BC shepherd

Geraldine Brooks’s King David novel came out this week. Called The Secret Chord, it imagines the death-bed conversations of the legendary shepherd, harpist, giant killer, bisexual courtier, resistance leader, troubled monarch, shattered father, founder of Jerusalem, composer of immortal song and forefather of the Christ in a realistic, modern way.

It does not, however, contain the line of Joseph Heller’s from his parallel work on the same subject, God Knows, which he structured like the comic monologue of a Jewish stand-up in the Catskills in 1949, and which some scholars hailed as “the funniest 15 words in the language”. They were these: “Like cunnilingus, tending sheep is dark and lonely work; but someone has to do it.”

5 . London ditch has fallen Downer

Word has got around that Alexander Downer was lately named our ambassador to the United States but President Obama, or someone near him, said he would be unwelcome among civilised people, and, in a crime-ridden city, in likely danger of his life “for looking and sounding like that”. His name was promptly withdrawn, and Joe’s put up, and accepted.

Alexander has had more success in England, where his mannerisms are less confronting. He has joined, I am told, Pratt’s Club (well named), and White’s (old alumnus Evelyn Waugh), which David Cameron lately had to leave because it admits no women. He was behind, I am irreproachably told, the “Sir” Prince Philip fiasco, and proud of it, and he now noisily wants a title for himself, a higher knighthood or a barony. He was serenely confident (of course) that Abbott would so uplift him, and equally confident now, though the colony is in the grip of a republican, that his friend Cameron will oblige him, after having lately lavished on special friends more meaningless ennoblings than Lloyd George.

6 . Healey toes-up

Elsewhere in England, a great lost leader, Denis Healey, dies at 98. Having survived Bradford, Balliol, undergraduate communism, an early friendship with Ted – then “Teddy” – Heath, piano lessons, D-Day, Anzio, the Labour Party backroom, and the sudden death by surgical assassination of his mentor Hugh Gaitskell, he spent almost six frustrated years as Wilson’s secretary of defence and five as Callaghan’s chancellor of the exchequer when, after the oil price hike, he went abashedly cap in hand to the IMF seeking bailout funds and ended as humiliated as Tsipras, and so sped Labour’s defeat in 1979.

Feeling he had the numbers tied up, he went fishing in Scotland in 1980 and so lost the leadership, by 10 votes, to bedraggled eccentric Michael Foot, the Jeremy Corbyn of his day, whom Thatcher thumpingly defeated in 1983, after polls showing Healey, as leader, would have beaten her easily and so prevented the misery that plagued the planet for 30 years thereafter.

He invented, amusingly, the word “sado-monetarism” and famously said being attacked by Sir Geoffrey Howe was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”. He was a star for 30 years of British panel games, with his huge eyebrows, Monty Python voice, piano and double bass performances and a book, The Time of My Life, as good as any political memoir of that century. He closely resembled in physique and posture an emperor penguin, and will be sorely missed.

7 . Tyrannosaurus Rex

I learn from Al Clark that Rex Harrison, who frequently played Higgins in My Fair Lady, was a widely detested backstage figure. One of his six wives and one of his many lovers both committed suicide, and another wife, Kay Kendall, died early of cancer brought on, some said, by his rude and dismissive personality.

He retained only one friend, Stanley Holloway, who acted with him, on stage and screen, for 35 years and abhorred him intermittently also.

“One night,” Stanley once recalled, “a middle-aged English lady waited outside his dressing room for two hours hoping he would emerge and autograph her program. He came out and sailed past her saying, ‘Get out of my way.’ She followed after him pleading, and eventually hit him over the head with her rolled-up program and cursed him roundly until he fell to his knees. I watched all this happen, and later concluded, having taken thought, that this may have been the only known case of the fan hitting the shit.”


Richard Ackland is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Gadfly: Papaling the house".

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Bob Ellis passed away in 2016. He was an essayist, playwright and screenwriter, and author of The Ellis Laws.

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