Books

Bob Ellis
Bob Ellis: In His Own Words

Towards the end of his life, Bob Ellis blogged a little, usually after writing the first draft of his missives in longhand on the fabled yellow legal pads he hauled everywhere with him.

But by and large, Ellis, Australia’s finest literary raconteur, was happy to sit out the online world, especially Twitter. A good thing, too. A mere 140 characters could never satisfy a man whose sentences routinely ran to 140 glorious words. Or 300 words, more glorious still.

Ellis left instead two million words, probably more, in 50 works of fiction, nonfiction, essays, screenplays and plays. Then there were the speeches, many of them undelivered by Labor politicians too timid to utter what Ellis had written for them. From this cache, Ellis’s widow, Anne Brooksbank, has compiled Bob Ellis: In His Own Words, with an introduction by his son, Jack.

Even if you have read or seen the original works, this book will remind you of Ellis’s true literary gift. He wrote about politics as grand narrative, not as polemic.

He was doleful even about those he loathed, such as John Howard, and about the economic rationalism that was corroding Australia. “This doctrine argues ... that if we sack just a few hundred thousand more people, there will be jobs for everyone, and prosperity for everyone, and cheap and lovely consumer goods, and big, competitive international corporations specialising here in only those things that Australia does best, whatever they are ... and we can compete on a level playing field with hundreds of millions of Chinese now prepared to work fourteen hours a day, twenty-nine days a month for a dollar fifty an hour ... The level playing field is just another flat earth theory, discuss.”  

Ellis wrote in the concrete – you could picture what he was arguing – rather than in what one might call the “accusatory abstract”. He didn’t screech that his opponents were homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic or misogynist. Ellis didn’t sneer, he lamented, and his writing was all the more powerful and persuasive for it.

The gift of prophecy often failed him. He said Labor would be returned to power in a hung parliament at the 2011 New South Wales election; it lost 32 seats and won just 25 per cent of the vote.

But Ellis also saw through his own side’s cant. While his incomparable description of economic rationalists as “sado-monetarists” was used against John Hewson, John Howard, Peter Costello and Peter Reith, it was coined for Paul Keating, in an address to the Fabian Society in late 1991, just as Keating was about to topple Bob Hawke.

Here, too, is Ellis’s warning about the persistence of the right wing in trying to overturn the social-democratic compact that prevailed for 40 years after World War II: “We win the basic wage, the eight-hour day, the old-age pension, the right to compensation for injury at work, the right to maternity leave and childcare and wages that grow in proportion to the cost of being alive, and the battle is won and story is over.

“But they know better than we do. They know that governments will change, and new naive young ministers – like, say, Paul Keating – will yield in a while to a little duchessing, a little linguistic manipulation, a little technocratic hieroglyphic and mumbo jumbo, a little flattery, a little elegant propaganda, a little numerical sleight of hand.”

Domestic politics consumed much of Ellis’s life from the age of about 40, when he began contributing to Labor speeches, but he was also a man of poetry, theatre and travel. Barry Humphries, though a wretched Tory, deserved a knighthood for being “the one authentic genius of our flabby provincial nation”. Lindy Chamberlain, a fellow Seventh-day Adventist, would never have got away, in Ellis’s youth, with the plucked eyebrows and lipstick that now made her look like “a ravaged Judy Garland”.

On a trip to the Middle East with the then South Australian premier Mike Rann, Ellis noted that Jericho, the world’s oldest town, now had a casino; and that Nazareth, choked with traffic, pizza parlours, pawn shops and “hoons on motorbikes”, was “worse than Parramatta Road”, an eyesore of a Sydney thoroughfare.

Ellis liked to be in the eye of history so he went to Bangladesh for the 1971 war of independence and to Britain in 1983 to weep at Margaret Thatcher’s electoral devastation of Labour. Closer to home, he was on the waterfront championing the wharfies in their fight with anti-union businessman Chris Corrigan, and with a young Bill Shorten as he sweated on the rescue of two Australian Workers’ Union stalwarts trapped down a mine at Beaconsfield in Tasmania.

He whisked Cornelia Rau, the Australian resident who was unlawfully detained for almost a year as an illegal immigrant, across the outback to a writers’ festival, and smuggled himself into the Woomera Detention Centre in the South Australian desert to try to liberate the Bakhtiyari family of Afghan refugees.  

And let it not be forgotten that Ellis also made history. It was 1994 and Bronwyn Bishop had quit the senate to run in a byelection for Mackellar, a federal seat on Sydney’s northern beaches, where Ellis lived, and thence for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Ellis, affronted by this “perfume-drenched and ideologically insufferable” woman seeking to represent his turf, ran as an independent. His slogan, “We will fight her on the beaches”, was written in a piece originally destined for The Australian, then “after a stuff-up, published uselessly by the Melbourne Age”.

As only Ellis could, he noted Bishop’s attributes: a fine speaking voice, a piercing glance and an ability to “recite by rote many Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics”. 

As the results came in, Ellis lost but also won. With a 5 per cent swing against her in the most blue-ribbon of seats, Bishop would never again be a leadership contender. And Bob Ellis had rendered a service to Australia almost as great as any literary contribution.  PT

Black Inc, 368pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 8, 2016 as "Bob Ellis, Bob Ellis: In His Own Words". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: PT