Portrait

Waiting for Peak Uncomfortable Gonzo with John Safran. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Author John Safran

John Safran
Credit: PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

He enters the Balaclava cafe exactly on time. His walk is a recognisable reverse-bounce: footsteps pressing downward, as if he’s trying to sink the soles of his shoes deep into the floor. His shoulders curve gently inward, as if in an attempt to occupy less space. He could be 15 centimetres taller maybe, if he drew himself up true-straight.

John Safran is a flashing neon sign that reads: Non-threatening. Everything about this slight man whisper-goads: Nothing to see here people, nothing at all, just your ordinary Clapham omnibus kind of guy. Rehearsed or natural, it’s Peak Chameleonism. It’s almost as if his physicality is the manifestation of years spent inside Other People’s Stories, trying to blend in.

 Safran approaches the table, says hello. His familiar tinnish-lyrical voice dredges old television footage from the recesses of my mind. Safran travelling to London to persuade an infamous cleric to place a fatwa on his professional rival, television host Rove McManus. Safran ambling the streets of suburban Melbourne, persuading his ex-girlfriends’ mothers to pash him in an attempt to establish who he’d be attracted to in later life. Safran in blackface, awkwardly rapping about Melbourne trams in the home of one of the members of the black cultural group The Five-Percent Nation. John Safran’s Race Relations. John Safran vs God. John Safran’s Music Jamboree.

 Things Happen when Safran’s in the frame. So I’m just kind of talking to him, waiting. “I hope the cafe’s okay,” Safran says, surprisingly apologetic. “I was thinking we could have met at Glick’s bagels or something. But that might have been too obvious.”

I glance around us. Licorice logs, Space Man Candy Sticks and pineapple chunk bars crowd the sweets counter. The chalk menu board offers roast cauliflower salad; corned beef sandwiches on rye; pumpkin, celeriac and nutmeg soup. The floor is black-and-white chequered linoleum. Wooden tabletops. Menus pasted inside hardback not-quite-Enid-Blyton-but-trying children’s books. The tiny Balaclava eatery perplexingly straddles daggy and hip. “No,” I say. “This is perfect.” “The thing is,” Safran says, talking about his work, “everything is about you. Even when it’s not.” Chest concaved around steaming latte cup; incisive irises trapped behind dark-rimmed glass. Daggy-hip.

 Safran’s new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables, is a nonfiction escapade that takes place on an ideological Australian battleground. Safran interviews Australian racists, anarchists, white nationalists, Muslim fundamentalists and assorted radicals. And by Safran interviews, I mean: Safran eats with; drinks with; smokes with; does his occupying-less-space, curving-inward, chameleonic thing with.

Commentary around the book has thus far fixated on the apparent diversity of the Australian far right. Some of the most avid Islamophobes in Depends What You Mean By Extremist, for example, are people of colour. Safran’s observations of the capacity of religion as a uniting force over other identifiers such as racial background have been both lauded and criticised. “I’m interested in the interplay between hospitality and hostility,” he says when I ask him about the tangled narrative. “People want solutions, but, you know, I’m happy for loose ends to exist…”

 What’s interesting, after the success of his television work and first book, Murder in Mississippi, is the change in the way Safran is able to approach his journalistic work. A Nazi at a Reclaim Australia rally recognises Safran on sight. “Write about me and see what happens,” he warns, amid a barrage of anti-Semitic slurs.

 When they see Safran, his subjects often recognise him. Love or hate him, they assume that in his presence, Things Will Happen. In much the same way my pen is poised above my notepad, in the noisy Carlisle Street cafe, watching and expecting the man in front of me to magically John Safranise our brief meeting into the kind of Peak Uncomfortable Gonzo I’m waiting for.

There’s a sense in which Safran realises this, too. At the end of our chat, he pulls out a black kippah from his bag. “I was thinking … I brought this, you know. I thought I could put it on. If you needed something…” He places it carefully on his head, grins for a camera, explains that he’s off to meet a rabbi mate. And suddenly it is Peak Safran Awkward. Because now I know that he knows that this is exactly the kind of frame I’m here for.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 15, 2017 as "Safran threads". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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