The Soapbox

This page written circa 9 May, 1999.

Tame Oats

Towards redressing the national bias of my quotation from the US newspaper about HP's split, the articles at the end of this Soapbox come from the Sydney Morning Herald's web site. They make good reading even if you don't know the parties, and it says volumes about how emotional matters are handled in Australia compared to the US.

Americans aren't cool about sex, at least not compared to Australians. Witness the relative handling in each country of the prospect that the head honcho had committed adultery, had sex in his office, etc. Barely rates a mention in Aus. As for spurious reproduction, it seems harder to convince an American that it is more important for a child to have no parental angst than for it to have any particular combination of parents or to live in any particular stratum of society. Being loved and acquiring a sense of humour beat having the latest toy or knowing who is your dad, but this line isn't the first that springs into the press. Some politicians only hate one thing more than abortion and that is unmarried mothers.

Since writing the above paragraph, I have become privvy to the machinations of a marital breakup that ran along the lines I would have expected had Toni and I had children. The children in question will be victims of the ex-wife's "intense outpouring of hate", as the judge summed it up. A classic lose-lose situation.

Amelia has a proclivity to take things for granted, but then she is high up in the food chain and has two parents, even if one is "disssed". I recall my mother telling me the same thing and that was from lower in the chain. We neither of us have had to cope with serious nastiness.


A Bob each way

Dishevelled, inaccurate, vitriolic. Bob Ellis is all over the place, in more ways than one. Sydney journalist Susan Anthony explains what a smart woman could possibly see in Australia's most shambolic playwright.

WELL, Bob Ellis is at it again, washing his dirty linen in public, and this time he is definitely not looking his best. As more damning details emerge about his daytime dalliance in the Devere Hotel last year, his profile is looking increasingly unappetising.

One woman I know now calls him simply "that revolting creature". Another asks, in genuine perplexity, "What on earth do women see in this man?" Well, plenty, actually, believe it or not.

Shabby, stooped, pot-bellied, mumbling with a double-bass growl that sounds like Satchmo on sleeping pills, grubby, rumpled, testy, and frequently unwashed and smelly, Ellis nonetheless has a certain very definite charm. Laugh if you will, but the man can cast a spell.

It's the spell of words, the sheer innocent outlaw eroticism of them, and of the human imagination at play, of dreams being woven and stories being told. There's a seductive sorcery in words, and in the arts that give them life, and Ellis knows it. He is obsessed with words, and he has built a brilliant career and a colourful reputation based on that obsession. Not to mention quite a following.

When I met Bob in 1977 we were both younger and thinner, sizzling with youth and possibility and ideas. But compared with Bob, I was tragically culturally illiterate.

Bob introduced me to the essays of Gore Vidal and Kenneth Tynan, the films of Orson Welles and the poetry of John Donne. Amid sighs and whispers he read to me, in the rounded vowels of his deep Richard Burton voice, love poems and pieces of prose, Shakespeare and Yeats. Together we railed against the wickedness of the Federal coalition parties and celebrated the brilliance of Whitlam. He took me to see the first Star Wars, and Singin' in the Rain.

He wrote generous, tormented love letters to me, all in his small spidery longhand, and often delivered them by hand, sometimes spending the dawn hours slouched on the floor outside my door, scribbling, and waiting while I slept. On every letter he wrote "cc Mitchell Library". He told me the letters would be worth something some day. He told me to be a writer. He said nothing could match it.

A gifted and prolific writer himself, Ellis has since done the literary equivalent of streaking (running naked) across the Australian cultural landscape, forging for himself, in the process, a reputation as an outrageous but lovable eccentric.

He has long been known as a blatant womaniser, a shameless self-publicist, an extravagant exaggerator and a tenacious squabbler, parading himself, full frontal, through everything from the letters columns of newspapers, to plays, films, newspaper articles and books.

The film-maker David Puttnam has apparently called Ellis a genius. Many Australians, however, would see him more as having a genius for making trouble. His verbal and legal stoushes have been going on for years. They litter his life like the left-over ticker tape of a one-man parade, endless squabbles in newspaper columns with people such as the journalist John Pilger, the playwright David Williamson, and anyone else willing to challenge the Ellis version of events. And many, of course, do.

It was Ellis, for instance, who wrote the impressive but controversial book Goodbye Jerusalem, the subject of the recent Abbott and Costello court case.

And Ellis has made a legend of his love affair with Penny McNicoll, the daughter of the Bulletin journalist David McNicoll, when the couple met at university. According to Ellis, he kidnapped Penny, spiriting her off to the Blue Mountains to save them both from what he predicted was certain nuclear catastrophe. Penny, however, has written that she drove, they got bored, and returned to Sydney a few hours later. Nonetheless, Ellis made the story a convincing and entertaining linchpin for his popular film, The Nostradamus Kid, his own coming-of-age story as a Seventh Day Adventist boy on the NSW North Coast.

The subject of his current controversy, pregnancy, is not new to Ellis, in life or in his work. When I first knew him, in the biblical sense, it was one of many subjects up for discussion. Then Ellis married, and I went to America to work as a journalist.

Future scholars of the Ellis oeuvre will note that not only has he written extensively about his wife's pregnancies, but also that his 1980 play, A Very Good Year, and his 1985 film, Unfinished Business, are about pregnancy.

In The Sun-Herald, the reviewer Harry Robinson said the plot of the play involved a male writer and a male poet. "The poet comes to drink and talk. Then home from New York comes a glamorous girl journalist. She and the writer become maudlin because she had had his baby aborted. Now he has a wife and won't leave her so she, the glamorous girl journalist, is walking out forever with a sad heart. He, the writer, has the bad taste to suggest an act of love before she goes. She declines this one for the road. Fini."

In the film Unfinished Business, which Ellis both wrote and directed, the story, as a Bulletin reviewer saw it, went like this: "Geoff (John Clayton) a journalist in his mid-forties, accidentally meets Maureen (Michele Fawdon), the girl he loved before he went overseas. They are still very attracted to each other, and Maureen, now married to an older, sterile man, asks Geoff to impregnate her."

If I'd thought these fictional works were meant to be about me, the song about my hometown, Murwillumbah, would have left me in no doubt. ("In Murwillumbah, in Murwillumbah, in Murwillumbah you know exactly who you are...") But as it was, Ellis told me they were about me. It became very clear that Ellis's life is his art, and vice versa, and that I had now become a character in his ongoing play. As Ellis observed more than once: "Whatever happens, it doesn't matter - when you're a writer, it's all material."

Now he has a whole new plot to play with.

A Romeo and a Juliet

When it comes to his own sex life, Bob Ellis changes the rules on freedom of speech, writes Kate McClymont.

"I MYSELF would not humiliate my wife in public for even $1 million. But tastes vary." So said Bob Ellis in September last year when his paramour, Alexandra Long, was three months' pregnant with, as she claims, his child.

At that time Ellis was writing an article defending himself after a week of unflattering publicity due to the defamation action brought against the publishers of his book Goodbye Jerusalem. In it Ellis had written, incorrectly, about the premarital sex life of Tanya Costello, wife of the Federal Treasurer. Unlike many, Mrs Costello did not have a sex life before marriage.

Indignantly, Ellis wrote in this same article that he would never sue because "I do not believe in it". What he did believe in, he said, was that "freedom of speech is indivisible, and defamation suits are the hobby of the mediocre and the superannuated and the instinctively authoritarian."

However, last Friday when the Herald contacted Ellis to ask him if the claims being made by Long and her husband, Wayne Cooper, were true, freedom of sperm rather than speech appeared uppermost on his mind. In between denying the child, Juliet, was his and admitting to the affair, the spectre of suing arose. "I can possibly sue you individually, too, and I might choose to do that instead of [suing] the Herald," he seethed. By the end of the conversation, Ellis was wondering "if there is a law under which I can get you now for harassment".

However, as the week unfolded, talk of defamation disappeared along with any semblance of taste. TV stations clammered to sign up the parties; photographers leapt out of bushes trying to snap the baby; the airwaves were awash with the prospective fathers trading insults - with both referring to the baby as "it".

Farcical situations were aplenty. "I like Juliet and don't like Wayne, who still refers to her as 'it'," Ellis told the 2GB audience on Tuesday, seemingly oblivious to his previous sentence in which he professed to a concern that if the child was proved to be his, "I might be denied all access to it".

As soon as it was his turn, Cooper managed a hurried "G'day" before launching into: "Could I just first say that the most ringing endorsement of anyone in my life was Bob Ellis saying he doesn't like me; I feel like cracking open the Moet."

The following day on radio 2BL Ellis, claiming to be speaking at his wife's urging, revealed the baby could not be his because of the following (a summary only): "Penetration was briefly achieved ... bout of impotence ... concluded by oral sex." As if all that wasn't enough, one newspaper resorted to a photograph of the actual room where the actual sexual liaison (the form of which is in dispute) actually happened.

Bring on the paternity test and put us out of our misery.

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