• 20 Jan 2010 /  Articles


    Don’t get too excited. That’s just the cover design.

    I still got to finish writing it.

    Out in April


  • 27 Apr 2009 /  Articles

    I’ve just finished reading Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant; and nearly finished Richard Flanagan’s Wanting. Both cover similar territory at a similar time. Just in case anyone forgets, narratives from both these good books are drawn from ‘early encounter’ history: the first in early Sydney, the second in early Hobart.

    Here is a photo recently posted by Gary Foley onto his Facebook site . Says it all really…….


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  • 12 Apr 2009 /  Articles

    “U jst got a ref x D Will-son on 7.30 Rep!”

    I got a few texts, emails, etc, to this effect one night a couple of weeks ago.

    Apparently in Kristen Williamson’s new book, Behind The Scenes, there is reference to a critic David had publicly throttled at some major public event. I downloaded the interview later that night and found Kerry O’Brien asking: “Can I ask who was the critic?” David mentioned my name, adding hastily: ‘But we are friends now…”

    I was impressed, given the hammerings I gave some of Williamson’s work in my more arrogant years, that David could muster any kindness of spirit towards me at all. Especially in light of the fact that, along with Richard Wherrett, Williamson was one of the two major theatre artists in my reviewing heyday, who were ultra-sensitive to criticism. Anyway, years later the feeling is mutual: and I too enjoy the luxury of easy and agreeable conversations whenever we meet up at an opening night do.

    Kristen Williamson did contact me about the ‘alleged’ incident some time during the writing of her book. Unfortunately I was being assaulted by leading theatre artists so often back in those days, I cannot recall this particular incident. The assaults have not stopped, though fewer from actors, writers and directors and more by Tongan teenagers these days. It’s all Mr G’s fault: he just cannot control those kids from Summerheights High. Though I do recall Judy Davis entrapping me on a level crossing in Kings Cross once. How could anyone forget those burning kohl-lined eyes coming at you! Anyway she was right to pull me up on that occasion.

    The above said, now David has publicly admitted to the ‘alleged assault’ maybe I can at last initiate ‘caught’ proceeedings. I’m fairly sure David has a few more bucks in the bank than the Tongan teenagers who jumped me on the Midnight Train from Bogan. Or maybe we should just go Dutch over a nice harbour view lunch one day?? Emerald City, that kind of thing!

    All this is leading to a recommended reading if you have not already been alerted. Of course there is Kristen’s book, which I am saving up for. But you all MUST READ Louis Nowra’s review in the Australian Literary Review. Whether you agree or disagree, it is absolutely brilliant reading – and wipes the floor with any and all of us who think we are commentators on Australian Theatre. I have printed it in full below. Nowra, by the way, is as tough on Kristen Wiliamson’s book as I was on some of David’s plays. I hope in years to come, on some other 7.30 Report she can ring herself to say: “But we are friends now….”


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    When a famous man’s wife is his biographer the result can be a revelation or a laundry list: this is both, writes Louis Nowra | April 01, 2009

    Article from: The Australian

    THE history of wives or former wives writing biographies of their famous husbands is not a pretty one.

    Victorian explorer, linguist and translator Richard Burton was certain it was a bad idea because “a man’s wife knows perhaps too much about him”. Burton’s widow, Isabel, did not heed his advice and wrote an unintentionally hilarious hagiography of her husband that proved she hardly knew him at all.

    Although wives may protest they are trying to write an objective biography of their husbands, essentially every such work is really a biography of two people: the wife and husband. And she is also claiming something else. Because of intimate connection to her husband she is saying she knows more about him than anyone and can explain him better. The problem is that his talent and career can be submerged under a blizzard of domestic details, which may have been important for the couple or wife but provides little satisfaction for readers trying to understand the husband’s achievements.

    So it is with some trepidation that one sits down to read Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband David Williamson, Australia’s best-known playwright.

    Make no mistake, David Williamson is one of the most significant figures in the history of Australian theatre. There have been equally famous or more famous individuals during the past 200 years, such as Gladys Moncrieff, Barry Humphries or Cate Blanchett, but no one has contributed to our theatre as he has. It has been an astonishing achievement. For nearly four decades he has rarely had a flop, if at all. He has helped theatre companies stay afloat, made it essential that Australian plays are performed and has become a household name.

    He has written a play a year and it has almost become a ritual for his audiences to make an annual pilgrimage to a new one. His plain-spoken, naturalist style has remained the same through the years and his concerns have closely matched those of his faithful middle-class professional audiences. For years I found Williamson’s immense popularity difficult to fathom. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his work, it was that I couldn’t relate to its subject matter and style. I preferred work that made me see the world anew, not validate it. His plays have none of the verbal fireworks of Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton, nor do they explore the terrible or the magical as Shakespeare does in King Lear and The Tempest. Characters do not experience nights of the dark soul as do Tennessee Williams’s or the disintegration of their world as in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

    It was only when I went to see his 1991 play Money and Friends that I understood his success. I watched an audience laughing with recognition as the story unfolded and it occurred to me that Williamson was probably one of the few Australian playwrights who didn’t talk down to or at his audiences. He was one of them and he and the audience were engaged in a conversation as equals. His work was one gigantic affirmation of their lives and ideas. He didn’t undermine their beliefs, in fact, he corroborated them. One could say that, for his audiences, familiarity bred contentment.

    It was imperceptible at first but an unholy trio of demands began to change his work in the 1990s. His insatiable need for success, theatre companies’ greed and a growing complacency of his ageing audience had their effect. His plays seemed merely based on some sort of left-wing dinner table topic. His characters vanished under the theme of the play. It’s hard to remember any great characters of the past 15 years but one can recall the plays’ themes and whether they were about sexual harassment, mateship, art dealers, political corruption, wanky academic theories or the power of shock jocks.

    Despite this he remains an important writer. His preoccupation with the Australian male identity is in the great tradition that stretches from Henry Lawson to Tim Winton. Like other writers who emerged in the 1970s he has burnished our national mythology. Just as Peter Carey and Rob Drewe polished the legend of Ned Kelly, so Williamson wrote about Phar Lap and refurbished the legend of Gallipoli. He also made the middle class, which had gained unparalleled affluence and influence from the ’60s onwards, seem the real Australian identity rather than an idealised working class so beloved of our literature.

    I don’t know Williamson. So it came as a shock when he sent me a fax in the early ’90s. He was furious because I didn’t mention him when an interviewer had asked me to name my three favourite Australian playwrights. (If memory serves me correctly, they were John Romeril, Jack Davis and Stephen Sewell.)

    Williamson’s missive was an almost incoherent rant. It amused me more than anything because it was obvious that his very healthy ego was deeply rooted in an unhealthy sense of insecurity. So knowing little about his personal life I was interested in Kristin Williamson’s take on her husband. From the outset she makes it clear that the book is about the work, the times, the man, the family. It begins with David’s birth in 1942 to lower middle class parents in Victoria. His father was a banker who hated his work and his mother was one of those women who are an all too familiar feature in our post-war society. She thought she was better than her husband, belittled him when she could and showed little love for her children. It doesn’t take much to imagine her as ridiculously self-centred and acerbic as comic creations such as Edna Everage and Germaine Greer.

    David was very tall and therefore conspicuous and so he developed a sense of inferiority, which meant it took a lot of courage, despite initial rejection, to want to be part of the developing theatre scene in Carlton in the late ’60s. Those arrogant young turks of the time made him feel a philistine and an outsider. He didn’t come from the arts but was a lecturer in mechanical engineering. He had been married early, had a child and lived in suburbia. He was ridiculed for his ignorance about the avant-garde theatre practices and trendy intellectual theories of the time. It’s obvious he never forgot their contempt or their hypocrisy.

    The left-wingers in the Pram Factory mocked his naturalistic style and his subject matter. They talked of revolution and social upheaval. His characters were more concerned with power games, getting drunk and hoping for a root. A play such as Don’s Party financially saved the Pram Factory, but if he expected thanks from the apparatchiks, feminists and socialists who comprised most of the theatre company, then he was mistaken. They despised him even more.

    At the same time his life underwent a profound personal change when he left his pregnant wife for Kristin, who was also married and had children. This is some of Kristin’s best writing as she describes, with a sense of remembered embarrassment and humiliation, the awful emotional messiness of such a situation. After some time living in a Victorian rural retreat they shifted to Sydney, where he soon became popular, wealthy and developed a circle of friends that included politicians such as Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating and writers such as Carey.

    Their marriage survived some infidelities on both sides, but seemingly more from David. He is part of a long line of nerds who couldn’t get girls as a teenager but who, when he becomes famous, suddenly finds he is attractive to women and decides to catch up on what he felt he had missed out on.

    A strongly heterosexual man, he began to chafe at the omnipresent homosexual coterie in Sydney theatre and a direct quote in the book finds him squirming as he tries to avoid the term gay mafia:

    The arts in Sydney were dominated by a cultural group including Patrick White, Neil Armfield, Wayne Harrison, Jim Sharman, Leo Schofield and Barrie Kosky. I often went to their productions and events, and I admired them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a gay mafia but it certainly felt odd to be a heterosexual in Sydney theatre.

    What can a poor straight boy do but flee such a hideous environment, as Williamson did in 1996, heading to the Queensland Sunshine Coast where, nursing a dicky heart (a contributing cause of his present Melba-like retirement), he could pick up the soap from the shower floor knowing he was out of harm’s way.

    Kristin Williamson is not very good at describing people. Generally they are just name tags who seldom say anything interesting. So it’s a relief early in this 536-page tome when imperious film producer Margaret Fink enters the story. When she is not barging in on the Williamsons ordering David to stop playing with his children so she can talk business, she is haughtily telling some poor waiter in a posh English hotel room that the champagne he is offering her “looks like cat’s piss”. Mrs Williamson’s bitchy take on the woman she cuttingly calls Mrs Fink is very droll. However, I should mention that I spoke to Fink about these incidents and she denies they happened. (Although I have to add that the first thing she ever said to me, when she met me in my agent’s back yard, was: “You look like a Lebanese labourer. I thought you’d come to clean the pool.”) Bob Ellis also spices things up when he pops up at odd intervals in the Williamsons’ story like some bargain-basement Iago who privately luxuriates in David’s friendship but publicly lampoons and savages him as much as he can.

    Perhaps the best story is of Madonna starring in Williamson’s Up for Grabs on the London stage. Although not meeting the singer during rehearsal and communicating through a go-between, David behaved like a good lapdog and changed her character’s lines. Kristin quotes a speech her husband had to write for the singing piece of gristle and it’s one of the worst things he’s written, full of American bombast, faux revelation and cheap optimism. But as writers who have experienced the egomaniacal behaviour common to American musical or film stars can attest, it is a horrific experience yet morbidly fascinating and, of course, it provides a fund of amusing anecdotes once you’ve sufficiently recovered from the ordeal.

    There had been rumours that Williamson’s plays were semi-autobiographical but Behind the Scenes was a revelation for me. Kristin quotes many extracts from the plays that seem almost verbatim transcripts of their marital woes.

    The characters based on him were made a little stupid but her stage doppelgangers were invariably shriller, bossier and generally more unsympathetic than their original model.

    There’s a delightful moment when Robyn Nevin sighs at the end of a first reading and says to Kristin, “I suppose I’m playing you again.”

    There are times, too many times, when this book seems to be about critics. Great hunks of reviews are quoted, good ones and those where the reviewers had the temerity to find a Williamson play not to their taste. This theme runs through the pages like a Trojan virus. It’s a preoccupation that reaches a ludicrous crescendo when David writes to five theatre reviewers begging them for a fair go. It makes him sound like a spoiled brat who whinges to his teacher that he should get 100 for his exam rather than 99. If there is anything worse for the couple, it’s being at an opening night when the audience is filled with critics and “failed playwrights”.

    At times like this the Williamsons sound petty and not a little pathetic. I’m glad I never went to one of his first nights.

    It’s bewildering that someone as successful as Williamson paid attention to any of the reviewers who, except for one shining example, were pedestrian at best and soon forgotten. No reviewer ever stopped people coming to a Williamson show. Near the end of the book Williamson is still obsessed by critics. Even his vision for the future revolves around his tormentors. He says he has one great hope: “That Sydney drama critics be a little more generous to the next Australian playwright who continues to attract large audiences for 35 years.” You can almost see his trembling bottom lip just before the tears of self-pity roll down his cheeks.

    At times David disappears from the story for long sections because this biography is also about its author. We learn that being married to a famous man can be hell and a woman feels her identity being swallowed up by her husband’s needs and fame. Kristin goes into considerable detail about how she began to find a sense of self-worth through writing journalism and then fiction. We get synopses of her articles and books, plus extracts from reviews, “some saying I had done for Australian readers what Mary McCarthy and Marilyn French had done for American readers”. It becomes clear that one of the main reasons for this book is Kristin setting out to prove she is more than a submissive adjunct to her husband’s career.

    David comes across as a good bloke with a volatile temper (abusing cab drivers, waiters and, of course, reviewers), frequently stressed, paranoiac at times, and with a pungent streak of jealousy. (One can’t help but feel that Kristin enjoyed these demonstrations of jealousy and she makes sure we know about the incidents in cringe-making detail.) Above all, what comes through in this biography is his bravery in being so honest about his failings. There are not many men who would have allowed some not very flattering personal moments to be put into the public domain.

    Politics is important to both Williamsons and Kristin is proud of their liberalism, her feminism and the fact they are socially aware (“Our house had its share of left-of-centre visitors”). David’s journey from political idealism to pessimism and then back to a sense of hope is carefully detailed. At times they comes across as precious members of what the English call the chattering classes and there are occasions when their self-importance loses all sense of proportion and irony. Just after the September 11 attacks, “David and I signed and circulated a petition to be sent to President Bush and other world leaders, urging them to avoid war”. Sadly, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard didn’t listen to the Williamsons’ advice.

    To illustrate just how much Kristin thinks her husband’s works mirrors the politics of the times, she frequently stops her narrative to give potted histories of political events such as Whitlam coming to power, Whitlam being sacked or the dreaded Howard becoming prime minister. These lessons in political history are written so blandly that its difficult to concentrate on the content.

    The copious domestic trivia is also yawn-inducing. It may have been important to the Williamsons but Kristin’s constant reference to the meals she cooked and ate or restaurants she and David visited seems never-ending. Do we need to know that for a dinner they ate “coq au vin, mashed potatoes, peas and beans, with chocolate mousse, strawberries and cream for dessert”? That they ate Chilean, Arabic and African food in Europe? Or that Carey’s wife makes a good red pepper salad? The antics of her children may have been interesting to the family but not for this reader. She also mentions their cars and their mechanical problems, parking fines, their floor coverings (Afghan rugs at one time, if you want to know), birthday parties, renovation problems and the fact David’s culinary efforts have “passed into family lore”.

    The monotonous drone of such things is not helped by her writing style. Segues from one aspect of their lives to another are rendered clumsily; for example, “As I said in an interview a few years later …” and “I turn to someone else’s words for an account of what happened next …” That’s one of the main problems with the book: there doesn’t seem to be a structure or focus. Kristen gives the same weight to everything, whether it is their personal lives, profuse extracts from reviews, letters, domestic minutiae, political history or the reception of David’s plays.

    Her prose style also lets her down. There is no precise, telling detail nor is there a memorable metaphor. She litters her text with lacklustre adjectives. “Wonderful” is ubiquitous: “The shoot was wonderful fun”, “We thought the whole weekend quite wonderful”, “The music was wonderful”, and “This was wonderful news”. When they drink wine its always good (strangely they never seem to have bad wine) and rather is used as a limp qualifier: “I was rather grumpy with David on the long walk home” and “I was rather indignant”.

    But it is the cliches that wear down the reader. Speeches are heartfelt, movie stars are glamorous, islands are impossibly beautiful, critics are pre-eminent, there are gales of laughter and there is the night he was a basket case. When there’s grief it’s an outpouring, people wipe the grins off their faces, successes are great or huge and writing is therapeutic. In the Williamsons’ world there is a potential spanner in the works, locals are interesting, people swallow their pride when there is not a fire in the belly and theatre audiences draw in shocked breaths. David, Jack Thompson and Keating are charismatic. Not content with this gush of hackneyed adjectives and cliches, Kristen tries to provide insights but her prose is as sharp as a prop knife. It’s tricky to grasp exactly what “It was also Chekhovian in that it had subtle moods” means, and phrases such as “Spirits were dampened by the political climate” and “The airwaves were saturated with war” are just sloppy.

    It’s hard to know if this is her usual prose style or the product of haste, but the structure and writing probably needed a more ruthless editor. There is no doubt that this book is well-intentioned and a generous love letter to her husband, but it’s a sprawling mess. The good thing is that it will offer David’s eventual, more objective biographers an excellent source of information, although his warning that his life has been basically uninteresting and uneventful seems to be true. There is also no doubt that I am now on the Williamsons’ long list of their writer “enemies” and “wretched” critics.



  • 15 Dec 2008 /  Articles

    Most people probably reckon they’ve got an autobiography in them – if you believe one of the characters in Tough time, nice time (see earlier post). Unfortunately, for any of us tempted to bonfire ourselves in such a vanity, the down-side is a lot of hard yakka. One way out is to get a ‘ghost’ to write it for you, which is kinda cheating; or downgrading to an ‘authorized’ or ‘unauthorized’ biography. I have stumbled across another option. If you cook lunch for enough people, you will simply pop up in their autobiographies. They will tell your story for you. It may not be all your story, or even your autobiography. But it’s still an ‘autobiography’, if that’s what you’re after.

    Two brief appearances now for me, thanx to my efforts in the kitchen.

    Eric Michaels in his Freddie Mercury phase

    Eric Michaels - his Freddy Mercury phase

    My first is in the idiosyncratic deathbed memoir by a gay American anthropologist called Eric Michaels, who lived in Australia from about 1982 until his death from AIDS, age 40, in 1988. Michaels spent the bulk of his early years out here looking at the impact of television, following the establishment of community-managed satellite stations, among remote Central Desert Aboriginal communities. A born-again stirrer, Michaels attracted attention with some very bold essay writing, including the highly regarded ‘For A Cultural Future’ and ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’. He was dying of AIDS in a Brisbane hospital when I heard he was planning a trip to Sydney for one last Mardi Gras fling. I was editing a little theatre magazine at the time, so I asked him if he would like to scribble a ‘grass-roots anthropological response’ to the ‘big gay night out. I might have been hoping for something called ‘Bad Mardi Gras Parade’, which back then would have been even more taboo than raising he prospect that some Aboriginal art might be bad. In fact, he had a wonderful time at the parade, and typed accordingly.

    Prior to the big night out, I created a trendy little luncheon for him. A couple of years after Michaels’ death, I got a call from Paul Foss, then editing a memoir, titled Unbecoming, Michaels had left as a legacy. There was a page in it about the lunch. A few pars about how nice it was to indulge in some reasonably smart chat, while not to be treated like a leper, despite the fact that he was very wasted by then and had Karposi’s Sarcoma sores all over his face. There were bits Foss was wrestling with. Firstly, would I object to being described as a ‘little bit mad’? Not at all! Who worth remembering from era past has not been reported as a little bit mad? Looking deep into the future I could see Neil Armfield directing the musical. Yep, casting would be interesting? Judy Davis as my mother?

    Secondly: what about Michaels’ speculation of an affair between myself and Patrick White? I saw in my mind’s eye the intimidating gargoyle of Manoly Lascaris rise up on the front landing of the house he shared with White in the Martin Road, Centennial Park. You ring the bell, make a sign of the cross and wait. I wondered how anyone even contemplating having an affair with White would get passed the Live-In Saint! But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? A rumoured affair with a Nobel prize-winner, however curmudgeonly, would look very good on anyone’s CV. Why not? I trilled to Mr Foss. As photographer, William Yang, puts it sagely – explaining his vast collection of photographs of Sydneysiders in various states of physical and moral disarray: ‘People prefer fame to respectability.’

    Years later, thanks mostly to my cooking again, I have recently made another appearance – in Blood &Tinsel - the memoir of theatre director Jim Sharman. When I first met Sharman in the late 1970s, he was just back from his years of globe-trotting hit musicals, and I was almost out of uni. I was startled to discover someone planning to direct a Patrick White play. At that point in the cycle, these were utterly disparaged works. In turn, Sharman was startled to discover a person who had actually read one! In fact all four written so far, and was quite a fan.

    Jim had many feathers in his cap: great stories from abroad, an extensive record collection, all the right books. But the cupboard was bare. I boiled an egg and Sharman was impressed. It was s kind of food-for-thought in exchange for real food kind of relationship! They was a lot of payola in it for me. I got to meet some very interesting people. Eventually even the only writer, to that point, to have ever influenced the way I saw the world. Perhaps ever? Mr P. White. It is Patrick’s cooking that I remember from those years, not mine. Here I was in my young twenties sitting down to table with the most amazing people, unable to contribute to the conversation, but loving every minute of it. I ‘acted’ not being out of my depth, and helped Manoly with the dishes.

    Jim Sharman was very kind to me through these formative years. As he has been to others whom he has sought to encourage. I looked after his fine big house and tentatively explored the possible writer in me, while he either talked on the phone to Patrick or travelled abroad. We saw European art movies and he flung me books. And yes, I cooked dinners. All sorts of guests, and this time I could contribute: at least by way of a range of dishes. Sadly, I’ve forgotten how to cook since then.

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    At one point in the Blood &Tinsel, Sharman says I reminded him of a ‘strelitzia’. Everyone has a bloom in them of some sort I guess. Why would mine not be spiky ‘subtropical perennial’ bursting into a garish flourish towards the top? After stumbling across this bit in the book, I wrote to Sharman saying: “I thought I was a faded rose from days gone by?” lol

    I recommend the book. I’ve waded through a lot of autobiographies by people from the Australian theatre profession, and I do wonder if their editors ever think to offer any constructive help? You get the feeling that the folks at Melbourne University Press put a lot of care into this one; although someone could have done a bit of fact checking. Straight forward stuff, like ‘Person X directed play Y opening on date Z.” There shouldn’t be mistakes like that in any book, much less one in this price band and so obviously written with an eye to posteriority.

    There are other kinds of facts which lie beyond the reach of any editor or publisher. For example, Sharman’s version of my time in his house is quite different from the way I might tell it. But that is how it will always be. That said, I do believe he got the ‘spirit’ right. That’s also what I like best about Blood &Tinsel overall. While everyone sees the world through the distortion of their own eyes, Sharman’s version is particularly distilled and compelling. He also has rather interesting material to work with. It has been, and continues to be, an interesting life. The ‘blood’ and the ‘tinsel’ hark back to Sharman’s upbringing on the carnival circuit where his father, and grandfather previously, ran a celebrated boxing troupe. The first third of the book is devoted to that early part of Sharman’s life. It’s a fascinating world of long train and car journeys, strange towns, strong men, exotic women, layers of tent canvas,  the smell of sawdust, intimidating clowns, even Princess Ubangi – a dwarf princess.

    Sharman's 1969 production of Hair

    Sharman's 'communal' production of Hair

    The second section of the book covers Sharman’s ‘global’ phase. From his counter-culture version of Hair in Sydney, premiering 1969; through Superstar and onto London where, with designer Brian Thomson, The Rocky Horror Show was born. This was an exceedingly prolific period that saw season records being broken on the West End, and versions of these hit shows going up all over the world. There was the more intimate world of the Royal Court, too; where Sharman premiered early Sam Shepard plays and, from out of the tiny Upstairs theatre, Rocky was born. Then there was the film.

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman had made a visit home in 1973 to create the debut production for recently opened the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: a startlingly imaginative Threepenny Opera. Kate Fitzpatrick a lusty Pirate Jenny. He was back again for the excellent Sydney version of The Rocky Horror Show, in 1974, starring Reg Livermore in his audacious prime as Fank’n’furter, with Jane Harders and John Paramor ideal as Brad and Janet. Then, at the height of his fame, Sharman turned his back on London and the rest of the world and came home. He looking for more meaning, I think. Sharman’s starting point was a production of White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1976. It’s hard to explain to readers now the impact this production had on Sydney. Not only was White’s reputation as a playwright salvaged from the rubbish tip; but the ‘realistic’ stage aesthetic to have dominated mainstage Sydney since the war was swept away by the Thomson’s minimalist design and the cut-back characterizations Sharman secured form his cast. An even more innovative production of White’s A Cheery Soul a couple of years later, meant there was no going back.

    One thing I will reveal about being close to Sharman during this period, was watching him turn his back on ‘the musical’, the fading art-form he and Thomson had only just revived. I remember phone calls from all over the world: whoever could secure Sharman to direct Evita, for example, would secure the rights. That’s how I remember it anyway! These guys on the end of the phone were trying really hard. But Sharman would not be moved.  He was not going backwards – no matter how tempting the money. It should be appreciated that only after Sharman left the field did others find room to step into that breach.

    I could go on, but it would be easier for you to buy the book. Oh, and back to ‘the facts’. Getting facts exactly right might not be a feature of Sharman’s approach to autobiography. But a zeitgeist kinda guy from the beginning, Sharman is certainly right on target, in Blood & Tinsel, when it comes to capturing the ‘spirit of the age’. While the book is rich in fabulous detail, and most of the facts are right; more importantly Sharman does step back to offer a fascinating personalized ‘overview’ of his life and times – thus far. The book can also be seen as a generous gift: to those ‘who come after’. Just as P. White loved to encourage and reward, so to does Sharman. In great part, this book is an offering to the next generation coming through. Any doubt about this is put to rest in the way the book ends, with a tribute to Benedict Andrews’ 2007 production of The Season as Sarsaparilla. If there were still lingering doubts as to the merits of the text, Andrew’s put them permanently to rest. He also took Sharman’s anti-naturalism to new heights.

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    It is a Prospero moment, if you like – the past pages of Blood & Tinsel. Not that I believe Sharman is about to retire. With an excellent The Three Furies and Blood &Tinsel behind him, and an upcoming Cosi fan tutte for the Australian Opera, if anything, Sharman is on the comeback trail. To enter a latish, ‘mature’ stage, you get a sense that Sharman  the shaman/showman felt a need to let quite a whole lot go. A lot of it is in this book. He ‘breaks his staff’ not just for Andrews, but the promising generation this talented director represents. I suspect a good swathe of my readers belong to the same Sharman ‘gift’ group. Okay the price of a hardback is quite beyond your reach, most of you being out-of-work actors with nothing better to do than read blogs!

    But it’s Xmas; and surely your parents, or a well-funded maiden aunt, have been fishing for clues as to what to get you to put under the tree? So, just as have organized for others to publish my life story (well the kitchen bits), now is the perfect time to encourage others to buy you this book. I have only one regret about Blood & Tinsel. It does not contain everything nor everyone. I am included, to some extent, for colour and movement. There were others from those same years who, perhaps because they had less to do with ‘theatre’, unfortunately don’t make the cut. Wonderful people, impressive people. This book, at its heart, is about theatre for theatre folk. That’s also its strength.

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  • 08 Nov 2008 /  Articles, News

    Patrick White always maintained a committed interest not only in the day-to-day life of ‘ordinary’ Australians, but to their well-being also. We know he preferred chance encounters on a park bench to dinner parties with the rich and famous. But he noticed without prompting the needs of those in strife. For a reputedly mean and curmudgeonly man, White was extraordinary generous, compassionate and kind to many people whose names are unknown to the rest of us.

    Here’s a small but telling example. White had a standing order at Clays Bookshop in Kings Cross, especially its heyday under the beady-eyed management of Miss Chapman, for a new (usually hardcover book) to go to out out once a month to about 20 elderly locals - often ex-showbiz types long past their hoofing days – for whom reading the ‘best and latest’ had become a life-long pleasure they could no longer afford.

    Playwright John Romeril

    Playwright John Romeril

    The Patrick White Award is, in similar spirit, aimed to bring attention to under-recognised writers, many of  whom have had been burrowing away at their work for decades, often without a lot of acclaim and sometimes with barely an income. Perhaps more importantly is the long overdue recognition this award brings, and sometimes even a fresh spike in book sales. This year the award goes to playwright John Romeril. Previous winners have included Bruce Dawe, Thea Astley, Janette Turner Hospital, Gerald Murnane, Elizabeth Riddell, Randolf Stowe, and many others. To most of these writers the money ($30,000)  means something. Interestingly, the source of the fund is the prize money attached to White winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.

    The first recipient, and to this day probably its most deserving, was Christina Stead.  Stead is one of our greatest writers, The Man Who Loved Children a masterpiece; yet she spent her last years living close to penury, largely forgotten, tucked away in a nondescript southern Sydney suburb.

    Stead was one of the lucky people to be invited to the occasional dinner at Patrick and Manoly’s in Martin Road. I was told once she would often arrive with bags of empty liquor bottles she felt she could not dispose of discreetly enough in her own rubbish bin. Apparently this was a not uncommon feature of a visit to your home by Stead in her later years. That White himself knocked off the odd bottle or three of vodka himself in his later years meant a few extra of Stead’s would hardly have raised an eyebrow from the garbo.

    I am happy to declare myself a die-hard John Romeril fan – the writer and the man. He is a great bloke and, to this day, one of our best writers for the stage. Yes indeed, where are the big company commissions? His politics still cook and he is an expert craftsman, which explains why he is so often brought in as a mentor. Romeril is best known for his play The Floating World, and more generally as a part of that lively group to coelesce around La Mama and The Pram Factory from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. What many, even in the Australian theatre profession do not appreciate, is that Romeril has never stopped writing, producing at least a play a year (if not two), often in collaboration with a diverse range of small arts and other community groups. This suits his artistic raison d’etre,  no  doubt a lot of creative satisfaction in this, but little financial reward. For more on his current  project, I quote from a news item in The Age, 8 November:

    “[Romeril] is now working with descendants of Torres Strait Islander workers who came to the mainland about 50 years ago and became experts in railway track maintenance. In one shift of 11 hours and 40 minutes, they set a world record for track laying to the Mount Newman iron ore mine in Western Australia of 6.8 kilometres, nearly double the previous record set in the US.

    “It’s a singing culture and the plan is that a nucleus of professional performers will travel to towns where there are islander musical groups who will take part in performances.”

    Romeril believes the 60,000 years of Aboriginal culture underpins Australian society. “The much earlier polity of Aboriginal Australia is a ghostly thing. Many council boundaries show a strange alignment with tribal groupings,” he said. This is why he stresses the importance of local and regional communities. “The view from Canberra is a very strange one, with this technocratic dream of controlling the whole country.

    “Central planning can’t work in country as big and diverse as this one. I’ve always sought bottom-up stories that any centralised system wouldn’t be aware of. You need a mix of big and little that you ignore at your peril.”

    I interviewed John Romeril in 2004 for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History archives. It was a hurried interiew as I was not in Melbourne for very long – my fault. There should be more there. But for those wth an interest in this wonderful man’s life and work, there is some excellent content nonetheless. Romeril speaks well on tape and has a very agile mind. He is very well read, an amazingly clear thinker, and his answers to questions are almost never what you would normally expect. Here is a link to the NLA file reference number for that interview. So congratulations Mr Romeril! Well earned – and greatly deserved, By way of a gift parcel, I am wondering if you drink vodka? A bottle – or in the ‘spirit’ of Stead and White, does it need to be a crate?


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  • 22 Oct 2008 /  Articles
    Replying to a Letter from the Tax Office!

    Replying to a Letter from the Tax Office

    You know James has gone absolutely barking mad since he came back from the desert where profits, he thought, might come. Anyway he never got a far as the Pilbara; and taking a quick look at some of the emails coming in from his brokerage firm, he might have let his run a bit late. ‘Just my luck‘,  he shrugs, in a very nonchalent and true-blue Aussie way.

    So he has buried himself in the arcane theatre arts, as is his want when in need of spiritual (if not financial) renewal, having chalked up visits to almost a gig-a-night. Two shows up from the Melbourne International Festival, Khalifa Natour’s ‘interesting’ one-man show was mostly about the bad luck of being a Palestinian trying to fly into Israel from Paris on the anniversary of September 11. The other Melb Fest show James was The Book of Longing, Philip Glass’s nifty musical rendition of some engaging, if eccentric, poetry by Leonard Cohen about trying to get lucky with some woman.

    Patti trying to get lucky with some up-and-coming photographer when we were all living at the Chelsea on W 23rd.

    He also got to see the Patti Smith concert. Being a cheapskate and currently on the run from the Australian Tax Office, he forked out a mere $40 to sit in the choir area of the Concert Hall -  behind the stage. The whole tight-arse mob in that area were very lucky coz Patti is in a good mood at the moment and she chose to not only acknowledge their existence, but took time to clamber up around them, and James was lucky enough to get a chance to shake her hand – or brush his fingers with her finger to be more accurate.

    Of course luck had nothing to do with it. Patti and I go back a long way, from the time we shared the same hallway at the Chelsea Hotel, NYC in the early 1970s. Between you and me, I made a few phone calls and Patti said “Okay Honey – For Old Times’ Sake!” Luck is a delusion. Most of the time. Except Bad Luck which is very real – and that’s what falls upon most people who try to push their luck too far.

    Take Ned Kelly for example: he pushed his luck. And so did AFL star, Ben Cousins, who perhaps unwisely one drunken evening had Ned’s last words – Such Is Life - tattooed in large black Gothic lettering across his six-pack. Such is Life was also the title Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy)  gave, of course, to his excellent novel. Which begins I think with a sentence like: ‘Unemployed again’. Which is the sort of bad luck we might be hearing more about over the next couple of years.

    Ned Kelly was unlucky with the Law

    It has just dawned on me that some of you possibly don’t now who I am. I am Ms Gayelean Guy, James’s PA, can-do confidente, mother of all secretaries, avatar, drinking partner – and ‘she who must be obeyed’. Not that James is easy to manage, he can be very recalcitrant and is a serial recidivist. James does have an occasional a soft side, though, and was kind enough to put up a little bio about me in an early post, A Very Special Friend (Go there if you want to find out more about my past life as an emerging actress and general career woman in UK and USA,  with reference to some of the wonderful ‘lassies’ I met on the way.) As that post will tell you, James and I were very lucky to bump into each other late one night (early one morning?) at the Mansions Hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney. I have been carrying the can for him ever since.

    The old Mansions Hotel, in Kings Cross, where James and I were 'lucky to meet'

    James can be terribly impulsive and impetuous sometimes, and (as a man) sometimes he treats me like shit. The syntax of that previous sentence is as it should be, by the way – lol. Anyway, he flew passed my desk on his way to The Women of Troy (dir. Barrie Kosky at STC Wharf) the other evening and flung me a little book. “Chick Lit,” he bellowed: meaning it was for me to deal with as I saw fit.

    The guy is a liteweight and does not know good art when he sees it. This gorgeous volume turns out to be a fabulous Little Book on a Big Idea by Anne Summers, titled On Luck. It is from the series being published by Melbourne University Press. James went to the party for the launch of the first four, which included Mr Kosky’s On Ecstasy and Germaine Greer – On Rage. If you have a thing for celebrity-hobnobbing, then perhaps take a look at that post because that was where Ms Greer  took a precise phrenological measurement  at the shape of James’s skull and declared him to be ‘Aboriginal’. He now identifies with the recently formed  ‘Strawberry Hills mob’ which clusters around Belvoir Street Theatre

    Let’s get down to the real action. I was stunned when I picked up this pretty little book and realised the essay inside had been penned by one of my favourite women in the know, the very savvy and also sassy, Dr Anne Summers, whom I worked for as an assistant on MS magazine in New York in the late 1980s. Those were the days. Anne was a prime mover and shaker in the establishment of Elsie, the first refuge for women in Sydney back in the 1970s; and is the author of Damned Whores and God’s Police: the Colonisation of Women in Australia, which had a big influence in my own personal journey to ‘liberation’ in my formative years. And been reprinted several times. She has always been one of my favourite journalists: her articles are always of interest and well written. She is also rare among our generation in never having stepped back from her original commitment to do what she can, through her actions, to effect social change – good changes, I mean.

    Anne Summers - On Luck

    Anne Summers - On Luck

    It is this impulse which has sometimes cast Anne in the role of naysayer, when she senses that some aspect of our society might be moving in the wrong direction. This is certainly the impulse you feel at work behind On Luck which looks at Australia’s grotesque addiction to gambling. As if holding a bizarre object up to the light, Ms Summers examines her subject from a range of angles. We get ‘history’: how the population of Australia doubled between 1850 and 1860 as the discovery of gold brought speculators to Victoria and NSW from all over the world. We get statistics: in 1999, while most Australians gamble, around 290,000 or 2.1 percent of the Australian population lost $3.5 billion between them in various forms of punting. We get cultural analysis: in the form of a discussion of Donald Horne’s wildly misinterpreted catch-phrase ‘the Lucky Country’. We get a case study: of Renea Hughes who fraudulently obtained $630,000 from her employer, NSW’s then-named RailCorp, to feed her pokie habit. Little wonder there’s no money to keep the trains clean, much less run on time. The extent to which our addiction to ‘luck’ extends deep into our government mindsets (State and federal) is exposed in the amount of revenue drawn from the ‘gaming’ machines, casino taxes, etc. And on it goes. in essence, gambling is the ugly face of our addiction ‘materialism’ .

    James may well be a shameless gambler in the love stakes (the biggest loser, I might add). But I know, if he read this book, he would agree that something is terribly wrong with our culture. In fact, apart from his risk-taking in the romance department, James can’t even bring himself to buy a Scratchie for his birthday. Queuing up to buy a new biro at the newsagent sends him into a spirally depression, when all he see’s ahead him are a mile of shuffling pensioners holding on to their walking frames with hand and their lotto drawcards in the other. As Ms Summers begins her book: all in the firm belief, as did her father, that one day, ‘their ship will come in’.

    Oh goodness: James just got in from The Trojan Women - jabering in a Cassandra-like manner about the cursed luck of….

    I stop him there and say: “Read this, Jimmy boy. It explains everything.” He has reluctantly agreed to take the book to bed with him. “Me and On Luck can get into some Pillow Talk.”


    Knock knock: who's there?

    Hi there readers, James here. Gayelean is right as per usual. On Luck is a terrific book. You know the Trojans were very unlucky to have been fooled by that wooden horse. But there was in ancient Greek culture also a concept called hubris (trans: ‘what goes up must come down‘); and some would argue that the Trojans had it coming to them. The really unlucky people in Euripides’ play are not the men who made all the stupid decisions that led to the carnage, but the women – who had no power, had not been involved in the crook decision making, and yet suffered hugely and  immensely.

    People’s luck, thinks moi, depends on the culture into which they are born. None of us has much control over that.  It’s what with we do with our lives from birth onwards that counts. A person may well be lucky enough to be born into a just and coherent society, with leaders who genuinely commit to the well-being of ‘all its members’. While all of us must try to help ourselves along the way, it is a lot easier if we are all working from ‘a flat platform’: relatively equal opportunity.

    Willliam Barak - No luck with the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board

    Willliam Barak - No luck with the Aboriginal Protection Board

    What was shocking about Episode Three of the First Australians, if I may digress, which screened last Sunday night, was the realisation that belonging to a caring community, led by a highly intelligent and principled person, may not be be enough. Not against the forces of self interest and bigotry that slop around the globe, certainly around the rich and selfish city that was Melbourne in the mid- to late 1900s.

    Here is the story of a very great leader, William Barak, who founds a wonderful settlement for his people at a place outside Melbourne called Coranderrk. A tiny pocket of the vast lands his people used to call their own. Everything could have been great, and the entire history of Aboriginal people in Victoria – and of Australia – could have taken a completely different path. If only…

    Can I suggest you visit the site of a fellow bloggian, Andrew Sullivan, whose response to the episode is very like mine. For all Barak’s efforts to protect his people, he had no luck in persuading those in power (least of all the so-called Aboriginal Protection Board) that his people were capable of making a good life for themselves – in the European manner if need be – if only they could be given half a chance. If you have not been following the series, you still can. The SBS site for the series, the First Australians, is fantastic. You can catch up with all the episodes so far, and much more. We are all ‘very lucky’ that at last this series has been made, and that it is so good. Every Australian should see it – especially Philip Ruddock and John Howard – lol. It is hugely sobering.

    The truth is, we live in a very sick society with new and old infections popping out all over our shared skin. In many ways, On Luck is a study of illness as described in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. For those who wish to stay well, or improve on their condition, On Luck is a MUST READ!

    If you want to know more about Anne Summers and her writing, go to this link – the transcript of an excellent interview with Mr George Negus; and/or dip into some of  Anne’s other wonderful writing, which can be found at her website: www.annesummers.com.au

    Palya – it’s All Good

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  • 01 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    I meet up with a mate in showbusiness and we head off to the Museum of Contemporary Art where Melbourne University Press (MUP) is launching its new series – Little Books on Big Themes. A  small but fairly illustrious gathering, including one ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and one ex-NSW Premier, Bob Carr; and some of us possibly hived off from MUP’s invite list for the launch of Jim’s Sharman’s autobiography, Blood and Tinsel, from a week before.

    MUP Get's It's Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    MUP Gets Its Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    I had already purchased and read Barrie Kosky’s little book On Ecstasy, and yet again been impressed by the passionate imagination that drives this artist’s work. The other books in the opening series are Blanche d’Albuget On Longing, David Malouf On Experience and Germaine Greer On Rage.

    Almost all the talk since that night has been about Greer’s ‘polemic’, as Bob Carr described it, recommending it as vital reading to ‘every Australian’. I will come back to Greer’s book. But something should be said of the enterprise of M UP’s head honcho, Louise Adler who, with Elisa Berg working more closely on th project, has brought into being this series of beautifully made, easy to read, intellectually stimulating books. There are already four more in the production pipeline.

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    It’s one of those luxurious and rare publishing moments where the bottom line is not everything. Yet so tantalizing are these little books, and so compelling their contents, there’s every chance of a commercial hit as well!

    Barrie Kosky On Ecstasy

    Clearly, Mr Kosky does not need illicit or pharmaceutical drugs to get high. From his earliest years, the world has been a fulsome empire of smells and tastes, and sights and sounds. Here we have an whirling mini-autobiography via the bodily senses – from home-made chicken soup, the Melbourne Grammar sports change room, racks of fur coats, onto discovering Mahler and directing Wagner.

    I am not ashamed to say I did all I could in my time at the Sydney Morning Herald to make Kosky feel welcome, when he arrived in this city with a series of bold productions for theatre and opera. It was more than declaring an admiration for the work, but also acknowledging that Kosky was adding new life to the town. His was a profoundly ‘fecund’ imagination and I wanted to pay tribute to that in itself.

    We did once have a moment of conflict when I could not get him on the phone in Vienna for a story I was writing. Was he putting his own art ahead my journalism? Surely not? I ended up calling him an arrogant  %)(&&%$##$%)))_*&#, or words to that effect; and the next time we saw each other in the street we snubbed each other like all good prima donnas in conflict do. Then came The Lost Echo, all 64 hours of it, and this time I bumped into Barrie outside the theatre. I was in a state of ecstasy! I Barrie asked if I could get down and kiss his feet. He said it was okay, I didn’t have to……kind of forcing my to my knees anyway (just kidding).

    The envious low-life media hack in me was of course hoping On Ecstasy would bring Kosky back to earth. I could wave it around at dinner parties shouting: ‘See he is just like the rest of us!’ How off the mark were my evil fantasies. The book is as virtuosic as it is joyful. Scribbled off in hand, we discovered at the launch, and faxed off to Eliza in ‘fecund’ clumps. I keep using that word’ fecund’ as it was the one used by Adler in her speech to describe what she considered the chief characteristic of Kosky’s mind. Not to be confused with feckin (Irish); though I reckon, if we were to sum up Barrie Kosky’s output so far, we could call it “feckin fecund”…don’t you think?

    Meanwhile, a reading by an author from their own book is a performance in its own right. While Kosky’s reading was hilarious and daring, Blanche D’Albuget’s was mesmerizing.

    Blanche d’Albuget On Longing

    I am yet to read d’Albuget’s book through, but her own reading of the opening paragraphs at the launch was one of the evening’s highlights. I have never read d’Albuget’s biography of Bob Hawke. But I am glad to hear it is being republished (updated) by MUP. Simply on the impact of these few paragraphs below, how could one not be interested in any writing by this woman?

    On Longing begins thus:

    “One fine day a horseman dressed in white, a man whose bulk made him look to heavy to ride, cantered away from a group of other men on horses. Abruptly his rhythm in the saddle broke – as if the ground were shaking, or maybe he was about to collide with something massive but invisible. Heart racing, he rushed on. The unseen thing grabbed him, its shadow eclipsing all that was known.

    “Darkness engulfed the rider.

    “His mount slowed, stopped, and stood still. It seemed concerned not to disturb the human-equine being into which it had transformed, its man-half slumped, life-less arms still clasped round its neck.

    “Across the field all hell broke loose. People screaming; horses galloping, riders shouting and frantic; and ambulance careening towards the stricken centaur.

    “But for the man who had collided with Death there was neither sound nor silence, light nor dark, no hope and no despair. There was Nothing.

    “For six minutes (or seven, since accounts of that day vary) he was ‘clinically dead’. He had suffered pain like a javelin thrust through his chest and iron bands wound so tight round his ribs his lungs could not move….”

    An amazing evocation of a scene!  The ‘centaur’ is Kerry Packer, of course. I am yet to discover where d’Albuget takes us after dropping Packer’s revived body off at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. But by introducing her essay with Shakespeare’s “I have immortal longings in me” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2), one gets a sense of what lies ahead. Antony and Cleopatra was not only my first Shakespeare, but whole swathes of its voluptious verse came alive to me like nothing I had read before. That particular line has stuck with me through the years.

    Unlike Barrie K, I did not go to Melbourne Grammar. Where I went to school, if you didn’t graduate to pro-Rugby League you most likely went on to become a (corrupt?) copper. But A&C was on the syllabus in fifth form (back then) and it set my mind on fire. Those longings I had lying on my dorm bunk at night were possibly ‘immortal’. And I’m not referring to the guy above (they were just longings); rather, this noton of ‘immortal longings’ conjured up the ‘rest of the world’ I could glimpse as a vista from the top of the main building’s bell tower.

    I have come to believe much theatre is also about ‘immortal longings’, and soothing them.

    I am taking my time with this particular book also because of the way in which it was encouraged into being. D’Albuget stopped writing fifteen years ago, never expecting to pick up a pen again. It was the feisty Louise Adler who guided this wonderful Australian writer back to her desk, and d’Albuget expressed sincere thanks for that. My point being, we could do with more of this – some encourgement. Theatre people included….lol.

    Germaine Greer On Rage

    While it was disconcerting to observe Bob Carr, an avid reader, pass over Kosky’s book On Ecstasy a little too lightly, Carr is to be congratulated for his passionate praise for Greer’s challenging and insightful ‘polemic’ On Rage. Namely the rage she observes eating out the hearts and minds of Aboriginal men.

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    What I want to comment on here is the tsunami of negative responses the book was receiving within 24 hours of its release. Greer anticipated this. What I noticed, with some dismay, was a posse of senior white female journalists who appeared to unite as a vanguard, in unseemly haste, in an effort to bring the book and its writer undone. Writers at The Australian led the way, but there was also a highly tendentious response - ‘Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib Than Lib’ - from Tracee Hutchison in Melbourne’s The Age.

    Below is my riposte, which I publish here since it failed to make it into The Age’s Letters page.

    Dear Editor,

    Why have so many journalists, mostly white women, responded with such viciousness to On Rage, Germaine Greer’s latest attempt to raise an important topic for public debate?

    Especially disturbing are comments by Tracee Hutchison’s in this paper (Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib than Lib, August 16). Her response is to some random remarks made by Greer in a brief television appearance (ABC’s Q&A), hardly a controlled environment for the dissemination of complex ideas.

    What becomes increasingly alarming as one reads through Hutchison’s attack, is the likelihood that she has not yet read Greer’s book before choosing to respond to its content. In an altogether unrelated spray at the end of the article, this is what Hutchison accuses Greer of doing over a previous storm in a teacup over a play by Melbourne writer Joanna Murray-Smith. Surely Hutchison cannot have it both ways?

    Nor, I presume, was Hutchison at the book launch (in Sydney) that took place immediately prior to Greer’s appearance on Q&A. If she had been, Hutchison would not be able to attack Greer for allegedly raising the subject for debate from ‘the comfort of her English garden’. I was at the launch, and Greer not only delivered a most informed and passionate summary of the content of her book, Greer also revealed she has made many visits to the outback communities she is talking about, going back to the 1970s through to quite recently; she has read voluminously across the topic – including many major public documents (see the index to her book); and she has also talked one-to-one with many Aboriginal men and women.

    I have since read the book in horrified gulps at the truths Greer lays down – in black and white (yes literally).

    To paraphrase just one example: ‘there would have been no Stolen Generation had white men kept their hands off Aboriginal women, or taken responsibility for the progeny’. Any arguments with that? An observation surely worth pondering for a minute or two? Classic Greer? No? Yet, our gut reaction – among female peers in particular – is to spit on Greer. I remember when this happened to Helen Garner over The First Stone; and they were equally high-ranking women journalists who led the hysterical, and later disproved, attack on Lindy Chamberlain.

    To sneer over whether what Greer calls ‘rage’ is better described as ‘grief’ is as productive as correcting someone for calling ‘silver beet’ ‘spinach’. It’s the feelings of Aboriginal men (alongside those of the women and children) Greer is asking for us to stop and consider. And at no point in her launch speech or in the book does she excuse the violence Aboriginal men have inflicted on the women and children in their lives. Quite the opposite. She is merely attempting to add more data and fresh perspectives to the issues, in the hope that we may all work more effectively towards solutions.

    James Waites

    A few days later I dropped a copy of the letter into a blog created for smart groovy women who meet up online on a Friday night and throw ideas around. Wow, I got eaten alive. Even Helen Garner, it turns out, still hasn’t been forgiven. I don’t know how Greer survives it, day in day out, year after year. Or Garner, when it’s been her turn for a thorough tar-and-feathering from her activist ’sisters’.

    Discovering My Dark Side

    It was a little bit strange and daunting to ask Germaine Greer to sign my copy of On Rage. I rarely bother with the signature thing, but I had already asked for Barrie Kosky’s and so, in a flush of enthusiasm, I rushed around and got all of the first four books in the series signed. I informed Greer that I have my own special interest in matters Aboriginal, especially right now, as I prepare for a trip out to a small town called Ernabella, 400k’s south-west of Alice Springs, to witness Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji rehearsals. A swag and billy tea, lots of digital equipment and a night sky full of stars, here we come. I am travelling with my old mate photographer Brett Monaghan.

    As Germaine Greer looked up at me with interest, she offered a little sage advice. And then, on closer examination of my visage, announced I must surely have Aboriginal blood in me! For all Greer’s intellectual brilliance and sheer guts, many think there is a slightly mad side. If there is, so what! It’s like asking Judy Davis to stay calm at all times, and still expect her to go on stage and play Hedda Gabler as well as she did!

    From Greer the phrenologist, thus insight into my ancestry was nonetheless a curved ball. How long had my family been in Australia? she enquired. On my mother’s side… since 1789, I think, I stammered. For Greer, that was QED. Plenty of time for one of the men in that long ancestral line to fiddle with one of the lubras. Who would dare argue with the great Seer Germaine! Perhaps from the comfort of a website. But when she is sitting there before you? Smiling up at you! Well I wasn’t about to. If there is any truth to Greer’s declaration, it’s connected to a skeleton buried way to the back of the family closet. After some consideration, I have chosen to take Greer’s declaration another way: as a call to arms. That in tendency, with regard to respect for country and yearning to belong, there is, I admit, a ‘spirit of Aboriginality’ to which I aspire.

    I Have A Dream!

    I woke up the morning after the Little Books launch straight out of a dream: a scene where Louise Adler – whom I met for the first time that previous night - had taken me aside at the function and was offering me some sage advice. Pennies from Heaven.  ’Okay, okay, I’m ready. Do I need to sit down or something?’ I asked nervously. Patting my shoulder like a primary school teacher, or gold medal Olympic diving coach, might, she whispered: “Keep in simple.” Okay, I promise Louise, I will do my best to do so. Thanks heaps for the tip!

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