Remembering Bob Ellis

So much of what was good about London, I decided came from socialism under other names: the endowments that built and maintained museums and galleries and cathedrals, the subsidised theatres and endowed laboratories, the understanding that some things were worthwhile for their own sakes, however they turned out in the columns of profit and loss. Socialism, I thought is the bad name that Saatchi and Saatchi in return for money, give to civilisation. Efficiency is the good name that Saatchi and Saatchi give to barbarism.

Bob Ellis, A Journal of the 1983 British Election


[M]any of life’s ills are curable, or fixable by governments governing, by public education, by income taxes that buy civilisation. Kosovo I argue cannot be solved by the free market acting spontaneously in its usual feeding frenzy on a level playing field where the fit survive; ethics must underpin what happens, ethics and mercy, all of what happens.

– Bob Ellis, Essays, Broadcasts, Speeches 1987–1999


Regarding Rupert Murdoch: Magnetic and charming, and possessed of a lovely voice, he persuades those who meet him that he resembles them closely and shares their good intentions. He seemed intellectually centred, and open to new ideas. He seems logical, reliable, and radical – or centre-left – in his opinions.

In actual fact, he is ignorant of reality, and a danger to the planet and western civilisation. He persuaded Blair into the Iraq War, which he was convinced, would bring down by three quarters the price of oil. He sought to put Prince Charles in a madhouse and Teddy Kennedy in the electric chair for murder. He believes Bill O’Reilly ‘fair and balanced’ and Glen Beck a wise historical thinker, and the Tea Party the answer to the problems of American democracy …

These are the bitter fruits of a man with charisma, who has little to think with, or talk about, and cannot be easily interrupted.

The first sign of incompetence is charisma.

– Bob Ellis, The Ellis Laws


This belief in a grand narrative, buttressed by the old-fashioned virtues of social democracy, clothed in a prose an angel would envy, characterised the life, art and politics of Robert James ‘Bob’ Ellis. His imprint on our film culture, theatre and in political commentary was huge and his passing has created an absence that will be hard to fill. These days, political commentary is dominated by right-wing ratbags, free-market warriors, or urbane personalities like George Megalogenis. From the chaos and moral sterility of the status quo, these wizards of punditry conjure a narrative they hope will soothe us. Never once do these political gurus question the ideological padlocks that chain us like Sisyphus to the dictates of economic rationalism.

Bob Ellis with his immense intellect, scintillating wit, withering irony and historical memory always seemed to be hovering in the background as a grumpy old uncle reminding us that we as a society and individuals are capable of so much more. Interventionist governments, high progressive taxation, protection of industry and progressive social policies were not the socialist nightmare that the free marketers released us from. These policies worked and gave more than 35 years of growth and prosperity, not just for the few but for the majority. Social commentators like Thomas Piketty are only now tentatively offering a revisionist history of these times. It had its flaws and contradictions of course, but compared to what came afterwards it was utopian. Lest we forget, we had high-income tax rates, affordable housing and near full employment; we allowed in refugees, and supported our first inhabitants and those on welfare without the rancour we encounter now. This era has been erased from our memory and if discussed it is seen as a time of stagnation. Ellis viewed this version of history as bullshit and in prose that was simple-to-the-point-of-bluntness, always funny and mostly factual, he demolished the comments of our political pundits.

Ellis burst into my literary and political consciousness and that of innumerable others as a writer for the incendiary magazine Nation Review in the 1970s. With a likeminded group of writers that consisted of Germaine Greer, John Hepworth, Francis James and Mungo McCullum, and ably supported by cartoonists like Patrick Cook and Michael Leunig, they consciously or unconsciously constructed an antipodean identity that was radical, anarchic, irreverent and totally contemptuous of the established Anglo-Saxon Judeo-Christian ethic. They, like innumerable others, were energised by opposition to the Vietnam War, which led to flowering in the arts and gave politics a radical edge not seen since the 1930s.

For recent migrants like me, who were bewildered by and bored with the overwhelmingly parched architectural, cultural and political landscape, they pointed to another Australia – an Australia that was not tied to Queen and Country, or the global interests of the United States, but which revelled in its irreverent radicalism. Culture, political discourse and life did not have to be in abeyance till we went overseas: it could be had down under, with a large dose of scatological humour. They were, of course, not the only ones. In theatre, film, books and in the fine arts there was a renaissance – it was as if the corset of the Menzies era had finally burst. Whitlam, in his idiosyncratic patrician manner, sensed these currents, courted these court jesters and for three years we had our version of Camelot with its accompanying Olympian wonders, blunders, follies and tragedies.

In cricket parlance Ellis was an all-rounder. He could, if the occasion demanded, ghost-write a political speech, pen a moving memorial, conjure up passable poems to those he lusted after, write thousands of superlative film reviews, and of course pen a note-perfect political essay that cut through the cant that too often portrays itself as wisdom and common sense. (All this and more can be found in And so it went: Night Thoughts In A Year of Change (2009).)

Ellis wrote many classic screenplays, like Newsfront (1978), which cleverly and movingly depicted 1950s Australia. The depiction of the split in the Labor Party and how the production of news was becoming Americanised was put on screen with a laconic wit that used the language of the times to show the tragedy beneath the surface. The script was never didactic or nostalgic and is a great corrective to those Howard devotees who have idealised the period. He leavened Paul Cox’s sometimes ponderous, pessimistic and humourless European sensibility with the requisite doses of humour and antipodean sunshine in many of his better films. These qualities can be seen in Cox’s unqualified masterpiece Man of Flowers (1983), a beguiling, deeply moving, and unsettling film that is at times reminiscent of the musicality of the late Luchino Visconti and the sombre emotional palette of Bertrand Tavanier.

His influence in film was underappreciated. He wrote and helped direct the shambolic, joke-filled Australian noir Goodbye Paradise (1983) that deserves greater appreciation than the misanthropic Bazza McKenzie films of Barry Humphreys for its revelation of the Australian male psyche. Ellis, unlike Humphries, does not dislike the archetypes he puts under his satirical blowtorch. His most personal film was The Nostradamus Kid (1993), set during the Cuban Missile crisis. The film has the requisite mixture of lust, love, social commentary, farce and tragedy, underlined by the gaucherie of youth. Noah Taylor gave us a delicious but never malicious resurrection of the young Bob Ellis. Ellis also had forays into television, most notably his loving though not uncritical depiction of the Chifley and Curtin Labor governments in True Believers (1988).

One of the joys of the last forty or so years was reading his political writings, especially those in book form. From his musings on the election of the Hawke government in 1983 to The year it All Fell Down (2013), he reported and dissected the events of the day. Ellis’ books were, like him, grumpy, wry, sometimes sarcastic, occasionally angry and mostly accurate discourses on the follies of our politicians. In stripping their hubris, he showed us how their bulldust blinded us to their flaws and ambitions.

Ellis was never better than in translating John Ralston Saul’s critique of the free market and economic rationalism for a general readership. Ellis did this magnificently in books like First Abolish the Customer: 202 Arguments against Economic Rationalism (1998) and his take on the GFC, The Capitalism Delusion: How Global Economics wrecked everything and what to do about it (2009). His ability to cut through the jargon of economics, the mumbo jumbo of our political and economic swamis, pinpoint the appropriate statistic and drive the point home with a well-aimed barb are superb examples of how to write on politics.

A house in Michigan can be worth a dollar, and a loaf of bread in Harare worth 1.6 trillion dollars and a painting by Van Gough that he sold for four hundred francs be worth around a hundred million dollars by now, what precisely are we playing at?

The substance of things hoped for?

The evidence of things not seen?

You will look in vain for the absurdity and unfairness of unregulated capital in the prolific musings of Megalogenis on our switch to financial deregulation, Hawke and Keating’s valedictory reminiscences and Howard’s turgid recasting of recent history. All we get from them are rueful comments that occasional spurts of market ‘exuberance’ need to be endured, so that the civilising influence of the free market can work its magic.

Unfortunately Ellis was a creature of his era. His sexist comments were unforgivable, and his gloating reminiscences of his ‘innumerable’ sexual conquests embarrassing. His idolisation of the conservative poet Les Murray was inexcusable and mystifying because, if his political writings are a guide, he would be at odds with Murray’s poetic vision of a conservative monocultural Australia. Ellis was sometimes careless with his facts and too often prone to publish scuttlebutt. The most costly one was the libellous account of the intimate shenanigans of Peter Costello and Tony Abbot and their respective spouses.

Then there was his alleged crush on Tony Abbot. It was more a product of his admiration of Abbot’s writing style, I think, and Ellis spruiking for his forthcoming book (he got Abbott to launch it). Fuelling it was his disillusionment with the Rudd and Gilliard leadership, in particular the ‘assassin’ Julia Gillard who was up to her armpits in the machinery of the Labor party. For Ellis, Gilliard had lost the ability to express any emotion and to articulate what she stood for. This absence was never so apparent than when she spoke after the tragic drownings of refugees on Christmas Island during her watch. Ellis wrote at the time:

Prime Minister Gillard gave a memorial speech in which she named none of the dead, and of the surviving bereaved, and extended her condolences only to those Australians who had watched the shipwreck through telescopes, binoculars and phone cameras and felt guilty about not having been able to make, in the ten or twenty minutes it had been possible to make, perhaps a difference. She made no particular mention of any of the dead, the widowed, the orphaned, the traumatised, bankrupted and bereaved, and then herded them into a crowded funeral inappropriate to their religion.

Tony Abbott was more honest, perhaps, in his half-hearted rebuke of Scott Morrison’s criticism of the Gilliard government for allowing bereaved family members to the memorial service. According to Ellis, Abbott praised Morrison ‘for having the guts to reveal his true, inhumane opinion and cop criticism for it’. Damned, it seemed, with faint praise.

If there is one book of his that will definitely stand the test of time it is Night Thoughts in Time of War, written during the second immoral invasion of Iraq and our craven support of it. It dwells widely, deeply, honestly and passionately on the war’s consequences for the health of our society and our individual psyches. The prose in the book displays an aching and prescient understanding of what our actions are doing to the citizens there. As with his other books, Ellis dissects our political culture and leaders, illuminates the best of film and theatre and offers engrossing pen portraits of his friends and personalities of the day. What distinguishes the book is an ineffable sorrow and a sense of tragedy of our times, conveyed in impeccable prose. Ellis invokes an Australia that is now sadly rarely aired – an Australia that is angered and bewildered by the degeneration of our political life and culture.

When archaeologists and narrative historians sieve through the debris of what poses as punditry and political history in this country, they will hopefully come across the graceful and humorous prose of Bob Ellis. He will be an infallible guide to the fault lines of our culture. A complex and paradoxical culture, where individual greed, strident intolerance and a meanness of spirit collide with a more humane, progressive, tolerant, playful, stoic, humorous one that Ellis exemplified to a tee – and so it goes as it inevitably has to.

Such is life.

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Michael Cooke

Michael Cooke is a retired public servant who has a life-long interest in South Asian history, religion, politics and culture. He is the author of biography,Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka: The Lionel Bopage Story, published in 2011. In 2014 he published Christianity, Islam and Atheism: Reflections on Religion, Society and Politics. He is also the resident film reviewer for Sydney-based Doryanthes.

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  1. Just read Michael Cooke’s “Remembering Bob Ellis”. If that is any indication of the quality of it’s articles then I will have to forgo any contempt I habitually harbour for the popular press and, hell forbid, become a subscriber.

  2. Thank you Michael for your excellent and enjoyable piece. More importantly it reminds us of the type of public raconteur that we are sorely missing in our political discourse. In an age where political debates are either reduced to a narrow competing sets of statistics, hand wringing over the AAA rating, the mythical benefits of corporate tax cuts, or a cultural war on everything else, Ellis work reminds us of the need to call out the bullshit, to see through the language of the technocrats, and to focus on the humanity. Given his powerful writing on the Iraq war, one can only wonder what Bob would have made of the damning verdict of the Chilcot inquiry and the conclusions that would be drawn about Blair, Bush and Howard.

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