Meeting Bob Ellis (1942-2016)

It was, I think, 2009 when I met Bob Ellis, a writer who was not content to sit idly by to ‘objectively’ observe his objects like the rest of the voyeuristic journalist class of Australia, but instead to fight for them and fight against them throughout his life that ended not long ago. I had just travelled with Dad to Sydney for the New South Wales Labor Party Conference, one memorable for the famous last stand of then NSW Premier Nathan Rees – garbage-collector and English Major – whose war against the party elite had him swiftly ejected from the leadership. At that conference Rees had made a surprise move and put forward a motion which granted him power to eject from his cabinet the factional hard-hitter Joe Tripodi and the corrupt Ian McDonald, but within a few short weeks the power mechanisms were set in motion and Rees was swiftly ejected from the premiership. Ellis was there that day to cheer on his old friend with his pen, writing that Rees had just made one of the finest speeches of NSW political history.

On the road to the conference I was reading Ellis’ 101 Arguments Against Economic Rationalism, an unyielding assault on the neoliberal ideology that has brought our economies and people to the precipice in recent years. After every argument Ellis would write “prove me wrong, reader” – and how hard it was to prove him wrong, the man’s writing was, without fail, dangerously articulate and lucid. Ellis never ceded a single inch of territory in the battleground of politics, a trait which made it easy for his haters to paint him as a nostalgic pining for some lost Australia of pie shops, milk-bottle deliveries and bus conductors rather than a serious and relevant thinker. But he wasn’t a nostalgic, of course; he was a dreamer, a radical, a rebel, an inconvenient thorn in the side of the powerful, and if it is somehow nostalgic to still believe in the democratisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange – as the Australian Labor Party simultaneously declares and ignores – then call me a Bob Ellis, because I like Ellis believe that economic democratisation is, to use the language of our current Prime Minister, innovative and exciting. But Ellis’ unfashionable beliefs made him the target of the chortling Australian right wing press, which variously described Ellis as a nostalgic, misogynist, Bolshevik, a clown, a court jester etc, and in a particularly vile piece by a particularly vile commentator, Gerard Henderson, of a particularly vile publication, The Australian (the one owned by a man who renounced his Australian nationality in order to gain American citizenship), Ellis’s life was dismissed as an ‘undisciplined’ one, whatever that means, and once again Ellis was falsely accused of sexism.

But the endless attacks on Ellis and his ideas were, of course, just noise.  Ellis was a confident man, and he had a sensitive barometer of the times we live in, sometimes over-sensitive, that foresaw the century to come just as it had begun. The Iraq War, the Great Recession and the Arab Spring, these were the events which for Ellis meant the beginning of a new age, one inaugurated by austerity, blood and inequality, but be defined by resistance and renewal. He described this new world beautifully in the 2009 book Night Thoughts in a Year of Change, and his 2011 The Year it all Fell Down: Wikileaks, the fall of Gadhafi, Fukushima, the Tea-party reactionary movement, the London Riots, the fall of Murdoch’s News of the World, Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish indignados movement, these events together meant for Ellis that human kind was in those years living through something similar to what 1848 was for the nineteenth century when Europe erupted in revolution. And Ellis, being the revolutionary he was, was there at every ALP Conference to attack the counter-revolutionaries with his vicious pen or to ennoble his comrades with generous portraits, and nearly always he was spot on. He described Gillard, a ‘political dill’, as a leader with “no power, no influence, no friends, no learning. There’s not much there”, and yes, Gillard – Gillard the uranium dealer, the miners’ money maker, the single mother budget breaker and American troop in-taker – was surely the worst ALP leader of the post-WWII era.

When the party converged on conference floor in Sydney Town Hall I took my seat in the non-delegate observers section to watch the show, and down below I could see the heroes and the villains, the old-timers and the new-comers, the true-believers and the hacks. But then I saw the giant Bob Ellis, not on the floor below but shuffling out of his row of seats toward me. I stopped him in his path and said something like “Bob Ellis?” as I pulled his book out of my back pocket, and he said something like “Well young man, would you like to come for a coffee?” I said yes, of course, but I’ll meet you there at the café, and I ran off to fetch Dad and said something like “Bob Ellis!” and introduced him to Bob, who had already found us a table and was seated heavily in his chair beginning, say, his fifth coffee of the day. The conversation begun with an analysis of the Premier’s speech – brave and eloquent, he said – rolled on through politics, theatre, history, literature, each topic pouring out like red wine into a glass; bright, streaming, intoxicating. Being able to quote from the likes of, say, Christ, in a conversation about, say, a prostate check, Ellis’ mind was seemingly totally unaffected by last night’s bottle of red or this morning’s lack of sleep. I can’t remember the exact words of the conversation – were they words of Shakespeare, Marx or Keats? – but I can remember being awe-struck at this larger-than-life figure who reeked of coffee and wine.

Ellis’ end make me worry for the future state of Australian journalism and of the Australian left. Because the man represents all that is lacking in our mediocre public culture, a culture which silences dissent, stifles critical thought and slanders originality. He represents character, intellectualism, irreverence, against the one-dimensional, suburban status-quoitians who pontificate from parliamentary chairs and fill columns with words with little thought and no beauty. No doubt original people like Ellis will continue to write and think and converse, but will they be permitted into, or will they be drawn at all, into the caucuses, conferences, corridors and cabinets of power? Will they practise the trade of journalism, will they perfect the art of writing, will they pursue the passion of politics, or will they instead be drawn by the triple-$$$ figures offered by the profession of what was once described simply and honestly as propaganda and what is now known as public relations? Ellis was not a PR man, nor was he a Canberra-bubble journalist; he was an artist, a thinker, a character, and god help us now that we’ve lost yet another genius, but as Ellis would say, so it goes.

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