He’s such a weird and lopsided character, Guy Rundle. It’s a mystery how this man who can be so intelligent can also carry on in such a mad dog undergraduatish way, like a left-wing lout shouting down all comers.

I say this as philosophically as I can since I’ve just been denounced by my old mate, Guy, as a eunuch who besottedly yearns to snuggle up to Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton in bed, who is a “louche bohemian” — I think this one means gay — who has a sexual thing about Tony Abbott because I’m yearning for his Lord Brideshead side and my childhood Catholicism is calling the tune.

On top of that, all my negative reviews are the result of my compulsive over-the-top-ness which can be cut out by the yard and given to dumb editors. My ranting negativity is simply the other side of my ‘simpering’ limp-wristed enthusiasms.

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And, lest anyone think that Guy doesn’t have the historical erudition to vomit me out of his mouth with a devastating historical recapitulation, he is here to trace my crimes back to Scripsi days. I haven’t received such abuse since I fell foul of Barry Dickens.

Why? Because last week the Spectator published my review of the Max Gillies show Godzone which Guy wrote. What makes his braggadocio strange is that people much less sophisticated than Rundle know that you don’t reply to reviews because that makes you look like not just a loser but a sore loser.

It is understandable that Guy should be surprised that my Spectator review should appear just when Godzone is finishing the provincial leg of its run. This happened because Tom Switzer had taken over the editorship of the Australian edition of the Spectator from Oscar Humphries, there was a hiatus and I assumed that the moment for a Godzone review had passed. Then someone mentioned that it had been on in Sydney.

It certainly wasn’t a right-wing plot on Switzer’s part. The decision was mine and, given the gap in time, I did take the precaution of getting the review read by someone who had seen Godzone in Sydney. Matters of opinion aside, was it recognizably the same show? Undoubtedly, she said. And so we went ahead.

One suspects that for Guy Rundle his show and its reception is all too recognizable from the Spectator piece and no doubt it all seems like a recurring nightmare.

People might quibble about the relative responsibility of Max Gillies’ feeble performance and Rundle’s lacklustrous script but as it happens my review was scarcely a dissenting judgement.

None of which gave anyone any joy. As my piece indicated, I have considerable admiration for Gillies on a good day (he is, let’s face it, an actor of genius) and although I happen to think the political satire was at its height in the early days of the The Gillies Report there was still plenty to admire in the previous shows with Rundle.

Is it this qualification that rankles so much with Guy? He pretends to be offering a defense of Gillies, rather than himself, but I do wonder if this carries conviction.

There’s a telltale moment early on when Guy declares that Max has never been a mimic in the manner of Gerry Connelly. It brought to mind the fact that in his days as a theatre critic for the Melbourne Age (when Louise Adler was the arts editor) Rundle was never a very confident or expert judge of acting.

I suspect one of the things that happened to poor Gillies was that his script writer and collaborator Guy Rundle didn’t realise the feebleness of Max’s impersonations or thought that it didn’t matter because the wit of his own material would be enough to carry the day.

Well, it isn’t, as the world has told Rundle. But it’s both strange and sad that Rundle just doesn’t seem to realise how uncannily good Gillies once was.

So much for the review. On questions of truth Rundle really should wake up to himself.

I’m not experiencing a lurch to the Right or a religious revelation that might illuminate my remarks about, or feeling towards, Abbott. Rundle’s attempts to put a spotlight around the Abbott bit of the review is transparent and base — he’s Zdanov-like here. The fact that I have an anti-antireligious stance — something I share with, say, Helen Garner and Rai Gaita — would, I imagine, have been discernible for decades.

On my supposed besottedness with the Sydney Theatre Company, Rundle is equally impertinent and ill informed. I do think Cate Blanchett is a superb actress but my two-page review of her in Liv Ullman’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire said explicitly that she was “not…a great Blanche” — an evaluation notably cooler than Ben Brantley’s review in the New York Times. My other review of an STC production ­­– The War of the Roses — had plenty of praise for Blanchett as Richard II and Lady Anne (in Richard III) but its praise for Benedict Andrews’ production — “Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to” — was sufficiently qualified to mislead Humphries into advertising the review on the cover of the Spectator as, “Not Even Cate Blanchett Can Save War of the Roses“.

Sycophancy should be made of sterner stuff.

On the question of my supposed “flame outs” with people — i.e. my negative reviews — Rundle would not, I think, have the inclination to defend Simon During’s contention that Patrick White was the great writer Australia had to have or that Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish realised its manifest ambitions. And, if he doesn’t, what is he talking about? Has he also become an apologist for Morry Schwartz’s track record with editors?

Guy’s remarks about Scripsi are risible, discreditable and false. The suggestion that Scripsi was “allowed to falter after the working editor” (presumably Michael Heyward) left is flatly wrong and insulting. Heyward ceased to have anything to do with the daily running of Scripsi in 1987. The crisis of Scripsi — when it initially had its funding withdrawn by the Literature Board only to have it restored after a gruelling campaign ­­– took place four years later. Rundle’s account is grossly insulting and he should apologise to his contemporaries like Andrew Rutherford who kept the magazine alive.

The suggestion that Scripsi “fell apart” through “failing to get grant applications in on time” is factually wrong. The suggestion that there was “an international campaign to denounce Australian philistinism” — Guy is referring to letters of support we received ­­ — is, if you think about it, manifestly a falsehood. That would have gone down well with the Australia Council, wouldn’t it?

It’s a bit sad that Guy should feel obliged to have such an irresponsible attitude to the truth, that he should be such a braggart in his own cause, simply because he has received a bad review.

In my time I’ve written critically of the late Elizabeth Jolley, of Peter Carey, Murray Bail, David Malouf, Robert Hughes, Hannie Rayson, Sonia Hartnett, you name it. Not to mention a great swag of actors and directors. I have on occasion written negatively of people whose reputations I have helped establish.

It is not an easy business, of course people feel criticism personally, but it’s necessary for the sake of any commonwealth of artistic endeavour that we have it. It just puzzles me that Guy Rundle should be such a blustering sook about it.

Guy Rundle replies: I’ll refrain from continuing the slanging match, having had a fair go, and even supposing anyone is still reading. Hello, Frank. One thing needs to be made clear, however. My remarks surrounding Scripsi had nothing to do with the editors who took over after Peter in difficult circumstances, ie after Peter. We now return you to planet earth.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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