There’s only one man who could really do justice to a Bob Ellis obituary, and he has just died. Ellis — screenwriter, diarist, critic, raconteur blah blah blah — was always a dab hand at them, and the last decade or so of his life appears to have been taken up with them: obituaries of Labor as was, Australia as was, the world as it might have been, the tone always finely judged — a melancholia about lost possibilities that did not preclude the pleasure of taking joy in life, in the next movie, the weather at Palm Beach, the doings of the children. In fact each depended on the other. What was the mere foreground to what had never been, could never be.
Sometimes that worked exactly, as in the screenplay for Paul Cox’s Man Of Flowers, or some of the tighter essays collected in Letters To the Future, or in any randomly chosen 30 pages of his elephantine late-stage political chronicles; and sometimes it just fell over, as in the overly overworked The Nostradamus Kid, or the columns for Encore magazine, which were not so much name-dropping as names and verbs, or the 31st to 60th page of any dipping into the election chronicles.
But that melancholic disposition, that lifelong long withdrawing roar, was at its best when dealing with death — as in the obit he wrote for Robert Manne’s Quadrant of Francis James, the improbable Sydney bohemian, commentator, friend of Whitlam, the man who made The Anglican into a weekly newspaper so important that Murdoch and Packer both sent teams of heavies to acquire its presses, and finally, an alleged spy in China, imprisoned, and released, by Mao. “It is as if a continent has disappeared beneath the waves,” Ellis wrote of his death (quoting from memory here, in a motel in Wisconsin), “with all its monuments and libraries”.
There are others who knew Ellis better, who worked with him — or had worked with him and never again — and in a way I don’t want to write this, because I had been intending to write a “prebituary” when he announced he was dying, and dallied with it, and then it looked like it was another Ellisian false alarm, and I left it, and now he’s gone. And, as the reader can see, the Ellisian style has taken over, the Hemingway-esque run on and and and, the abrupt sentence, even the use of the semicolon; they’re all contained in the vast inland sea of the writings of Bob Ellis, a man who failed magnificently at his chosen profession — that of serious playwright — and, in doing so, succeeded at something else: a form of prose that was Australian without being antipodean in the manner of the expats — Clive, Germaine, the other Bob — and which, initially less impressive, has more chance of going the distance.
Ellis himself addressed this in his chronicle of a Thatcher election Two Weeks In Another Country, when he mused on what might have been had he stayed away in London, the short pieces done for the weeklies, the BBC plays for today, the British girlfriend becomes wife, two weeks’ rain-sodden holiday pushing a couple of bikes around France, etc, etc. I can’t remember any of it exactly, but I can remember many of them — literally hundreds of Ellis observations, paragraphs, phrases.
Bob Ellis is not merely the finest prose writer Australia has produced, he is probably the finest three or four of them. Despite his vast output, he did what any good prose writer does; he produced sentences whose truth was as embedded in their form as much as their content, and when he had piled up enough of them, he had an article. The greatness came, inevitably, because he was aiming for something else, the great script. And of course he got them, but only in the hands of others, Paul Cox chief among them — and, inevitably, he monstered the memory of them. When he had control, he tended to fuck it up — warm nights on a slow-moving train, about a giant metaphor travelling between Sydney and Melbourne, the Nostradamus kid, the story of his journey from the parochial world of a Seventh-Day Adventist upbringing in rural coastal NSW, the unique memories of sea and sky, to Sydney in the ’70s, something he told better and often in essays and memoirs.
But even then there is Unfinished Business, a small gem of a film he’d directed himself, about a woman impregnated by an old lover, with the tacit approval of the (medically sterile) husband. The first time I saw it, I wanted to yell at the screen for the lack of drama — “She leaves him!”, “She leaves him for the lover!” On a more recent viewing, the lack of drama seems right. There is never any question she’d leave him, and that’s the truth of it, and the truth of the world. Why has that film disappeared from circulation? Down the great memory hole of Australian culture, I guess.
That movie gives a clue to Ellis’ appeal, and the limits of it. He was a political radical and a cultural conservative in an Australia that struggled to understand that duality. Coming to Sydney, and Sydney Uni, in the ’50s, was the making of him (“I stayed too long,” he noted in an essay “wandering around an object of pity, in a grey methedrine haze”), but, as he also noted, “to leave a small town for a big city is a sort of tragedy”.
In recalling his childhood, the loss of a sister, his parents’ quietly mad but by no means pernicious religiosity, he captured the particularity of Australian existence before the great invasion of US culture, the names of chocolate bars and cleaning products, the lifeways of a kid in the bush-that-wasn’t-the-bush, and the great good luck of rising with the first generation of boomers, or immediate pre-boomers who got to Sydney Uni before the ’60s hit. He did it, unlike Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone, without condescension, identifying in the passing of mid-century Australia, a vast loss of a society whose democratic virtues might have been built on, to include those they had excluded.
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Reading Bob Ellis — I first encountered him in his review column “Ellis At The Movies” in Brian Toohey’s National Times — was an invitation to be courageous about your own tastes and intuitions. He wrote one review that sandwiched together a Brit nostalgia film (P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang) and a Polish film (might have been Success Is The Best Revenge), which in those late art-film days was the preferred product. After 800 words of extolling the unashamedly low comedy populist expertise of the Brit film he noted, “Success Is The Best Revenge is, on the other hand, a wank” and reading that, I thought, Christ, you can do that, you can just, denounce? And you can. And you can do it with that control, and that directness, and that is one part of what makes good writing.
The other part is the courage to expose your vulnerability, your desires, your partiality. That, above all, is the Australian/antipodean difference — why, I think, the prose of the latter will, with passing decades, become brittle until it crumbles to dust, while something of Ellis — godknowswhat — survives. It is the willingness to put failure at the centre of it, because writing ultimately is a failure to live, an exploration of the gap. The best writing seeks out that falling-short, and in falling short, falls short.
Ellis took up Beckett’s injunction to “fail better”, and he took it seriously. He retained no shred of self-respect in the telling of what he had done, or the doing of the things required for the raw material that went into the telling. He was, as he said, of the generation in which Shakespeare had become something of an obsession and fetish, and that made him not a fool, but the Fool — the man who says to the King “I would rather be anything than a fool, but I wouldn’t want to be you”. His treatment of some people, especially some women, was appalling, appalling beyond the joking of it. It wasn’t even done for material. It was just … him, it was just Ellis, which is the final, vanishing point of the foolishness, when you trash yourself and your career because you can’t do anything else. In the gynocratic world of Australian cultural management, he really, really fucked it.
That wasn’t the only, or even main, reason why he faded in those last years. On his blog, his prose was as good as ever. Indeed, he’d developed a distinct ultra-late style, avoiding cliche and repetition. But the plain fact was he’d outlasted Australia itself. Having come to maturity prior to and during our age of left cultural nationalism, he’d far outlasted it, that brief three-decade period, after Menzies and before Google and John Howard, when we thought that we might be able to create something very democratic and very Australian out of what we had. That was a product of geography, and died when geography did, and the possibilities and obsessions of those times now seem like a record of ancient religious wars.
In his best and his worst, Ellis was contoured by that, like the lines through ancient desert rock, and it runs through what has come after him. When I read the best of Helen Razer, the best of John Birmingham, when I occasionally look at something I’ve written and wonder “Christ, where did that come from?” the answer is usually Bob Ellis, whose work suggested that the way to write something worth reading was to be foolish and raw and give away something you can’t get back, and leave it on the page. And, Christ almighty, how I wish I had written this when he was still alive to read it.
I hope he knew what he made possible. I hope some publisher will have the wit to work with his family and create some four-volume selected/collected, to leave in the libraries for a century hence. And I wonder if there’s some last testament out there by him, the obituary no one else could write. Whether there is, or isn’t, the thought of no more Ellis is like, if not a whole continent going beneath the waves, a landscape, a region, with its hills and its cities, their known streets, and its coastline, its sky like no other sky, joining with the endless sea.