It’s a privilege to be here, to launch a new book and remember an old friend.
I miss Bob. I feel the frustration of not hearing his voice, talking to him, sharing a tall tale or two. He would have been in his element tonight.
Language honours and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.
That’s Bob, quoting Auden, on Yeats.
And in this brilliant collection that Anne has compiled and Aviva Tuffield has edited, we see the truth of that sentiment. Everyone who buys this book – and in true Ellis spirit, I urge you to take home multiple copies for your friends – everyone who buys this book will gain something from it.
A greater appreciation of Bob’s tremendous gift for prose, a new sense of his bottomless love of family and friends, and a reminder of the rich, turbulent, remarkable life he lived to the very fullest measure.
Only Bob Ellis could have written this book.
And only Anne, the brilliant, patient Anne, could have sifted through the decades of unabridged Ellis and produced this collection of such clarity and completeness.
For longstanding friends of Bob and his work, this book will fuel fond reminiscing. All the well-loved, well-worn favourites are here... best of all, this is a book that will point new readers to old pieces. Across the years, Bob’s words reach out from these pages, they grab you by the lapels – ‘listen here, comrade’, ‘pay attention, Digger’. This is how it was, how it ought to be, how we can make it so.
Whether it’s a blog post from March this year, or a piece for a magazine long gone, Bob’s work speaks with an unflinching clarity – and an unshockable honesty. There is something far greater than Gonzo at work here. A sense of immediacy and urgency, the feeling that enterprises of great pith and moment were buffeting the narrator through history, live.
In his famous condemnation of Politics and the English Language, George Orwell lamented that 'no-one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse'.
Let’s be clear, the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, working families know where I stand on this. Bob lived and worked through an era when political rhetoric and political writing so often resembled paint-by-numbers… But he was no utilitarian ‘wordsmith’. For Bob, writing would never be a mundane question of the hammer and anvil, beating clichés and weasel words into the blunt dullness that blights so many political statements and corporate manuals and ‘apologies for any inconvenience caused’.
There was nothing mechanical, nothing predictable, nothing rigid or repetitive about Bob. With that famous Lamy pen of his – or latterly on his tablet, plugged in to charge at an inappropriate location, or going flat at an inconvenient time – he would pour his shambolic, contrary, discursive, brilliant self into whatever he did.
This collection vividly captures the Ellis style: the long run-on sentence, sluggishly setting out towards its subject like a sleeper train through a country station late at night; semicolons spacing out the melancholy burden of change and decay; sub-clauses like skiffs beating back the current on a slow-flowing river, before enlivened, alarmed, enraged, the languid water surges and – leaping over the falls – ends. And so it goes... on.
But Bob was no mere generator of mawkish sentiment for the occasion. As supple and smooth as his prose could be – there was always a hard edge of thoughtfulness. Guy Rundle called it Australian but not Antipodean. And there’s something to that. The honesty, the irreverence, the sense of a generation making a go of it here in a big country full of small towns. Seventh-day Lismore Adventism and inner-Sydney Hedonism. Breaking free from long dull nights on empty streets cut off from the wider world. Overturning fustiness and convention, British accents reading the ABC news before Homicide, a lean diet of the cultural cringe and evenings planned by Sandy Stone.
Striking out in search of a new voice and new ideas. The voice of a genuinely Australian social democracy shaped by ideas and ideals. The new sense that Australia’s own time was coming, at last. That faith in the Australian model, the social wage, the helping hand reaching back to those who’ve fallen off the pace, the comfort for those felled by the shafts of fate.
That made Bob Labor. Never a member but always a fellow traveller. Scribe, conscience, iconoclast, devil’s advocate. The man who gave us back the phrase ‘true believers’. And so often, the author of the first draft of Labor history. Bob also wrote wonderful lines for Paul Keating, for Kim Beazley, for Bob Carr, for me. Sometimes, the drafting was as far as they got. As I’ve said before if I got a dollar every time I used a line Bob suggested, I’d almost be able to afford the legal bill they would incur.
But the reason for his proximity to so much of the modern Labor story – and all the attendant drama captured in this book - lies more in Bob’s capacity for empathy, his ability to listen. More than once in the eight weeks of this year’s campaign, I thought to myself: ‘I wish Bob was here’. Not just because we would have had outrageous fun. Or because he understood, as well as anyone, the limits of Malcolm. But because he was someone you could really talk to, who knew when to fill up a silence and when to let it linger. Bob had a rare gift for hearing the story behind the words – just another reason he was so good at telling them.
Friends, inevitably, this book reminds us of what we have lost. An irreplaceable mind, a mighty heart, a kindly soul, a dear friend. But, more importantly, this collection reminds us of what we will always have. It shows Bob Ellis will always be with us. Maintaining his rage – and his enthusiasm. Indignant, defiant, unconventional, irresistible. The man in the literary arena. Living on in a hundred sparkling paragraphs, a thousand outrageous insults. Making us laugh and gasp and think, celebrating the ordinary and the extraordinary with equal love and devotion.
Tonight we gather up all those emotions. Sadness for what is gone, nostalgia for what was. Hope for what might be, faith in what will. And we launch a book that brings all that together, for all time.
Bob once said, 'It’s a question of words in the end. Words that say thank you adequately, so long, it’s been a privilege.'
Today we remember, we salute, we celebrate, we thank Bob Ellis – in his own words.