Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Jonathan Biggins presents a two-part work that varies in its components as chalk from cheese. The first ninety-nine pages are based roughly on the Old Testament but only in terms of structure since any comparison with the books of the Bible disappears the moment it is proposed.
The first part is a superficial treatment of the ‘growing’ Keating. One might expect it to be superficial as we are confronting a stage play that has been converted to text. Much that would have been delivered by a polished performer is missing from the text. Missing, too, is the razor-edged personality of Paul Keating, the bluff heartiness of Gough Whitlam, and the characteristics of leaders such as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who took office after Keating had moved on. Political opponents receive more extensive treatment than Keating’s colleagues do, and the Keating known to politically aware members of the public is revealed in anecdote form. A description of Malcolm Fraser as an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades (61) shows that it is possible to capture the flair that Keating brought to all our lives. The wit of Gough Whitlam emerges gently from the parliamentary swamp in the comment that will bring a chuckle to no matter how jaded a reader. The National Party member who complained that he was a Country member to which Whitlam replied ‘I remember’ is an anecdote that must live amongst the elevated quips of the century.
Keating never did take prisoners. It is appropriate, then, that when Keating describes his political enemies, the description will be vicious. For those who knew of the great rivalry with Bob Hawke will come nothing incongruous about Keating’s attitude to Hawke. His hatred of Andrew Peacock was never less than that. When he surveys the last fifteen years, he reveals what he really thought of Australia’s leaders –
“Kevin Rudd. Tintin meets Rainman. Julia Gillard…put a chip in the glass ceiling that wouldn’t trouble Windscreens O’Brien. Tony Abbott, the failed priest. This is the bloke who thought misogyny was his teacher in third class. Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Fizzer. The only bloke who can make a real leather jacket look like vinyl. And now the current clown Morrison, who genuinely believes he was put in the job by God. Well, I’ve never heard Rupert Murdoch called God before, but it makes sense “(11).
The second part of the book, having touched briefly on the various forms of entertainment, asks the question, how to approach creating a biographical play about a prime minister who was equally adored and reviled, who would potentially split an audience along party lines? Various ways are suggested, the most developed being a dialogue in a nursing home. The text, shared by Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, and finishing with a comment that neither Blanche d’Alpuget nor Bob Hawke had said anything about the sketch. I found this lack of response not at all unusual since the sketch was puerile in the extreme.
Part II was a failure in my view. Part I had provided a good standard; Part II just could not compete.
By Jonathan Biggins
$24.99; 210 pp