Book Review - Night Thoughts in a Time of War - Bob Ellis

Night Thoughts in a Time of War by Bob Ellis, Viking, 2004.

Most people are familiar with at least some of Bob Ellis’s long and impressive resume. The author of seventeen books, including the bestselling Goodbye Jerusalem, Goodbye Babylon and First Abolish the Customer, he’s also written and directed features and documentaries including The Notradamus Kid and Bastards from the Bush. He’s won or been nominated for numerous honours, including the Premier’s Literary Award.

Ellis is also a Labour speechwriter and quintessential leftie insider. These days he works for Bob Carr, gets medical referrals from SA Premier Mike Rann, and dines with Natasha (“Tash”) Stott-Despoja and her (extravagantly wanting, to Ellis’s mind) fiancé, Ian. He has regular encounters with political big-wigs who impress him with their, “reason and skill” (Kevin Rudd), the “sedate” manner in which they move “securely into history” (Whitlam and Graham Freudenberg) or their “rose lips” and “dreamy girlish beauty” (Maxine McKew and Stott-Despoja). In return, they praise him for getting things “as usual, dead right” (Susie Annus), for being “old-fashioned, but in a very, very nice way” (fellow speechwriter Carol Green) and by laughing hysterically at his political wit (Carr).

Some may find such windows into the personal relationships, intimate thoughts and general comings and goings of contemporary power-brokers offers welcome relief from the recycled press releases and 20-second grabs that now substitutes for current affairs reporting in this country. Others may see it as nothing more than name-dropping from an aging man preoccupied with his own death and anxious about his own place – and the place of the ideas he’s championed all his life – in history.

Make no mistake about it, Ellis is a good guy. He feels for the needy and is contemptuous of the greedy, and never fails to use his influence to ease the suffering of the most forgotten and abused in Australian society. He gave hospitality to Ali Bakhtiyari, the man whose sons fled from detention but were refused refuge at the UK Consulate, and vainly worked his contacts to prevent the children being shipped back to Woomera.

There is also evidence, on numerous occasions, of a fine turn of phrase. I love Ellis’s description of taking his two dogs “for a whiffle on the beach among the seaweed and the gulls and a town meeting of other yelping dogs near the big tree”. With a few deft phrases, his description of witnessing an IRA bombing in London back in the 1970s, puts us right there.

Yet death confronts us on every page. Ellis admires his mother’s fight against her “final descent” and rages against the dying of his own personal light. He repeatedly laments the under-appreciation of the contributions to politics and culture of dead white men he knew personally or admired from history (does he fear a similar fate?), and the denial of legitimacy to the varied excuses such men had for failing to live up to expectations (as he fears he has?).

For those disinterested in this theme, the text offers little refuge. While those who already share Ellis’s world view may take comfort in his passionate rehearsal of various left-wing lines (he’s anti-Iraq war, anti-Israel, anti-Bush, and pro asylum-seekers), those needing sustained and logical argument to be persuaded of the wisdom of Ellis’s assertions will be disappointed. His attitude seems to be that you’re either with him or a’gin him: if it’s the former you need no persuasion, while those in the latter camp will never be convinced, anyway. As a consequence, what’s on offer is never weightier than a moment-by-moment recounting of recent events surrounding the war in Iraq, accompanied by Ellis’s evaluation of whether any particular political action or attempt at spin will “play”.

Which leads me to my final reservation about Night Thoughts and all books of it’s genre (Noam Chomky’s 9/11, Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace): volumes that purport to offer a comprehensive analysis of a recent event by “a great thinker of our time”. If journalism is the first draft of history, what exactly are such books? They claim to provide more than the fact-reporting and superficial analysis necessarily characteristic of writing forced to conform to the 24-hour news cycle, yet starved of both distance from the event and the perspective offered by time, their significance can be doubted. While they are almost certainly catering to a book-buying market desperate to make sense of our rapidly changing world, I remain sceptical – both in theory and from experience- about their capacity to deliver.

A friend currently enjoying Night Thoughts says such criticism misses the point. “Ellis is not trying to say anything particularly new or insightful. You read it because something big – like the war in Iraq – happens and you think to yourself, ‘Now I wonder what a bloke like Ellis would think about that?’”.