Diary Australia


13 December 2014

9:00 AM

13 December 2014

9:00 AM

I’ve been to Kirribilli House only twice. John Howard had little time for the Melbourne media, and I suspect did not consider me staunch. Fair call: I was the first conservative commentator to tell him to quit rather than lead his Government to inevitable defeat. Yet just weeks before the end Howard did invite me to an elegiac lunch there. He was mellow. I was uneasy with guilt. A golden light filled the room. I’d have added to my meagre tally of visits but I passed on Tony Abbott’s first bash there – a thank-you party for favoured journalists. I was fortunately too busy to accept the invitation to an impolitic event, the first sign Abbott’s communications strategy was misfiring. But to my wife’s annoyance, I’ve now had to turn down an invitation to Abbott’s second Christmas party, this time with partner. I assume from the invitation that the very Christian Abbott bears no grudges for my recent ‘change or die’ tough love, thank heavens, and this time the regrets I sent were completely genuine. I blamed my television show. There’s too much cooking involved.

No, it’s not simply that I was too busy preparing Sunday’s show. The real challenge is also cooking for a couple of dozen people coming afterwards to The Bolt Report Christmas party, advertised by my producers with a flier that shouts ‘Cookin’ with carbon!’ There’s a tricky George Colambaris moussaka to prepare, plus two other dishes to nail.

Television has demanded more teamwork from me than anything I’ve done before, reshaping my natural disposition. Newspaper columns are written alone at home. Broadcasting is just me at my home studio, phoning in to Steve Price. But TV? I have to cooperate with so many people just to voice my opinions – editors, artists, cameramen, Sandy on the autocue, directors, soundmen and, of course, my two producers, Elise and Margie, formerly of the ABC that I keep bagging. Teamwork first seemed unnatural. What success I’ve had as a columnist has come from being an outsider who can speak freely thanks to an almost pathological indifference to being disliked, and even an expectation I will be. But at Channel 10 I’ve become Mr Gregarious, and am as delighted as I am astonished.

And it’s why I should be a bit sorry to leave The Bolt Report, despite moaning for years I needed to stop working 7 days a week and get a life. I fear I could become sorrier still. Doing three jobs at once is actually just me frantically procrastinating from doing something important like… what? Free time just makes that question uncomfortably urgent, which is why the most striking words I’ve read this year were in a letter Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1880, when he was 27. In fact, van Gogh wasn’t yet an artist – he couldn’t paint, and couldn’t do anything else he’d tried so far, either, including teaching, preaching and selling. He’d utterly failed, hence his despairing letter: ‘I am good for something! My existence is not without reason! I know that I could be a quite a different person! How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is something inside me, but what can it be?’ It is to the world’s immeasurable gain that in the 10 years he had left he decided to learn to paint.

So, having devoured the magisterial Van Gogh – the Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, I will soon be off on a van Gogh tour of Holland. I plan to visit his birthplace, the remote town in Drenthe where he painted in those early browns, and the magnificent Kröller-Müller museum. And I will naturally spend yet another day at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, whose unparalleled collection was the great gift of Theo’s son and stored for years at his house, without even a high fence. I may come back knowing what I want to be when I grow up.

One of van Gogh’s friends was Australian John Peter Russell, who painted the penetrating portrait of the Dutchman in the museum. Van Gogh wanted to swap paintings with Russell, hoping this rich son of a Sydney industrialist would promote him back here. Russell couldn’t be bothered, depriving his descendants of the bargain of the century. You can now buy one of Russell’s watercolours for as little as $3000, if you’re lucky. Looking at mine, I think how easily everything came to Russell, a bon vivant who married Rodin’s favorite model, while toothless van Gogh literally killed himself painting. You’d wish for Russell’s life but for van Gogh’s reputation.

I’m paid back. Abbott sends his regrets that he can’t be my guest for the last show of the year. Damn. The worst part of all my jobs is asking people to come on my show. Mr Gregarious still isn’t that keen on rejection.

No Christmas tree this year. I’m taking the family for a couple of weeks of nothing in Bali before Holland, leaving the dogs with our usual dog-sitter. Ultimatums have been issued: no dad-style holiday this time, packed from start to finish with museums, churches, operas, monuments and ‘Caesar-stood-right-here’ moments. No Europe until weary bodies have been toasted. With Bali, the worst I can do is book not just for the hotel’s American-style Christmas Eve dinner but the English Christmas lunch. Sigh. It won’t have the heft of another Mozart mass in Vienna’s Stephansdom. Plenty of time to think, then, chirrups my wife. But see what too much thinking time did to van Gogh.

I’m amazed. People are flying from Sydney to be at my party. A Labor MP just rang to say he’s coming, too. Before television I never threw parties, and when I first started hosting my show I was told the secret was to be myself. Wrong. Much better that I’ve grown into that Mr Gregarious I occasionally catch on the 4pm repeat.

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Show comments
  • Badjack

    Self indulgence personified

    • BJC70

      Its more interesting to read than your self indulgence.

    • EApproaches

      If it made you wince and pull a sour expression: good.

  • Bigpeteoz

    Badjack, you obviously do not like Mr Bolt, I do not see it as self indulgence but instead a portrayal of the real Bolt, as he sees himself, as he thinks others see him as and as he actually is. A bit of self analysis is never amiss, maybe you should try it, it can work wonders. What do you actually want from life, what do you give to life, what does life take from you.

  • David Daniel Ball

    Beautiful piece. Not everything need be hard core politics. Not if you are going to be yourself. Everyone has crossroads, and how they are negotiated informs others as to how to approach theirs with that much more freedom.