While Bill Leak’s talents as an artist and satirist are plain to see, the man also had a great gift for bringing people together. When his death appeared in the news and it dawned that this was not some awful joke, I spoke with a new friend I had met through Bill, only a couple of weeks ago. We wondered whether we had any business feeling as bereft as we did and whether our feelings were ‘appropriate’, since we both saw ourselves as recent and minor additions to Bill’s enormous circle of friends. Of course, Bill had a way of making us all feel like a most interesting and marvellous acquisition; that was another of his great gifts. Then my friend and I remembered that this was Bill Leak we were talking about, so why on earth were we worrying about ‘appropriate’?
For some in our tribe of, as Bill himself put it, ‘subversives, dissidents and weirdos’, it feels as though we have lost a favourite Uncle. At the launch of his new book Trigger Warning, some fun was poked at that weirdly proprietary and mostly unearned Aboriginal honorific, but in this instance the title feels entirely (there’s that word again) appropriate. In our standoffish, socially anxious little world, we take care not to step over the mark and prematurely claim a prominent figure as a friend; but Bill and his lovely wife Goong would grab your hand and pull you over that line, and suddenly you were on the team and part of the project.
Bill had no time for political correctness or prim hand-wringing over the propriety of ‘tone’. He was blunt and sweary, but he was also a true gentleman, with excellent manners. This simply doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Bill would do – to up and leave before it’s time to go, to disappear in the middle of things, right when we need him. It still feels like perhaps he’s just ducked out for a smoke, and he’ll be back for the main event.
He was a funny bugger, and while he was brilliant and immensely talented, he wasn’t up himself. He was a fine artist, and – annoyingly for us mere scribblers who can barely draw a stick figure – he was a fine writer as well. He could create the most exquisitely scathing political cartoons, and then he could back it up with an eloquent defence of his art form in prose. Not that Bill was inclined to defensiveness; it was more his style to imperiously smack down any notion that he should bow to some tinpot authority’s demand that he explain himself. True satire never seeks absolution, and neither did Bill.
He spoke powerfully about freedom of speech, but he was really on about something even more profound: Our obligation, as the poor, benighted, naked apes we are, to strive to not be more idiotic than we really need to be. He took delight in puncturing puffed-up arrogance and piousness, because he knew we are all a bunch of filthy sinners struggling in the muck, himself included.
That is why the nonsense of ‘Bill Leak the racist’ is so laughable. Bill’s cartoons expressed, in excruciating detail, his acute sense of the undignified absurdity of the human condition. In Bill’s bleak view, we are all so bound together by our collective stupidity as a species that we cannot be differentiated by such a trivial feature as ‘race’. From my understanding of the man, I think Bill’s compassion and generosity came from the same place as his merciless caricatures and biting gallows humour: a cheerful acceptance that we are all grotesque, and foolish, and frankly ridiculous, and stuck with ourselves and each other.
Speaking of tinpot authorities, there is talk that the gaggle of tiresome, overpaid race-baiters at the AHRC should bear some responsibility for the deterioration of Bill’s health, due to the intense stress of responding to their fumbling, bumbling, bureaucratic bullying under the banner of section 18c. I don’t doubt that that entire shabby process took a toll, but I am reluctant to get on board with that theory – only because I suspect Bill would hate to see them get any credit for achieving an outcome.
RIP Bill Leak. It was an honour to know you.
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