Features Australia

Portrait of an artist as ghost

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

There are difficult decisions to be made when writing the posthumous biography of a close friend who was as famous as a larrikin as he was as an artist. What can’t you include?

About a year ago, I started researching a biography of cartoonist, painter, raconteur, ratbag and larrikin Bill Leak, who for 23 years was my best mate, confidant, counsellor, drinking buddy, biggest fan and brilliant inspiration. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t miss him.

Progress wasn’t easy. Bill had always been my first call when I was stuck writing a story and almost everything that I wrote went to him before it was sent to the commissioning editor. His praise, when it was earned, made my day.

His ghost quickly kyboshed the melancholy I felt, whispering in my ear that my dignity and manhood would be forever compromised if I didn’t suppress the tears that threatened to spill onto the keyboard as I typed.

His ghost has also turned out to be a good editor. One of the first passages I bashed out was, I thought, a nicely woven series of events from his childhood, succinctly and seamlessly told. Then I read it back and realised it was not only devoid of humour, but lifeless too.

‘Well, that turgid drivel would bore an arsehole into a wooden horse,’ it said.

It’s been my yardstick ever since. Embarrassing anecdotes gain the ghost’s imprimatur as long as they are funny. But even the ghost has its limits.

Bill wrote prolifically to his siblings during his travels around Australia and Europe in the late 1970s. They are the letters of the artist as a young man, filled with epiphanies, ambitions and frequent bouts of self-doubt inspired by everything from the colours of the outback to Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in a program of Mozart at Festival Hall, London. Which is why one of the letters, written to his sister Lynne from London when he was 22 made me do a double take. Bill refers to a band Lynne mentioned in her most recent letter. He too had heard them for the first time and was hoping to find spare change in his budget, after buying essential food and paint, to afford their recently-released first album. If he can afford it, the album will help him get in the mood to paint at his best, he says. The band? Dire Straits! No offence to its surviving fans — assuming either of them is reading this — but soft, radio-friendly guitar rock is not the music I associate with a classically-trained pianist who, 15 years later, would drag me around Sydney’s jazz dives in the forlorn hope that I could be seduced by avant-garde five-minute bass solos and vocal scatting.

I can hear his ghost protesting that his Dire Straits phase was only brief. Sorry mate, but it’s too funny to leave out. If nothing else, it’s reassuring that someone whose taste in art and music was impeccable was once captivated by guitar-stroking, mainstream pop, albeit while he was still young and a bit naive.

The risk in a project like this is also that it will be more hagiography than biography and if Bill had died in his mid-twenties, that would be the inescapable outcome. Everybody who knew him in his youth told me he was charming, handsome, talented, funny, gregarious, generous, ambitious and popular. Some women resisted his amorous proposals, but they were few and far between.

Towards the end of his life though he’d become a pariah for many and he turned his deadpan humour on himself, especially after a drunken accident in 2008 which almost killed him and left him for a while with brain damage, which he saw as rife with comic potential despite the shocking headaches it gave him. He was as ruthless lampooning his poor decisions, fading memory and inherent flaws as he was towards politicians.

In some ways though, throughout his life, he barely changed. His early letters are sprinkled with earnest observations about the Australian bush (‘I am living and thriving on beauty’), the effect it had on him (‘it stimulates one to create something which is real, something that is 100 per cent honest’) and the difference between France and Australia (French people imbibe art and classical music like Aussies drink alcohol).

Pursuing honesty and beauty is one thing when you’re an aspiring young artist from the city bedazzled by the colours of the outback but look out if you are a high-profile cartoonist brazenly ignoring the sacred laws of political correctness. In a live cross to The Bolt Report on Sky News from the launch of Trigger Warning, his last compilation of cartoons, spectactularly launched by his old mate Sir Les Patterson, Bill said, referring to the controversy regarding some of his recent work: ‘Why are they making such a concerted effort to persecute me for having told the truth?’

The threads that connect those two moments are not all brightly coloured. Bill talked a lot about loneliness and self-doubt as a young man, just as he struggled for much of his adult life to separate his passion for raucous beauty from his enthusiasm for intoxicants. He spent his life either listening to his muse or telling it to shut the hell up.

There are mildly embarrassing earnest moments in his letters. ‘Put that in the book and a man will come back and stick hair removal cream in your shampoo,’ his ghost tells me. ‘You were young and naive once too, you know.’ Fair go, I suppose. But I’m happily discovering that the bloke I knew and loved was pretty much the same with all his friends and family. Bill was extraordinarily consistent in the things that mattered. After briefly contemplating the meaning of figurative, representational and illustrative art, he settled on realism as his chosen genre in 1979 and remained a realist till he died. Realism guided him in life, too. He had little time for abstract diversions from the truth – or bullshit, as his ghost has just reminded me that he called it.

Like anybody who had spent a lifetime thinking about and pursuing the truth, Bill was bewildered by the inability of other people to grasp it. He was not, as his detractors claimed, racist. Everything he ever did testifies to the contrary. But in another letter to Lynne from London, Bill recalls having dinner with a group of fellow Australians, among whom was an older, pretentiously postmodern academic. As the other dinner guests spectated, he and Bill locked horns. Bill eventually got the upper hand by reeling off a series of crude jokes, delivered with aplomb and punctuated with his outrageously loud laugh. His adversary complained about Bill’s sexism and racism before giving in and cackling. ‘You’re full of shit, mate,’ Bill said, moving in for the kill. ‘You laughed!’

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