Friday, 16 December 2011

Stoppard, Sleeping

Tom Stoppard sat alone at another table, reading. Urged by my companion to go up and say hullo, I said, 'If I don't, I'll regret it, and if I do, I'll regret it.' I watched him through the meal, sitting there in the Wharf Bar, unbesieged.
Upstairs for the show, we presented our blank tickets and the usherette said, 'There's two of you? Oh dear. I'll get you a plastic stool, you're beside Tom Stoppard.'
Margie said she'd sit elsewhere and she went away and left me to it.
I sat gingerly beside him, and on the other side of him Margaret Throsby greeted me. Soon he was in the conversation. He remembered meeting me before when I'd asked him why he'd refused to do a libretto for Sondheim, because he 'hated his music', and he looked a little cornered.' Not hate,' he said. 'But he's not my favourite composer.'
I told him of playing Bennett in Travesties in a Gielgud accent, which I demonstrated, and the live white rabbit with whom I would sit backstage communing as we waited in the dark for our cues. He seemed sorry not to have seen our amateur production, and confessed he hadn't seen the STC production either, and I said Biggins was very good in it. 'This is why I'm here,' he said, 'to see him in this Revue. I hear he's excellent.' I said this was my ninth viewing of it, and the Wharf Revue was 'my spare religion'. He was very gentle, polite and unassuming, very English, not at all pretentious. His great classic head, though (like Robert Graves he resembles a Roman emperor), daunted intimate chat, and the show began.
He laughed at the boxing tent sketch, the Brecht-style circus song, and shared everyone's delight when Rudd, half-masked like the Phantom of the Opera, lured Gillard into his dank basement and singing hugely began her torture.
But then the Keating-Hawke sketch, in which they plot in wheelchairs the 'restructuring' of their nursing home, commenced and he didn't know who they were, and began to nod off. With the lightest of touch to his sleeve, I woke him, and he dutifully laughed again. Whenever a song began, he immediately dropped off, jet-lag having revived in him a lullaby-trigger from his infancy, I suppose. Excruciatingly embarrassed, I kept waking him. He liked very much what he saw, the King Lear Murdoch tragedy in particular, and the French Revolution one, though he dropped off in the Les Miz martial anthem at the end ('The best of times, the worst of times or both of the above') he thought absolutely stunning.
Afterwards we talked a bit, and he met the actors and told them they were brilliant, and got his taxi, having the night before walked a mile back to his hotel for want of one.
I will go today to see Biggins interview him in the Opera House. Watching him sitting alone in the restaurant reading, it occurred to me how much better he is as a theatre technician than Harold Pinter, whom I judge now a sluggardly tosser beside him. Stoppard does the work. He puts in the time. He does the research, the weeks in the library, forcing acres of reading down into his epigrams. I recalled Bob Carr asking him what it was about Shakespeare and he said, 'A simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.' And he of course has this too.
What a lovely accidental privilege it was to spend those two hours in his company, I thought, recalling other encounters with eminent Englishmen -- John Osborne, John Mortimer, Howard Brenton, D.M. Thomas, Trevor Griffiths, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin, Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Christopher Hitchens, Ken Branagh, John Lennon -- and how their unassuming politeness, their almost automatic egalitarianism, their almost defensive, post-imperial humility, surprised me likewise.
Stoppard, though, had a further dimension. A Czech national, a Hong Kong colonial, a lately self-discovered Jew with Auschwitz-dead close relatives, a dabbler in mathematics, a student of Soviet torture, a Tory Party adviser, a Thatcher knight, a Beckett fan, a fellow-traveller in the moral philosophy of A.J. Ayers and MI6, a passionate, practising cricketer and lover of rock 'n' roll, he summed up in his Jaggerish visage and tumbling cascade of references the glorious, vast and agonised multiculture of twentieth century Europe and its writers and its ideologies and murders and fads and its accumulated learning, and it was good to brush sleeves with this in the dark, and awaken him now and then to our own best theatre writing, just this once.
I should have told him all that but I, too, was a little shy.
And so it goes.


At 16 December 2011 at 13:44 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

A wonderfully intimate, surprising, glimpse Bob....
and your penultimate line, coming after the best paragraph...simply gorgeous.

I am indeed a sucker for such deft stylistics.


At 16 December 2011 at 23:44 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

Celebrity is a difficult thing, is it not? I allege that it does nothing for me, for as far as I am concerned a celebrity is just another human being. For example, as Greg Norman at the height of his fame stood in the doorway of the golf club, signing autographs, I pushed past with a loud "excuse me please" . . . I fancy that if I met the Queen I would say "good evening ma'am" and then perhaps share a joke, (polite of course), and pass on.

Stoppard seems like an interesting character, even if you seem to have spent a good part of the night keeping him awake!

To JG Cole :

Don't praise Ellis too much, or his head will swell up and we will never be able to talk sense (in)to him. :)

At 17 December 2011 at 13:40 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

It is indeed a delicate boundary Doug Quixote and you are wise to warn of the dangers of matter, I shall speak as my heart informs.
It was a fine piece of writing and I was impressed by Ellis' ambiguous penultimate line; it presents us with, what seems to me at least, the contradictions that comprise the man: the hubris, the affectation, the style disciple - AND the - authenticity, the humility, and warmth.
That lovely enveloping final paragraph is nothing without that line.
But that's just me :)

Bob - Gillard to win in 2013. The Conservatives to stay out of power - at any cost. For no cost, as far as I can see, is too great.
Perhaps you are taller, perhaps your pedestal higher, perhaps you see something from those great heights that I do not.
Or perhaps, (I can't believe I'm saying this),perhaps you disagree?



At 18 December 2011 at 15:22 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

I replied to this at 2 am and a good deal of my worldly wisdom vanished in the machinery.

I said, I think, that Morrison would displace Abbott and Rudd do so well with his March 22 challenge that Gillard would be persuaded to step down and Swan, Shorten, Albo, Combet, Plibersek or the party-changing Turnbull in a caucus vote attain the Prime Ministership and beat Morrison without great difficulty in 2013.

I also suggested there were possibilities of debacle: Mike Kelly signalling he won't run again, Rudd after a challenge resigning the party whip, McLelland and Carr conspiring to destabilise Gillard, Faulkner quitting parliament and writing a book, a further big drowning of refugees causing the Greens to abandon their agreement and bring on an election. And so on.

I'll try to remember whatever else I said, and reply again.

At 18 December 2011 at 16:23 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

2am is far too late too be shooting from the your age!

Morrison is a buffoon with the meagre, qualified, support reserved only for those of the second tier. No heavyweights would support a seatwarmer. But then that would give rise to the question - why warm the seat at all??
Shorten and Combet, despite their obvious talents have many years to go to rid themselves of perceived Union stench. Australian battlers and aspiring bourgeois types are generally Dull and prone to sycophancy. They will wait to be told when the time is right.
Rudd, McLelland and Carr are sideline players. They are all (now) intermission vaudeville hams for those not ducking out to the bathroom between the main act.
I'd rather take a piss than entertain their tomfoolery.
And aside from Gillard and Abbott the main acts are, as you rightly put it, Turnbull and the Greens.
Turnbull is still making friends.....
And the Greens STILL can't believe their good fortune.
But that fortune shall pass....

Bob, write a an end of year over-view for the Drum.
Make it a good one....trenchant and funny and cutting and true; make it boldly emotional, nakedly heartfelt, beautifully composed and muscular, make it robust and charged with your high octane hubris; pull apart those 22 seconds of Aphony.
Just don't bag Labor.....forgo your chronic cynicism,
You feed the Dull undeservedly.
Make the lazy sods work for it.

I look forward to it.

At 18 December 2011 at 17:42 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

I'm co-writing with Damian Spruce and Stephen Ramsey a book, The Year It All Fell Down that may or may not in in a mere 70,000 put to bed this remarkable year, climaxing now with Hitchens and Havel going, a new boat sinking, Assange made to wait some more and the usual floods and earthquakes decimating their localities.

I can't imagine what you mean by 'the union stench'. Is it greater than that of Alan Joyce or Freddy Mac or Enron?
Bob Hake came with a greater union stenvh to office after only two and a half years in parliament.

What can you mean?

At 18 December 2011 at 17:43 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

Sorry, 70,000 words.

At 18 December 2011 at 18:26 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

Hi Bob, I meant "perceived". Didn't I say that?

70,000 words is good.
Make it a page turner.....Oh, don't forget to mention where the GFC bailout money came from.

Keep us informed as to its progress/publication date etc.

At 18 December 2011 at 21:16 , Blogger Jonathan Head said...

Hi Bob,

Have you ever written accounts of your meetings with Lennon and Hitchens? If so could you give me an idea in which books I might find them?

Also, as J.G. Cole said, keep us informed about the progress on your next volume.


At 18 December 2011 at 21:51 , Blogger Jonathan Head said...

Just found your latest piece at the Drum. Please disregard the second half of my first question.

At 19 December 2011 at 00:06 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

To Jonathan Head:

John Lennon in Letters to the Future, the chapter entitled Sidere Mens Eadem Mutato. Hitchens in Suddenly, Last Winter in several entries discoverable in the index. Lennon took about ten seconds 'Hullo Bob', he said' 'this is Paul'), Hitchens about two hours, in a lunch with Meredith Burgmann abpnd a taxi ride to Wynyard.

At 19 December 2011 at 05:49 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

To Bob :

Far more likely than your reconstructed scenarios the original of which was lost in the machinery, is my crystal ball gazing :

Abbott will be replaced by Hockey (if he can summon the balls to challenge) before mid 2012.

Labor will continue to improve in the polls as reality takes the place of propaganda, and Gillard will continue as PM until about 2019, if she wants to. The 2013 election may be close, but the learning curve from 2010 should ensure a workable majority.

The Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate for at least the next six years, even if their vote were to collapse a la the Democrats (very unlikely). This reality will shape politics for the next decade, and Gillard is the one who can navigate it.

At 20 December 2011 at 11:01 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

Even as I speak the Hockey Option fades and the Morrison Juggernaut fulminates and thunders abaft the Arafura Sea. The deaths upon deaths of Iranian children fleeing Adaminejab and his wicked, wicked, uranium-brandishing ways will make it impossible for Bowen, Clare and Gillard not to strike a deal (Nauru PLUS Malaysia plus TPVs, for instance) and Morrison's triumph over Abbott's objections in that great sea-battle will do for both Abbott and Gillard who will not see, as leaders, April Fool's Day.

Rudd will challenge on March 22 and Swan, Shorten, Smith, Combet, Plibersek or Albo come through the middle, Rudd go to the backbench, Beazley acquire Garrett's vacated seat, Clare become Treasurer, Brown Deputy Prime Minister, and Christ knows what.

It's very volatile from here on in, and all due to Gillard's fool pre-empting of the East Timorese, who probably would have come to a deal if they had not been treated like houseboys, and her failure to call the High Court ruling 'the umpire's decision' and 'the law of the land.'

Harold Macmillan when asked what did for him replied, 'Events, dear boy, events.' And it is events that are comingnfor both the wilynAbbott and the ignorant Gillard.

And maybe our democracy as a whole.

At 21 December 2011 at 03:17 , Blogger Jonathan Head said...

Thanks, Bob. Letters to the Future is a year older than I am, so that’s how it slipped me by until now.


At 21 December 2011 at 04:12 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

Morrison juggernaut? Jason Clare Treasurer? What are you taking, Bob - so I can avoid it!

Abbott is on borrowed time, while Gillard is doing just fine.

Asylum seekers really are a storm in a teacup issue : "it's the economy stupid!" to quote Bill Clinton, and the economy is in very good shape by world standards.

The polls are probably being manipulated - why not, the Aus manipulates everything else to suit its agenda. As good a conspiracy theory as any.

Reality will catch up with the electorate before the next election, in late 2013.

At 21 December 2011 at 10:59 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

At 5.45 on Thursday 22nd December it seems the Nauru Option is back, as prelude to the Nauru-Malaysia Solution and proof, as I said above, of both Abbott's and Gillard's incompetence and, as more and more refugees drown anyway, their political destruction.

I will do a blog soon on the primal wickedness of burning the boats. The reason why the refugees come in leaky boats is that whatever boats are captured by the Australian authorities are burnt on the beach, and it is uneconomical for the people smugglers to sacrifice boats of better quality.

By what right does an elected government behave like pirates and seize and burn a man's boat? This is an act of terrorism, surely, the very thing we are at war against.

More on this anon.

At 21 December 2011 at 12:05 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

"Boats of better quality"?!?!?!?!

Bob Ellis.....I have just wet my pants!!

At 21 December 2011 at 14:25 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

The article is up. You could perhaps respond to it as well, in more detail.

At 21 December 2011 at 15:04 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

To JG Cole (Totem, Stagger etc) :

I responded to Bob's burn the boats article before seeing this posting.

I do worry about you; incontinence is now added to your multiple personalities. I understand that there are good products on the market these days . . . :)

At 21 December 2011 at 15:55 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

Doug, look at that line and tell me, convince me, you too aren't doubling over in a wild knee slap!


At 21 December 2011 at 21:11 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

To JG Cole ;

I have at times tried to post on the Drum, in response to right wing loonies bemoaning the miserable entry of a few small boats, that I have chartered the Queen Mary and that I expect to be able to bring in at least 20,000 at a time, docking in Sydney Harbour, via Perth and Melbourne (no-one wanted to go to Adelaide). Once the route is established, I would expect a turnaround of about 2 weeks, ie about 500,000 passengers per year.

Curiously, the Drum refused to publish it.

Now that would be a knee slapper, LOL and all that.

At 21 December 2011 at 21:34 , Blogger J.G.Cole said...

Refused to publish?!?!?!
A most sensible rebuttal to the absurdities of the Right......and you were culled??

Ah, of course......the Drum, where a rhapsody of caprice transforms all efforts at adult conversation to tweetish mush.

Try again never know ;)

At 22 December 2011 at 16:58 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

The Drum moderation a "rhapsody of caprice" . . . I like it.

As for trying again, it ignores too much of the facts to really bother defending it : eg health, passports, visas, common sense - in that light, it sounds too much like a typical right wing idea.

At 22 December 2011 at 18:03 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

I suppose any Sunnis escaping Iraq will not AUTOMATICALLy be let in also, and will have to prove they'd be in danger, like the Sunni Vice-President, if they were sent back.

What is going on here? Surely there are some people -- Hazaris, Tamils, Burmese of any persuasion, pregnant Chinese -- who are AUTOMATICALLY deemed worth saving.

Or am I wrong?

At 22 December 2011 at 19:56 , Blogger Doug Quixote said...

I don't think anyone is automatically deemed worth saving. Surely every application needs to be looked at on its merits; after all, the world through the UN created the Refugee Convention, and we legislated its relevant parts into our Migration Act.

In creating the Refugee Convention it was recognised that not all movements of displaced people are refugees. And that sometimes a former persecutor will try to slip through - a la Eichmann for a notorious example; or our own "Daniel Snedden" aka Captain Dragan.

By the way, I am frustrated by the continual conflation of border security with asylum seekers, as if any actually get through without us knowing! If there are any genuine border security issues, as seen on the Rio Grande or in Eastern Europe, we certainly don't hear about any such penetration. Our moat - the Timor Sea and Arafura Sea - is very effective.

Asylum seekers should be a minor issue, and border security a non-issue.

At 22 December 2011 at 21:05 , Blogger Bob Ellis said...

I'm not sure what the border guards are protecting us from. Third Reich army officers for forty years grew wine in the Barossa Valley; men trained as kamikaze pilots (the ultimate in trained terrorists, like the hijavkers of 9/11) for fifty years came as tourists to Sydney; Traudli Junge, Hitler's typist, lived for two years unguarded in Surfer's Paradise; Afghans have been here for a hundred and sixty years and not one went to gaol.

So what are we talking about? That Hazara goath-herders are more likely to end up in Long Bay than, say, Welsh miners? Don't think so.That if they commit a crime we can't put them in gaol? Really?

No, what we're protecting ourselves from is a vague fear of brown-skinned heathens overwhelming our culture, and black-skinned Africansdarkening our gene pool.

And we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.


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