One of my first authentic Australian ‘cultural’ experiences, years before I made it my home, was Barry Humphries’ good mate Sir Les Patterson. Much to my pleasant surprise, Sir Les ‘crashed’ Bill Leak’s book launch last week – a “deplorable interruption” Barry said of it today.
But there I was in the same room with two of my favourite humourists, one of whom, Bill, I was just beginning to get to know as a friend.
I could feel a great bromance coming on not long ago after hearing from Bill that he thought a cartoon he’d just drawn would go well with a Speccie screed of mine he’d read and liked – which made me feel a bit like a garage band being told that Bruce Springsteen would like to be your warm-up act.
Bill’s brilliant satirical cartoons captured perfectly what so many writers struggle to get across in seven-hundred and fifty or a thousand words. Standing on that stage is a challenge for even the most gifted polemical wordsmith.
We had planned to have a beer or three over a Pittwater sail, and we had made some tentative plans to rendezvous near his secret Central Coast bolthole.
When I heard the news of Bill’s death, only hours after his book launch, I was shocked. But I didn’t suffer the same grief that his close friends and family have been experiencing.
Rather, it was more like an odd empty sensation you might have when something great you are anticipating is suddenly snatched away like it was all a mistake – a bit like winning a lotto ticket in friendship only to find out at the newsagent there’s been some mix-up; that the number was wrong. It was all a surreal mistake.
Except, of course, there is Bill’s outstanding work and his large, eclectic circle of friends he’s left behind. I spent much of Thursday evening amongst them and Bill’s lovely family to celebrate his life and that work. It was equal measures happy, inspiring and sad.
I brought my daughter, Eleanor, who is herself a gifted young artist though not by trade, in part so she could appreciate for herself how much one gifted artist, whose work may never hang in the Louvre, could nevertheless open others’ minds to what he saw and depicted; to see truth and perhaps do something about it.
And in that one room, and at yesterday’s public memorial service at Sydney Town Hall, were also many worthies come to pay respect to the man who shined a bright, sometimes harsh, but always fun light on the truth and in doing so had not infrequently ridiculed or even perhaps offended them with his pen.
In that respect, how great is Australia?
But we were also there to remember another aspect of Australia not so great.
As The Australian’s Paul Kelly noted in his eulogy yesterday, Bill:
Was subject to two campaigns: one to kill him and another to silence him.
It is shameful that this happened in our country.
It was his fate, and it was a challenge he accepted.
Bill knew what was at stake. The Islamist militants that forced him to move home; and warriors of the progressive Left, who tried to break him, and branded him a racist, and triggered the 18c provisions against him.
He refused to be intimidated. He was a man of courage and principle.
So you were, Bill, my ‘fleeting’ friend, before being “snatched from the jaws of the PC jackals,” and their accomplices, as Barry said. And so I shall remember you thus.
If Australia had a Pantheon such as the one in Paris’ Latin Quarter, Bill would be entitled to pull up a chair for eternity with any of the greats. But I think he will be more comfortable in the hearts and memories of his authentic, freedom-loving, larrikin-spirited countrymen raising a glass to him in the corner pub.
So, here’s a glass to you, Bill.
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