Steve Bisley’s journey back in time
Actor Steve Bisley reveals a talent for writing in his memoir of growing up in the shadow of an angry father, writes Susan Chenery
I’ve got a good memory. Sometimes it’s a curse. I remember what the light was like in the room the first time I heard Van Morrison’s Moondance
— Steve Bisley
THE indelible memory of the first house we knew. The first rooms we travelled through, the shape of things from the ground up. The architecture of the beginning of our story never leaves us, the familiarity shapes us, particular rituals of domestic life, aromas from a kitchen, snatches of conversations, all the more mythic in the remembering.
Steve Bisley remembers these things vividly. He remembers the smell of ripe tomatoes in his parents’ market garden, possums skidding across the iron roof, magpies arguing in the gum trees, the ‘‘ bright nor’easter’’ that ‘‘ sang through the big gums and sifted the green paddocks’’ of his childhood in the bush at Lake Munmorah, NSW.
‘‘ I would lie in my small bed with the shadows dancing on the walls and the big house settling,’’ says the veteran actor. But he remembers too the smell of beer and the taste of fear. Of waiting outside with his mother in the wet misty dark while his father sat at the kitchen table and drank. When they crept in, ‘‘ we will each go to our rooms in the dark house to sit and learn to be lonely. We will sit with the sadness of our father, till it takes hold and never leaves us.’’
That small farm, Still ways, has been seared into his psyche for 60 years. Cut into virgin bush, that ‘‘ wedge of a farm defined my life. It has always been with me in one way or another. I have the original Stillways sign that my father cut with a chisel into a bit of wood to hang over the swinging gate on the front of the farm. I have gone back there a few times, and taken my kids back to see it.’’
Last year, he sat down for six months to write about it. The resulting memoir, Stillways, is sensory, a surprisingly poetic series of images; an explosion of raw colour into the leached brevity of the digital age. Surprising, because Bisley’s public persona as an actor is of a tough guy, a cop, cocky, a larrikin. Big, barrel-chested, a face that has lived, been knocked about. An Australian bloke like the shearers he remembers, ‘‘ They never looked at you when they spoke . . . their words slid out sidewards and there weren’t many of them.’’
‘‘ That’s who he is,’’ says his friend of 35 years, John Jarratt. ‘‘ He is a tough guy. If at seven or eight years old you have had to stand up to a man mountain of a violent father, anyone else is a piece of cake.’’
Yet there is such tenderness on the page from the small, bruised, frightened boy he once must have been. It was clearly all just sitting there, an interior monologue waiting to come pouring out. He remembers every tree, every casual cruelty to an animal in the country, the springy seat of the old Dodge truck in the predawn as his father drove to the market, ‘‘ the smell of old in every room’’ of his grandmother’s house, silvery paddocks under a full moon, the hint of the smell of a looming bushfire sitting on top of the breeze, the hot, airless still of early Christmas morning, ‘‘ just the sound of the fridge groaning from the kitchen’’.
‘‘ I have always had incredible recall,’’ Bisley says now. ‘‘ And I say in the book that I am a watcher and I am. I am a great observer of things and I do it all the time. I store stuff, I use it as an actor; that sort recall, of emotional memory and images of things, just tastes of things. When I was writing [about] Christmas it tumbled out. There is this wonderful sense of Christmas Day to me. Everyone talks about how families implode on Christmas Day but my family had imploded long before.’’
On one memorable occasion, his sister Krissie brought a joint home and his mother got stoned. ‘‘ By the time she gets the cake to the table, she’s eaten half of it and the remaining pieces look like they’ve been put through a paper shredder . . . This is my family. My father’s pissed in the lounge room, my mother’s stoned in the bedroom and my sister’s ripped in the kitchen.’’
In conversation, the resolutely plain-spoken Bisley does not reveal the latent richness of language on which he has drawn for his book.
The fact this is literary and novelistic, not a misery memoir or an anodyne celebrity biography, and delivered fully formed from a man who has never written anything before, comes he says, from his cockney mother who was never loved by her philandering husband.
‘‘ The book to me is not a bleak book and my childhood was not a bleak childhood. It was rich, it was really rich.’’ His mother, a teacher, was a ‘‘ romantic, dreamer and a poet’’ who went out into the garden to greet storms, standing in the rain her face turned upward while lightning flashed and her son retreated to the veranda.
‘‘ She was sort of on a high plane,’’ he says now. ‘‘ If she could be poetic about something she would be. I remember my father had a heart attack, he was looking fairly stricken, and she just sat down and wrote a poem about it. It was her way of putting all her thoughts together and addressing stuff.’’ He has in- cluded some of her poetry at the end of the book. ‘‘ She was such a beautiful wordsmith.’’
The cadences, rhythm, pace and musicality of his prose come from his life as an actor speaking words and breathing life into language, especially those of the great writers for the stage, rolling the words around in the mouth. ‘‘ Oh god, that is fabulous,’’ he says of when it is flowing. ‘‘ It is like writing a music score. As an actor the thing I want to do to an audience is always be ahead of them and always be surprising in the work without deviating from the writer’s intention. Because as an actor I always felt a great responsibility to the writer, whether it be Shakespeare or David Williamson . . . but I am interested in taking the audiences to different places.’’
Jarratt describes Bisley as a great raconteur with a gift for spinning colourful yarns, the life of the party. Despite these characteristics, and although he made attempts, he was never able to reconcile with his father, who gave up market gardening, became a teacher and acquired a mistress during his childhood. ‘‘ I would say to him, ‘ Let’s go somewhere’, to get some resolution, I guess. But he wouldn’t.’’
In one unforgettable image in the book, it’s Guy Fawkes night and his father is in full makeup and a dress standing on the toilet roof throwing bungers through the window. But he was man who took his disappointment and rage out on his three children, who lived in dread of being sent to choose the stick with which they would be beaten in the shed. Bisley remembers ‘‘ his shoes shifting the sharp stones as he walks towards us . . . the light from the empty nail holes in the roof ’’ and later, ‘‘ sitting in the willow tree until dark comes’’.
This is not self-pity or wallowing; this is a record of a more primitive time when children were beaten. ‘‘ Corporal punishment was all over the place. They used to beat us up in the school, you know, six of the best, getting whacked with a cane.’’ His father, though, was something else. He enjoyed hurting a defenceless child. In the book Bisley acknowledges with a degree of compassion that his father was damaged from serving in the Air Force Signal Corps in New Guinea. But he says now this is not a good enough excuse.
‘‘ I didn’t want to let him off the hook. He did go to war and we always knew men who came back from the war were damaged. But there were arseholes who went to war too, you know what I mean. Not everybody who came back who was doing bad stuff was because of the war.’’
Beneath the brio and bravado — he has a lifelong passion for fast motorbikes — he admits he is damaged. ‘‘ I do recognise it. But I was always and hopefully continue to be really upbeat. Yeah. That is the difference, but [I am] still affected mentally.’’
You could draw conclusions here about his conviction five years ago of assaulting his former wife, which he now describes, albeit reluctantly, as ‘‘ a push and shove incident with high emotion displayed on both sides’’. But it is clear he enjoys a very different relationship with his children. Bisley is, says his old friend Dee Tipping, an ‘‘ absolutely devoted, adoring’’ father to his six children from two relationships, four of whom are now adults and two of whom are younger.
Stillways is broken into two parts, with an ‘‘ intermission’’. When we meet Bisley again he is a confident, socially successful 15-year-old,
‘‘ tall, solid and blue eyed’’; he has moved on from his father and left him and his ‘‘ demons, circling in the dark’’ — ‘‘ we can put my father aside now, and the ripe tomatoes,’’ he says; ready for his first love and salty carefree days of surfing on NSW’s Central Coast.
‘‘ Look, it was delicious in so many ways, first love and all that.’’ The eccentricities of his friends and his own bumbling teenage self are remembered in Stillways with amusement: his farcical attempt to become a pilot in an interview with the Royal Australian Air Force, complete with his interior dialogue of glories in the sky, and the crushing comic reality of his school report.
The book ends with the last days of school, a girlfriend, and landing a job as a trainee in the advertising department at Woolworths in Sydney.
Before he begins the future that beckons so promisingly, he returns home for a month. He dreams a waking dream of a loving father coming towards him, arms outstretched, bearing ‘‘ the only gift I ever wanted, the one I never had — the love of a father’’. And he walks the thousand steps from the farm to the bus stop on the highway, ‘‘ and a world away from a paddock of sticks’’.
Revisiting the past in such detail can be acutely painful or it can be cathartic. ‘‘ They both cancelled each other out, so I was never glum about it, but it was challenging. Whenever it got a bit harrowing I would just go to bed for half an hour . . . I live alone so I am not freaking anyone out.’’ He laughs.
Bisley’s life as an actor has been all about second acts. Now in his early 60s, his own life is his startling second act, a real talent lately discovered. ‘‘ It was challenging and confronting and cathartic but rewarding to do and I loved the process. I think I am going to be a writer now. I am writing a novel. Writing a novel is easier than writing a memoir, you are not constrained by the truth.’’
Steve Bisley as a child at Stillways, above; in television program Water Rats in 2001, above right; and below, from left, with Mel Gibson in
Summer City (1977); with Gibson in Mad Max (1979); and with Rob Sitch and Alison Whyte in television program Frontline in 1997