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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Still­ways, by Steve Bis­ley (Harper Collins), out Au­gust 1. Bis­ley will ap­pear at the By­ron Bay Writ­ers Fes­ti­val on Au­gust 2. www.by­ron­bay­writ­ers­fes­ti­val.com.au

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

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