Slim pick­ings in the Mo­jave sands

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mark Day Matthew Clay­field

min­is­ter, I be­lieve, although not a par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable one.” Ouch.

If Carl­ton is free with his praise of those he loves or ad­mires he is equally vi­cious with those he hates. Alan Jones, var­i­ously a col­league and a com­peti­tor, gets the full treat­ment — “he ap­peals to the fool­ish, the fear­ful and the frus­trated and the failed” — as does Stan Ze­manek, de­scribed thus: “Squat as a cane toad, smug as a cat with a rat, dumb as a bag of ham­mers … like a ma­lign fun­gal growth on a tree.”

Oth­ers, in­clud­ing this news­pa­per’s pro­pri­etor Ru­pert Mur­doch, get sim­i­lar treat­ment. These pieces of bile and venom come from the ugly Carl­ton and many read­ers will squirm at their fe­roc­ity. But in the full con­text of the book I felt they were out­weighed by the charm­ing, witty Carl­ton, who at least has the hon­esty to put his own an­tics un­der the mi­cro­scope and to fre­quently find him­self want­ing.

He re­veals ap­palling and de­struc­tive be­hav­iour at TDT, which he ad­mits should have got him the sack. He most un­gal­lantly names the re­cip­i­ent of his first fum­bling sex­ual en­coun­ters but de­clines to iden­tify his first true love. He ad­mits to be­com­ing ad­dicted to the high life merry-go-round of end­less booze, booze and more booze at lunches thrown by PR women be­sot­ted with his star­dom. The evil alchemy of pub­lic re­la­tions lured and se­duced me. In­vi­ta­tions to lunches and din­ners and wine-tast­ings fell like au­tumn leaves. [There was] a new A-list, glit­ter­ing with the frag­ile but mar­ketable tin­sel of celebrity and glam­our. Ac­tors and TV hosts and pop stars, disc jock­eys and news­pa­per colum­nists and mag­a­zine edi­tors, sports greats, mod­els, fash­ion de­sign­ers and so­ci­ety hair­dressers were flung into the mix. There were two ac­knowl­edged queens of the hive, Ladies So­nia McMa­hon and Su­san Re­nouf, who would go to the open­ing of a tube of tooth­paste as long as there was Krug to drink. You can al­most hear Carl­ton talk­ing from the pages in the same glib, ra­dio ca­dence that cap­ti­vated au­di­ences for three decades. There is no doubt: he was bloody good at it and in this book he demon­strates a deep un­der­stand­ing of how ra­dio works, con­nect­ing the per­son at the mi­cro­phone to an au­di­ence on a one-to-one level.

I agree with most of what Carl­ton says in this area but take is­sue with his as­sess­ment of the pe­riod he spent in a duo with the for­mer Wal­laby Peter FitzSi­mons. “We de­vel­oped a line in good-na­tured ban­ter,” he says, “no doubt helped along by the fact that our views on life were pretty sim­i­lar.”

Au con­traire. Where’s the in­ter­est in ra­dio when ev­ery­one agrees with ev­ery­one? It’s far more in­ter­est­ing to have con­flict: diver­gent views, co­gently ar­gued. In my view the Carl­tonFitz combo didn’t work be­cause the two of them were mostly in fu­ri­ous agree­ment.

Carl­ton made his name as an ir­rev­er­ent re­porter/racon­teur and much of this comes through in his mem­oir. But, in keep­ing with his per­sona of mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters, he also shows great rev­er­ence for friends, fam­ily, the art of broad­cast­ing — and life it­self. It’s a ter­rific read. is a writer and for­mer broad­caster who was never as fa­mous as Mike Carl­ton. When Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist David Hirst died in 2013, he was roundly cel­e­brated, in this news­pa­per and oth­ers, as one of the few main­stream com­men­ta­tors to have pre­dicted and warned against the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. His Fair­fax col­umn Planet Wall Street was held up as an ex­am­ple of a fear­less icon­o­clasm that was, obit­u­ar­ists noted, wholly char­ac­ter­is­tic of the man.

This fiercely in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic streak led Hirst to leave Aus­tralia in the 1980s — he had writ­ten about crime and in­dus­trial re­la­tions for The Aus­tralian dur­ing the Les Hollings years — and re­lo­cate to the US. His first stop was Venice Beach in Los An­ge­les, where prob­lems with a crack-ad­dled neigh­bour even­tu­ally got the bet­ter of him. He later moved to a rock-hewn dwelling in the un­for­giv­ing Eastern Mo­jave. Low Life in the High Desert is his chron­i­cle of that time — a rol­lick­ing, wildly un­even cel­e­bra­tion of the old west in what may have turned out to be its dy­ing days.

It’s the first month of the new mil­len­nium. Hirst and his girl­friend, the writer and doc­u­men­tar­ian Va­lerie Mor­ton (re­ferred to as “Boo”), move into Boul­der House. They spend the next 12 months bring­ing it up to scratch. As in Italo Calvino’s Mar­co­v­aldo, the sea­sons change and the desert along with them, pro­vid­ing the au­thor with am­ple op­por­tu­ni­ties to wax lyri­cal about the land­scape and its in­hab­i­tants. Hirst and Boo wage war against rats, take on rat­tlesnakes, and, in one par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable scene, come face to face with a cougar.

But it’s the hu­man an­i­mal Hirst is most in­ter­ested in. Friend­ships are forged in nearby Pioneer­town, a replica western vil­lage founded in the 40s as a place for film crews to work and live, though more re­cently the end of the road for a rather more mot­ley crew of ec­centrics. Co­pi­ous amounts of al­co­hol are con­sumed and many long dis­cus­sions had about guns and am­mu­ni­tion. Oc­ca­sion­ally, like Chekhov’s fa­mous firearm, Hirst re­mem­bers the long-in­car­cer­ated, pos­si­bly vi­o­lent neigh­bour who is even­tu­ally due to be re­leased from prison. In the book’s fi­nal pages, and to much con­ster­na­tion — the towns­folk form a posse — he is re­leased.

In the mean­time, Hirst muses on what­ever takes his fancy, oc­ca­sion­ally call­ing to mind Paul Chow­der, the re­flec­tive hero of Nicholson Baker’s The An­thol­o­gist. There are dis­qui­si­tions in these pages on the sym­bolic im­por­tance of the coy­ote, the his­tory of the Mo­jave’s Na­tive Amer­i­cans, the prickly mat­ter of the cholla cac­tus and, in one strange but by no means iso­lated rant, Bri­tish bathing habits.

While of­ten in­ter­est­ing, or at least amus­ing, many of these minia­ture es­says read more like notes to be teased out later than sub­stan­tial and con­sid­ered ar­gu­ments. Many end sud­denly, as though aban­doned in mid-thought, and have a dashed-off, draft-like qual­ity that is un­for­tu­nately char­ac­ter­is­tic of the book as a whole. It oc­ca­sion­ally feels as though these mem­oirs — which ref­er­ence Y2K and Ge­orge W. Bush in the present tense, sug­gest­ing that they were writ­ten more than a decade ago — were only re­cently dis­cov­ered and rushed into print be­fore some­one could go over them.

Of course, there is a long tra­di­tion of such au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal notes be­ing com­piled into book form fol­low­ing an au­thor’s death. Alan Moore­head’s A Late Ed­u­ca­tion — Moore­head be­ing an­other Aus­tralian scrib­bler for whom a life less or­di­nary beck­oned else­where — re­mains the gold stan­dard, largely due to the ed­i­to­rial rigour Lucy Moore­head ap­plied.

Such rigour might have been use­ful here. Hirst’s tenses are of­ten con­fused, bounc­ing be­tween present and past in the course of a sin­gle anec­dote, and his sub­jects and verbs don’t al­ways agree with one an­other. The book is so repet­i­tive that I had to stop mark­ing all the ex­am­ples of rep­e­ti­tion. A joke about a male iguana named “El­iz­a­beth” is made twice in as many pages. The fact that Robert Red­ford played a bounty hunter in Tell Them Wil­lie Boy Was Here is men­tioned three times on one page. Other things sim­ply should have been caught: “Abo­rig­i­nal” is used at least twice for “Abo­rig­ine”, and the punc­tu­a­tion is wildly in­con­sis­tent.

There are also prob­lems un­re­lated to the edit­ing. There’s noth­ing like be­ing a reg­u­lar at a bar — as Louis Nowra demon­strated with last year’s Wool­loomooloo: A Bi­og­ra­phy — though one has to be a very good sketch writer to ren­der one’s drink­ing com­pan­ions in­ter­est­ing (and in some cases palat­able) to oth­ers. Hirst wasn’t one. With the ex­cep­tion of a hand­ful of what we might call main char­ac­ters — though even Boo isn’t par­tic­u­larly well-drawn — too

THE EVIL ALCHEMY OF PUB­LIC RE­LA­TIONS LURED AND SE­DUCED ME

MIKE CARL­TON IT’S THE HU­MAN AN­I­MAL HIRST IS MOST IN­TER­ESTED IN

many of the Mo­jave’s denizens bleed too eas­ily here into too many oth­ers.

All this does Hirst and his legacy a dis­ser­vice. Upon his death, few of the obit­u­ar­ies failed to note the “po­etic” qual­ity of his prose. It is true that the chap­ters that open these pro­ceed­ings — the most pol­ished and ob­vi­ously “fin­ished” in the book — do oc­ca­sion­ally crackle and pop: it’s clear that Hirst took a great deal of plea­sure in lan­guage for its own sake. In this re­spect, he calls to mind early Clive James, as in­deed he does in some of his more self-dep­re­ca­tory mo­ments. (As with James’s work, and per­haps also that of Ge­off Dyer, whether or not one ap­pre­ci­ates these chap­ters will de­pend on how much too-clev­er­ness one can take at any given mo­ment.)

Even bet­ter are the mo­ments when Hirst al­lows his pol­i­tics to shine through, com­ment­ing acer­bically, though only in asides, on mat­ters such as in­dige­nous rights, the prison-in­dus­trial com­plex and, es­pe­cially, class.

There can be no doubt that his later suc­cess as an eco­nomic sooth­sayer was deeply in­formed by his ex­pe­ri­ence in Amer­ica — he re­turned to Aus­tralia in the mid-2000s af­ter “[park­ing] the car up­side down”, as Mor­ton puts it in her af­ter­word — and by the man­ner in which he wit­nessed first-hand the en­croach­ment of money into the desert he called home. The spec­u­la­tors, devel­op­ers and “banksters” had ar­rived. (Boul­der House is now a lux­ury Airbnb.)

Like Hunter S. Thomp­son be­fore him, Hirst smelled bas­tards. It is a shame that he writes so lit­tle about them here, and that so much of what made his other work plea­sur­able is sim­i­larly miss­ing. He will be best re­mem­bered for the ac­cu­racy and flair of his prog­nos­ti­ca­tions, rather than this cu­ri­ously un­nec­es­sary vol­ume. is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor.

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