Slim pickings in the Mojave sands
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.