Writing Political Satire in Australia
by Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen
Ross Fitzgerald writes:
One of my favourite stories concerns two Liberal Party politicians, both of whom were later knighted. One of them was arguably Australia’s most hopeless and devious prime minister, William (“Billy”) McMahon. He was in office from March 1971 until December 1972, when the coalition lost office to Labor under Gough Whitlam – who had famously described McMahon as “Tiberius with a telephone.” The second was James (“Jim”) Killen, who liked more than an odd beer on a hot day and who had served as Minister for the Navy under John Gorton. When McMahon became PM, he dropped Killen from the Ministry.
In 1972, in the Liberal Party room, McMahon said, “Sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy.”
To which Killen called out, “Not while I’m alive!”
But I’m not primarily here to canvas the humour of politicians. I want to discuss writing political satire in Australia. This involves focusing on the eight fictions I’ve so far written about the life and times of Dr Professor Grafton Everest.
Three of these adventures I have penned (in my case literally) with Ian McFadyen: The Lowest Depths, The Dizzying Heights, and Going Out Backwards. The latter in 2017 was shortlisted for Australia’s only award for humour writing, the bi-annual Russell Prize. All these books, plus a fourth entertainment, So Far, So Good, released in 2018 and co-authored with ABC broadcaster Antony Funnell, are published by the nimble, Melbourne-based Hybrid Publishers.
The eighth Grafton Everest fiction, The Lowest Depths was released late last year. In previous books, my hapless anti-hero, Grafton Everest, has been a lecturer in Wellbeing and Life Skills at the University of Mangoland; an Independent Senator holding the balance of power; an envoy to Great Britain; and briefly the first President of the Republic of Australia. Grafton is what I could be or become, if I let myself go.
But regarding Grafton holding the balance of power, it might be of interest to know that, in the federal election of 2016, as a former member of the Queensland and New South Wales Parole Boards, I stood as the Australian Sex Party’s lead Senate candidate for New South Wales. Running with the motto, “Your Life. Your Choice”, we came within a whisker of beating the Christian Democrats led by the Reverend Fred Nile. Ian and I find it fascinating that however fanciful our satire, it so often gets gazumped by political (and academic) reality.
In a novel published in 1990 by Pan Macmillan, Busy in the Fog, of which I was the sole author, I made Grafton’s loyal, long-suffering wife Janet, a lecturer in Fibre Art. Lo and behold, a year later a Queensland regional university appointed a woman to a lectureship in Fibre Art. The climax to Busy in the Fog features the flooding of Brisbane and its surrounds due to a collapse of the Wivenhoe Dam, which is built on a fault. Eerily, this anticipated the 2011 floods that ravaged south-east Queensland.
Other “predictions” have included that fact that, in Going Out Backwards, Grafton is sent to review the curriculum at his alma mater. He finds that all the subjects in the traditional humanities curriculum – History, Languages, Geography, Economics – have be relegated to a single faculty called “Legacy Studies”. In years since, the role of the humanities has been increasingly diminished and students must pay substantially higher fees. This is because humanities subjects are deemed “non-contributory” to society and political economy. The book also predicts the general movement of universities towards being primarily profit-making businesses.
In Going Out Backwards Grafton is appointed to a committee investigating the effect of human activity on continental drift. It is believed that mining, the weight of buildings, planes landing and pogo sticks are accelerating crustal sliding, which will lead to more earthquakes, volcanoes, and possible continental collisions. The following year, people in Oklahoma alleged that fracking in oil wells was leading to an increased incidence of earthquakes in the state.
In our seventh entertainment, The Dizzying Heights, Grafton visits the United States where civil war has broken out between supporters of former president Ronald Thump and a left-wing coalition named the Sandersnistas. Shortly after this adventure was published, in an unprecedented event, supporters of Donald Trump attacked the Capitol building in Washington in a violent attempt to shut the government down.
In the November 2021 issue of Quadrant, the Tasmanian writer and artist Neal Price wrote about the Grafton Everest fictions that: “It is unprecedented in Australia, and perhaps in the English-speaking world, for eight political/sexual satires to be written chronologically, following the development of the same set of key characters.” As he suggests, the closest are P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels about the bumbling Bertie Wooster and his hugely intelligent manservant, Jeeves. But they do not develop, and Wodehouse has a stationary sense of time.
When my first Grafton Everest entertainment, Pushed From The Wings, was published in Australia in 1986, I was then a beleaguered lecturer at Brisbane’s Griffith University. For my sins, I was also a leading activist against the authoritarian regime of Sir Johannes (“Joh”) Bjelke-Petersen, whose government was making it increasingly difficult for me to get my non-fiction works published.
In 1984, volume 2 of my history of Queensland, From 1915 to the Early 1980s, was pulped and Sir Joh’s Attorney-General publicly threatened me with criminal libel. (A revised version of the book was later reissued.) At the same time, my opponents at Griffith were trying to get me sacked. Some of these were graduates from French universities, including the Sorbonne, who ran the ludicrous line that “The text writes itself” and who couldn’t get a job anywhere other than what they regarded as a provincial university in blighted Australia. Hence, I was caught in an academic and political pincer.
When I raised these distressing, but not dangerous, problems with Broken-Hill Jack, my long-time confidante in Alcoholics Anonymous, he paused, and said: “Don’t feel they’re using you, laddie. Start feeling that you are using them.”
As a result of Jack’s sage advice, I started taking copious notes about what was happening to and around me. This included transcribing university minutes, one of which stated, “Unanimous with one exception!”
Shortly afterwards, a zealous follower of the notoriously abstruse and transgressive philosopher Michel Foucault and his former student Jacques Derrida was standing in front of me at the local National Bank. When he complained that, because he had to attend so many committee meetings, he didn’t have time for writing, out of my mouth came these words: “I think if you had something to say, Peter, you’d probably find the time to write it down.” As you might imagine, that went down like a lead Zeppelin! Indeed, that “conversation” he never forgot.
Published in 1986, Pushed From The Wings lampooned both life at the University of Mangoland and contemporary political shenanigans in uber-reactionary Queensland. My first political/ sexual fiction didn’t portray a simple Left-Right divide; it followed the maximum of the great stand-up comedian Mort Sahl that nothing is off-limits to the true satirist, who should have a go at everything and everyone. Hence in Pushed From The Wings, Bjelke-Petersen became the odious Sir Otis Hoogstraden, while at the novel’s end Grafton’s leading university opponent gets his comeuppance by being obliterated by a bazooka.
Sales of the book in Australian were helped by a review by Barry Humphries in Quadrant. In a glowing endorsement, he wrote: “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation whom I would place without question in the ranks of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy and Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.”
Pushed From The Wings was followed by All About Anthrax, which was published in Australia in 1987, also by Hale & Iremonger. It again featured my teetotal, Panama-hat wearing, corpulent key character.
When the first two Grafton Everest adventures were republished in England in 1989, in Corgi Bantam’s prestigious Black Swan series, they sold well in South Africa and Great Britain. This is in part because they are reminiscent of Tom Sharpe’s over the top sexual/political satires set in South Africa under Afrikaner rule. This was also because, in the London Observer, under the headline “Conquering Everest”, the Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson wrote a rave review of both books.
On the back cover of each novel, as well as including Barry Humphries endorsement, Corgi Bantam cleverly highlighted four words from a humourless critic’s utterly negative review published in The Melbourne Age: “I never laughed once.” I’ve found that it’s often helpful to tip negative criticism on its head!
When I was in London, in 1989, publicising both books, I had an appointment at Faber & Faber. I’ve never forgotten what I saw on entering the esteemed publisher’s office. A framed poster featured, in large print, the following words: There is no excuse for criticism. – Basil Bunting. As it happens, Bunting the bearded British modernist who died in Northumberland in 1985, was and remains one of my favourite poets. His lengthy five-part autobiographical poem Briggflatts, published in 1966, is rightly regarded as a worthy successor to Ezra Pound’s Cantos and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Some of you may know that my wife and friend of 45 years, Lyndal Moor Fitzgerald, died in 2020. In the latest fictive offering, The Lowest Depths, Grafton’s beloved wife Janet is away with a sisterly coven on a six-month world tour. As a result, he is even more rudderless than usual. To further complicate matters, lured by a sizeable advance, Grafton has been persuaded to attempt to write his memoirs.
Early on, researching his family history, Grafton finds an unsent letter addressed to somewhere in Russia, written by his late mother to a brother he never knew he had. Even though, in life, Avis Everest – who had once been a spy – would lie when telling the truth would do, this did not seem to be a subterfuge.
Hoping to track down his mysterious half-sibling, Grafton accepts an offer from the United Nations to head an investigation into electoral fraud in Russia, allegedly orchestrated by the hugely powerful President Vladimir Putrid. Going to Russia also enables Grafton to escape his extreme-woke daughter Lee-Anne, his impecunious son-in-law Wayne Singlet, and his supposedly gifted grandchild, Justice. All three have moved in with him in the Sydney suburb of Redfern.
En route to Moscow, Grafton is contacted by the CIA who suspect that the Russians are creating a mind-control drug under the guise of developing a Corolla-virus vaccine. Before travelling to the icy wastes of Siberia, in Moscow Grafton stays at the magnificent Metropol Hotel, with its lavish Rococo interiors. There he meets his old Melbourne Boys’ High School biology teacher, long-time mentor and former husband of the late Avis Everest, the mysterious Lee Horton. As Grafton soon discovers, the now gender-fluid Mr Horton, has been shadowing him all along, in various disguises.
As well as Mr Horton, Grafton’s wife Janet and Nanny Neal, who has morphed into a hyper-male survivalist, feature prominently. In fact, these three key characters appear in all eight Grafton Everest adventures. But in The Lowest Depths, along with Grafton himself, it is Russia and its corrupt and dictatorial president-for-life, Vladimir Putrid, who take centre stage.
These days, Grafton is slightly hearing-impaired and walks with the aid of a sparkling cane which resembles a wand. But none of these impediments prevent his relentless persistence, which remains his strongest and his weakest quality.
In tune with the above, an avid Queensland reader, David Isherwood, singles out for praise an old Russian proverb that I made up : “All that trembles does not fall.” As Mr Isherwood points out, this accurately sums up what often happens to Grafton in his many adventures.
As always, Grafton’s obsession with food is prominent, revealing his deeply Freudian problem of “oral incorporation.” It’s as if, by devouring everything in his path, he might somehow understand what Life and, more importantly, his life is about.
As in all eight novels, in The Lowest Depths Grafton is drawn ever closer to a cataclysm. In this case, he faces the likelihood of being drowned in the world’s deepest lake, Lake Baikal.
In the anodyne world of twenty-first century writing, a quote from Graham Greene “What fun is there in writing if one doesn’t go too far?” serves as a warning to the current politically correct, woke generation. Hence The Lowest Depths opens at a writer’s festival where, as keynote speaker, Grafton attempts to reinstate Captain Cook as the discoverer of Australia. Our latest political satire also asks uncomfortable questions about “colour casting” in the entertainment industry – which according to two reviewers caused them to gasp. In a different, favourable review, one critic wrote that the name Grafton Everest, obviously stood for “graft and avarice”. Although as far as I know it didn’t, I thought it only polite to simply say “Thank you.”
Actually, our anti-hero got his name when, in the mid 1970s, one of my political science students at the University of New South Wales, John (“Jonnie”) Sheens, and I drove from Swaziland into Mozambique. At a time when Frelimo guerrillas were driving out the colonialists, we were the only Europeans heading into what had been, since 1505, a Portuguese territory. When we crossed the border, I asked a guard: “What are things like now that the Portuguese are going?” His answer, “It’s the same pile of manure – only some of the flies are different!”
Soon afterwards, we saw three large vans fleeing Mozambique’s capital city, Lourenço Marques (renamed Maputo in 1976). All these vehicles were emblazoned on the side with a sign GRAFTON EVEREST REMOVALS. Even though my first political/sexual satire was not published until a decade later, at the time I said to Jonnie: “Grafton Everest. What a great name for a central character and for his mother who, although not often visible, hovers over her son like the mountain.”
In Lourenço Marques, we were among a handful of Europeans staying at what was then the opulent Hotel Turismo. As there were very few guests, we were allocated the penthouse. One afternoon, to the sound of gunfire in the nearby city centre, we played croquet on the hotel’s immaculate lawn. It was all reminiscent of After us the Deluge.
Writing can be a very lonely business. So being in partnership with Ian McFadyen has been a hoot. Here is the way we work: In all our Grafton Everest offerings, I provide the key characters and the beginning and ending of each book. I also constantly phone or email Ian, who lives in Queensland, a raft of ideas, suggestions and a series of seemingly unconnected lines and questions. Then our chapter drafts go back and forth between us
In our latest joint venture, I wrote the opening and the final chapters. Ian, who is brilliant at plotting, filled in all the details and provided a draft of the chapters in between. The result is what the book’s blurb terms “a plot full of twists and turns that would make an Olympic gymnast proud.”
It was extremely pleasing for Ian and me to read Neal Price’s statement that, in the previous Grafton Everest entertainments, “it was relatively easy to see how Fitzgerald (who created all the characters) loads the jokes, while McFadyen’s comedic timing pulls the trigger. But in The Lowest Depths the writing is utterly seamless.”
Ian McFadyen writes:
One of my jobs in coming on board as a comedy gun-for-hire, a kind of Have Pen Will Travel on the Grafton Everest books, was to solve a problem. The first four Grafton Everest novels were inspired by Ross’s tricky time at a Queensland university. They followed the adventures of a luckless professor – not unlike Ross himself – who was caught between two opposing and equally repellent groups: his academic colleagues who believed the prime purpose of a university was to ignite socialist rebellion and, on the other hand, a viciously bigoted, venal, racist government focused primarily on using their political position and power to make as much money for themselves as possible. The unfortunate professor, who eschewed membership of either faction, was inevitably branded an enemy of both, but managed to survive mainly due to the propensity of both groups to self-destruct.
The problem was that, after the fourth book, Ross retired and moved to Sydney and therefore his alter ego, Grafton, did as well. The question became what Grafton might do now?
About fifteen years ago, I was working on a television comedy series about a young man with no political experience who is elected to the state government and finds he has the balance of power in the House. This was around the time when candidates from minor parties suddenly found themselves in the Australian Senate despite very low vote counts, thanks to what was called Preference Whispering. Unfortunately, although I thought this was a chance to do a kind of Australian Yes Minister, I could not find a television network that was interested. The Head of Comedy at the ABC didn’t think it had any potential. But, talking to Ross about his books, I asked if this might not be a story for Grafton. Might he not be elected, without even his knowledge, to the Australian Senate and hold the casting vote, meaning both sides of politics would be falling over themselves to court his favour?
Ross agreed and that book became Going Out Backwards, where Grafton enters, unwittingly, into federal politics. In the next three books, Grafton journeyed into more and more uncharted territory. He went to London to foil a right-wing coup, he became the first President of the new Republic of Australia, in which role he travelled to the United States where both the Democratic and Republican parties were so impressed by him, they wondered if he might be the American President as well. And, in the latest book, as Ross has explained, he becomes head of a United Nations delegation sent into Russia.
The common factor in all these adventures is that Grafton has no idea how he got into these situations nor what he is supposed to do, but somehow he not only survives but succeeds.
Enjoyable as these books are, however, it is important to point out that they don’t sell many copies. Of course (a phrase I dislike – RF), I admit no blame in regard to the books themselves. The problem arises from the realities of publishing social and political satire in Australia.
Australia is a very small market for books unless they are books written by a sporting hero, a retired politician or a television or radio personality. Apart from celebrity memoirs and humorous compilations, the only Australian authors who make money tend to be those who sell books internationally. And that means those books have to be appealing to international readers.
The first Grafton books had some success overseas because, the situation in the books was the situation in most universities in the 1980s. The battle of left-wing academics and right-wing governments was an instantly recognisable, shall we say “relatable”, topic in many countries.
The downside of sending Grafton on a journey into Australian politics is that the targets of the satire are less relatable to people in other markets, which have different political systems. A parallel example of this problem is my experience exporting television programs. In the late 1980s I produced a program called The Comedy Company which became immensely popular, principally due to a set of regular characters who represented a cross-section of Australian people, among them a surly schoolgirl, a Greek fruiterer, an age pensioner, and a young bloke who was one of the permanently unemployed.
A couple of years later I sold the series to British television in a condensed version. When they cut it down, it was those very characters that they removed. England didn’t have Greek fruiterers, it had Pakistani fruiterers, and the accents and slang of characters like Kylie Mole and Colin Carpenter would have been unintelligible to British audiences.
Of course (that phrase again! – RF), there is no such limitation going the other way. Although we are less knowledgeable about British politics than we once were, Australians will still watch programs that satirise American, French or Russian politics because, through international media, we know many of the characters. Donald Trump has probably done more to promote the export of American political satire than anyone in history.
So, there we have a problem. The more “culturally exact” (to use Bob Ellis’s term) a satirical book or television program is, the more its audience is likely to be limited to Australian readers. Now, as Ross has mentioned, the latest book The Lowest Depths is substantially set in Russia. Will this mean a greater chance of international sales? Perhaps, but given its portrayal of the Russian President, it could also mean a greater chance of Novichok poisoning.
Those not incompatible outcomes aside, as our cinema and television become even more dominated by not only American and British but also Korean, Swedish, German and French entertainments, my advice to anyone wanting to do satirical television or write humorous books about Australian politics or Australian society is that, by all means do it for love, and you might make a few dollars, but don’t give up your day job.
This is an edited version of speeches Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen delivered to the 28th Australasian Humour Studies Network Conference, at the University of Tasmania on February 4. The conference theme was “The Humour of Politics and the Politics of Humour.”
Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University.Ian McFadyen is an actor and writer based in Queensland. Their most recent co-authored books are the Grafton Everest adventures, The Dizzying Heights and The Lowest Depths, published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
Quadrant, March 2022, pp 103 -107.