Life & Arts

Bill Shorten: Eulogy for Bob Ellis

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Brilliant, touching and heartfelt tribute delivered at the funeral of Australian literary legend by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for esteemed IA contributor Bob Ellis.

We gather today – family, friends, comrades, readers, actors, correspondents and co-authors – in celebration of a man who wrung every last drop from life.

Who drained his overflowing cup to its very dregs.

Last Sunday, in the hours after Anne gave Chloe and I the sad news and the spontaneous Labor telephone tree spread the bad news — Bob Ellis is gone…

I don’t know how others reacted, but I went to my bookshelves and I pulled out some of Bob’s books, including my prized first edition of Goodbye Jerusalem, to revisit his words.

I turned on my computer and re-read the hundreds of personal emails Bob had sent me.

And I realised the marvellous flow of Bob Ellis was ended.

And what a terrible loss this would be, not just for those who knew and loved him, but all those now denied a chance to get to know him.

So today, I stand before you as the leader of the Labor party Bob loved, the Labor Party to which he returned the phrase "true believers".

And more importantly I stand here as a friend who will miss him very much.

To Bob’s incredibly talented, loving wife Annie – and to your children – I offer the sympathies of our Labor family, in your loss.

To all the members of Bob’s remarkable family that he loved so much, thank you for sharing him with the rest of us.

Oh, how I will miss Bob’s one-sentence emails — and his three page emails.

Sometimes sent miraculously seconds after a press conference or a parliamentary debate.

I will miss his unflinching support and loyalty.

I will miss his advice – but also his ability to listen – to lend an ear and share what he called "night thoughts".

I will miss his unerring knack for saying something wickedly, shamefully, brilliantly, impossibly rude about our opponents – past and present. 

In fact, if I had a dollar for every killer line Bob had sent me over my years in politics, I’d almost be able to afford the legal costs of using them.

On days such as today, we inevitably ponder the road less travelled.

And I must say, from time to time when Bob sent through something particularly, scandalously unprintable by way of helpful suggestion.

I would think to myself … imagine if he had won the Mackellar by-election in 1994.

Imagine what Bob Ellis would have done with parliamentary privilege!

Pages and pages of beautiful words have been written about Bob this past week.

I think he would have thoroughly approved of the effort and energy spent by people like Guy Rundle, David Marr and Mike Rann – among others – on finding just the right phrase to capture the genius of Ellis.

For prose was Bob’s greatest gift — and a truly unique one.

Words will be his enduring legacy.

Not words gathering dust down in the library stacks.

But in battered copies of The Things We Did Last Summer, taken down from beach-house shelves, or unearthed in hostel lobbies.

Still gripping the reader anew, with their unflinching honesty, their arresting character sketches.

Above all the sense of immediacy and urgency, the feeling that enterprises of great moment were buffeting the narrator through history, live.

In an age when political rhetoric and political writing can be seen as an exercise in paint-by-numbers, Bob was no mere wordsmith.

Not for him the hammer and anvil, beating clichés and weasel words into the blunt dullness that blights so many political statements and corporate manuals and recorded messages.

There was nothing mechanical, nothing predictable, nothing rigid or repetitive about Bob.

He put his shambolic, contrary, discursive and brilliant self on the page — in style and in substance.

The Ellis mode is easy to imitate…

The long run-on sentence, sluggishly setting out towards its subject like a sleeper train through a country station late at night; semicolons spacing out the melancholy burden of change and decay; sub-clauses like skiffs beating back the current on a slow-flowing river, before enlivened, alarmed, enraged, the languid water surges and – leaping over the falls – ends. 

Or perhaps you disagree?

Because with Bob, there was always the hook.

The psychological snare he’d planted three paragraphs up the page.

And just as you strode through the scrub, convinced you had his argument safely in hand, the Ellis rope drew tight around your ankle and turned your world upside down.

As supple and smooth as his prose could be — there was always a hard edge of thoughtfulness.  

Guy Rundle called it Australian but not Antipodean.

And there’s something to that.

The honesty, the irreverence, the sense of a generation making a go of it here in a big country full of small towns.

Breaking free from dull nights on bleak streets cut off from the wider world.

Overturning fustiness and convention, British accents reading the ABC news before Homicide, a lean diet of the cultural cringe and two-dimensional identity.

Striking out in search of a new voice and new ideas.

The voice of a genuinely Australian social democracy shaped by ideas and ideals.

The new sense that Australia’s own time was coming, at last.

We might try, today - and in classrooms and lecture theatres for years to come – to examine the various component parts of Bob’s work – but he was far greater than the sum of them.

To say Bob had a way with words is like saying Les Murray is handy with a limerick or Cate Blanchett has excellent diction.

Like his remarkable life, no mere analysis can do Bob or his words justice.

For me then, the best way to farewell my friend Bob is in his own words.

And so it goes, at funerals, he wrote 17 years ago:

It’s a question of words in the end — how well we say I’ve loved you all my life, or it’s good to have been your friend.

And how well in the church we say the words and sing the songs that end the tale of a particular soul’s trajectory through a particular time on earth.

Words that say thank you adequately, so long, it’s been a privilege.

Rest in peace, Digger.

This eulogy was delivered on Saturday, 9 April 2016, and has been republished with Bill Shorten's permission.

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