How High Can Everest Rise?

This appears in Quadrant magazine’s November 2019 issue, just out.

The Dizzying Heights

Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen

ISBN No: 978-1-925736-30-4

Hybrid Publishing : Melbourne

pp. 248, $24.99.

 

Review by Richard Laidlaw

It’s plainly very difficult being a political satirist these days, when the politicians seem to have cornered the market themselves and to have requisitioned all the best scripts, in the national interest, naturally. No matter. Those with the wit and the will to soldier on will scribble regardless. Someone will get a laugh, or a wry smile, or perhaps break down and sob uncontrollably at the hopelessness of it all, and give us all a giggle.

So it is with the indefatigable academic Ross Fitzgerald, teamed again with writer and actor Ian McFadyen, who has brought us a welcome glimpse of light from the heavens in the shape of ‘The Dizzying Heights’, the seventh book in the Grafton Everest saga.  Fitzgerald and McFadyen have penned an engaging yarn. By dint of supreme effort it manages – just, perhaps, and by the narrowest of squeaks in the view of some – to stay ahead of the tsunami of paradox and parody that threatens to submerge the embattled remnants of western liberal tradition and its totemic universal democracy with it.

As those who are familiar with his life and works know, Everest earned his stripes in the challenged academic environment of Mangoland. That alone is worth some sort of medal, surely? It’s not quite Texas (there are fewer assault rifles at large in the community for one thing) and is actually three times bigger and hosts a small town called Texas; but it’s certainly a place of wide-brimmed hats and a colourful antipathy to learning. To many, of course, that’s a plus. After all, as such people and their political or genetic descendants like to remind themselves, relatively few café latte liberationists or chardonnay socialists avoided official molestation or escaped punitive vigilantism in Mangoland in the early culture wars.

Yet as Gangajang so ably reminded us in ‘Sounds of Silence’, its 1984 debut pop anthem:

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.

No one with any sense of what Australia really is, beyond the end of the freeway out of town, would fail to sense a frisson – even if only ever so slightly – at the visceral, olfactory images those words evoke. Except, of course, farcically fictional fantasy figures like Professor Dr Grafton Everest, whose life’s work as been to avoid labour of any sort, physical or cerebral.

Grafton Everest is too good to lose.

In his six previous memoirs of the moment, Everest has touched every marker on the academic orienteering course and stumbled over, or kicked aside, most of the witches’ hats and police line tapes that these days impede progress on the roads of life. There are many who show one or two of the behavioural traits that Everest himself exhibits in spades. We are very fortunate that he is a work of fiction, a figment simply of very fertile imagination. (He would shudder at the word “work,” perhaps in the manner, as Saki once wrote in another context, of an Italian greyhound on contemplating the approach of an ice age of which he personally disapproved.)

The Dizzying Heights’ is a rollicking read.

Fitzgerald and McFadyen keep up the frenetic pace of previous Everest misadventures, in this latest volume of his saga. It wraps up some loose ends and brings other streams of consciousness to some sort of conclusion. It looks at times like a final curtain, though perhaps we’re looking only at the first of a series of Melba-like farewell tours. The latter would be best. Everest is too good to lose.

In a way, he is something of a modern Stoic, albeit from the modernist Frank Spencer school that perfectly stitches together stoicism and farce; he too makes an art form of drawing uncountable numbers of impossibly tangled strings together and then wondering why the cat’s cradle won’t hold. It’s a safe bet that the Stoic’s stoic, Marcus Aurelius, did not have university luminary, premier of Mangoland, inaugural president of the Republic of Australia and nearly President of the United States Professor Dr Grafton Everest in mind when he jotted down his ‘Meditations’ two millennia ago.

 

The Dizzying Heights’ is a quick read, a rollicking one; you could easily knock it over on a rainy day, between lunch and dinner with time off for afternoon tea. It is perhaps even more unbelievable than its predecessors, but that’s one of the results of serial farce, and not simply in the framework of literature. Certainly in this slim volume the good doctor-professor rises to dizzying heights indeed. Some Americans, bless them, even try to adopt him as a presidential candidate. But enough of plot giveaways; read the book, it tells the story much better.

++++++

Richard Laidlaw, who nowadays divides his time between Western Australia and Indonesia, was for many years a journalist in Queensland, and later a political adviser, including for National Party Premier Rob Borbidge in 1996-98. He has a blog at 8degrees0flatitude.com.

QUADRANT MAGAZINE, November 2019, pp 83-84.

Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen’s The Dizzying Heights  is currently available from the publishers:  https://www.hybridpublishers.com.au/

And from Booktopia:   https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-dizzying-heights-ross-fitzgerald/book/9781925736304.html

Let Him Eat Cake

RICHARD LAIDLAW

Book Review

 

IT must be very difficult being a political satirist these days. So many politicians, to a man and woman, get underfoot with plots that would outdo a Goon Show episode and leave their writers wringing their hands in frustration: Why couldn’t we think of that?

So we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Griffith University historian professor Ross Fitzgerald and ABC broadcaster Antony Funnell for giving us the latest chronicle, the sixth, of the fanciful world of Professor Dr Grafton Everest. In 2015, Everest found himself Going Out Backwards. Apparently this difficult manoeuvre, performed with co-writer Ian McFadyen and shortlisted for the 2017 Russell Prize for Humour Writing, must have worked. In 2018 Everest has reappeared with another misadventure. Somehow this prompts fond remembrance of the Irish scaffolder who plunged from the thirtieth floor and was heard to suggest as he passed the fifteenth that it was OK so far.

These days, in the symbiotic worlds of populist politics and instant twitterdom, serious writers of farcical fiction face significant difficulties. In Australia, where Everest in So Far, So Good builds on his already established presence as the man who briefly held the balance of power in Senate and was premier of the state of Mangoland for ten days, and in Britain, he becomes an instant celebrity via a series of tweets of unsurpassed vacuity. They’re good landscapes for political vacuity, the crowned republic and the septic isle, sitting as they do right on fault lines between sense and nonsense. The earth moves frequently, creating significant shocks on the open-ended Rictus scale.

Several unpublished amateurs are in the mix there, operating on the shifting lines that no longer fully divide intelligent satire from unbelievable farce. There’s Australia’s latest revolving door prime minister, whose campaign bus which he has vacuously labelled with his ScoMo pitch runs around without him on board, because he has a busy schedule, you see, and lots of important things to do (like upset the Indonesians and a valuable trade deal in pursuit of a few extra votes in the Wentworth by-election that his party didn’t win anyway). He can’t waste time on the ground. He has to fly. Still, there’s a giggle in the thought that he’s labelled the very bus that he’ll almost certainly be going under, metaphorically, on Election Day.

Meanwhile his opponent Shorten (or is it Curly?) keeps his head down and some contentious policies under wraps. No point in taking fire if leading members of the other mob are running around all over the place offering themselves as targets. Besides, his political friend in NSW, the just departed opposition leader Luke Foley, has recently acquired public notoriety and Very Silly Boy status by letting his hands do the walking at Christmas drinks in 2016 and trying to avoid the consequences until – as was inevitable – someone on the other side, corrections minister David Elliott in this instance, poured a bucket on him under parliamentary privilege.

In these circumstances, the chroniclers of Everest have done a sterling job. In So Far, So Good, the good professor-doctor even becomes president-presumptive of the forthcoming Republic of Australia, by virtue of his instant further celebrity, a venally vacuous PM, a series of farcical incidents in Australia and Britain, and acquaintance with a smart robot whose real task is to spy on him but who covers himself in virtual glory by also baking cakes. Everest has a strict wife who rations everything from sex to comfort food. Many will sympathise with him in this predicament.

Among the walk-on characters in the latest misadventures of Professor Dr Grafton Everest is a large, assertive woman who was once a leading politician and is now Australia’s ambassador to the U.S.A., the U.N., Italy and the Vatican. A good gig if you can get it and you like Fifth Avenue and Milanese millinery. There are other vignettes that strike a chord for anyone well versed in Mangoland’s history and culture – one senior female academic, for example – and the labyrinthine nature and Byzantine ways of Canberra. People sometimes ask themselves if they miss this suspect bouillabaisse. The sensible among them are apt to answer no.

So Far, So Good – the title sounds like a lift from The Compleat Optimist– takes the reader on a manic ride around the commercially focused universities of the Neocon Age, through the drivel-strewn gulches of Western politics (where are the Apaches when you really need them?) and the obsession with eyes down, two thumbs technology, fear of outsiders and distrust of elites that misinforms modern dialogue.

As a certain British wartime ambassador to Moscow observed, in a report to the Foreign Office in London that he typed himself and which remained suppressed for fifty years – it noted the arrival of his new Turkish counterpart, Mustafa Kunt – in dark days one looks for little shafts of light from heaven. Fitzgerald and Funnell have provided one with Everest’s latest dispatches. Its cover is evocative too. It features a lovely illustration by Alan Moir, the Fairfax cartoonist, to whom the book is dedicated.

It’s now in my library. I’ve put it next to my volume of Collected Rants. It seems a very suitable prophylactic against the tsunamis of confected angst that otherwise threaten to submerge us.

So Far, So Good. By Ross Fitzgerald and Antony Funnell. Hybrid Books, Melbourne. Paperback and e-book. IBSN 978-1-925272-97-0 (p) | 978-1-925282-55-9 (e)