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On the booze

3 March 2010 3,238 views 3 Comments

“The truth is that, quite often, a little bit of me goes a long way, Ross Fitzgerald writes towards the end of My Name is Ross. It is a characteristically disarming observation. Fortunately he stopped drinking forty years ago. But this account of his years of drinking and pill-popping nonetheless fills a substantial volume. And a harrowing account it is. But, again characteristically, it is relieved with wit and verve.

The temptation, and Fitzgerald is clearly not one readily to refuse temptation, must have been to present this as a latter day rake’s progress: a jolly saga of men behaving badly. ‘such a lark! Stole two boots and a brass hat. Hung a notice of a bal masqué on the railing of a Baptist chapel, and stuck a board with “Mangling done here on the Hospital gate, as Dudley Smooth put it in a piece by Marcus Clarke in the 1860s. “Ho, for the breakage of lamps, the carrying away of signs, the petty larceny of gilt hats and wooden boots!

There are plenty of appalling anecdotes in My Name is Ross , like his account of high life at a conference of academic historians:

After our tenth drink of whiskey or whatever we were imbibing, the most appropriate thing appeared to be for the two of us to make a suicide pact , steal a car and drive it off a bridge. Which is precisely what we did. We stole a car, which turned out to be owned by a state ALP cabinet member. I revved it up, drove off the Camden Bridge, and finished up trapped in the car, perilously close to the water…. Initially on the critical list, I was in hospital for two months.

The bad behaviour is not glamorized. But nor are opportunities for a good story neglected. A succession of figures are captured in vignettes, many of them drinkers or ex-drinkers. There are sessions with Doug McCallum the political scientist, who nodded off to sleep with his pipe alight, and was suffocated when his jacket caught fire. There are appearances with Josh Davis on TV Tutorial: “Although almost always half-pissed, on the television he came across as sober as a judge. Barry Humphries has a cameo role. There are excursions to Mozambique, Vietnam, and Singapore, sometimes with up-grades and VIP treatment through being mistaken for the ambassador Stephen FitzGerald. And there is a sustained stay, much of it lost in alcoholic oblivion, in the United States.

This is both a memoir, and an account of alcoholism. The two strands endlessly interweave, as the story of Australian society of the last sixty years unfolds:
Perhaps the most brilliant schoolmaster of all at Melbourne High was the eccentric, ultra right-wing biology teacher, Norton Hobson. After he retired, Norton confided to me that he was an ex-Communist and that, while at school he worked as a part-time operative for the Victorian Special Branch, supplying information about students and staff alike…. It is no accident that, later on, in my three Grafton Everest political/sexual “fictions … the head of the privatized Australian Security Organization, and hence the nation’s top spy, is Grafton’s old school teacher, Les Horton. The character Mr Horton is largely based on Norton Hobson.

I’ve always been fascinated by spies and by pirates, Fitzgerald writes. “While I was teaching at Griffith University, I was actually approached by a senior operative to apply for a position at the Office of National Assessments… an AA acquaintance in the Queensland police force suggested that I work for the notorious state Special Branch, of which he was acting head.

Not all the anecdotes involve substance abuse. Fitzgerald is an acute observer of how society works, and adept at putting his observations into practice:
In 1985, during the dreadful years of the Bjelke-Petersen regime, the head of the Australian newspaper’s Brisbane bureau, Hugh Lunn, wrote a very flattering full-page feature about me being the “Anti-Joh… The editor of The Weekend Australian magazine, Jim Hall, had said, “Im not publishing your piece on Fitzgerald. He’s radical. And he’s mad.

But Fitzgerald had learned that Rupert Murdoch always referred to himself as “The Chief Executive:

I’ll give him mad, I thought, and at 2 am rang the toll-free number for News Limited in Sydney. “This is The Chief Executive, I barked into the phone, “Tell that editor of the weekend magazine to publish Hugh Lunn’s piece on that fellow Ross Fitzgerald, and slammed the phone down. And guess what, the next Saturday’s Weekend Australian featured a full-page feature with a large, smiling, photograph of me wearing my trademark panama hat.

The photographed hat is a crucial element in the story he tells of how the Australian Research Council operated in handing him a five-year grant of taxpayers money. The Bulletin had run a story on “the Successor to Manning Clarke, naming five historians but providing a photograph of only one of them, Fitzgerald:

“When the selection panel , all scientists and mathematicians , met, they didn’t know who to choose when it came to the one place for humanities. Allegedly, a physicist professor said, “What about that bloke with the big hat who comes from Queensland?

The ARC fellowship gave him five years of freedom from teaching, during which he wrote two political biographies, one of ex-Queensland premier “Red Ted Theodore, the other of Fred Paterson, Australia’s only communist member of parliament. At least he produced, and substantially, unlike all too many of the recipients of such largesse.

These observations of the way our cultural superstructure operates provide a pointed context for the record of bad behaviour of Fitzgerald’s alcoholic years. And some of it is seriously bad. This is not a memoir of convivial Bohemian indulgence, but of solitary, suicidal desperation.

But as much as a saga of self-destruction, My Name is Ross is also a record of recovery and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous proved his salvation, and he pays unambiguous tribute to its role in his regeneration. He offers an enthusiastic and persuasive picture of how AA can help, something which might encourage others to follow the path, together with a brief history of the organization. Having discovered that “Carl Jung was instrumental at the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, he even tracks down his son in Switzerland for an interview.

I am not sure that the underlying causes of Fitzgerald’s addiction are ever identified. He offers some attempts at examining his relationship with his parents. He details various sexual encounters. But the fundamental fear that requires obliteration remains unidentified. Perhaps it is just the fear of life and of death’s inevitability. Whatever it is, AA clearly provides an ever-available structure, with its regular meetings that are always welcoming, that always give the assurance that there is somewhere to go to, somewhere to meet others, that you are not alone.

Michael Wilding, “Quadrant Magazine, March 2010, Books, pp117-8

3 Comments »

  • George Thompson said:

    Ross, George Thompson here. We have met a couple of times at AA gigs. I am the Scots guy who runs RecoverOz and I presently run the Malvern Private Hospital as Clinical Director. I celebrate my 21 years sobriety in a few months, so I am nearly an adult.!!

    I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for your memoir. I don’t have to tell you how much this is going to help the cause of alcoholism in this country. One of my staff showed it to me this morning so I haven’t even read it yet, but the cover says it all. I will send a mailer to the website moderator here in Melbourne to make sure it gets circulated in the AA Times.

    I am going to get a few box fulls from UNSW and pop you up on the front of our website as feature of the month. Is this OK with you?? Am I better buying the books through you or them?

    If you are down in Melbourne soon why don’t you give me a call and pop in. I will give you a look around a Private Rehab that is unashamedly biased towards 12 step philosophy.

    Many Thanks Ross. I cannot wait to get into the book.

  • Helen said:

    I just finished your wonderful amazing book and am now recommending it to everyone I know.

    Congratulations. Ross it is a great achievement.

    Ross, this book is your gift to the community, your contribution to our society.

    Especially all the layer upon layer of detail and the repetitions, and all the laughs.

    Hughie sat there in the lounge room laughing out loud so often that after a while I demanded he just tell me the stories.

    The little willy wag tail motif was good, like a totem or talisman (?) to hold on to.

    And the subtlety of the various encouragements you received. The specific wording is so important.

    Especially you dismissed all that bulldust about ‘you can do it alone, if only you have self-discipline’.

    (I hate it whenever those Olympic sports stars and Oscar winners are interviewed on TV and they say: ‘Believe in yourself, work hard, and you’ll achieve your dream, just like me’ and I always answer the TV: “Yeah but what about all the other people who competed with you who also believed in themselves and lived the dream and worked harder than you did???”)

    I like what your mate said, simply, stick close to AA and you won’t go too far wrong. The relief of having something to stick close to.

    Especially I appreciated how you never glamorised the drinking. The humour didn’t come from the drinking, but from all the recoveries.

    Love to Lyndal and Em-erald.

  • Christine Leigh Langtree (author) said:

    I finished MY NAME IS ROSS! It’s a treasure!

    There’s very much I identify with in there and much not to do directly with alcoholism.

    I was born on Christmas Eve so I strongly recognise the feeling of specialness leading nowhere. How can you not feel special when your birthdate is always written with Capital Letters? How can you not be let down when after the initial interest people show in the fact that you were born on a Capital Letter day, they then proceed to treat you like everyone else? Plebs!

    My childhood was also blighted with nephritis – mine at the age of 8 but I spent 2 or 3 successive Christmases and birthdays in hospital with it.

    My mother was a cut above my father and I also had and have a difficult relationship with one of them – but for me it’s my father. It was an armed camp at home. My mother had my older brother from her first marriage and my parents fought continually over Dad’s treatment of him. She left home with him at one stage and left my little brother there with my scary father. He was the chosen one! I had a difficult relationship with my mother as well – but I can pretty much unequivocally say that I always loved her. I do love Dad now but it is much more complicated than that as well.

    My mother was always – I think genuinely – sick. When we learned that my nephritis was caused by a complication of tonsillitis, all I had to do was to complain of a sore throat and it was off to the docs and a few days in bed with the door closed and my mother bringing me toast and honey and warm milo. Ah, heavenly peace.

    I also strongly identified with your treatment of your relationships before sobriety. I was SUCH A BITCH! Of course, I can still tend toward the self centred – who can’t, and all? – but I was psychotic in my disregard for boyfriends as actual people with feelings. They may as well have been the bar tender because that’s all I was inetrested in – someone to keep the liquor flowing.

    Anyway, I’m sure there is much more but suffice to say that your book got a lot of ‘oh, yeahs’ out of me. It reminded me of this. I don’t know if you read it or not. But it too, is good reading for anyone long time sober. And anyone short time as well. As you can see from his comments, a LOT of people went to their first meeting after reading this.

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/08/my_name_is_roger_and_im_an_alc.html

    I’m sure your book will be just as helpful to others as well

    I wonder if the Tony B. you mention towards the end of the book is Tony Barry? He is a dear friend of mine.

    Again, thanks! I loved your book, Ross. It amazes me that you went from not being able to do anything to achieving the things you have.

    Christine