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Here’s another good idea

1 May 2011 3,165 views No Comment

FOR reasons that are unclear, the University of Queensland Press parted company from Philip Luker over publication of his biography of “the ideas man”, Phillip Adams.

Perhaps some clues can be found in Luker’s acknowledgements to this controversial book. There he states that the veteran columnist for The Weekend Australian Magazine and long-running broadcaster for ABC’s Radio National “seemed to believe that I had agreed not to delve into his private life. He never asked me to agree and I did not do so, either verbally or in writing.” Luker continues: “Did [Adams] believe that, after working as a journalist for 50 years, I would not try to find out about his private life, just because he didn’t want me to?”

Despite its problems at birth, this sometimes prosaic but often fascinating biography has finally found a home with the energetic Melbourne publishing house JoJo. Most information about Adams’s private life allegedly “came from his own mouth”. This took the form of a National Library of Australia oral history to which Luker claims Adams gave him written access.

Born on July 12, 1939, Adams was brought up by his grandparents. During his sad and uncertain childhood, he spent little time with his distant English-born father Charles – a Congregational minister – whom his equally absent mother Sylvia left because of his drink problem.

An early Adams romance was with Rosemary, a bohemian from the posh Melbourne suburb of Brighton. When Adams was a 21-year-old communist atheist and a successful adman, he married Rosemary, who was then 19 in a church. Since their marriage ended, Adams has had no dealings with her.

Apart from Sylvia and Rosemary, five other women seem to have been crucial in his life: he and Rosemary’s daughters, Rebecca, Meaghan and Saskia; his current long-term partner, Patrice Newell, and their teenage daughter Aurora. Adams is close to all his children except Saskia, a book editor and novelist, with whom, Adams says, he has “a negligible relationship”.

An insomniac and prodigious worker who drinks little, Adams has been a highly successful broadcaster for decades. His broadcasting career began in the late 1980s on Sydney commercial radio. After a brief stint in the mornings, Adams presented a late-night program on 2UE. Although Luker does not mention it, it was at 2UE that Adams worked with the inimitable Robbie Swan, who in recent years has been running the Eros Foundation in Canberra. Typical of Adams’s loyalty to his relatively few friends, the broadcaster and the lobbyist for the merchants of erotica have been in close contact for years.

Speaking of relationships, it is fascinating to learn that Adams has written a biography of his seemingly improbable friend Kerry Packer that to this day has not been published.

In chapter seven, “The Angry Old Left-winger”, Luker claims that, apart from John Howard, the person Adams dislikes most, and his “favourite adversary”, is Gerard Henderson, the executive director of the Sydney Institute and Herald columnist. Yet, intriguingly, although Adams does not seem to have a good word to say about him, Henderson freely admits that Adams’s program Late Night Live, which has been on the air four nights a week for 20 years, “has a lot of talent” and that, despite Adams’s predictable take on most matters, is “a good program”.

Indeed, Henderson says he thinks Adams is “an able broadcaster” to whom he listens to regularly. As Luker points out, unlike most of Adams’s critics, at least Henderson listens. Moreover, although they often snap at each other in print, Adams’s attacks “seem more heartfelt than Henderson’s”.

Adams’s success is all the more remarkable because, like his friend Paul Keating, he left school at 15. Keating is one of the eight prime ministers Adams has known, but it is Keating, along with Kevin Rudd, whom he admires enormously. This admiration is reciprocated in spades by Rudd and Keating.

Adams was the key figure with Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries in getting off the ground the much underrated film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and among his many awards Adams has received a Walkley for broadcast journalism.

All this is more or less predictable. But page 326 of Luker’s book pulls me up with a start. Under the heading “Speechwriting”, Luker writes: “Phillip Adams has written speeches for the Queen, Pope John Paul 11, Mikhail Gorbachev, President Reagan, President Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Deng Xiaoping and the prime minister of Japan, Australian prime ministers and premiers. He has worked on Labor Party state and federal election campaigns.”

Was Luker taking the piss, having a laugh? Or was it the 71-year-old Adams, or both? Only when I re-read the book did I notice that for a four-hour Nine Network TV program on January 1, 1988, the director, Peter Faiman, allegedly got Adams to write speeches for about 20 world leaders. Which prompts another question: even if this were true, did the Ronald Reagans and Deng Xiaopings of this world actually say the words that Adams penned?

The Sydney Morning Herald April 30- May 1, 2011
Phillip Adams: The Ideas man – A Life Revealed, Philip Luker, JoJo Publishing, 337pp, $34.99