Book Review – Goodbye Jerusalem, Night Thoughts of a Labor Outsider by Bob Ellis

Posted on November 30, 2012


Goodbye Jerusalem; Night Thoughts of a Labor Outsider
Vintage (Random House)
ISBN 0091836654


For over three decades Bob Ellis has trodden the fringes of the corridors of power. Here he gives a personal insight into the tribe that is the Australian Labor Party: the personalities, the quirks, the fable anecdotes and the ideas. Goodbye Jerusalem is a reflection on the nature of Labor politics in Australia, its flaws, its heroes, its victories and its bitter defeats.


I had come across Bob Ellis before in television interviews. Notably, for me at any rate, was Andrew Denton’s jovial description of Ellis as a ‘professional grumpy old man.’ And Ellis did not fail to live up to that description. He repeatedly came across as grumpy, difficult and obtuse. Rightly or wrongly, I had not knowingly read any of his work although I had seen (and liked) some of his film work. But I didn’t like him.

Goodbye Jerusalem is hardly a new book, having been released in 1997. But it covers a particular period and era in Australian politics that is now long over. But having grown up through those times (my first Federal election vote helped ‘Give Bob The Job’) I was curious to see what Ellis had to say so when I chanced on a copy in front of me at a recent university writing retreat, I began to have a quick flick through it (I was just taking a break from writing, I promise). That quick flicking soon became careful reading. It is really quite simple – Bob Ellis writes bloody good prose. His passages are lyrical, don’t always pull their punches and drop wry, sometimes almost absurdist snippets of humour. He is a vivid observer of the things around him with those powers of observation really coming through in spades. Frankly, I wish I could write like him. And being a starving student, I have borrowed this copy to take home for an even closer reading but shall return it to the bookshelf on my next trip here to our Jervis Bay writing haven (one of the joys of being an aging research student).

I really should have known better than to let my stupid, uninformed opinion of someone I don’t even know put me off even bothering to look at their work. Someone else I rather admire, Marieke Hardy, is a huge fan of Ellis to the point of naming her pet dog after him (literally ‘Bob Ellis’ not anything like ‘Bobby’ or ‘Hey Grumpy Bum’). So I should not have let my impressions become formed by a little visual exposure, an impression that I now get the distinct feeling he deliberately plays up. Although I very much doubt Ellis would respond to my fandom the same way he did Ms Hardy’s (to get the gag, you’ll need to go read You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead).
Even if you only have the slimmest, passing interest in Australian politics, you would still get something out of reading this book. If nothing else, it definitely humanises those godlike (in their eyes) beings that are politicians, the good, the bad and definitely the ugly. And for my writing-type friends, treat it as a master class in how to write Blood Good Stuff.

Posted in: Review