In bed with Phillip Adams

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Bedtime Stories, Phillip Adams, Harper Collins, 2012. 

Philip Adams sits in an armchair beside a microphone with an open book, as if he is about to read from it. Cover of his book Bedtime StoriesJen

Broadcaster, columnist, 'collector of rare antiquities' and arguably Australia's best-known atheist Phillip Adams seems to have been around almost as long as the written word itself.

Adams has certainly amassed a tidy list of achievements. In addition to writing more 20 books, several screenplays and countless columns for The Australian magazine, he's chaired boards, including the Australian Film Commission, Greenpeace Australia and CARE Australia, and garnered two Orders of Australia.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Adams, who grew up not far from where I live in Richmond — back then Melbourne's struggle town — is the archetypal self-made man, who left high school in his mid-teens.

And yet I can't say I exactly jumped for joy when Barry first suggested Adams' book Bedtime Stories, tales of his two-decade career at Radio National's Late Night Live, for this column. Somehow, Adams, radio raconteur, political stirrer and dedicated leftie left me a little unmoved.

Perhaps it's a generational thing (my 44 years to his ... well, timelessness), but I like to think of myself as open-minded and mildly intrepid. And so it was that I peeled back the cover of Bedtime Stories hoping for a little insight, rancour or, at the very least, high-brow gossip.

After all, Adams has interviewed some of the world's most 'influential politicians, historians, archaeologists, novelists, theologians, economists, philosophers and sundry conversationalists', according to the ABC's website.

For a book with such a wide net and an author with such strong views on God and religion, there's a conspicuous absence here. You won't find the strident ideas of the past (most pointedly formulated in Adams Versus God) in Bedtime Stories, because it is, in large part, a relational book. Here, the drivers aren't the arguments so much as the people who took turns warming the seat in ABC Radio's modest studio.

Not that all are exemplary characters. In the chapter entitled 'Strange Beasts', Adams shares his observations on, and relationships with, the deeply flawed, such as career criminal and murderer Bill Longley, decorated soldier and confessed killer Colonel David Hackworth and Anu Singh, who, in 1997, was convicted of murdering her boyfriend (a case forensically explored by Helen Garner in the heartbreaking Joe Cinque's Consolation).

Adams doesn't hold back in his character assassination ... I mean, assessment (how has be managed to avoid law suits? I wonder). And this is where Bedtime Stories works so well. Only through such candour does a clear picture of human endurance and folly emerge.

So am I won over? Yes and no. Adams is a first-rate thinker, as his adventurous musing on sex ('The amoeba has it right. Simple cellular division leading to replication without sin, guilt or sundry complications'), and death ('Without the deadline of death we'd all ... lapse into endless if increasingly overcrowded boredom') support.

But Bedtime Stories also comes at us from all directions — the structure is slack at best. And there's one factor I simply can't overlook, or easily forgive: the incessant namedropping has the lightness of touch of a landslide.

Thank you, Barry for the suggestion. With each page, Adams proved to be equal parts revelation; equal parts relic. I didn't even mind the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of 'In Bed with Phillip' ... all that much. But I can't help thinking that those 21 years of thoughts, ideas, arguments and relationships — however illuminating — could have done with a critical edit before they were themselves put to bed. 

 

Barry

During a phone interview, Phillip Adams once fondly told me about his room of gods. It's chockablock with deities and artefacts, from myriad cultures and creeds; some still worshipped and others long forgotten.

A notion clicked, and still rings true decades later: Adams is searching for his place in the pantheon of 'public discoursers'. It's key to understanding and appreciating this wunderkind; advocate and activist, schemer and public intellectual in a land of footballers and fart-lighters (hat tip to Adams' protégé, Barry McKenzie).

While Adams is revered as Godfather to Australia's atheists and the national film industry, at heart he remains a young boy huddled under the covers at night; buried under the considerable challenges due his story of origin.

Yes, Jen, agreed; in Bedtime Stories, as elsewhere, Adams namedrops with the best of 'em, and he does so with delight. Whether it's stroking Henry Kissinger's ego or stoking the late Christopher Hitchens' private fuego, there are always unspoken assertions. 'Look who I landed!' 'I launched this bloke's career!' 'I'm a clever boy, I am!'

But he is.

A highly intelligent interviewer and writer, Adams usually places himself on the side of the angels, while his namedropping and listing of successes suggests a constant second guessing of himself.

In this swag of recollections we have a ramblin' man, moseying contentedly through selected anecdotes and mysteries. When Adams stops to smell the rosaries, to count his coups, you may laugh, yawn or roll your eyes. But the man's a stylist; you read on. Well, I do.

I love the guy's honesty, courage, intelligence, wit, passion and perspective. Adams regally gives good interviewer: listen, laugh, smear with honey — don't be no gladiator.

As well as his love affair with death and his absent meaning of life, Adams relishes sexual freedom fighters, true crime figures, death apparatchiks and monsters, including his cunningly contrived interview with Adolf Hitler.

Part potentate, part relic (well put, Jen), Adams' championing of the medium of radio does leave me cold. But his relevance comes from his rage maintenance. The man doesn't let go, thereby enshrining cultural memories.

Take his prophetic reflection on Pauline Hanson: Hanson was 'the recipient of the electorate's inchoate rage [often] fixed on groups like asylum seekers and Aborigines'. His coda? 'The great tragedy was, of course, that whilst Hanson's career would ultimately be reduced to dancing with the stars, her policies, such as they were, were embraced by the major parties.'

It's probably true; this Adamsfest would have benefited from a more interventionist editor. It certainly would have helped the flow. But too tight a rein may have meant the loss of the mischievous chaos.

Enjoy the jaunt; his gleeful emu parade littered with scraps of truth and the gristle of hypocrisy. That's where you find Adams' genius as an interviewer and a thinker. Not sure if this book's for you? Fair enough; not all readers wish to wade through Australia's bleak heartland of racism, and religious and sexual oppression.

Still, Bedtime Stories stands record to an eloquent if verbose legend. Adams recounts a lesson received as a child, that 'life is only froth and bubbles', and contends his mission is to 'try to produce good, nourishing noise'. Decades on he's still bubbling away.


Barry Gittins headshotJen Vuk headshotBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army. He has written for Eureka Street, Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. 


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Bedtime Stories, Philip Adams

 

 

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Existing comments

I am very much enjoying the book chat segment, particularly two perspectives on the reviewed item. Thank you.
Moira Byrne | 08 March 2013


This isn't so much a comment on Bedtime Stories, since I haven't read it yet, but what keeps me coming back to LNL is the question will Phillip keep holding out a la Francis Thompson, to the end? I live in another hope.
Lesley de Voil | 08 March 2013


Adams presented with an Adelaide professor, whose name I forgot a conversation about "Big questions" on SBS. The professor gently but expertly guided him into for him unknown territory. The best program I have ever seen on this subject!
Theo verbeek | 08 March 2013


Verbose indeed as listening to Adams confirms, along with attempts at humour that are patronising and/or childish. I grant sometimes interesting interviewees. But essentially he is as predictable as Andrew Bolt. Let me add Guy Rundle to the list of the predictable if more from Adams' side of fence. Still reading the comments about affairs in Rome at moment predictability is well and truly established.
Brian Poidevin | 08 March 2013


Re Theo Verbeek's comment. The name of the Professor was that of the famous cosmologist and philosopher Paul Davies. I very much enjoyed those interviews myself - possibly my favourites. They can easily be found first by googling Philip Adams, then by clicking on the Big Questions - you will even find a further sequence of 'six more big questions'
John Whitehead | 08 March 2013


"Perhaps the most remarkable broadcaster in this country", so writes Robert Manne about Phillip Adams. Is he doing a Phillip Adams? Damning with concealed irony by the subtle selection of adverb, in this case "perhaps", the open-to- interpretation adjective "remarkable", and the limiting adverbial phrase "in this country"? Like Bryce Courtney, and this is his main gift, he can sniff out a market. Both men had a grounding in public relations. Bryce targeted middle-class readers looking for feel-good stories. Phillip homed in on the aspiring artists and intelligentsia, who craved to have their pictures exhibited, their films distributed, their books bought, their lectures attended, and, yes some intellectuals do want this, a government that would subsidise them to the hilt, even if they had to sing "It's Time", to get it. I listened to LNL most weeknights when I was driving home from meetings of various kinds. To Phillip's and his guests' credit the program kept me awake. It also irritated me. Come think of it, it was the irritation that kept me alert. As far as I am concerned Adams' Bedtimes Stories have served their purpose. I will not be buying this book. This month I will be spending the literary apportionment of my old age pension on Simon Leys' (Pierre Ryckmans') Collected Essays, The Hall of Uselessness. "one of Australia's superlative essayists... with wit and uncommon clarity." Geordie Williamson, The Australian. Now there is a book Eureka Street would do well to review.
Uncle Pat | 08 March 2013


For me Phillip is the sharp end of social conscience. Where else does one get such great wide ranging comment and analysis from such brilliant commentators at 10pm (or 4pm)? I love every reference to Gerard. Amanda - love her too!!
Digby Habel | 08 March 2013


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