Grafton Everest is the shambolic former Australian independent senator recently elevated to become the first Australian Secretary-General of the United Nations. You didn’t hear about this?
Well then, you need to read about it. It’s all there in Pandemonium, the latest Grafton Everest adventure by Ross Fitzgerald and Ian McFadyen. Everest is the protagonist of a nine novel series that began with Fitzgerald’s Pushed from The Wings, first published by Hale & Iremonger in 1986 in what many consider to be the bad old days of the Bjelke-Petersen regime.
As a response to the conservative Queensland government of the day Fitzgerald, then a lecturer in Humanities and now Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, created a character that would allow him to channel his chagrin at the political and academic systems of the day into fiction and, in his case, biting satire.
As a commentator Fitzgerald was no friend of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen whose government threatened to sue him for criminal libel. Indeed, rather infamously, in 1984 the second volume of his History of Queensland was pulped by UQP due to legal action by former Queensland chief justice, Sir Walter Campbell, the then Chancellor of the University of Queensland.
Fitzgerald fearlessly critiqued the powerful who didn’t take it too well. But he got his own back in Pushed from The Wings, set in fictional Mangoland (a thinly veiled Queensland) which featured a dictatorial state premier by the name of Sir Otis Hoogstraten, who may have resembled Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Or did he?
This is fiction, after all. But do the adventures and misadventures of academic Grafton Everest across nine biting satires mirror, in any way, the life of the author?
Fitzgerald, 78, the author of 45 books, is enigmatic about that.
“Well, yes and no,” he says. “Grafton Everest is what I could be if I let myself go.”
After decades in Brisbane, Fitzgerald now lives in Sydney, so there is that similarity with Everest who also now resides in what playwright David Williamson refers to as Emerald City.
Fitzgerald’s first few Grafton Everest novels were solo efforts but eventually he began collaborating on later books, with Trevor Jordan, Antony Funnell and more recently with Ian McFadyen who back in the 1980s shot to fame on the hit television show The Comedy Company. McFadyen lives on Brisbane’s northern outskirts, so in a sense Grafton Everest still has Queensland roots.
“I’m in charge of writing things like the technological observations and putting in the jokes,” McFadyen says. “As to whether Grafton is like Ross, well, they have many things in common.”
The collaboration is, McFadyen says, a lot of fun and it keeps his comedic muscles in shape.
“We have some interesting discussions,” he says. “We will be working things out and Ross will ask … Can Grafton have a donkey? Can the Prime Minister turn into a werewolf?”
Political correctness is liberally dispensed with in this fictional series.
Mad things happen in the books as Grafton wanders through academia and politics, eventually becoming a senator for Mangoland who holds the balance of power in the senate.
In the more recent books, Professor Dr Grafton Everest leaves Mangoland and in The Dizzying Heights becomes the first president of the IRA (Inclusive Republic of Australia). After representing the United Nations on a fact-finding mission in Russia in the previous novel, The Lowest Depths, in Pandemonium he is elevated to run the UN. Which seems like a kind of bizarre conclusion to his brilliant, seemingly accidental career.
Pushed from The Wings, was received well in Australia, especially after a glowing review by Barry Humphries in Quadrant magazine which stated “Grafton Everest is a wonderful creation” and placed Fitzgerald “without question in the ranks of Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth”. That first satire and the sequel All About Anthrax were republished internationally by Corgi/Bantam in their prestigious Black Swan series. Both books sold well in Great Britain and South Africa. This was helped by Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson who headed his review in the London Observer “Conquering Everest.”
Not everyone loved the books. Indeed, one critic in The Age newspaper excoriated the first novel claiming … “I never laughed once” a line Fitzgerald used in marketing the book and its sequel.
But it is Barry Humphries’ endorsement of Grafton Everest and his continued support of his writing that Fitzgerald values the most.
Fitzgerald and Humphries both battled the demon of alcoholism but became sober together in 1970. They maintained a close friendship until Humphries’ death in April this year.
“It was one of the most important friendships I’ve ever had,” Fitzgerald says.
Fitzgerald had a cameo in Humphries’ outrageous film The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. (Fitzgerald is one of the folks waving Bazza off as he leaves Australia for London).
“And I was with Barry when he first played Sir Les Patterson at the Rooty Hill RSL all those years ago,” Fitzgerald recalls. “Les was Barry’s favourite character to play because as a sober person he could transfer all his negativity onto this one dipsomaniacal character. It’s the same with Grafton Everest for me, although Grafton is a teetotaller. In fact, there is quite a lot of Sir Les in Grafton.”
A brother from another mother, as they say.
It was Humphries who introduced Fitzgerald to his wife of 45 years, Lyndal Moor, who died in 2020. When she ditched Humphries’ then manager, the mega-rich Clyde Packer, to team up with Fitzgerald, Humphries quipped of the well-known model and actress – “Lyndal’s gone from diamonds to boiled lollies.”
After moving to Brisbane with Fitzgerald in 1977 when he took up his position at Griffith University, his wife also became a lecturer … at Queensland College of Art, later part of Griffith University.
As it happens, Grafton Everest’s long-suffering wife Janet, who in some ways resembles Lyndal, and features in all nine novels, also worked at the University of Mangoland – as a lecturer in Fibre Art.
Fitzgerald says teaming up with Ian McFadyen, whom he met when they were working on a film project together, has been a joy.
“It has been a hoot working with Ian,” he says. “And as he has pointed out to me, these novels have often been a couple of years ahead of reality.” But reality catches up.
McFadyen, 75, describes the books as “an odd combination of social and political satire and fantasy”.
“It’s all quite mad and when we start, we really don’t know where things are going to end up,” McFadyen says and he insists this is the last book in the series pointing out that Beethoven only wrote nine symphonies. Fitzgerald is more ambivalent.
“Because at the end of the book Grafton is still alive,” he says. “The trick is, where could he go after being the Secretary-General of the United Nations? He could become the Pope. He’s an atheist but if he were to be a Christian, he’d certainly be Catholic. Who knows, he might convert. Or he could be sent to outer space.” The mind boggles.
Pandemonium by Ross Fitzgerald & Ian McFadyen, Hybrid Publishers, $32.99
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