What I Know About Women

"In my day, you got sex by either marrying very young or falsely proposing marriage" … Bob Ellis.

"In my day, you got sex by either marrying very young or falsely proposing marriage" … Bob Ellis. Photo: Randy Larcombe

Bob Ellis
Writer, married, 70

My mother, Elsie, was a highly neurotic Seventh-day Adventist deaconess who, nonetheless, was not particularly religious, and was wont to try and kill my father [Keith] from time to time. She drove a car at him once. It's complicated.

When I was 10, my 22-year-old sister was killed one morning crossing a road. Three hoons, racing each other, went through a red light. It was the seminal moment of my life. I think about her every day and I've never gotten over it. In a way, she's a very influential ghost.

My mother blamed my father. She was clinically mad, I'd say, for about four years after that, but perhaps all her life. When my father, a commercial traveller, would come home reeking of drink, with lipstick on his collar, she'd roar at him, curse him.


She could be perfectly normal, but when my father was around she'd turn into this foul-mouthed, shrieking, violent bitch. My mother was a horrible negative influence and I was lucky to escape to university and the rest of it.

My mother didn't at all define for me what a woman was. There were girls I fell in love with at school, my sisters were terrific (I have a younger sister, too). So, no - I never looked out for madness in other women, though it may have slipped by me. I had an affair with Charmian Clift in 1967, probably five or six times, while George [Johnston, Clift's husband] slept upstairs - we'd sneak away to a park. A few years later, I went to England with my wife [writer Anne Brooksbank] and came back and found out that Charmian had committed suicide.

I proposed a lot at university - when you come to the city from the country you find you're simultaneously in love with about five girls you met in slightly different settings - but I don't know how serious I was. I never slept with anybody I ever proposed to - more groping than poking - except my present wife of 43 years. In my day, you got sex by either marrying very young or falsely proposing marriage in order to get it. It wouldn't otherwise come without that guarantee, which you then broke.

Back then, I saw a tremendous generosity in women. They were all quite wonderful when you consider what they had to put up with: French letters and lack of orgasm and serial infidelity, which was what blokes like us were doing to them.

Women make the ultimate commitment. They commit themselves to have a man's children. Some women raise children on their own; it's impossible, but some women make a fist of it. They have a ferocious loyalty to their offspring, and indeed to their husband. These women who stand by their husbands through political scandals - Mrs Profumo, Hillary Clinton, and so on - they are much better people than men are. Dogs are much better people than men are. We are trustless and women are trustworthy.

But a tremendous con job has been done to women; this spin that says women have sex in order to have orgasm. In fact, women have sex in order to have babies. This is the way nature has always been. Women have also been made to be confused by the merchants of glad; clothing and so on, and this foolish notion they can have it all. These days, there's a kind of hidden feeling of horror that women undergo now in relationships, when the bloke walks out and leaves them scrambling around wine bars to find someone to impregnate them.

My wife Anne is wonderful and is on my side when I've been accused of being sexist. I hate it - I wouldn't mind if it was in some part true, but it's not. If it were so, I wouldn't be able to write women as characters in dialogue as well as I do. I would have been dead, literally, had I not met Anne. I would have wiped myself out driving a car drunk or something. Anne is calm. And she has a lovely voice. It's contralto and soft, comforting and welcoming. I find it amazing that so many Australian women spend hours every day trying to look beautiful, yet they sound like cats sliding down a blackboard. It's one of the great failings in Australian women.

Ellis's latest play, Shakespeare in Italy, plays at Adelaide's Holden Street Theatres until August 25.

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