Friday, 3 October 2014

A hitch-hiker's guide to a book reading of A President's Desk by Shaun Micallef

The Evidence 

Last week, I attended a book signing by Shaun Micallef of his new book, The President’s Desk.

I didn’t know anything about the book, but I was keen to see him in the flesh, having been a fan of his TV work for years. The event was to start at 7pm but by 6.45pm, most of the seats were filled, mostly by people with grey or balding hair. Which surprised me, I don’t know why.

At approximately 6.57pm, a couple of Righteous Baby Boomers approached the counter of the bookshop we were squeezed into. The Lady Boomer shared with the bookshop staff her dilemma at needing to sit down, when evidently, all the chairs were taken. “IS IT OK IF I BRING IN A CUSHION FROM MY CAR TO SIT ON? I HAVE A [inaudible] AND WON’T BE ABLE TO STAND STANDING FOR THE ENTIRE TIME.”  Ostensibly, this seemed like a polite request for permission to get a cushion from her car to sit on. In reality of course, it was a Cry For Attention, and it was duly recognised and responded to in the form of a Gen Xer sacrificing the perfectly positioned seat he’d procured at 6.31pm.

There followed much feigned “Oh are you sure?” goodness me, sort of inanities, before Lady Boomer assumed her prized seat, and then looked forlornly [for maximum effect] at Sir Boomer, who despite both of their outwardly fit appearances, also must have had some sort of latent physical defect that would make standing more painful than the captive audience having to listen to the two of them carry on a very poorly performed Second Act.

“Perhaps you could have This One Chair, and I’ll sit on your lap?” said Lady Boomer, which was of course, a further Cry for Attention and Action for another person in the audience to sacrifice their seat, which thankfully no one heeded.
“There, there, I’ll be ok. An hour you say?” said Sir Boomer. 

For the record, I would and have, always given my seat to someone who looks like they need it more than I. But there was something distinctly manipulative in the way these two were carrying on and neither of them looked to be in anything other than perfect Boomer health, which is to say, they looked like they’d come off the winter having shared several Sauvignon Semillon Blancs while taking a luxury Greyhound tour of Western Australia with a side trip to Broome, which they loved, but my goodness, getting there, what an ordeal.

I watched all of this from my vantage point two seats behind Lady Boomer. I reached to my left and picked up a copy of The President’s Desk, perched helpfully in great stacks adorning the counter. I read the ‘Editor’s Note’ and was hooked, because I could hear Shaun Micallef’s beautifully resonant and supercilious voice coming at me with great gusto, thankfully drowning out the continued Attention Seeking Behaviour from Lady and Sir Boomer.

It was 7.02pm and the standing crowd was now lining the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lining the room. I paid for my book and resumed my seat, not without making a point of constructing a “Fuck off, this seat is taken” sign with my handbag, lest Sir Boomer’s eyes wander to it lasciviously. The standing crowds and the high walls of books and the lack of air and complaints about not Being Able to See and the bookshop owner declaring in response, We’re A Bookshop Not a Theatre and the inner thoughts of those listening of yes but you chose to have this event here and not even offer a serve of water in small plastic cups, let alone the red wine and cheese I’d imagined would be circulating at such an event.

All this seething tension was smoothed at the sight of the great man himself entering from a back entrance and a hush fell over the room. That voice began speaking and it was delightful and funny and irreverent and deeply, deeply resonant and everyone laughed and the collective mood was lifted as he read from Chapter 3 and put on all the voices of the characters and it really was hilarious and I wanted to say, shit, Mr Micallef, you are so incredibly talented and despite some people saying you’re almost Too Smart – that is, sometimes your jokes Go Over Our Heads because you’re operating at warp speed and we’re still in turbo thrust mode, you just Nail It, you know?

Next came question time and there was a smattering of questions, none of which were going to set the world alight with New Insights or a Cannily Observed Observation, including my own, which was “How long did it take you to write?” and he said five years, and two months of a four month break after Mr and Mrs Murder, I didn’t pitch the idea to the publisher because you never know if these things will work, and as you know the real work begins after you submit the first draft, etc etc.  

And then Lady Boomer stuck her hand high in the air and when the emcee pointed at her she responded with, “WHO ME?” and both the emcee and Sir Boomer exclaimed, “Yes, yes” because there’s nothing more irritating than all this preamble garbage that happens in the moments before a question is asked. And it didn’t escape my attention that Sir Boomer’s tone included a hint of exasperation. 

Lady Boomer paused, waiting for the non-existent camera to zoom in for the close up. Looking left and right she then said in her loudest Inside Voice, “What do you think will become of the desk once Hillary Clinton becomes the first female President of the United States of America?” which, true to Lady Boomer’s character, was less of a question and more of a statement of her political leanings and a wink and nod to, you know, that Infamous Incident of the Desk and Hillary’s Husband and an Intern and haw haw haw how we laughed in Monte Carlo sort of thing. And the crowd inhaled collectively the increasingly rare, not as in rarefied, but rare, air in the bookshop and waited to see how the great man would respond to such a blatant Cry for Attention from Lady Boomer.  And he did us proud, the man with the piercing wit and intelligence offered a respectful answer about not having spent too much time on That Incident in the book and something about not knowing what the fate of the desk under Hillary would be, but all the while, telegraphing to the rest of the audience, now feeling clammy and slightly light headed that He Knows Lady Boomer is a Tramp Tosser and He Wants Us to Know He Knows, as a kind of metaphorical pat on our shoulder in solidarity.

And then questions were done and the great man, who’d been very anxious to ensure time was left at the end to enable him to read a poem, began reading a poem from a book of six that Jimmy Stewart had published and I’m thinking, what tha? And the poem’s about a dog called Beau and it’s a simple poem, with each second line rhyming with the last word of the sentence before it, like a poem you’d compose when you’re six.And he reads this poem, and interjects little soliloquies throughout, commenting in his funny way that the poem is very poorly written and simple like this, He never came to me when I would call/Unless I had a tennis ball/Or he felt like it/But mostly he didn't come at all and we laugh along with him because it’s really funny and also, where the hell is this going? Where are you taking us Oh He of the Stupendous Hair? And he keeps reading with the voice of Jimmy Stewart, which I’ve never heard, but it sounds exactly like it should. 

And the great man’s voice is mimicking the voice of another great man’s and revealing that peculiar knowing affection that is wordlessly communicated between man and dog. And we’re laughing and thinking this is a cute tale but where and why and oh, god, please no, not there, don’t take us there. And he does, with this tale that is ostensibly about a good natured golden retriever and an aging man’s love for him which is all of a sudden about mortality and loss and silence and darkness and my eyes brim with tears as the crowd around me still tries to squeeze out a smattering of giggles, because this feels uncomfortable and they’re not sure they Get It as in, why he’s reading this to them and I try to not let my emotions erupt too much thinking about Beau and this pathos and fuck I’m gonna start bawling because it reminds me of my dad and Sammy the Tibetan Spaniel, so I focus on the back of Elliot Perlman’s head [yes, he’s there] and think about why no-one has noticed him there and He’s One of Australia’s Greatest Writers but he’s just an average shmo sitting here at a book reading and later, he’ll join the queue to meet the great man and have his book signed too, and I wonder if Shaun will recognise  him like I do, and yes, of course he will. Maybe they’re with the same publisher.

And then everyone claps and I go up to have my newly purchased book signed. And I’m close to the front and I’m thinking about what I’m going to say. Topics could include how I love his satirical style, which I also write but oh, no no not like you do and in fact I’ve previously emailed your Mad As Hell producer to ask if there’s any way I can observe the magic being made and do middle age work experience or something and make you cups of tea because I know you don’t drink coffee and in the same email, maybe to buffer any sense of rejection about asking if I could you know, observe the magic, I’d also asked him if my artist friend could paint the great man for the Archibald in 2013 and the producer said, Shaun’s done that a lot already and yeah, probably no, and with respect to the observing the magic thing, the season is almost over so yeah, no but he was very polite about it and I could recap all that and maybe pitch directly to the man and ask if there’s ever a need for a writer, I’m there, like totally there and I think there’s synergies to leverage and all that.

But then I’m the next in line and his PR publisher rep woman is standing beside me and I ask awkwardly if it’s ok to get a photo with the great man. And she says, yes as long as it’s quick and it sort of takes the magic out of it and I say, it’s kind of like waiting to visit Santa isn’t it and she gives a sort of closed mouth snort that indicates she didn’t find that analogy amusing or dignified and then it’s my turn and I approach and say that was a great reading. I found the dog poem really sad. And he looks at me and says, yes, it is sad. It’s very simply written but it just is… and I say it sort of made me want to cry and is it ok if I get a photo with you and he says sure. But it’s a bit awkward because he stands up to match me [Shaun Micallef is a gentleman] and I know I’m not supposed to Touch the Merchandise, as in him, so we stand there awkwardly with his book not in frame, which was kinda of what I’d envisaged for the shot but anyway this’ll do and I’m beaming in the picture and he looks drawn and tired and his hair looks less coiffed and I think he needs to put on a bit of weight and he asks if I want the book made out to me and I say yes, it’s Diana – with one N and he says, the only way to spell it. Ha ha yes, and I walk away clutching my book that says “Hi Diana” and is signed Shaun Micallef and I catch Elliot Perlman’s eye and I transmit inaudibly to him, I think you’re a bloody good writer and I loved Seven Types of Ambiguity and I also sat three seats away from you at The National concert and is that pregnant woman with you your partner and if so, is that the same woman you were with at The National concert? His eyes transmit back to me no recognition of that information and I think about Jimmy Stewart patting Beau’s head in the dark of the night, a little tap communicating comfort and it’s gonna be ok and oh shit we’re all in this together there’s no way back except forward into the abyss and I walk back to my car and head home and that’s pretty much it.

Diana Elliott 


  1. I enjoyed reading about your encounter. If only Shaun's novels would be released as audiobooks.

  2. Thanks Robert.Oh wow, yes! Love that idea. His voice really does add to the enjoyment of the writing.