PHILLIP ADAMS: The Ideas Man - A Life Revealedby PHILIP LUKER
JoJo Publishing, 2011, 337 pages, $34.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
PhillipAdams' list of enemies is as good, or as bad, as it gets - the neo-Nazi National Front (which vandalised his home in 1988), former right-wing Prime Minister, John Howard (who refused to appear on Adams' ABC Late Night Live program), and the massed bigots of conservative talk-back radio.
350,000 other people, however, who prefer ideas to cliché, civility to abuse, and compassion to bigotry, regularly listen to Adams' conversational interviews, savoring the mental exploration and calm reason which Adams offers as respite from the narrow, superficial, and sometimes ugly, commentary which passes for intellectual sustenance in the commercial, and much of the state, media.
Philip Luker's biography of Adams shows a young boy, born in Victoria in 1939, who survived a "miserable childhood of neglect, hardship and abuse by a hated stepfather", leaving school at age fifteen to occupy a 35-year niche in the advertising industry ('Guess Whose Mum's Got A Whirlpool' was an Adams' slogan, as was 'Slip, Slop, Slap'), a business Adams now reflects to be 'despicable, irritating, shallow' but which made Adams a small fortune, allowing him to indulge his taste for expensive cars and owning the largest private collection of antiquities and artifacts in Australia, a multi-million dollar hobby.
Whilst helping to revive the Australian film industry in the 1970s, breakfast and talkback radio with the rightwing Sydney radio station, 2UE was an experience which suited neither Adams nor 2UE until in 1990, the ABC came to the moral rescue with Late Night Live, which Adams has made into the third highest-rating of all ABC radio programs.
His radio success comes from his interviewing style ("inquisitive rather than interrogative") and giving exposure to a wide range of informed critics whose dissent from political, military and social orthodoxy resonates with Adams' own, and his listeners', dislike of prejudice, inequality and ignorance. Adams is unrepentantly left-wing.
A child atheist, it had been Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath which awakened Adams' political instincts and propelled him into a three year membership of the Communist Party of Australia from age 14, followed by an ALP membership which he abandoned in 2010 to vote Green.
When evaluating Adams' shortcomings, such as Adams' own assessment that he has a short attention span, and a liking for a broad vista of ideas rather than analytical depth, Luker is perceptive but sometimes he is unfairly critical of Adams. Luker asserts, for example, that Adams "plays at being humble" but is really a "smartarse" who likes to display his superiority. This, however, is to mistake Adams' justifiable self-confidence for egotistical self-regard, something which Luker, annoyingly, has in spades, peppering his book with the doings of Philip Luker, the journalist and biographer.
Luker's other problems also hinder a better understanding of Adams, both his positive core political values ("no one seriously believes socialism will return", lectures Luker on Adams' leftism) and Adams' failings as a revolutionary political strategist. Adams, despite tearing up his ALP membership card, for example, has not completely abandoned the dead carcass of the ALP which he had lugged around for decades - former ALP Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, remains Adams' great white hope.
Luker's hastily-written book assists with a survey of Adams life but doesn't really open up the mind of someone whose nightly "journey of the mind" takes listeners to the trouble spots of life with a view to doing something about them.