This is a guest post by Mark Basil Butler, whom I’ve only ever really known as Basil since the mid-seventies when we both knocked around with the the jazz-swing-rock post-hippy crew that was Uncle Bobs Band. This review of the wonderful book by the equally wonderful Mr Jeffery is an occasional column about books that have influenced Basil, for good or ill, and the impact that books and the book culture have had on his life and work.

Book 8: My Family and Other Animus, by James Jeffrey

When I landed a casual subbing job on The Australian in 1996, after 12 months laying out a child-care newsletter precariously funded by a former advertising exec, the place was humming, with upwards of 300 staff jammed into one floor of News Ltd’s Surry Hills headquarters. I worked on the paper’s lucrative IT section, or sections, for it was in three, one of them colour, sometimes running to more than 100 pages each week. For the many casuals such as me, every shift began with a quick scan of the floor for an empty desk with a computer on it, so you could snaffle it before someone else did. At some point in the shift the full-time employee whose desk it was would appear, huffily reclaim it, and off I’d go again in search of another unoccupied desk.

Those crowded days are long gone, of course. It’s sobering to look at that IT section in its present desiccated condition, barely a shadow of its former bulk, for it tells the story of the decline of newspapers, which is the story of the flight of advertising from them. In 1996 that was all to come, though as far as those hundreds on that floor knew, and the hundreds more on the floor below, where lurked the huge circulation tabloid beasts the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, it was all systems go: the Titanic sails at dawn! And lucrative too, as I soon found as I settled in to the job: within a few weeks I was writing Discus, a weekly column about that now defunct technology, the CD-ROM, for no other reason than the section editor had an urgent need for a reviewer, and I not only came up with the name of the column, I also volunteered to write it.

Other freelance writing gigs on the paper, in the travel and arts sections, soon followed, and within six months I was earning as much from that as from subbing, a combined income that dwarfed my previous salary as magazine publisher for Scholastic, which had been an executive position overseeing a team of editors and an art room. Life was good.

Paul Kelly was coming to the end of his undistinguished tenure as editor-in-chief of the paper. He had been removed by Lachlan Murdoch, newly installed by father Rupert as chief executive of News Ltd, replacing long-time incumbent Ken Cowley as part of daddy’s efforts, fruitless to date, to train him up to take over the business. Kelly’s successor as EIC was David Armstrong, while boy wonder, thirty-something Campbell Reid, the youngest editor of the Daily Telegraph, was booted upstairs to edit the Oz. While the paper’s editorial position was still on the right, it began to veer towards the wet end of the spectrum, which made working there a little more comfortable for most of its staff, who veered left.

After two years or so, I had managed to weasel my way on to the features subs desk, the philosopher’s desk, which dealt with all the paper’s serious copy, political, cultural and artistic. At the time the Oz undoubtedly had the most comprehensive coverage of the arts of any Australian newspaper: even readers who couldn’t stomach the politics of the weekly edition queued up for The Weekend Australian. It’s a formula pioneered by The Times and The Daily Telegraph in London, both hardcore Tory papers that sweeten the poison with their lavish arts coverage. That desk would be my workday home for the next decade or so, toiling alongside an unforgettable array of highly skilled, talented and individual language technicians. We did a lot of good work on that desk.

One of the rituals of those days was the annual intake of cadet journalists, usually graduates, who would be delivered to our tender mercies for training. Among them was a gawky, Harpo Marx-haired young man who peered sceptically at the world through what appeared to be the bottom of two Coke bottles, and when he laughed, which was often, revealed a set of fangs anchoring each end of an ample, open smile. Unlike most of the other cadets, he could already write; he needed little training other than encouragement, which our desk gave him in spades. He also revealed not just an interest in, but a deep passion for, reptiles. But he topped that: he played the bagpipes, indeed, he was a scholar of the pipes. What was not to like? His quirky, animalcentric view of the world floated on a profound sense of the depth of human frustrations, the product, it turned out, of his unusual parentage.

His name was James, James Jeffrey.

We barely had time to know him before he had whisked another cadet, Annabelle McGilvray, off her feet and taken her to Moscow for a couple of years, there to work on an English-language newspaper and become a father.

Upon his return to the Oz he was sent to our desk, where he spent several raucous, risible and ribald years, much to our mutual delight. He also began honing his writing skills in often hilarious travel stories that always put people and animals front and centre, and in columns that introduced the Oz readership to his awful and awful Hungarian mother and his quietly eccentric and put-upon northern English father. They had divorced acrimoniously when James was a child and thereafter provided him with a lifetime’s stories, which he has meticulously and lovingly recounted in the pages of the paper for a decade or more. In the process he has written one of the most affecting portraits of an unhappy marriage since DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.

Somewhere in there he also began intermittently writing the Oz’s daily current affairs column, now called Strewth, gradually morphing into the superb parliamentary sketch writer he is today, the equal of the exemplar of that select tribe, Mungo McCallum, who had the good fortune to observe Gough Whitlam in his pomp. The characters James writes about are pygmies compared to Whitlam, so he probably has to work harder than Mungo did. They both see politics as a theatre for big egos and a thousand small tragedies, where the epic and the utterly banal rub shoulders: fertile territory for a writer attuned to absurdity. And James is keenly attuned, and just as keenly aware that to master the human interest story you must be interested in humans, even those you’d rather not share oxygen with.

For James, it is not about the politics, but the people, which is probably why he has managed to survive for so long in the toxic political environment at the Oz, stuffed as it is with Liberal Party operatives and conservative thinkers (forgive the oxymoron). He is genuinely (not, unlike many News Corpse writers, unintentionally) funny. Deeply funny. The kind of funny that leaves you in tears, but not always tears of laughter.

Yet I’m sure he would say that he is proudest of those more personal forays into the human condition, now collected in much expanded form in My Family and Other Animus (MUP). It is not his first book; that honour goes to Paprika Paradise, published about a decade ago, which details an epically funny journey he took with his father to Hungary, with a side trip to his ancestral places in the Midlands and Scotland. His description of driving with one of his many swine-eating Hungarian cousins still burns in my memory. I loved that book, but sadly the public didn’t (nor did the publisher, judging by the lack of promotion it received). This time around, given his much higher public profile courtesy of the Strewth column, I think the result will be much different.

One of the most moving themes in his new book is the slow onset of his father’s dementia. In one section he details how on a trip to Central Australia with his father he began noticing telltale signs. This excerpt doesn’t mention dementia at all, but it is there, exquisitely teased out James’s elegant, sharply observed prose:

Most of the rest of that trip was fine and Dad spent a lot of it in a dreamy happiness, laying his hands on things as we went – orange rocks, white bark, red sand – just to feel that bit more connected with the country he’d chosen as his home all those years before. He swayed before the sight of Uluru, immense and singular on the plain. We hiked between the Rubenesque formations of Kata Tjuta and, owing to the fact his knees weren’t up to tackling the steep trail, beheld Kings Canyon from a helicopter. But his eyes never strayed from the small things. When he had his first encounter with wild zebra finches – a personal favourite of his – he just melted, listening in rapture as they called in their little zing-zing voices from among the spinifex.

But it is his mother who is the star of the show, a Hungarian force of nature with a cigarette in one hand and a slap in the other. She is one of the great female characters in our literature. I won’t quote anything about her: buy the book and find out for yourself. But just having her in the vicinity is enough to spur James to even greater heights, as in this paragraph, and what a beauty it is:

I first went to the Ridge as a boy, courtesy of Mum and Janos, who had friends up there. They were an older couple who lived out of town on their claim amid talcum-fine dust and temperatures so high, the moment you stepped outside your eyeballs began evaporating. Their dog was a dreadlocked Hungarian breed called a puli and how it survived was a mystery. Tree frogs sang from inside the safe darkness of the water tank, and pinecone-skinned shingleback lizards lumbered about with short legs and rueful expressions. But inside, the demountable was so fancifully decorated with carpets and fussy pieces of Hungarian porcelain it felt like you’d slipped down a wormhole into the Habsburg empire.