Tim Blair


New Criterion



Tuesday, October 01, 2002
EVERYBODY RELAXED? Recovered from The Friends of Doom, Part I? Ready for part 2?

I thought not. Time to throw the switch to comedy.

Question. How do you get to be the presenter of Auntie's prime-time listener sound-off program on Radio National?

It's demanding, nerve-racking work, and just to please those with a gluttonous appetite for irony, it's called AUSTRALIA TALKS BACK!

“Your task, 007, is to so conduct yourself that the callers to your program reflect the same distorted image of the views of the Australian public as Auntie’s paid preachers and the communards supporting them.”

Mission improbable.


Who is this hero?

Name’s Sandy McCutcheon – licensed dill.

Here’s how it happened.

An office in Ultimo.

Sandy was the founder of the Illusion Farm Community, a Buddhist centre in the mountains of Tasmania that provided rest and retreat facilities free of charge for people in need. The Farm also provided the base for the Illusion Circus Theatre Company which toured many of his plays.

"The illusion circus"! Perfect! Hire that man, Tarquin!

But sir! Isn’t he a little weak in broadcasting experience?

Nonsense boy. Sandy has produced radio documentaries in many parts of the world including Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Mozambique, South Africa and North and South Sudan. In Finland he has worked with the Finnish National Broadcaster.

They didn’t sack him did they sir?

Don’t be a dweeb, Tarquin. He has also been awarded the International Kalevala Medal by the Finnish Government for services to Finnish culture.

What is Finnish culture sir?

Ask the Russians, boy, they’ve dropped in once or twice. No-one else has. Except the Swedes. They used to run it. On the other hand, all Swedes watch foreign television.

Some Australian broadcasting experience would be helpful sir, surely?

Of course you chump. Sandy has worked in both commercial and public radio with the highlights being his time on Double Jay.

What’s Double Jay, sir?

You do need more rock and roll, boy. Make a note of that will you.

I do hope he knows how to relate to people, sir.

Good point, Tarquin! I know for a fact that He can describe vividly how he haunted crowded railway station platforms and airports in Europe listening to voices and studying faces in a futile attempt to salvage some fragile misled thread which would lead him back to his true origins.

True origins, sir? Is he an alien?

No more so than necessary, Tarquin. For years McCutcheon's search teetered on the edge of obsessive fantasy. Years before in Christchurch he had been told that he was Polish by birth, and had arrived in New Zealand as a child displaced in the aftermath of World War 2. Even on her deathbed, his adoptive mother said that McCutcheon's past must remain hidden because of the "horrible truth". But what was the "truth" that had driven an outwardly level-headed man into the realms of fantasy and fiction?

Oh my God, sir, he doesn’t think he’s a Kiwi does he?

Certainly not, Tarquin. Naturalised years ago. And he is, above all, creative. Did you know, Sandy's subsequent novels, "Peace Crimes", "Poison Tree", "Safe Haven" and "Delicate Indecencies" are all bestsellers. He has also written two non-fiction titles and an illustrated children's book called "Blik!" Two new novels are due out....

Excellent, sir! Just one thing worries me a little, the name. Perhaps a trifle Anglo, sir?

It’s Scots, you dunce!

I do appreciate there is a slight difference, sir. But does your average multicultural care?

Look here, Tarquin, you’re being dashed negative. Just listen to me: a mistily anonymous past dogged his life. It even became enmeshed into the plots of his two crime novels with their tales of international intrigue and espionage. Except for McCutcheon, it was very real.

That’s true, sir. I see in his application he says: "Here was this wonderfully intriguing story that took me around the world searching for voices, accents, clues to who I was. But how do you find a mother unless you know the mother tongue? How would you even say mother? I sat for hours in airports or railway stations listening for some fragment of speech I could respond to. It never worked but I became very good at picking up where people came from."

Good spotting, Tarquin. The search, and McCutcheon's obsession with his origins, took bizarre twists. Because he been circumcised as a child he persuaded himself that he was Jewish.

And, Tarquin, he told me at interview that "At one stage I used to keep a kosher kitchen, took out a subscription to the Jewish News, and went to the Hobart synagogue. I even won the national Jewish playwright's award for a play called Night Train, the story of a small boy who sits on trains looking for his mother but not being Jewish enough to join the 10 elderly men in the next carriage who are lighting the Sabbath candle."

You’ve convinced me, sir. He won’t be asked to respond to any comments about politics or foreign affairs will he? I recall him predicting the Yanks would be trashed in the Gulf in 1991.

So did I, boy, and I could well have been right.

I'm worried about this bit in his application sir? “The television images we see each night are fine -- if they are true. I remember the suggestions at the beginning of the Bosnian war that film footage was either vetted by an American advertising agency before being given to the networks. In Slovenia film footage was reputed to have been stored in the information ministry before being fed to journalists." Won’t that be taken as a reflection on ABC news?

Tarquin, with his background, we can be sure this McCutcheon chap has just talents we need. He’ll put off those nasty little-Johnny-lovers. Our sort will know he’s one of us.

I do hope you’re right, sir.

Bank on it, boy, bank on it. If you don’t believe me, listen to his poetry:

“I have learnt a new language;
spoken only by myself.
I whisper its syllables
into the ear of the rapids.”

and there’s another six pages, Tarquin, just as good!

What’s an “ear of the rapids”, sir?

Brand of Finnish vodka, boy.

Uncle wishes it to be understood that responsibility for this lunacy is rests here and here. And here.