Bob Barrett loved to stir. The first time I saw him was in a newspaper photograph of the opening party of the Writers Festival at the Sydney Town Hall in the 1980s. He had a stripper on each arm and a smile a mile wide. Literary Sydney didn’t know what to make of him.
But readers did, and they bought his books in droves. Over a career spanning more than 25 years he sold over a million books and was proud to be called (by the Australian, no less) ‘the king of popular fiction’.
Bob was a Bondi boy and had left school at fourteen and trained as a butcher. An accident at the meatworks put him on workers’ compensation, which gave him the opportunity to do some writing courses at WEA. He began his career publishing short stories in Penthouse magazine before his first book, You Wouldn’t Be Dead for Quids, appeared in 1984.
Not being politically correct was a point of pride. So everyone and everything was fair game: women, gays, lesbians, the disabled, suicide bombers – you name it, he mocked it. But he also mocked himself, and was unsparingly direct.
Bob connected with people who didn’t necessarily consider themselves book readers. His characters talked like people they knew, and the stories were set in real places around Australia. They were full of action, and they were funny. His character Les Norton was a big red-headed Queenslander who lived in Bondi and worked as a bouncer for Price Galese at the Kelly Club in Kings Cross. The books had a big following in the armed forces and the prisons, but also had a legion of female fans to match the blokes. Bob loved going on tour and meeting his readers, who were known as ‘the Norton army’.
I was his publisher and editor at HarperCollins for ten years from 2000 to 2010, and worked with him on ten books. Bob joined HarperCollins in 1997, after parting company with Pan Macmillan, his original publisher. By the time I arrived he had published four books with Harper and had strong relationships with the MD, Barrie Hitchon, and publicist Mel Cain.
Nevertheless, for me it was a nerve-wracking start. Bob was one of Australia’s biggest-selling authors and a jewel in the crown of the HarperCollins list. But he was also famous for falling out with his editors. I knew most of them and had heard the stories.
Bob had strong views about what he wanted to write and the way he wanted to write it. He knew his readers and he knew what they wanted, and he never lost sight of that. All his books included a ‘Message from the Author’ keeping the fans up to date with his doings and always included a sincere thank-you for their support.
As it turned out, I think I met Bob at the right time. He’d mellowed a bit over the years, and once he realised that I wasn’t interested in trying to change the way he wrote – why change something that had been so successful for him? – we got along well. Though there was the incident of the missing proof corrections one time when things got a bit hairy. And possibly one or two other occasions that I’ve repressed. He once left some chocolates for me with a note that said:
These are for all the shit I put on you the other day … All the best Barbara
Bob loved giving people nicknames – I was ‘Winnie’ (my surname reminded him of actor and comedian Willie Fennell) – and when Harper gained a smart young American CEO, Bob nicknamed him ‘the CIA man’. Bob’s own nickname was ‘Barbara’, because he reckoned we thought of him as the Barbara Cartland of Australian writing.
Bob didn’t have much time for the literary establishment, and the feeling was mutual. He wasn’t a fan of literary festivals, but every so often would get talked into going along. He never felt comfortable in that world, though I do remember seeing him at the Melbourne Writers Festival one year wearing a Helen Demidenko T-shirt and a big grin. Stirring again.
Working with Bob meant everything had to be just right, from the edit to the cover to the marketing and publicity. He was exacting. But working with Bob also meant hilarious phone conversations when he’d tell me funny stories or read parts of a work in progress, and great lunches at his favourite restaurants in Terrigal.
Bob loved language. He mightn’t have had much formal education but he was smart and he was curious and he had a great ear for dialogue and understood the rhythms of how people spoke. He was quick to pick up new expressions and he particularly loved rhyming slang. It was Bob who taught me that ‘drop kick’ was really short for ‘drop kick and punt’.
He also loved food – readers will know that Bob always included lots of descriptions of great meals in his books; music (particularly the blues); and the ladies. There was a lot of sex in his books and Les always made sure the women had a good time. Bob was an old-fashioned gentleman in some ways, who didn’t like to swear in front of women.
There was a fair bit of Bob in Les, but he was always keen to emphasise that they weren’t the same person. For some of the fans, though, Bob was Les, and this could cause problems, with Bob being accosted by drunk fans who thought it would be fun to ‘fight Les Norton’. As a result he had to become careful about where he went.
But success also meant financial independence. He’d never have to go back to the meatworks, and he never forgot that. And he could be very generous. That generosity extended to looking after his mother, despite their very difficult relationship. In one of his letters to his fans on his website, Bob wrote:
I know I’ve said a few disparaging things about my late mother. But she was horrible to me … It all goes back to my abusive father who died when I was seventeen.
He took his revenge when he sent her up mercilessly in the character of Mrs Hedstrom in The Tesla Legacy in 2006. But he stuck by her, and they were reconciled just before she died a couple of years ago.
Bob Barrett was a one-off, a true original. He could be crude and rude but also generous and tender-hearted. He had a tremendous sense of humour and the great gift of being able to make people laugh. And he was unflinchingly honest. His essay about his cancer treatments in ‘Bowling for Bukowski’ at the end of his last book, Still Riding on the Storm, is both intimate and shocking in its frankness. Bob was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2008 and was remarkably stoic during his illness. If you asked him how he was he’d tell you, but he was more often talking about how others were worse off than he was. Though one day when the pain was bad he said to me, ‘Make sure you have the tests, don’t ever get this thing.’
He had nearly twelve months of remission after his last lot of treatment, and had been doing research for a new book. The end when it came was mercifully swift.
Farewell, Bob Barrett. We will not see your like again.
Read tributes from fans, and from Bob’s great friend and former publicist Mel Cain, and leave a tribute of your own here.