There was always a danger in having a beer with Bill Leak, whether or not Bill Leak himself was having a beer. The danger was that much amber would be surrendered to the table, your shirt and over surrounding company as you tried to control the laughter that was an inevitable feature of being in his presence.
Leak’s cartoons might have polarised Australians, but he pursued the time-honoured art of puncturing politics, pomposity and hypocrisy with a rare wit. He had the ability to encapsulate or provoke debate while raising a smile in the reader (if not necessarily the subject) with a few strokes of a pen.
But if his talent with the pen was peerless, it was in person where his pleasantly infectious nature and genuine humbleness somehow melded with that simple Aussie ability to tell a crackingly uproarious yarn.
I first encountered Bill when he was a star speaker at the The Caxtons – that once great and exclusive adland gabfest that is now but a memory.
He was there as a representative of the newspaper industry that funded the creative conference for so long. For many in the game it was their first exposure to Leak and his larrikin ways.
Within minutes he had the room in tears as he told stories tall but true about his life as a cartoonist and portrait painter.
Hours spent with Gough Whitlam had gifted him a deft impersonation of the former PM and icon to the Labor movement.
And so his performance moved from the stage to the bar, lasting well into the night. He made, as they say, an impression.
Later I got to know him at The Australian, where you quickly discovered that the Bill Leak show was no act.
In times where such things were possible, a lunchtime retreat for a beer with the Australian’s managing editor Martin Beesley would find us propped up in the Evening Star or the Aurora, surrounded by Leak, the Daily Telegraph’s brilliant cartoonist and Leak’s great mate Warren Brown, journalist and serial Federal Parliament candidate Pat Shiel (Shiel Be Right) the Telegraph’s movie critic Paul Le Petit (the subject of an Archibald portrait by Leak) and a procession of others.
It was the Bill and Warren show, table-slappingly funny as the pair out-did each other for no one’s entertainment but their own. Drinks flowed and spilled.
News Journalist Paul Le Petit was a subject of one of Bill Leak’s Archibald entries.
Grant Booker, who spent as much time lunching with Bill as he did working on ads for The Australian – recalled consuming healthy amounts of a wine called “Tempest 2” with Leak on a daily basis. As they lunched the pair would baffle onlookers at 10 past 2 each day as they shouted “Tempest 2!”.
“Perhaps you had to be there,” Booker reminisced sadly.
Booker recalled Leak’s abode in Redfern – complete with a spa that had been dubbed “the Boiling Pot”.
It was where Bill might retire to relax, – perhaps with company – until one night he entered the spa area with a friend to find that Brown had broken in and filled “The Boiling Pot” with vegetables – Leak soup, so to speak.
Needless to say, where Leak and Brown were concerned, neither of them ever left drinks unattended in the presence of the other.
A poster Leak created to promote a lunch time class with AWARD students.
And then we almost lost him. Toppling head first off a balcony at John Singleton’s house near Gosford while feeding lorikeets.
But somehow Bill survived, rallied and returned. Still Bill.
Occasionally we’d compare neurosurgeon notes – his lifesaving brain surgeon, mine who gifted me a robotic neck- both of us thankful for the blokes who paid attention in school.
Every conversation was punctuated with humour. If you can’t have a laugh, why bother, eh?
Bill’s work was not everyone’s cup of tea. But then, they never met him.
Beyond the canvas and the cartoon he stood for freedom of speech and the right to have a debate – debate he so often provoked himself because that was his job.
There was a danger in having a beer with Bill. I’m glad I took the risk. Thanks mate. You’ll be missed.