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Posted on 24 Sep, 2012 in Fiction | 21 comments

Robert G Barrett: a personal farewell

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The creator of the immensely popular Les Norton died on Thursday 20 September 2012.  He was a more complex figure than his public image suggested.

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.

21 Comments

  1. Linda, This is a wonderful account of the man, his life and writing. It was an honour to have known and worked with him – the challenges were outweighed by the pleasure of his wit and unique presence and personality. Angelo

    • Thanks, Angelo. Wasn’t easy to try to sum up Bob! As I was writing this I went back and looked over the fan letters on his site – some of them are very moving. He had a huge impact on people who otherwise wouldn’t pick up a book.

  2. Robert Barrett holds a dear place in my heart (he and the Les Norton books were instrumental in getting me up out of a hospital bed I was in for some time). The above was a nice account, but it troubles me somewhat how little Bob is being remembered in ‘cyber space’. Apart from this account, there does not seem to be much out there, even from fans.

    • If you haven’t already found it, the official Robert G Barrett website is still running and worth a look: http://www.robertgbarrett.com.au/ There is a selection of Bob’s fan mail on it, plus lots of photos and pieces by Bob.

    • Join the Robert G Barrett /Les Norton group on Facebook mate, we have over a thousand members. You will love it.

      • have been buying and listening to story books for the past 6 years. long live the prisoners and the people on the run.
        les norton movie. telemovie. crowd surf fundraising? i’m in

  3. great article. it’s been almost a year since he went for a beer with the bigfella. hope he’s raising holy hell up there and has JC in stiches. So long Les Norton

  4. loved his books havent read them all yet but they are brillant last of the great aussie characters

  5. I only just found out Robert died today and am saddened. I was hooked the day I read “You Wouldn’t Be Dead For Quids” in the early 90s and have ever since been a huge Les Norton fan. I moved to the States in 99 and there have been many brides reading the names of those who signed their wedding guest book and wondered who Les Norton was and what he was doing at their wedding. I have used Les as my alias for a long time. Ironically, Les got a vote today as a write-in candidate for Gorham Town Council in Maine where I live! I was thinking tonight about the vote counters trying to work out who this Les Norton fellow was, and I got to googling Les and Robert, thus finding the sad news of Robert’s passing last year. RIP Robert, but Les Norton lives forever, at least for this ex-pat Queenslander!

  6. I cannot believe that I just found out that Bob was dead tonight, I have been waiting for the latest instalment of Les’s heroic’s though in fairness I do work isolated a lot.
    Robert G Barrett’s humour has been with me since I first came across his alter ego Les in Penthouse magazine thus proving that I did read it for the “articles”. Loved the fact that he was politically incorrect & I will do my utmost to carry that tradition on.
    Bob’s & through him Les’s adventures have lightened up many a dismal lonely evening on pipe laying barges in the middle of the ocean & you could tell who was reading Bob’s book’s when you walked past a cabin a laughter was spilling out!
    RIP Bob & thank you for all the good times.

  7. I too only just found out Rob had died, and i am gutted. I wrote to him back when i was 19 after reading Davo’s Little Something and The Godson, I raved about what a big fan I am. He wrote back! A big letter plus a poster, and when I replied saying thanks, he so kindly wrote another great hand written letter!! I still have them, of course. Since then I’ve read nearly all of his books, particularly love the Les Norton ones. Now heading on 20 years later, having a young family etc I hadn’t thought to do a search for the Aussie legend until now. So sad :'( He was a top bloke, i cant believe there wont be any more of his brilliant books…R.I.P Robert Barrett.

  8. What a top bloke. One of the last of a fair dinkum Aussie& always said it like is. You and your books will be sadly missed.

  9. Loved the books, read them all. At the library today loaned them again for my boys. Dont know if they will will believe the stories’ with the jokes and situations in the cross from back then when mum lived there. I expect they will do the lol though. Now I only dream what Les’ next adventure would be. I still look out in the bookshops in the hope there is a hidden novel found somewhere.

  10. What a great man,I have never been a book reader but when I first listened to the great mans audio book Leaving Bondi I just couldn’t get enough of them, I have hooked my 78 year old mother on them as well as my older sister who is 56,we just love the stories,I now have 20 of his audio books at home and yet there is more to come,Robert G Barrett you are the best, thanks for all the great stories and great times on the road I have never laughed so much just thinking about your books brings a smile to my face. I live in Townsville where Bob worked in the meat works in his younger years and have been to some of the places that he has talked about in his stories also it is a great feeling to know that we have been in the same place and seen the same things that he has talked about, and now the stories have stopped it is a sad day for all of us who enjoyed him in our lives so much…RIP Robert G Barrett

  11. Damn! damn! and double damn!, Just when I find a truly great storyteller from home, he ups and dies.
    Not bloody fair Bob!
    But as I’ve just had my first checkup for this insidious cancer (clear for the next 3 years at least) I forgive you mate. I do say mate because that’s what it felt like reading your stories, like a mate telling me a yarn.
    I have bought the lot now and will be reading them for many years. Thanks again ol’ buddy, thanks again.

  12. Unreal Aussie legend sad to find out so late that he has passed.
    Love his stories and les norton unreal will les live on ? can he be written by another artist as a tribute to the great Robert g Barrett RIP BOB

  13. Gosh…has it really been three years ?
    Yeah G’day my name’s Tim and I’ve led a pretty up and down sort of a life.
    Bob Barrett and Les Norton were always there for me during my adventures.
    There were times,where I could have sworn that Bob must have been watching me.The amazing coincidences between some of Les’ adventures and my sometimes,right down to the words on the page similarities,often left me smiling but still scratching my head.
    Bob’s books always lifted my spirits during my down times.
    They inspired me to lift my game and to get outside and to try and raise a sweat.
    I would often pour myself a “delicious” in synchronicity with Les.
    He stood up for the underdog and encouraged us to do the same.
    I guess that Les…will never die.
    He’ll stay eternally young and full of “ticker”.
    I bloody miss him though.

    Thank you for providing this chance to voice my thoughts.

    God bless ya Bobby…wherever you are mate.

  14. I started reading Bobs books in 84 i purchased you wouldn’t be dead for quids in Cooktown i was living in a rainforest and i loved that book i must have read it 3 times and still do reread it even now i have every book he has written all first editions then i had the pleasure of meeting Bob at a book signing in Grafton i had every book he had written to that date about sixteen books and he signed every one of them while having a very funny conversation about our lives which turned out to be very similar he was in my mind the best true Aussie fiction writer in the modern era and his use of our Aussie vernacular is now legendary. RIP Bob.

  15. Hi Linda, Great tribute to the great man. I was in the cops in Sydney for 30 yrs, and all of my crew read and loved Bob’s books. I’d like a zac for every one that has done the rounds, and looking across desks seeing someone laughing ‘like a drain’ as Bob would say, over one of the books circulating the office. I still have them all and have only just started going thru them again (for about the 10th time!!), just finishing ‘And De Fun Don’t Dun’. He was a legend of Australian contemporary lit, and I miss him and sad not seeing the new Robert G barrett book on the shelf at the book store like years gone by, always looking forward to the next!! RIP big bloke u left an indelible mark and people genuinely love you. Good on you mate.

  16. I am very saddened to just hear of Bobbie’s passing. After having worked with Bob for a number of years at Randi Wix, initially on the door and then behind the bar, we had a lot of fun together and many nights out on the town after Randi’s closed each night. We both went to Randwick Boys’ High but he was a few ……………… bloody a lot of years ahead of me. Old bastard! Unfortunately, we lost contact after I got married and moved to ‘The Shire’ and he moved in the opposite direction to Avoca.
    Recently, one of my friends told me of Bobbie’s passing and of the many books he had written of which I was very impressed. It was also mentioned that I appeared in some of his books, by character and not name. Even though I don’t generally read novels, I have borrowed a number of audio books from the local library and am working through them. Bob, you’re a legend mate! I like your style and have now made it a plan to work through your whole collection. Wish that I could have made contact with you earlier mate. RIP Bobbie!

  17. I love a good read. I enjoy a writer that can take me from the misery inspiring daily grind and Mr Barrett certainly did that.
    I am saddened to learn that he died 5 years ago and that there will be no more books written in his peculiar style.
    Bravo Mr Barrett, you were a bloody good show and if we happen to cross paths in the future I will gladly shout you a delicious at the great bar in the sky.
    Thank you sir!

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