Circular Quay on a sunny autumn day is a thing of great beauty. The harbour ripples diamond azure like a silken sheet, framed by icons at every angle. For all the cheesy postcards, the clichés and fatigued promotional footage, on the right day and with the right brain it is hard to imagine there is anywhere on Earth more sublime. Add to that a great big fuck-off platter of fresh seafood and the presence of an utterly enchanting media celebrity ethicist and your humble scribe is elevated to a plane of nirvana that losers like the Dalai Lama will never reach.
When confronted by one of the country’s leading intellectuals, a woman who has appeared on every television show of note (and a few best left unnamed), written for every rag, done half the radio stations, authored both fiction and non-fiction books and championed the cause of women’s and children’s rights without pause, it’s possible to become a little unmanned.
In such circumstances it’s best to concentrate on the little things, like the fact Leslie Cannold is a total sexpot with legs to die for.
It was my intention to conduct a professional journalistic interview, complete with insightful questions and hard-hitting candour. To this end I’d hurriedly purchased a cheap-arse Dictaphone and arrived with a bunch of source material, resplendent in my serious work suit and tie fresh off the rack from ‘DickheadsRUs’. My intricate planning completely fell by the wayside the moment we met and the conversation instantly took on the hue of two old friends catching up. I don’t think I asked a single question and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t me who did most of the talking.
There’s a kind of lemming optimism behind the smile as Leslie talks of her battles against religious interest groups. Women’s rights are on the table – (nestled between the Murray salt and the Balsamic vinegar), “As soon as you win a round, as soon as the legislation is passed – you know a new attack is being mounted,” she fires between repeated refusals of alcohol. She’s speaking again tonight and no manner of earthly temptation is going to blunt the knife, “They’re not lobbyists anymore, they’re part of the machine. They have mentor programs designed specifically to infiltrate all levels of government. Have you ever even heard of Arrow?” I had not. Arrow is a program aimed at creating “courageous leaders working towards a growing, vibrant Australian church that impacts (sic) the wider community.” In short, it grooms up-and-coming, double-digit IQ right-wing religious whack-jobs, with the goal of setting them loose to pervert the parliamentary system and destroy the gauze-thin barriers between church and state. They don’t lobby anymore. There’s no need. They’re already on the inside and they are bringing stupid to your home.
In the face of this, Leslie is undaunted. She’s more disheartened by the restaurant’s inability to provide acceptable coffee and the realisation that the prawns aren’t shelled. “You can’t surrender. You can’t drop your guard,” you can’t peel a king prawn with a knife and fork either, but be fucked if she’s going to give up. I don’t have the courage to intervene. I sip my beer and eat an oyster.
“I’ve been doing this for a lot of years now and it’s seemed like I’ve done nothing but tread water. Lately though, it’s like I’ve become some sort of authority and there’s all this weight and expectation on what I say,” she gets out through mouthfuls of some weird WA breed of yabby neither of us have eaten before. Far from conceit, she sounds like a young girl embarking on a career who can’t quite work out where the years have gone, or how she ended up where she did, “I get recognised in the street occasionally. The conversations are mostly really awkward.”
The meal and the conversation had drawn out some by this stage and I’d begun to discern something of a common thread in Leslie’s conversation. We’d touched on so many diverse points it would take a whole magazine to cover them, yet behind it all there was something that united them all. It wasn’t until we broached the topic of her novel that I started to work out what it was.
Dr Cannold is the author of two non-fiction books of some pretty great renown. The Abortion Myth is placed in high schools throughout the country. What, No Baby? has met with great acclaim, and is on the coffee table of every non-man-hating feminist in the country. It’s the mention of The Book of Rachael, however, that lights an opal fire behind Leslie’s eyes.
Her first work of fiction, it imagines the story of Jesus’ sister, of whom no sacred texts make mention, “I had never read the bible. In doing so, the story seemed to create itself, and I was merely putting voice to something I thought was meant to be told,” Leslie says, “I never thought that the idea of Mary being a virgin was taken literally by anyone. I realise now that some folk may get their noses out of joint.”
That, folks, is when it all tied together for me. This remarkable woman, this champion of human rights, celebrated author and burning intellect, this custodian of the public conscience has the heart of a child. She simply doesn’t understand those who would seek to destroy her. Their motivations are incomprehensible in the face of truth she knows to be self-evident.
On our way to the train station we discussed her kids – lovely both, but opposite in her eyes. One she foresees pursuing an academic career, one not. Both, in a mother’s view, overwhelming in the amount of good they have ahead of them. Given their genes and environment, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t both change the world in their own way.
Maybe they have already.
Author Heath Callaway blogs regularly and splendidly at www.gibbot.wordpress.com and tweets a lot @Gibbot5000