“A fine nuanced narrative – this is a remarkable road trip movie of a book”
Australian Book Review (December 2010 – January 2011)
Jim McNeil was a two-bit thug. A liar, a thief, a recurrent wife-beater and bully, probably a murderer, definitely a racist, he was a man in whom psychotic rage was seldom remote. Contradictions were elemental to his character: he was intelligent and charismatic, yet obdurate and ratty. Violence and menace defined him, but he was at heart a coward. He meticulously planned armed robberies, but frequently bungled their execution. He was nicknamed ‘The Laughing Bandit’, but his smiling demeanour was born of contempt for the people he traumatised and of disbelief at the ease with which he could snatch wealth. As the subtitle of Ross Honeywill’s aptly named biography makes clear, McNeil was also a playwright of subtle instinct and luminous talent. His is a Jekyll–Hyde conundrum well worth this contemplation.
A Tasmania-based social behaviourist and former arts administrator, Honeywill knew McNeil, and was unabashedly fascinated by him. The author of business books and the well-received Lamarck’s Evolution (2008), on nineteenth-century French evolutionary scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, he has produced a well-researched biography that invites readers to turn the pages with alacrity. McNeil’s correspondence, Honeywill’s friendship and conversations with him, and interviews with family, friends, supporters, and enemies supply facts and no few fancies. There are also slabs of ‘recreated scenes’, which lend a novelistic edge to the tale but invite scepticism as to the veracity of McNeil’s mind and motives. The book is not high art, but it is an artfully constructed take on a life that intrigues and repels in equal measure. In many ways, McNeil was cast by a wrong-side-of-the-tracks inevitability.
Honeywill evokes with clarity and colour the ‘poor white trash’ times that McNeil spent growing up in the slums of St Kilda, where drunkenness, poverty, and stunting brutality were everyday realities. In his dysfunctional family, beatings significantly outnumbered hugs. His education was dulling, and as a boy he was raped by the only father-figure teacher to show an interest in him. Life improved in a hurtle of drugs and sex and wayward glamour after his teenage seduction by a youth-loving madam, and he moved in as a junior gangster to her party-time central brothel amid the ganglands of Melbourne. Inevitably, McNeil graduated from gofer for underworld bosses to standover merchant and then robber. Equally predictably, he would end up shooting a policeman and being imprisoned on a long sentence amid the brutalities of the New South Wales jail system.
In Parramatta’s maximum-security prison, McNeil was heavied by underworld escape artist/crime boss Darcy Dugan to join his entourage and was also approached by the president of the Resurgents Debating Society. He tried to evade the former, and embraced the latter. Membership was for a select eight or so of the five hundred inmates, and to belong, ‘you have to be a violent crim in for a long stretch, the worst of the worst; but no druggies or sex offenders. Only the decent blokes like you and me,’ he was told. It was the making of him. In preparing and shaping words, McNeil said, ‘I forgot about being a crim or a thief or anything else. That’s when I ceased being a crim, in the Resurgents. My whole previous life became ridiculous and irrelevant. It was the first time I ever thought about the future.’
It was through writing ideas for his fellow debaters and reading philosophy that his predestined spiral towards prison death or recidivism took a surreal turn into creativity. McNeil was a whiz at capturing raw emotion and authentic dialogue: he began to write plays, starting one that eventually became The Old Familiar Juice before completing The Chocolate Frog (both 1973), which he then persuaded prison authorities to produce. Word got out about the prisoner playwright. The Australia Council sent actor–director Malcolm Robertson to work with McNeil and the Resurgents; Robertson took McNeil’s work outside; productions were staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Nimrod; McNeil was critically acclaimed.
In 1971 journalist–lawyer David Marr and other supporters began talking about the possibility of parole after McNeil had served seven years. Opposition came from Nancy, his sister, who warned them not to ‘be in too much of a hurry – you’ve never seen him drunk’. And it was true, Honeywill notes – ‘the Jim McNeil they all knew was sharp, witty, ironic, intelligent – and sober. Mostly.’
If art was to be McNeil’s redemption, it failed him – or he it. Away from the regimen of prison life, with its structured power lines and enforced routines, he was reduced to vacillation by hedonism. His addictive personality overdosed on opportunity. His supporters had believed he ‘was going to be the new Australian Chekhov’, but, succoured by a breathless cultural élite, McNeil was like a caged songbird that fell silent in the wild.
There seems to have been a disconcerting naïveté within the arts circle that attempted to ‘liberate’ him. McNeil played them off a break, only ever realising half of his designated role as noble savage. He used and abused those who lionised him, even as his rough-diamond magnetism charmed and frequently seduced highly cultured women – and men. Esteemed theatre critic Katharine Brisbane was a champion, he married actress Robyn Nevin, had a passionate affair with film producer Margaret Fink, and numbered among his lovers numerous others in the theatrical and literary worlds, as well as sundry barmaids and groupies. Eventually, his aggression and surly drunkenness alienated him from polite society.
Honeywill has few illusions about McNeil, and his account of the life is mostly unvarnished and unblinking. However, while he is no apologist, he is unequivocally a McNeil fan, and his enthusiasm leads him at times to overegg the dish. When he conjects on his subject’s psyche, a mongoose–snake fascination can hijack his otherwise methodical mien into the realms of the purple:
“The red mist that had occasionally kidnapped his mind always hung in the middle distance, threatening, and his psychological strength waxed and waned like the moon, pushing and pulling tides in and out of his brain.”
These are small blemishes in an otherwise engaging exposé. As Honeywill points out, McNeil ticked all the boxes in the medical textbook definition of a sociopath: he had superficial charm and a grandiose sense of self, he was a pathological liar, he lacked remorse, shame or guilt, his emotions were stunted, he had limited capacity for love, his behavioural controls were abysmal, he was unreliable and sexually promiscuous, he led a parasitic lifestyle, and he was a resourceful (if unsuccessful) criminal. He was also an alcoholic. All up, it’s not a terribly attractive package. A convincing case could be made that McNeil was bad to the bone, a mean-minded, self-centred danger to everyone he encountered. Yet he charmed crim and culture-vulture alike, he had poetry in his soul, and his potential as a playwright was undeniable. So much promise, so little realisation, raising again that perennial poser of nurture versus nature.
This is ultimately a tale of tragedy. McNeil died in middle age as a shambling street bum. There is limited redemption to be found in his story, no glorious deliverance to be admired. He hurt almost every person who loved or helped him, yet his supporters were legion, and there are glimpses in the book of the charisma that attracted the loyalty of so many. Perhaps, as Marr suggests, it was because, ‘One thing we underestimate is how much we love storytellers. I don’t mean writers, I mean people who can tell stories, and [McNeil] told marvellous stories. He was his own best fictional character.’
The Weekly Review (Wed 6 October 2010)
Great story by a great storyteller: In another life, social behaviourist and writer Ross Honeywill would have been a terrific journalist. The Tasmanian-based author is naturally curious and can spot a good story. He also has keen research skills and is prepared to shine light in dark corners, no matter how grubby or controversial.
His 2008 book Lamarck’s Evolution is a beautifully crafted story about the professional and political battles of past and present scientists. He reminds us how tough it is for these men and women to, first, prove their theories, then to have those theories accepted by the wider research community. A few years ago Honeywill became intrigued by the story of Australian scientist Ted Steele and his fascination with early 19th-century French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, whose groundbreaking research was picked up by Charles Darwin 50 years later. Unlike Darwin, Lamarck was shunned by his contemporaries and remained largely unacknowledged. Steele’s attempts to bring Lamarck’s work to life – at considerable professional cost – sparked Honeywill’s interest.
In his new book Wasted, Honeywill dips into his own history. A chance meeting with award-winning playwright and criminal Jim McNeil in the early 1970s led to an unlikely friendship between the author, then a young Brisbane thespian, and the clever but deeply damaged ex-con. McNeil died in 1982 but his story stayed with Honeywill, who then went on to a variety of careers and is now CEO of the successful consumer think-tank, the Social Intelligence Lab.
McNeil was born in St Kilda in 1935 but Wasted begins in the 1960s, when he had already established himself as an armed robber. In 1967, while escaping after a hotel robbery in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, he shot and wounded a police officer. McNeil was arrested and sentenced to 17 years in prison, during which time he joined “The Resurgents’’, a group of prisoners who debated visiting groups from outside the jail. McNeil started writing plays – an ambitious pastime for a man who’d never been to the theatre – and in 1970 prisoners performed his first play, The Chocolate Frog. He also wrote The Old Familiar Juice, How Does Your Garden Grownand Jack, all of which received enthusiastic reviews from visiting critics, including the influential Katharine Brisbane. His plays were later picked up by various Australian theatre companies, including the Melbourne Theatre Company, Q Theatre Company and Nimrod in Sydney.
While in prison, McNeil formed friendships with arts identities such as Brisbane journalist David Marr, director Malcolm Robertson and lawyer Robyn Potter. His new friends successfully lobbied for an early release, and in 1974 McNeil was free. But attempts to entrench him as a Sydney theatre darling, plans for more plays and a brief marriage to actress Robyn Nevin all fell apart; McNeil was ill-prepared for life on the outside and he drifted. In 1982 he died of alcohol-related illnesses, a homeless and penniless wreck.
In Wasted, Marr describes McNeil as a great storyteller. “One thing we underestimate is how much we love storytellers,’’ he tells Honeywill. “I don’t mean writers, I mean people who can tell stories, and he told marvellous stories.’’
Honeywill is also a great storyteller. Wasted is based on research and extensive interviews with many of the key protagonists in McNeil’s later life; the author also draws on his own encounters with his subject. But what gives the book its guts is Honeywill’s ability to take all this rich material, turn on the laptop and let the story flow. Many readers may never have heard of Jim McNeil. No matter. This engaging narrative will have you turning pages vigorously. McNeil, the storyteller, would be proud.
Herald Sun (9 October 2010)
In 1967 Jim McNeil began serving 17 years in Parramatta Prison for shooting a policeman. The sentence was the climax to a life of violence, crime and alcohol. In the (mostly) dry and (mostly) drug-free environment he began reading and writing. Despite never having seen live theatre, McNeil wrote plays so powerful that he became something of a celebrity. His plays were performed around the country and overseas. People travelled to Parramatta Prison to see the plays performed by the inmates.
The “prison playwright” was, for some, another David Williamson. It wasn’t long before well-known actors, writers and producers were angling for McNeil’s early parole. They succeeded.McNeil was released and it all went horribly wrong. Straight back into the booze, he immediately stopped writing and started getting tossed out of the theatres where his plays were being performed. And it got worse.
Honeywill manages to tread a fine line, exposing the remarkable talent of McNeil without judging his abhorrent nature, writing: “For all Jim’s rare ability to observe life, he lacked the skill to live it.”
Michael Veitch (Arts Commentator & ABC Presenter – 8 September 2010)
Being a coward, and a squeamish one, I approach books about crime and criminals either with one eye shut or more usually, not at all. And hailing from a background that in the scheme of things, is privileged, I find it almost impossible to empathise with the (in the main) deprived, lonely, abused, alcohol and drug-soaked, background and origins of the criminal; I cannot, try as I may, find my way out of a jungle of prejudice that blocks the path of understanding of crimes’ class-based origins, corralled in generational poverty, lack of opportunity, despair and discrimination; I baulk at the obvious connection between crime, lack of education, of family dysfunction and social alienation, of the robbing of childhood and the robbing of banks. And descriptions of violence, I find, as I said, repellent. It was in this trepidatious frame of mind therefore, and holding little hope that I would make it through to the end with anything else but a sullen sense of obligation to propel me, that I turned the first page of Ross Honeywill’s telling of the life of Jim McNeil.
Perhaps, I thought, he would give me a soft start. I was wrong.
Without knowing a thing about our subject, we are at the very start, plunged into the deep end; a stinking hot day in Sydney in the late Sixties, a wild ride in the back of a police van, several stinking convicts on their way to begin long stretches in notorious Parramatta Jail, bearing the sadistic taunts from the police officers in the front, watching their lives recede through the tiny barred window at the back.
But whatever sympathy we might have for McNeil evaporates in the description of the ultimate act of criminal madness that led him there – a robbery gone wrong, the spiteful shooting of a policeman, a bottle casually smashed across the face of a stranger, brutality inflicted on his own family and a final orgy of madness, guns, alcohol and rage.
Make no mistake, Honeywill presents his subject as no hero, no colourful or lovable rogue. McNeil was an active and enthusiastic member of the Melbourne underworld, selfish, violent, vindictive and at times sadistic. There are still many, many people living today bearing the scars, physical and otherwise of their encounters with the so-called Laughing Bandit. Some strangers, some his own family.
One of the many excellent things about Honeywill’s book is its structure. Little by little we tread some of the stepping-stones of a wretched – indeed wasted life. Honeywill’s skill as a writer gives us a complete picture of McNeil the man, only to then confound us with yet another compelling chapter in his life, delving ever deeper, explaining much but excusing little. Only later in the narrative do we learn of his early love of words, his early ability in manipulating people, his unspeakable betrayal at the hands of a teacher, his time spent at sea and in the brothels of the notorious madams of wartime and post-war St Kilda, where at an early age, barely out of childhood, his star shone briefly as a young, even grotesque celebrity. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and the supreme irony of his life begins to unfold whereby his intelligence – so long dormant but ultimately irrepressible – begins to emerge while incarcerated inside Parramatta Prison, we finally sense the tragedy of the man.
This is where, drug and alcohol free at last, he seeks out a kind of, if not redemption, then transformation through a group of prisoners who in-between the humdrum violence and misery of prison life decide on the most radical course imaginable, to sit and talk about literature and ideas. It is here that McNeil is at last liberated, not from jail, but from himself – at least temporarily – and that we come to realise that of his many crimes, his greatest was that of allowing a prodigious talent to be all but wasted.
Jim McNeil wrote four extraordinary plays. One of them, How Does Your Garden Grow, winning an Australia Council grant as well as an Australian Writer’s Guild award for best script in any category. Honeywill tells the story, unbelievable if it were not true, of McNeil’s emergence – a false dawn as it turned out – into the world of arts, letters and culture, chaperoned by soft-handed intellectuals who, caught in the spell of his relentless charisma, fatefully mistook this barely tamed animal as a rare bird. Then a catastrophic marriage to one of our finest artists, and his decline, inexorable, that began when removed from the regimen of prison from which he’d been released early at the behest of his new friends, and the return to the deadly demons of his Melbourne roots. Dead at 47.
Jim McNeil is forgotten by many, remembered by some, but his work, violent, exquisite, explosive, remains – like it or not – as part of our cultural voice. Honeywill tells me that the publishers who refused his manuscript asked who would want to read this story of a violent crim – a psychopath even – turned playwright who was scorched by the hopeful rays of a second life, one which ultimately sent him, like Icarus, spiralling into the depths. I for one am glad he’s given is this picture of Jim McNeil, never anything less than compelling.
I congratulate the author. If he ever writes another book about the dark side, I might just read that as well.
Bookseller + Publisher (September 2010)
Jim McNeil (1935-1982) was a violent Melbourne based criminal who became one of the most important Australian playwrights of the 20th century, producing four acclaimed plays from his prison cell. He was born in St Kilda, quit school at 13 and at 14 was introduced to Melbourne’s underworld by his first lover, the madam of a notorious brothel. In his early thirties he was sentenced to 17 years in jail in NSW where he discovered his talent as a writer, all the while negotiating the written and unwritten rules of the prison code. Unfortunately, McNeil was also an alcoholic, a coward, a violent, unpredictable and vindictive womaniser (and ‘maniser’), whose disciplined approach to his craft deserted him once he regained his freedom. He married at least three times, treated his wives, including actor/director Robyn Nevin, abominably, and died a drunken derelict. Ross Honeywill’s biography not only tells the man’s life story concisely but gives the reader a sobering insight into our punitive prison system as it was in the mid-twentieth century. Frankly, I ended the book with little sympathy for McNeil, yet impressed by the number, and stature, of his many champions. Wasted should be read by anyone interested in the criminal world, playwriting and prison reform.
Readings Monthly magazine (September 2010)
Feature Review with Mark Rubbo
Jim McNeil was a criminal. He was sent to Parramatta Prison after shooting a policeman. In the structured world of the prison, McNeil ironically began to build a different kind of life for himself. He joined a group of prisoners, called the Resurgents, who were encouraged to better themselves. The resurgents were quite successful debaters, challenging other teams within the prison system and outside. Not satisfied with their standard, McNeil started writing ‘scripts’ for his fellow debaters.
He worked his scripts into stories about prison life, starting work on one play (The Old Familiar Juice) and then completing The Chocolate Frog. Word got out about the prisoner playwright and the Australia Council sent actor and director Malcolm Robertson to work with McNeil and other Resurgents. Robertson recognised McNeil’s work as raw but brilliant. Inspired, McNeil went back to work on The Old Familiar Juice and began work on another play, How Does Your Garden Grow.
Robertson took McNeil’s work to the outside world and productions were put on at the MTC and Nimrod, to critical acclaim. McNeil was touted as Australia’s Eugene O’Neil – or even Chekov – and quickly attracted other influential supporters, such as theatre critic Katharine Brisbane and journalist David Marr. McNeil was a rough criminal and alcoholic. However, his dangerous charm was very attractive. Actress Robyn Nevin was cast in the first production of How Does Your Garden Grow. Robyn and McNeil were immediately attracted and married just four months after his release. The marriage soon disintegrated under the strain of McNeil’s drunken bouts of violence and his affairs with both men and women – most notably, film producer Margaret Fink. Outside the prison structure, McNeil couldn’t function, couldn’t write, and he died destitute and broken a few years later.
Ross Honeywill has constructed the story of Jim McNeil from interviews, McNeil’s correspondence and from his own friendship with McNeil. It’s an important story to tell and Honeywill tells it so very well. McNeil was a self-absorbed, almost psychopathic, figure who was able to use his charm and intelligence to his short-term advantage – but ultimately he destroyed himself and his promise.
The Age (4 September 2010)
Ross Honeywill has done a highly credible job bringing to life one of the more florid episodes in our literary history. It was 1970 and the cream of Australia’s literati had discovered a real-life boyo, a Brendan Behan of the bottle and the word, who from the confines of his Parramatta cell was writing plays and dazzling men and women alike with his electric voice.
But Jim McNeil was a brutal and violent criminal. In a vicious fit of violence he once branded his first wife’s breasts with his initials. When the Sydney cognoscenti discovered his work he was serving 17 years for armed robbery and shooting a police officer. He was making a go of it inside, however, where he studied, enjoyed prison sex, hit his literary straps and wrote the acclaimed plays The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice.
Those in his thrall included theatre critic Katharine Brisbane, journalist David Marr, and his then wife Jennie Delisle, the actor and writer Graeme Blundell, film producer Margaret Fink and actor Robyn Nevin who was married to him for two years. And for two years was regularly beaten.
After reading McNeil’s biography you are left gobsmacked that so many people could have been so charmed by such a malicious character. But, as Marr is quoted as saying, that charm was formidable. It must have been.