Bill Leak faced bullies not with his fists but with his head.
It was a habit he’d learned from his father, he once explained to me, who had warned him against the dangers of throwing the first punch.
He should look his tormentor squarely in the eye before applying his forehead sharply to the bridge of the nose. Even the biggest of them would be suckers for a follow-up punch with tears to their eyes, he told me.
It was a technique Leak employed to the end, delivering the blow with his brushes and his pen, outsmarting his enemies by turning them into laughing stocks, and bringing tears down the cheeks of the rest of us.
When jihadists threatened him for drawing a cartoon of Mohammed, Leak returned to the theme of militant Islam frequently, exposing the absurd illiberalism of the ideologues who wanted to kill him and their Western apologists.
When the Human Rights Commission took him on, he responded mercilessly day after day, answering their persecution — and it was persecution — by holding it up to ridicule.
Less well known were the private battles Bill fought with himself; his struggle against the grog monster that threatened to consume him and so nearly took his life when after a long and heavy session he fell from a balcony one weekend, landing on his head.
His friends gathered close during Bill’s coma and the operations. A brain as complex as Bill’s surely could not emerge with all of its faculties intact: his humour, his wit, his perceptiveness and charm, let alone his artistic gift and magical way with words.
Yet he recovered miraculously, complaining of little more than headaches and amusing visitors by showing them the scars in his head that made him look like an extra in Dawn of the Dead.
The accident did change Bill, however, in many ways for the better. He gave up the grog — this time for good — though he didn’t make a thing of it. He never wanted to turn into what he liked to call a “dry drunk”, the kind of abstemious ex-drinker determined to out-wowser the wowsers.
He read voraciously, lapping up the books I’d send or recommend to him, and quickly developed a philosophical framework to his libertarian tendencies. A sworn egalitarian, he offered the lowly and not so lowly the same respect. He forgave every vice, having practised many of them himself. Every vice, that is, except moral vanity.
Like many a genius, Bill suffered melancholic bouts when he would doubt his own genius. Rising early, as he habitually did, and having scoured the days news for inspiration that would not come, he’d call and we’d talk.
It was from those sessions that some of the irreverent gags would emerge; Bill Shorten as a glove puppet on the hand of a CFMEU thug (“Union Puppet? My Arse”); John Howard standing on a table in his Y-fronts (the gag hardly matters); Gillian Triggs admiring the sunlight emerging from her own backside. That last one, if I recall, was wisely rejected by the editor.
The most wonderful thing that changed in Bill’s life in the months after his fall occurred unexpectedly when he stopped by at a Thai restaurant in Woy Woy to order takeaway. He saw Goong, its charming proprietor, and decided to eat in.
Bill ate there for night after night, learning to love Goong’s food, smile and intelligence, but most of all her common sense. The two set up home on the NSW central coast in the house where he was forced to move on the advice of anti-terrorism experts.
They were wonderful hosts, Bill serving up endless stories about his adventurous and unconventional life, Goong emerging with more fabulous dishes, and his beloved dog Gus humping a chair leg or dropping a monstrous fart in the corner. Dogs, after all, take after their owners, and Gus, too, became a master of indelicate humour.
Bill wrote and spoke in public as brilliantly as he could draw. Our conversations were somehow deep, even when it sank to profanities, as it so often did.
Yet when a mutual English friend, an artist, once described Bill as an intellectual, it seemed an odd description for a man so unpretentious and unassuming.
“He is,” our friend insisted. “He is the only sort of intellectual who can survive in Australia — the kind who learns to disguise his intellect.”
He asked me to host his book launch this week. Barry Humphries said he couldn’t come, but warned Sir Lesley Colin Patterson might. Tony Morris QC didn’t hesitate when I asked him to fly from Brisbane.
I’ve seldom seen Bill as happy; I stood next to him as he laughed at Sir Les’s jokes. At the end they embraced, Bill laying his head on Sir Les’s stained jacket, and Goong standing next to him beaming. It was a happy last encounter; Bill was still bubbling when we spoke the next morning.
I’ll miss those phone calls, and like so many others, I’ll desperately miss William Leak.
Farewell, Bill. I loved you like a brother.