Vale Robert G Barrett
It is with great sadness that HarperCollinsPublishers Australia advise that beloved larrikin and iconic author, Robert G. Barrett passed away at peacefully at 7.30 pm, Thursday, 20 September following complications from cancer. Bob was the well-known creator of the ‘Les Norton’ series of books that are read widely by Australians and which have sold well over one million copies. Norton, very much like his creator, was a knock-about bloke who laughed at the funny side of life and was full of compassion for the under-dog, his love of good food, the ladies and Bondi. Barrett was proud that he’d never received a handout or a literary grant from the government and enjoyed earning his ‘royalties’, as to him they were his wage. Legend has it that he once went to a literary awards with two blond bombshells on either arm to ‘liven it up a bit as it was full of people wearing grey and black’.
Bob grew up on the streets of Bondi, leaving school at 14 to become a butcher. Following an accident unloading a meat truck he enrolled in adult education classes and fulfilled his life-long ambition of writing. After 30 years in Sydney, he moved to the NSW central coastal town of Terrigal and dedicated himself to writing full-time.
His more than 20 books include such memorable bestsellers as You Wouldn’t be Dead for Quids. In 1997 HarperCollins began their relationship with Bob, or ‘Barbara’ – he happily referred to himself as the Barbara Cartland of Australian writing. This nickname stuck and he often left hilarious messages for unsuspecting HarperCollins staff, using the name and a deep male voice. His first publication with HCP was So What Do You Reckon? and was followed by other beloved Aussie classics including Mud Crab Boogie, Goodoo Goodoo, The Ultimate Aphrodisiac, Leaving Bondi, and many more.
Diagnosed with cancer in late 2009, Bob always kept upbeat about his condition and often posted humorous messages about his health experiences on his website.
One of his greatest achievements as an author was a deep connection with his fans – the ‘Norton Army’ – who proudly wore Les Norton T-shirts to all his book signings. During his writing career he received countless letters from readers – both male and female – many of whom wrote to say that before discovering his work they had never read a book before.
A great supporter of Australia’s military, he sent cartons of his books to troops stationed around the globe, donated to prison libraries and always gave a portion of his royalties to local wildlife rescue funds.
Bob’s last book was a collection of short stories and articles to commemorate 25 years of publication, Still Riding the Storm (2011). He continued to write, until the end.
Shona Martyn, Publishing Director, says, ‘It was a privilege to publish Bob Barrett. In his writing, as in his life, he was a true original. Despite's Bob's laidback nature, he was a stickler when it came to editorial work and once fell out with an editor who tried to tone down his narrative and language in a bossy and inauthentic way. Bob immortalised people and parts of Australia that are often neglected – setting books in places like Cessnock in the Upper Hunter. He often turned his publicity tours for one book into a research trip for the next, usually accompanied by his publicist and muse Mel Cain. Bob has made a great contribution to Australian writing. For some, he was the first or only author they read. Indeed he was proud to be the most borrowed author in prison libraries. He was a great guy and I will miss him.’
Bob Barrett passed away at home cared for by good friends.
Below – Mel Cain who was his long-time publicist has penned some of her memories. Bob (but as they referred to him together ‘Barbara’ became one of her best friends.
From Mel Cain
Bob (Barbara) Barrett
I officially met Bob in 1995 when he published his first HarperCollins book, So What Do You Reckon? But I felt like I’d known him for years before that. I’d been introduced to his books through a high school boyfriend. I then met him at a book fair in 1992. HarperCollins had a stand at the fair and my best friend and I were working there when we both recognized him – it was a fan moment and we went up to him and said ‘Hi, we love your books!’ He was funny and gracious. Little did I know that three years later we’d be meeting professionally and that would be the beginning of a 17-year friendship.
Bob used to love calling me up at work on a Friday afternoon and chatting for hours. Everyone knew that if I was on the phone on a Friday it would be a Bob chat and there would routinely be laughter coming from my office. He was an entertaining guy who despite his good vibes persona, was intelligent, engaged and eager to learn about new things. And he loved sharing; his knowledge, his discoveries, good times and bad.
One of Bob’s favourite jokes involved calling up unsuspecting new assistants at HarperCollins and leaving messages for me. He’d get the person to write it all down and finally just say and it’s Barbara calling. He thought it was hilarious when our new people would come to find me saying a MAN has just called up for you and said HIS name was BARBARA! He’d be laughing before he even hung up the phone. And he loved that we had this nickname for him. He also had one for me too – Ratso.
Everyone at HarperCollins knew that Barbara and Ratso would take to the road each November to publicize his new book. And the trips were not just fun for us; they were legendary! We once drove from near the Victorian border to Terrigal in one day, doing book signings along the way, all the while with Barbara laughing at me because he thought it was hilarious that he had old smelly socks on! I laughed too, but naturally with the window wound right down.
Some of my fondest memories of Barbara are seeing him engage with his fans. They weren’t just readers to him – they were part of the Norton Army. Mad followers and believers of Les Norton, honestly, Bob said he was always the Barbara Cartland of Australian fiction, but I think that he was more of an L Ron Hubbard; a writer who founded a church and his worshippers were all members of the Norton fan club. He always had time to sign one more book, or t-shirt, or possum (yes, he was once asked to check out a possum kept warm and snuggly down a woman’s shirt in Lismore!).
Barbara was one of the kindest and most considerate people I know. Also one of the most entertaining, funny and dedicated. He loved a cause, hated being politically correct but took very seriously being a gentleman. He loved writing and getting a book done every year. We’d often speak about how the writing was going each week when he was in the deepest part of getting the book finished.
I was honoured to know Barbara. We shared a very special relationship that moved beyond being professional and developed into a real friendship. When he was first diagnosed with cancer he called me up and said he was sick and could we talk about things because this was something that we had in common. I’d been through cancer treatment before and when he had questions about what people were telling him we would spend time talking about it and working out what he should do.
Bob was also very close to his friend and mentor, Barrie Hitchon, who sadly died a couple of years ago from cancer as well. Barrie was the former CEO of HarperCollins and cared for Bob very much. I was fortunate enough to spend a day with Bob and Barrie, in Terrigal, a few years ago. The three of us had a very long, very funny lunch and it one of my best memories of the two of them. They were both incredibly fun and clearly had a lot of fondness for each other.
And while Barbara was no saint, and never professed to be, he tried very hard to be a good person and a kind, generous and considerate friend. I know that he succeeded in doing that and I will miss him forever. My world is a little less sunny because he’s not in it. But I also think that he’s making friends and telling jokes and writing new stories wherever he is.
Mel Cain (Ratso)20 September 2012