An independent forum of strategy, tactics and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements
Good as Gould
Samia Hossain profiles the man who knows too much
Somewhere along my navigation through Gould’s Book Arcade, I pick up a copy of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. The idea is of course, along with the book I would be purchasing some cultural credibility in the eyes of the infamous and rather prickly-at-first man behind the counter: Bob Gould.
My last contact with him had been over a year ago. I’d tried to haggle the price of a poster down from $10 to $5. In the end he gave it to me for $9. He was surly. He was a veteran political agitator. He was a Trotskyist Marxist and local crackpot and I wanted to profile him.
We talk banter for a while before he commits himself to an interview. We talk of his Irish Catholic father in the ALP, of my radical Stalinist grandmother, his childhood in Beverly Hills, my adolescence in Sydney’s western 'burbs. When I reveal to him I was born in Bangladesh he leans forward and says with approval and warmth, “Well! If you are from the Bengal, then you come from a long and proud tradition of revolutionists.” Surly Bob has vanished and I am "in".
A quick Google search reveals that Bob Gould has never been short of media attention. For a while he was known as the radical demonstrator that cost the ALP the 1966 federal election. Somewhere along the line he set up SCREW — the Society of Cultivation of Rebellion Everywhere — which changed its name to Resistance in 1967. When Jacques Derrida came to town in 1999, Gould was there handing out pamphlets from a series titled The World According to Bob Gould, decrying the "evils" of postmodernity. He’s always been the shit-stirrer leftie member of the ALP according to Devleena Ghosh, academic at UTS and one time shit-stirrer herself. “I remember the chair of an ALP meeting lost it once and snapped: ‘Will delegate Gould please refrain from calling the chair Comrade.’ It was quite hilarious really.”
On the other hand there are some who are convinced that Gould is a member of ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organization). “He just knows a bit too much” claims a member of the Teacher’s Federation. “On many occasions he has led a lot of people into really dangerous situations. He has always had a bit too much influence on young people.”
To most though, he is known as the owner of the huge, sprawling mammoth of a bookshop in Newtown. Rumours say that he’s made quite a packet out of his bookshops, the first of which was on Goulburn Street in the late 1960s. Other rumours say that Gould’s financial success has always been based on the sale of ancient pornography, which can still be found out the back of the shop.
In blue flannies and ratty green overalls, perched on a couple of milk crates behind the counter, he’s hard to pick as a multimillionaire. His thick, nasal, ultra-Aussie twang doesn’t do much to give it away either. “About the age of 12 to about the age of 18 I had me prick in me hand like every other young male adolescent” he says. “I was an only child and I used to read these Marxist pamphlets me dad had out the back of the shed and think that I was being sinful. Adolescence was a curious mixture of frustrated sexual obsession, and losing what I see as the voluptuous Tridentine of Catholicism.”
He proposes that he and I are quite similar. “You were brought up with the proposition that the Koran had all the truth. I was brought up with the proposition that the Catholic Church had all the truth. And then we both kind of went through the process of concluding that this was inadequate.” I’m not sure at what point or how it happens, but the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee switches over.
“What do you understand postmodernity to be?” he enquires. We argue over this for some time. He seems to approve of my inter-racial couple status. He approves some more when I tell him that my boyfriend is a cinematographer. He yells out with mirth at one stage “Fuck you Pauline Hanson. It can work!” People perusing the bookshop look startled for a second, but soon lose interest and return to their browsing. We talk about multiculturalism and getting into fist fights at school. He talks of his interest in socio-cultural issues and his Ozleft column on the net: a cyberspace version of his The World According to Bob Gould pamphlets. He tells me that at my age he felt overwhelmed by all the things he had yet to discover and that lately he’s started to feel the same rush all over again. “We are living in a very exciting time, I think. There have been so many dramatic changes, so many possibilities. But I feel like I felt when I was 21.”
The phone rings and it’s Gould’s mum. I suddenly remember my list of questions with neat boxes next to them, all unticked. I realise that I haven’t asked a single question in over an hour and start to wonder if I will end up as a case study of multiculturalism in the next Ozleft article.
“I’m not dead, no. Still alive Mum. Yeah, this weekend has been very good. Newtown, Mum. That’s right. ‘Bout 20 years ago.” He spends a considerable amount of time convincing her that his bookshop in no longer on Goulburn St. His mum is 92 and has Alzheimer’s. “We have these lunatic conversations, with snippets from the past.” There’s a sad laugh in there somewhere, which dissipates when he remembers something and disappears into a room out the back. He eventually re-emerges and thrusts a booklet into my hands.
“There was a Sunrise Film Pitch competition on and I went a bit crazy and wrote up 15 pitches. Two of them were finalists,” he says with pride. “Here take them home, take them home. Have a read and show your boyfriend. And then you, me and him can make movies together and change the world!”
First published in Sydney University Union Recorder, No 9, 2003
Comments welcome. Ozleft Bob Gould
Created on January 6, 2004