Paul McDermott has always straddled the angel/devil, light/dark divide. From performing on The Big Gig as part of the Doug Anthony All Stars to making music, paintings, animated short films and picture books, his work has blended the beautiful and the sinister, the sweetness of nectar with an aftertaste of poison.
His new picture book, Ghostbear, tells the story of a small bear lost and alone in the Arctic wilderness, remembering his mother’s love and the other lovely creatures he’s left behind on his life journey. The book started off as a series of paintings created for the 2013 Adelaide fringe festival. Struggling with his main project, he painted the Ghostbear images as a quick distraction, mounted on giant paper panels, like banners. These images became the basis for a short film, a meditation on loss and environmental degradation.
McDermott doesn’t see his picture book as being only aimed at children. “A lot of the stuff that I’ve done over the years, including television [as a presenter and host of Good News Week], seems to hop between … our definition of when childhood begins or ends, or when maturity sets in,” he told the Guardian, when we met at an elegant sun-drenched bar overlooking Bondi beach – well, in reality, via Zoom in lockdown, with much of the conversation going, “Hang on, I’ve lost you!”
When he’s found, he’s a quick wit, often profound, occasionally wicked, with a passionate interest in environmental issues, politics and how Covid is shaping human behaviour – rich pickings for comic material.
As a youngster, his favourite picture books were Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Edgar Allan Poe and Grimms’ Fairy Tales – stories that could “induce a fear or an emotional response” – and Pears’ Cyclopaedia, which had small engravings that he started to copy and draw. “I used to do very fine, very little drawings, more so because I’ve got terrible shortsightedness.”
His desire to make picture books like Ghostbear grew out of his experience as a father where he began to orient his storytelling towards his son, starting a diary of the things his son was saying – some peculiar, some “comically offensive”.
McDermott still feels the child-spirit in the way he works, as a performer, writer and visual artist. “In many ways I haven’t left that rich seam of imagination … where nothing is really out of bounds, and you don’t have limitations, and there’s no parameters, no boundaries on where your thoughts go, how you think,” he says. “As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head – partly because my view of the world was limited, because of my eyesight.”
Ghostbear is a book blooming with sadness. McDermott sees all of his creative work as shaped by melancholy and moody places, a process of transformation “presented in a way that can be deceptively beautiful”. This is especially so with musical comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars, who were known for their anarchic stage presence and songs such as I Fuck Dogs and Cadillac of Jesus; songs which revelled in “the terror, horrible lyrics … sung very sweetly, enough to disguise the fact of what you’re singing about”.
McDermott says he’s never “tried to cater for an audience” – and during our conversation I recall seeing DAAS perform in 1990, when I was 18, and then at a Yarraville Club reunion show almost 30 years later. When I ask whether audiences seem to have changed much in the intervening years, he grins. “I was surprised at how old they were. And many of them, to be honest with you, were quite ugly. When they were young, they were more attractive.” We laugh, contemplating the implications. “It was depressing to look out on that and see … because you’re only as good as your audience.”
When reforming the group – with Tim Ferguson and Paul Livingston rather than Richard Fidler – paramount was “that it was a continuum, it wasn’t a nostalgic look back at what had been and just repeating those songs,” he says. It became about “ageing and grief and darkness”.
But in terms of new material, he didn’t feel constrained by boundaries of taste, often using the show itself to highlight the changes in what was no longer deemed appropriate content – usually co-opting Tim Ferguson as the fall guy. “I’ve always loved that aspect of explaining to somebody why this does or doesn’t work, or why it does or doesn’t fly,” he says. “One of my favourite reactions in a comedy show is stunned, horrified silence. It does happen.”
McDermott moved from the beach in Adelaide to the “penal colony” of Canberra when he was three years old. He has vivid memories of later returning to his grandmother’s house in Adelaide where he shared a bedroom with other kids. There were two images, The Sacred Heart and The Bleeding Heart. “So, Jesus and Mary on the wall, almost with their chests ripped open, with their hearts floating outside their bodies.” He remembers a particular night of wonder when he was about seven. “The moonlight seemed to be coming through this window and just illuminating The Sacred Heart.”
Ghostbear, too, is set in a place of stars and dreams, the bear accompanied by the afterglow of beautiful creatures in the skies. “This hijacking of the idea of the stars up in heaven … it’s quite beautiful because we now know through science that we all come from stardust; we are borne of this cosmic wonder,” he says. “And when we go and leave this place, we do go back to the earth, and may regenerate in other ways, in other forms, without our consciousness.
“It seems sad that we’re the only living things on the planet able to do that, so I suppose Ghostbear was dealing with that idea of life and regeneration in a way.”
Based on two stories – a polar bear found stuck on an ice floe miles away from its territorial hunting grounds; and the death in captivity of Knut in Berlin Zoo – McDermott began thinking about “spiritual terminology” and the arbitrary separation of humans and animals. “What if animals had souls and if they had the same trajectory as us?” he says. “The older I get, the more animalistic I think we all seem.”
He worried about this bear on an ice floe and how it would find its way back. “It was that spiritual journey that I had in me since being a kid … but applying it in a different way than the crown of thorns and spikes in hands and feet.” He was looking for a different orientation, “that we’re not lost”.
• Ghostbear by Paul McDermott is out now via Scholastic