Janet Albrechtsen talks pop culture, fears, and guilty pleasures

PHOTO: Columnist Janet Albrechtsen talks pop culture, fears, New York City and guilty pleasures. (Twitter) MAP: Australia
PHOTO: Columnist Janet Albrechtsen talks pop culture, fears, New York City and guilty pleasures. (Twitter)
MAP: Australia

Janet Albrechtsen has been labelled Australia’s answer to Ayn Rand, who famously said: “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”

So who is she really?

For many years, most especially during the period John Howard was prime minister, the tough-minded lawyer turned columnist was a leading lightning conductor for attacks from the left.

Former Labor leader Mark Latham once controversially said she was “a skanky ho who would die in a ditch to defend the Liberal Party” in parliament. Ms Albrechtsen has since pointed out she is not a member of any party.

Crikey dubbed her a “right-wing rage machine”. But The Australian’s “most talked about columnist” is adored by conservatives as well as her editors.

In 2005 former prime minister John Howard appointed her to the board of the ABC – of which she has been a critic – for a five-year term.

She was a member of the Foreign Affairs Council from 2003 to 2007.

But mostly, she writes. She writes, and writes and runs.

And laughs, she says, when she is told she “writes like a man – whatever that means”.

For this week’s Anything But for The Brief, I tried to ask her about anything but the news, politics, the law, Mark Latham and what on earth it does mean to write like a man.

Instead, we pondered whether she is most like Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, or Samantha from Bewitched.

On routine:

What’s the last thing you do at night?

At the moment I check my phone for texts because I have an 18year-old daughter who has just moved overseas.

She’s always contacting me about how to wash her new black jumper, how to shrink her jeans so they are just that bit tighter.

It’s a different feeling having a child away. I’ve never had that so I like to leave my phone on.

Do you have any personal routines you do religiously?

I like to run every morning. It’s a way of keeping sane. It’s just something I’ve always done.

The only book I would have a look at more than once is a thesaurus.

Janet Albrechtsen

I get up usually before the sun is up and go for about an hour and sometimes have a swim.

It’s such a great way to start the day. I run through a cemetery and look at the gorgeous old names. And there are so many sad ones.

You take our long life spans for granted when you see how many people died in the ’30s and ’40s probably through disease which we have now overcome.

Do you have any books you read repetitively?

I don’t like to read books over and over again. The only book I would have a look at more than once is a thesaurus. Being a writer I’m quite fussy about my words.

On pop culture:

Is there someone from pop culture you admire?

I’m surrounded by pop culture in my house. I have three children and I don’t like much of their pop culture. But I do like JK Rowling.

At the moment I am really loving Denzel Washington. Recently I’ve watched Flight and American Gangster.

He always plays these troubled characters that I want to take home and help. There’s a sadness to him, a sadness in his movies. I’m sure that’s not in real life.

So how would you help a character like that if you took them home?

I am so not a social worker … so I don’t know.

Would you tell them to get over it?

Yes … (laughingly) get over it! Get out there, go for a run. You’ll feel so much better.

On the world:

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that my children won’t grow up in a world as safe as the one I grew up in.

There was no great danger in the world I grew up in and I look out into the horizon now and I feel it’s a much more troubled world for my children.

You can never get bored in a place like New York.

Janet Albrechtsen

What is your favourite holiday destination?

New York. It’s such a big buzzing city. You can be as different and weird and wonderful as you want.

New York is full of such characters – it’s big, it’s grotty, it’s beautiful, it’s smelly, it’s electric.

You can never get bored in a place like New York. I feel like I can be more myself there.

You’re completely anonymous; you can do whatever you want. I think it’s far less judgmental.

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Trashy television. I like old bad TV like Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, the stuff I grew up with.

I’ll occasionally flick over if I have a spare half-hour and I’m a feeling sorry for myself and try and answer that existential question, “Do you want to be Samantha or do you want to be Jeannie?”.

They were kind of harmless shows that we watched as kids.

I have a 14-year-old son and I watch the stuff he watches and it’s so much more politically switched on than the stuff we watched as kids.

Gilligan’s Island – I mean were there any messages in that? No.

But South Park and The Simpsons … my son is learning his politics from that and a lot of people would say that’s good – not from me.

On people:

What quality do you most admire in a person?

I like decency. I like someone who is decent, who thinks about others, who says what they mean and means what they say.

Is there a modern habit that really irritates you?

I don’t have the habit but my children do. It’s texting at dinner.

What [Atticus Finch] represented as a lawyer, as a person, as a father is ageless.

Janet Albrechtsen

I do ban it but it’s amazing how that phone slips back onto the table and beeps.

If you could be any character in literature who would you be?

I don’t read a lot of fiction so I’ll have to go back a while.

It’s unoriginal, but Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. That was the reason why I went off to law school.

He’s such a magnificent character who never ages. What he represented as a lawyer, as a person, as a father is ageless.

Who are the people in public life who are like that?

I just spent 10-11 hours talking to John Howard and there is a decency there.

There was no whingeing, complaining or criticising anyone else.

There’s a certain gracefulness in not doing that and to come out of politics, which is a particularly brutal business with that, is quite rare.

It’s going to be tough to narrow it down, but what is your favourite program on the ABC?

I love NewsRadio. I am a huge fan of NewsRadio. I have a little digital radio; it’s a great service.

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