Wide Open Road: In conversation with Colin Hesse

Wide Open Road: In conversation with Colin Hesse
Image: Colin Hesse, Facebook



Beloved Skid Row FM community radio announcer and former local councillor Colin Hesse is retiring from the city. Mark Mordue speaks with him about his life in the Inner West and the future ahead.


Yesterday Colin Hesse finished his last episode for Close to Home for Radio Skid Row. He’s not just “leaving the station after ten years and four months”, he’s leaving Sydney altogether and returning to live in his home town of Nowra.

Hesse is a rare beast and will be much missed. He’s been a heartfelt ally to Addi Road (the community centre where Skid Row is located) and to causes that have forged a sense of history and community in the area. Plenty have felt his gently inspiring energy, everywhere from his radio work to being a Greens representative sitting on the Marrickville and, later, Inner West Councils. His last shift at Skid Row done, Hesse admits he is feeling “pretty emotional. A combination of emotions actually … it’s already in the past now and I am wondering what is the future. The responses on Facebook for me have been overwhelming.”

“It’s not just my ten years at Skid Row either. I’ve lived in Marrickville for 39 years. And I haven’t moved at all for the last 25 years. I chucked out almost half of my things last night after doing a big cull over the last few weeks. So many things, re-homing them where I could. I found out you can recycle your X rays, which is just as well. From some reason I have X-rays that go back to 1974! The doctor and the specialist who looked after me are both dead now. It was the year I could not play sport because of a knee injury. It’s funny how memories come back to you.”

Hesse’s Close To Home program on Skid Row has been a Thursday morning landmark over the last decade. It was fitting and typical of Hesse that his last show involved an in-depth interview focussing on the problem of housing and rental duress in Sydney.

An excellent interviewer, listening to Hesse has been as good as anything you might hear on the ABC – and, indeed, often better. He’s always made a virtue of the long-form interview, letting conversations develop and breathe so a deeper perspective can come through; his questioning style methodical and reasonable, digging in without alienating his subjects and looking for easy sparks. If only more out there in the media were like him.

Apart from his directly political, environmental and social justice interests, the thing most listeners will miss about him on Radio Skid Row is his zealous support of Australian music. His collection of music – and the knowledge that goes with it – is something to be believed.

Nudge Hesse on a music topic and a plethora of insights will tumble out. “I’m still a CD man. I love vinyl too but it has gotten expensive. The reality is the arguments around sound also involve good equipment, not just CDs versus vinyl. I was in at the Salvos the other day and I saw some great CDs, they were marked at just $1.00. So I bought some. I probably shouldn’t of at the moment, but I couldn’t resist. I’ve been selling a fair bit of vinyl, actually, to RPM and Red Eye Records. But when I put my hands on my old Triffids albums I just could not do it, even though I have them in other formats. That band means too much to me.”

Living a rich cultural and a political life is no easy thing to do well. Hesse says he recently read Hall Greenland’s The Well-Dressed Revolutionary. “It’s about the life of Michel Pablo. They call him a Communist but he was never attached to Stalinism or authoritarianism at all. That’s important. The book tracks his life, starting in Greece, and how he evolves his thinking, trying to work out what Marx really meant by the liberation of humanity. The genuine emancipation of the human spirit, the freedom to say things, and Pablo’s belief in dissent. I mean, that is truly revolutionary when you read about him as no one likes being called out and Pablo was willing to speak up when others did not.”

Hesse worries a little about cultural politics now, the absence of ethics and complexity, “the tendency for a copycat Australia to arise out of the American picture”. He wonders if growing up in a post-Vietnam culture here in Australia nonetheless affected his attraction to what he calls “criticising hierarchies”.

A little romantically, he also feels “most music lovers are open-minded people. It’s something to do with listening and synthesizing something better in your life.”

“It’s so important to care about the collective and contribute to a process of working together. Dissent is fundamental to that dynamic. You have to avoid cartoons, caricatures of how you should act and what should be said. It’s part of that listening thing again, maybe. Listening and talking honestly.”

He reflects on “the shocking events that continue in Gaza. A couple of weeks ago I was going through my filing cabinet, throwing out the twenty year old superannuation statements and the like, when on the floor of one of the draws was this article by Robert Manne from December 2004. Given current circumstances it makes pretty interesting reading.”

“There’s not much I’d quibble with regards what Manne wrote – except perhaps with his characterisation of the decision to create Israel as being ‘just’. Certainly it was understandable, but as Manne notes in his next paragraph… ‘as to the Palestinian question, “Why should we have been asked to pay the price for the Jewish tragedy in Europe?”, I have never heard, or believed there to be, a morally adequate reply.’”

“In short, Manne, a Jewish intellectual who, at times in his words, has been too Right for the Left – and too Left for the Right – seems to me to get it about right.”

Hesse has to get back to packing boxes. He will keep his copy of the Hall Greenland biography of Michel Pablo. And that old clipping of a Robert Manne essay.

He’s also “happily rediscovered a short novel Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar that I thought I had lost. It was a revelation of sorts when I read it a few years ago for the book club I’ve been in. I’ve got a cut-out review from The Guardian with my edition: ‘Khirbet Khizeh is a tribute to the power of critical thought to register the injustices of history.’ It’s really a terrific short read, I totally recommend it. Like much good literature it gets us closer to the heart of the matter than much of the political argument can sometimes manage.”

News articles, books, albums, interview tapes – but definitely no old X-rays. Colin Hesse is filing his life and library away for now and seeing the overlap between history and his own experiences and thinking as he does so. He says he will sell his mint copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (“I never really liked it that much. It feels like someone yelling their pain at you.”) and, a little more reluctantly, all his Pretty Things albums too (“although Parachute still sounds good to me”).

It’s nearly all done. But there will still to be plenty to do once he settles back into Nowra. He left town half a century ago and the homecoming means a lot to him. The local Shoalhaven community radio station is apparently keen to recruit him. “I certainly won’t be retiring to the golf course. That would be my idea of hell,” Hesse says. “I told them I like talking to people on-air. They were really pleased. So it looks like I will get involved.”

Colin Hesse, Facebook

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