Revolutionary...in high heels

Writer, commentator and polemicist Antonella Gambotto-Burke now lives in England, but she still calls the north shore home.

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Antonella Gambotto-Burke with daughter Bethesda.

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Antonella at her childhood East Lindfield home and (above) in 1998.

NOTHING is impossible for north shore girls; they can change the world, or at least the way the world sees itself, according to one who has done just that.

Acclaimed author, critic and commentator Antonella Gambotto-Burke attributes much of her success to the self-belief instilled in her early days while attending East Linfield primary and Killara High School.

She says it’s no accident that Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin and model turned businesswoman Elle Macpherson were also raised in East Lindfield, or that actors Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts went to school at North Sydney Girls.

“Whilst I’m generalising, I think it is fair to say that girls raised on the north shore have an understanding of their value,” she told the North Shore Times.

“I was raised to believe that I could achieve anything.

“My father, like some of my teachers, wanted me to study law. He offered me a Porsche if I made Sydney University and to pay for chambers. But I refused; he had given me the confidence to make my own choices and I chose writing.”

The law may have made her richer but she doesn’t regret her choice for a moment.

“Writing has been neither easy nor especially lucrative, but I have had the most wonderfully mad and interesting life,” she said.

“I have also been able to live in alignment with my ideals, which I think few people do.

“My friends in law and banking all speak of the moral and ethical compromises necessary to succeed. I never had to make those choices, which is, I think, a very great privilege,” said the author, who now lives in the English county of Kent with her 12-year-old daughter Bethesda.

“Inexplicably my daughter, who has just been accepted at one of the best English grammar schools, wants to study law at Cambridge.

“When she told me I stood there, stunned, and simply said, ‘Why?’

“But she takes after her grandfather: a pragmatist. That gene skipped a generation with me. I’ve always been off in a world of my own, dreaming.”

Much of her dreaming has been done in England, where she first arrived in 1984, but she has spent many of the intervening years back on the north shore of yore — at Wahroonga, Mosman, Cammeray, Neutral Bay and Kirribilli.

The north shore was also the scene of her first “proper” kiss — with a “very naughty and highly intelligent” Shore Old Boy who adjudicated the state debating trials.

“We met in the library of North Sydney Boys.

“He was wearing a blue and white flannelette pyjama shirt at the time and drinking Coca Cola. I thought he was a ruffian.

“We first kissed in Lavender Bay Park, under a sky brilliant with stars.”

Several teachers had a pronounced influence on her career, including Mr Bennett, an “anarchic, tough, intelligent and profoundly creative” fifthgrade teacher who told her mother: “This girl is destined to be a writer.”

Julian Holden, who taught her in grades 7 to 11, ignited her love of British history but her favourite was Maurice Finberg (grades 7 to 9): “Outrageously elitist and theatrical, he taught me to love Dickens and Shakespeare.”

She was one of those odd children who loved school, a “real swot”.

“I was involved in everything — school magazine edit teams, singles and team debating, theatre, art camp, you name it. Science and maths were a bore. They have served no purpose whatsoever — I wasted thousands of hours of my life — but English, French and history were a joy.”

She made life a misery for her poor sports mistresses by refusing to even pretend to like netball. She enrolled in weekly sports supervised by English teachers because “they always let me off — I topped English every year — so I was, in effect, authorised to wag”.

As a child she haunted the libraries at Chatswood and East Lindfield, “that tiny bungalow crammed with books — for me, a place of the greatest magic”.

Now she helps fill libraries. She has written one novel, The Pure Weight of the Heart, two anthologies, Lunch of Blood and An Instinct for the Kill, and a memoir, The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide, about the 2001 death of her brother Giancarlo, a Macquarie Bank executive.

She dedicated her 2015 book about parenthood, Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution, to her daughter, who she has homeschooled.

The now 52-year-old courted controversy from the outset.

An early London concert review for New Musical Express inspired Cliff Richard to sue the music journal.

She also wrote “A Man Called Horse”, documenting alternative rock star Nick Cave’s heroin-induced stupor. In retaliation, he wrote a song about her and British journalist Mat Snow entitled “Scum”.

Her interview subjects have included Gerard Depardieu, Ben Elton, Erica Jong, Colleen McCullough, Jeffrey Archer, Jerry Hall and Naomi Wolf.

Author Murray Waldren said an interview with her “often has the studied savagery of the corrida amid the crystal cruet ambience of high tea at the Ritz. Such ritualistic disembowelling, highly entertaining and in stark contrast to the asinine, PR-driven pap of most modern profiles, leave the gored stirred and very shaken.”

Another said: “To have been ‘Gambottoed’ is to have had a vein opened.”

She also contributes features and literary criticism to publications including The Weekend Australian, The Telegraph and Guardian (UK), The South China Morning Post, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.

But for all her fame, travels, devastations and battles, some of her happiest memories are of simply walking home from East Killara to East Lindfield on hot, sunny afternoons, “down winding avenues littered with Jacaranda blossoms, the air heavy with the scent of wisteria, slowly weaving my way around the parked Beamers”.

My father wanted me to study law. He offered me a Porsche if I made Sydney University