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- The testimony of the victims
“I was supposed to finish up here, showing people compassion and spreading a bit of happiness and love,” Rolf Harris wrote near the end of his 2001 autobiography, Can You Tell What It Is Yet.
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Rolf Harris' dark side
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The words, at the time, were a poignant, satisfied reflection from the autumn years of a national treasure.
Now they take on sad irony. Court 2 at Southwark Crown Court is not the place of compassion and love where Harris was hoping to end up.
A twilight of adoration will not be his lot. His conviction, the extra allegations of sexual harassment that the jury did not adjudicate, and his confessions of adultery will taint his record, no matter what post-trial PR exercise might be mounted by his top-shelf publicity machine.
And reading the autobiography after sitting through six weeks of his trial is like being mugged by old friend.
Suddenly you question everything.
All the highlights are there. His carefree, knockabout youth in Perth. Writing Tie Me Kangaroo Down and testing it on a raucous London club audience. Inventing the wobble-board. Climbing to international fame through hit songs and inventive, charismatic children’s television.
But passages that would have seemed innocent when the book was published in 2001 take a grubby overtone in the light of what the court has heard.
There is his complaint that “the sixties didn’t swing for me”, where he described being on tour with younger, uninhibited rockers and covertly ogling their groupies – “there were semi-clad young women in dressing rooms, shower stalls, wardrobes and on tables. I tried not to watch - or be seen watching - but it wasn’t easy. I spent most of my time reading the same page of a book 14 times before realising I was holding it upside down.
“A part of me wanted the courage to get involved, but I was petrified … I kept asking myself, ‘How did I miss out on all this when I was their age?’”
What are we to make of his flip-flopping indecision as to whether he was incurably shy or that “hamming it up and flirting with pretty girls came naturally to me”?
What do we make of the moment a female performer reacted to his interminable flirting by reaching into his trousers and grabbing his penis, looking him in the eye and saying “are you gonna do something about this?”. Hilarious anecdote? Not any more.
There was his visit to see his adult daughter in Devon. In the book, it was a treasured opportunity to bond with the mature, artistic Bindi, who had complained he was a distant father.
“I think we both discovered that we could talk about anything and swap ideas like fellow artists…. Maybe the bridges could be rebuilt,” Harris wrote.
But on the stand, he confessed that, during that same visit to Devon, sitting next to his daughter on the couch watching TV, he was being fondled under the blanket by Bindi’s friend. Later after Bindi was asleep he went to the friend’s bedroom, naked, to continue their illicit relationship that the prosecution says was joyless, loveless and exploitative.
More than anything, apart from a life story, this book now reads like a coded apology to his family. Again and again he confessed his neglect of his wife and daughter, who put up with his long absences, how he preferred to court the public than express familial affection.
He once found Alwen’s old diary in a pile of rubbish to be thrown out. “I don’t know what I am going to do,” she had written. “I feel like killing myself I’m so bored. My days are filled with such emptiness. Please take me away from here [Perth]”
Bindi once said to him in a matter-of-fact voice “Do you know that you pay more attention to any child who stops you in the street than you pay to me?”
It felt to Harris as if she had driven a dagger into my chest.
“Nothing had changed. I was still trying to impress new people. It was like an addiction,” he wrote.
He was dismayed by the arguments with his wife and child, he wrote, but we have now discovered a new reason for their anger: his repeated infidelities with a lodger, and with Bindi’s friend, 35 years his junior.
This book was a litany of half-truths, the public Rolf burying his private shame. No wonder he seemed strangely grim in interviews around the time of its publication.
Perhaps the most curious passage came in the last chapter.
“Alwen and Bindi have to come first. It has only been in the last five years that I have realised this.”
Subtract five years from 2001, when the book was finished, and you land in 1996, the year the main complainant first claimed Harris had abused her as a teenager, the year Bindi learned of the relationship between the two, phoned her father and vented her fury and disappointment.
In his book, Harris was saying, that was the year he finally realised he had to be a better man.