A mad juggle. That’s how Annabel Crabb describes her life.
Insanely busy, working full-time on numerous projects, and raising three children with partner Jeremy Storer.
But in her down-to-earth, self-deprecating way she happily admits it’s no picture-perfect existence.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got control of anything, really.
“I wake up in the middle of the night and lie there furiously worrying about things because when you are like anyone who does that sort of juggle between full-time work and a family, you always feel like you’re screwing something up, or you’re missing something, or you’re not doing everything right, that your kids are on their screens more than ever, that you should be a better parent, and there’s nothing more crushing than feeling like you’re not doing a good job of that important job.”
That’s everyday life, then throw in a global pandemic.
“I think, like everybody, I share this existential sort of darkness that 2020 has brought,” she says.
“I’m pessimistic about the state of the world, the state of our decision-making mechanisms.
“I keep saying to my kids this is a big thing that you’re experiencing, bigger than anything I lived through when I was their age.
Crabb is quick to stress she’s luckier than most and supremely grateful to still have a job and the ability to work from home.
In these gloomy times, she’s found some unexpected comfort in her latest TV venture, Further Back In Time For Dinner.
The five-episode program, a sequel to Back In Time For Dinner, transports an ordinary family into the past to experience life, and to cook, as previous generations did.
The current series tracks the tumultuous decades from the 1900s to the 1940s, through a plague, a pandemic, two World Wars and the Great Depression, with some uncanny parallels to today.
“We made that show over Christmas 2019,” recalls Crabb.
“There were bushfires everywhere and we were filming in a regional area wreathed in smoke.
“It was scary and we all felt this sense of dread, then came this new calamity, the pandemic.
“But one of the things that just struck me so hard watching the program was you think, ‘geez, how did people survive the terror and uncertainty of World War One and then turn around in the 1920s and have this woo-hoo amazing time?’
Poking fun at politicians
Annabel Crabb is naturally an optimist.
While 2020 has tested her sunny outlook like never before, she still looks for the funny side of things and humour has been the hallmark of her writing and broadcast commentary.
“I think absurdity is often enjoyable,” she says.
“There are endless options now for reading about politics and if I can offer a bit of humour as a gift with purchase it often draws people in who otherwise wouldn’t be interested, and you can use humour as a way of defusing polarized debates.
“But I’ve always believed you have to be gentle in the humour that you use, not to insult people, but to appeal to what I think is quite a broad appetite for humour that we have as a people in Australia.
In the same week that her new show launched, Crabb was also on TV screens sharing insights on the ABC’s political discussion program, Insiders (which she hosted for part of last year).
It’s testament to her remarkable versatility.
She’s interviewing politicians over cake in Kitchen Cabinet one minute, providing expert analysis on election night coverage the next.
She’s writing thought-provoking columns for ABC News online, Quarterly Essays, a Walkley-award winning book on Malcolm Turnbull (Stop At Nothing, The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull), and a widely-acclaimed book on women and work, (The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives) alongside a couple of cookbooks.
And then there’s co-hosting, with her good mate and 7.30 host Leigh Sales, a popular podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, about books, movies, food and anything else that takes their fancy.
So, what is it that drives her to do so much?
“Whether it’s writing about politics or writing about history, I’m always interested in ways of telling a story in different ways that will engage an audience that’s not already paying attention, particularly at a time like this when we’ve had a lot of instability in politics and a lot of disenchantment.
“The changes in the media that have happened over my career have been massively, exponentially frightening for the journalism business model but also full of opportunity and I’ve always been excited about using new platforms.
“I remember when I was a member of the press gallery, I’d just got onto Twitter and they changed the rules so you were allowed to bring a device into Parliament and I could live tweet Question Time, which at the time was quite an innovative thing to do.
“It was amazing, even though, at the time, I worked for a newspaper that was feeling the pinch from these disruptive technologies.
“I went to work online for the ABC shortly thereafter, leaving newspapers, and that was a bit of a wrench — lots of people thought I was completely crazy for doing that, but for me it was an opportunity to learn how to do new things.”
‘A very rare talent’
Former ABC managing director Mark Scott worked with Crabb at Fairfax, where she’d forged an impressive career as a political correspondent, foreign correspondent and columnist.
He saw in her a unique ability to communicate complex information to a broad audience and offered her a cross-platform role at the public broadcaster in 2009.
“I think she’s a very rare talent with that kind of breadth,” Scott says.
“She was a brilliantly insightful, must-read columnist [at Fairfax] and I thought with that intelligence, the wit, the big personality you could see her on television, I thought she’d be a great radio talent and we were moving more assertively into online news.”
While there were plenty of opportunities on offer, Scott was impressed by Crabb’s guts and determination to realise them.
“In our initial conversations, she pitched to me the idea of Kitchen Cabinet, saying that she thought politicians would be more honest and open if you could get them in an environment where they were relaxed, like a kitchen and over a meal.
“My recollection was saying, ‘Sure, Annabel that sounds an interesting idea, we could talk to our television people about that’.
“She says I rolled my eyes at the proposition and both may be true, of course, it was far-fetched in conception, but she could see it and then she went on and executed it in a magnificent way.
“I remember running into Boris Johnson when he was Lord Mayor of London and he had been interviewed by Annabel in Melbourne, he was convinced that Kitchen Cabinet was a global concept after meeting her.
“So, I think it’s that curiosity, energy, bravery, intelligence that comes together in her and it works.”
When she was contemplating the ABC job, Annabel Crabb reached out to Leigh Sales for advice.
They’d never met but hit it off immediately.
“Her brain is second to none. She’s an original thinker,” says Sales.
“I think her political analysis is absolutely superb, more so because it’s often witty as well.
“I don’t remember anyone saying Barrie Cassidy lacked credibility because he hosted a sports show, Offsiders, as well as a political show, Insiders.
“That kind of critique of her really sets me off because the content of her serious work, whether political columns or her writing on women and work, is outstanding.”
While Crabb is a big fan of social media as a forum for sharing ideas, she says she’s learnt to tune out the nastiness from watching Sales, who’s been subjected to ugly, sexist abuse.
“It just makes me roll my eyes, because there’s nothing put on about my interest in cooking and in terms of incorporating it into what I do professionally, in making Kitchen Cabinet, it was a way to tell a story about how politics works through a new medium.
“It was a device for interviewing people in a different way because I think they’re less able to give bullshit answers when they’re in their own homes.
“I don’t really care [what people think], I’m doing what I want to do and I’m doing what I’m interested in.”
While she might make you smile while listening to her broadcast commentary, reading her column or latest tweet, Scott believes her witty style enhances her examination of serious issues and big policy debates.
“Annabel can do deep, substantive investigative work that holds up to scrutiny,” Scott says.
“I remember one of the leading CEO’s in the country, telling me that his entire attitude to women in the workforce, gender equality, structured sexism in society was transformed by reading The Wife Drought.
“This is journalism with consequence, journalism with impact across the full array of options that are available to a journalist.
The influence of a country upbringing
Annabel Crabb grew up on a farm near the small South Australian town of Two Wells, the second of three children born to Christobel and Mac Crabb. (She took Julia Zemiro for a tour in 2017 for an episode of Home Delivery.)
In her final year at her country primary school, she won a scholarship to a boarding school in Adelaide to complete her secondary education.
But she continued to work as a farm hand on holidays well into her university studies, and the bush made an impression on her.
“I think growing up in a country area really formed my character,” she says.
“To grow up in a small, regional community teaches you a lot of things.
“One of them is that you meet a whole spectrum of people and you learn to listen to different people and understand that a community is made up of all sorts.
“That is quite a valuable thing, you’re not really as stratified as much as you are in the city.
“I grew up in a family that voted conservative, a farming family, I guess that my folks would have been National Party voters if there was a National Party active in that part of South Australia, and then I went to university and had friends of differing political beliefs, and I think I have a bit of an open mind or an ability to listen to people from different political perspectives as a result of those experiences.
Cooking a recipe for relieving stress
On the farm she learnt to cook from her mum, a former home economics teacher who is a whiz in the kitchen, but Crabb’s passion for cooking didn’t really emerge until her 30s when she had her own children to feed.
“Because I’m fairly busy most of the day, running around, always at a slightly overstretched pace, always a bit stressed — but I find that I work better like that — I find cooking very therapeutic,” she says.
“I quite like having a good stretch of time to make something complicated with lots of steps, not everybody loves that, but I do, because I feel like I’m using a different part of my brain.
“It’s methodical, I’m using my fingers, and I’m not writing, I’m not creating something inside my head and that is a massively calming process because when you’re writing something, when you’re creating content, it’s never that simple.
“It’s messy, it’s maddening, it doesn’t always work out, you can’t get the person to answer the phone who you need to talk to, you can’t quite make the bridge between this point and that point, you can’t make it read elegantly but with a cake the steps are there.
“Although, I don’t actually make cakes all that much.
“I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth, I made a lot of them for Kitchen Cabinet because I was bringing dessert, but left to my own devices it would be something salty and cheesy every time.”
But one thing you will never find on her plate is meat.
“Growing up on the farm I saw too much,” she says.
“I haven’t eaten meat since I was about 16.
The path to journalism and a surprise hit podcast
Crabb studied Law, and then an Arts degree, at university but in the end decided she didn’t want to be a lawyer.
As a 26-year-old “fairly directionless individual” she applied for a journalism cadetship at the Adelaide Advertiser on a friend’s suggestion and got it.
“The second I started I thought ‘Of course. This is what I want to do,'” she recalls.
“And I’ve never got sick of it since.
“One of the great appeals of a journalistic career is that you always start from a position of ignorance whatever the story — that changes a bit the more experience you get — but you have to never lose the knack of starting from scratch and learning as much as you can, in a short period, about somebody else’s life or a field in which you are not expert, you must never fall into the trap of thinking that you know what you’re talking about all the time.”
When I ask Crabb about what she’d nominate as her best work, she initially jokes: “Well, it’s all just been so brilliant!” but you get the sense she’s her own toughest critic.
“When I look back at the things with which I’m happiest, it’s the writing, where I think I’ve been able to communicate something true, in an elegant way, that is a pleasure for somebody to read,” she says.
“I’m pretty proud of The Wife Drought because it brought me in touch with a lot of people, people who are still reading it, and who raise it when I meet them and that’s a really lovely thing to hear, particularly men who say they read it.
“I’ve just written an after-word to my Quarterly Essay, Men At Work, [a companion piece to The Wife Drought which is being republished as a book] and, oddly enough, the thing that really has transformed the way men work has happened very recently because the pandemic has changed work patterns.
“It’s so fascinating. Lots of men are now working flexibly from home, much like women have been working for a while, and that is a wholesale change that all the arguing and lobbying in the world couldn’t achieve.
“Also, the Quarterly Essay about Malcolm Turnbull was really, really hard work to write and it’s one of the few things of mine that I go back to read and I think ‘this is really good’.
“I’ve never listened to an episode of Chat 10 Looks 3, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice — but I love the sound of Leigh’s voice.”
Which brings us to the podcast and her friendship with Leigh Sales.
“One of the things that really drew me to Leigh is that she reads really widely and approaches thoughts and ideas in a really creative way.
“So, when I have a conversation with her I always walk away thinking about 10 new things,” she says.
“As you’d expect, Annabel is absolutely hilarious and she’s also very kind,” says Sales.
“The only drawback really is her terrible halitosis, I recommend people stand well back from her should they ever meet her in real life. The flatulence isn’t great either!”
This is their schtick, gentle ribbing of each other that’s seen a little podcast that started as a bit of fun morph into live shows before sell-out audiences and spawned a loyal community of fans (Chatters) on Facebook who delight in acts of kindness.
“It’s weird because it really never was a world domination plan,” says Crabb.
“I guess we just thought it would be fun to do and for a long time neither of us really knew how to read the stats, so we didn’t quite realise how many people were listening to it.
“The only thing that really made that clear was just how many people were coming up to us in the street and saying hello.
“We hear a lot from people who listen to the podcast when they’re alone, or lonely, and say it’s like having a conversation with a friend and I think maybe that element of friendship about it is more of an appeal than we thought.
“We thought it would be a podcast about books and writing and culture and cooking and stuff, but I think it probably is more about friendship that seems to draw people in.
“It’s been just a hilarious adventure, surprising, gratifying and miraculous really.”
But Mark Scott, who continues to work with her on the board of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, isn’t surprised at all that the podcast and everything else Annabel Crabb turns her hand to is successful.
“The person you see on Insiders or on Kitchen Cabinet or on one of the other television programs she does or that you read online or you listen to, that’s the real person.
“That’s the real Annabel, there’s no pretence or facade around it.”
So, what’s next for Annabel Crabb?
A book on how politics works for kids and a documentary series on women in Parliament over the past 100 years is in the pipeline.
But COVID-19 has made her question her busyness and, when she’s doing her mad juggle, she’s trying not to worry too much about keeping all the balls in the air.
“I think doing things good humouredly and the acceptance that you’ll mess some things up is probably the best mental state to be in.”
Watch Further Back In Time For Dinner on ABC on Tuesdays at 8.30pm or on iview