LAUNCH OF JAMES CARLETON’S ‘THE WIT OF WHITLAM’,BELLEVUE HOTEL, PADDINGTON, NSW, 8 DECEMBER 2014
As Henry Kissinger discovered to his chagrin in Beijing in 1971, Gough made a habit of getting there first. The Bellevue is no exception. Most of us here probably associate the Bellevue with its glory days when Suzie Carleton was, as Gough always described her, its chatelaine. And Gough and Margaret were very much part of that scene.
But Gough and the Bellevue go back to 1951, before he even entered the Parliament. That’s when, as junior to Bill Dovey, Margaret’s father, counsel assisting the Liquor Royal Commission, he exposed the Bellevue, along with the Captain Cook and the Edinburgh Castle, as one of the notorious sly-grog pubs of Sydney.
You can’t get more ‘0ld Sydney’ than that – and Gough and the Bellevue were in the thick of it.
It’s a reminder, too, that there was an Eastern Suburbs Whitlam before there was a Western Suburbs Whitlam, well before Werriwa. And long after.
He was appointed Minute Secretary of the Darlinghurst Branch of the ALP the very night he walked in to join the Party in 1945 – two days after he was demobbed from the Air Force.
He was pre-selected for the Fitzroy ward in the Sydney City Council in 1947, but the Council was sacked before the election. Later as you know, when he moved south and west, he failed in bids for the State seat of Cronulla and for the Sutherland Shire Council. As he used to say:
I might have been Lord Mayor of Sydney, Premier of NSW or even President of the Sutherland Shire. But, alas, the fates were against me.
The Fates brought him back to the Eastern Suburbs with a bang in 1975. It was more or less a fluke that Gough and Margaret had bought their unit at Darling Point just before the Dismissal. And Margaret immediately moved out of Kirribilli and into the flat the very next day. They had never envisaged it as their home address for the next four decades. But it became his Sydney headquarters for the campaign.
It’s in Marathon Avenue. So as not to alarm the bourgeoisie among the new neighbours, he didn’t put ‘E G Whitlam’ on the residents’ board in the lobby. He identified the new tenants as ‘Miltiades’ – the victorious Greek general over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. So began Gough’s second incarnation as Eastern Suburbs Man.
This, of course, is the Gough that a bright-eyed curly-headed kid named James Carleton came to know – eyes wide open, ears wide open, taking it all in.
But the special thing about young James is not only what he witnessed at first hand. He was soaking up all the stories from some of the master story-tellers of the times – Mick and Eric and Ed and Brian, just to begin with. It’s not adequate to say that they are keepers of the flame. They lit it. And indeed, they are part of the flame.
So, as Gough might have said, James was destined to write this book whenever it was published.
As shown by his ability to meet Louise’s deadlines. A remarkable feat. His big problem was that the stories just kept on coming. From 21 October, right up to the Town Hall Memorial, and after. In fact, it was the only wake I’ve ever been to where the only subject of conversation actually was the deceased.
The reason is that everybody who ever met him has a Gough story. They remember them and want to tell them. So the stream is endless.
One reason why they remember them is that Gough had the great comedic gift of the totally unexpected. Tony Burke, on telling Gough his new daughter was named Helena, couldn’t possibly have expected a monologue on the history of the name, from Helen of Troy to Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem
– Gough, I didn’t know that
– Tony, if you talk to me for even a short time, you’ll always learn something.
The Labor candidate at Alice Springs could hardly have expected to be introduced to the Renaissance School …
– Comrade, I am to poster-sticking what Giotto was to the circle.
Another characteristic that comes through all the stories is his disdain for platitudes and clichés – something of a handicap for a politician. So his standing instruction in the drafting of speeches was, as Queen Gertrude said to Polonius, ‘More matter with less art”. Or, as I would put it, ‘more facts, less bullshit’.
Gough himself put it in another way. About 1974, we were discussing our respective writing styles.
– ‘Your trouble, comrade, is that you are too dithyrambic. Mine is that I’m too inspissated .’
Well, who can argue with that?
[Dithyrambic – a passionate choral hymn, in honour of Dionysus, wild, bacchanalian;]
[Inspissated – dry, densely detailed.]
He did have the grace to say that we complemented each other.
There were other occasions we discussed speech-writing – at the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre on 1 May 1983, not long after the return of the Hawke Government. At this stage, I was working with both Bob Hawke and Neville Wran.
– How are you coping, comrade, doing what Our Lord says is impossible? (Man cannot serve two masters).
[Reading from Canberra Times 25 March 1990] –
“There was one VIP whose absence from the official opening at the Australian National Gallery on Friday night of ‘Civilisation: Ancient Treasures from the British Museum’, created a minor sensation. The Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was otherwise committed, so in his place stood the chairman of the ANG Council, Gough Whitlam, who read the following note from Mr Hawke:
‘My present preoccupation with the preservation of Australian civilisation prevents my joining you tonight…. Well, then, in the circumstances we’ve had to draw on an ancient treasure from the Australian National Gallery!”
He acknowledged the brilliance of Mr Hawke’s message, and displayed his own considerable insight into the nature of political expediency by quipping: “Quite frankly, I couldn’t have done it better if I’d written it myself …. and I suspect it was written by the same person who would have written it for me!’ “
One of the pieces I wrote as valedictory I entitled “A Very Public Life’. By this I meant, among other things, that there was a great unity – a one-ness – between the public and private Gough. As he said of the Whitlam Government itself, ‘What you saw is what you got’ – and that really goes for the public figure and the private man.
It wasn’t quite as Queen Victoria said of Gladstone: ‘He addresses me as if I were a public meeting’.
But there was never much Gough said or did that was meant to be off-the–record.
Indeed, the only time he took me to task, in all the hundreds of thousands of words between us, was when I wrote the Arthur Calwell entry for the Australian Dictionary of Biography and said that Gough had made a ‘calculated indiscretion’ in 1965 in telling a New Zealand reporter that Arthur was too old for the leadership.
But indiscretions abounded, calculated or otherwise, and while those around him may have shuddered at the time, they are now all part of the legend. And a great many of them are in this book.
As Gough said: ‘I may be a legend but I am not a myth’.
And I think that it is a mark of Gough’s true greatness that the legend grows, even as we recall things with love that in anybody else would be regarded as outrageous.
It goes without saying that Gough would have enjoyed this book.
It contains one of the keys to understanding Gough Whitlam. And that is : he enjoyed being Gough immensely.
And you can see how much enjoyed being himself, not least being the best caricaturist of himself, in every page of this book.
In this book, we can enjoy Gough being Gough.