The standing-room only assembly applauded Tony Abbott as he arrived at the Old Law School in Sydney to launch the new biography, Roddy’s Folly: R.P. Meagher QC – art lover and lawyer (Connor Court) by Meagher’s friend (and Hebrew teacher) Damien Freeman. Abbott did not discuss Meagher the connoisseur or lawyer (although he could not resist wondering what the former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal would have made of Fair Work Australia!). He concentrated on Meagher the indomitable conservative wit and eccentric who always resisted ‘the errors of our times’. He quoted two lists Meagher had prepared. One was of the ‘Nice Things’ that had vanished in his life-time (‘now at one with Nineveh and Tyre’). They included sulkies, barber shops, Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, and the Catholic Church. The second list was of the ‘Nasty Things’ that had vanished. They included Hitler, Stalin, Dr Evatt, and Cardinal Gilroy. Other speakers were the State Governor Professor Marie Bashir (who was also loudly applauded on her arrival) and Justice J. D. Heydon (who welcomed the tribute Freeman paid to Meagher’s Jewish wife).
Why Meagher’s folly? A folly is something built for fun not function. It is a protest against the drabness of life. It is usually architectural, but there is no reason why it cannot be a carefully constructed personality, like a dandy. In that sense Roddy Meagher was a self-created folly – loved and admired (and hated) for his eccentricity, individuality and authenticity. Damien Freeman, who teaches ethics and aesthetics at Cambridge, has revived an old approach to biography. His model is Boswell who set out not to write a narrative of Johnson’s life but to recreate an extraordinary figure. Freeman sketches the Meagher family background (rural, conservative Catholic) and his brilliant student days (Riverview, St John’s) but his book is basically a series of essays on the big themes in Meagher’s life – from love (his wife Penny, ‘the gentlest person who ever lived… gave me 30 years of unalloyed bliss’), the law (the book on Equity which he co-wrote was ‘the one good thing I have done in my professional life’), the university (its purpose is to produce gentlemen), and paintings (he loved and collected the great Sydney painters of 1945-1960 derided by Robert Hughes as the ‘charm school’) through to his later campaigns against the chattering classes (‘a danger as well as a pest’ because they stifle debate). He enjoyed baiting the politically correct, but there was always
a heartfelt seriousness behind the jokes (He could also be ‘nasty’ at times). On his last page Freeman draws on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (and its hero who despised phonies) and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (which prompts us to see ‘what can be shown but not said’). Freeman’s aim has been to leave his readers with ‘the tone’ of a friend who was not a great man but was passionate, inspirational and authentic. He has succeeded.
By coincidence Roddy’s Folly appears at the same time as the exhibition of the life of his cousin, Patrick White, in the National Library. There was no love lost between the cousins. Meagher described White as a ‘great shit’ and a ‘brute’ who wrote ‘pretentious and boring prose’. White imagined Meagher as a ‘creepy lawyer’ descended from country storekeepers, probably Lebanese. In his warm tribute in the exhibition catalogue, Peter Craven sees White as ‘a lost memory’. How did this happen to the only Australian awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? The truth is his great novels have never been widely read – or read through. What made him famous in his later years was his role as ‘a very distinguished ratbag’, a public curmudgeon, something of a media tart. He was always on hand to rage against the Vietnam war, nuclear energy, Sir John Kerr and Malcolm Fraser or to denounce his detestable country which, he admitted bitterly, ‘is in my blood’. (Indeed it was. There was a time when you could ride from the Hunter Valley to the Queensland border without leaving land owned by the Whites.) When he died in 1990 the celebrity and news-worthy soap-box orator died with him. Even David Marr’s biography, more read than its subject, could not revive interest. It will be some time yet before the ‘lost memory’ is restored and his achievement honoured.
The unhappy Defence Minister Stephen Smith was quick to condemn contemptuously the American paratroopers who were photographed in Afghanistan brandishing dismembered body parts of Taliban insurgents. The minister probably did not recall the case of Breaker Morant. There have always been two elements in his legend. One is Australian nationalism. Three young men (along with 23,000 other Australians) answered the call of England and Empire, fought the Boers in savage guerrilla warfare in Transvaal, and for their pains were court-martialled and two of them executed. Irregularities in the hearings deepened the Australian conviction that they had not been given a fair trial. This is the pommy-bashing burden of Kenneth G. Ross’s play Breaker Morant now showing in Sydney as an Anzac Day offering by the Theatre Group sponsored by the Australian Defence Credit Union. The legend resists correction and will last forever. The second theme is more universal. Do the horrors of war, whether in Transvaal, Flanders, Vietnam, Afghanistan or anywhere, inevitably dehumanise ordinary, decent men? This is the major theme of Bruce Beresford’s famous film. It is a question that will be raised as long as there is war. When asked his opinion of the American soldiers in the notorious photographs, Defence Minister Smith said they are ‘contemptible’. Yes, just like the Breaker?