Peter Coleman

Australian Notes | 2 December 2009

I was both right and wrong.

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I was both right and wrong. When Tony Abbott’s Battlelines came out a few months ago I wrote in these pages that it had many excellent things to say but its thinness on economic policy meant that his Parliamentary colleagues would be unwilling to elect him as their leader. That was wrong. But I added: ‘except in the most extraordinary circumstances’ — and that turned out to be right. The Liberal party is lucky to have had him to fall back on. The rage of the Left shows that it knows it now has a fight on its hands.

John Howard will be both the guest of honour at the Quadrant Dinner this week and the man in the hot seat. Guest of honour because Quadrant wants to thank the prime minister of Australia’s golden age. In the hot seat because it will be the occasion for the launching of the The Howard Era, a collection of essays, published by Quadrant Books, assessing Howard’s successes and failures. The launching speech will be by John Stone whose chapter in the book gives an idea of what he will say. If you are looking for a prime minister of outstanding intellect, Stone writes, Howard is not your man. If you want principled consistency, look somewhere else. If you want a good judge of people, rule him out. If you value federalism, forget it. If you are against the political ‘debauching’ (Stone’s word) of the public service, he will let you down. If you want reform of the ABC or victory in the Culture Wars, you will lose all hope. Yet despite all this and more, Howard will not storm out of the dinner in a huff. Stone ends by saying that Howard was still our greatest prime minister. He restored not only our prosperity but also our pride in being Australian. The Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement is, Stone says, a transforming event that will earn ‘the undying gratitude of posterity’. It would not have happened without the Howard-Bush ‘chemistry’. The Howard years were good years, Stone concludes: ‘It may be some time before we see their like again.’

This memoir, Jamie Grant has said, will still be read in a hundred years. Grant is chairman of the panel of judges of the Waverley Library’s Alex Buzo Prize for Literature and he was referring to the 2009 winner — Robert Gray’s The Land I Came Through Last. In an unusual year in which many excellent books did not even make the shortlists, Gray’s memoir is more than a good book. It will join the canon of Australian literature beside, say, Ken Slessor’s Five Bells or Patrick White’s Voss. It is primarily a portrait of his father — a sad, able, self-loathing alcoholic — and of his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness. But it is also a self-portrait of the artist as a young man. Gray says flippantly that he wrote the book with an eye on a literary prize. How else is an Australian poet to live? (The Buzo, funded by the Copyright Agency Limited, is $20,000.) But the truth is that Gray, like the shades in Homer’s underground, had to taste sacrificial blood to find his voice for this masterpiece. Please read it.

The Land I Came Through Last (the title comes from Brennan) gives an unexpected sketch of the kindlier side of Patrick White, who is so often presented as curmudgeonly if not monstrous. He looked, Gray says, like a grim Indian totem pole with a mouth like a folded warrant for someone’s arrest. (At the prize-giving ceremony in the Bondi Pavilion, he told a story not in the book: after a dinner at White’s one of the guests, tired of being insultingly ignored, prepared to leave. ‘Come back!’ shouted White. As the man turned back, White exclaimed: ‘Not you, you fool! I meant the dog!’) White often quarrelled with Gray but recognised his great talent and always encouraged him. (‘But I wish to God you would write about something other than trees!’) Close to death, he insisted that Gray receive the Patrick White Award (funded from interest on his Nobel Prize Award) although Gray was too young for an award that is reserved for older, neglected writers. He is in a sense White’s heir —and is now planning a novel. The young are too interested in themselves to write good novels, Gray told his audience at the prize-giving. A good novelist should be older, interested in other people, no longer convinced he is immortal, and aware that we are all in it together. Gray is in his sixties.

There was a titter around the restaurant in Centennial Park as Peter Costello finished off his speech congratulating The Good Weekend on its first 25 years: he had just called on it to produce more ‘nice’ profiles. The Good Weekend made its name by its profiles skewering prominent figures, usually men (Mike Willessee, Alan Jones) and occasionally a woman if she is a Pauline Hanson. (The 25th anniversary issue lists as a ‘Most Distressing Story’ a profile of a stockbroker who read it and then killed himself. ‘Distressing’ is not perhaps le mot juste.) But this celebrated magazine would not be the same without these hatchet jobs. In a period when so many magazines folded, it may well congratulate itself on its success. Looking back, the editor said, it is easy to see how much has changed in 25 years. But Costello remarked how little has changed — in Sydney. The first issue had a cover story on the former Senator Lionel Murphy — which reminds us all of his telephone calls about his ‘little mate’ Morgan Ryan and of the Chief Stipendiary Magistrate Murray Farquhar. In Sydney today, everyone talks about the former Senator Graham Richardson and the late Michael McGurk. What has changed? Well, the current issue of The Good Weekend does not do over Richo — and its profile is a very ‘nice’ portrait of the Dalai Lama.