It was late. I was sitting at a small table against the side wall in a Brunswick Street café, facing the street. It was the kind of place where you can go alone with a book or a newspaper or nothing at all and not be bothered and eat in peace. It was the week before Easter and I’d been working on a book I have been editing for about five years; a history of a college. It goes to print soon and then all the pedants will come out of the woodwork and pick it to bits. I can’t wait. I was proofing the chapters about the 1960s and 1970s, part of which I had spent at the college; and reading the text was like dragging my consciousness through the soundtrack of my life. Sylvia’s mother said, Sylvia’s busy; too busy to come to the phone ...
I had a glass of house red and ordered the pasta carbonara and I couldn’t read any more, so I listened to the conversation of two diners at the next table instead, like a tired cyclist hanging on to the end of a tram just for the ride home. They could have been academic scientists or they could have been out-of-work actors or they could have been vacuum cleaner salesmen from Brisbane. I couldn’t tell and I didn’t care.
DINER A: Have you noticed that commentators are starting to refer to the federal government more and more as Australia’s “second worst” since the war? Someone says it and everyone repeats it, like parrots. (GLANCES AT THE SPECIALS BOARD) The pumpkin gnocchi with avocado and spring onion sauce sounds good.
DINER B: Yes. I might have the slow-roasted veal shank on tapenade mash. I’m a bit hungry tonight. (PAUSES WHILE HE STANDS THE OVERSIZED MENU ON ONE OF THE TWO VACANT CHAIRS AT THEIR TABLE) Yes, that second-worst government thing – and second-worst Prime Minister, as I’ve heard - is just lazy journalism. They pick up a phrase or an idea and use it without any analysis and it becomes a de facto truth. It is also a dreadful slur.
DINER A: Not on this Prime Minister, of course.
DINER B: No, of course not. He deserves it. It’s a slur on the Whitlam government, which is what they are suggesting was the “worst government”; and on Gough Whitlam himself, of course, who is alleged to have been Australia’s “worst post-war Prime Minister”. To suggest that Whitlam was in any way ‘worse’ than the current Prime Minister beggars belief.
DINER A: It beggars history as well, which everyone forgets, of course.
DINER B: Of course they do. Doesn’t anyone remember Billy McMahon? (LOOKS AROUND TO THE BAR) Where’s the waiter? Shall we get some wine?
DINER A: A sauvignon blanc might be nice, although it doesn’t really go with your veal shank. I remember McMahon. They called him Silly Billy, which shows that tags have been around forever, I suppose. His greatest achievement was the slit in his wife’s dress at a state dinner at the White House in 1971. And what about Harold Holt?
DINER B: Indeed. Or Malcolm Fraser? John Kerr didn’t destroy Whitlam, it was Fraser. He withheld supply in the Senate. He wouldn’t pass the money bill. He was holding the country to ransom. Kerr just called an election to break the deadlock. He decided the people had to be looked after first, and the politicians could slug it out at the ballot box later. Pensions weren’t being paid. You have to pay pensions. People forget all that.
DINER A: And then Fraser did absolutely nothing for eight years except recognise Robert Mugabe and we had to vote in a trade unionist to get anything done.
DINER B (LOOKS AT THE WINE MENU): How about the Cable Bay Sauvignon Blanc?
DINER A: Fine. You know, we may as well merge with New Zealand now that we’re drinking all their wine.
DINER B: Wouldn’t bother me in the least. Our flags are just about the same anyway. Wouldn’t be much argument over that. Take out two stars and make the others red and you’re in Wellington.
DINER A: I have an uncle who lives in Clyde. Prettiest scenery in the whole world. No wonder they shot Lord of the Rings there.
DINER B: The Tasman Sea is in between the two countries, so you could call it Tasmania, except there’s one already.
DINER A: It could always change its name back to Van Diemen’s Land in the national interest. (HE WAVES AT THE WINE WAITER) Of course the standard of political discourse has plummeted in the intervening forty years as well. People forget Gough Whitlam’s first-class command of oratory, which he combined with wit and humour, so he never sounded pompous.
DINER B: Exactly. His Ciceronian exchanges with Sir James Killen on the opposition benches were legendary. They were political enemies but they liked each other. They were gentlemen. Today’s politicians just berate and bully and browbeat and bluster. The closest Kevin Rudd comes to ancient Greek is when he complains to some poor frightened waitress on an RAAF flight about stale feta in his salad.
DINER A: Indeed. Except Cicero was Roman.
DINER B: Well, parmigiano reggiano in his Caesar then. The hell with it. It’s supposed to be old. Speaking of which, quousque tandem abutere, waiter, patientia nostra?
DINER A: Here he comes now.
It was close to eleven o’clock. I had finished my carbonara, had another glass of red and then a filter coffee. I packed up my work, paid the bill and left the diners at the next table discussing which country should host the capital of a merged Australia and New Zealand. They were coming around to a Canberra solution and thinking of putting it on Lord Howe Island.