Books Australia

In praise of Ming

3 October 2013

1:00 PM

3 October 2013

1:00 PM

At the end of this affectionate memoir of Sir Robert and Dame Pattie Menzies, Heather Henderson recognises some might see it as a hagiography: ‘After all, this is about my beloved parents.’ No reader should be deterred; the book has too many treasures to be so regarded.

A decade ago, a son-in-law had encouraged her to write about ‘the real Bob Menzies, the human side of the political figure’. She has done precisely this, gracefully and with easy elegance. It is her achievement and her triumph.

Among many things the reader will learn is that Menzies was something of a Broadway enthusiast (and a great friend of that favourite among Broadway stars, Mary Martin). This account of his private life, in which Dame Pattie figures as prominently as he, has a Broadway quality about it in its brightness, its optimism, its humour and, above all, its pervasive humanity.

The tale is told in a series of vignettes, such as the road to the prime ministership, parliament, the public service, the Lodge and Kirribilli House. An important theme uniting the text is the Menzies’s commitment to Canberra, and their pride in its development. When Menzies came to write memoirs, he said simply of Canberra: ‘My dream had been given shape.’

Indeed, Canberra’s progress owed something to dinner table conversation at the Lodge. One evening Dame Pattie challenged Menzies pointedly: ‘Bob, you try pushing a pram round these awful footpaths.’

The humour in this volume comes not only in the form of stories, some familiar, others new, but in the general Menzies approach to life. Inevitably the Menzies Martinis figure — famous, infamous or notorious depending on a person’s actual experience of this particular specialty of the long-serving prime minister.

Less well known is Dame Pattie’s prize-winning appearance as a swaggie in a fancy dress ball on the liner Orcades. The excellent photographs in the book include one marking this success.

A particular sparkle in the book comes from Menzies’s ventures into verse, and of such others as A.P. Herbert. As Menzies approached retirement Herbert wrote:
Majestic couple still you fly
Like satellites about the sky
Dear stars, so many wonders done,
Come down at last and have some fun.
All is not fun, however, and Heather Henderson does not ignore events which must at times have darkened family life and memories. She reports the Menzies family conference following the outbreak of the Great War at which it was decided the two older brothers, Les and Frank, would enlist and Robert would remain at home.

As his mother said in 1939: ‘We told him again and again that two sons from a family was as much and more than a country expected. We needed someone at home to look after us. It was a difficult decision, and I think that is why he was perhaps the bravest of all my boys.’

Information in the book about Menzies’s resignation from the Lyons Coalition Government in March 1939 deriving from one of Lyons’s private secretaries underlines the need for searching re-examination of this episode.

It is often cast as a leadership ‘challenge’ of the sort common in Australian politics since the mid-1960s. (Had leadership been Menzies’s main goal, his interest lay in hanging on in the Cabinet, not resigning.) But the private secretary’s reported recollections, and the newspapers of the time, indicate both a crisis in the leadership of the United Australia party encompassing the power of outside groups, and also in Coalition relations.

At the time, resignations on matters of policy were not as unusual as they have become, as Menzies, who had recently been in London, knew very well. In the previous year, Anthony Eden had resigned as Foreign Secretary over disagreements on policy towards the dictators, as had some other friends of Menzies in the Cabinet ranks of the Conservative party.

It says a great deal about Menzies that a book about the private person is a book about his family, his parents, his siblings, his wife, his children and grandchildren. As Henderson observes, ‘children were very much in evidence during my parents’ time at the Lodge.’

Some of the best stories feature his father’s assertive manning of the polling booths in Kooyong on behalf of his son, and his sister Belle, who eloped shortly after the start of the Great War to marry a soldier a few days before he sailed for the front. In the estrangement which followed it was initially Robert who kept in touch with Belle until there was a reconciliation. And about his personal circle, the close public service advisers, the private office staff, those at the Lodge, and his drivers, all loyal and dedicated.

The press secretaries have a character all their own — Stewart Cockburn (dubbed Atlas by Menzies because his serious demeanour led people to think he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders); the larrikin Hugh Dash, previously of Smith’s Weekly; and the accomplished Ray Maley following whose death Menzies wrote a letter to his widow which any family would cherish. It is a story, indeed, of the forgotten people made manifest.

We know that Menzies was a great Prime Minister of Australia. But this book, taken together with Letters to my Daughter two years ago, compellingly demonstrates that he was also something altogether more important — a good man.

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