Last week’s Sitting Week was a busy time in Parliament House; bills to be tabled, lines of visitors streaming down the still-chilly forecourt of the House and, on the Wednesday night, the Gallery’s Mid-Winter Ball (never mind that it’s the second week of Spring, things tend to get put on hold these days by the media).
There was a book launch; The Art of Politics, columnist and author Troy Bramston’s book on Sir Robert Menzies, and Bramston talking about his book in the Speaker’s Lecture, one of those annual parliamentary events that take place, interrupted by the bells.
For which the new Clerk of the House, the charming and hugely efficient Clarissa Surtees, apologised for in advance, saying that she, and the Speaker, would slip away when the bells sounded, hopefully not being too disruptive to the discourse.
Listening, smiling and gracious, was Sir Robert’s only child, Mrs Heather Henderson.
And there’s another Menzies memoir, even more tenderly perceptive and accurately remembered, written by Henderson herself, her account of her family and growing up in the new, raw, truly “bush capital”, Canberra.
And if you had to choose between the two books, I know which one I’d choose, for who can resist such delightfully intimate vignettes of one of our most celebrated political families?
The Lodge, in the time it was occupied by the Menzies family, had no garden walls, security alarms or even a solid fence: “[It] consisted of a couple of wires between posts and gates were rarely closed,” Henderson recounts, “There was no security. People often wandered in and tourists in buses stopped to look: ‘There’s the P.M. and Mrs Menzies having a cup of coffee’.”
And here’s Mrs Henderson on the correspondence received by her father’s faithful, tireless secretary Eileen Lenihan, known universally as Lennie “There was a man who wrote often. Unfortunately he had some mental affliction and at one stage, went into an asylum. When he came out, he wrote triumphantly, ‘Well, it’s all very well, Mr Menzies, but I’ve got a certificate to prove I’m sane, and that’s more than you’ve got’.”
Sitting Weeks in Canberra are never dull. You never know who you’ll meet in Parliament House or what you may learn.
Illustration: Australian Parliament House Collection.
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