(From Letters to the Future, 1977)
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.
Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked – and where are they?
– W.B. Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’
Dazed, Ellis watched through that election midnight and after as the huge, restless, red-faced, compassionate, stubborn man who for half his life had been all his hope, at long last very real as a person of flesh and blood and vulnerability and age, strode up and down, up and down, a half glass of beer undrunk in his hand, from computer to television set, television set to grieving corridor, corridor to lonely office, returning shy embraces, accepting sloppy kisses, responding eagerly and stoically on the incessant phone to even John Ducker (‘John! So nice of you to call. Oh, all right. You roll with the punches, you know?’), agreeing with all who ventured to dream it wasn’t over (‘No, of course not. Comrades together’), playing to the bitter end of this cruel personal and national tragedy the noble part because he knew no other. In him the noble part, though still a grand performer’s role, was bred in the bone, and thoroughly believed, leading him even to hire John Kerr as Governor-General, The Grouper, instead of some affable party hack. John Kerr was a qualified man. It was the right thing to do.
Whitlam was, in Ellis’s view, as he watched his chivalrous bearing that night of his final extremity, another eloquent variant, heroic in mould, after Churchill, Disraeli, Paderewski and Hitler, of the artist as politician. As deft as an ironic poet, when young, as the young Alexander Pope: and as vehement and wry a deployer of the English language, in his maturity, as any Bloomsbury dandy; as devoted and thoughtful an actor, to the end of his days, as Rod Steiger at the least, he seduced, as any good artist will, his audience into his own private universe, a universe of finicky Latinate propriety and intoxicating possibilities, among them a gallant elective civilisation not altogether of this world, a green suburban Valhalla, patriotic and grand. Like the English Christianity of Wyclif, Cranmer and the King James translation, his was a triumph of poetry over reality. For a time we believe, and then apostasy set in. For a time he was there, enormously there, like his exact contemporary John F. Kennedy, and then he was gone. There was much harm in Kennedy, too, now partly known. The harm in Whitlam, that of overshooting electoral reality, was not yet measured, but would be.
‘Come on, old person,’ said Margaret Whitlam to her husband tenderly. ‘What do all those bloody figures matter? Come home.’
Wet-eyed, Whitlam turned from the television set and, looking at her, mutely agreed.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for Tony?’ he asked. ‘He said he’d be along.’
‘I don’t think he’s coming any more,’ she said. ‘Let’s go home.’
He nodded, took a deep breath, and with his other children, Nick and Cathy, began with courteous finality to leave the building. Proceeding as always like battleships down this new and final pathway of tears, the Whitlam flotilla neared the door, and there was Graham Freudenberg, as always looking up.
‘Thank you,’ he said to Whitlam, shaking his hand, and Whitlam said, ‘Thank you.’
‘I’ll call you tomorrow night,’ said Freudenberg.
‘Any time,’ said Whitlam.
‘We have heard the chimes of midnight,’ said Freudenberg to Margaret.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said and gave her great lascivious smile. ‘There’s a few good years in us yet.’
Freudenberg looked all the way up to her, and she looked all the way down at him, and then he said, wryly, ‘The earth moved for me too, Margaret.’ The Whitlams laughed uproariously, and soon were at the door of the lift and the era was over. In its last moment, a woman came up to him, a woman who had no right to be there, and spoke a little hysterically to him.
‘So nice to have met you,’ he said, and the lift doors opened, and he was gone. The world never felt so empty.
Later, after midnight:
In the dark on the nineteenth floor on election night, Ellis and Freudenberg, wandering among used paper cups and the end of their reasonable dreams, looked gravely and methylatedly out at an endlessly beautiful vision of the street lights and window lights of Sydney, a civilisation they had misjudged. It was possible, they grimly agreed, that Whitlam’s victory in 1972 had proceeded from nothing more than the famous decrepitude of Billy McMahon, and in 1974 from a vague belief in a fair go. His politics, his vision, his nobility hadn’t meant a thing. At one point Freudenberg’s open, round and quizzical face, so similar under the goggles in its vulnerability and benevolence to Whitlam’s own, lapsed over into manly tears.
‘Make sure you write,’ he said, ‘how when it became clear we’d lost the election, Whitlam got us all together, all his staff, and asked us what our plans were, and if he could be of any help. His first thought wasn’t for himself. It was for us.’
After a pause, Ellis then heard himself say to this small, sad man, whom he regarded as one of the intellectual giants of an era, and the finest articulator of a civilisation that was not to be, ‘I’m not here to comfort you. I think it’s important to know when something is over, and have the grief, and not seek any consolation: to remember how it was, and close the book.’
Freudenberg paused, and then looked at him with sharp, dark eyes. ‘It’s a strange thing altogether,’ he said, ‘to know that I’m, what, forty-two years old, and my life is over. I died tonight.’
His words, like similar words when uttered in a similar setting in a Hollywood movie, fell coldly and exactly into place. In due course, he too went away, and in the empty room, among the blazing lights of a city and a people he did not know, Ellis, too, wept. It was a movie, that was all, and now the curtain was down.
I came on a great house in the middle of the night
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through,
And when I pay attention I must out and walk
Among the dogs and horses that understand my talk.
Oh what of that, oh what of that,
What is there left to say?
– W.B. Yeats, ‘1924’