A nice conversation with Emilio, the burly, big-faced, homely Spanish-Australian economist keen on Borges, Bunuel, Sherlock Holmes and Socratic dialogue.
‘Whose was the theory’ he asks me, delving among the lollies, ‘of the wowser and the larrikin? Was it Robert Hughes?’
‘I don’t know, I never heard of it.’ I take a mint leaf.
‘In this theory,’ Emilio took takes a red frog, ‘and it explains everything, Australians only ever elect a wowser or a larrikin.’
‘That sounds right.’
‘Of course it’s right, you do the numbers.’
‘Fraser . . . was a wowser . . .’
‘And Hawke a larrikin. Keating was a larrikin.’
‘And Howard a wowser.’
‘And Rudd . . .’
‘A wowser. There’s no getting out of it.’
‘Wran was a larrikin, Unsworth a wowser, Greiner a wowser, and . . . what’s his name, he chundered on me in Vietnam.’
‘Fahey. I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Carr was . . .’
‘A wowser. He was. He is. He chews carrots and drinks pure water.’
‘Iemma a wowser . . .’
‘And Nathan a larrikin.’
‘Do the people always vote for larrikins?’
‘No, no. That’s the point, you see. That’s the theory. They vary according to the era, the zeitgeist.’
‘But . . .’ I dared a chocolate bullet, inflamed with this new dialectic. ‘Beazley was neither. Whitlam was neither.’
‘They were a mixture.’
‘That’s right, they were a mixture.’
‘And they both lost.’
‘This is very good.’
‘It’s excellent. But who thought of it first?’
I went back to my office with its blocked-off water view of Pinchgut and thought of the convicts (larrikins) and the warders (wowsers) guarding them and of Peter Ustinov’s famous exchange while filming The Sundowners with a shy Australian stockman.
‘I hope,’ the stockman said, with gruff slow delicacy, ‘you don’t think worse of us because we’re descended from convicts.’
‘No,’ said Ustinov, ‘no, no, no . . . What does concern me, however, is that about half of you are descended from warders.’
I imagined Fraser, the ascetic, puritan screw, turning the key in the lock of the cell of the drunken Bob Hawke, and Howard the short-arse hangman slipping the rope over the blindfolded Mark Latham and it became very clear.
What a wonderful idea. I wonder whose it was.