Classic Ellis: Margaret Whitlam, 1983

Fill the cup, and fill the can:
Have a rouse before the morn;
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Vision of Sin.

‘Come and sit by me, Bob,’ said Margaret Whitlam. ‘On my commode.’ I positioned myself gamely on the curious big piece of wooden furniture she’d commandeered. ‘Bob and I have this annual assignation,’ she explained to the woman next to her, ‘at the Canberra Playwrights’ Conference. Every May. I love it.’

‘It’s the best,’ I said. ‘It’s always autumn, and the leaves are coming down. People working together for a common cause and eating breakfast with people they thought were enemies and finding they weren’t. Enemies are people you haven’t seen for a while.’

‘That’s true, that’s very true,’ said Margaret.

I had grown used to Margaret over the years. At first I’d found her aristocratic jocularity and rich Chaucerian world view daunting, but now I think I admired her more than anyone. She radiated hope and, like her opposite number Eleanor Roosevelt, made all who met her feel an honourable future was still attainable in a world of sin. She and Gough, like the heavenly bodies in Newton’s universe that, being the largest, pull the others towards them, catalyzed in all of us the decency of mind that might otherwise have drained away into a drunken bitterness. They were the authentic projections of our decency and our honour and in part because of their heroic size were genuine religious objects, living icons in a rightly agnostic age that in their very bearing and the optimistic irony of their gargantuan good humour showed on what level life should be lived. I remembered (and of course could never forget) how in that dawn what bliss it was to be alive and be young, when everything seemed possible, and for a time it was.

‘There’s a move to have you made Governor-General,’ said Senator Susan Ryan to Margaret. ‘What do you think?’

‘Seriously?’ asked Margaret, a little amazed.

‘Absolutely,’ said Susan. ‘Not for long if you don’t want it. Just till we get the constitution sorted out.’

‘Well, it might be diverting, I suppose,’ said Margaret. I pictured Gough Whitlam, househusband, and had my doubts. ‘In fact it might be fun.’

‘Ah yes, that’s all very well,’ I growled in my lovable rumpled marsupial manner, ‘but can she hold her liquor?’

The two women looked at me dumfounded. Then Margaret performed a save. ‘Well, I can hold you, Bob Ellis,’ she said, putting her arm around me, ‘and that takes some doing.’

‘I agree,’ said Susan, at whom I’m once made a drunken pass. ‘Indeed, it’s a kind of miracle.’

They’ll have to give her a title of course, I mused. But then I remembered Labor didn’t do that. What a pity. What a great loss. Lord Whitlam. It fitted somehow. Lord Cairns. Sir Barry Jones. It would have added such stature to their years in Opposition, and majesty to their utterances. ‘Lord Currabubbula, formerly Labor MP Fred Daly, last night reminisced on television about his years as a paper boy. Essentially unchanged in personality since those days, Lord Currabubbula gave entertaining insights into his years of struggle.’ ‘Lord Calwell in his retirement, here pictured feeding the chooks.’ The English Labor Party did it. ‘Lord George Brown last night while intoxicated and protesting his identity jumped a taxi queue and was unable to remember his destination.’ It could be done. I felt I was getting drunk.

‘My old dutch,’ I said to Margaret. ‘I’ve always thought of you that way.’

‘I don’t think I follow,’ said Margaret.

‘It’s a song,’ I said, ‘of appalling working-class sentimentality. “We’ve been together now for forty yearrr, and it don’t seem a day too much…”’ I noted with a kind of distant interest that I was singing. ‘“There ain’t a lady living in the world As I’d swap fer me dear old dududutch…”’

Fill the can, and fill the cup,
All the windy ways of men
Are but dust that rises up
And is lightly laid again.

Greet her with applausive breath,
Freedom, gaily doth she treat;
In her right a civic wreath,
In her left a human head.
– Alfred Lord, The Vision of Sin

  1. This is a very sad day for the Labor Party, Bob. How much of our movement will really be left with the passing of more and more of our great figures from times gone by?

  2. She looked like a queen, on her wedding day

  3. A class act.

  4. There are no ladies of her character in Australia today and I suspect it will be another century before there is.

  5. Sadly missed. Vale Margaret.

  6. I’ve met people over the years who had dealings with Gough and Margaret down to military bodyguards. No matter what the politics or position on Gough,too intellect for most i’d guess, all had high praise like shock for Margaret.There was no “good woman” or “wife”,it was beautiful person.
    None of that greatness or privelage of those social circles reached my family in times of perpetual savaging so i guess it’s all just above my head.
    Today i pottered in amongst the garden botanical imports amongst the native photographing Butterfly bugs,larvae, pupae and trying to get the flitting adults of four species still for a shot.My Cooktown orchids have 8 flowers. Ready to open usually in the week preceding Anzac day.
    I was thinking of Tenzin Guatso today as the 17th was noted as a day of his flight by horse from Tibet .I was born in 59.Grandmother was his fan.
    In a day of a tropical fake spring here, the sky darkened and rained from lunchtime like late eve like not for some time,and i found the news inside on a visit to the keyboard to see my pics.
    A fine day for social butterflies. Don’t really know what to make of it.

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