Saturday, March 17, 2012

Margaret Whitlam

Margaret Whitlam has died at the great age of 92, only a few weeks before she and her husband, the former prime minister Gough Whitlam, would have celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary. At times it can seem as if national stalwarts will go on forever, and I cannot remember a time when I was not mightily aware of Mrs. Whitlam, though I met her only once. In the depths of retirement, Mr. Whitlam asked me for a little help with an almost inconceivably arcane point of clarification relating to the Italian noble origins of the family of Diamantina, Lady Bowen—her husband, Sir George, was chief secretary of the Ionian Islands (where the Bowens married), then successively Governor of Queensland, New Zealand, Victoria, Mauritius, and Hong Kong. It was shortly after this that Mr. and Mrs. Whitlam came to some event at Government House, when I must have been in attendance upon Davis. What was so striking was that their physical presence was almost as commanding as the other sort, but, being very tall myself (6’5”)—and having long shared the joys and travails of most if not all other tall people, never more so than aboard commercial jet aircraft—it was as if, coming face to face, one was treated almost like an old friend, purely because for the time being one was relieved of having thoughtfully to crane downwards to compensate for the urgent needs of any stray Napoleon who might for the time being require our reassurance, or some other kind of special treatment. Short people often think that tall people are haughty, but this is not usually the case. It is simply that they so often fly under one’s radar. Anyhow, Mrs. Whitlam was delightful, and dilated on that occasion about her fond memories of Melbourne when she came to swim in the intervarsity competitions; this must have been in the mid- to late 1930s. True, I noted with considerable amusement that Mrs. Whitlam made no mention of any good impression created by Melbourne that was more recent than those. However, I was also struck by how very direct, plain-speaking, and kind she was—and fun, especially when deposited for the time being with someone as young and decidedly callow as I was then. It is no secret that Mr. Whitlam was on occasion inclined to stray towards self-parody, as when for example he added the word “Statesman” to his signature in the Governor’s visitors’ book. But Mrs. Whitlam tended to go in the opposite direction; she was a no-nonsense woman with good sense, ample friendliness, and an unrestrained, hearty laugh. Somewhere in there one also detected a certain patrician quality that must have come from being the well-educated daughter of Mr. Justice Dovey of the New South Wales Supreme Court. In other words, you felt that she was the perfect adjunct, well able to keep the prime minister’s feet firmly planted on the ground. That she did not manage to keep them planted in Canberra for more than a single term was no fault of hers. Indeed, as Mr. Whitlam has famously remarked, she was by far and away his best appointment. May she rest in peace.

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