Sunday, September 16, 2012

Further Jean

Giving careful consideration to strategic matters

It occurs to me that among the most important of Jean McCaughey’s achievements while Davis was Governor of Victoria, was the significant part she played in strengthening the fledgling sister-relations with Jiangsu Province and the city of Tianjin in the People’s Republic of China. 

Davis and Jean made at least two official visits there in the late 1980s, possibly three (I cannot now recall), and, twenty-five years on, it is difficult to grasp how much less routine such trade missions were then than they are today. Jean and Davis were sanguine about the fact that being well into their seventies helped enormously, because of the Chinese veneration of old age. Yet they genuinely loved their visits to China. I have no doubt they endeared themselves to their hosts. It was mighty hard work. All this was just prior to the trauma of Tiananmen Square.

I think they stayed with the Governor at Government House, Hong Kong, on their way in and out. During their tour on the mainland they were given many lunches and evening banquets consisting of innumerable toasts and courses, the staging posts in an already very full program of day-long visits to new businesses, factories, and educational and cultural institutions. They were fortunate in having cast-iron constitutions. There were many excellent stories upon their return to Melbourne. One in particular made Jean laugh and laugh. 

It involved the practical arrangements. 

Davis’s official secretary Charles Curwen traveled with them, together with the intrepid Jeff Fitzgerald of the Premier’s Department, a China trade specialist, and I think possibly several others in the Victorian department of protocol. Wherever they went there was a bewildering number of Chinese party officials to meet, and an equally enormous entourage of locals assigned to escort them from place to place—interpreters, guides, officials, minders, and helpers, all jumping in and out of a long line of sleek black official cars, a sort of continual diplomatic rugby scrum with Davis and Jean poised serenely at its epicenter. No doubt it was a sobering task to keep track of everybody. 

Indeed, Jean’s abiding memory of their first visit to Suzhou was the sight of Jeff Fitzgerald’s slightly sweaty brow appearing suddenly outside the rear passenger window of Davis’s limousine as they were about to move on to their next official engagement. What Jeff then said, craning through the plate glass and leaving behind a little cloud of condensation, improves considerably if you imagine his sense of urgency, together with the broad-ish Australian accent, and, of course, Jean and Davis’s complete powerlessness in that moment to render him any assistance at all

What have you done with Madame Wu?

With the laughter there was much seriousness also. Jean introduced me to Marguerite Yourcenar, Francois Mauriac, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. She regularly re-read George Eliot and Tolstoy, and I shall never forget her account of being a busy young mother in wartime London, somehow managing her coupons like everyone else, and in between-times immersed in War and Peace, when the action of the last quarter of the novel—Napoleon’s ill-fated retreat from Moscow—ran eerily parallel with the collapse of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, in real time. 

If her laughter was infectious, from time to time one also became familiar with the shrewd, pursed-lipped, eye-narrowing, no-nonsense look with which Jean greeted a proposition she obviously regarded with deep suspicion, usually but not always relating to Mrs. Thatcher. By instinct, as deep as it was resolutely partisan, Jean always sided with the underdog. She was deeply opposed to queue-jumping, except very occasionally when, for example, Sandy the dog required urgent veterinary assistance, in which case she saw no reason not to fight like a lioness. To my knowledge, Jean never bore a grudge, and in moments of difficulty or exasperation or plain fatigue she used to quote from the Sermon on the Mount, with a sigh, and in the sing-song Irish accent she always retained:  “Ah well, Davis, ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’” and she meant it.

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