Saturday, September 15, 2012


Overnight I received word from Melbourne that Jean McCaughey has died.

I have been sitting here for quite a while, brooding over my early-morning cup of tea. So many memories are crowding in. All of them are happy, and most hilarious. A good number (though not by any means all) relate to the beautifully manicured croquet lawn at Government House, Melbourne. 

Some people play croquet to stretch their legs, get a breath of fresh air, keep the children occupied, mess about, or else to engage in light banter before the cocktail hour. Mrs. Mac was not one of those people. To say that she was a committed player is a dangerous understatement. She was not content with mere victory, but rather set herself the task of totally annihilating her opponents, who were often decades younger—cheerfully, and always with impeccable courtesy. Nevertheless the air of sharp concentration and of seriousness with which, eyeing the lawn, she approached this objective brings to mind a steadily wheeling falcon who, fastening upon a small rodent snuffling obliviously in the undergrowth far below, swoops, seizes, and instantaneously dispatches in one seamless motiona sudden flash of feather and talon, the superb result of millions of years of natural selection. 

In other words, no-one was safe when confronted by a sweet-natured but determined assault from Jean on the croquet lawn. The cunning curve ball. The harmfully obstructing dribble. The choppy short stroke. The long, gracefully arcing croquet shot of quite breathtaking power and accuracy. Clack!” Without the slightest hesitation Jean drove a wedge of tempered steel between members of the opposing side, and summarily banished them to the Outer Siberia of the baseline in one direction, and the top corner in the other, restraining them there, toying with them I daresay, while calmly proceeding with an effortless five-, six-, or seven-hoop rally, gallantly bringing her partner pro tempore along for the ride—and quite often, I am proud to say, that fortunate person was me. Women of the bedchamber, certain middle-level Commonwealth governors-general and prime ministers were not immune from the full treatment, and nor were recently retired chairmen of the Australian joint defense chiefs, who, if they were not yet aware of the caliber of their opponent, might have given the impression beforehand that they could easily win the contest. Jean was magnificent.

At times like this it is hard not to resort to clichés, however it is certainly true that Jean Middlemas McCaughey touched, as indeed she made a huge difference to, the lives of many, many people. And this was by no means restricted to Ormond College in the University of Melbourne, or to Davis’s period in office at Government House, to which Jean made a contribution that is impossible to overstate, or through her pioneering work with computers in the 1960s on the systematic statistical analysis of poverty in Australia when she was a research fellow at the Melbourne Institute for Applied Economic and Social Research. Her books were excellent. I have A Bit of a Struggle here in front of me; the prose style is admirably spare. One also thinks of her many years of service on the board of management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and as chairman of the council of St. Hilda’s College, and as inaugural chair of the Key Centre for the Study of Women’s Health in Society—the list goes on and on.

Mrs. Mac was also a superb story-teller, in this respect no less than in many others, I think, a proud daughter of Ireland. My favorite, because it combines those familiar elements of simplicity, absurdity, and harmless fun, with a tiny soupcon of mischief, is the tale of Blanche.

It was customary for warm-hearted persons, alerted ahead of time by mutual acquaintances in Britain, to make contact with migrant families bound for Melbourne or Sydney, but temporarily arriving by ship at Fremantle, and there to extend generous hospitality by taking them out for their very first day of sightseeing in Australia. Such was the case with the McCaughey family on that bright morning in 1953. However, in this case neither Jean nor Davis had the faintest idea who the mutual acquaintance was. They knew only that her name was “Blanche,” for that is what their Western Australian hostess indicated in the note she delivered to the ship. Blanche. It is an unusual name in any case, but was especially so in post-war Britain—with a hint of Edwardian cosmopolitanism. Could she be a parishioner? An impossibly distant relation? A neighbor in Golders Green? The well-meaning mother of one of the boys’ school friends? In due course breezy answers from the steering wheel to each and every tactfully phrased, and increasingly desperate query—“How is Blanche?”—stubbornly resisted any form of elucidation, and consistently withheld even a single clue. The longer this went on, gliding past the Swan River and through the leafy suburbs of Perth, the greater was their hostess’s presumption that Jean and Davis were on terms of easy familiarity with the mysterious Blanche, and therefore the more impossible it was to make a full confession (to James and Patrick’s exquisite pleasure, giggling in the back seat). Naturally, also, the risk of embarrassing exposure increased correspondingly as that long day wore on. At last delivered back to the ship—“Do please remember us to Blanche”—they were none the wiser, and as far as I know the identity of the thoughtful Blanche remained a mystery.

Until, perhaps, this morning.

Successive premiers and governments of the state of Victoria, along with innumerable charitable organizations, have good reason to be thankful for the immense contribution Jean McCaughey made to the national life, as do the rest of us. May light perpetual shine upon her.

No comments:

Post a Comment