My vagabond days are over. This was the unambiguous message from my world weary cat this morning, when the blue and white cage with the superhero stickers on it emerged from the cupboard and landed on the bed. With nimbleness surprising in an elderly animal, she stopped washing her tail, glared, yowled, leaped over my outstretched hands and got halfway to the door in a cat sprinting record before I had time to call “Fuck!” on the matter.
I got Sophia from the pound nine years ago. She was already six. Since then, she has crossed the country twice and lived in twenty houses. Most cats would’ve handed in their notice and walked out after a year of this nonsense, but there is something urbane about Sophia. On visits to houses with gardens, she will do a single circuit of the grounds, never leaving the pathway, and return satisfied. She knocks on doors to be let in. She will remind me when it’s time to take her thyroid treatment, and sit patiently while I don creepy gloves and rub medicated ointment (which must feel like worlds of nasty) into the tip of her ear. On vet trips, she will decide when she’s had enough of being poked and prodded and having thermometers shoved up her clacker, stomp back into her cage, lie down and loudly demand to be taken home. If she could slam the cage door behind her as a gesture, she would.
Travel, though, she is no longer prepared to be good about. Which is more than fair enough at her age. Outside of a highly specialised fetish club, you’d be pushed to find any nonagenarian willing to be put in a box and lugged around on public transport all morning. She is, however, a fatalistic and resigned animal. After fifteen minutes of sticking my head under the spare bed and reasoning that it was a fair cop, she saw there was no workable alternative. Reluctantly she emerged, vocalising her irritation, and walked into the cage with a stilted gait that grumbled even more loudly of disapproval.
Because of the morning’s interspecies negotiations, we were late for the vet. It didn’t matter, though, because the queue wasn’t moving. At the counter, a distressed woman with two small dogs cried to her partner down her phone. She had given the dogs breakfast, it seemed, and they would now be unable to get their teeth scaled. A kind gay receptionist, moved by her plight, was patting her hand and ringing every vet in the hospital looking for a solution. The more he tried to help, the more she cried.
While this desperate drama played out, there was nothing to do but watch the flickering television on the far wall as the broadcast dropped in and out. And so, I and a group of other harried pet owners learned of the death of Gough Whitlam.
Depending on serotonin levels and hormones I will cry in Sorbent ads; find happiness and joy in music, friends and champagne; intervene with thoughtless fury in domestics on the street, and then realise later what a totally fucking dumb thing that is to do; shout inventive combinations of scatological Anglo-Saxon words at the television when Christopher Pyne is on Q&A, and accidentally break things that don’t work (such as the ceramic cistern lid on the toilet – oops) by thumping them too angrily.
With big things, though, I am on some sort of emotional delay. I love rarely and slowly. Traumatic events only start to scar years later. I tend to start mourning people properly long after they have died.
Why was it, then, that dear old Gough popping off hit me so hard, and so instantly?
“It’ll be all right,” murmured the woman next to me, frantically patting her dog too hard. The dog, some sort of lovely sad-eyed Boxer cross, gazed at me forlornly, no doubt wondering what he had done wrong to make his owner hit him repeatedly like this. Another woman just sat looking at her shoes, ignoring the cat on the floor next to them mewing a hopeful song of freedom from its box.
“Sophia Loren Flattley to Consulting Room One,” blared the speaker. I stopped texting everyone I’d ever met about this news, picked up the cat carrier with its disgruntled passenger, took a moment to wonder at the wisdom of calling an animal’s name rather than a human’s – was the cat supposed to put her ancient magazine down with a thump and rush for the designated door, nervously smiling? – and walked to Consulting Room One.
“Sorry,” said the vet, coming in. By the look of him a nice man in his early sixties, a sensible face, something quiet about him. Probably normally taciturn in nature. “I just heard about Gough.” It was an unnecessary apology, given he hadn’t done anything yet, but I understood.
“So what is . . . Um. . . Sophia . . .” He took a second to sniff conspicuously. “Sorry. Right. How’s she been?”
He looked at the table, and we both realised there was no cat there. We’d totally forgotten to release the cat from her prison. I opened the cage and extracted her.
“Right. I’ll just . . . Um . . . I’ll be back.” He scooped the yowling cat over one arm and shuffled towards the door to the lab, as miserable as if it were he who was about to have blood taken.
The day had warmed up by the time we were back outside and walking towards the tram. A beautiful, clear, sunny day, with the clear heat I remember from my childhood – not the sticky, inescapable vortex of global warming. Images of early life, before the horror of school, hovered in front of me, with the comforting banality of the slide nights my auntie used to make us sit through after her mountain climbing trips to Nepal and Tibet (in particularly boring bits, someone would get up to shake the sheet for a bit of action). Summer, around dusk, the best part of the day when the earth is cooling. The adults laughing in my grandparents’ kitchen, everybody drinking. The smell of booze, cheese and pickles. Everybody arguing about politics. That peculiarly Australian bawdy humour that encompasses every phallic act known to the animal kingdom, but avoids human sexuality – too intimate, too vulnerable. My grandfather, as huge as a river gum and wonderfully gnarled; his unique sense of humour and energy, his gift for drinking vast amounts of pretty much any alcoholic beverage known to man with no ill effects. My grandmother, feminine, loyal, sharp in observation and arbitrary in her views and sudden pronouncements.
I am reading a compilation of Pickering cartoons, all featuring naked politicians. His favourite subject is Gough Whitlam, the legendary and heroic madman and still, well post-deposition, the undisputed king of the jungle. I’m not entirely sure on the details, but I know this man came to save the country and was fired by a malevolent figure called Kerr. This happened in the year I was born. I feel vaguely guilty about this. I have him slightly mixed up with King Arthur, but then at the time I also thought my mother and Barbra Streisand were the same person.
Another time. I am even younger, maybe two or three. My parents, young teachers, are having a party. I am fascinated by my father’s friends, the young men with long hair. They smell of malt and tobacco. Someone picks me up, I am being thrown in the air. For a moment, somewhere near the ceiling, I hover. I can see the wheat shaft insignia on the Carlton Draught label on my father’s beer. It fascinates me, the pale sheaf dissecting the label. Then my attention shifts, and I fall again, and am caught by a tangle of laughing arms.
Farming communities do not, as a rule, vote Labor. “I voted for Whitlam,” my grandfather told me in amazement once during a visit home, in one of the nightly sessions around a cask that always precedes dinner in my grandparents’ home. His surprise at himself was still fresh, still in his voice. “I thought his ideas made sense. He just seemed good.”
My great uncle Stan was not so taken with Gough. Soon after he came to office, Stan made a rare trip to the doctor to be treated for insomnia and anxiety. “It’s that blessed Gough Whitlam,” he blurted out to his somewhat perturbed GP.
Gough was the Australia that could compete on the world stage. The Australia that believed in equal rights, land rights, free education, free medical care, the end of the White Australia policy; a fair suck of the sauce bottle, as the saying goes. When it pulled the country out of the Vietnam War, his government saved the lives of those young men at my parents’ party. Things opened up for women, and for people who were still being put in jail for being gay. It wasn’t a love-in free for all – things still sucked for gay people in terms of police harassment, women still worked (and still work) for less pay, there was still (and still is) racism and intolerance. But it was a start. We had turned away from Menzies’ farcical dream of empire and had started to concentrate on what we, as one of the richest nations on earth, could do. We were, to quote Gillard, “moving forward”.
This forwards momentum continued through my childhood and, in spirit if not in finance, into adolescence. There was Hawke of course, and (a personal favourite) Keating. Even before then, though, we had Fraser: the man who began running the country soon after I came into it, the dastardly figure who ousted Whitlam. The poor man was hated, not only because of the manner of his ascension (why exactly was Gillard given a worse time?) but because he just wasn’t fun like his predecessor.
But what we wouldn’t give now to have Fraser back. A “wet” Liberal who welcomed boat people, who continued with Medicare, who had and continues to actively have human decency in his work with CARE Australia. What made a middle of the road Liberal back then would make a radical on the far left of Labor now.
Fraser happened, oddly, because Gough happened. A precedent had been set, one that wiped out the horrendous racial and cultural intolerance that went before it. We were, in simple terms, a much kinder country. It was normal to think of the welfare of refugees. It was normal to not let the sick get sicker. It was even normal, back in those troubled times, to at least try to understand as an outsider what the Indigenous experience might mean. It was normal to think we were capable and intelligent as a nation, that we could do big things. We hoped for something better than what we had.
We look at those times, and then we look at now. We look at the horrid, cruel little boys who think they’re running things better – the kinds of creepy, pencil monitory, smug people you wouldn’t sit next to in high school. Our nation now sends Tamil refugees back to Sri Lanka to be systematically gang raped, tortured and killed. We put innocent, desperate people – whole families – in prison camps, some of them located in some of the poorest countries in the world, and hope they all die before we have to deal with them. We have gone, if anything, backwards in terms of reconciliation and rights for Indigenous Australians. We are a country that only allows the rich a tertiary education, in a system that now sells a meaningless degree to the highest bidder. Our Prime Minister thinks that international diplomacy involves “shirt-fronting” Vladimir Putin. (I think we all know who’d win that one.)
We all cheered, those of us who feel it, when our fellow countryman, Richard Flanagan, won the Mann Booker and said he was ashamed to be Australian. He wasn’t saying something that shocked us. We were relieved that someone was speaking for us.
What are we doing? What the hell have we become?
This is why the death of Gough has affected us all, and why we’ve all been crying all day. It’s not that some vapid well-meaning idiot in a nice dress has popped off, like Princess Di; it’s not, as much as we loved our funny and clever former PM, that a symbol of dignity and courage has left us, like Nelson Mandela. It’s not because a much-loved elderly gentleman has died, and with him his wit and his charisma and his knowledge.
It’s because with this old man, an entire version of Australia has died. The fun, young, optimistic country that voted in a brilliant, educated, cultured and well-intentioned Narcissist who believed in social justice. A Prime Minister who, like Wodehouse’s Psmith, addressed people as “Comrade”; a wonderful, genuine nut who inspired love and alarm in equal amounts (and sometimes in the one person). A nation that knew, that didn’t need to be reminded, what decency is and what an imagination is for.
My parents used to tell us a story from the time just after Gough was deposed. Sir John Kerr, the alcoholic and corrupt Governor-General responsible for the sacking, passed through our town on the way up to the Snowy Mountains. As per the Education Department’s directive, he was to be greeted by the local school children who would line the town’s main street. After a few boring formal words and the obligatory presentation of a bouquet, he would declare the day a local public holiday and continue on his journey.
At the allotted time, everyone trooped out and took their places.
Eventually, a big black car pulled into town. An old man with grey hair and a red nose lurched out.
“Good morning, children,” he slurred at the assembled audience.
“Good morning, Mr Whit-lam,” chanted the children dutifully.
Kerr stayed just long enough to grant the town a half day holiday instead of a full one.
Then the car swallowed him up. And then he was gone.