Prime Ministers come and go and history retells the triumphs and failures of their political stewardship in many different ways. Often the tomes recording their path to leadership delve briefly into the childhood and formative years of a person that most of us only get to know through study, media reports or purposeful discussion. As the years pass by, the back story of these personalities is often lost in translation or even worse, devotedly raised to legend status. Budgies on the other hand come and go, with barely a punctuation mark in the almanac of ordinariness, signalling their passing.
Based on a childhood where the whole cycle of life was laid bare in front of me every waking moment, the fact that animals lived and died became quite easy to understand. The only questioning was why, not how, or where, or what happens next? Finding a dead sheep in the paddock, you learned from an early age to tell how it died, and follow-up visits certainly educated your young mind about “what happened next”, as the recycling process saw the carcass swell, rot and gradually return to the waiting earth. For some months, you could see a fertile green memorial to the animal’s last resting place, and if any questions of uncertainty lingered, they were quickly put into context and thoughts of “black holes in the universe” and other impossible scientific challenges assumed greater importance.
So death, as part of life, was easily processed in a farm kid’s mind. It was only later that I struggled to come to grips with city families (yes my cousins can please stand up and be counted) and their inability to openly address the whole “dead pet” scenario, when trying to explain the sudden “departure” of a much treasured animal. Now, to be fair, our farm was littered with burial places for named and loved poddy lambs, old dogs, “milkers” beyond their prime, rather large numbers of shed cats, pet birds and the occasional horse. Animals that died, before naming, were rarely granted a carved stump or etched rock in my cemetery. So why did my Aunts and Uncles invent stories when pets died in suburban sanctuaries? Not enough backyard for interment? Worried about prying neighbours? Or did they just lack the confidence to broach the whole subject in a post-war, almost too-perfect environment?
Disposal in the city must have been tough – goldfish going for that final swim into the city sewers, cats wrapped in newspaper and disposed of in the dark of night, birds hastily tied up in rags and put out with the garbage, dead dogs taken to Joe down at the factory site as “he could attend to the matter”. But it was the stories that accompanied these losses that quickly raised my doubts. Cousins would relay details, about finding the cage door open and “little Polly had just flown away”, or “Mittens didn’t want to live at their place anymore so she ran away”, or “the fish jumped out of its bowl and swam (via the bath) back to the sea”, and “the dog found his long lost brother and moved to live with him in Melbourne”! A myriad of explanations that avoided the truth and let confused parents off the hook.
Back to our Prime Ministers, and a story that links dealing with the truth, to opting for a safer, less complicated response under pressure.
During World War II, John Curtin was one of our Prime Ministers, and reading the biography of this quite remarkable Australian, you find that he was a leader who had his fair share of flaws and inadequacies. Often in books about such figures in history, the frailties are either glossed over or dwelt on, to the point where the reader often harbours a lingering doubt about the true character of the man. John Curtin was an enigma, but truly a man for his times and one who crossed the paths of our family in a most unusual way. Canberra in the 1940’s was not much bigger than a large country town and the community, (civil servants, politicians, new Canberrans, established families and farmers) intermingled in ways that we can hardly comprehend today. My great aunt, Bella Southwell, was the manageress at the Hotel Kurrajong, which had become home for many federal politicians. Her friendship and concern for John Curtin led to an introduction to my grandfather, Jack, and his brother Fred, both farmers on the north side of the city, within easy driving distance of the Kurrajong and later the Lodge. The chapters in the book devoted to this troubled period of Curtin’s life, mention how he often went to the brothers’ farm and found great comfort and a release from the tensions of office during these visits. The book doesn’t tell how he organised a car to take my grandmother to Sydney when her beloved husband Jack was dying, or that “Mr Curtin” signed the army release papers for my father to be brought back from WA to assume the “essential service” of running the farm. There are also some fascinating letters and anecdotes contained in the McKinnon papers (National Archives/ Curtin University) compiled by Thelma (Southwell) McKinnon relating to “Mr Curtin” and his friendship with the family.
I recently shared these stories with my granddaughter, and while she was suitably impressed, to my surprise, she asked me to look up photos and recount further details about those war years, commenting that the current Coronavirus pandemic must be “a bit like that”. I was then completely taken aback a few days later, when she asked if she could write a letter to “Mr Morrison” so that he and his family would know that lots of people like him, would be having a lonely Easter in 2020. Well this request came right on top of some comments I had posted on Facebook about “inadequate leadership”, “lack of direction” and “community confusion”, in relation to this twenty first century “war”. Comments that got me into some hot water and subjected me to some nasty responses….resulting in my battered ego penning a “from the heart” blog entry late one night. But I was happy to put all that aside and proudly helped Miss 9 with her letter to the Prime Minister. It was a lovely letter and she even mentioned, “That other prime minister, who got lonely too”.
Forwarding a letter to the “Leader of the Moment”, was not simply a matter of licking a stamp and driving 25kms to put it in a post box! We did that, but we also used modern technology (yes home schooling was in progress), and emailed the letter to the address advised by the “Leader of the Moment’s” office staff. That was weeks ago, and my patient, caring scribe has asked faithfully every day – “Do you think Mr Morrison got my letter?” “Please check the mail Nan, there might be a letter from Mr Morrison”. And on trips to town, she has excitedly unlocked our post box, “just in case, it’s there today”. Her belief hasn’t faltered, and while she appreciates the frantic nature of the times, of late she has just got a bit despondent.
Me, I am really miffed, because yesterday I got an email from the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister, (with a “No Reply” function), addressing my “concerns about Corona Virus”.
It was of course a form letter, and as I was the sender of the email, it was “obvious” that I was a concerned (adult) member of the public seeking information, despite the childlike drawing and hesitant primary school handwriting featured in the attachment. This sort of slip-up does happen I know, and I have been on that side of the fence where a response is needed, but in this case, did they even read the letter? Surely there were some indicators that showed it was from a child? Surely at a time when the image of our leaders is being carefully groomed and managed, (to instil confidence among the plebs), someone would have opened the attachment, or the envelope, when it hit the office in-tray. Do they still have in trays, do letters still get sent or do we communicate only through Zoom and Facetime?
So here I am today with a dilemma that I just can’t sort out without hurting feelings or bursting a bubble in the dreams of a young but very intelligent child. After all these years, I can see myself coming up with some dodgy strategies so that I don’t have to tell her “the budgie died”.