Category Archives: History, current affairs

Sort of political, too

Germaine Greer: Financial Eunuch



Teenagers are normally embarrassed by their mothers. Germaine Greer was particularly so. Elizabeth Kleinhenz in her new biography Germainewrites: “Germaine learned to be selective when choosing which boys to bring home, because her mother was quite likely to open the front door wearing underpants on her head (to protect her hairstyle) and little else ‘except [her] sun-tan’…”

The biography is the first to draw on Greer’s 487-box archive which she sold to Melbourne University in 2013. Kleinhenz concludes that Greer is a genius, but I’d exclude finance from Greer’s cornucopia of talent.

Her style was hazardous both to counter-parties and herself. Her father Reg signed as guarantor for her  four-year Victorian Education Department studentship that paid eight pounds a week. When Greer got her Melbourne Honors degree (second-class), Kleinhenz records that instead of teaching country kids for the required three years she lit out to Sydney, leaving Reg to pay back the salary and training costs. Ten years later, when Greer was earning well as a TV comedienne, she reimbursed him.


Sadly, her wealth from multi-million sales of The Female Eunuch didn’t last. She invested   in a  Ponzi scheme called Vavasseur Ltd promising returns of 70-160% a year. By 1975 she’d done her dough. The top US swindler Terry Lee Dowdell   got   15 years gaol.

By 1978 Greer’s finances were ‘dire’. In mid-1979, a decade after Female Eunuch came out,  Inland Revenue filed for her bankruptcy over   non-payment of pds 37,095 tax plus interest. Her accountant argued that Vavasseur had seemed “a most reputable and secure finance house” but its failure wiped out Greer’s tax fund. “What remaining funds Dr Greer had were invested in a property which, equally disastrously, slumped…”, he pleaded. Greer hadn’t been fraudulent or negligent but her income wasn’t enough to meet old tax liabilities, despite her valiant efforts and payment of substantial arrears, he said.

She escaped bankruptcy on the pleading that it would dry up her ability to earn from  writing. Her agent Peter Gross wrote in, “Authors are not machines and cannot be made to produce on demand.”

The Notting Hill house-investment disaster from 1973 involved a warren of five storeys and six doorbells,  infested with squatters and graffitied with “Boredom is counter-revolutionary” and “This too will burn”. She got the squatters ejected – they were comatose from dope – with the help of 50 police. Only her skip got set on fire. She   converted the place exquisitely and expensively back to a grand house but had to sell at a big loss to fund tax demands.

She took up a women’s literature professorship   at the provincial but wealthy Tulsa University, Oklahoma – partly to eke out her finances by living in a campus cottage there rent-free “surrounded by parking lots and dead trees” while letting out her London flat. Her seven closest Tulsa students  she described as “in  scholarly terms simply illiterate…Not one could name an English poet of the eighteenth century. One thought maybe Kipling.” Her  Tulsa interviewer Andrea Chambers wrote that to let off steam Greer “liked to hoon around the country in a rented Mustang with a bottle of Jack Daniels under the seat” and sit  at night in smoky corners of what, in Tulsa, passed for bohemian bars, quaffing bourbon. “I think I am a potential alcoholic,” Chambers quoted Greer, “and I can’t afford the only drug I like, which is coke.”

Detail on Greer’s finances is fragmentary but fascinating:

1984-5: She gets a pds110,000 advance from publisher Hamish Hamilton to write a book “Daddy, We Hardly Knew You” about her late father Reg, who had invented his colourful life story.

1996: She gets free pds360 seats for herself and her 75-year-old gardener Charlie at a Wembley Stadium performance of The Three  Tenors, better than the seats occupied by Prime Minister and Mrs Major and the Duchess of Kent. But her planned feature on the tenor trio for New Yorker is aborted amid libel fears and her harangues about sub-editing: “You fuck the whole thing up with blind abandon…”

1998: Doubleday Publishing pays her pds500,000 for rights to the Female Eunuch sequel The Whole Woman.

1990s: She commands one pound a word for press articles. She bats off requests for gratis contributions, “No fee no work”.

Late 1990s: She decides to buy a piece of Australian outback, and agrees to pay $360,000 for a lucerne farm near the James Range an hour out of Alice Springs. After six months regret at the impulse purchase, she manages to extract herself from it.

2001: She pays something like $500,000 – her life’s savings, for Cave Creek, a 60 hectare derelict dairy farm in the Gold Coast hinterland, to convert back to rainforest.

2005: Cave Creek is a money pit for equipment and five staff’s salaries. Greer takes up an offer of pds40,000 to go on UK’s Celebrity Big Brother   in role of a serving  wench to the mother of Sylvester Stallone and seven other vapid contestants. (In other words, to make a total goose of herself).  They complain about her ‘going on and on’. She wades through manure with a colander on her head, vomits from a merry-go-round and vainly tries to persuade her housemates into a naked sit-down protest. She  storms out after six days, complaining of the bullying and squalor of her ‘fascist prison’,  sharing towels and bathrobes “crawling with bacteria promiscuously collected from all eight bodies.”

2013: She transfers Cave Creek ownership to a UK charity Friends of Gondwana Rainforest’. Kleinhenz writes, “The day she gave away all her cash to the rainforest, she said, was the happiest day of her life.”

2013: Melbourne University buys her 487-box archive for $3m including hefty storage and cataloguing costs.  She intends the proceeds to go to her Gondwana charity, giving it “some financial independence”, she says.

2019: Consulting the charity’s annual report to March 2018, I find,“The trustees [including Greer] are keen to increase income from various sources so as to secure adequate future funding.” The accounts show net assets of pds 26,031 after the year’s spending of pds 56,831.  Keeping the fund topped up seems a priority.

Kleinhenz’s biography spares us nothing of her subject’s provocations, showwomanship, tribulations and formidable talent. Let’s hope her 80s brings calmer conditions, financial and otherwise. #





Blainey’s blarney

Geoffrey Blainey, Australia’s beloved history elder, has written 40 books and his terms like ‘tyranny of distance’ have pervaded our culture. But what of his inner life? At 89, he’s given us Before I Forget, on his upbringing and progress to about age 40. He writes with great charm and whimsy and pens delightful portraits of old-timers and events. The angels are in the detail.

Political tragics will regret that there are asides but no further axe-grinding about black armbands and today’s culture wars, or Melbourne University, its academics and its virtuous student wolfpacks shutting him down over alleged anti-Asian remarks in 1984. In the book his tales stop around 1970.

Titles are a story themselves. As a 20 year-old undergrad he got the job to research what became The Peaks of Lyell (1954), although its hills are round not peaked. His Tyranny of Distance superseded a blah first choice ‘Distance and Destiny’. Other titles testify to his big mistake, agreeing to do too many corporate histories. ‘Instead I should have been blazing my own track,’ he laments. Thus he suffered to do two histories of Melbourne University, and had misfires with BHP and ICI ANZ –the former withheld for five years, the latter manuscript still blocked with only 6-8 readers. Contrast those with later freelance titles like The Causes of War (1973), Triumph of the Nomads (1975) , A Short History of the World (2000) and his big one, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football (1990).

He was quite an athlete himself, coming third in a 40km Saturday hill race with wheelbarrows from Zeehan to Queenstown. For vacation money he lugged cement at Spencer Street rail yards, and biked 160km to farms to heave hay. But Australia nearly lost our lad at age five weeks, except that a surgeon managed to unblock his digestion. No fee either, in a kindly medical tradition for struggling clergy families.

Few others today are writing first-hand about Depression life in rural Victoria. The Blaineys ate toast with jam or toast with butter but never with both: ‘This frugal rule was observed in countless households.’

A blind parishioner could play chess but lacked opponents. Blainey’s father Cliff taught himself chess to keep the old chap happy – although he worked 70-hour weeks. Each church took pride in hearty hymn-singing. These tightly knit congregations… are no longer viewed very sympathetically in the media and sections of some universities, but the years will return when their merits – along with the defects – will be seen more clearly. With personal disaster and adversity they coped bravely.

Blainey was a swot, even resenting invitations to Saturday movie matinees as time-wasters. He was delighted to get from his grandfather ‘at an absurdly early age’ the 1,000-page statistics of the 1935 Commonwealth Year Book. At Wesley (on scholarship) his English teacher A. A. Phillips used the opening paragraph of an essay by the 15 year-old Blainey in one of his best-selling textbooks.

Poring over 1930s footy scores in state library newspapers helped him recover from a bout of early post-war depression over his fear of nuclear war.

While in a funk over deadlines, he realised how little time he actually spent in learning – colleagues got labelled ‘Failed (Billiards)’. With coloured crayons he mapped how he spent or dissipated his time. His reform was not to work longer but more intensively.

Humour bubbles below his prose. A Queenstown old-timer Jimmy when offered a cuppa at Blainey’s boarding room exclaimed, ‘China! China! You’re well set up here.’ He asked Blainey where he’d been on a trip. ‘Hobart!’ Jimmy replied in astonishment. ‘You certainly get around.’ Blainey himself as ‘Titus Mehaffey’ would slyly impersonate an old prospector, quavering on local radio. His best pranking came later. He’d take his own uni students on goldfields trips and at the next lecture he’d read from the country newspaper a colourful report of their visit. Those were his own inventions pasted behind the page.

At one stage Blainey set out from Queenstown with a diamond driller to find payable uranium. (They didn’t). Here’s a taste: The food we carried was the simplest. We had potatoes and onions, bacon which supplied the fat for cooking in the frying pan, and a large quantity of flour which, mixed with water and spiced with raisins, provided johnnycakes, either fried or baked over glowing coals. As a luxury, we carried a few tins of preserved peaches or apricots, and we had tea, sugar and a tin or two of condensed milk.

I could empathise with his agonising about a libellous para while Peaks of Lyell was being printed.  Luckily Blainey’s rashly-named arsonist was oblivious or dead: ‘But for my first book the flow and anticipation were dimmed by the fear.’ Poor Geoff. Moreover, the company had hired him at less than a labourer’s wage, and  publisher MUP gave him a puerile 3 per cent royalty.

On his later research of old National Bank files, he was ‘enthralled by the stories they told of youthful managers arriving at remote gold rushes with a revolver, an iron safe and a pile of gold sovereigns, and promptly opening a bank.’ This truth beats the US fiction: ‘Send lawyers, guns and money.’

He says the uneducated remember things better than professors. Having resolved from age 19 to write for non-academics, he declined even to accept his BA and MA degrees.

The memoir’s text can appear dated, maybe necessarily as he originally wrote a lot of it 15 years ago. Banks ‘bob up and down’ in public esteem; history and climate wars carry little heat; fellow historian and god-botherer Manning Clark gets a rare good wrap. Blainey laments that in his student era circa 1950 Melbourne University had gaps in its British, European and American courses such as medieval history. He doesn’t mention academia’s wholesale trashing of the Western canon today. He also seems faintly puzzled why green suburbanites condemn mining.

Still, the Blainey blarney is wonderful. Except for this awful last paragraph: Few other nations in the early 1970s were so absorbed in understanding their history, and debating it on so many fronts. A rising wave of clashing ideas, ‘history’ here was to grow like thunder.

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Rotary’s Master Spy

I’ve been reading Owen Matthew’s new biography of Rotary Club stalwart Richard Sorge, the German communist spy in Tokyo. It’s called An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent. Sorge tipped off Stalin on Setember 14, 1941, that Japan would not invade from Manchuria. Stalin could then swing forces from Siberia to the west — 15 infantry divisions, three cavalry divisions, 1500 tanks and 1700 aircraft to push the Germans back from Moscow.

Stalin had earlier ignored as ‘provocation’ Sorge’s excellent detail about Hitler’s Barbarossa invasion planning. With a red wax pencil, Stalin scrawled on Sorge’s May 20 report that the author was “a shit who ran small factories and brothels”, mistaking Sorge for a different spy.

Sorge betrayed all parties except his Russian spymasters and a lover or two. He was himself betrayed even by his long-standing radio man in Tokyo, Max Clausen, who through resentment and laziness for two years truncated or never transmitted many of Sorge’s priceless reports on Japan’s war planning. Sorge  on 22 August, 1941, gave Clausen this message to send: “Green Bottle [the Japanese Navy] and the government have decided not to launch a war [against Russia] in the course of this year.” Clausen put it in the bin, unsent.

The Japanese in October 1941 finally figured out what secrets Sorge was accessing as a honorary Nazi member of the German embassy in Tokyo. After two years of interrogation, they hanged him in November 1944. Moscow had never lifted a finger to help him, despite some previous successful exchanges of minor spies.

My motive for writing about Sorge is actually because he was a Rotarian. So am I. I’ve been going to weekly Rotary meetings in Melbourne for about 30 years. It’s been nice hearing good speakers, mixing with diverse colleagues and helping with a bit of charity work.

I’ve never seen Sorge’s name on any list of famous Rotarians. The lists range from flight pioneer Orville Wright (Rotary Club of Dayton Ohio ) to Charles Lindberg and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, (RC Wapakoneta, Ohio). Next time you buy a Hallmark card for your mother-in-law, be aware that Hallmark founder Joyce C. Hall was with RC Kansas City.

Even more illustrious Rotarians are Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Walt Disney, Cecil B. de Mille, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and not forgetting Jorge Mario Bergoglio, member of Rotary Club of Buenos Aires and now Pope Francis. Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet of RC Santiago is not my fave Rotarian. I hope he had only a harmless committee role there like “Club Administration”. Franz Lehar waltzed into RC Vienna and Jean Sibelius doubtless provided some ominously turgid strains for RC Helsinki- Helsingfors. Luciano Pavarotti I’d say did a better job of singing the national anthem at Rotary Club Modena than occurs weekly at RC Melbourne.

Such brand names as Pirelli, Firestone, Matsushita, Colonel Sanders’ KFC, Louis Vuitton and Cointreau all harken to Rotarian founders. Roald Amundsen (South Pole) and Edmund Hillary (Everest) explored Oslo and Auckland Rotary Clubs respectively.

Worldwide, Rotary from 1988 was the main player in the global eradication of polio, through grassroots delivery of oral vaccinations to 2.5 billion children. Last year new polio cases involved only 33 children in horribly-administered regions such as Afghanistan and Nigeria. The World Health Organization estimates that the polio drive has saved 1.5 million children’s lives and 16 million people from a crippled lifetime.

The Rotary drive was never all sweetness and light. For example, the Taliban has murdered distributors as supposed Western agents. Right from the start Rotary locked horns with irascible oral vaccine pioneer Albert Sabin. A little surprisingly, Rotary’s bureaucracy ran the campaigning better than Sabin’s radical methods did. These days, with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett swamping the charity circuit, Rotary’s $US1 billion-plus polio fund-raising and mobilisation is seldom mentioned by the media.

Thanks for your patience during that commercial, and now back to Richard Sorge. In 450 pages of the biography, Sorge’s Rotary career merits just nine words. His major spy career started in 1930 in Shanghai, a city aptly known as ‘the whore of the Orient’. Sorge used his job as journalist to keep tabs for Moscow on Japanese ambitions and the wars between Chinese nationalists and communist forces. “The letters of introduction from Berlin established his bona fides with the German consul-general, and with his help Sorge joined the Shanghai Rotary Club,” Matthews writes. Remarkably, the club’s roll of 105 members at July 1, 1930 survives. Sorge’s not on it – he must have joined in late 1930.

Members included leaders from the Bank of China, Chinese Maritime Customs, the US consul-general, shipping and chemical bosses, Japanese diplomats and business owners, mining, engineering and railways heads, and medicos, famine relief agents and undertakers. In lieu of first names, the roll has only nicknames, like “Cookie” for the Thomas Cook rep, “Fessie” for Mr Fessenden of the Shanghai Council, “Spring” for a Chinese member Mr Lam, “Dragon” for a Japanese mill owner, “Hooky” for Mr Hu Hou-ki, and dare I say it, “Nigger” for Mr A.F. Kimball, a financier.

Shanghai and its surroundings were a pit of intrigues, war-lordism, and squalor. A few years before Sorge joined Rotary there, the club featured in China’s equivalent of the Great Train Robbery, better known as the Lincheng Outrage. It was fictionalized in a 1932 film Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich and the Chinese sexpot, possibly sapphic, Amy Wong. A recent Chinese film version in 2010 was aptly titled, Let the Bullets Fly.

China had acquired from the US an all-steel “Blue Express” train and it was on an inaugural run on May 6, 1923 from Nanjing to Tianjin. Apart from 200-plus Chinese, it carried 30 foreign dignatories including John D. Rockefeller Jr’s sister-in-law. Journos on board included the editor of China Weekly Review, John B. Powell. He was a Shanghai Rotary member, along with fellow club member L.C. Solomon.

At 3am the train hit sabotaged track and derailed, with bandits robbing and kidnapping survivors among the twisted wreckage. The same day five countries’ embassies demanded the Chinese government pay the ransoms. The bandit leader, Sun Maiyao, wanted the money for his 3000-man “Shandong Autonomous Army” which originally had been set up with Chinese peasants to clear dead from World War 1 battlefields. Sun wrote persuasively,

This is to notify the facts that we have hitherto been law-abiding citizens and that we have no desire to become robbers, but in this troubled era of unreliable government we find ourselves compelled to take risks in order to obtain redress for our grievance.

The hostages were corralled on Pao Tzuku Hill, now a big tourist attraction in Shandong. The editor Powell somehow sent a flow of dispatches from the hill, making the heist a near-real-time global sensation.

Shanghai Rotary’s real-time predicament was whether to take direct action to release its members from hostage or work through Chicago-based Rotary headquarters. After four days, YMCA executive Julian Petit (still on the member list in 1930, and quite likely one of the faces in the club picnic at left) won the debate and cabled Chicago HQ to mobilise Rotary’s 1500 clubs and 90,000 members to lobby their 27 governments for action.

The Shanghai club’s historian records, RI [Rotary International] replied two weeks later, stating that the matter would be discussed at the next meeting of the International Board on June 14 . To the Shanghai club’s outrage, its protest letter didn’t get a reply till September, five months after the incident and four months after the hostages were freed.

In the event, all the foreign captives after 37 days returned safely to Shanghai. Sun got his army promotion but was murdered at dinner months later.

The edict from Chicago HQ was that Rotary International, being non-political, shouldn’t enter local disputes. Internally at Shanghai, the merits of non-politics were demonstrated by the club’s unified charity work in near-war conditions despite its English, German, Chinese and Japanese membership.

Sorge (at right) took club members and other celebrities out to “fill with wine to loosen their tongues” and “gut them like a fat Christmas goose”, as he confided to his radio man, Clausen. Sorge’s role as social lion required him to quaff whisky in swanky bars and seduce elegant women after dances. This beat his earlier jobs boozing and brawling among the proletariat in Frankfurt dives. However the Soviet spy ring in Shanghai was a shambles and Sorge was lucky to escape its rapid rolling up.

On the ship from Marseilles to Shanghai, Moscow’s planned Shanghai boss, Alexander Ulanovsky, had confided drunkenly to four new British pals about his cover identity for Shanghai as a Czech metals dealer “Kirschner”. The cover preparation had been so good that it fooled a German arms factory, which deputized Ulanovsky/Kirshner to sell weapons illegally to the Chinese. Sadly for the spy ring, the four Britishers were Shanghai CIB officers returning from leave.

The Rotary Club folded in late 1941 and many foreign members were interned. The club started again in 1946 until shut by the Communists in 1952 with seizure of all its imperialist assets. It opened again with government permission in 2006. New members like Sorge are assigned to club committees. I like to think that Sorge put his hand up for “Fellowship” or as a pseudo-journalist, possibly “Publicity”, that being my own Rotary fate for many years.

Sorge’s later success in Tokyo operating out of the German embassy was paradoxically due to his deliberate indiscretions (“No spy would behave like that!”) He seduced at least 30 women including the wives of his top German informants and would rant to them about slaying Hitler with his Samurai sword and becoming “a god”. He praised Stalin to a roomful of top Nazis, and punched to the ground a Japanese policeman who wanted to search his house. Taking a top-speed night ride around Tokyo on his 500cc Zundapp motorcycle, he crashed into a stone wall by the US Embassy and sent the handlebars through his jaw. Even so he managed to call radioman Clausen to the hospital to get rid of all the secret documents in his jacket.

After Sorge’s arrest in late 1941 (the Japanese police had politely removed their shoes before entering his house), he withstood six days of verbal interrogation. Then, like his accomplices, he confessed all.

Abruptly the prisoner sprang from his chair, drew himself up to attention, threw his prison coat on the floor, and began pacing up and down the cramped cell, hands in his pockets.

“Indeed I am a Communist and have been doing espionage. I am defeated!’ Sorge shouted. “I have never been defeated since I became an international Communist. But now I have been defeated by the Japanese police.” He sat down again, buried his face in his hands, and wept bitterly. “I will confess everything,” Sorge said finally, “if I can have a rest.”

On November 7, 1944, the Soviet’s  Revolution Anniversary Day, he was brought to the scaffold at Sugamo prison by the governor, who wore full-dress uniform with epaulettes, brass buttons, white gloves and police sword. Five officials were assigned to pull the trapdoor handle so none would feel personally responsible. The hooded Sorge, who had been refused a cigarette, said loudly three phrases in Japanese: “Sakigun! [the Red Army]; Kokusai Kyosanto! [International Communist Party]; Soviet Kyosanto! [Soviet Commmunist Party].”

The door opened beneath his feet and he dropped into oblivion.

Matthews says it’s a myth that Sorge warned Moscow about the impending Pearl Harbour attack, though he did tell Moscow that the Japanese intended to drive south. Matthews does not enter the controversy generated by defector Gordievsky in 1990 over whether Sorge’s tip-offs were redundant because the Soviets had broken the Japanese codes anyway.

It was not until Khrushchev and Zhukov saw a French fictionalized film about Sorge that his Soviet rehabilitation began as a good German anti-fascist. He got a Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1964, a ten  kopek stamp, a statue, and a Moscow street named after him. These days there’s a veritable Sorge industry, with 100 books about him in Japanese alone. As a Rotarian I have now added my tiny mite. Maybe Rotary could give him a posthumous Paul Harris Fellowaward.

To find your nearest Rotary Club, go here.

Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s — is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and online here.

1 comment
  • johnhenry

    Tony Thomas is superb. Just as amusing as Terry-Thomas, and in a more grown-up way. That’s Debatable has been on my Wish List for a couple of years, and I’m looking forward to getting it.

A Thwarted Career in the Public Service ‘Veggie Patch’

In late December, 1978, I trooped into a Canberra high school auditorium with a hundred other hopefuls. We were sitting the Clerical Selection Test for entry as Clerks Class 1 to the Third Division of the Federal Public Service. About 30,000 sat nationally, and the top 5,000 ranked by order of merit received job offers.

I suspect I came last in merit – certainly no offer came in the mail for a Clerk Class 1 post on $155 a week. It was a lucky escape.  Being a federal clerk in that era, and possibly still today, is not an attractive job.

There’s an insider’s account of clerical life in a peer-reviewed paper by Flinders and Sturt University sociologist Craig Matheson[i] , who actually clerked in the Department of Industry, Technology and Commerce and in the Public Service Board from 1984-88. That was just a bit later than my own hypothetical career in filing, sorting, re-arranging random figures, photocopying, proofreading, collating, checking and putting letters in envelopes.

Matheson recounts that his four years so addled his brain that it took him some time in academia before he could think properly again. The work was mindless, the clerks bored and apathetic, and Matheson detected  “a palpable lack of enthusiasm for work”.  He says, “Most would eagerly engage in conversation  and celebrate birthdays and other rites of passage such as staff welcomes, promotions and farewells, because these provided oases of colour and excitement in an otherwise boring and uneventful day.

“During one power failure, for example, a festive atmosphere emerged in the office and many of my workmates were visibly disappointed when the power was restored. On another occasion during a local heat wave, many gathered eagerly around a thermometer to see if the temperature had risen to a level at which occupational health and safety rules excused them from attending work.”

Workmates often disappeared after official lunches, leaving the office deserted. “The absence of supervisors also provided opportunities to avoid work. When our section head was absent for the day, I absconded with my supervisor to the National Press Club to spend the afternoon playing pool.”

One group worked in a low-skill area dubbed “the veggie patch”.  “You’d nearly have to be brain dead to work there,” they told Matheson.

As the years passed, “disillusion, bitterness and simple deterioration” set in, a living death among The Working Dead. “They’re not actively involved in life, they’re just going through the motions … existing, not living.”

Another researcher, Alan Jordan, wrote of his department’s effect:  “Bright men behave as though they were dull, energetic men as though they were lazy, and reasonably courageous men as though they were terrified of change.”[ii]

Jordan could literally set his watch by the mass exit from the offices at six minutes past five. He wrote, “When I asked a newly arrived workmate what he thought of the atmosphere in our division he simply replied, ‘Comatose’.”

But clerks liked the job security. “Not too demanding” was a positive job description. “There are worse jobs than sitting on your arse reading reports,” one said. Time-servers got promoted through the scale and piled up at the   plateau called the Terminal Class 8 Syndrome.

Clerks’ typical witticisms, says Matcheson, included, “Are you coping with the challenge?” and “I don’t think I can stand this excitement for much longer.” Another comfort was forming little friendship groups. Some women were even prepared to forego promotion and pay rises lest they lose their chatting pals.

Matheson can back his tales up with surveys.  In the Department of Primary Industry and Energy, 31 per cent didn’t care how well DPIE performed and 37 per cent weren’t willing to put in any effort to help DPIE. Things were little better for higher-level clerks. “I spent many weeks collecting statistics that were never used,” Matheson said. In one department, 60 per cent of clerks surveyed said fruitless and futile tasks interfered with their real work.

The bosses were characters from Kafka, expert  mainly in stupefying Public Service prose. When graduates asked their SES boss for less boring work, they were told, “You’re not paid to enjoy yourselves.” Even policy work could involve drearily examining the tariff rates on rubber mallets, or non-tariff-barriers to Australian exports of fruitcakes.

But let’s get back to my Clerical Selection Test adventure.  The tests started in 1961 to sort out those with talent for clerical/admin work such as “checking, computations, critical thinking and the use of English”. Attendant educationists and psychologists bulked up new positions at the Public Service Board, but their checks on the test were worthless. The test was killed off in 1990 after wasting everyone’s time for 30 years.

From my 1970s perch with The Age in the Canberra Press Gallery, I’d heard rumors that the test’s questions favoured school leavers compared with mature-age applicants. The conspiracy theory went that only high school kids would become Clerks Class 1 and pose the minimum threat to all those clerks ensconced higher up the ladder. So I sat the test to see what the questions were.

My published account began,

“It’s hard to cheat your way through a Public Service exam  with two female supervisors prowling the room and breathing down your neck.

When they weren’t looking I frantically copied the questions down in shorthand  and when the ladies came my way, I filled in answers on the test sheets at random.

This was the Commonwealth Clerical Selection Test.  

With reasonable diligence  and luck, Clerks Class 1 can shin up the ladder to Clerk Class 4 ($217) and at least dream of becoming a Clerk Class 11 ($420) before retirement.

 But by writing down the questions for later study, I was violating the rule that said writing could only be done on the answer books. To make things worse I got an early reprimand for looking at Section 4 when everyone else was still working on Section 3.

After two hours the supervisor ordered me to stop my shorthand writings. So for the remaining  50 minutes I had nothing better to do than answer the questions, some of which were quite hard.

At the exam’s end I was politely asked to wait until everyone else had trooped out of the classroom. “Would I mind seeing the chief supervisor in room 14B?  Just a few routine questions.”

I sped off in the opposite direction, in case he planned to confiscate my shorthand notes. On Monday, a telephone call.  “Would I mind contacting  Mr X at the Public Service Board? Just a few routine questions.”

I rang him. 

“We understand you were writing the questions  down during the test.” I was told politely. “We don’t know why but if you were to disclose to anyone else who plans to sit for the test both you and your friend are liable to be automatically disqualified.”

He little realised that I could reduce the Clerical Selection Test  to rubble by publishing a swag of the questions. 

“No special study is required for the test,” says the brochure. 

A sample question is “12 plus 7 equals … 5? 15? 19? None of these?” Rather harder is, “What percentage of 50 is 8?”

Another sample question on current affairs asked what the abbreviation STD stands for. If you guess “Scientific Training Division” or “Southern Telephone District”, you’re wrong.
For some reason the people who set exams always seem to muck things up. The test on English usage includes a sample question with more errors than they had  bargained for, namely,

“Us parents don’t  (1) believe in interferring in our children’s (2) quarrels.” Point 1, the brochure explains, should read “We parents don’t” and point 2  is correct as is.  The wrong spelling of ‘interfering’ is just a Public Service snafu.

The actual exam is a lot harder than the brochure specimens, especially the final questions  which are designed to sort the sheep from  goats. In the competition you’d better be nimble in adding fractions or getting the decimal point right in 0.06  divided by 0.001. And late in the test you get those awful questions about Fred who can walk at 20 yards a minute backwards on an escalator moving forwards at 12 yards a minute.

While the solutions might be obvious to you, they never are to me even after I’ve run these through my schoolboy algebra. Their relevance is also debatable. “At the Clerk Class 1 level,  the work may be fairly routine,” the PSB’s blurb admits. It adds that in the fun departments you might be able to examine applications by visitors for permanent residence status or investigate claims for welfare pensions.

But even there the need for tricky maths would not be great. And maturity not academic brilliance should be the chief need.

In the same way the examiners really pull out all stops on English grammar, with sentences like ‘Up with which, can you not put?’

On the other hand they recognise the need to attack clumsy Public Service jargon like,  “It is regretted that your welfare cheques have been delayed three months involving the consequent demise of your infant daughter.”

Another very practical test is simply to crosscheck addresses and names, since Clerks Class 1 should not send a pension cheque for Mr Bloggs (Forrest, 6434) to Mr Bloggs (Forrest 3236).

In current affairs nobody but quiz king Barry Jones could hope for a perfect score. How much do you know about Parliamentary representation or the current Prime Minister of France?

I also suspect that like so many ‘objective’ tests, the computer can mark you wrong for a right answer. For example, asked if Cuba has a Communist government, I would not tick ‘Yes’ but would write in, “What do you mean by ‘Communist’?” The current affairs section seemed full of ambiguities and anachronisms.

But it’s time to stop nit-picking.  The Clerical Selection Test, I belatedly discovered, was put through the wringer by Dr J.K. Antill of Macquarie University, in a report to the Coombs Royal Commission three years ago. He damned it.

“The most notable feature of the Clerical Selection Test is the dearth of useful information about it, both in terms of its construction and its subsequent validation,” he began. (“Validation” means checks on whether an exam achieves its aims of selecting the most promising applicants for the Public Service). “The 11 validity studies which followed the test’s introduction are of generally poor quality and provide little evidence which could be claimed to support the test’s continued use.”

The original test was superseded by a new model  in 1971  and a parallel model in 1974, but no validation study of either test was available to Dr Antill.

He noted caustically that the board had been running the 1971 test for five years , but there was no sign of analyses of its results.

Feminists will be interested to learn that after the board monkeyed with the weighting of the tests a few years ago, a ‘significant bias’ against females resulted. Dr Antill said  the test would probably be outlawed under US law.

“There is no evidence to suggest that the Clerical Selection is significantly related to job performance,” he concluded.

He found it distressing that the lower-paid public servants in the Fourth Division (which doesn’t have such stiff entrance requirements) were locked down there because the Board  made it so hard for them to crash the educational and test barriers into the Third Division.

First they had to pass high school leaving exams although the board had no evidence that its educational barrier was related to performance on the job.  Then they had to pass the Clerical Selection Test which was pretty shonky.

And all the time the Public Service Board had an excellent idea of how good these people were because they’d been employed there for years!

As a special privilege for Fourth Division slaves,  they can sit for an HSC-type exam called the “October clerical”. Fewer than a third  of the 900-1000 who sat for it pass the exam and they still have to win a place by merit after taking the Clerical Selection Test.

I inspected the 1977 “October clerical” test. A typical  question was “Outline the internal policies of the Third French Republic until 1914. Were there any problems?” (Examiner’s comment: ‘Only a few answers, which were well done.’)

And “What were the main economic, social and political developments in Australia in the decade after World War II?”

(Examiner’s comment: ‘Only a small number of candidates handled this question fairly well, concentrating on social, economic and political developments  of the decade.”)

 Dr Antill attributed the crumminess of the tests to lack of resources in the test section of the Public Service Board, rather than to incompetence.

My own top of the head conclusions about the Public Service Board is never have so many done so little so badly.

You might  think an exam question for junior clerks about the Third French Republic from 1870-1914 was peak idiocy.  Not so. Two weeks later I got a letter from Charles J. Prosser, of Burwood, Vic., who had retired in 1963 as superintending engineer of the planning branch of the Victorian Postal Administration.

“Having read your article in The Age recently  I thought you might appreciate this (enclosed). I have treasured the original since 10th and 11th October, 1924.”

The (enclosed) was a typed page of undoubted veracity which had been dictated to would-be PMG cadets in 1924 to check their spelling and hand-writing skills.

Examination No. 1290 – 9th, 10th, and 11th Oct., 1924.


For appointment as Cadet Engineer, Electrical Engineer’s Branch, Postmaster-General’s Department.


How well I remember the ostentatious vernal loveliness and summer grandeur of that somnolent archipelago, and the gratefully deciduous trees encumbering the interstices between the coniferous pines of the gentle declivities reaching down to and encroaching on the confines of the sea. How the foliage sloping down to an abysmal dome scintillated flashes of kaleidescopic hues in the glorious deluge of sunlight.

The incessantly restless sea, teasing and glancing, refracted the ambient light  from myriads of spumy points, the tawny sands glared a monochrome unmitigated by shade, while the monotony of the littoral sinuosities was relieved by precipitous promontories of quiescent caves, all reminiscent of swashbuckling  pirates and carousing buccaneers, and the time when the turquoise tranquillity of those insular seas was intermittently ruffled by the adventurous and intrepid corsair. Now they are agitated only by shoals of tiny gorgeously-tinted  fishes fleeing in a panic from some predaceous enemy.

Lichens nestling in every niche and crevice of the granitoid rocks, inconspicuous individually, but arresting the alert eye by theur ubiquity, and clamouring for recognition redeemed the rugged escarpment from unparalleled nudity.

In the illusive coruscations of the November twilight, I often whimsically visualised my island as a pelagic crustacean swallowed but unassimilated by some omnivorous leviathan of the deep.”

I phoned Mr Prosser and by great luck my 40-year-old notes of our conversation survive on the letter itself.

The dictation test was held at Melbourne University’s Wilson Hall. The text was read out by a Scot with a very rough brogue. “After the first sentence 200 lads got up and walked out,” Mr Prosser said.

Out of many hundreds in Victoria, only four passed including himself and a mate, Ted Stewart. Another was Sam Jones, later Sir Samuel Jones and a pal of General Thomas Blamey. Sam in 1942 became Head of Radio and Signal Supplies in the Munitions Department, locally-made radio and radar becoming a key element of our armed forces.

Mr Prosser said, “One of my friends sat and failed, I think he became an assistant director of engineering in Brisbane.”

Today there are two million federal, state and local public servants — they’ve bred up by a quarter million in the past decade. Of course the country needs them – every one of them. Until 4.49 p.m., anyway.

Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and online here



[i]   Matheson, C: In Praise of Bureaucracy? A Dissent From Australia. Administration and Society, Vol 39, No 2, April 2007.

[ii] Jordan, A (1974). Living Death in the Social Policy Section. In D. Edgar (Ed), Social Change in Australia, pp 409-22, Melbourne, Cheshire.

  • ianl

    Wonderful, Tony.

    Once, very long ago (it seems like 3 or 4 lifetimes) in my early youth I worked for a short time as a clerk in the old Repat Dept. It appeared that my bosses (one each end of the floor, overseeing rows of seated clerks) came to regard me as “bright” material for they invented a new position for me: Clerk in Charge of the Bombs. This actually meant that I was to work on and resolve the most difficult, complex problem cases, of the sort that the Minister may get to hear of.

    Within a few days, my “colleagues” had sorted out their reaction to this alien idea. They simply dumped every case file on my desk (“way too hard” was the cri de coeur) and went off to the pub.

    I left the Service very shortly after that. What a surprise.

  • Doubting Thomas

    My first paid job was as a temporary Base Grade clerk in the Sydney Office of the Department of Immigration, working in the Registry. It was months after I was employed that I discovered that an exam was required for entry into the Third Division. This was by no means a barrier to the Irish Catholic mafia which reputedly “controlled” or at least dominated certain sections of the Commonwealth Public Service as, reputedly, others were by the Masons.
    Perhaps surprisingly, the old pre-computer, card-index Registry system was a very busy place, particularly in the two alphabetical sections within which the majority of migrant surnames fell. Mail was delivered by the suitcase load twice daily from the GPO, and one quickly learnt not to leave any of today’s mail until tomorrow or one would very quickly be buried in backlog. I soon found I was one of very few who cared about this.
    The custom there was that at almost on the dot of 1630, the signal to down tools was when the women went to the ladies’ room to prepare for the arduous homewards commute. Then, people would start queuing up at the sign-out book until it “opened” at 1651 (or was it 1649?).
    On one particularly busy day, I was still working to clear that day’s mail at about 1645 when I was approached by the local union rep and “ordered” to stop work. “What are you trying to do? Work yourself out of a job?” I lasted 6 months.

  • en passant

    Wonderful tale Tony, but unfortunately things have deteriorated since your attempt to join the ruling class.
    My first job was a plum one on the City Council. There were 48 clerks on high Dickensian stools and desks. After two weeks I was told to move up one desk as No. 9 was retiring. Two weeks later No. 23 resigned and I moved again. My life was laid out for me until retirement! I was already No. 44 and on the fast track. 5-months later resigned.
    Many years later I was hired to take over a senior management position in the ‘Department’ while the incumbent took Long Service Leave. I barely made it to the final week. The Open Plan Office was quite noisy (I had a glass-paneled office), but on my first day I thought I had gone deaf because at 16.51 it went from hubbub to instant silence. I walked around and found a computer screen with a half written letter. Nothing wrong with that, except it not only stopped in mid-sentence but in mid-wor ….
    I liked your humorous assertion that: “his four years so addled his brain that it took him some time in academia before he could think properly again.” Yeah, right.

  • lloveday

    As a condition of a studentship, I had to work in the SA Public Service during University “holidays”. First day, I went at it head up, bum down, as I presumed was expected and the only way I knew to do anything, and was promptly told “don’t work so hard”.

  • en passant

    At least they did not say “Don’t work at all”.
    During my short time in the ‘Department’ one group trouped off one Friday every month to an off-site all day planning meeting. Honestly, what follows is true.
    I called for the previous 6-months Meeting Minutes and was surprised to find them to be identical. I was about to follow up, but a spy told me that what they really did was spend the day playing ‘Trivial Pursuit’, complete with a monthly trophy. With two weeks left of my assignment I let it go.

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A Nice Little Traditional Earner Invented Yesterday

A Nice Little Traditional Earner Invented Yesterday

What price a Welcome to Country ceremony, and how fast is the price rising? Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council (MLALC) notified sharp increases from last July of around eleven per cent for corporate clients. Its day fee rose from $450 to $500, and night/weekend fee from $540 to $600.[i]

Non-government organisations (NGOs) saw their day rate rise 4 per cent, from $385 to $400, and night/weekend rate rise from $462 to $480. Rates for government bodies rose 10 per cent, from $400 to $440 (day) and $480 to $528 (night/weekend).

“Please note requests for Welcome to Country are in high demand and should be booked in advance,” the council says. “NAIDOC, Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week are our busiest times.” Other rush times for  Welcome providers include Survival Day (known to some as Australia Day), Apology Day Anniversary, Harmony Day,  ANZAC Day, National Sorry Day, Children’s Day and World’s Indigenous Day.

A spokesperson for the NSW Aboriginal Affairs Department says there is no  official fee schedule for ceremonies, as they vary in complexity and audience. She believes $400-450 for a 15-20 minute Welcome is typical and dismisses as “rubbish” a report of $1200. “I’ve never seen a fee like that in my whole career,” she says.

The  Australian record for a Welcome is held by activist Matilda Williams House, who was paid $10,500 to perform a welcome at the opening of Abbott’s 44th Parliament in 2013.

While many Aboriginal groups now claim “welcomes” are part of their ancient traditions, the ceremony was invented ad hoc in 1976 at the Perth International Arts Festival by Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley of the Middar Aborginal Theatre. Four dancers from NZ and Cook Islands requested a reciprocal “welcome” before they would perform and Dingo and Whalley created one for them on the spot. Other Aborigines, such as opera administrator Rhoda Roberts, have laid claim to inventing the “welcome” in the 1980s.

In the era of early contact, ceremonies between the local and visiting group could involve thigh spearings to avenge deaths from sorceries, visitors offering their women in friendship or penis-holding among male groups. Today’s Welcome performers have substituted less confronting acts.

It’s hard to escape the ceremonies and rituals. At the recent Writers’ Week at WA University, every one of the scores of speakers’ sessions started with the acknowledgement. I went to a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert and it began with one official doing an acknowledgement, immediately followed by two more.

In Victoria the Wurundjeri Land & Compensation Cultural Heritage Council, based in inner-Melbourne’s Abbotsford, claims traditional ownership of Greater Melbourne. Its current fees for cultural events are set out below, with its fees at April 2016 in brackets.

Welcome to Country: $590 ($570). Not For Profits, $490 ($470).

Smoking Ceremony: $450 ($300). NFPs, $450 ($300).

Welcome plus Smoking: $920 ($820). NFPs, $820  ($720).

Didgeridoo: $400 ($250). NFPs, $400 ($250).

The inflation rate seems variable. The increase for Wurundjeri’s Welcomes  is a negligible 3.5 per cent, but for Smoking Ceremonies, it’s a 50 per cent increase and for Didgeridoo, a whopping 60 per cent.

Performers are entitled to be rewarded for their time, talent and intellectual property. The difference with other groups is that Welcomes are now mandated by top-down directives for federal, state and local government agencies. Non-government organisations, non-profits and corporates are following suit. Long-standing NSW government guidelines specify Welcomes at commemorations and festivals, policy and program launches, owned or sponsored conferences, citizenship ceremonies and big sporting events.

For top-tier ceremonies, Koomurri Aboriginal Incursions offers an “Ultimate Dreamtime Spectacular” concert starting at $6000. It  includes Welcome, didgeridoo, smoking ceremony and half a dozen dancers. This show goes down well with international and other high-end corporates and agencies. Koomurri services all capitals through interstate affiliates. Koomurri’s simple Welcome to Country or Smoking Ceremony of 2-10 minutes by an Elder start at $800.

 #  A single-person expert didgeridoo show of 1-30 minutes including commentary starts at $800.

# A combined Welcome, didgeridoo and smoking ceremony ( two performers, 10-40 minutes) starts at $2000, or a cut-down version is $1500.

# A 10-40 minute Corroboree with six performers is from $4500,  and a Mini-Corroboree of 5-30 minutes with three or four performers starts at $3200.

Koomurri offers customized quotes for songman and dancer add-ons, “for maximum spiritual impact”.

The business is popular with primary schools and a member can deliver primary schoolers an “outback experience” or face-painting for rates around $400 an hour. Boomerang painting sessions involve a minimum $2000 worth of boomerangs. Bega Valley Shire Council’s pricing guide has smoking ceremonies at $530, didgeridoo $360, basic dancer $430, professional dancers $450-1800 (depending on number), and guest lecturer $110-500.

Another indication of prices is on the Victorian GLaWAC (Gunaikurnai Land and Waters Aboriginal Corporation ) website. Its Welcome to Country costs $500 and a Smoking Ceremony adds another $500. Apart from special occasions, GLaWAC will provide a member to do a cultural talk of 30 minutes for $500. A talk-plus-field trip is $2000 for ten visitors, $2500 for twenty and $3000 for more than that. GLaWAC’s meshes with the Victorian Government mandating Welcomes at “all major official events within the Agreement Area”, with coverage similar to the above-mentioned NSW guidelines,  unless GlaWAC decides otherwise. Eastern Marr Aboriginal Corporation in south-west Victoria lists fees for cultural consulting.  Its field representatives charge at $1000 a day, and normally two are specified. A meeting attendance involves a $400 fee per person.

Funds washing around land councils are prodigious. Last October WA’s South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council obtained registration of six Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) between Noongars and the State Government in exchange for the Noongar people agreeing to settle claims under the Native Title Act. In what is described as a ‘virtual treaty’ and a deal worth $1.3b, the State will return up to 320,000 hectares of development and cultural land to Noongars via the Noongar Boodja Trust. There will be 12 payments of $50m a year into a perpetual trust and 12 payments of $10m a year to set up and run seven Noongar services corporations. The implementation is still subject to court rulings.

With high stakes involved and tensions between contending families, councils have faced delicate and complex conflicts. Some traditional owners become experts in the most arcane aspects of corporate law.

Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation (GMTOAC) in south-west Victoria, for example, in its annual report referred to 2017-18 as “an extremely challenging year” and “a time of frustration”. That was  after a special independent audit of irregularities in April 2017, following disputes among directors and members. Three months later it was ordered to be placed under special administration. Days later the order was successfully challenged but in the event it went into special administration from September 2017 to January 2018, when a new rule book and board came in.

Hints of ructions can also be seen at Taungurung Land and Waters Council, near Seymour in Victoria. It  reported

members will now be required by the Rulebook to treat staff and directors with respect. A new clause in the Rulebook will require the approval of the members, as well as the approval of the Board, for accessing investment moneys above a certain percentage of the organisation’s total financial resources.

Councils are keen to keep weak claimants out of membership. Gunditj Mirring Council, for example, requires applicants to tick a box referring to any of nineteen “apical” (apex) ancestors, e.g “Jenny Green, William and Hannah King, Bill & Mary Gorrie”. The corporation is then entitled to validate the claimed genealogy, involving ancestors out to mother’s  and father’s great-grandparents. The full group then needs to accept the claims.

Victoria’s Labor government legislated last year for a treaty with traditional owners. The bureaucratic spadework pops up in surprising contexts. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services invited Aboriginal youths, aged 18-25, to a “Yarning Session” for the Voice of the Child Projectlast month. To fill the venue at the Melbourne Museum the department offered youths a gift card of $100 and lunch. It says, We hope to create a new relationship between Aboriginal children and young people and government to achieve long-term generational change, improved outcomes and brings us one step closer to Aboriginal self-determination.”

Not all Aboriginals take the Welcomes seriously. Here’s extracts from a 2016 episode of Black Comedyon the ABC:

(Aunty Mary, in possum fur, emu feather hat and high heels, arrives at a café for a showdown with Aunty Joyce over Welcomes.)

Uncle: The Welcomes income stream has been a lucrative venture for the Elders. With all this fighting we will be running ourselves out of business. Sabotaging welcomes, water logging gum leaves – it has to stop!

Aunty Joyce: Thank you and I just want to say, “Welcome from the tops of the trees [to the bottom of the seas]…

Aunty Mary: Joyce, knock it off. You know very well you stole that line from me.

Joyce: Oh, Mary, why would I want anything of yours?

Mary: Because you are a sneaky bitch.

Uncle: If we are to get anywhere today there will be no name-calling.

Mary: She wants the AFL Grand Final and the Australian Open. That is spring and summer, she wants it all, what’s left for me?

Joyce: Mary, they all want me.

Mary: Because you under-cut me.

Uncle: NAIDOC week events need elders. We have decided for two separate territories  [pulls out map] divided by the native border of Punt Road.

Mary: She gets the sports precinct! What and who the f-k am I supposed to welcome to the east side of Punt Road? There is f—all there and you know that. F-k this and f-k that and f-k the both of you. You sneaky gin, this ain’t over, I’m watching you.

Ceremonial events do not always go according to plan. I obtained this account last week of the funeral of a prominent Catholic identity at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth in 2015:

It is not easy at any price to arrange for the necessary element of reliability when it comes to providing the ritual. When my old friend died, I thought there should be some appropriate acknowledgement of her long-time support for Aboriginal causes and with some difficulty managed to locate a local purveyor to provide a show for the cameras.  A smoking ceremony and his two grandsons on didgeridoos were negotiated for $300 to open the procedures. The crowd came in behind the coffin and waited — no sign of the ceremony providers — nothing for it but to go into the formal and personal speeches. Anxiously haunting the car park, I missed most of it. “Very belatedly, the performers turned up – a puncture apparently.  The cash  passed over, the DTO (Designated Traditional Owner, with hat and hat-band) and the grandsons (head-bands, bit of paint) proceeded to the site to set up their amplifiers and find a suitable mix of green and dry leaves. During the lengthy delay  another burial began in the same area.

Another problem: no matches or lighter could be located – none of my friend’s religious and academic friends was able to help out. While the DTO went back to his car, the amplifiers were turned up to the max and the didgeridoos were tentatively, then robustly blown. Mourners from the other funeral were clearly put out by the racket – requiring my intervention.  

Once lit, the leaves burned readily but failed to start  smoking – at which point some ‘authority’ arrived and asked if I had sought permission to set the cemetery on fire. It was the first time the ceremony had been performed at Karrakatta and the officials had not worked out how they stood on accepting it. (He backed off when I explained the ancient traditional meaning behind it.)

The coffin was lowered to an Aboriginal chant, smoke rose in the vicinity and a background drone drowned out the noise of passing traffic. The nuns came forward to shake the hands of the performers – full of kindly gratitude – and it was just lucky I heard the DTO hitting them for the $300 bucks already paid. Worth it? My late religious friend would have loved every minute of it. 

Despite the above, my informant still sees the Welcome ceremony as an example of a positive tide of public goodwill to Aboriginal people. “It was invented because there was nothing else available – and there was the mood for it,” she says. “The prices listed for the various rituals on offer suggest a professional approach to ‘a nice little earner’.”

Welcomes and Acknowledgements are now set in Australian sociology. Strangely, the more that authentic Aboriginal culture fades into the remote past, the more vigorous becomes modern-day practice of contrived rituals. At least they’re a commercial success for the practitioners.

Tony Thomas’s new book, The West: An insider’s tale – A romping reporter in Perth’s innocent ’60s is available from Boffins Books, Perth, the Royal WA Historical Society (Nedlands) and online here


[i] Fees cited throughout exclude GST

Germaine Greer Between the Covers

GERMAINE Greer at age 30 burnt the Australian flag outside Australia House, London and chanted ‘We are all Viet Cong. We are all Viet Cong!’ That’s as described by fellow expat Richard Neville, who was with her.  The Viet Cong at the time were competing with their opponents for worst atrocities, as Max Hastings delineates in his recent book Vietnam.

Being a Left feminist, Greer gets a free pass for just about anything, although she’s pushed the envelope lately by dissing trans people and today’s feminist Zeitgeist.

She gets a few free passes in the new biography Germaine by Elizabeth Kleinhenz, the first to benefit from Greer’s 487-box archive. Greer, who turned 80 last month, sold it to Melbourne University in 2013 for $3 million, less cataloguing and other costs. But Kleinhenz also grits her teeth and spares us little about Greer’s escapades, many or most from Greer’s own pen. Some she found “nauseating”.

During the Gillard government, Greer graced a postage stamp as an “Australian legend”. That was  for allegedly making a significant contribution to the Australian way of life, shaping society for the better, and advancing the equality of women, as Australia Post put it.

Her biggest-selling work was The Female Eunuch, a year after the flag-burning. I went along to her National Press Club appearance in Canberra in 1972, intending to query her about the text, but squibbed it – after all we were having lunch. The tract reads [Apologies! Trigger Warning, No Safe Space],

“Women desirous of coming to terms with themselves…might consider their own reaction to the suggestion that they taste their own vaginal secretions on their fingers, or that they taste themselves fresh on the mouth of a lover. Despite my own proselytising attitude, I must confess to a thrill of shock when one of the ladies to whom this book is dedicated told me she had tasted her own menstrual blood on the penis of her lover…”

There are five women dedicatees in Eunuch. Of the first, journalist Lillian Roxon, Greer wrote that she “lives with nobody but a colony of New York [cock]roaches”. That lady was highly offended, maybe doubly so. Greer blamed the lady’s Fairfax New York Bureau’s boss, young Derryn Hinch  – “the biggest f***wit of them all” – for paying the journo a starvation wage for his “punishing deadlines” while the SMH “worked her quite literally to death”. But after the funeral Hinch found more than $US60,000 at her bank, half a million in modern money.

Kleinhenz wonders if Greer might be a bit dotty. “Not uncommon in a genius. Like Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh, Germaine Greer is often accused of being at least batty, if not actually barking mad. She evens admits it to herself.” The over-the-top comparison with van Gogh is followed by Kleinhenz’s “Like an eagle, she flies high and free”.

Author Tom Wolfe wrote of a dinner with Greer at London’s toffee Alexander’s in 1969, she with “a tremendous curly electric hairdo”. Greer got bored and set fire to her hair with a match. The waiters had to put out the fire with napkins, making a noise like ‘pigeons taking off in the park’, Wolfe wrote. I think she was lucky to escape the fate of Michael Jackson who was on painkillers for life after sparks on the set ignited his hair.

From that year Greer was on the editorial board and a writer with Amsterdam porn mag Suck. Kleinhenz, despite her strong stomach for Greer-isms, was nauseated reading Suck in the archive. “Almost nothing appears to be off limits,” she writes, including “graphic descriptions of bestiality, incest and abuse of children”.

Suck organised a stage festival at an Amsterdam meditation centre. Greer was a spectator in high-heeled boots and a fur coat bought with early profits from The Female Eunuch. Performer Otto Muehl arrived with a goose. He flourished a glinting knife to cut off its head. His act, as previously, would be to put a condom over the goose’s severed neck and use it as a dildo on a woman previously featuring in a lesbian act. One horrified spectator screamed, “If you kill that goose, we’ll f***ing kill you!” People rushed to attack Muehl, who fell off the stage. They rescued the wildly flapping goose and ran away with it. There was fighting and weeping on all sides. Greer swept to the side of the goose rescuer, “her face radiating gratitude, compassion, even love”, according to witness Richard Neville. Muehl later enjoyed a more conventional art career. The goose lived out its days on an Amsterdam canal barge, Kleinhenz writes.

Greer’s previous biographer Christine Wallace (Untamed Shrew)  endorsed a third-party view that Greer is “brilliant, mad, wonderful, poisonous…” and less plausibly, “a great spirit of the age who deserves to be vastly honoured by us and not more than very mildly singed by any of us”.

One who was more than mildly “singed” by Greer, according to Kleinhenz, was Salman Rushdie, from 1989 hiding for his life from Ayatollah Khomenei’s assassins. Two of Rushdie’s collaborators were wounded and one murdered. Staff of his publisher Penguin had to resort to bomb-sniffing dogs and the CEO got death threats on blood-spattered paper.

Greer, says Kleinhenz, had a choice between supporting Rushdie or supporting “the sacred beliefs of our Muslim friends”, and chose the latter. Greer wrote that Rushdie’s book was just about his own troubles, and that he was a dark-skinned English megalomaniac. Rushdie later described Greer as barking mad, an idiot whose “determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions”.

After Rushdie delivered a blast at fans of cultural relativism (who backed the right of “despotic parents to mutilate their daughters”), Greer took the line that female genital mutilation was a facet of other cultures being “perfectly capable of making their own rules to suit their own circumstances”, as Kleinhenz puts it.

She also writes of Greer’s acceptance of some societies’ culling of disabled babies at birth: “Some tribal mothers, Greer noted, ‘bashed their new-borns’ brains out with a rock’ when social and other circumstances warranted.”

Kleinhenz tracks Greer’s celebrity lovers, such as a “wild affair” half a century ago with TV icon Mike Willesee , whose infuriated wife, a Miss Australia, cited Greer as co-respondent. Kleinhenz mentioned this at an author talk last week at my local library, and a gasp arose from the many women present of a certain age. They love Greer, they love Willesee and they couldn’t bear to hear about the nexus, however far in the past. At the time, Greer described Willesee as “a marvellous madman who has Australia conned into thinking that he’s a solid current affairs commentator”.

Greer also occasionally bonked Hollywood star Warren Beatty, but gave him some space when she noticed her pubic lice. “She feared he might not appreciate her in her infested state,” Kleinhenz says, reasonably.

She was staying at the luxury Beverly Wilshire, also favoured by ‘dear Woody Allen’ and Elizabeth Taylor. Kleinhenz: “Having identified the crabs, with the help of a large magnifying mirror, in her eyebrows ‘and goodness knows where else’, she spent the rest of the evening in her sumptuous bathroom, hunting for more until she had discovered ‘two adults, a teenager and assorted eggs’, which she methodically placed in an ashtray.”

She then drove with rocker Frank Zappa and wife Gail in their black Rolls Royce to nearby Schwabs Drugstore, where Zappa commanded the assistant loudly, “Blue lotion, please, for the crabs!’” Kleinhenz suggests, from Greer’s letters, that Greer may have had the crabs earlier and even passed them on to one of her true loves, famed author Martin Amis, to whom she dedicated an unsent 30,000 word love letter, nearly half the length favoured by publishers these days for a novel. The only epigram in it must have been its title, “Long letter to a short love …” since she was nearly six feet tall and Amis was five-foot-four.

What I admire Greer most for is her come-backs. When a disc jockey in 2000 bragged to the BBC that he’d been seduced by Greer in the 1960s, London’s Daily Telegraph asked Greer to respond. She said the sex was so unmemorable she’d forgotten it, but she did remember enjoying a concert with him until he told her he had gonorrhoea. That required her “to run the gauntlet of the ‘Clap Clinic’ the next morning and make some embarrassing phone calls to people she had recently had sex with”. With typical panache she invited any doubters to inspect the blue-card from the Clap Clinic (which showed negative) and a photo of herself and her brief paramour at Albert Hall.

Her biggest-name lover was none other than the filmster Federico Fellini.  What he called the ‘insatiable dragon’ in his pants was roused while he checked her out for a role as the giantess in his Casanova. He visited her farmhouse “Pianelli” in his chauffeured blue Mercedes, dismissed the driver and came in carrying an overnight bag with his brown silk pyjamas with cream piping. He had a phobia about bats and one interrupted their cavorting. Greer said his pulse jumped around ‘like a frog in a bucket’. She wondered what she would tell the press if he ‘carked it’ in her bed. She told the Guardian that Fellini during this tryst often phoned his wife, Giulietta, to touch base. Kleinhenz says that was a nice touch but the house had oil lamps and no electricity, let alone a phone.

Greer rejects that she’s lesbian. A feminist friend Jill Johnston reported that Greer had remarked in 1971 that “a black lesbian she knows sometimes gets it off on her”. Greer  later acknowledged lesbian relationships but nothing strong and enduring.  “What has happened is that on several occasions women have made strong advances to me and I’ve been compelled to respond,” she is quoted in an academic paper.

At 64, she sailed close to the wind with her book The Beautiful Boy about boys in art, from Cupid to Boy George. She took accusations of paedophilia in her stride, says Kleinhenz. Greer said she wanted women to reclaim the right to appreciate the short-lived beauty of “ravishing pubescent boys” with hairless chests, wide-apart legs and slim waists. Asked on Canadian television to explain the attraction, she replied, “Sperm that runs like tap-water will do.”

Greer’s heartfelt quest in the 1970s to become a mother makes for sad reading. She has written publicly that her reproductive system had been damaged in student days by use of a Graefenberg ring contraceptive. She managed two pregnancies, both unsuccessful. Not long after, she invited a poor and distressed pregnant student of hers at Warwick University to stay at her flat. She adored the baby girl and became a long-term surrogate mother.

In a second episode, she took in to her farmhouse, The Mills, Australian actress Kate Fitzpatrick, who was seven months pregnant, Kleinhenz writes. But the house was unheated and as with other guests, Greer expected Fitzpatrick to earn her keep. This involved tending a frozen cabbage-patch garden, torture for the heavily-pregnant woman. “Most bizarrely of all, Germaine was insisting that the baby be born in her own bedroom at The Mills, rather than in a hospital or in its mother’s room. Without a car, Kate was trapped and Greer refused to let her go. It was only with the aid of sympathetic friends that the frantic actress eventually managed to smuggle herself out.” In case readers are wondering, Kleinhenz draws this from Fitzpatrick’s own memoir.

I’d like to go into her thesis in Whitefella Jump Up (2003) that we should get Aborigines to teach us how to all become Aboriginal in an Aboriginal Australia, but my piece would then resemble her 30,000-word draft to Martin Amis.  I did enjoy this bit: in the 1980s, Kulin women in inner-Melbourne Fitzroy offered to adopt her. “She was taken aback,” says Kleinhenz. “Would she be expected to isolate herself in some remote spot for a month or more and ‘be painted, smoked or cut about?’ she asked herself.  But her fears were groundless. ‘That’s it,’ said the Kulin women. ‘It’s done, we’ve adopted you!’” I was surprised they didn’t include a tax invoice.

Greer, for all her Leftist pieties, is considered by some to be a political innocent. When she offered her brand to the Labor Party to help Whitlam’s 1977 re-election campaign, the party mandarins gave her a hasty ‘thanks but no thanks’. Her feminist pal Beatrice Faust once said Greer didn’t have a political bone in her body, except maybe between her ears.

Kleinhenz got no cooperation from Greer for the biography and a bit of trash talk came back. Greer had called prior biographer Christine Wallace a ‘parasite’, ‘dung beetle’ and ‘brain-dead hack’ and threatened to ‘kneecap’ her if she talked to Greer’s mother. Would-be biographer Hazel Rowley was frightened off altogether. Once at Melbourne University library Kleinhenz found herself in the lift with Greer but was too nervous even to say hello.

For comprehensive revelations, this biography will be hard to beat, especially as the worst are from Greer’s own pen. Good job, Liz.

Tony Thomas’s new book The West: An Insider’s Tales – a romping  reporter in Perth’s innocent 60s is available from the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Boffin Books Perth and on-line here.

  • Alistair

    Thanks Tony for providing such a positive role model for the modern young ladies.

  • whitelaughter

    Alistair – ouch. Scarily, what’ve we got locally that is better?

  • Jody

    I’ve always admired GG; though I didn’t ever read her books, I’ve always thought she’d be a great dinner party guest. Dr. Greer must have alienated more people than Kevin Rudd – and that’s saying something.

    After all, she just needed love and attention and it becomes painfully obvious she never got it!! Not everybody’s seeming success is a happy story.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Whatever her peccadilloes, Germaine Greer has redeemed herself in my opinion by her current strong stance against the idiocy of militant transgenderism.

  • Jody

    DT; to some degree I share your comment on redemption, but she’s obviously emotionally unstable – as are a lot of clever people. Putting it in a psychological frame; she has always behaved as though she assumed log ago that nobody liked her.

    And that awful, awful Kate Fitzpatrick….I was glad to read she had been locked up in Germaine’s house; somebody had to!!!!!!!!!


    The stamp wasn’t worth a lick!

The Inglorious Tenure of a Vice-regal Couple

The Inglorious Tenure of a Vice-regal Couple

Sir Hughie Edwards arrived to assume the governership of Western Australia as the nation’s most decorated war hero, his socialite wife a presumed adornment to his term. As Perth soon discovered, the Queen’s representative was an alcoholic, his spouse no better and a Jew-hater to boot. To say their term didn’t go well would be an understatement

Sir Hughie Edwards VC, DSO and DFC was  a fearless wartime bomber pilot and Australia’s most decorated warrior of World War II.  He became Governor of WA in January, 1974, but his 15-month tenure was a disaster. His war-hero status has caused  his vice-regal mishaps to be covered up. His only full-length biographer, Arthur Hoyle, skips across the period in only six paragraphs,  remarking (p199), “Success in the job eluded him”.[1]

Hughie Edwards’ second wife was Sydney socialite Dorothy Carew Berrick, nee Nott. “The good thing about Hitler, he got rid of those Jews,” she remarked to me and my then-wife Carolin when we overnighted with them in mid-1973. Here’s how it happenened: Carolin had told me Hughie (pictured above in his final years) was her godfather. Somehow we got the invitation to their Darling Point apartment.

Hughie’s first wife, Cherry, died in 1966, and he’d married  Dorothy (“Doff” to her friends), in September, 1972, at the registrar-general’s office. He was her third husband after Gerald Armit  (from 1939) and Major Robert Hugh Asquith Berrick aka“Beau Berrick” (from 1947).

At the time Hughie was Australian resident director and door-opener for the UK mining giant Selection Trust. He’d become wealthy because Selection Trust had tenements in the middle of the Poseidon nickel field. When Poseidon ran from 33 cents to $280, Selection Trust shares took off too and Hughie’s investments in the company soared.[2] He and Dorothy moved in elevated company, particularly race horse owners and business VIPs such as Gordon Jackson, chief executive of CSR.

I was raised in Willagee, a WA Housing Commission suburb,  and had no experience with Sydney high society. I didn’t find a  snapshot by a Sydney Morning Herald gossip writer (5/5/68) all that helpful: “On the whole, Sydney Society is a kind one – not too bitchy, and everyone seems to love each other  madly.” Maybe Dorothy invited us because my Canberra by-line in The Agesuggested useful contacts.  I was 33. Hughie was 59,  and Dorothy 55. Hughie died in 1982, Dorothy in 2000 and Carolin in 2016. So I’m the sole living witness.

The apartment in a small tower block  had a direct view down to the Harbour Bridge. It was full of Dorothy’s antiques and art. She greeted us with practised and excessive enthusiasm. She was tall and slim, with high cheekbones, a strong jawline, an aquiline nose and cut-glass diction. Hughie, tall and heavily-built, was stolid and reserved.  Both were downing drinks in strengths and quantities far beyond the abstemious Thomas couple’s experience. Both limped slightly, Hughie (in uniform at right) from a 1938 RAF crash (left leg) and Dorothy from a 1970 street accident (also left leg).

I’d recently acquired a box set of 33rpm vinyl records of English actors doing Shakespearean readings. They  bowled me over.  I brought the box as a show-and-tell ice-breaker. In a lull  before dinner, they seemed happy to hear a sample. I chose Shylock’s   speech from The Merchant of Venice ending, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge?”

There was an awkward silence. Dorothy said off-handedly, “The good thing about Hitler – he got rid of those Jews.” My wife and I exchanged appalled glances. Hughie didn’t react – maybe he didn’t hear it or it didn’t register. We found it beyond bizarre that Australia’s most decorated warrior had married a woman who thought nothing of popping an obscene appreciation of Hitler into social chit-chat.[3]

Hughie’s black Mercedes was in the basement car park. I thought Dorothy would drive, as she seemed more sober, but Hughie took the wheel and we somehow made it to the restaurant.  He continued drinking and, sad to say, passed out, his head slumped among the plates. Waiters joined Dorothy in bringing him round, more or less. We all helped tug him back to the Mercedes. My wife and I got into the back seat. Dorothy opened the driver’s door. I assumed she would be driver.  To our renewed horror, she organised for the barely conscious Hughie to be pushed behind the wheel.

Hughie turned the key for the trip home, fortunately only a few kilometres. Traffic was light. Hughie weaved the car to the apartment block. He dipped down too fast into the basement, missed various obstacles and with a resounding crash, piled up on a pillar. It was a big heavy car and even the low-speed impact was considerable.

None of us was hurt. We sat for a few seconds collecting our wits  as glass tinkled and the radiator hissed from the crumpled front.   Arthur Hoyle’s biography of Hughie includes: “He was always a poor  car driver who, over the years frightened family, friends and subordinates … it was considered to be extremely dangerous to be a car passenger in any vehicle which he drove.”[4]

Dorothy  sprang into action. With our help she dragged Hughie out of the car and shouted, “Get out of here fast!” He disappeared via a basement door.

The impact on the pillar had sent  a tremor through all storeys of the block. Dorothy took up a pose by the driver’s side door. Doors opened and residents swarmed in  with a hubbub of questions and concern. Dorothy maintained her sang froid, apologised for her poor driving and promised that car debris would be dealt with next day. Given that the three of us were merely  shaken up, the crowd drifted off to draw their own conclusions, and soon after, we re-united with Hughie in the apartment.

The couple resumed drinking and we went to bed – it had been quite a day. But it was also a long night. Through the walls we could hear Hughie and Dorothy in altercation into the small hours, fuelled by their day’s massive intake of alcohol. In any marriage, including mine, domestics can be noisy but this one was off the scale.

From the moment we woke next morning, we packed our bags for instant departure as soon as  we could mouth a polite goodbye. The Edwards were equally keen to see us go — unwelcome eye-witnesses in any fall-out with co-residents (not to mention insurance assessors) over the prang. Plus, our visit had not really been a hit.

A few months later, on October 13, The West Australian reported that the appointment of Hughie Edwards VC was imminent as Governor of Western Australia. The Tonkin (Labor) government had chosen him to replace Sir Douglas Kendrew, who retired in October 30, 1973. Knowing what I knew, and with my Sandgroper background (including a decade with The West Australian), I followed events from my perch in Canberra.

HUGHIE took office on January 7, 1974. He got off to a terrible start and within three months, Dorothy had brought the vice-royalty into total disgrace with a criminal offence. A year later, Hughie resigned on health grounds and the pair, with no formal goodbyes or public thanks to anyone, departed Perth secretly on a Saturday night east-bound Ansett flight.

I’ll first provide some background on Dorothy, a nonentity relative to her famous husband. She was born in England to a leading Adelaide couple. Her father, sought-after medico Dr Harry C. Nott,  had a two-storey mansion in Hutt Street. He was a cricketer and an international-standard golfer. He was also prominent in the city’s Aero Cub, when aviation was a dare-devil hobby. On Boxing Day 1930, for example, he set off with four other Gypsy Moths to Kangaroo Island. Someone had forgotten to fill his tank and nearing hilly terrain at the coast, the engine died. He managed to skilfully force-land, emerging unhurt from the wreck.

As a teenager Dorothy used to stop the traffic by promenading with two borzois, hefty Russian wolfhounds and recorded frequent mentions in the social pages (as at the Cheltenham races in 1934 at left, where she snapped studying the form).  She “came out” at 18 in 1937 with a ball for 150 at the South Australian Hotel.[5]Two years later a society wedding report gushed,

SMART and slight in a well-cut frock of black Angora, was ‘Doff’ Nott, who will so soon be a bride herself. She wore a little pancake of pleated black felt totally obscuring one eye, and topped by velvet bows in three shades of cyclamen, which gave it just that air of Parisian chic so necessary nowadays — and so difficult to achieve by all but a talented few. (Mail, 22/4/39). 

Her own wedding on May 9, 1939, got saturation Adelaide press  from uber-diligent columnists such as “Lady Kitty” .[6]  She married a Scot, Gerald Armit, an agricultural adviser in Soebang, Java. The wedding’s lustre is suggested by the task allocated to Adelaide’s Lady Bonython — to do the floral decorations for  the church.[7] Dorothy’s outfit was recorded in super-human detail. A small sample:

“Parchment toned satin, slightly gathered at each side of the bodice, with square neckline and long sleeves, a band of the satin round the bodice being finished with a flat bow in front; a long train trailed softly from the centre panel at the back. A tiara of orange blossom on the hair held in place the misty tulle veil, which fell to the edge of the train. The whole toilette effect was most striking.” (News, 9/5/39)

The five bridesmaids came up the aisle not with bouquets but with left hands linked by a “fong” – a gold cord and gold-leaf clusters forming a pendant between each link.

The plan was for the couple to spend two days at the family’s hills cottage  and then board the SS Otranto for England  for six months. The hills touring was interrupted next day when their car came upon a head-on collision between a car and a buckboard, and the couple drove two women to hospital with head and leg injuries. I wonder how Dorothy coped with the gore.

They eventually settled back in Soebang in the expat club lifestyle, amid tiger-infested forests. she was an amateur actress and played “Diana” in French without Tears in Soebang and Batavia, raising money for a Spitfire Fund. Events after the Japanese invasion in early 1942 are opaque. She got out of Java ahead of the Japanese invaders and found a job in Canberra as a typist. Later she was with the Australian Women’s Army Service  and the Ministry of Munitions as a driver in Sydney, uniform  being dark green with a beret. Gerald had been wounded and became a Japanese civilian prisoner of war.[8] I don’t know if he survived.

In 1946, Dorothy Armit was back in the UK and working in Australia House. In February, 1947, in Guernsey, she  married  Major “Beau” Berrick, 41, a Briton of Canadian origin. She returned with him  and their infant son, David, to Sydney in 1949 and by the late 1960s they were pillars of the Sydney smart and racing set: “Doff is a perfectionist. She’s fun, she loves color, loves people”, gushed one social item. Another put it, “Mrs Edwards, who wears  her hair swinging loose, schoolgirl-style from an Alice band, is vital and vivacious.” A fiftieth birthday present, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, to Dorothy was “a plastic severed hand that when wound up, crawled across the floor”. SMH 8/12/68. In September 1972,  the hand of fate saw her married to Air Commodore Hughie.[9]

Soon after our visit in mid-1973, the front page of The West Australian leaked Hughie’s impending governorship. Premier John Tonkin had done the recommending the previous month but the Queen had not formally agreed. Tonkin was mortified and extremely annoyed. “The report puts me in the position of a breach of confidence,” he said. He thought he would have to apologise to the Queen.[10]

Sir Hughie outside Government House.

For his part, Hughie leapt at the vice-regal offer: “There’s not a chance of me bailing out of this one if the Queen has the recommendation,” he said. Hughie would have done better on protocol by declining to comment. Obviously Tonkin would have sounded him out earlier. The leak was attributed to “informed sources”. Hughie denied he leaked. There’s one clue to the leaker, the prediction in The West’s report: “The Governorship almost certainly will bring him a  knighthood from the Queen.” So who stood to benefit by leaking?  Dorothy knew of the impending appointment and was keen to  be   Lady Edwards, trumping all  female rivals for top-dog social status. Soon after, she was going public in advocacy for this knighthood.[11]

The appointment was for three years with a further two-year option. By mid-December,  a few weeks before appointment, Hughie confessed, “In fact I haven’t had a chance to think deeplv about it [the job]  yet”.  He had been aware of his impending elevation for around two months.

Hughie in his inaugural press conference as governor (8/1/74) not only announced that his lack of knighthood was “invidious” to himself and the State, but disclosed that he’d been lobbying the Premier Tonkin about it.  Tonkin  in fact was bound by federal Labor policy against overseas honours. So Hughie, the Queen’s representative, was   demanding an honor from the Queen that the then Premier couldn’t approve, and disclosing conversations Tonkin would have thought were confidential. (Walter Bagehot 150 years ago in his classic text The English Constitution ranked keeping State confidences as the third of top three duties of royalty [and hence vice-royalty]).[12]  All round, Hughie seemed either ignorant or heedless of his duty “to promote civic unity and high ideals”.[13]

DOROTHY’s previous and only two visits to Perth had  involved the Perth Cup. Her first presser in Perth as the governor’s wife started well,  as she chatted with assurance about things like her willingness to catch buses. In a haunting sentence she said, “I have no idea yet what is expected of a governor’s wife but I am willing to learn.”

Asked about Perth frock shops, she hit the softball right out of the stadium, saying she didn’t frock-shop at all: “I hate shopping and have all my clothes made by a Sydney dressmaker so I don’t think I’ll be changing. I had an accident in Sydney in 1970 and have found it difficult to find clothes to fit since.”

Hughie and Dorothy settled in to Government House (left). Three months later, on the afternoon of Wednesday, April 13, Dorothy walked outside and smashed the glass of a fire alarm a few metres from a permanently manned watchhouse. She pressed the red button and 15 firemen arrived from the nearby St George’s Terrace depot with a swivel ladder, two pumps and a resuscitation unit. Dorothy told them she just wanted to see how long they would take to arrive. Their quarter-mile sprint along St George’s Terrace took just one minute.

She claimed to be worried about fire safety at Government House. She hadn’t bothered to  phone the fire station first and she told the press later that she was well aware of having committed an offence. She offered to pay any fine involved, unaware that the maximum penalty was actually six months gaol with hard labor. Frankly I’d say she’d been drinking when she smashed the alarm glass.[14]

The next day’s West said  that fire prevention officers had inspected the building and found it was not a bad fire hazard.

Mrs Edwards’ action drew strong criticism yesterday from the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union and the Fire Brigade Officers’ Association. The acting secretary of the two bodies, Mr Ian Hills, described the action as stupid and irresponsible, particularly because it had been done by such a prominent person.

“It is this type of irresponsibility that hinders the eradication of a menace that plagues all emergency services,” he said.

“The Fire Brigade has no way of knowing if an alarm is false, and fire crews travel to these calls as quickly as possible through heavy traffic.”

Mr Hills said that firemen and officers were incensed at Mrs Edwards’ action. It could have caused tremendous disruption if the brigade had been engaged in genuine calls at the time.

He said: ‘As part of her further education, the Governor’s wife should visit the fire brigade  to see the difficulty that false alarms create.’

The union and the association believed they had a duty to warn the public against such foolishness, he said.

The maximum penalty laid down by the Fire Brigades Act for wilfully making a false fire  call is a fine of up to $100 and imprisonment for up to six months with or without hard labor.

“A prominent Perth lawyer said yesterday he did not believe that Mrs Edwards would be immune from prosecution.”

Justice not really being blind, Dorothy escaped prosecution. [15]

Hughie’s reaction to his wife’s (literal) clanger can only be imagined.  This was a man who had risen to within striking distance (a 50:50 chance, he was told), of making RAF Air Vice-Marshall, and whose Cold War fighter base had guarded the main US nuclear bomber force at Skulthorpe. After the alarm episode, Dorothy dropped out of prominence.

Hughie from the start had  dispensed clangers of his own. In his first press interview on November 8, 1973, he said ominously that he “did not intend to be a mere cipher… Certainly one should keep out of politics, but on matters which are not political, I feel that one should express a point of view.”

Still, he harried the hapless Labor Premier about his entitlement to a knighthood.  An ardent royalist, he said God Save the Queen should remain our national anthem. He also  put down  the  aggrieved faction in WA seeking secession, comparing the quest to “these African colonies” which had gained recent independence but lacked the  money  and “brainpower” to pay for their nationalist extravagances.

He had told West Australians he was “a democratic chap” but his knighthood demand  suggested otherwise.   His claim won the prompt support of Opposition Leader Sir Charles Court, making  Premier Tonkin look churlish. He evinced no knowledge of vice-regal protocol, conveniently set out by Governor-General Paul Hasluck. Sir Paul  advocated in late 1972 a foundation of knowledge about machinery and processes of government, and relations with  prime ministers and premiers based on “confidence, tact and firmness.”

Offended West  editorialists commented, “In taking up the cudgels with almost indecent haste in defence of the [knighthood] principle, Air Commodore Hughie Edwards VC has left himself wide open to criticism that his real concern – despite denials – is for the person, not the office.” But the editorial concluded that knighthoods should be awarded automatically to governors as first citizens. Hughie’s urgings were taken up by columnists – probably tongue-in-cheek –  and as far afield as The Times in London. Virtually any media reference to Sir Hughie thereafter – including his obituaries — included add-ons about his quest for a knighthood.

Hughie’s trouble-making was doubly painful to the Labor Premier because Hughie’s predecessor, Sir Douglas Kendrew (left), a British un-modern major-general, a few months earlier had meddled outrageously in favour of Opposition Leader Sir Charles Court. (Perth’s Governor/Government relations in the early 1970s had a High Noon quality). Tonkin had a bare one-seat majority in the WA Lower House and an Upper House minority. Kendrew was in league with Queensland’s reactionary governor Sir Colin Hannah (formerly the RAAF Air Marshall and a Perth boy). The pair was all for a state premiers’ revolt led by Charles Court against what Hannah publicly called “the fumbling ineptitude” of the Whitlam government. Kendrew believed “Court was the only man who could save Australia”. He therefore urged Court to  block Supply but Governor-General  Paul Hasluck  warned Kendrew off.[16]

On April 8, 1974, Court succeeded Tonkin as Premier. Within a month Hughie was somehow awarded a Clayton’s knighthood – a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John, which didn’t entitle him to be called ‘Sir’ and, possibly more to the point, left his wife still as Mrs Edwards.[17] Again came snide press comments, “Poor Air Commodore Hughie Edwards. All that fuss and bother…We believe, however, that even better things lie ahead,” noted the SMH. On August 26 Sir Charles finally transformed the vice-regal couple to Sir Hughie and Lady Edwards.[18] (Hoyle’s biography mis-attributes the knighthood to Tonkin).

The press again rejoiced with headlines like “No longer odd man out” – as if my louche reporter colleagues  gave two hoots about Hughie’s amour propre. Sir Hughie delivered another  of his ‘non political’ interviews, rubbishing the Whitlam government for dispensing with foreign honors. This was not only gross for a governor but pointless since premiers were free to recommend imperial honors through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.[19]

In an interview in Melbourne before taking up the post he said he “had been mixing with people all my life. I will be  looking forward to seeing as many people as possible.”  But now he confessed to finding continuous official listening, speech-making  and talking to people ‘extremely arduous’ .[20] These chores were the essence of the job, which included a $25,000 salary at May 1974 (today’s equivalent, $200,000 tax-free) plus Government House, staff and a stack of fringe benefits.[21]

A few months later Sir Hughie entered a three-month spell of ill health and sick leave. He had three operations for head and stomach conditions attributed to war injuries. On April 2, 1975, he announced he would resign on health grounds, although his doctor a month previously had cleared him fit for duty.[22] The West Australian (3/4/75) got it wrong by assuming his announcement was the same thing as his actual resignation.

His departure, like his arrival, was controversial, with The Westheadlining, “Sir Hughie flies out secretly”. For more than 40 years the public has accepted the  sanitised “medical health” rationale. The media accounts were based on official disinformation, though some elements were factual. The  real story is disclosed only in a sentence and a footnote in a   2008 book by University of Tasmania Professor Peter Boyce AO, a specialist in British Commonwealth vice-regalisms.

Sir Hughie notified his resignation while Premier Court was in Tokyo, and only several weeks before Sir Hughie and Lady Edwards were to host Princess Anne and Mark Phillips as live-in guests at Government House. The Deputy Premier, Mr McPharlin, had to dump a civic reception to attend on Sir Hughie, saying the summons  was a ‘big surprise’. When Sir Charles returned and organised a visit to Government House to smooth the departure issues, he was told that Sir Hughie  was too ill to see him.  Sir Charles had to consult  with Lady Dorothy and  Secretary Col J. Burt instead. (One wonders why no-one phoned the Premier to postpone his visit).

The Edwards’ late-night Saturday exit from Perth via Ansett was a further  curiosity. Far from doing gracious goodbyes and a thank-you to the government and people, they enjoined secrecy on Ansett and a handful of insiders. Their departure date had been officially left open — and suddenly they were gone, leaving Government House vacant and Premier Court ostensibly in the dark. Someone threw the press off the scent by leaking that the Edwards’ had headed for a NSW country property.

A strange West report (7/4/75) quoted Premier Court  saying he did not know where Sir Hughie had gone.

“He had not inquired because it was Sir Hughie’s private business and had nothing to do with the government…

The Government House Secretary, Colonel J. Burt,  would say only that Sir Hughie had gone interstate. He would not say to which State.

Col Burt said he did not think Sir Hughie had any chance of recovering his health till he could get away from all the mental trauma of the past few months.” 

Burt’s phrase “mental trauma” – of which the media had never published a word –  suggested severe conflicts of some kind. It could have appeared to Perth-dwellers that the pair’s relations with the State government had broken down, and that the Edwards were happy to cause Sir Charles maximum discomfort.

But Perth-raised Professor Peter Boyce, a one-time Murdoch vice-chancellor, writes, “In 1975 Sir Hughie Edwards, Governor of Western Australia, was quietly eased out of office by the Premier after just one year, because of erratic behavior possibly related to alcoholism”[23]  In a footnote to this, Boyce reveals, “Edwards was flown, without prior announcement and under the Premier’s direction, to a clinic in Sydney from which he resigned office.”

Boyce got these facts from Sir Charles himself, who had stage-managed the exit – or elements of it – to ensure minimum media intrusion on Sir Hughie. Apart  from that apparent lapse with Boyce, Sir Charles had kept the secret well. According to Boyce (p190) the only governors in  the British Commonwealth to have  been dismissed were three lieutenant governors in Canadian provinces.  A few governors have been quietly eased out, including Victoria’s Sir Brian Murray  in 1985.[24]  In Quebec, Lt. Governor Jean-Louis Roux in 1996 quit when it became known he had inked a Nazi swastika in 1942 on his medical-student lab coat. His successor Lise Thibault after her term from 1997-2007, got a new term in 2015 of 18 months in prison for having rorted $C700,000 while in office.

The Sir Hughie affair is nothing akin to those examples. The nature of what Boyce calls ‘erratic’ goings on at  Government House has not been revealed. Possibly there had been gatherings and formal dinners that had gone as badly as my own weekend with the Edwards in Darling Point a year previously. Dorothy’s fire alarm episode – a criminal offense – was not Hughie’s fault but had brought their tenure into public and especially union disrepute. And for any governor to be incapacitated by health issues for three months out of 15 is a serious matter.

I don’t know if the couple’s exit was timed by the Premier to safeguard Princess Anne and Mark Phillips from possible untoward incidents.

In the event, the Edwards settled back in Darling Point. Sir Hughie took up causes such as preservation of first-class cricket at the Sydney Cricket Ground  and was often guest of honor among air force groups.   He collapsed and died while walking to a Test cricket match  at the SCG in 1982.

Supporters financed a life-sized statue (above) of Sir Hughie that was unveiled in 2002 outside St Johns Church, Fremantle. It shows him standing  in pilot’s harness scanning  the sky for the return of his fellow pilots. That’s the Hughie to be remembered and honored.

Tony Thomas’s previous long essay was Cartel Capers in the Menzies Years (Quadrant, July-August 2017). His 2016 book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, and his 2018 book The West: An insider’s tales, are available from Connor Court.



[1]  Hoyle, Arthur, Hughie Edwards VC DSO DFC  – The Fortunate Airman. A. R. Hoyle,  Canberra 1999.

[2] Ibid p198

[3] Hoyle wrote (p185) that Hughie never expressed any ideological  hatred of  Germans and appeared to view his air opponents as fellow professionals. I found one comment by war pilot Hughie that his job was “killing Germans”.

[4] Hoyle  p203

[5] News Advertiser, 22/4/37

[6] e.g. News, 9/5/39

[7] Lady Bonython found the time despite her roles on 25 Adelaide committees. She went for “ creamy chrysanthemums and Arum lilies, arranged with gilded gypsophila and she-oak in white bowls, and set in the chancel on tall, white stands.”

[8] Trove: No Service Number, Wounded and Prisoner of War. Enquiry Card Index Number: 21705

[9] I assume Berrick had the Major rank in 1947. He was using the Major title in 1960.

[10] Canberra Times 30/10/73, article by Perth’s Athol Thomas (no relation).

[11] “His wife at the time… made some fairly loud calls in the media for Hughie to be recognized as a knight. The knighthood came several months later, I think it was public pressure.” UNE Historian Dr Nathan Wise, ABC radio interview. Dorothy was in line for “ Lady” but State Governors’ wives didn’t have their husbands’ further title of “Excellency”.

[12] Boyce, Peter, The Queen’s Other Realms: The Crown and its Legacy  in Australia, Canada and NZ. Federation Press 2008, Annandale NSW.   P48

[13]  Governors need “ to seize the few media opportunities available with gracious and well-chosen words or  gestures.” Boyce, p194

[14] “The community also expects incumbents of Government House to avoid scandalous or radically unconventional behaviour in their own lifestyles.” Boyce, p195

[15] Boyce says (p194), “Absence of scandal  from both one’s public life and private or family affairs is certainly helpful…But no less critical is the need for a combination of gravitas and warmth in one’s engagement with the citizenry.”

[16]  Paul Hasluck – A Life, by Geoffrey Bolton. UWA Publishing, Perth 2015. P447-8

[17] One of the 25,000 fellow St John holders was another RAF commander, the controversial NSW governor Sir Philip Game. They are entitled to robes and a coat of arms.

[18] Sir Charles’ own knighthood came by seedy means. Liberal Premier Sir David Brand, after losing the 1971 election, insisted before he left office on submitting a recommendation for Court’s knighthood. Brand’s successor Tonkin tore it up, whereupon Court sought the “Sir” from Prime Minister Gorton. Gorton also refused but his successor McMahon succumbed to Court’s lobbying. Sir Henry Bolte not only  gave himself KCMG in 1966 and raised it to GCMG in 1972, but made his wife, Lady Edith, a Dame Commander the same year. He failed at lobbying to become Baron Bolte.

[19] Until the 1980s

[20]     “A dignified bearing and a flair for public ceremony, accompanied by not merely a capacity for informal interactions with a wide variety of people, but a positive enjoyment of them, are still seen as major contributions  to the vice-regal office-holder’s personal standing in the community. Loss of dignity spelt disaster for Sir John Kerr as he struggled to handle the public abuse hurled at him in the months following his dismissal of the Whitlam government…Similarly it was Richard Butler’s undignified behaviour that fuelled much of the public antipathy and government anxiety in Tasmania during 2003–04.” Boyce , p194

[21] But no pension.

[22] “A Governor who lacks a robust  physical constitution will be seriously disadvantaged in the discharge of his or her  community leadership role  as well as in maintaining  an effective watchdog role over government.” Boyce, p196

[23]  Boyce p196

[24] Sir Brian was described by Labor Premier John Cain as “a shocking Tory” and after a controversy over   accepting free air travel he got an advice from Cain “to reflect on his position”.

  • en passant

    Unfortunately, I can support Tony’s description with an independent incident I witnessed in 1974:
    “Governor Hughie Edwards, VC was so drunk at the function he was literally carried through the room (without moving his feet once) and lifted on to his seat. He was incapable of making the traditional speech and was carried out again half an hour later.”
    I almost became a Republican, but Turnbull cured me of that option.

  • Doubting Thomas

    A retired RAAF senior officer friend made what I think was a very valid point in discussions about the, to us, strange behaviour of some of the senior RAAF commanders we had both served under in the 1960s. Like Hughie Edwards, these men had survived a very cruel war, having served in Bomber Command and lost many of their friends in horrific circumstances. It should be by no means surprising if their strange ways, particularly their alcoholism and brusque intolerance of what they probably saw as mere foolishness of their young subordinates, were symptoms of undiagnosed, but self-medicated post traumatic stress disorder. VCs are rare in any Service, but particularly so in the Air Forces, and one does not win such an award without experiencing mental trauma beyond the ken of us mere mortals. Back in the day, “Shell shock”, or “combat fatigue” in American terminology, was probably not recognised as a serious mental disorder (by civilians, at least) unless the sufferer exhibited gross behavioural dysfunction. (People old enough to remember the early years after World War II will have little difficulty in recalling many such people in their communities, often callously dismissed as mere “gibbering idiots”. We handle these cases much better today.

    Unless we have some significant evidence that Edwards was an alcoholic incompetent even before the war (highly unlikely), I think he deserves a little more respect and sympathy.

  • Salome

    So that’s why it’s called the Wild West.

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