Lunch with Bob
In nineteen sixty, my lucky stars shone brightly as the Italian Ambassador invited me – along with the legendary Robert Gordon Menzies - to lunch. At the Italian Residence, I joined guests gathered in the reception room to be presented to the Guest of Honour – a visiting Italian Cabinet Minister. All the guests were there except Bob, for whom the Ambassador, consulting his watch frequently, nervously kept the driveway under surveillance from a strategically placed window.
Finally, the crunch of gravel in the driveway and the opening of a car door heralded the majestic moment. The Ambassador fled like a shot from a gun, through the front door, to greet the Prime Minister like a well-trained Uriah Heep and guide the Great Man indoors.
In the reception room was not a murmur. Knowing my place, I withdrew modestly – in my own Uriah-Heep fashion - as far down the room from the PM’s entry point as I could. The Italian Minister stood at the entrance, flexing fingers eager to grasp the Great One’s hand, briskly limbering his smoothest smile. The rest spread themselves along the walls each according to his proper place in Canberra’s pecking order.
So we waited until the Great One’s large figure appeared, advancing like a galleon in full sail. The Ambassador jigged around him trying, like an impotent tug, to steer him towards the Minister’s blazing smile and outstretched hand.
The PM took no notice. Looking straight ahead, his eyes twinkled. He smiled happily. Down the room he swept, looking neither to right nor left, His Excellency dancing around him in fruitless protest. The Great One ignored him, his ever broader smile bathing the object of his amiable mood in ever more affection the closer he got. Taking my hand firmly, he beamed on his favourite son....
"So good to see you!" he told me.
The Ambassador managed to haul him back to the Italian Minister, still waiting with his hand and smile very much at the ready. Menzies started to chat with him and, instantly, all was forgiven.
At table, Menzies was brilliant. Always a fine public speaker, some called him a great orator. Perhaps he was, and his delivery, rather than their content, often made his speeches momentous. Even so, his public speaking couldn't compare with his informal conversation that day on Italian soil. He told witty stories about the law. He joked about politics and politicians. He spoke in pig Latin. Though others must have said something, I can't recall a word said by anyone else. In his company, we were all insipid creatures. It's a pity his conversations weren't recorded. Many years later, I thought his memoir, "Afternoon Light" compared poorly with his idle chatter at that lunch; and, sadly, it's "Afternoon Light" by which he may be remembered.
Gradually, the Ambassador relaxed, laughing at Menzies' jokes and trying a few of his own. The wines were well chosen, the food conservative but star quality. A fish entrée. A clear soup. Veal for the main dish. The dessert a Tasmanian pudding: a soufflé-like top floating on lemony custard. Delicious! But dangerous, if not handled right.
Menzies hardly interrupted his story when the waiter proudly presented the pudding to him. Lifting the great bowl, the waiter swept along the table to the Ambassador. Confidently he swooped the bowl down towards the table – to catch it on a knob on His Excellency’s chair.....
Menzies stopped his story in full flight. His mouth stayed open as his voice died. The rest of us were transfixed. We stared at the spreading morass. The Ambassador had lemon-yellow pudding slopped over his shoulder, dribbling down his beautifully-tailored coat, sloshed over his immaculate trousers. The dripping bowl lay at the paralysed waiter’s feet. After the first shockwave, I thought Menzies might burst out laughing – or we all might. I prayed I wouldn't be first to lose control....
I’m sure we all remember that lunch more vividly than millions of other diplomatic "entertainments" down the vale of the years. Marvellously, none of us laughed - until later. The Ambassador left us only briefly to clean up. He rejoined us, in good heart, to enjoy the cognac and cigars. The Italian Minister was delighted. Just meeting Menzies was enough; the few minutes’ talk he squeezed in, about Australian immigration, made it a triumph. Bob departed in right fine spirits, begging the Ambassador to come to The Lodge so that they could talk again – soon!
5 August 2005