THIS ( WEARY) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - RICHARD MUR­PHY

ED­WARD Dun­lop could never re­mem­ber my name. Most af­ter­noons he would shuf­fle through the front doors of the Melbourne Club fid­dling with his smok­ing pipe, glance at my name badge or desk plaque and ac­knowl­edge my greet­ing with a good- na­tured salu­ta­tion: ‘‘ Hello there, Robert.’’ Or Ru­pert, or Ron­ald. The el­derly sur­geon- sol­dier would then tod­dle off be­fore be­ing gen­tly di­verted to­wards his des­ti­na­tion.

Like all young Aus­tralians, I was vaguely aware of the leg­end of ‘‘ Weary’’ Dun­lop. He had done some­thing once upon a time, some­thing heroic and proud, but I was far too busy plan­ning an an­ar­chist revo­lu­tion to give it much thought. That I was work­ing as a porter in a bas­tion of con­ser­va­tive so­ci­ety didn’t seem to be at odds with my po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions; af­ter all, it was such a lovely old build­ing and the in­house perks were fan­tas­tic.

As the months ticked by I got to know more about the life of Dun­lop, though never from the man him­self. Re­tired gen­er­als or High Court judges would take great pride in shar­ing a lun­cheon with him be­fore es­cort­ing him out­side to a wait­ing car.

Their tac­i­turn na­tures melted to child­like won­der as they re­turned to the foyer to of­fer up small anec­dotes re­lat­ing to the Dun­lop leg­end: how af­ter the war he had re­turned to surgery, ex­haust­ing pla­toons of theatre nurses in marathon ses­sions that fin­ished late in the night; how he could not walk the streets of Melbourne with­out be­ing ac­costed by re­turned sol­diers, who would grab his hands and seemed un­able or un­will­ing to let go.

English ac­tor Paul Ed­ding­ton ( Yes, Min­is­ter ) was tour­ing Aus­tralia as the mar­quee star of a Bri­tish the­atri­cal farce and was a guest at the club for din­ner. Loi­ter­ing in the foyer on ar­rival, the visit­ing celebrity was be­ing li­onised by the gath­er­ing throng when Dun­lop made his shuf­fling en­trance, spilling pipe ash all about. He was in­tro­duced to an awe- struck Ed­ding­ton and it was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous that Dun­lop had no idea who this man was. Ed­ding­ton beamed all the more.

Lunchtime at the club was net­work­ing heaven. Cap­tains of in­dus­try and po­lit­i­cal heavy­weights hud­dled in small co­ter­ies, ne­go­ti­at­ing deals that ran into bil­lions of dol­lars or plot­ting the down­fall of de­spised in­fil­tra­tors from that ghastly whore to the north, Syd­ney. A plume of smoke and molten ash would an­nounce Dun­lop’s ar­rival. The pin­striped scrum broke from their ne­go­ti­a­tions, each greet­ing the ap­proach­ing fig­ure with gen­uine deference. Only when Dun­lop had left the room did they re­turn to be­ing im­por­tant peo­ple.

A few years later, in July 1993, Dun­lop died. A state funeral was to be held at St Paul’s Cathe­dral. For some rea­son I found my­self walk­ing from my home in a Fitzroy gar­ret to­wards the ser­vice, dressed in the only suit I owned. Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple lined the streets and filled the grounds of the cathe­dral. The great pro­por­tion were old men. They were weep­ing un­con­trol­lably.

I stood for a time, idle and un­com­fort­able. I did not be­long there, among th­ese men who had come from across the coun­try to bury their saviour of the Thai- Burma rail­way. I walked away self- con­sciously, turned the cor­ner and re­turned to my feck­less world.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au

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