THIS ( WEARY) LIFE
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