Charm­ing chron­i­cle of com­pan­ion­ship

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Troy Bram­ston

Mar­garet and Gough: The Love Story That Shaped a Na­tion By Susan Mitchell Ha­chette, 352pp, $32.95 SHORTLY after Gough Whit­lam’s dis­missal by gov­er­nor-gen­eral John Kerr in the af­ter­noon of Novem­ber 11, 1975, the de­posed prime min­is­ter called his wife Mar­garet, who was at a lun­cheon in Syd­ney.

“How ridicu­lous,” she said. “You should have just torn it up. There were only two of you there. Or you should have slapped his face and told him to pull him­self to­gether.”

The tem­per­a­ments of Mar­garet and Gough could not be more ev­i­dent. Mar­garet would never have ac­cepted the dis­missal. Gough, who died on Oc­to­ber 21 aged 98, never ques­tioned the le­gal­ity of it, even though he thought it was un­jus­ti­fied. He re­turned to the Lodge and ate a steak.

Mar­garet, who died in 2012, was a bet­ter judge of character. In­deed, she op­posed Kerr’s ap­point­ment as gov­er­nor-gen­eral. Gough of­ten con­fided in Mar­garet but was never bound by her opin­ion, of­ten to his detri­ment. While very dif­fer­ent, they were united in their am­bi­tions for Aus­tralia.

Although Gough de­scribed Mar­garet as “my most con­stant critic”, this be­lied the trust that de­fined their re­la­tion­ship as a cou­ple, par­ents, friends and col­lab­o­ra­tors.

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014

Mar­garet was much more than a prime min­is­te­rial spouse. Susan Mitchell, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively about Mar­garet in ear­lier books, has found an un­tapped area in the ever ex­pand­ing genre of books that deal with the Whit­lams, the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment or the dis­missal.

“I re­alised there was still another story yet to be told,” Mitchell writes in Mar­garet and Gough: The Love Story That Shaped a Na­tion. “The story of their part­ner­ship and their love for each other is the key to the un­der­ly­ing strength of all they achieved both in­di­vid­u­ally and to­gether.” It is a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment.

“From the mo­ment they en­tered the pub­lic stage to­gether, the me­dia and the Aus­tralian pub­lic be­came fas­ci­nated with them,” Mitchell writes. “It was hard to think of one with­out the other.”

They were tall, smart and witty. Yet they were also dif­fer­ent. Gough was some­times ill at ease and aloof; Mar­garet was al­ways warm and en­gag­ing. He had a fe­ro­cious tem­per; she a more for­giv­ing dis­po­si­tion. They of­ten had blaz­ing rows but still loved each other very much.

All of this makes for rich sto­ry­telling. But the fo­cus on their per­sonal lives of­ten does not al­low for a deeper ex­pla­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal events, poli­cies and per­son­al­i­ties.

Mitchell suc­ceeds in weav­ing to­gether their lives against a back­drop of Gough’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. But how much in this book is new? After all this time and an avalanche of Whit­lamin­spired books, is there is still more to know about them?

The strength of this book is un­doubt­edly the hun­dreds of hours of Mitchell’s in­ter­views with Mar­garet and the ac­cess to her di­aries, kept in­ter­mit­tently. Clearly, Mitchell draws heav­ily on her pre­vi­ous books. Sev­eral in­ter­views with Gough are used. Those look­ing for ma­jor rev­e­la­tions will be dis­ap­pointed. Mitchell in­stead of­fers a lively and in­ter­est­ing ac­count of Aus­tralia’s long­est prime min­is­te­rial mar­riage.

Mar­garet and Gough met for the first time while univer­sity stu­dents. It was at the Christ­mas party for the Syd­ney Univer­sity Drama So­ci­ety in De­cem­ber 1939 that they first laid eyes on each other. “It was love at first sight,” Mitchell writes.

But later in the book, Mitchell chal­lenges the fairy­tale be­gin­ning and con­cedes their re­la­tion­ship “evolved slowly”. Just weeks after meet­ing her fu­ture hus­band, Mar­garet con­fided to her di­ary a list of “pos­si­bles” with whom she could be­gin a courtship. A boy named “Goff” was men­tioned.

In the fol­low­ing months, Gough and Mar­garet went danc­ing and en­joyed din­ners to­gether. They saw films and watched con­certs. In July 1940, they kissed for the first time. “I got quite a shock last night,” Mar­garet wrote in her di­ary. The fol­low­ing year they were en­gaged. They mar­ried in April 1942.

This is a very per­sonal ac­count of the Whit­lams’ re­la­tion­ship. The book is prob­a­bly strong­est when de­scrib­ing their pri­vate lives, the rais­ing of their four chil­dren and the early years of mar­riage liv­ing in Syd­ney’s Cronulla and Cabra­matta.

For those more fa­mil­iar with

their pub­lic lives, it is sur­pris­ing and un­nec­es­sar­ily pruri­ent to read about Gough want­ing to “know the joy of sex­ual plea­sure be­fore he was called up” for World War II or Mar­garet’s de­light at achiev­ing her first or­gasm.

In 1952, Gough was elected as the fed­eral MP for Wer­riwa, a sprawl­ing elec­torate in the south and south­west of Syd­ney. In 1960, he be­came deputy La­bor leader. By 1967, Gough was leader. Mar­garet trav­elled ex­ten­sively with him and their re­la­tion­ship was an elec­toral plus. Mar­garet was dubbed “Gough’s se­cret weapon”.

When Gough be­came prime min­is­ter in 1972, his gov­ern­ment un­leashed a pro­gram of far­reach­ing re­form un­seen since Fed­er­a­tion. Mar­garet urged him to slow down. “I am, Mar­garet, I am,” he would re­ply. She reg­u­larly gave him ad­vice. But as Mitchell writes, Gough “never dis­cussed his im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions with” Mar­garet.

Mar­garet was al­ways forth­right and of­ten sur­prised the me­dia, and Gough, with her out­spo­ken­ness. She found life as a prime min­is­te­rial spouse to be “re­stric­tive” and “te­dious”. Nev­er­the­less, she wrote a di­ary for Woman’s Day and usu­ally en­joyed en­ter­tain­ing and of­fi­cial travel.

Much of the book is pre­sented from Mar­garet’s view­point, which has its ad­van­tages. Dur­ing the 1974 elec­tion cam­paign, Mar­garet wrote in her di­ary about Gough re­fer­ring to her scorn­fully as a “viper­ish woman”.

She men­tions a car trip where “my car com­pan­ion — life part­ner — call him what you will ut­tered not one word on the way to the air­port”.

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