Sunday, 18 March 2012

Margaret Whitlam died

yesterday. There was an announcement in the SBS newsfeed and it brought back some memories of her.
I encountered Margaret, ("my name is Margaret") when I was a student at the Australian National University.
While many of the other students would go home for the two week Easter vaction I would stay. There was always work to do in the library and my ESL/EFL students needed me.
The hall of residence I was living was always taken over by the National Playwright's Conference. Some big names in theatre would appear and the dining room conversation would be quite different. I would be told something like, "Cat, it is your job to tell them anything they need to know about..." Oh,  right.
I remember the first year I was there David Williamson was in the dormitory room next to my own. I found this out when he knocked on the door and asked rather sheepishly, "Er, I don't suppose I could cadge a tea bag?"
I soon found they were all rather like him, especially when they realised that I had absolutely no desire to act and that my "playwriting" was strictly confined to things for the schools I had taught in.
Margaret however was the Patron of their Association. She may have been the wife of a former Prime Minister but she was also very much a person in her own right. She was extremely well informed about the theatre and arts in general.
 Goodness' knows what she thought of the student facilities but she queued happily with the rest of us to get meals from the servery hatch. She listened to the theatre talk and the usual ranting and raving about lack of funds, disasters, sets, lighting, scripts etc etc. The whole point of the time these people spent together was to try new works, new ways of doing these things, new techniques and so on. Margaret seemed to understand all these things. She would encourage and cajole, demand and divert. She would calm arguments and soothe troubled waters without ever seeming to be doing any of those things.
One evening I took my friend Judith Wright into the dining room for the evening meal after a meeting. The two women knew one another of course. How, Margaret wanted to know, did Judith know me? "Oh, Cat writes."
Margaret nodded. I did not think she was terribly interested, after all with the likes of David Williamson around why should she be interested in me?
The following evening however Gough Whitlam joined her in the dining room. They were in the queue well ahead of me. Everyone was chatting to one another. The noise level was, as always, rising. Suddenly, over the top of the noise we all heard, "Absolute nonsense Gough, absolute nonsense!"  Margaret was making her feelings about something known, a former Prime Minister was definitely being told something. 
There was a momentary startled lull in the conversation and then everyone went back to talking as before. Someone behind me said, "Well, you can tell who wears the pants in that family."
Later, as I was leaving the dining room, Margaret beckoned me over and introduced me to her husband.
She introduced me as "A friend of Judith's. Judith says Cat writes." We had a chat about my attempts to get people interested in what became International Literacy Year. Judith had apparently been telling her about that.
Several years later she was at Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival of Arts. We literally crossed paths. She stopped and asked if I had heard from Judith recently. What was I writing? She congratulated me on "getting the literacy thing up".  When someone came to claim her attention she passed the ultimate interest test by remembering my name and saying, "Oh this is Cat. Cat writes."
I had not thought she was interested but apparently she was. Our political views were not the same and I would never have discussed politics with her. She knew that but it made no difference to her.
I wonder what Australia would have been like if she had been our first female Prime Minister?


Dandelion Girl said...

She sounds an amazing woman, and what an interesting life you have led Cat!

Frances said...

What's right or left wing, Cat?
Many of your views, such as funding public libraries, - or indeed public education - are quite objectionably left wing to the new right.

catdownunder said...

She was an amazing woman - very forward thinking.
Frances, I was not aware I was talking about people being left or right wing. I do try to see both sides of an argument. Do you find that objectionable? Sorry - I just do not understand what you are getting at.