Burst of classical music, a pan around a Doric-column-and-classical-bust festooned chamber resembling either Freud’s consulting rooms or the inside of John-Michael Howson’s head … for a few seconds at the start there, Keating — The Interview teetered at the edge of self-parody. “This is the office from which Paul Keating works, guarding his legacy,” Kerry O’Brien’s narration intoned on the ABC last night, and really, whose else could it be? Who else could work in a room that has the air of a funeral-parlour vestibule? Rumour had it that Keating’s office had walls painted blood-red and a rococo desk in the centre.
That proved not to be the case — Keating hates rococo, and always hated the fact that cartoonists would draw him returning from Paris with a curlicued clock under each arm. But the red walls — variously scarlet or maroon — I heard that from several sources. Maybe he redecorated. Maybe he does that annually. Perhaps he now feels he’s seen enough “blood” to last him a lifetime. “You need a bit of melancholy, rounds you out,” he will say later in the piece, after O’Brien asks him about memories of the sudden death of his father. You look around the room, a bust of — Beethoven? Marat? — over his shoulder and think, really? Ythink? No shit, Sigmund. The room is drenched in it, the drag of history. Were one to do Hawke — The Interview, the background would consist of an old Pirelli calendar and photos of Bob and celebs posing in front of recently-caught black marlin.
Last night’s episode was the first of four hour-long interviews, presumably edited down from a larger body of material — the first to which Keating has consented, and with a strong suggestion that they stand instead of the conventional brick-sized memoir. They don’t of course, but they will have to do for the moment.
Programmed either cheekily or coincidentally by the ABC for the very day that the Abbott government opens its first Parliament, the first outing in the series teetered on the edge of the hagiographic, dealing as it did with the rise to adulthood of the young Paul. Later episodes, dealing with policy and power outside the New South Wales ALP bearpit, may be more contestatory. They are going to need to be.
Admittedly, Keating is one of the few Australian politicians of modern times from whom you would want a childhood account, since he’s the only one really capable of standing back from his own life, and observing the surfaces which make up a world, their particularity. For all other recent contenders, the now-vanishing world of modest lives in fibro houses — “miles and miles of fibro; everyone repaired their own vehicles” he said in a Sandy Stonish moment — would merely be subsumed in the pursuit of greatness (Hawke), repressed reserve (Fraser), or the smug belief of its unique and indisputable rightness (Howard).
Keating, whose governance changed the fibro world for better and worse once and for all, was more capable than any of summoning up the world he had left behind, of doting grandmothers, dressing sharply and classical musical heard from a record player in the next room. From those days too, he has been a student of history — the French Revolution and the drift to World War I, ancien regime endtimes — and so he is capable of putting people and places within their context.
Thank God someone in that interview was. Perhaps Kerry was trying to tease out said particularities, but there were moments when the birth and growth of young PJK sounded like the North Korean propaganda ministry had got to it, having him hatched from a swan’s mouth during a thunderstorm. “You joined the ALP at 14?!!'” “You listened to classical music as a teenager!!?” and so on. The goggling implication seemed to be that Keating was not so much a self-made man as a man-made self, an alien creature among the fibro, fabricated from an entirely different material. That is nonsense of course. While it wasn’t usual for people to join the ALP at 14 and 15, it wasn’t bizarre in those times, when — as Keating noted — people at that age were leaving school, going to work, and joining unions.
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“… there were moments when the birth and growth of young PJK sounded like the North Korean propaganda ministry had got to it, having him hatched from a swan’s mouth during a thunderstorm.”
Nor was classical music such an odd enthusiasm of the milieu and the period; it was the great period of record-of-the-month clubs, Leonard Bernstein’s guide to music etc etc, and concert recording were bestsellers. It was an era when “aspirational” meant wanting access to the better things a civilisation had to offer, and which hitherto had been the preserve of the well-heeled. The fact that such aspirations have become alien, in what is, in many ways, a post-cultural society, is a measure of how much the country — and the Western world — have changed.
On the way to Keating’s weeks-long tenure as resources and energy minister in the pre-dismissal Whitlam government, we did begin to get a measure of Keating’s distinctness — a dabbling with a showbiz career, as manager of the Ramrods, a hint of the Left-Right wars in the ALP, and his seeking out of the then-Labor pariah Jack Lang. “Why Lang,” said Red Kez. “Well he’d been at Henry Parkes’ federation rallies” said Keating, before demonstrating Lang’s extended (“arms like concertinas”) gestures: “Mr Keating, I am telling you …”. Odd to think that Lang would have got that from Parkes and the other 19th-century orators, a gesture older than the country it created, and now smudged onto digital video. “Twenty-four?” Lang said when Keating clawed his way into the seat of Blaxland through two years’ incessant campaigning. “you’ve got no time at all. Run, boy, run!”
Lang was lonely, isolated, needed a political son; Keating had a father-figure after his own had died suddenly at 60. He took from Lang all the small lessons of power, and learnt the big one by following the opposite of his example — don’t get isolated, avoid the quixotic. He kept time for his relentless pursuit on a fob watch that would become famous (“that fob made me sure he was gay,” one ex-Whitlam minister said once; “I thought it for years”), and inspired in him, in its peerless, miniature engineering, “the pursuit of perfection”. Interesting choice, really, for the still perfection at the heart of a watch or clock is in service to imperfection, to time and decay, and things that can never be the same again. Run boy run, tick, tick, tick.
Keating, late in the interview, claims that his own political reforms took on that character of urgency and the spirit of the French Revolution; that, though he found another political father in the resources socialist Rex Connor, he never followed Connor into the idea of national ownership — following his own father’s belief that labour was what made capital happen, that what held the working class and lower-middle class back was lack of access to it. It’s a stirring and compelling narrative.
Of course, also, it is just a little bit guff. Keating was a lot more dutiful to 70s resources nationalism than he likes to make out, before his Treasury-inspired neo-liberal turn, and Australia’s staged transition to a social market society was far from the storming of the Bastille, and as messy and far from watchmakerly perfection as any political encounter would be. The interview, put amongst a series of mythical friezes and curios, is thus well-staged.
Will Red Kez be able to crack the plaster and get to whatever of the real Keating remains? One suspects the whole thing has been carefully constructed so as to persuade us to tune into next week’s thrilling episode. Still and all, it was a reminder of a time and a man a lot more interesting than the dim pair who had dragged Bronwyn Bishop to the speaker’s chair that afternoon.