Anyone wanting to make fun of Christopher Pyne’s memoir, A Letter To My Children, comes up against an immediate barrier: the first chapter contains a fantastic half-dozen pages, in which he describes, in terse and moving prose, the death of his father. Christopher, 19, come home early from a date, having felt a premonition, to find a friend of his father’s lying in the street.
“What are you doing, Fred?”
“I fell over … your dad’s dead.”
And that was how he found out his father, Remington Pyne, a prosperous and well-regarded Adelaide doctor, had succumbed to an expected heart attack just short of 60. Inside the house, everything is made strange, and Pyne makes the irresolvable eeriness of a death scene vivid and present. How could you not? Well, not everyone can, and if you were to judge Pyne on the strength of the rest of the book, you would believe he might be one of them. The 200-page biographical homily does not meet the standard of professional publication, reminiscent more of an Xlibris vanity-published Zapf Chancery extravaganza (Bless The Beasts: Forty Years a Ballarat Vet), and with the same relentless tone: “We had the big wet in ’63 and my what a year for the sheep that was …” and “I photocopied most of my leaflets at Corrs Chambers Westgarth out of office hours …”
My god, it goes on. Leaden, repetitive, and mundane in its observations about life, it is nevertheless a useful document, a record of how someone bent on being bourgeois makes their mind up, in a manner that appears to be dependent on reflection, without in fact engaging in any of it. Pretty early on, any attentive reader will get that the book’s one truth is something to which the narrator has no access; from that moment of realisation the book functions as a kind of thriller. Will he work it out and escape? No, is the answer, but the suspense does not lessen along the way.
Pyne is known to the public world as the rottweiler of the dispatch box, a man never lost for words or a sharp pre-emptive comeback. His talent for such is so great it seems impossible that it is merely learned; the urge to gouge a hole in someone almost before they have spoken must be present as a disposition. In private, he is known as a moderate, cleaving to the liberal rather than conservative or reactionary side of the party, most recently known for trying to get a same-sex marriage vote through a party room he described as “stacked” with the Nationals. The private side is hard to square with the public man; on a good day he’s the Coalition’s Angus Young, a snarling 50-plus public schoolboy tearing off riffs, best in the business. When it’s not working, he’s a Benjamin Button figure, a snorting man-child going out backwards. That seems to be far more who he is than the less well-known figure he presents here, working hard in the service of things like mental health reform and indigenous Australia.
The latter qualities are the ones he wants to emphasise to his four children, the eldest of whom may now well look older than their father. Various stories about these initiatives, his rise through politics and the like are told with one clear purpose: to link his life with that of his father’s, even though not only the lives, but the men living them, appear to be very different people.
Pyne, growing up in prosperous professional Adelaide, became entranced by history and politics at an early age, in the standard Great Man mode, reading biographies of Churchill, Roosevelt, Napoleon et al. He had no period of rebellious leftism, and had he ever been tempted, early ambition put that out of consideration. One of the few sparkling set-pieces, aside from the opening, occurs when the newly elected Pyne (he took the seat of Hindmarsh in 1993) goes to see John Howard, who appointed him to the parliamentary secretary for health position:
“You’ll need to be able to answer the question of whether you’ve ever taken [illicit] drugs yourself”
My response was immediate: “I’ve never taken drugs”
And Howard said: “Nobody’s going to believe that. Even Minchin and Downer admitted to smoking a bit of dope”
But I was telling the truth and I told him that I had two reasons for it. “For one I always hoped I’d end up in politics and I wanted to keep my nose clean and be able to say when I got asked this exact question, that I’d never tried drugs.”
“Hmmmm,” Howard sounded doubtful …
Through this, you can see what Howard is thinking: “My god, you’re a little shit-eater, aren’t you? I mean I’m a shit-eater, I’m king of the shit-eaters, but you really are the shit-eater’s shit-eater. Well go on, my son.” The scene is worthy of a Victorian narrative painting, with exactly that title. It’s a scene-setter for what has followed: an attention-grabbing public life, but an unremarkable one, much of it consumed by the ephemeral crap of politics, the getting of numbers, doing of deals, shafting of rivals. It has all occurred in an Australia that is more or less post-historical, the prosperous sunkissed no-place, one in which political life, indeed public life, has no heroic role for the bulk of the population, no matter how much people like Pyne yearn to have someone to represent. Pyne is addicted to politics, in an age when it is mainly administration, polling, and image-marketing.Pyne’s father, by contrast, growing up in an era when politics pitted huge alternatives against each other, had no time for it at all. Too young for World War II, he grew up in the shadow of the Depression and saw service as an eye doctor in Korea stationed at a M.A.S.H. unit, before coming home to a career in ophthalmology, pioneering, Pyne tells us, treatment of indigenous people for preventable conditions and statewide programs to address their appalling levels of blindness, etc. He rose into the public hospital bureaucracy, fought the wars, and came out of it with an increased regard for individual effort in the face of mass society. He was opposed to the introduction of Medicare, though not to universal healthcare provision.
He was, in other words, a mid-century liberal-minded man, with a connection to a poorer, more straitened time than most of us now have, and two years or so in a field hospital (post-war) witnessed more agony, suffering and grace than all but a few of us will see in a lifetime. This is Pyne’s portrait, of course, limited by his own desires; others would have a different view … The “politics is bunk” attitude is common to scientific professionals, whose lives revolve around a series of discoverable and implementable truths, which yield measurable improvement; administration and management are a means to that end, and Remington’s implicit advice to Christopher, his bookish, argumentative youngest child, appears to have been that getting wholly caught up in such business can be disastrous.
That’s an unfortunate position for someone like Pyne, writing a dreams-from-my-father type thing, to be in, because the son’s career has been all but entirely consumed by that sort of politics. Pyne spent little time as a minister until 2013, and much of what he achieved was in a variety of small, if meaningful, program areas. Far more time has been spent getting the numbers, attacking the other side, looking for ways to make the attack stick. That obviously has to be done in politics; that’s what politics as a vocation is: the 3am press leak, driving out to get the numbers in the Ceduna branch and so on, visiting a margarine factory, breaking an opponent’s spirit, all bound in with actual policy and government. Power must be got and held within and without, and dismissing it all as nonsense is a little foolish. The conclusion Pyne might reasonably come to is that his dad, whatever his virtues and talents, was, in these matters, a bit naive — in the way scientists often are — and that the Great Lives he consumed as a teenager were a better guide to life than the views of an ophthalmologist in a provincial city.
But of course you can’t do that in a book of this genre, the memoir of the pater familias. The conflicts, contradictions and degree of rejection that go into the development of independent selfhood cannot be acknowledged. That’s where the tension comes from, for the story, rambling and circular as it often is, is that of Pyne getting further into the world of politics — and especially of the petty, point-scoring, addictive plotting that causes people outside it to despair. Much of it occurs in the sandpit of student politics, which is as emblematic of futility as the sandpit in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days.
One can be reasonably sure, from Pyne’s own recollection of his father, that he would think much of this a waste of time. And so Pyne must try to bridge the gap, remarking half a dozen times, as he ends a chapter about winning the services officer position at Flinders University SRC or some such, that “though my father didn’t have much time for politics, he surely would have thought it worthwhile …”. There’s no evidence he would have, but the meaning of Pyne’s life appears to turn on making believe it was so, and thus fusing his Gen X life — as unremarkable, in big-H History terms, due to the temper of the times, as any have turned out to be — with his father’s mid-century one, to the benefit of the former. Thus put together, they can be passed on, and conflict, hostility and the limits of familial love — that it cannot provide, of itself, approval — can be removed by a suture. It’s one thing to see your dad through rose-tinted glasses, but when the man in question was an ophthalmologist, the wilfulness of it becomes all the more apparent.
That is to say, the book is not merely a record of bourgeois ego defence, nor simply a contribution to its ongoing maintenance, it is the defence of a certain type of bourgeois ego, a way of being a self. It is deliberately archaic, the sort of thing that should have been printed in fake calfskin. The great 20th-century insight, or claim — that we do all sorts of weird contradictory stuff in some vaguely systemic way, hide aggression in love, betrayal in duty, etc — gets no hearing here. Every act is a positive self-knowing one, a conceit that gets its fullest expression in Pyne’s recounting of how he made it into Parliament at the age of 24. Famously, he challenged and unseated his own mentor, Ian Wilson, from a safely held seat, after a preselection campaign that many saw as vicious and unsparing in the context of a party preselection.
Why did Pyne do it, apart from vaulting ambition? He does not really know, but the fact that Wilson had hit the age of 60 may be some clue. When you’re latched onto a surrogate father, you can’t really have him outlast your actual father or the fantasy will go all skew-whiff. Pyne unleashed hell on the man who had furthered his career and given him a place in the world, and while no one has a god-given right to a parliamentary seat, there was no pressing need to unseat Wilson. Pyne makes of this, as a lesson for his children, some sort of general homily about perseverance, etc. The lesson Wilson’s children would have taken from it would be somewhat different. The real lesson is that in politics, sometimes you have to sacrifice values if you are to succeed.
Pyne can’t admit that, because he would have to acknowledge a break with his father. He might be all the less willing to do so out of the haunting fear that his father’s prophecy had come right, and that politics is largely a waste of time. For all the claims he makes to have championed various initiatives — and there would obviously be other versions of those stories around, many less flattering to Pyne than his own — his legislative and ministerial record is thin, compared to the ephemera of politicking that has consumed much of his energies. Now with the prospect of a one-term Abbott government and working in opposition for another six to nine years, he looks back on a career whose success could be seen as superficial, whose achievements could, by the reported standards of his father, be seen as failure. Pyne sounds like a decent person in some respects, and a deluded one in others. The book, devoid of literary or contentious interest in itself, is nevertheless a useful document about the illusions such people live by, and a reminder that their politics is only made possible by being wreathed in fantasies.