More featuring Robert Haupt»

Robert Haupt often found the surface layer to be the most fertile layer. Meeting the shallow showy splashy at its own game can be appropriate, proportional, profound and fun, as these Haupt columns showcase:
1. Robert Haupt, historian — “Why Tebbutt fits the bill,” The Sydney Morning Herald, May 5, 1984, p. 38.
2. Commentators express; noncommentators impress — “Thank goodness we don’t know what Robert Holmes à Court thinks,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, October 19, 1985, p. 16.
3. Fight misfire with satire — “With a warm outer glow, Howard takes us forward to the past,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 5, 1988, pp. 1, 6.

Robert Haupt, “Why Tebbutt fits the bill,”
The Sydney Morning Herald, May 5, 1984, p. 38.

Open your wallet or purse and take out a $100 note. On the obverse side you will encounter a fellow called Tebbutt. He is what money is all about.

Tebbutt’s face displays an expression of unutterable woe. He is profoundly miserable. Inconsolable. He looks like a man who has just been told that his pet dog ate his favourite Rembrandt.

He is, in short, just the man for our biggest banknote. What could be better than misery as the emblem for a hundred dollars? Look at the industry it takes to amass it, the anxiety to preserve it from burglar and taxman, the sheer daily effort of hoarding. Then look at where it gets you. I tell you, Sadsack Tebbutt fits the bill.

Money, you see, is not at all what it seems. For one thing, it is disreputable. These notes and coins, crisp and bright as they may be, are from beginning contaminated.

Consider the man who seeks to persuade a woman to go to bed with him. An offer to pay her $200 for the privilege is, frankly, shocking. It is the sort of behaviour you would expect from a New Zealander. But dinner, a night at the theatre, a taxi ride and a small piece of jewellery — grand total, $200 — is another thing entirely. It is charming good manners.

So that is the first thing you have to do with your money: get it decontaminated. It was for this very purpose that yachts, objets d’art, French champagne and Sydney Harbour views were invented.

The second point is that money and value have a distinctly uneasy relationship. They are like business partners who have fallen out: still on speaking terms, but rarely seen in each other’s company.

The problem is simple: as money waxes, value wanes. Sometimes the money expands in its actual dimensions — you could spread an Irish 10 pound note out on the grass and have a picnic on it.

At other times, the notes simply begin piling up zeros like the odometers on FJ Holdens. Buying some airline tickets in Rome once, I found I had to get 1.9 million lire, and fast; I returned, out of breath, to the airline office with bundles of notes stuffed in every pocket. Counting them, the clerk and I looked like successful extortioners.

Our attention always goes to the big lettuce — the notes and coins that are taking us forward into the bright world of the $5 bottle of beer and the $10 packet of cigarettes.

Well, I want to say a word for the small stuff. I was never close to farthings, but halfpennies used to be worthwhile. A penny got you a set in a public lavatory. Threepence-worth of chips was enough.

The coins today are a waste of time. Is there anything more embarrassing than a bill of $19.99? You hand over $20. The shopgirl looks at you, and you know exactly what she is thinking: “Ho! A skinflint.” But you are stuck, imprisoned by all those maxims about acorns and oak trees and pounds that look after themselves. After about 15 minutes, in which everyone in the shop comes to look at The Person Who Waited for One Cent in Change, she clangs the cash register and hands over the tiny brown coin as if it were poison.

You have to have a policy about this, a picking-up limit. Would you stoop to pick up 2 cents lying in the street? Five cents? Ten?

I have a nothing-under-10 cents policy. It springs from pure cowardice, the fear of suffering an injury as I stoop, and having to spend the rest of my life explaining that it happened when I stopped to pick up 2 cents.

This rule has a cousin: how much would you hand in, if you found it in a bus? Ten dollars, no; a million dollars, yes. Until now, I would have handed $100 in, but now that there is a $100 note, I’m not so sure.

I know that this austere piece of paper embodies exactly the same number of red 20s and blue 10s as used to go to make up the old 100. But now that I can hold it in my hand, it simply doesn’t seem as much.

To contemplate the whole sorry mess, notes stacking on noughts or disappearing entirely to be replaced by coins, the coinage turning to ballast in your pockets, is to be struck by a weary hopelessness.

Oh, Mr Tebbutt, whoever you are and whatever happened to you, it couldn’t have been as miserable as this.

Robert Haupt, “Thank goodness we don’t know what Robert Holmes à Court thinks,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, October 19, 1985, p. 16.

We are living, you may have noticed, in the Age of Exposure. The private individual yearns to become a public figure; our public figures, in turn, reveal with various degrees of reluctance (mostly feigned) their private lives. In politics, business, the arts and even the church, it’s show-and-tell time.

As you may also know, I have my hesitations about this. But rather than express them negatively, as I’ve been guilty of doing, in puerile and demeaning criticism — carping, snide denigration of someone such as … well, such as His Honour Justice Michael Kirby (who has, I can attest, friends galore), let me be positive. Let me cite a hero of reticence, a counter-revolutionary in the Age of Exposure, a kind of Phillip Adams-in-reverse.1 Give a hand for Robert Holmes à Court, Australia’s best-known enigma.

Where others (I will mention no names) feel bound to encumber the public with their views on every and any issue from the crisis in rape-counselling services to the information needs of society in the 21st century, Mr Holmes à Court, so far as I can tell, has no public view on what we call, menacingly, the issues. And I say good on him.

The issues, when you get down to it, are really a kind of code of rules for a national shuttlecock game, by which the airwaves are filled and the spectators diverted in endless repetitions of the same routines. Should you have something to say that doesn’t conform to the code, it will be ruled out of play. And if, like Mr Holmes à Court, you are eligible for the game but refuse to take part at all — well, then you’re a very curious fish indeed.

You see, people such as … — well, let’s not get personal but people such as the son of people I’m thinking of — are examples of the formula of our times: well-known for being famous. Mr Holmes à Court is famous for being very poorly-known. I find that refreshing: I am pleased not to know what he thinks about the breakdown in family life in the second half of the 20th century, delighted to hear his silence on the ozone layer, thrilled to wonder whether he’s for, against, or merely completely indifferent to, the swing back to red wine. I even believe he managed to squeeze through the tax summit unquizzed on Option C.

The clippings files speak (or, to be more accurate, remain silent) for themselves. Oh, there’s no shortage of material: Robert Holmes à Court’s companies ingest an astonishing succession of corporate meals, a performance as marvellous as any boa-constrictor’s; Robert Holmes à Court’s art collection grows simultaneously larger and (rare thing) better; Robert Holmes à Court’s horses win races. Yes, his things are there in the file — no shortage of them — but there’s precious little of him.

Indeed, Mr Holmes à Court stands in relation to his possessions in much the same way as a magician to his props: they don’t elucidate, they hide. Contrariwise to the temper of our times, he leaves his actions to speak for themselves.

It’s only the old trick of reticence (the English have been practising it for years — but then, you might say, they have much to be reticent about), but it’s such a novelty in our land of megaphones that it appears new, striking and rather audacious.

His steadfast and thoroughly admirable refusal to burden us with his views, confidences and personal trivia will strike many people as selfish pique. This is because our values, in the Age of Exposure, have come to embody a tell-all principle: the right to know what every public person thinks about any question at all, even (at its extreme) a question on which he or she has absolutely no opinion at all.

The presumption, in other words, is that you will answer the question, however fatuous it might be. Say, “I don’t know,” and you are presumed a liar unless proven insane. Yes, there is still too much cover-up in public life; but it is not a contradiction to say that there is, at the same time, also too little. We expect too many people to have too many opinions — and not just in public life, either: the opinion pollsters demand of people a familiarity with the issues game that might well be described, in its breadth and shallowness, as encyclopedic.

The result is unedifying debate — more clamour than discourse — which, if anything, hinders consideration of things that matter. When John Howard held a competition for a better word than “privatisation,” he said, in effect: “I have an important idea; can anybody come up with a slogan for it?” Come to think of it, I don’t know what Mr Holmes à Court thinks of privatisation.

The public megaphones are held in higher esteem than the people who go about the innocent employment of making money, as if the rewards of getting your opinions written up in the papers were somehow less than the rewards of accumulating fat zeros in a bank account. They are held to be “making a contribution” — a nice way of dressing up the age-old human indulgence of telling one’s neighbour what he’s doing wrong. Mr Holmes à Court, I can only assume, pays his taxes — something of a breakthrough in itself for a West Australian businessman. He meets a payroll. He is a friend of Australian art. He makes his business rivals wary, the way businessmen are supposed to do.

Why, then, does he seem so strange? I think the answer lies in his failure to apologise, either for being rich, or successful or self-assured. To some extent, each of these achievements is un-Australian; together, they are enough to make their possessor seem positively alien.

Robert Holmes à Court has not joined the club. I can’t imagine that he is so inhuman as not to wish for public approval but he has an unwillingness to seek it that I find admirable. As an example of achievement by act, not word, it is worthy of emulation by others. But I won’t say by whom.

Robert Haupt, “With a warm outer glow, Howard takes us forward to the past,” The Sydney Morning Herald, December 5, 1988, pp. 1, 6.

It was dark. The voice had that woody whine to it, and the sentiments — family, incentive and “one Australia” — were familiar. But was the ghostly figure grasping the lectern John Howard, or something even more ethereal? The lights didn’t go on for Mr Howard until he got to the bit in his speech about how we need to spell better — maybe the technician finally worked out “on” — but when they did, what an effect! It was like dawn, speeded up.

The Opposition Leader materialised in grey, in the centre of a set that flowered into gorgeous apricot. On the back wall, in elegant, rather old-fashioned type, was the inscription: Future Directions. On each side wall, in smaller type from the same font, the message read:

It’s time
for plain

Surely, one thought, this couldn’t be a political gathering. A convention of sales assistants from the skin-care industry, perhaps, or a preview of the new season’s range of Loveable bras — something soft, in any event, something nice, something mellow. If this was politics, it was politics of the warm outer glow.

Behind Mr Howard, on either side of his head, were two oval windows. For some reason, they put me in mind of the rear windows of an old car, in which case the scene we were leaving — it was the same scene in each window — was one of good, old-fashioned upper-middleclass white Anglo-Saxon bliss.

I have the picture here before me, on the glossy Future Directions book. There is a blond man leaning casually on a white picket fence, right hand in pocket, left arm around his auburn-headed wife who is standing slightly behind him. The scene is repeated in miniature below, except that the boy has both his hands in his pockets, and his sister (standing slightly behind him) has hers folded in her lap.

They evidently own the stone house with a veranda running all the way around and the Ford parked in front of it. Where, one feels like demanding angrily, is the fluffy dog with the appealing ears?

Honest John is driving the car through whose rear windows this scene appears — he is even making hand signals, up there at the wheel — but something is wrong. If this is the bliss he is promising, in a contract signed by himself and Ian Sinclair (though Mr Sinclair’s signature looked a bit spidery, to me, making me wonder whether he would pass the strict tests he wants set for our schoolchildren), why aren’t we driving towards it?

The dilemma got worse as Mr Howard outlined his directions for our future. The family, the church, private enterprise, “one nation”, self-reliance, charity, all form a seamless whole — I found myself adding “the strap, standing up for ladies on trams, hats and gloves, running boards, removable shirtcollars, the Loyal Toast, biscuit tins” — which, while it may appeal to some people (or, for all I know, to many people) has nothing to do with future directions at all. It isn’t even a past direction.

It is nostalgia, the yearning for a time when kids had mums and dads like the ones we see through the rear window, and wives had husbands who hugged them and husbands had wives who stood behind them, and the verandahs on the stone houses went all the way round.

“It is time,” says one of the Liberal Party dodgers, “to restore hope and certainty to an Australian community which has grown anxious about the future.” Fear of the future is to be overcome, in the Opposition’s new strategy, by encouraging voters to yearn for the past.

But the policies, Mr Howard’s people will cry, you’ve forgotten the policies. Well, from my reading of it, the Future Directions document has a content/bullshit ratio no higher than other documents of the kind — that is to say, nine parts of pious hope to every particle of nitty-gritty — but that’s not really the point.

The point is that John Howard will be selling Future Directions not as a document with policies in it but as what the marketing people into whose hands he has fallen call a concept. The idea is to identify Mr Howard with something nice, since what he has to say so far (leave alone the way he has of saying it) has manifestly failed to impress.

Old brand names are the go right now, from Aeroplane Jelly to Vegemite. Now that they’ve brought back the old Colgate-Palmolive ads, Pick-a-Box can only be a matter of time. So John Howard is being positioned, somewhere back in the golden past.

He was at it himself at yesterday’s launch: “This country is very different from what it was in 1948,” a statement whose sub-text reads something like this: “Golly, there are a lot of problems around today, what with drugs and all those migrants and kids not being taught to read. Things were better in the old days. Vote for me, and I’ll take you back there.”

There’s one of those maudlin advertising songs to go with it all, but somehow I like the concept of putting John in a striped blazer and straw hat and have him sing,

Won’t you come with me, Lucille,
in my merry Oldsmobile …

Footnote for readers

  1. For Haupt on Michael Kirby and Phillip Adams, see for example: Robert Haupt, “Phillip Adams sells a new scenario,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, March 2, 1985, 16; and Robert Haupt, “Kirby talks so much you can’t hear a word he says,” Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, September 14, 1985, p. 16. I’m not republishing those, as this one (on Holmes à Court) transcends them.