John Clare Writings

Breakfast With Malcom Turnbull (When His Hair Was Black)

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Image copyright Michael Fitzjames
Image copyright Michael Fitzjames

A long time ago – when Malcolm Turnbull’s hair was black – I went home with a woman who shared a house in Paddington, Sydney, with either Malcolm Turnbull’s sister or his future wife, who was related to the art critic Robert Hughes and the famous lawyer Tom Hughes. I could look this up, but it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. I was aware that she owned the house. I think she had a baby. Maybe not. In the morning Malcolm himself arrived for breakfast. We were introduced, but I would bet $50,000 – if I happened to have it on me – that he would not remember me. His expression was wonderfully mild, tolerant of everything before him, very slightly interested in my presence. Mildly friendly. Photos of him around that age have appeared recently and I think I would recognize him if that young Hughes appeared before me today. Yet of course he was a little different. Your brain changes every visual memory a little each time you call it up. So I am told.

Ration tickets from World War 2 were an exception for me. Someone showed me a batch and I recognized them immediately, the same in every detail.

For some reason Malcolm and I then each told a story of a flight in which our plane had risen and dropped through hundreds of feet and swerved alarmingly in memorable turbulence. I told of crossing back across the English Channel from France to England in a classic DC3, hit by a gale which made all the rivets, so it seemed, vibrate and buzz like insects trapped in bottles. My wife was with me. We had spent a week or so in Paris. When I finished Turnbull’s sister of fiancé or girlfriend said “Stunning!” She meant my story-telling gift, and it is true that I wish I could write as well as I told stories in those days. Malcolm followed this with a more complex narrative which I have completely forgotten. She, the lady of the house, said, “You win!” And he did. I remember thinking that if I had known it was a competition I might have risen to greater heights. I was not downcast.

I did not feel that Malcolm was particularly competitive. I am actually at least 15 years older, but he assumed a greater importance somehow, a seniority. He was very relaxed, very comfortable. I make no judgement of his politics or the likelihood of his success. What stays in my mind is the sense that here was a fellow who was surrounded by talented and important people. A narcissist. No more than anyone who knows they can do certain things well. One journalist who has harped on the narcissism theme is one of the most narcissistic people I have known.

Now there is a story I would love to tell.

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