Sweetness & Light

The Risky Conversational Gambit

I once found myself in Kevin Rudd’s company and mentioned, for want of something better to say, that Julia Gillard’s poll numbers were holding up. Soon thereafter the PM’s hand was about my throat, just not quite touching. It was the shortest, clearest message he ever delivered

rudd gillardAs one or two people may have previously observed, time is a temperature-dependent liquid. In a heated state, such as when you’re visiting Paris for the first time, watching Hillary Clinton lose the 2016 US election or enjoying your seventeenth year, time rips by like drops of mercury on a forty-five-degree decline.

But when you’re listening to a Malcolm Turnbull speech, reading the first volume of Kevin Rudd’s biography or visiting Canberra for any reason at all, time drags on in the manner of post-molten, pre-solid glass—a supercooled transparent goo that, frankly, you’d still rather listen to than either Turnbull or Rudd. And vote for, come to think of it.

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Not that anyone doubts this theory, but should you wish to test it there is no need to attend a Turnbull press conference or buy Rudd’s Not for the Faint-hearted: A Reflection On Life, Politics and Purpose (the title alone gives some clues to the time-stalling horrors within). Instead, simply take up my lifelong hobby.

I’m a devotee of the Risky Conversational Gambit (RCG).

Fellow RCG practitioners will be well aware of the way a risky conversational gambit can stretch or compress time, depending on the circumstances. The time referred to exists between the moment an RCG is deployed and the response to that RCG. In purely chronological terms, it may only measure a second or so. In perceived terms, it can stretch for an eternity.

Say you deploy an RCG. This may occur in a crowd—the riskiest of all RCGs—or during a one-on-one chat. Either way, you must then endure the delay between deployment and reaction. That reaction will determine whether your RCG has paid off or instantly left you crushed and humiliated. Or even terrified.

For example, my friend Imre Salusinszky once happened upon then-Sydney Swans full-forward Tony Lockett eating a Big Mac at Sydney Airport in 1998. “All I said was, laughing, ‘That’s a good diet for an athlete!’,” Imre reported earlier this year on Twitter. He may have been unaware of Lockett’s sensitivity about his weight, which in his playing days frequently exceeded 110 kilograms and led to constant media mockery—although his mass never had any deleterious impact upon his unstoppable marking and radar-precise kicking. Did the AFL goal-kicking record holder happily tolerate Imre’s risky conversational gambit, or did he not?

Not. Definitely not. “I thought he was going to hit me,” Imre recalls. The laughing probably didn’t help. There’s a good reason why fences are generally placed between AFL players and AFL barrackers.

Sometimes, in the moment, an RCG doesn’t seem particularly risky. Early in 2009 I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground during the Third Test between Australia and South Africa. Then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was there, among various celebs in the new Victor Trumper Stand, and I found myself in a small group chatting with the PM. “Julia Gillard’s polling numbers are strong,” I said at one point, merely to keep things rolling along.

This was, you’ll understand, more than an entire year before Gillard’s successful challenge against Rudd. As we spoke, Rudd was riding high in the polls himself and seemed set for an easy re-election. So Rudd’s reaction puzzled me. He briefly froze, then tried to laugh my innocuous line aside. Perhaps even then he knew Gillard was working to undermine him.

And then, a few minutes later, Rudd, standing directly in front of me, put his hand around my neck. This was, by the way, the first time we’d ever met.

David Gyngell, Nine’s then-CEO, and Garry Linnell, then-editor of the Daily Telegraph, both witnessed this curious incident. I’d briefly turned away from the conversation to check the cricket and when I turned back, well, I had a prime ministerial hand not quite touching me but very obviously around my throat. Rudd held his hand there for a good long while, too, for whatever reason, before he withdrew and walked away.

So far as menacing gestures go, it completely wasn’t. I’ve watered scarier houseplants. Still, consider it an RCG fail. My comment was meant to be friendly but resulted in a lame duplication of Imre’s Lockett meeting, minus the fear of any actual physical damage. To me, anyway.

When it does work, however, the RCG is a wonderful thing. Late in 2016 I was fortunate enough to be in Jerusalem as part of the Australia UK Israel Leadership Dialogue, a brilliantly worthwhile enterprise run by Melbourne visionary Albert Dadon. On the second morning of my stay I stepped inside an elevator with fellow attendee Sir Eric Pickles, the now-former British Conservative MP. We hadn’t previously met, and I was about to introduce myself when the elevator doors opened and we were joined by an elegantly dressed English woman of a certain age.

“Oh my goodness!” she said, instantly recognising the distinctive Sir Eric. “Of all the people to run into!” She’d evidently followed Sir Eric’s career for decades and was quite delighted by their chance encounter in this remote locale. It was actually a very touching moment. Sir Eric deflected her praise with gentlemanly modesty and wished her well as she alighted.

The pair of us then left the elevator. Walking together along the King David Hotel’s historic ground floor corridor, it occurred to me I should say something. A number of factors first required consideration. Sir Eric is a knight, obviously, so might be expected to carry a certain reservation towards Australian directness. Against that, he is from Yorkshire, where folk are not exactly timid. It seemed the perfect occasion for deployment of an RCG.

“Jesus, Pickles,” I said. “You and your f***ing groupies …”

Time did not stand still. At least, not for long. To his immense credit, Sir Eric didn’t miss a beat. Still striding onwards, he allowed himself a slight smile and replied: “The joint will be rockin’ tonight!” And thus, through the power of the RCG, a new friendship was formed.

AT THE TIME of writing, Australia enjoys a 2–0 advantage over England in this summer’s contest for the Ashes.

Following Australia’s win in Adelaide’s Second Test, an English friend pointed out that three Tests remained. One team, he offered, slightly desperately, had previously fought back to succeed in an Ashes series after losing the first two contests. And that is true, although the team to which he referred included someone named Don Bradman. Nobody in the current England team even has Bradman’s initials, much less his ability.

But all of this is to miss the point.

The Ashes is a larger and more important entity than can be defined by the result of a single series, as compelling as each series may be. Even a doomed Ashes competition, such as the Packer-shattered 1978-79 rout, carries greater weight for Australians than any state-funded athletic grotesquerie. The Olympic Games represents a perversion of sport and nationalism. The Ashes represents an elevation of both.

Consider how very easy it is to completely ignore a modern Olympics. Devalued by drug scandals and the hideous dimensions of state financing—with the notable exception of the United States, which somehow prevails every four years despite spending next to nothing on Olympic programs—the Olympics is the Eurovision Song Contest of sport. People largely pretend to be impressed by it.

The Ashes, on the other hand, is culturally crucial. Part of this may be due to the contest’s curious origins. Australia and England had already opposed each other on cricket fields for five years or so before a mock obituary was placed in London’s Sporting Times announcing that the cremated ashes of English cricket would be “taken to Australia” following England first-ever home defeat in 1882.

So the whole caper began with a self-effacing joke, which is probably unique in global sporting history. Good luck finding a similarly wry element anywhere in soccer’s World Cup, or in the absurdly overblown Olympics. Those contests take themselves far too seriously to be taken seriously.

Because cricket is so wickedly revealing of personality—Shane Warne was a wholly-known entity from the moment in 1992 when he sent down his first Test delivery—the human side of the sport is never far away. You can find it even away from the primary battles. And this is always somehow enhanced by any Ashes struggle.

A personal favourite moment may be found in an old clip from the 1974-75 Ashes series. Australia batted first in that series’ opening Brisbane Test. For Australian bowler Jeff Thomson, the First Test would either lock him in as a senior player or consign him to a part-time role. His career, which had already seen him move interstate, was on the line.

Yet there he is, casually leaning on his bat while at the non-striker’s end, chatting to umpires and generally appearing entirely unbothered by anything. Again, cricket reveals personality. And the Ashes reveals the best of Australia and England.

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