The Essence of Christopher Pearson

This is the introduction by Prime Minister Abbott to A Better Class of Sunset: Collected Works of Christopher Pearson, edited by Nick Cater and Helen Baxendale, with another introduction by Jack Snelling. It is published this month by Connor Court and retails for $59.95

In the middle of 1993 I received a phone call from Christopher Pearson inviting me to lunch. He had gone to the trouble of tracking me down after reading a review of Ronald Conway’s The Rage for Utopia I had managed to get published in Quadrant. I’d unceremoniously left John Hewson’s office in the wake of losing the “unlosable” election and had just taken on another tough cause as executive director of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Lunch, as Christopher would have put it, seemed like an excellent idea.

We dined at Rigoni’s, an institution where Christopher appeared to be a permanent fixture, his table expanding or contracting according to the number of his acquaintances who happened to be passing by. For Christopher lunch was both an art and a science. Arguments could erupt over the correct method of cooking a bechamel sauce or the proper way to roast a duck. In life, he once wrote, “only fools fail to take their pleasures seriously”.

Dinner guests were beginning to arrive by the time we ventured unsteadily into the winter gloom of Leigh Street. Apparently I had passed my audition, for Christopher had granted me a regular column in the Adelaide Review, and a bond of friendship had been formed that would enrich my life for the next twenty years.

It was an unusual coupling in many ways—“arty versus hearty”, someone had warned him before our first meeting. Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing. Books and CDs started to arrive from Adelaide. If I was to write successfully for the Review, I needed to expand my knowledge and deepen my appreciation of the finer things of life.

During the ten years I wrote for the Review, Christopher was an impresario of ideas and an attentive editor. I came to rely on him to alert me to infelicities of style, logical non-sequiturs, and, above all else, to disregard the canons of political correctness. He would caution against becoming too earnest, once writing for the Australian Financial Review that he was considering writing a book about Australia’s public intellectuals called Great Windbags of Our Time. “It probably understates the case,” he wrote shortly before his death, “that I have no truck with PC and that there’s not an equal-opportunity bone in my body.”

Intimacy was Christopher’s natural and permanent disposition. Conversation could be disconcertingly direct, since he never felt the need to maintain a protective distance. He had no compunction about calling in the middle of a fraught week in Canberra to discuss a conversation with a doctor, an encounter with a taxi driver, or the status of white anchovies on the gastronomic table. From anyone else it might have been a maddening distraction, but Christopher’s skills as raconteur could turn them into a pleasing, even nourishing distraction.

Unlike a sibling, he never hesitated to instruct where he felt confident in his own learning. And unlike a parent, he rarely presumed to possess those he was close to. Never having children of his own, he revelled in the role of the adoptive uncle. Occasionally he would devote one of his newspaper columns to delivering advice to the young on epicurean essentials, written in the style of a Victorian book of etiquette. “Even people with negligible experience in the kitchen,” he wrote, “should know a little about the uses of parsley, chives and mint.” Smoked tinned oysters were too easily overlooked, “nothing like the fresh version but more plausible than tinned mussels”. It could easily come across as indulgence, even self-parody. But that was Christopher’s point. Pleasure mattered too.

The absence of boundaries between the domestic and the public, together with wide reading and deep thought, ensured that Christopher avoided the curse of predictability. In conversation or in print, he was equally interesting on the ambitions of politicians or the best way to stock a liquor cabinet. His accumulated knowledge and reading allowed him to plumb the depths of an argument. In Christopher’s writing, the mundane and the profound rubbed shoulders. He could be amusing, even frivolous, but not superficial.

Christopher’s political, cultural and intellectual epiphany occurred in his mid-twenties. Like many of his generation who embraced and then rejected the pieties of progressivism, he nominates 1975 as the turning point. In his case, however, the catalyst was not the momentous events in Canberra but the tragedy unfolding in Indo-China in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. When the news came through that Pol Pot’s revolutionary forces had taken Phnom Penh, Christopher adjourned to the university Staff Club with his colleague to toast the Khmer Rouge with Great Western champagne. Twenty years later, Christopher wrote: “It was an occasion of continuing shame and a talisman against intellectual fashion and those eager to do our thinking for us.”

From the time I met him until becoming opposition leader, I gave very few scripted speeches that did not benefit from Christopher’s attention to detail. In particular, he edited my first book, The Minimal Monarchy, and its sequel, How to Win the Constitutional War. The latter, which suggested formally declaring that the governor-general was Australia’s head of state; or, alternatively, that the title “president” be conferred upon the governor-general, was regarded as backsliding by some monarchists.

Christopher also edited my more recent book, Battlelines. He argued with one of Battlelines’ key proposals, that the Constitution be amended to give the Commonwealth parliament, where it chose to exercise it, general authority over the states. At the time, the Howard government’s squabbles with the states, the inefficiency of service delivery, and the blame-shifting that inevitably occurred when one government levied the taxes that another spent seemed good reasons to consider the change. Six years later, the failed experiments of the Rudd and Gillard governments with their predilections for central planning have proved the soundness of Christopher’s instincts.

In his later years, Christopher became more reluctant to disturb the status quo and more respectful of tradition. He became devoted to liturgy and ritual, finding in the observance of the Latin Mass a new path on his quest for the sublime.

Christopher had a strong sense of his own mortality. “Ever since the age of six,” he once wrote, “when I first saw the smoking Italianate tower of Sydney’s Northern Suburbs Crematorium, mortality has been something of a preoccupation.” He was seldom inclined to be maudlin on the subject of death, however, seeing it in its true spiritual context as a rite of passage and a reminder of the duty to do one’s best on earth.

My last meeting with Christopher was in Adelaide. He had managed to find the only half-decent restaurant open on Anzac Day but I should have known that something was wrong because he ate little and drank less. I was consumed with the coming election campaign. Christopher, who would sometimes faintly mock the idea of “riding in triumph to Persepolis”, seemed detached. In retrospect, it may have been as his father remarked on the day of his funeral: that he had achieved all he set out to do. Perhaps the election victory, for which he’d worked so hard, now mattered less because to him it was all-but-assured; or perhaps every worldly concern was ebbing as he subconsciously readied himself for whatever was ahead.

Christopher, I suspect, would be surprised to find that his friends had gone to the trouble of tracking down more than 800 of his articles and essays written over twenty years and distilling them into the book that, despite frequent supplications, he declined to write. This is his testament.

Not one of his friends, me included, would agree with every word Christopher has written. Thankfully, he never sought friends merely to have them agree with him. If his works encourage thinking, debate and considered argument then that is what Christopher would have wanted. The author is no longer with us but his words live on.

To know Christopher well was to have a grandstand seat at the clash of mighty emotions as well as to have the benefit of a fine mind and a good heart. As his readers know, he was often hard on people but he was rarely harder on others than he was on himself. The Christian virtue he most struggled with was forgiveness; especially self-forgiveness. He helped me to understand that it was better to make friends than enemies; and that unavoidable enmities were best aroused consciously rather than by accident.

In his writings, as in his life, Christopher opened windows for people through which they could see into different worlds. He had an extraordinarily broad taste for life and a gift for sharing it. He was a complex man, in some ways a torn character, but to be at all close to him was to receive a practical education in the human condition. Thanks to Christopher, people have insights they would not have had and wouldn’t even have known they were missing. For many, certainly for me, the world is now painted in richer, truer colours.

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