Philip Ayres enjoys the superlative reputation from no less than a former High Court judge as “one of the best biographers this country has ever produced”. A quote that any publisher, publicist or writer dreams of. His admirer, the Honourable Dyson Heydon, added, in his review of Dr Ayres’s biography of Sir Ninian Stephen, “He is also one of the ablest contemporary Australian non-fiction writers.”
With five full biographies to his credit, among other scholarly works, Ayres has now produced a series of profiles of encounters with public figures over half a century. The range of character and geography is most impressive—from meeting the Deputy Chairman of Soviet Latvia in Adelaide in 1967 to driving Justice Antonin Scalia along the Great Ocean Road in 2011. Ayres’s publisher, Connor Court, sees the collection as “the products of friendship, research, happenstance, curiosity or calculated risk”. In fact, his first wife, Maruta Sudrabs, facilitated his encounter with the Latvian leader, Aleksandrs Drizulis; while his second wife, Patricia San Martin, was a catalyst for his friendship with the Chilean academic and historian Claudio Veliz. Most of the rest were met in the course of research for his biographies of Malcolm Fraser and those eminent beknighted jurists, Owen Dixon and Ninian Stephen.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Ayres’s approach to his subjects here is as it has been with his biographies—open-minded yet sceptical, with an absence of moral judgment. The facts and the subject speak for themselves; “The point of view is as judgmental as a tape recorder.”
In his first encounter, “Hosting the Soviet Enemy”, Ayres probably owes more to his favourite uncle and aunt, Fred and Jean Ayres, than to his Latvian wife, for the chance to take Deputy Chairman Drizulis for a day out in Adelaide. Fred Ayres, a retired grazier from Mount Pleasant, had moved into inner suburban Adelaide and was President of South Australia’s Australia-Soviet Friendship Society. Drizulis’s father, Arvids, a Party worker, had been arrested and shot as “an enemy of the people” in early 1939 yet his son overcame this and rose through the ranks. It may have helped that, in 1955, Arvids was posthumously rehabilitated.
So many of Ayres’s profiles involve a journey, reflecting his narrative approach, and he enjoys testing his subjects. He took the abiding communist into Australia’s oldest Lutheran church, St John’s, where baby Ayres was christened. “And why not assume he had a Lutheran family background and maybe half-way a believer. I wanted him to think about that.” The leader’s reaction is not recorded. He wanted to ask questions and say “how much he loved Australian beers”. In 1985, Drizulis became Chairman (Premier) of Latvia until 1989. He retired “early” (he was seventy-one) when Latvia regained its independence in 1991. Post-independent Latvia was not vindictive and this academic (he “was not a typical politician”) lived quietly in retirement until his death in 2006. The verdict: “I can’t say I knew him but it was pleasant being with him.”
The second encounter, in January 1986, was with Gerald Ford, a friend of Fraser’s. Ayres observes that he must have been one of few Australians who had a one-to-one meeting with a US president or former president in his home. Ford’s modest 1970s ranch-style house at Rancho Mirage, east of Los Angeles between Palm Springs and Palm Desert, had been home since his defeat in 1976. A relaxed conversation with the thirty-eighth president in open-necked shirt and feet on his desk (resting them for golf, and saving them from surgery); this did not resemble the man his unpolished adversary, Lyndon Johnson, described as “so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”.
Interestingly but not unexpectedly, he mentioned—at least three times—what progress might have been made on a number of international issues “if I had been elected”. He is posthumously quoted as saying, “And I just don’t think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe ‘freeing people’ unless it is directly related to our national security.” Ayres ends his Ford chapter with, “Ford, with two or three others, created the concept and slogan America first.”
The next chapter, “Manley, Kaunda, Mugabe” is a fascinating one, featuring three key players in Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in 1979 to secure Commonwealth recognition of the Abel Muzorewa–Ian Smith government in Zimbabwe. “In 1986 I set out to explore the background to her defeat at Lusaka and Mugabe’s ascension to power, and to build that into the Fraser biography then in train.” He had already interviewed the UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, and Commonwealth Secretary-General, Shridath Ramphal. A profile of both these men would have been welcome. But as to the key figure, Margaret Thatcher, her private secretary told Ayres, “No way she’ll see you.” She intensely disliked Fraser.
Again, the journey—Ayres began in Jamaica with Michael Manley, of whom he said he “could understand why people might follow him to Hell while guessing they’d never get back”. Manley had revealed the role of Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere in convincing President Jimmy Carter of the proper path. Carter had expected Nyerere to come to Washington wanting money but all he sought was a solution for Zimbabwe and the vital importance of “one-man-one-vote”. This charismatic Tanzanian was, alas, not in Dar es Salaam when Ayres arrived and so another fascinating profile is lost to us.
He did meet Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s president from 1964 to 1991. After Ayres put his first question to him, a long one, Kaunda paused, then responded, “You have such a wonderful composure. May I call you Philip?” His reaction? “Never paid that compliment before, I acceded. How could I dislike such a man? He won me in six words. One word.” Despite his surprise, the author’s courtesy, affability and tolerance must have impressed all his interviewees—if not so disarmingly expressed.
Finally, on this journey, Robert Mugabe in Harare. What is remarkable here is that the man still vividly remembered as a monstrous dictator had once been so mild:
He was dressed in a navy-blue suit, white shirt and maroon tie, showed courtesy, answered questions frankly, with intellectual respect, thoughtfully and at length, drawing subtle distinctions, putting qualifications.
Ayres returned to Harare in 1992, en route to Mogadishu, again in connection with Malcolm Fraser. In fact, he accompanied Fraser in his capacity as President of CARE International. This was a chance to see at close quarters the former prime minister as humanitarian and advocate. The meeting with Somalia’s General Mohamed Farrah Aidid is the focus here and it reveals much of the complexity and conflict that stymies that continent and its states. It also exposes Fraser’s fearless forthrightness and acuity.
Another chapter, “Jihadists in Afghanistan”, sees Ayres in Peshawar as a member of the Afghan-Australia Council at the invitation of its president, Richard Alston. The starkest description in this collection is the sight of the body of a Soviet officer (months dead) on the steep slopes of a hill at Khost:
I found myself thinking … how much more I had in common with him than my companions, hospitable though they certainly were. Here were the mortal remains of a European sent to back up a secularist government that he believed, or his government believed, was on the side of progress. Someone at home was mourning him unaware that he lay unburied, an infidel and intruder. It reminded me of Aeneas and his lost and unburied friend Palinurus. As an infidel I qualified to bury him myself, but it was a foreign country and besides the ground was hard.
The longest profile in the book is given to Claudio Veliz. Like the others, it is an accumulation of well-chosen facts and adroit observation bolstered by comprehensive research, but as its title states, this profile is born of friendship. And, alone among the subjects of this collection, Professor Veliz, ninety in July, is still with us. His transformation from Chilean Marxist, who knew Castro, Allende and Guevara, to Emeritus Professor of History at Boston University, via a seventeen-year stint as Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University, is well told here. I love the anecdote, another of Ayres’s strengths, which opens this chapter, taking us to the Soviet Embassy in London in 1956. Twenty-five-year-old Veliz, a student at the LSE, is greeted by his host, Nikita Khrushchev, “My Chilean friend! How good to see you again! Let me introduce you to Sir Antony Eden and Lady Eden—and Charlie Chaplin!”
Veliz’s ability to engage, befriend, impress and attract great minds (even Nobel laureates) to his Conversaziones at La Trobe reflects his own eminence and did much credit to that institution and to Australia. They continued in Boston and continue, to this day, in Melbourne. Ayres cites two seminal essays (both published, like some of these profiles, in the pages of this distinguished journal). The first, in 1982, was a “devastating article” titled “Bad History”, which apparently broke the reputation of Manning Clark. The other, “A World Made in England”, appeared in 1983. Ayres concludes:
From the outset, for Claudio Veliz, history was something lived, with affective affinities running left-to-right, and he’s disinclined to repudiate any part of his past. Opinions shift with experience, but one’s varying directions in politics and life are choices on a continuum, each valid and perhaps inevitable in context. The one person signs off on it all.
One of his subjects whose affinities never ran and was certainly never inclined to repudiate any part of her past was Diana Mosley. The most beautiful and obdurate of those Mitford sisters, Lady Mosley became an eloquent and lucid correspondent with Ayres, defending the views of the man for whom she surrendered her reputation in 1932, Sir Oswald Mosley. It is unfortunate that of all his subjects, Ayres never met Diana. It was often said that journalists who met her would fall completely under her spell; then go back and write something horrible about her.
“They will go on persecuting me until I say Hitler was ghastly,” she acknowledged:
Well, what’s the point in saying that? We all know he was a monster, that he was very cruel and did terrible things. But that doesn’t alter the fact that he was obviously an interesting figure. It was fascinating for me, at 24, to sit and talk with him, to ask him questions and get answers, even if they weren’t true ones. No torture on earth would get me to say anything different.
But writing to Dr Ayres in the early 1990s, she said, “I still regard the war as a terrible crime against Europe and I blame him [Hitler] for setting it in motion.” She would continue to campaign against it during the phoney war.
Just as interesting was how she and Ayres originally made contact. Ayres had been working in early spring of 1990 on the eighteenth-century library of Lord Burlington, which had been transferred to Chatsworth, the seat of his successors, the Dukes of Devonshire. There, on the Palace of the Peaks, he met its legendary chatelaine, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, the youngest of the Mitfords. During his time there he came upon Diana’s memoirs, A Life of Contrasts, for sale in the house bookshop. Again, as he put it, it was not so much the information he gained, but the path to it. The journey.
Another figure infamous for his unfaltering stance was the Reverend Ian Paisley, the firebrand voice of Protestant Ulster, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. By the time Ayres met him at home in suburban Belfast in 2011, researching Ninian Stephen’s role on the Northern Irish peace talks, the fire had been quenched. He had been First Minister of Northern Ireland with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his Deputy. At eighty-five, still six foot five and a peer—Lord Bannside—he praised Stephen as a very straight man “who couldn’t be controlled by the British”.
“There’s been a generational change up here,” he said, “and also in the South. Here the younger generation know nothing of the Troubles, down there they know nothing of the old Catholicism.”
Ayres admitted some disappointment. “I’d looked forward to hearing the firebrand in full and violent rant but it was a time to put aside ranting and a time when his time was shortening.” Paisley died less than three years later.
Antonin Scalia is the public figure whose stocky frame appears genially on the cover of the book (beside the taller, jaunty yet half-smiling author. Perhaps Ayres was still recovering from the judge’s first reaction when he got into his old Toyota: “I haven’t seen crank windows in forty years”). Behind the genial image lay a formidable intellect and abiding defender of what he called a “dead Constitution”. Ayres had met Scalia and fellow Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in 2005 (through the supremely well-connected Claudio) and observed of Scalia:
he at once struck me as the more interesting of the two, partly because his ideas were so forthright, sharply defined and challenging, but also because the paper he presented to us in 2005 was immensely entertaining in its merciless demolition of judicial activism.
They met again in Melbourne in 2011. As they drove (well, Ayres drove as his passenger occasionally slept) towards Geelong, to Lorne, and then on to Port Campbell, the Twelve Apostles, Apollo Bay, and back to Lorne, they struck up an easy acquaintance. Scalia thought the Supreme Court’s affirmation of an individual right to self-defence was one of his proudest achievements on the court. As it happened, both men were gun enthusiasts. While Ayres did not hunt game, Scalia liked to hunt black bear, telling him that there were “almost certainly more of them in North America now than when Europeans first settled”. As a guest of the Velizes, he was later to teach his hostess how to cook a soft-boiled egg.
Ayres says that, having frequently glanced at his passenger between the Twelve Apostles and Lorne, “semi-reclined in a profound sleep, I can imagine what he looked like five years later when he was found dead, flat on his back with his head propped up by pillows.” It was the night of February 12/13, 2016, in a hunting resort in West Texas (rather suitably, the setting for the 1956 film Giant). “He’d gone to bed early following an afternoon’s quail shoot and didn’t appear for his breakfast of boiled eggs.” As Ayres adds: “the best exit”.
Dyson Heydon is right to claim that Philip Ayres “is also one of the ablest contemporary Australian non-fiction writers”. And one looks forward to more profiles from him. What about the Fraser women—Una, Tammie, Phoebe? Lady Stephen and her five daughters? Lord Carrington? Geoffrey Dutton? Geoffrey Blainey? But we should let him rest for a while on his laurels.
Private Encounters in the Public World
by Philip Ayres
Connor Court, 2019, 212 pages, $49.95
Mark McGinness, an Australian living in the United Arab Emirates, wrote on Charles Dickens in the June issue.