Tony Thomas

How I missed that story

I had an Oedipus Rex moment in 1963. If you recall the play, Oedipus goes looking for the man who killed his father and married his mother. On discovering the man is himself, he is so horrified he stabs out his eyes. (Incidentally, Oedipus killed his father in a prehistoric fit of road rage, involving chariots at an intersection).

I was an earnest but wayward reporter, aged 23, on The West Australian. My editor Griff Richards was troubled. A very illustrious gent called General Sir John Hackett had visited Perth. He was the son of an even grander Winthrop Hackett, who co-founded, edited and later owned The West Australian itself. Griff’s problem was that he had picked up rumors that he, Griff, had seriously and deliberately snubbed General Hackett. I assume Griff had heard some elliptical references to the matter at the Weld Club in Barrack Street.

Griff had misplaced a lot of faith in me, and hence assigned me to get to the bottom of these rumors. They involved something about a magnificent speech Sir John Hackett had made where he had used his coat  as a prop and declaimed about the sleeves. That didn’t sound very poetic but I got the drift. Rather thrilled to have been given this unusual detective-like assignment, I began my investigations.

To put all this in context, I intend to inflict some excessive detail about the Hacketts.

Winthrop Hackett (below), at times in league with Premier John Forrest, virtually ran WA for the decades straddling 1900. With his immense wealth and influence, he created most of Perth’s institutions, including the free-of-fees and female-friendly WA University, the State Library and Museum, Kings Park, the Zoo, even Karrakatta Cemetery. Under his regime, The West was a ‘paper of record’ – it used to report verbatim the entire Sunday sermons of  Bishop Riley at St George’s Cathedral, for example.

For all that, Winthrop must have had a certain gleam in his eye. At the age of 57, the bachelor magnate married in 1905 the 18-year-old Deborah Vernon Brockman, from WA’s pioneer landed gentry. At one stage she ran a tantalum mine in the deserts of the Northern Territory. The tantalum became a crucial input to Britain’s development of radar in World War II.

How and why Winthrop decided so late in life to wed a teenager is unclear  (he did have a lifelong and probably innocent friendship with a chap named Leeper).

He wrote a fortnight before the marriage: “The place is so dull, and life so monotonous that I absolutely must have a new experience. Hence this determination. It seems to me as good a reason as most men have for marrying. What do you think? This is in the strictest sense a ‘marriage de convenience’ ” [Pardon his French].

After marriage, he wrote querulously: Did you find that marriage took at least a couple of hours out of your working day? It is my experience.”   This is very close to my favorite joke: When a tradie got married, he told a mate, “It’s great, but long hours."

Winthrop even tried to run Deb’s life from beyond the grave, putting a clause in his will that her inheritance would cease if she re-married. Deb not only re-married, twice, but became rich anyway, despite foregoing vast Hackett wealth.

Deb (left), sincerely or not, described her marriage as ‘blissfully happy’.  She was one hell of a snob too. She had to shift her bric a brac from Adelaide to Toorak, when she embarking on her third marriage. The job took 12 pantechnicons. At the time, it was the largest family consignment ever to go by road in Australia.

She was also loathe to relinquish her title-by-marriage of “Lady”, which she had enjoyed since her teen years. Her second husband, Frank Moulden, was plain “Mr” but Deb continued to call herself  “Lady Hackett”.  One cheeky social reporter wrote that Lady Hackett and Mr Frank Moulden “were sharing a room at the Menzies Hotel”. Mercifully, Frank got a knighthood later, so she could call herself Lady Moulden.  Her third husband lacked a title so thereafter she called herself “Dr” Buller-Murphy, trading on an honorary doctorate she got from UWA. This used to be considered pretentious, but now a lot of Honorary Doctors adopt the title.

The Hacketts’ only son amid four daughters is the subject of my story and discomfiture.

Sir John, like his mother and father, had an astounding career. He joined the British Army after a not-so-good start in art and in the classics at Oxford. In every campaign, he did acts of heroism, accumulating war wounds and war medals at an equal rate. In Syria he was wounded and won the Military Cross. In North Africa he was in a tank blown up during an attack and he was seriously burnt climbing out of it. He won a DSO.

In 1944 he raised and commanded a parachute brigade, getting wounded again in Italy. Then he led the brigade into the airdrop on Arnhem, the celebrated Dutch ‘bridge too far’ which became an Allied disaster. He was severely wounded in the stomach and a German doctor was going to give him a mercy-killing injection, but a second doctor stepped in and saved his life surgically.

Hackett escaped with the Dutch resistance during a hospital transfer, after adorning himself with extra-bloody bandages.   He won a second DSO for Arnhem.

After the war he rose to top ranks, including Palestine in 1947 and running the  Northern Ireland campaign in 1961, both rather messy fields of conflict. His job from 1965 was as commander of the British Army of the Rhine and NATO’s Northern Army Group but he was too abrasive politically to win the ultimate top job, chief of the defence staff.

After the army he became Principal of King’s College London, where he liked to join student marches for improved study grants, to the horror of other dons.

After his years on the front line of the nuclear Cold War, he wrote in 1978 a fictional and best-selling scenario of World War III based on a Soviet invasion of West Germany seven years into the future (1985).

This big man came to Perth in 1963, a year or two before the zenith of his military career. This year was the 50th anniversary of the first courses of the WA University and the uni senate marked the occasion by conferring  honorary doctorates on 15 alumni and bigshots, some with only tenuous WA connections.

As a further preliminary to my Oedipus moment, I will now describe my love life as at late 1963.

A young woman, “Libby”, and I were magnificently in love and eager to neck in secluded places. This was long before typical young couples could hope for privacy in flats. My home was too inconvenient for trysts. Libby was still living with her mother, who made a point of never leaving us alone in her house, ie., she was not stupid. At one point I tried a double-cross. I announced to Libby’s mother that Libby and I would spend the evening at the pictures. Mother then felt it safe to organize a social outing of her own. At the last minute I announced that our movie was off and Libby and I would just have to entertain ourselves at home somehow. Mother showed such suppressed fury that Libby pulled the carpet from under me by discovering there was another movie she badly wanted to see.

The degree-conferring night found me seething with hormones and fuming at the tedium of the ceremony. I had expected it would be all over by 9pm or so and that Libby and I could rendezvous and head down to the Crawley lover’s lane in my car. But the uni felt that each conferee would want equal time and plaudits. Think 15 x 10 minutes, plus extras.

The chancellor, Sir Alex Reid, was in his peacock robes, along with all the senators and profs. Each nominee got a speech about his accomplishments and was then presented with his doctorate.

None of the speeches so far were at all interesting, and of the 15, there were still three or four to go. The best to date was Fred Schonell, author of the famous Schonell Speller, lists of words which we as primary schoolers had chanted and spelled day after day, resulting in pretty good spelling ability, compared to today’s slack brats. Some recipients seemed to have no connection at all with UWA or Perth, such as Sir Charles Blackburn, chancellor of Sydney Uni, who by the time he retired the following year, had himself conferred 31,194 degrees (true). Another was Freddie Alexander, a historian who had managed to bulk out his 50th anniversary history of the UWA to nearly 1000 pages. I had reported some other historian remarking bitchily that a 1000-year history of Oxford University had been a much smaller volume. I hadn’t given Fred any right of reply, and Fred carpeted me over it, with justice.

I decided cut and run to Libby. Anyway, by the time the official ceremony finished, there would be little time to write the story, phone it through and still meet deadlines. Late night stories had to be particularly thrilling to justify the reworking of pages.

Libby and I managed to steam up my car windows and I thought no more about honorary doctors of laws and letters…

Until my editor asked me to discover what those rumors were about concerning our ‘snub’ to Sir John Hackett.

I began by checking our library files – nothing there.

I asked around, using my meagre list of Perth bigshots. Nothing much.

Finally, a uni contact said someone had told him something about a speech by Sir John. Maybe even at UWA.

An administrator confirmed, to my growing dismay, that the speech was at the Honorary Degree ceremony. “But wasn’t all that just formal stuff?” I asked imploringly.

“No, I was there. It was terribly moving.  You know how his father had also got an honorary degree? Sir John must have been wearing his own father’s gown with all the academic stripes and trimmings, and he took it off and addressed it as though it was his father, still alive. We were all moved to tears, just about.”

Well, that’s cleared THAT up. All I needed to do now was break the news to my editor, Griff Richards. I’d just say…what would I say?

I could think of two precedents for breaking of bad news similar to this. As a boy I had once been caught by my stepfather, Vic, doing target practice with our chooks, using small stones. Reluctant to discipline me himself (although when I was about six he gave me a sudden slap on the bare bottom when he caught me urinating in the bathroom basin), Vic directed me to report my crime to Mum and take condign punishment at her hands. I began by remarking to Mum on the smallness of the chook pen and the chooks’ need for more exercise. Mum abstractedly agreed. In a few subtle steps I came to mention that I had even encouraged them to run around by tossing a few things at them. Mum abstractedly agreed…

The other occasion was when the local grocer-store owner caught me red-handed shoplifting a Cherry Ripe bar. Again, unwilling to discipline me and lose the family account, he told me to report my crime to my mother. I trudged home, to find a serious Communist Party seminar in progress on the back lawn. Was this the right time for a general strike? How should we educate the masses (sometimes pronounced ‘them asses’) about the US war bases in the Indian Ocean?

As kids do (or used to do), I hung around Mum’s  skirts waiting for a break in the conversation. “Mum, I’ve got something I need to tell you,” I whined. Mum was not interested. She was focused on the mood of the masses and the split with Tito of Yugoslavia. “Mum? Mum?” “Get out and leave us alone, we’re busy!”. I went off to play, with a fairly clear conscience.

I couldn’t visualize any comparable solutions for my present dilemma. Remarkably I decided to go the hang-out road, as Richard Nixon once put it, concerning full disclosure.

Griff, by the standards of many modern-day editors, lived a remote existence in a paneled office off the reporters’ hall.  As I saw it, his senior people went in to report and came out to instruct. I never could reconcile this persona with the
Griff who was suspended from UWA over allegedly lewd material he published in the student newspaper Sruss Sruss. So “lewd” that the Student Guild had to literally burn the undistributed copies. (“Sruss Sruss” was onomatopoeia involving the rustle of female underwear).

I entered Griff’s sanctum, apprehensively noting the subdued lighting and the important-looking desk.

“Mr Richards, Hackett made a big speech at the uni ceremony and I was there but it was getting really late. I’d been working long shifts and I was pretty tired and left a bit early and missed it.”

Griff  dismissed me from the office. He was not the emotional sort and I didn’t know how annoyed he was.

But it so happened that he checked the time sheets and for one reason or another (perhaps I had done a day shift and then done a play review as well that evening), I did appear to have been over-worked. Very nicely, Griff gave me the benefit of the doubt and rounded on the chief of staff, Viv Goldsmith, for slave-driving his young reporter. Viv and I had never got on, but his hands were tied by the time sheets and he had to eat crow. I’m sure he liked me even less after that.

Tony Thomas is a regular contributor to Quadrant Online

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