April 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Robert Menzies & Winston Churchill

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Robert Menzies' first trip to England was a profoundly emotional experience. At 41, Jeparit-born Bob had finally come "home". It was 1935, the Silver Jubilee of George V, and pilgrims from the Empire were converging on London for the pomp and circumstance.

For Menzies, it was a happy convergence for a number of reasons. As the attorney-general and a member of Prime Minister Joe Lyons' entourage, he could contribute to negotiations with British trade officials. And as a barrister in private practice, he could appear for a client, Paper Sacks Pty Ltd, in its appeal to the Privy Council.

But above all, the Anglophile colonial could drink deep from the nurturing fount of English tradition and culture. There were silk knee breeches and cocked hats to be worn, Buckingham Palace and Gray's Inn to be visited. In the green and pleasant landscape, Ming discovered "the secret springs of English poetry". One Saturday afternoon in Kent, he paid a call on Winston Churchill.

For Churchill, these were the wilderness years. Past 60, politically isolated and living beyond his means, he was at his nadir. When not thundering in the House of Commons against Indian self-rule, he retreated to his country house, Chartwell, to write, paint and indulge in a little light bricklaying.

Menzies was received courteously by Mrs Churchill. Winston was in the swimming pool, Clementine explained. "It was a splendid sight," Menzies recalled in his memoir, Afternoon Light. The pool was large, circular and heated, and sited on a grassy slope with panoramic views. In the middle was "a jutting form rather reminiscent of the Rock of Gibraltar". The rock stirred, removed the cotton wool from its ears and waded ashore.

Tea was served and Bob listened, unimpressed, while Churchill banged on about the menace of Hitler. His host was a remarkable man, Menzies concluded, but he had a one-track mind and lacked discipline. This opinion was reinforced shortly after, when he observed Churchill in the House of Commons. "Feet of clay", he recorded in his diary.

Six years later, now the prime minister of Australia, Menzies was back in England. In response to Menzies' warnings about Japan, Churchill, now the prime minister of Great Britain, offered nothing but "blood, toil, tears and sweat".

For all his imperial rhetoric, Winnie had little interest in the Dominions, much less the views of their politicians. His opinion of Menzies is nowhere recorded. But in one sense at least, Bob was his enthusiastic follower. On Sir Winston's death, Sir Robert succeeded him as the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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