May 2008

Arts & Letters

John Button, 1933–2008

By James Button

It was exciting growing up around Dad. He brought the heady outside world into our house. The phone was always ringing; visitors were knocking on the door and being ushered into Dad's study, which was the classic smoke-filled room. And plots were being hatched - plots to reform the Hawthorn branch of the ALP or to transform Australia; it was the same job. My brothers and I got to meet some intriguing characters. In our living room Nick, aged ten, took the liberty of asking Gough Whitlam if he hated John Kerr. "Well, Nick," said Gough, "as a good Christian, one shouldn't hate anyone.'' But, Nick replied, "What about as a bad Christian?"

In the '60s and '70s the ALP was not so much a party as a cause - and a doomed one, it often seemed. In the wisdom of some in the party, the reason why Labor was unelectable, and the Liberals born to rule, was that Australians were hopelessly conservative and ignorant. My father never believed that. He loved Australia and he thought that if the ALP could come to its senses and change, Australians would come to their senses too. The road was long, though. In the 1961 federal election, he ran for the then blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Chisholm, a seat in which his mother happened to live. The sitting member was Wilfred Kent Hughes, a pillar of the establishment, and Dad was predictably slaughtered. At the declaration of the poll Kent Hughes stood up and said in patrician tones, "It was a fair fight." In his speech Dad replied, "It was neither fair nor a fight. I gained a swing of one: my mother."

Dad told a lot of stories like this around the dinner table. Adventures seemed to happen to him, or else he had the storyteller's gift of turning ordinary life into adventures. Like the time in the '50s he tried to smuggle himself into the Soviet Union with a delegation of Italian communists but was detained at the border. As the Soviet guards on the train examined his passport with no visa, an Italian man - who became a lifelong friend - leant over and whispered to him, "Siberia."

He told these stories at our urging, because our family was happiest when he was making us laugh. At night sometimes we would play murder in the dark. He would switch off all the lights in the house and we three boys would hide, screaming in excited terror, as he boomed out one of his kooky poems: "The grip of steel you soon will feel / It crushes boys to saveloys.'' When we kicked a football in the yard he spent hours assuming a bent-over position, so that my friend Graham and I could climb on his back and take screamers.

But he was away a lot with work, and even when around he was often lost in thought. He could be a moody bugger, and cranky too. For us kids he had an elusive quality. Part of him was a mystery, perhaps even to himself. John Cain described his utterances as "Delphic". At Dad's seventieth-birthday party Paul Keating said, "arguing with John was like wrestling with a column of smoke."

He also said recently that John was a political loner, and he was. His honesty helped to make him a loner, and being a loner helped to make him honest. I admired that side of him. When he was a minister, I once asked him about a crucial cabinet decision that had not yet been made public. "I can't tell you," he said. "It's not that I don't trust you - I do - but if it leaks and Hawke eyeballs us one-by-one, I want to be able to look him right back and say I told no one."

As a father, though often physically distant, he always kept us close. Whenever I travelled he would demand a detailed itinerary and I would wonder why - until I found myself in a far-flung corner of Mexico and one of his postcards packed with news of home turned up, right on time, at my hotel. One thing Nick and I will never forget is the deep friendship and fondness he and my mother, Marj, kept for each other. Despite their divorce, in 1983, he still came round for tea most Sunday nights; there was never a sense we were not a family. And I know that Dad had happy times with his second wife, Dorothy, and her daughters, Kate and Jane.

The upside of Dad's terseness was that he was never windy; he didn't bang on about his achievements. After my partner, May, met him she looked forward to hearing dinnertime tales of life at the molten core of politics. But although she and Dad had a very good relationship, he parried all her questions with one-line replies. When she asked him to name the hardest thing he had to do in politics, he said, "Going to country Victoria and being demonstrated against by textile workers who had lost their jobs."

I only once saw him completely unbuttoned, if you'll pardon the pun. In 1989 he visited me in New York, where I was living, and we went to a bar in Greenwich Village to hear the 73-year-old blues player Jay McShann and his band. We got drunk, banged the table, clinked glasses with strangers, met Jay and the band, and at 3 am had to be turfed out by the management into the freezing night. We had so much fun we came back the next night and did it all again.

The only other place I saw my dad really let himself go was at the football. He was seriously, battily, obsessed by football, and by the Geelong Football Club. More than once, in the Geelong changing rooms, I caught Dad staring a little too intently at Gary Ablett's thighs. Week after week, year on year, he would draw an oval on a sheet of paper and compile his team in his crimped handwriting, which a secretary of his once compared to the scratchings of a chook. Sometimes he would mail them to the coach; always he would mail them to Nick and me. I think football was a great release from politics. More than that, though, it gave him a chance to be with his two sons, and I know that his love of football was also a love of us.

As the years went on he learnt more how to enjoy life. When we were young his favourite food was a horrid tinned meat called Camp Pie. Once a year, with great palaver, he would cook a family meal. It was always the same: tinned ham steaks, tinned pineapple and boiled rice. But in retirement he taught himself how to cook an excellent prawn curry. He bought a house at the beach, became a gardener, discovered the pleasures of grandchildren. If he did mellow, I give a lot of credit to the partner of his last ten years, Joan Grant.

In 2000, Joan nearly died of meningococcal meningitis. Dad found her unconscious in her flat after calling a policeman, who knocked the door down. She lay in a coma for ten days, and Dad was with her for every one of them. It was a miracle she survived and I think some fabulous bond between them was forged at that time, one that perhaps makes Dad's passing a little easier for Joan, because they knew their time with each other was precious. From the time Dad was diagnosed with cancer, six months ago, Joan was with him every moment. She never stopped smiling, teasing him, stroking his head, even when she was exhausted and in despair at the cruelty of the cancer. Nick and I will never forget what you did for Dad, Joan. You taught us something about how to live. Typically, Joan will have none of this. When I tell her she has been wonderful she just shrugs and says, "What else would I do? He gave me the ten happiest years of my life."

Dad died as he had lived. Though he had wanted to live longer, he didn't want any "bullshit" - one of his favourite words - about his condition. He knew what was happening to him. In the last weeks he was terribly sick and reduced, but he never lost his dignity, his curiosity about the world or his nerve. I know he had nightmares, and Joan and I both tried to talk to him about his fears, thinking it might make things easier. But he was never one for grand speeches. There was a job to be done, the job of dying, and he just wordlessly got on with it. He still liked to banter, though. After one gruelling day in hospital, a young nurse came in with a name tag saying Chelsea. Dad said, "Hello, Chelsea. Are you related to Bill Clinton?" No, she replied. Lucky for you, he said.

My family was tremendously moved by the many tributes to him. I think they would have surprised him. He had a healthy ego but he stayed ordinary; he was not conceited. I think, though, he would have been particularly tickled that he was written up on the same day in the literary pages of the Age and in the Footy Record.

On a Saturday in mid April, Nick and I and my family went to the Geelong versus St Kilda game at Telstra Dome. For the first time in about 30 years we were going without Dad. We met at the top of the stairs at the end of Bourke Street and flowed with the crowd across the footbridge toward the ground. It was warm and festive; everyone was dressed in tribal blue and white and black and red, and someone was blowing a trumpet. And there it was, that moment I know Dad loved, when there is a fleeting but great sense of collective endeavour, a sense that we're better when we do things together, that the best of the day and of life is still to come.

Dad would have enjoyed many things about Saturday. The sun, the grass, the packed stands, the colours, his grandchildren demanding drinks, the moment you recognise each player as he runs out. And as the Cats clocked up the goals on the scoreboard, he would have let himself go. He would have embarrassed me by shouting "Moons!" at Cameron Mooney's marks. David Wojcinski's extravagant third-quarter running goal would have made him sit back and laugh. So many times on Saturday, Nick and I thought: Dad would have loved that. And it really came home to us: we're going to miss him.

Dad was a friend of ours. You'd always come away from coffee with him with a good story or something sparky he said. He knew things about the world and gave good advice about how to find your way in it. But he'd also ask your advice and listen carefully to the answer. I admired the way he was able to get on with many different kinds of people without being all things to all people. He was proud of what he did in his writing, and rightly so. Yet while, as a politician and a writer, he was skilled with words, as a father he was sometimes uncomfortable with them.

I have a strong memory of walking back from the MCG to his house in Richmond in about 1983. Geelong had won the last home-and-away game of the season, and Dad sat down and drew one of his teams - which, he claimed preposterously, would win a premiership in about three years. Then he walked us to the gate and we had one of our warm-but-awkward goodbyes. Nick and I walked off. I looked back and he waved. Then we walked a long way down the street and I looked back again. He was still standing at the gate, looking after us. That was our dad.

James Button

James Button is a former Fairfax journalist and the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.

Cover: May 2008

May 2008

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