June 2014

Arts & Letters

Bob Carr’s ‘Diary of a Foreign Minister’

By Rhys Muldoon

NewSouth; $49.99

“Credit where it’s due. Deification not required. It’s not that hard to get here, to this table … There’s always a vacancy and it’s got to be filled. With competence you can keep on rising. None of this warrants deference.”

And so it came to pass that Bob Carr, the erstwhile premier of New South Wales, became a federal senator, the foreign minister and possibly the happiest highbrow holidayer in our history. This is his story.

Carr opens his account of adventures abroad by musing on the bacchanalian appetites of Bismarck and Churchill: pre-lunch gin, cigars dunked in cognac, plates of profiteroles. None for our thin white duke, though. Such temptations are for another lifetime. This one demands lean cuisine, and it is discussion of these two obsessions, lean and cuisine, that peppers this tome like a waiter with an overly powerful wrist.

Carr is obsessed with finding protein and putting on muscle, both literally and metaphorically. He is in some ways an embodiment of Australia’s international ambition. We are also vain (if not so self-consciously regal) and a little self-obsessed, and want more bulk. We’d like to be able to look after ourselves, but to do it while flying first class. Much of Carr’s conundrum, diplomatically, concerns where we sit between China and the United States. To whom should we be closer? Is it the “Asian century”? Are we merely the crumbling cartilage in the US’s arthritic knees? Carr’s deep love for the US suggests otherwise.

While it would be easy to mock Carr’s concerns about travel that is anything moins que la première classe, he is both charming and cheeky about them himself. He includes a letter of reply from an airline regarding his complaint about subtitles for a Wagnerian opera (that must have been a long flight indeed). His vanities and obsessions parade nakedly around the pages, yet I never felt the need to look away, because you can also see, if you look closely, the tongue resting lightly in the cheek.

Over 500 pages, much is said but little is revealed. To expect more from a diplomat is probably naive, yet I would love to have read more about the gatherings at the shadowy Bohemian Grove, with its strange rituals and its billionaire world-shakers and tree-pissers. It is a rarefied world Carr has been visiting, and in many ways it is disturbing how arbitrarily so many decisions are made or, often more importantly, not made. They are made, or not, from on high, between silk sheets and pure cotton pyjamas. They are made from the first window of the plane, by very tired people looking for protein.

In this diary, we are allowed into the foyer of the first-class lounge, but not, as is protocol, aboard the plane.

Nonetheless, une bonne lecture.

Rhys Muldoon
Rhys Muldoon is a contributor to The Drum, as well as an actor, director and radio presenter. In 2010 he co-authored a children’s book, Jasper & Abby, with Kevin Rudd. @rhysam


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