The three girls sitting opposite can’t take their eyes off us. Eventually it becomes too much for one of them (the pretty one) and she saunters over and shyly introduces herself. To Mark, of course, not the rest of us. Mark smiles and shakes her hand, and that’s all it takes for the other two to rush over, pen and napkin poised for an autograph, mobile phones at the ready for the inevitable photograph.
“We really miss you,” gushes one of them. She even grabs his hand. “You should sooo never have quit. You should be the PM, not her.” The other two giggle in agreement. Mark smiles bashfully and gives a dismissive wave of his over-sized hand. “Naah,” he says in his unmistakable Werriwa drawl, “I had my crack at it.”
An evening with Mark Latham is an enlightening affair. The pub he has chosen is the Kirribilli Hotel in Tory-town, only a stone’s throw from the large house on the harbour he nearly got to call home. He would have fitted in well. The locals can’t seem to get enough of him. A man who introduces himself as “the Mayor of Kirribilli”, and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Ray ‘Rabbits’ Warren, is just one of the many patrons of the pub who finds an excuse to drift over and tell Mark the same two things: how much they like him. And how much they dislike Julia. “Come back, mate. All is forgiven!” he growls, to the nodding approval of those around him. Even as we attempt to leave the pub, Mark is bailed up by more people on the pavement, echoing the same sentiment. Like the best pollies with the “common touch”, he insists on chatting to each and every one of them in turn while the rest of us wait patiently on the sidewalk, shivering.
Over dinner we get the famous “taxi-driver-with-the-broken-elbow” yarn, complete with a visual re-enactment of the bone-snapping tackle and plateloads of humour and self-deprecation. He must’ve told it a thousand times before, but he makes the story sound as fresh as the tuna sashimi we tuck into. The meal is in a Japanese restaurant, around a low table, with dishes intended to share. Mark takes the beef hot-pot and picks up a knife and fork. “What are you lot having?” he asks, tucking in. It suddenly occurs to me that the “handshake episode” that possibly cost him the election was completely misunderstood. Latham wasn’t trying to intimidate Howard. He was probably quite pleased to bump into him and was just being himself - a brusque, forthright, no-frills Aussie bloke.
Also present are Tom Switzer, Michael Kroger, Janet Albrechtsen and former NSW minister Michael Yabsley. Two safe topics of conversation present themselves. One is Michael Yabsley’s passion for the byzantine inner workings of antique lamps. The other is the byzantine inner machinations of the ABC. Sorry Michael, but we’ll have to do the lamps next time.
Five days later I am standing in the foyer of the ABC, no longer contemplating her inner workings, but rather heading off to lunch in Chinatown with an old advertising friend, Paul Comrie-Thomson, who now, along with Michael Duffy, presents Radio National’s Counterpoint program. Paul and I first met filming a TV commercial featuring a dog called Spot Dixon, whose owner had a unique way of getting the gunk out of the corner of the dog’s eye for its close ups. She’d lick it out.
Paul and I had discussed the carbon tax ads on a previous show, where I’d suggested they were nothing more than (taxpayer-funded) highly polished corporate ads for some mob called Infigen. Today we learn that Infigen had debts of $1.25 billion at the end of the 2011 financial year. No mention of that amongst the beautiful imagery and heart-felt eulogies to the wonders of windmills and solar power.
Having never actually listened to Countdown before my first appearance, I made a point of tuning in the previous week. Paul was interviewing Peter Toohey, an academic, about his book called “Boredom: A Lively History.” I listened for the full twenty minutes, convinced I had stumbled upon the greatest comic duo since Derek and Clive, as they managed to turn a lengthy discussion about “how boredom can be good for you” into something that was achingly, compellingly, and utterly, er, uninteresting. Sheer genius.
Paul and I have been exploring the theme of the Truth Well Told, which is the old McCann’s advertising slogan. QANTAS, in their latest campaign, seem to have turned the idea on its head by delivering Half-truths Poorly Told. We reminisce about the days when a QANTAS trip symbolized a rite of passage for an entire generation, as we all headed off to “do Europe.” Hilariously, you could even smoke on airlines in those days, and the in-flight entertainment involved seeing how many tinnies you could skull before you landed in London. That was the real spirit of QANTAS. I can’t wait to see what the “new” one will be.
Listening to the radio on the way home, it’s clear there’s a new spirit in Canberra. This one’s called “defeat”, and it must be hanging in the spring air as visibly as the pollen from the Floriade. “This is a dagger through the heart of the Gillard government,” opines Graham Richardson, as the news comes through that the High Court has pronounced the Malaysian solution unlawful. Some months ago I wrote a spoof article in this magazine about how people smugglers would be encouraged, rather than deterred, by this ham-fisted policy. But even drawing on whatever meagre satirical skills I may possess, I couldn’t have imagined how farcical this whole shemozzle would become.
Come back Mark, all is forgiven.