A race for stayers

You know how you remember where you were when President Kennedy was shot? Well, as Melbourne Cup time comes round each year, I remember—with a mixture of dread and triumph—the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Lecture that I gave on Tuesday, 5 November, in the Chancellors Hall of the University of London Senate House in 1996. It was like this.

In the Common Room on the previous Thursday, I mention the imminent lecture to a colleague because I’ve been brooding on it for weeks. The ensuing conversation is dispiriting:

Him: What’s the lecture on?
Me: Henry Lawson and Manning Clark.
Him: Henry Lawson. I’m afraid I—


Me: No, it’s all right. You wouldn’t have heard of him. Great Australian writer. Turn of the century.
Him: And Manfred—?
Me: Manning. Manning Clark. Famous historian.
Him: I don’t think I—
Me: Monumental six volume history of Australia. Very controversial. [Pause] The lecture’s on Melbourne Cup Day. Could be an omen.
Him: Melbourne Cup D—?

Me: Actually, I’m backing Grey Shot. English horse. One of your mob. Front runner. They send the English horses over Business Class on British Air. Don’t worry about it.

Friday

Struggling with my draft around 10am I am invaded by a catastrophic thought: what if everybody’s like my Pommy interlocutor of yesterday? Suddenly I realise that, apart from a few stray Aussies, no-one will know anything—anything—about Lawson or Clark. They’ll be all at sea. It will be a disaster. Although, perhaps no-one will come. Later, I learn via email that Grey Shot has blown out to 50s. Just as I’d predicted. Get the money on, I tell my collaborator in Melbourne.

Saturday

Up at 5am to help my wife set off to a weekend conference in Amsterdam. This leaves me an entirely uninterrupted couple of days to beautify my lecture—some honing here, some fine tuning there, a sophisticated aside somewhere else.

I begin my solitude with a large breakfast in which are heavily represented numbers of eggy, fatty and greasy items that my wife does not normally consider essential to start the day. Needing a walk after this, I set off about midday thinking, naturally enough, about Manning Clark and Henry Lawson, but ending up at Panton Street where I take in Fargo having missed it first time round. Fargo finishes just after four and a brisk walk punctuated by a couple of swift pints gets me back in front of the TV to catch up on the day’s scores. I think about Lawson and Clark over a few reds and a steak, but it’s been a long day and my concentration soon wavers. I’ve still got all of Sunday, after all.

Sunday

After heavy overnight rain, nine hundred thousand tons of lingering autumn leaves in Mecklenburg Square have acquired a banana peel slipperiness which is visibly sapping the sabbatarian resolve of the churchgoers whose faltering progress I am distractedly watching from my upstairs window while reflecting on Lawson and Clark. It’s about 11am, raining and windy. For two hours I peruse the Observer and the Independent as a useful intellectual preliminary to returning to Lawson and Clark. Today, I will knock the lecture over. As it happens though, I recognise that a day of such egregious inclemency is just the time to go and see Breaking The Waves at the nearby Renoir cinema. I return home emotionally shattered but recover for what turns out to be the scintillating second half of Newcastle’s clash with Middlesborough. Following this with a bit of channel surfing to wind down, I fluke the end of Gunfight at OK Corral. The Clantons lose again. Why does everybody round here know who Wyatt Earp was and no-one knows about Henry Lawson? Or Clark?

My wife rings from Amsterdam. She is pleased to hear I’ve had a good working weekend and that the lecture’s all wrapped up and ready to go. I’m pleased to hear this too, if it comes to that. In fact I’m stunned.

Monday

The miracle of email tells me that Grey Shot has tightened but still represents excellent value. (Lawson and Clark, on the other hand, have blown out to 500/1 as they move up to the Memorial Lecture barrier stalls in my aching head.) With the money on, however, my Melbourne informant is overwhelmed with a sense of doom. He’s got a sense of doom. Doesn’t he know about the Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Lecture? Still, I finally get a good run at it during Monday and it’s looking better by that night when my wife returns and we revert to healthy eating.

Tuesday

In Melbourne, Grey Shot hits the front from the jump and leads the Cup field into the straight. He’s still in the money with a hundred and fifty metres to go but is overrun in a crowded finish. Seventh. No cigar.
In London, conversely, the lecture is, according to all the punters, a winner. Big audience, prolonged applause.

As we leave the Hall heading for the drinks, a cultivated English voice nearby says, ‘I must admit I hadn’t really heard of Lawson and Clark before tonight.’ I smile enigmatically. ‘And Sir Robert Menzies,’ he goes on, ‘wasn’t he ...?’

‘Prime Minister,’ I explain, keen to help. ‘Of Australia. You know? Australia? Veer left at Singapore ...’                                     

Brian Matthews is a writer and academic.

 

 

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