‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 10 – His Favourite Sayings

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Was John Howard's Australia the place admirers like Tony Abbott promote? 'The Happy Land' is Graham Jackson's satirical alternative reality. This challenging work, illustrated by Gee, consists of thirteen Papers written by the major players in a dark period in Australia's short history. In this paper, emeritus professor Costello recalls a trip by John Winston Coward back to his native Scotland — or somewhere.
The Life and Times of John Winston Coward
The Prime Minister who pushed Children Overboard in His Pursuit of Electoral Victory: A Reconstruction


1: ‘His Scottish Ancestors’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
2: ‘His Love of Cricket’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
3:‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward
4: ‘The Happy Land’ – Extracts from an Interview with ‘Opening Batsman’
5: ‘The Coming of the Iraqis, Afghans and Fins’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
6: ‘The Martyrdom of Minister Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
7: ‘My Dream’ – a Transcript of ‘Sea Captain’s’ Evidence before a Select Committee
8: ‘An Address to the Australian People’ – John Winston Coward
9: ‘Ruddock Replaces Reith’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
10: ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
11: ‘The Unveiling of the Scottish Thistle’ – John Winston Coward
12: ‘The Death of a Conservative Leader’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello
13: ‘Postscript’ – ‘Wicketkeeper’
Paper 10:  ‘His Favourite Sayings’ – Emeritus Professor P. Costello

Overseas, the Prime Minister represented his country at functions requiring a dignified number of senior people. On these occasions, if the country could be identified, he read a short piece from a local author. A passage he often read the President of the United States of America, for instance, was written by F Scott Fitzgerald: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” This was his favourite saying, as it brought together his love of water and inland ports, his reactionary nature and his respect for the power of the Americans.

At home Coward’s advisers and agents worked tirelessly to keep him informed of developments in the world and of Australia’s increasing importance as a place of asylum. Indeed, during Ruddock’s period as Lord Warden, the Prime Minister felt sufficiently confident of his country’s position to threaten to declare war on New Zealand. “A capital called Kabul,” he said, “should to be reduced to rubble.” He picked this up from the tea lady, who collected such things in the corridor. Yet he wasn’t a war-like man, only one so used to straying from the truth that when he sent his soldiers to war he didn’t know whether he meant it or not.

In the case of New Zealand, he was provoked by his neighbour’s refusal to take its share of asylum-seekers who, stranded on the Australian coast, told officials their real destination was on the other side of the Tasman Sea. Ruddock had also taken advice from the United Nations, which in this instance agreed with him. It never ceased to amaze him, as he stared out from his bunker, how the international body was so often wrong. But it had made the right determination this time, even if it outraged New Zealand. Many of the country’s nationals, the majority of whom lived in Australia, were at that moment marching in protest around parliament house, having no other employment to distract them. Watching them on closed circuit television, John Winston Coward was heard to say, as he so often did, that New Zealand was “a nation of contrasts, of caftans and cricketers.”

But by far the largest number of Coward’s sayings had their origin in a visit to Scotland, during his last year in office. Although it was a family vacation, the Cowards were accompanied by a number of government officials who took notes for the record.

In the days leading up to his departure, the Prime Minister became agitated, berating his advisers – Ruddock in particular – for imagined slip-ups, oversights and errors.

“Where’s the brief on Finley?” he demanded one morning, and, before his minister could reply, taunted: “Remember Reith?”

At night, he was irritated with his wife.

“I can’t sleep,” he complained. “You’re taking all the room.”

“You’ve never been able to lie straight in bed.”

She knew he was under pressure, about to leave for the home of his ancestors and the home of his Queen. He revered the Queen almost as much as the American President. His wife caught some of his anxiety, packing things in the wrong suitcases and forgetting to get visas for the children. It was a trying time for them all.

Ruddock was glad to see the back of his leader, although Coward’s shoulders had slumped to such an extent he’d more or less vanished before he got to the end of the corridor. The Lord Warden returned to his office, his face a humourless mask. A report about Jake Blight’s latest wanderings in the Riverina waited on his desk. The boy had unexpectedly become a folk hero. It might be advisable, Ruddock considered, to upgrade his status. Terrorist might be better than illegal. It was food for thought, at any rate, and would give him something to do in the leader’s absence.

The flight to Scotland or the New Hebrides, as it was sometimes called, was much quicker than expected. “I exist in a time warp,” Coward said more than once while the plane was still in the air, beginning its descent to Scottish soil. His daughter laughed, “Good one, John Winston,” a saying that has earned its own secure place as a footnote in works on her father.

The family was struck by the humidity of the ancestral home. There was no air-conditioning in the Port Vila terminal, which wasn’t much more than a shed, and they had to take off the coats they were wearing against icy blasts and sleet. There was a wind, but it was tropically warm. Mrs Coward in particular was disconcerted and short of breath, and struggled to come to terms with the climate throughout their visit.

“Lot of dark folks here.”

The Prime Minister’s teenage son, a taller and slimmer version of his mother, looked around critically. His sister arched her eyebrows. The image of her father, she would have a lot to say on the subject of Scotland, very little of it complimentary, before they returned to the terminal to board their flight home.

“The influence of the Spanish Armada has been profound,” Coward wrote later that night in his vacation journal.

“But they’re black!” his daughter laughed.

Coward cleared his throat, but nothing came out. They boarded the bus waiting to take them to their resort in silence.

It was dark as they drove through the harbour town. To think that the return to his ancestral home had begun so well! From the plane he had caught glimpses of the mountainous peaks of Scotland, high and wild, where chieftains once proudly ruled with sword, spear and sporran. “I did but see them passing by,” he wrote in his journal, “and yet I love them till I die.”

His mood lightened when they reached their resort, where the natives had constructed a tribute to warmer climes. Coward almost took off his tie. But good sense prevailed and the security people saw them safely through to their rooms, which seemed to have been constructed of coconut palms. Having neither the experience nor words to rationalise such a fantasy, the Prime Minister went to bed.

If the vacation had begun with a few reservations, it became increasingly successful as each day passed. Despite Mrs Coward’s breathlessness and her daughter’s disbelief, the family was often touched by the Scots’ courtesy. They weren’t an outgoing people, but the Cowards found them agreeable and always willing to please. “I do but see them passing by,” John Winston Coward said, “and wonder why.” One of his more obscure sayings, some of the magic and mystery of the Scottish islands or highlands can still be felt in it.

From their apartment windows, they watched smoke from peat fires wafting across the face of the hills, softened by ubiquitous heather. There was something clinging about the view Coward found unpleasant at first, but which slowly grew on him — like a mould or fungus. Such was the environment the Scottish entrepreneurs had created.

Typically, there was a golf in the grounds — a links course, based on bunkers and sandy divots. Coward would have preferred cricket, but was content with tradition. Coracles were also available for guests to use on the lagoon, or loch, on which the resort had been built. Games of bowls were arranged daily on the lawns — another reminder of the Armada and Drake and Scottish sea captains, with whose spirit the entire country was infused. “Life wasn’t meant to be easy,” Coward said, “but it has its compensations.” There was a sternness in the air he found bracing, despite the warm spell of weather. The sound of a bagpipe, or even a song from Brigadoon, would have provided the perfect match to his mood.

Towards the end of their stay, the family boarded a small plane to make a sightseeing tour to Edinburgh, but either through pilot error or a mix-up in the original booking they touched down on the island of Erromanga. There they were entertained by natives in traditional costume dancing Scottish reels or something similar, which Coward’s son captured on video. His sister was less impressed.

“Good one, John Winston,” she complained.

It was a remote, barbaric location, where battles had been fought in days of yore and, with nearby tourist attractions like Traitors’ Head, it was impossible not to lose oneself in Scottish mists of time. A cloud hung over Erromanga for the duration of their short visit and the Prime Minister thought of Finley, where he had once seen a mist drifting over its pond, or lake.

But more often the Scottish skies were cloudless, with a clear view of the present, which was in any case so much tangled up with the past that, almost daily, they expected Bonnie Prince Charlie to put in an appearance — or his mother, the Queen. As it was, delegations of lesser dignitaries frequently asked permission to pay their respects, but were deflected by the Prime Minister’s security people. Once, Mrs Coward thought she saw the Bishop in the distance, but it turned out to be no one of any importance at all.

“How are the mighty fallen,” Coward said.

Another tour took them to the top of Mount Macdonald, from which they had an uninterrupted view of the Outer Hebrides, the entrances to various firths and forths and what might have been the Isle of Skye. The guide was inexperienced. His party squinted into the sunshine, regretting his lack of certainty. But it was a minor disappointment in what was otherwise a successful excursion and everyone, with the exception of Coward, joined in singing the Skye Boat Song on the bus trip back to the resort. He was concentrating on the creation of another saying, unfortunately lost, which research suggests might have been on a born to rule theme, given the lyrics of the Boat Song.

“In so far as it’s possible for anything to be good,” he said cautiously the following day, “good things will come to an end, unless sanctioned by the past, or tradition.”

So their vacation ended. For the Prime Minister it had been an emotional roller-coaster, from his shocking first glimpse of the Scottish complexion to his elation at being so close to Bonnie Prince Charlie. If the natives of Scotland no longer wore kilts – and not much of anything else in such humid conditions – he hadn’t had to ask what they wore underneath. Then he had drifted in a coracle on an ebb tide and been rescued in a traditional vessel at the mouth of a loch, or lagoon. Indeed, the manager of the resort had hinted it had originally been called a firth. On another occasion, he had been photographed in traditional costume – mostly coconut fibres and feathers – and eaten traditional food. He’d even tried haggis, or at any rate something boiled in the gut of a pig. He hadn’t eaten much, it was true, but had been applauded by his hosts, the descendants of his ancestors. It had been the final tribute and had fallen on his slight, but proudly squared, shoulders like the flat of a sword.

As the plane rose steeply from the airport, he looked down to catch one last glimpse of the mountains of Scotland, his only regret the failure of his travel agent to secure a presentation to the Queen.

He reached for his journal.

“If I had but seen her passing by,” he began, before words failed him.

His son glanced at the entry.

“You already said that,” he said.

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