‘The Happy Land’ – The Life and Times of John Winston Coward – Part 3 – My Mum and Dad

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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. Here, John Winston Coward talks about his family farming roots in the Wimmera region.
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 3:  ‘My Mum and Dad’ – John Winston Coward

I was born in a wheat paddock to a mother I loved and a father I hated. Dad got Mum to bring his afternoon tea out to him in the paddocks even when she was pregnant. Despite being Protestant, there was a Catholic gene on Dad’s side that burdened Mum with numerous labours. Dad’s temperament, which was emotional and enthusiastic, was also a contributing factor, so that while tractors didn’t have roll-bars in those days, Dad was always on for a roll with Mum — and that was another reason he liked to get her alone. I was the last of their children.

“The little bastard couldn’t wait to come into the world!” Dad would say.

“I remember you caught him in the tea-towel,” Mum agreed.

“Just as well I’d eaten the scones!”

I have had a pale complexion ever since being swaddled in that floury cloth.

There was dust as well as flour in the air the day of my birth. It was late December and Dad was harvesting.

“A dry season, but the yield was high,” he used to say, laughing. “And I’m not referring to you, John Winston!”

It’s a fact that I’ve always been short, even, at one point in my teenage years, diminutive.

“Let him be, Dad!” Mum frowned.

Otherwise her expression was always angelic.

“You pamper him, Mum! Let him fight his own battles!”

He danced around me, punching the air.

There was no movement in the air on the day of my birth. The Wimmera wheat lands were flat for miles around, with nothing rising above the height of a fence, save the occasional gum tree in the corner of a paddock. Only in the distance, the silos on the railway line could be seen through the faint haze of dust, stirred by harvesters, tractors and the trucks moving slowly along the road to the silos. The air was hot, the sun high and white in the sky. Sweat dried on the skin, so that Dad drank scalding tea to perspire. When Mum went into labour, he propped her against one of the tractor tyres in a narrow rim of shade. Eventually, parts of me were wiped clean with weak black tea, the way Dad preferred it, heavily sugared, and another beast of the field had been brought into the world.

“A quiet young pup,” he used to say.

“Never disrespectful,” Mum added.

“Never really knew where you stood with him.”

My government has since passed legislation outlawing verbal and physical abuse, although I do believe parental chastisement has a place in the family.

Once, Dad asked me to make a cudgel out of a mallee root, which he could use to punish his children. It would help build my character, he said — harden my resolve in the face of a cold, unpredictable world. He set the standard himself for the world’s lack of sympathy.

If my childhood was made difficult by my father, it wasn’t unhappy. Mum was always there to console and protect. Among her many children, I imagine I was one of her favourites, owing to the circumstances of my birth. I’m sure she associated me with the deprivation of our paddocks and sought to make up. I was always given the last slice of bread, with jam. Sometimes, as a treat, it was smeared with dripping if mutton had been cooked in our wood-fired oven. In summer, the kitchen shimmered with its heat.

Our wheat farm was poor, but not impoverished. It was on the edge of the Wimmera, marginal wheat land with a dusting of productive soil. In a good season, it produced grain in abundance; in a poor season, nothing at all. If the crop failed early and the northerlies blew, part of its surface would be lifted up and rolled south into the Western District, where the landowners profited from our loss. We survived these disasters because Mum was provident as well as cheerful, unlike her husband, who, whilst reputed to be a canny farmer, was too generous to his neighbours and friends. Some said it was a quality in his favour.

I can recall an incident early in my childhood, in the Commercial Hotel. Our region was in drought, there was no harvest, and there was no seed for the new season. The farmers were meeting with the local State Member to argue their case for government assistance. I can’t remember the parliamentarian saying anything at all, but I can still see Dad standing on a chair demanding action. I was with Mum at the back of the bar watching Dad perform.

“Friends!” he shouted. “What do we want?”

“Seed!” they all shouted.

“When do we want it?”

There was some hesitation, as each farmer had his own way of deciding the right time to plant. One or two turned to the bar to have their glasses refilled. Even now I can smell the thick, mingled fumes of beer and tobacco. The pall of cigarette and pipe smoke was above my head, but the odour was intense even down near the floor. My father neither smoked nor drank. His volatile nature was averse to stimulants and depressants.

“Now!” he prompted. “We need government assistance now!”

“Now!” they echoed to a man.

Although I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the socialist nature of their request, a kind of a thrill, or shock, went through my conservative body. To recover my senses I fixed my attention on Dad, who was spitting specks of foam. I was appalled.

“What’s happening to Dad?” I whispered to Mum.

She had to bend over and ask me to repeat the question.

“He’s gaining momentum,” she said. “He loves to put on a show.”

Grinding my teeth in frustration I managed to loosen one. I lost it in my sleep that night, but although Mum later helped me go through the bedclothes we never found it. One of my brothers said I should watch what came out in the toilet, but none of us stayed in the outhouse any longer than we had to, even those of us young enough to be taken out by our mother. It was a dark, stinking hole – especially in summer – some distance from the kitchen door.

“Why’s he rolling his eyes?” I asked.

“It’s an effect,” she explained.

Around us, a few of our neighbours were also beginning to show an effect, although by and large the district was farmed by sober, industrious men, many of them Lutheran. We were Methodist, and there were Anglican and Catholic churches in town as well, so that Christianity had a firm hold on the spiritual life of the community. Those who fell by the wayside, who needed the support of the hotel bar the night of the seed rally, were treated like children. Only occasionally someone like Dad, who was a lay preacher in the Methodist Church, spoke out against alcohol.

“It’s the root of all evil,” he used to begin.

He was speaking before the children left the service to attend Sunday School in the hall behind the church. With our presence in mind, he tempered his delivery, but I felt uncomfortable enough as it was.

“I’m convinced of its fundamental nature,” he continued, “when I see men in the grip of its influence. It can turn men into monsters.”

He now had the attention of the congregation.

“Monsters,” he repeated. “Do any of you know what a monster is?”

Many heads nodded nervously, while others remained steady.

“A monster’s an unnatural thing,” he explained.

Then he paused, before rising high up in the pulpit, like a snake preparing to strike.

“Unnatural!” he screamed.

Or so it seemed to me, as I shrank back in the pew.

“And we all know what unnatural is,” he accused.

All heads nodded: none dared refuse. His voice had become soft again, although his eyes were shining like candles, in emphasis. Methodism believed candles were unnatural. Everyone understood, even children.

His face twisted in a leer.

“This is the face of drunken lechery,” he explained.

“What’s lechery?” I asked Mum, in a whisper.

But she was too involved in the sermon.

“Go out to Sunday School now, children,” Dad announced. “I don’t want to scare you. Your teacher will explain.”

The young woman who rose to escort us from church seemed to wilt at the knees. An expectant excitement was rippling through the pews, making everyone tremble. I looked back reproachfully at Mum, who was as enthralled as everyone by Dad’s performance, but I realised she had to remain loyal to her husband in public. Not for the first time I questioned the need for the family to support his antics.

“I wish he could be more like an ordinary father,” I complained to one of my brothers. “Why does he always make an exhibition of himself?”

“You’re as bad as he is, mate,” he scowled.

“Teacher’s pet,” another one added.

It was what they all thought to explain why I was so good at school. Already the adults were saying I’d win scholarships and bring honour to the community, and I’d begun to think about what profession would suit me. Medicine didn’t appeal as it involved pain and suffering — raw, naked emotion. The law, the little I understood of it at that age, seemed more restrained, confined within courthouses, where there were rules of procedure and behaviour.

Once I accompanied Dad to a hearing before a Magistrate involving a dispute between two neighbours over a right of way. One of the men – a Catholic – was expected to put on a performance that Dad didn’t want to miss. In the event, both men were subdued, our neighbour almost cowed, while Dad sat beside me with his hands clasped in his lap like a schoolboy. At first, I was worried, thinking he was sick, but then I realised the Magistrate and his procedures were exerting control and that if anyone became emotional they would be ‘held in contempt’. I learned the phrase later, but caught the feeling of it that morning. Now, after a lifetime of service in law and politics – but mostly in politics – I can say that ‘contempt’ is the most beautiful word in the English language, although ‘cricket’ runs a close second.

Perhaps because of our neighbours’ dispute, Dad decided to enter local politics as well as the pulpit. One of the farmers, the Catholic, had punched the other, who was a Protestant. Nowadays these confrontations have lost their sting, although their murderous intent is still evident in foreign lands with less discipline and control. In Australia, we balance the religious convictions of people in ceremonial high office – such as that of the Governor General – so that no faith or sect is seen to be favoured. The problem then becomes one of finding a suitable candidate from the institution whose turn has come round, such as, for the sake of the argument, finding a qualified Bishop from the ranks of the Anglicans.

My father’s decision to go into local government was a natural consequence of his love of high drama. The punch-up between our neighbours involved the interpretation of some old markings on maps in the shire office, to which Dad imagined he would have access as a councillor. He fancied himself as a mediator, such as one sees nowadays on reality television.

“Is there anything you can say to dissuade him?” I asked Mum.

Although I was only nine or ten, my language already had an argumentative edge, an indication of my later calling. But it was always calm, considered.

“His mind’s made up,” she said. “You know what he’s like. But I think he’s right this time: he’ll make a good representative.”

“What does he want to represent?”

“The voters, his constituents — us.”

These words sounded strange in my ears. They were so lifeless, I almost got excited. I pushed them back, deep in my mind.

“Will he make speeches?”

“He’ll have to let everyone know where he stands on each issue.”

“Just as long as he doesn’t jump up and down.”

Mum looked at me carefully.

“Was that a joke, John Winston?”

I shook my head and frowned.

“You seem to be squinting, dear, we should get your eyes tested.”

On the edge of the Wimmera, close to the desert, there were no eye specialists, but in due course I was taken on a long journey and returned wearing glasses. I mention this only because it made everyone even more critical of me and sharpened my view of the world. With the help of the glasses, I could bring emotion into the clearest focus — and understand that I didn’t like what I saw. But I could see, and begin to appreciate, that law and politics were connected and useful to each other. I began to wonder how I could move on.

“Law?” Dad laughed.

But through his laughter, I detected a note of approval and belief in the possibility that one of his children might go out past the farm and into the wider world. For my part, I found myself thinking more of the local State member who attended the seed rally, who kept his opinions and feelings to himself and said nothing at all — and yet won the day. Allowing others to speak in support of the issue, he positioned himself to accept credit when the victory was won, when the independent wheat farmers were guaranteed subsidised seed.

“You’ll have to work hard,” Dad warned.

“But you know how well he’s doing at school,” Mum said.

“So I believe,” he agreed, as if I were some unrelated prodigy.

And I may well have been for all the personal interest he took in my progress, although Mum insisted he had many other things on his mind.

Increasingly, he was preoccupied with local politics. Our farm continued to produce – in a good season, at any rate – because, by then, my brothers were able to do most of the work. They were typical sons of the wheat lands, with more soil than brains in their heads, but were industrious enough out in the paddocks while our father spent his energy in town. In the meantime, I retired deep in the bunker of my mind, absorbed in books and learning, laying the foundation for my later success at university.

So the years passed. As I buried my feelings in order to concentrate on mental tasks, I became distant from my mother as well as my father. She seemed to understand what was happening. Every once in a while I caught her eyes on me, and had to look away quickly, before she had a chance to hold me. Sometimes, Dad would perform his little war dance around me and ask how I was doing. Then he headed back into town.

Eventually, I won the scholarship everyone had been expecting, but I’d worked so hard it came a year too soon and my parents were reluctant to allow me to go down to Melbourne. Dad actually put his arm around my shoulder one night, as if to protect me from the big city.

“Far too young,” he said, “but still, if you’re keen to go…”

I could feel the tears at the back of my eyes, but my self-discipline had been brought to such a level I knew I could hold them back.

“Your mother and I have put something aside to help you,” he said.

How they scrimped it out of Wimmera dust and drought is anyone’s guess.

“It’s not very much,” she beamed, “but it’ll be something to add to your scholarship.”

I nodded.

“I’m not looking forward to leaving,” I said, with as much sincerity as I could find at short notice.

In the background, one of my brothers smirked. Pathetic bastard, I thought, but gave nothing away. I’d made up my mind a long time ago to leave them nothing to remember me by, just the fact of my birth in one of the farm’s less fertile paddocks.

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