Background. The revelation by Bill Wentworth (1907-2003) at the end of this sketch – that Pig Iron Bob’s Cabinet were drunk at a critical moment of the Petrov affair – recalls Ed Behr’s dictum: a reporter is more often victim than hero.
My mistake was to read History at the St Lucia shop, and so suffered the drudgery of scrambling together long historical narratives in which a pattern emerges from the chronology. For example, how Pig Iron manipulated the Petrov affair, covered-up the Voyager disaster, and lied us into a war in which brave lads got killed.
My second (1984) Petrov problem started suspiciously well. His Excellency the Ambassador to UNESCO picked up the bride in the Paris embassy Roller. She said: “Do you speak French?” Whitlam said: “Un peu.” His Excellency the Ambassador to France, Peter Curtis, performed the ceremony and supplied the bubbly. The small party went round to the Tour d’Argent for the pressed duck and the view of Notre Dame across the road. Getting married abroad certainly keeps the overheads down.
Before we boarded the Rome Express, Whitlam mentioned that Hawke was going to release the Petrov Papers. I rang The Sydney Morning Herald from Rome and explained where to find my pre-obituary on Petrov, but next day was told to come back and handle the event bizzo myself. Instead of Florence, the bride went back to England; she kindly does not mention my perfidy all that often.
In Australia, the corruption front was in overdrive; a High Court judge, a magistrate and a Premier had been shown to be criminals. Editor Chris Anderson said readers had lost track; while you are here, would you mind pulling it all together? Two years later, I expanded the stuff into a book, Can of Worms. The dedication read:
who never did get to see
Signor Ghiberti’s doors
at the Baptistery, Florence.
THE INVITATION said:
Entree Card $25.00
Dress: Elegantly Casual
What I wondered, does the bon ton judge to be casual elegance? Harry Douglas, the good Queensland boy and computer typhoon who has been making a noble effort to become, in the way of party- giving, the Nola Dekyvere of our days, wore a double-breasted blazer one size too large. The buttons, on the other hand, may have been gold.
Behind Harry, as he received his guests inside the gate leading to his modest – no more than 180 squares – home in Jersey Road, Paddington, was a 1927 black and buttercup yellow Morris-Cowley which exactly replicated both his age and the colour scheme of the interior of his home.
Mr Douglas had turned his house over to the Australian Opera Auditions Committee, which helps opera hopefuls, for a reception to honour Mr Luciano Pavarotti, the singing person. About 400 guests generously put some $10,000 into the funds of the auditions people, and some perhaps not madly elegant screw-topped Griffith white burgundy down their throats.
Charles Berg, 65, a big number at the Australian opera, was in severe accountant’s brown. He opined that Signor Pavarotti would not sing, but might eat a little. “He likes,” he added, “to eat.”
This remark seemed superfluous. Signor P was attired in a red kerchief and a dark blue shirt of such surpassing elegance that it may even have been designed by those noted couturiers to the large person, the Bullen Freres.
I judged him to be a couple of axe-handles through the shoulders, and that neither Mr K. L. Skinner nor Mr Robert Paparemborde, said to be the strongest props in Rugby history, would have lasted ten minutes with him.
Waving cheerfully to his admirers, the great man made a rapid circuit of the first floor; stood still for the lens-persons; and, the emotional and Celsius temperature in the room having now risen to something approximating that of its previous incarnation as a steam laundry, retreated aloft to the roof garden, where a few thousand pot plants and ferns offered something of the effect of General Guy Sternwood’s office.
In his search for air, Signor P had to run the gauntlet of a number of ladies strategically placed on the stairs. Had some members of the Frottage Squad been on the premises, the ladies may have been in some danger of spending the night at the police station up the road …
William Charles Wentworth the Fourth, 75, great grandson of (Blaxland, Lawson and) Wentworth, is still a little fixated on the Red Menace. But what the hell, we all have our little foibles, and Bill is the man of style and panache: he beat off most contenders in the elegance stakes with his New College, Oxford, tie in dark blue with little white mitres.
Bill’s wife of 47 years, Barbara, a lady of no less vivacity, had likewise decisively one-upped the opera mob by addressing Signor P thus: “Come posso ringraziarle, Maestro?”
Which, being translated, means: “How can we ever thank you?” She was rewarded, no doubt to the chagrin of the ladies who don’t speak Italian, with a hearty embrace. Mrs Wentworth resolved, not alone among those present, to abstain from washing for a time…
“I’ve been down in Tasmania, having a look,” Bill said. “The dam will make us the laughing-stock of the bloody world.”
In case you’ve forgotten, Bill is also, as Mr Tim Bowden has recorded, the man who saved Mrs Evdokia Petrov for Western civilisation. Thus:
One night back in 1954, a couple of Russian heavies, the splendidly named Karpinsky and Zharkov, were hustling an obviously fearful Mrs P aboard the plane for Moscow. Bill happened to be out at Mascot and, as is his wont, took a look.
While it has never been altogether clear what terrified Mrs P the most – the Russian uglies or the shouting mob round the plane – Bill formed the opinion that Mrs P was ready to jump, and phoned the Lodge to advise that the plane be held at Darwin.
I recalled Bill’s historic role in this significant event. “Right,” he said, “Menzies was having a last Cabinet dinner before the elections. But,” he went on, laughing hugely, “what hasn’t come out is that they were all pissed, and no one would take the call.
“In the end, Bill McBride [Sir Philip McBride, Minister for Defence] went out to the phone. Then they had an argument about what to do. McEwen [Minister for Commerce and Agriculture] was known as ‘Don’t Panic Jack’, and he said: ‘Do nothing,’ but Menzies overruled him.”
The plane was held. Mrs P, a KCB operative for twenty years, defected, with her information, to the West.
I figured that such a marvellous footnote to history was certainly worth the entry fee, even if Signor P didn’t sing, and I didn’t learn a lot about casual elegance…
1982 From Amazing Scenes: Adventures of a Reptile of the Press. Fairfax Library, 1987