Monday, December 14, 2009

Some Vintage Humphries

My magic flute -- by Sir Les Patterson

From chamber orchestras to chasing skirt, a misspent life in music
and politics is remembered

ALTHOUGH I'm often described as a rough diamond, I'm also a discerning music lover. In point of fact, since I have represented Australian culture all over the planet, I am heavily into the finer things of life: Australian wines and spirits, fine old Tasmanian cheeses and approachable members of the opposite sex community.

Long before my old mates in the upper echelons of the Labor Party saw fit to make me Minister of Culture, I ran the entertainment division of one of south Sydney's biggest footy clubs. Back in the rock'n'rollin' '70s I coaxed a lot of crash-hot international talent to that club and although Ol' Blue Eyes, Sammy Davis jnr and Shirley Bassey regretfully couldn't make it, I showcased the late great Don Lane, Johnny Young with the Young Talent Time team and my personal favourite, Kamahl.

There was always music in my home in the dress circle suburb of Kogarah (an Aboriginal word meaning the meeting of the waters, although water is not the preferred beverage of we Kogarah-dwellers). My wife, Lady Gwen, was very proud of our Stromberg Carlson radiogram and she had a pretty eclectic collection of discs spanning a whole musical spectrum – from Mantovani, right through Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to the Seekers, whom I almost lured to the club if they hadn't been overseas at the time.

Gwen would often sit up half the morning, God love her, in her candlewick dressing gown and pink fluffy mules sprinkled with toast crumbs, enjoying an Alpine and a pre-lunch Asti Spumante with Mario Lanza singing a Student Prince selection at full throttle. I was always proud of the fact that I was the only high-profile Australian politico with a high-brow wife who liked nothing better than a little musical soiree in the morning.

As my career blossomed and I copped the big posting in London as Australian Cultural Attache at the Court of St James with a commonwealth car in perpetuity, it was part of my briefing to go to operas, concerts and the occasional ballet. Even for me, some of the music was a bit too eclectic for my finely honed sensibility but I always liked the ballets, which I enjoyed from a comfy seat in the front row, affording me a ringside view up the ballerinas' plies and the occasional jetes.

I love nothing more than introducing young people to music and on these cultural excursions at the Australian taxpayers' expense, I often took as my companion a young, impressionable research assistant and the odd intern. My interns were rather aptly named, come to think of it, and they lapped up my wealth of artistic experience like thirsty kittens. God bless them.

If you are a red-blooded male, as I am, it is hard at first to work in an area that is largely the prerogative of the pillow-biting community, the Lord love them. Both the men and women affiliated with the Australian opera and ballet have all got proclivities of one kind or another and that's OK as far as I'm concerned, so long as the blokes don't try putting the hard word on me and the women-folk, in their black outfits and Sarah Palin glasses, don't make the move on my wife, whose medications and my long absences from the nest make her extremely vulnerable to the odd hand on her knee, be it male, female or indeterminate. Don't get me wrong, readers, I yield to none in my abhorrence of sexism in the workplace and homophobia. If you don't believe me, Google my lecture of a few years ago, "Meditations on Gender: The Recreations of a Diplomat".

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is an exciting group of young instrumentalists run by Richard Tognetti. I generally call him Dick because I can't get my tongue around his surname, though I can usually get my tongue around most other things. However, Dick is as Australian as Tim-Tams, Vegemite and intoxicated young women on Saturday nights. Like me he's an avid surfer and though it's a long time since I hung 10, my girl Friday will tell you that in the privacy of my taxpayer-funded government office, I manage to hang one pretty well every afternoon.

Dick and I have a lot in common apart from our love of eclectic music and I was delighted to discover that he and I are life members of the same lap-dancing club in Sydney. I am honoured to be joining the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a few pre-Christmas concerts where I will be singing some of my favourite and most eclectic Australian ditties. A couple of these, like The Road to Gundagai (Aboriginal word meaning meeting of the waters), were popular with my parents because it was the theme tune of Dad and Dave, a radio serial of yesteryear.

Young people and music lovers have probably never heard this classic before but my cover version of it will probably go platinum. I'll also be singing a song of my own composition dedicated to the love of my life. It will be the first time that this eclectic ballad has ever been accompanied by a chamber orchestra brave enough to play it. On other lips, the words of this song could offend but the way the ACO and I render it imparts a rare subtlety and resonance to the otherwise X-rated lyrics.

A final word about the rest of the concert, which represents the peak of my career. Barry Humphries, who is still alive and soon to be appearing on The Biggest Loser, will be in charge of the first half of the eclectic evening and good luck to him! The second half will kick off with me, and later on Dame Edna herself will grace the stage with a beautiful anthem she recently did at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of King Constantine of Greece, a symphony orchestra, a choir of 150 and audience of 5000 music-lovers. It was a great moment for Australia, rivalled only by the concert we'll be giving you. A ticket to this will be the best Christmas present you'll ever give yourself and a moving expression of your trust and faith that in the hands of Leslie Colin Patterson AO KBE, Australian culture is safe for all time.


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