Its 1974 I’m sitting on the stairs at the old Joel’s Auction rooms in McKillop Street Melbourne waiting for a lot to come up. In those days the most extraordinary stuff turned up for sale and that day it was a job-lot of about 300 political cartoons that belonged to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ private secretary. I had spent the last 24 hours trying to work out how I was going to get the money to buy this most important collection. By the next day I had reconciled having to let it go and waited to see how much interest they would bring. As the lot came up the bidding stalled at $750 and before I knew it I had bought the collection for $800 thinking it would surely go for thousands?? I wrote a cheque and realised I had until Monday [Joel’s are still selling on Thursdays] to cover the cheque. My first call was to show them to my friend and “go to guy” for cartoons Vane Lindesay the great Australian Black and White artist and historian whose cartoons graced Australasian Post and many other publications.
Vane was over the moon to see them and explained how important the collection was but he was also not in a position to buy them but offered to swap me two of them for two original Leunigs an offer that I could not resist. At the time I had a shop in Collins street that specialised in Art Deco, Australiana and ephemera. Barry Humphries was a good customer. He collected Australiana and I went up to the Windsor where he was living at the time and left a note for him to ring as soon as he got back. By Saturday afternoon I had no word from Barry and I went to see my friend Ann Turner [History professor Ian Turner’s wife] for some advice as to how not to be arrested for cheque fraud. Ann was a fixer and she rang Cliff Pugh who said bring them over. Cliff bought the collection and I managed to keep 2 of them. One was a Will Dyson pastel portrait of Gerald du Maurier drawn as a magician in a tux pulling a rabbit out of a hat [subsequently stolen in a burglary] and this wonderful David Low cartoon of Billy Hughes and fat “friend”. I liked the joke but always thought there was more to the story than the “Why worry about it” punchline.
After Cliff bought the lot and told me he would donate the collection to the various galleries that had a geographical or political connection to the drawings. He was that sort of man a mensch.
Good result. Vane had two for his collection I had two wonderful Leunigs and a Dyson, this David Low and the rest of the collection would go to where it was meant to be.
Fast forward [fuck its 43 years!] to a couple of months ago when Diane noticed that historian Ross McMullin was giving a talk at the Kyneton Library about Pompey Elliot He was a great presenter and after the talk I bought his book about Chris Watson Australia’s third Prime minister “So Monstrous a Travesty” the story of the first national Labour government in the world. Great book
In the second chapter we hear about his choosing a ministry that would include two future prime ministers Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes. His choice of Senate leader was Gregor Mc Gregor who had lost most of his sight in a logging accident while working as a labourer [good working-class politician] but had a remarkable memory “he buttressed his vigorous speeches with streams of memorised statistics’. This ex wrestler [also good training for politics] “had become plump to the point of stoutness with a massive square shaped head”
That’s when the penny dropped Billy Hughes’ dining companion was revealed to be no other than blind Gregor McGregor.
So finally, another level of politically incorrect comment was revealed in the “joke” that now still has a resonance and truth in the madness that the “modernist” food world has become.
So why worry about it?