Shirley Stott Despoja reflects on Quentin Bryce’s remarkable, life-long practice of letter writing through Dear Quentin: Letters of a Governor-General.
As a child, Quentin Bryce, destined to be Australia’s first female Governor- General, respected her mother’s weekly pleasure in writing personal letters, on beautiful “soft cream” notepaper, at a “large Indian teak desk trimmed with studded snakeskin…never used for any other purpose.” An ordinary pen, “Quink ink, never a drop spilt.”
At boarding school with her sisters, the young Quentin kept up the tradition, and maintained it until she reached high office, still using pen, ink and cream paper, by hand. During her tenure she wrote about 50 letters a week to strangers as well as friends and relations.
I feel almost guilty tapping this out on my keyboard instead of maintaining the great tradition of handwriting. But I do write by hand to my closest friend, Rosemary, several times a week, when possible. My bad friend, Arthur Itis, as some Third Agers will know, sometimes makes it impossible, and I resort to my laptop. Rosemary never does. She is gallivanting overseas at the moment, and there is a terrible hiatus in our handwritten communications. Postcards from overseas won’t do. It is the ordinariness of our little lives (she lives in Canberra) our everyday chat that we both enjoy. News of cats and gardens, children, grandchildren, neighbours, cooking (hers not mine), shopping trips. Sometimes, not often, with especially private comments, prefaced by the word EAT (capital letters. Which we do, if not literally, but effectively, by destroying “that bit”).
Now that Dame Quentin has published an illustrated collection of her letters and those written to her, I have to wonder if she ever wrote EAT or something like it to her friends. After all, the essence of letter writing to friends is confidences. Of course the question hardly arises in those she wrote in answer to the hundreds of strangers who wrote to her during her term of high office.
One self-described “rather old” farmer, Mr Norman Grills, wrote to her after nearly giving her interview with Kerry O’Brien a miss in 2008, because he and his wife, Muriel, didn’t think she was “our sort of person”. They changed their mind during the broadcast, wrote to her, and not only did a regular correspondence evolve, but Government House visits.
To her close friend Monica McMahon she writes with lovely informality in the margins and diagonally across the page, how old women in a restaurant followed her into the ladies because they said they “wanted to have a good look” at her. In her first year of office as our first female GG, that might have been unnerving, but for Dame Quentin it was one of the funny things amid the stresses and strains.
To one of our great musicians, David Pereira, always generous with his time, she wrote, “I am mad about the cello!” Warmth, appreciation, no pretensions. David got the lovely sort of letter he deserves. She wrote to the bands that played at her official occasions, too, thanking them, praising them.
But whether to friends or strangers, Dame Quentin’s letters have the same feeling of intimacy. The most interesting ones in this collection are replies to kids, country women, old soldiers, reassuring them, encouraging them, welcoming their confidences. Many times, in thanking them for their letters, she says she has been inspired by them “more than I can say” or “more than you know”.
There is little that is formal about her letters. They’re so charming and beautifully handwritten (how could she write so much, often in bumpy planes, without crossings-out?); sometimes quirky (writing along the margins, as though she doesn’t want their chat to end.
She seems always to have struck the right note. A little boy confides that he’s had his 10th birthday party and “it was wicked.” Dame Quentin replies, “Thank you for your wicked letter.”
Men and women – especially in the armed forces or living in drought – or flood-affected places; whether she is talking women’s business with the elders in Papunya, or to teachers in remote schools – seemed compelled to write to her, thanking her for her vice-regal visit, or simply out of the blue. Her compassion is genuine. I really wonder how she created such intimacy with just paper and ink.
It set me wondering about her special, easy gift of friendship. I believe it comes from happy families, as hers was. In unhappy families, especially those with warring parents, the ability to make friends becomes difficult. Perpetrators of domestic violence, for example, cut their victims off from friends. Their children lose the model they need for cultivating friendships. Some never recover it.
But despite the pivotal role Dame Quentin Bryce has always played in gender politics in Australia, this book is not about politics of any kind. There are no big revelations except the faultless kindness of this woman whom this nation chose so wisely to be a vice-regal
Kids and country folk summed her up quickly. She was someone they could confide in. I feel exactly the same.
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There is nothing like wine and seafood for Sunday lunch at the spruced up Henley Plaza. Sitting in the sun, with Merkel the dog restrained at a distance, but entertained by the seabirds (I used to call them seagulls, but someone picked me up on that, and I can’t remember what I should call them now). Aches, pains, recent grief and a bit of chill in the air fell away, phones were tucked away and we tucked in. But there is always something, isn’t there? My sweet young granddaughter spent the meal with her left hand shielding from her sight, the whitebait my son-in-law was enjoying. The eyes of the whitebait upset her.
I hated myself for laughing at her. In my third age, I should know better. The thing with young children is not to dismiss such things as a joke. You never know what they will carry into their dreams and into their adulthood. She withstood my brief mockery. I am glad now that I hid my prawn heads under the lettuce.
Dear Quentin: Letters of a Governor-General (Miegunyah Press)
Royalties will be donated to the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute.