Cover of book: Wednesdays with Bob

Bob Hawke and Derek Rielly
Wednesdays with Bob

So much has been written about Bob Hawke – Labor’s longest-serving prime minister, women fawning in his presence, blokes awed by his sporting and drinking prowess – you might wonder what more there is to know about him.

But just a couple of pages into this surprisingly endearing book, as told by Hawke to author Derek Rielly, we are treated to an image of an Australian statesman who is, let us say, truly unbound.

“Now,” says Hawke, “I do something very unusual.”

He looks at me. Grins.

“I’ll have a leak off my balcony.”

Rielly snatches a split-second view of Hawke peeing down the drain hole of his terrace. Unedifying? Sure. Staged to burnish a colourful reputation? Perhaps. Or the act of an 87-year-old who needs quick relief? Probably.

Then there is Rielly’s priceless description of Hawke the day of their first meeting: “… squeezed into an Italian-made black leather bomber jacket that would appear fashionable on a 20-year-old, raw denim jeans, with a hearing aid peeled over his left ear and neck wrapped in a gold chain.” Hawke obviously still revels in his identity as the “Silver Bodgie”.

But Wednesdays with Bob also contains insights. His former attorney-general and foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans believes Hawke was a brilliant man – a Rhodes Scholar with multiple degrees – “just with no basic intellectual interests”. The man he recalls read about one book a year and spent the next 12 months quoting from it.

Evans denounces the upbeat biography of Hawke by his then future wife, Blanche d’Alpuget, as “frankly, a disgrace”, and goes on to challenge – with little success – the role Hawke played within the Commonwealth in destroying apartheid in South Africa. Diplomat Dick Woolcott reveals the bravura of Hawke, his friend of 50 years, who in the early 1970s told a European diplomat, “You’re looking at the next bloody prime minister of Australia.” It was at Woolcott’s house in Jakarta that Hawke first saw d’Alpuget, “a vision dressed in white”.

It is right-wing adman John Singleton, often a brilliant barometer of public opinion, who best encapsulates the ultimate success of Hawke’s political career. Easily the equal of Reagan, Thatcher and French PM Michel Rocard, he chaired cabinet meetings with the form guide on his lap. “They [his creator] didn’t know whether to put him in the public bar or The Lodge. So they made him a bit of both.”  PT

Macmillan, 312pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 25, 2017 as "Bob Hawke and Derek Rielly, Wednesdays with Bob".

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