The Biggest Surprise of My Life

and why you should always be polite when answering the telephone

             A few years ago I was working part time as an agency electrician, spending my days off in the Mitchell library, researching a book about South America (a book that is still yet to be finished). Of course, mobile phones were banned in the reading rooms, so I switched mine off – the agency could wait as far as I was concerned, I enjoyed being in the library more anyway! I distinctly remember one strange character in the lower Public Reading Room, a reader of Asian extraction, whose appearance was one of dishevelment, bad hygiene, perhaps even homelessness; hence even on busy, crowded days, he usually had an entire desk to himself. Somewhat spasmodically, he would loudly grunt, and mutter to himself while he was reading, invariably books on higher mathematics.
            Anyhow, on my way home on the train one day - the 26th October 2004 to be exact -  shortly after I switched my phone on, it began to ring. A distinguished voice on the other end asked,
        “Mr Short… is that Mr Glen Short?”
        “Yes, that’s me” I replied. The noise and bustle of the commuter train was distracting, and my station was looming. I hastily added,  “…who’s this?”
        “I received your letter, and I am happy to discuss matters with you.” The voice on the other end sounded distinguished, mature, and somewhat familiar, but slightly vague and had not indentified himself. My brain went into turbo mode wondering what the caller was talking about.
        I asked again, a little more curtly, “With whom am I speaking?”
        I nearly dropped the phone when the person on the other end replied
        “Gough Whitlam speaking.”
        I thought for a moment it was one of my friends, some of whom are good at impersonating voices, but then I remembered I had in fact sent a speculative letter to the former Prime Minister requesting information about his time in South America, for my planned book. I also distinctly remember not putting my telephone number in the letter, and using my father’s postal address, because I preffered a written reply. As it turned out, Gough must have obtained my father’s home number, thinking I lived there. My father, similarly surprised, had passed on my cell phone number, and both he and Gough had been trying to call me all day while I was in the library.
       With the realization that this was no prank call, I became a little nervous, but, as I jumped off the train at Marrickville station, we continued to chat in a friendly manner; Gough really is a person who can talk about anything. 

         I was only 10 years old when he was elected with that catchy theme song Its Time; and a mere 13 years old when he was dismissed, but I remember that day very clearly – my mother glued to the TV, voicing fears the country was backsliding into chaos and political anarchy; my father somewhat bemused. You might say that day marked my political awakening. My interest was further piqued after I saw him years later in an old episode of 60 Minutes working as a tour guide in Cusco, when a Peruvian child asked him his name, and he replied Gofito, or “Little Gough”. Gough chuckled when I recalled that anecdote, and said, “Yes, you are quite right, I was there in Cusco”.  I told him I had in fact met him twice before, first at the launch of his book Abiding Interests, and another time at a seminar at the Mitchell Library. On both occasions he was very approachable, but spreading his attention among the assembled guests meant you often had to join a queue or push through bystanders to speak with him.
        The ex-Prime Minister seemed eager to have his involvement in Latin America documented; mentioning tentative steps his administration made towards strengthening ties between the two southern continents. Mr Whitlam pointed me towards two books, one by his wife and one of his own, which he said contained more information.
        When the conversation finished, I remember thinking, “What a friendly guy!”
        Later I studied the two books he nominated, but, strangely, neither contained much about South America.
        But Mr Whitlam had given me something more important: confirmation at least one former Prime Minister will spare his own time to respond to a simple written request.
        And that unexpected personal phone call.  It really was the biggest surprise of my life.

 posted 28th June 2011