Saturday, 3 February 2018

Perhaps the greatest wordsmith of them all

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I first met David Lange in the flesh – and there was a lot of it – when he gave a keynote address at a Licensing Trust Conference at Solway Park in the early 1990s. As the convention host I sat with him at the top table and not surprisingly found his genial company to be exhilarating. So too was his address. The business philosophy of the licensing trusts dovetails perfectly with Labour Party principles and many of the delegates, those from the Auckland region particularly, were party workers who had been rewarded by a strong Labour electorate with trusteeship. Apart from a few crusty old conservatives like me, Lange was preaching to the converted; but I too was swayed by his rhetoric.

So much so that a few months later, when I was asked by a friend in Sydney: “Who is the best speaker in New Zealand?” I unhesitatingly replied “David Lange.”

My friend was organising a large conference in Hong Kong a few months hence for a world professional body over which he presided and wondered if Lange might be persuaded to address his audience. By now Lange had retired as prime minister and was known to be on a speaking circuit, so I was sure he would respond positively to an invitation.

He did, with three conditions: first class air travel, five star accommodation and $3000 as a speaking fee. All provisos were agreed to.

I was surprised therefore to read in the Dominion a few weeks later that during an altercation in parliament an opposition member accused Lange of neglecting his electorate of Mangere and tripping around the world and speaking to a variety of audiences for which he was paid generous fees. Lange readily admitted that he was frequently asked to speak on the world stages, but denied he made any charge for his orations.

I cut the item out and sent it off to Sydney where the Hong Kong conference organiser was as surprised as I was.

In the event, Lange’s Hong Kong speech was a disappointment, poorly researched and badly delivered. Lange told my friend that he was unwell, though there was no suggestion of a discount.

On the trip to the airport next day for his return journey he apologised profusely and told the conventions’ world president that he “owed him one.”

The offer however was never called upon.

My next encounter with this complex man was in the ANZAC hall in Featherston. The Wairarapa Racing Club was holding a celebratory dinner/debate. Lange was to lead one side and TVNZs Ian Fraser the other. I was invited to participate in Langes's team alongside race caller Tony Lee. In the Fraser camp was TV racing personality Des Coppins and rugby commentator John Macbeth. The subject as I recall was “Racing is the root of all evil.”

Lange, Lee and Long were to affirm the proposition.

Before the debate, when my wife and I were having dinner with Lange and his female secretary who had accompanied him, he told us he was going in next day for heart surgery. This was years after the angioplasty incident and the stomach-stapling operation and there was never any mention in the news media of this apparent setback. I suspect this was all a bit of a distraction because although his opening remarks were typically very witty and thrilled the large crowd, halfway through the debate he leaned over to me and asked if I would mind “summing up.”

I politely declined. I reminded him that he was the star of the show and that people had paid good money to come and hear him, not me. Summing up is a real skill and requires a quick wit, more honed than mine, as you adroitly rebut the points made by members of the opposing team. Also Lange was, I understand, being paid $2000 for this cameo appearance in contrast to my fee of gratis and although this discrepancy was justified and appropriate, I thought at least he ought to earn his money.

He reluctantly agreed, but his summation left a lot to be desired. He did not broach the points made by the opposition team, but instead told amusing anecdotes gleaned from his experiences in the corridors of power. To be fair the audience loved it. So too did the judge; Lange, Lee and Long won the debate.

It was a privilege to have known this man, if only fleetingly and I am presently devouring his autobiography My Life with a great deal of interest.

I was surprised to read a passage where he describes his time working in Auckland’s Westfield freezing works while he was studying law. He had little time for the management practices and was hugely critical of the owners, Lord Vesty and his family in the U.K. He was delighted when the company collapsed and the Vesty’s retreated back to England, licking their wounds.

But he also had this to say: “What Westfield also gave me was an abiding dislike for the law which obliged all workers to belong to a trade union. The union delegates matched the management in their arrogance and indifference. My distaste for compulsory unionism was carried into my career in parliament and coloured my view of the Labour Party’s trade union associates.”

David Lange was brought up on strict Methodist principles by a faithful father and a devout mother. Lange describes the Methodist church as the Labour Party at prayer. His mother was an active member of the Women’s Temperance Union and despised alcohol to such an extent that when a Rotarian friend of his father’s sent round a crate of beer for Christmas, Mrs Lange put it on the front lawn and took an axe to it.

Lange admits his own speaking skills were largely developed by listening to outstanding Methodist sermons, particularly in England where he was enthralled by the great evangelical orators in the central city churches in London.

Sadly after a long period of comparative abstinence and community based Christianity, Lange seemed to stray from the narrow path and drifted into alcoholism, perhaps brought on by pursuing an affair of the heart.

Lange’s new love Margaret Pope, was a powerful personality of some intellect and seems to have not only affected their own lives, but to a greater or lesser extent, ours as well.

Thanks to her, it transpires, we never got to know whether Roger Douglas’s flat tax was a viable option or not and on a flight to America to address an ANZAC gathering she and David apparently unilaterally decided that New Zealand was no longer part of the ANZUS alliance, despite a collective cabinet decision to the contrary.

Another surprise entry in the Lange autobiography is his admission that he did not succeed all that well academically at Otahuhu College, describing his examination passes there as no more than adequate. He did however win the speech competition four years out of five and it seems this is where his great strength lay. His predecessor, whom we now know was also flawed in many aspects, had the same oratorical skills.

It would be unfair to conclude that Robert Muldoon and Lange had no other talents than that they could speak well and therefore influence an entire nation, but that certainly was one outcome of their identical gifts.

David Lange was propelled to world prominence by the Oxford Union debate with speech notes largely written by Margaret Pope. The debate is remembered for his own repartee when he responded to an interjection from a young American naval officer, claiming he could smell the uranium on his breath. I never ever thought it was a particularly funny remark, but I must be in the minority here because it appeared to amuse a world-wide audience. His actual opponent in the debate, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, also performed creditably, but seems to have been largely forgotten.

Lange became prime minister when Muldoon’s peculiar brand of financial management had come close to wrecking the New Zealand economy and he was able to institute the radical reforms needed with skilful cabinet chairmanship and words of comfort to a disturbed population. Unfortunately, a distraction as unrefined as an office romance put paid to a statesmanlike career that might have known no bounds.

His public life ended in the back rooms of pubs and cold halls where he and Gary McCormack entertained sparse audiences with their earthy brand of humour.

Finally words failed him and he died a premature death at the age of 63.

It’s a high price to pay for immortality.

(First published August 24th 2005)

“I have known no man of genius who had not to pay, in some affliction or defect either physical or spiritual, for what the gods had given him.” -Sir Max Beerbohm


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