Linda Dessau launches Quentin Bryce's book of letters
By Linda Dessau, Governor of Victoria
On Tuesday 4 April, Quentin Bryce’s book Dear Quentin: Letters of a Governor-General was launched by Her Excellency, the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria, at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne.
The Governor gave an affectionate and inspiring speech, sharing examples of both amusing and touching letters in the book and reflecting on the diverse experience of Quentin’s time in office.
The Governor has kindly allowed us to publish the speech she gave at the launch here. Happy reading!
First, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathering and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to any elders with us here this morning.
What an honour it is for me to be invited to launch this book today, a collection of letters from and to an eminent and loved Australian, and on behalf of an Institute that is itself eminent and loved in Melbourne and across the State and nation.
There is only one way to approach this launch, and that is to do it this way:
After everything else you have given Australia, you now give us this beautiful book.
It is characteristically gracious in presentation, words and purpose.
You write of ‘Letters [as] an artform as old as time’, and indeed yours are an artform.
The distinctive rich creamy stationery, with the wattle and the crown, creates a lovely canvas for the letters that you have written.
A Mont Blanc pen – described by you as ‘one of [your] most treasured possessions’ – is your pen of choice. Mine too. But perhaps current Vice-Regals should not endorse a particular brand in the way that a former one can do!
You are blessed with what we call ‘a beautiful hand’, or ‘great penmanship’. I don’t know if it was the same in Queensland when you were at school, but if you’d grown up in our State, I am sure that you would have obtained your pen licence earlier than all the other girls.
Of course, the ‘artform’ to which you refer runs deeper than just those aesthetics.
The letters published in this book are to and from Prime Ministers, former Governors-General, indigenous elders, soldiers, farmers, city and country children, friends, family and strangers.
It makes for a wide and diverse range of correspondents but, woven throughout, is a commonality of mutual warmth, intimacy, care and affection.
Some you wrote to just once or twice. Just a kind word of recognition or encouragement. For example, to local mayor, the late Steve Jones, after you had visited his flood affected town of Grantham. You assured him of the care felt by all Australians, described by you as ‘the quietness, the heartfelt sympathy and the shared grief across our country as people speak about the unimaginable pain, suffering and loss of your wonderful little town.’
Some became your, (to use an old term), ‘pen pals’ and your friends. Giordan Staines, a youngster from Coober Pedy, grew in the course of your correspondence, from a little boy of 6 or 7 years of age, to a 14-year-old Year 9 student.
Across those years, he cheerfully shared his news with the Governor-General, whom he so clearly regarded as a friend. And you were. Only a friend would respond to a little boy who had described his 10th birthday celebration, in modern terms, as ‘wicked’, with, ‘Dear Giordan, Thank you for your wicked letter …’, before describing to him your own 70th birthday celebrations.
Norman and Muriel Grills started correspondence with you that was sustained across your Yarralumla years and beyond. It’s not hard to see how that friendship started.
Mr Grills did write in his first letter (very early in your time as Governor-General): ‘With your law background and active public life you still remain feminine, charming, and if I might say so attractive.’
Women are a theme throughout these letters: whether new friends or old. Some were old friends. Leaders and elders from both black and white communities are amongst them, like June Oscar AO, Anne Summers AO or Wendy McCarthy AO.
But so many whom you met only fleetingly were also so clearly touched by your kindness.
Lucy Marshall, a mum from Mt Gambier, whom you met at a South Australian Rural Women’s Gathering, was one. She wrote to thank you after you had intuitively offered a few encouraging words when you saw her in passing at that event, a baby on her hip.
Your encouragement had apparently come at the end of a week described by her as one of ‘personal rumination on the value of work, motherhood and identity.’ But, she said, you made her feel good that – as she put it – ‘even though I’m not working and have no public identity … I can be a good mum.’
Some Australians you’d not met at all, but they sent you affectionate greetings and thanked you for your work that they had observed from afar, on television or in newspapers. In that context, some sent you helpful advice.
Patrick Carpenter was one. In 2010, at a time of some turmoil within the leadership of the government of the day, Patrick helpfully suggested to you – I should add, in his very best kindergarten writing – that you might hold ‘a lucky dip to sort out the prime minister.’
And what an honour when one young School of the Air fan sent you a photo of the gorgeous calf that she and her class-mates had named after you. (I am sure that ‘Quentin the calf’ did very well in shows.)
You are an elegant and eloquent writer. In fact some of your most beautiful writing is revealed in the loving letters to family members: at its dearest in the letters that you wrote to your eldest grand-daughter, Alexandra, across your time in office.
Alexandra was privy to your reflections on subjects and experiences as diverse as Gallipoli, the Royal Wedding or the garden at Yarralumla.
Your awe at the pristine beauty of the Antarctic was palpable, when you wrote to her:
‘I wish you could have been with me walking crunch crunch by myself contemplating the grandeur of the landscape, the beauty of nature, the colours, the crisp air, oh the greatness, the calm of constant change, the risks.’
Mind you, Alexandra was also the fortunate beneficiary of invaluable advice that was certain to stand her in good stead in later life, when you passed on Lord Vestey’s insider information at the Royal Wedding that you should make sure to smile at the stewards … to ensure that they would bring you drinks!
The writing genes evidently run deeply in your family. I particularly like the poignancy of your sister, Diane Craddock’s advice, written to you on the day after your swearing in. She wrote:
… As I said to you at Yarralumla this will change you, but always remember who you are in yourself and where you came from. You will have tough times, keep your nerve, get good advice from those you trust, persevere and be optimistic …’
Perhaps the last word in my letter to you should belong again to Norman Grills, whom I mentioned earlier as someone who traded letters with you right across your years in office.
I particularly like how, when you responded to his initial letter to you, he returned the favour, describing this evocative scene:
‘The farmer is plodding down the paddock to change the irrigator, it is a long walk, it is hot, his spirits are a bit down, burdened with the dry, when he remembers this morning’s mail, a spring comes into his step, a touch of a smile in his face …’
His account would replicate the way many hundreds of Australians felt when, with such generosity of spirit, you wrote a letter especially for them.
He further summed up their sentiments very well when he wrote: ‘In your busy role, that you should take time to write is really something.’
Dame Quentin, he is right. Your beautiful and generous letters are ‘really something’. And so is the generosity that you continue to show to the people, causes, and organisations that you support with such energy, commitment and, of course, your trademark grace.
The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute is one of the fortunate beneficiaries of your generous care. This beautiful book is another example, with the donation of its royalties to benefit the research efforts of MCRI, demonstrating your commitment to promoting and supporting the largest child health institute in Australia.
What a pleasure it is to launch this book.
With sincerest thanks,
PS I am now motivated to practise hard to refine my letter writing, so that I might wriggle my way into ‘Dear Quentin: Volume Two’!
The Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce AD CVO has enjoyed a rich and distinguished career as an academic, lawyer, community and human rights advocate, senior public officer, university college principal, and vice-regal representative in Queensland and Australia. Quentin served as Australia’s twenty-fifth Governor-General.
She remains a pioneer in contemporary Australian society, and yet one who brings more than forty years of experience in reform, community building and leadership. In 2016 she was chair of the Queensland Premier’s Domestic and Family Violence Implementation Council.
Dear Quentin: Letters of a Governor-General is out now.