Combing through the Silver Bodgie's legacy

Matthew James reviews Wednesdays with Bob, by Derek Rielly. Published by Pan Macmillan

Some public figures attract book after book charting their every living moment.

It is true in the case of charismatic former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke. The man who won four elections is the subject of a whole library, including a few volumes from his second wife Blanche d'Alpuget.

Hawke also won the hearts of Australians and still pops up at big cricket matches skolling a beer once a year, as well as on television for Australia's regular election nights.

But, there is another side to the silver-haired, silver-tongued darling of the Australian Labor Party; the rude drunk, the womaniser and, lately, the octogenarian battling with his health.

With age comes a chance to reflect and look back with detached reason not achievable in the heat of battle or fire of political debate.

It is from that perspective that Wednesdays with Bob adds to the Hawke cannon.

Writer Derek Rielly interviewed Hawke in a series of one-hour chats at the former prime minister's home in 2016.

The pair begin each session with a cigar, before Hawke talks politics, love, sport and, reluctantly, Paul Keating, the bloke who forced him from the prime minister's chair even when the public still adored him.

Rielly, in his first book, mixes these chats with interviews of friends, political foes and d'Alpuget.

The character of some of the dinky-die neck-a-schooner mates of Hawke are beautifully captured by Rielly's superb penmanship and ability to let a person's words speak for themselves.

And they capture significant moments in Hawke's life, such as when he lost the prime ministerial reins and lived through a period of mourning as he readjusted to layman life.

There is no censorship of rugged language either, and the stories about securing the interviews are illuminating in themselves.

Some of Hawke's mates wonder what the book's purpose is, given the chronological stories published and republished down the decades.

Luckily, the author has steered away from this and instead explores Hawke's life thematically, in 300 pages.

Hawke's thoughts are at times sharp, such as his take on contemporary politics and world issues, which he follows closely through the four newspapers he consumes after his late-morning wake up.

At other times, he can be surly. He fends off questions about Keating, his finance minister, and their difficult relationship.

The cover of the book features a striking portrait of a surprisingly old-looking Hawke smoking a cigar.

It reminds us Hawke is different from the the lithe, brash and blokey lawyer our transtasman neighbours loved in the 1970s and '80s.

Rather, he's a man in a reflective mood thoroughly described among Reilly's off-beat and incisive musings.

-Matthew James is a Palmerston North-based reviewer

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