Former Australian Prime Minister Whitlam has died at 98. I was kind of fortunate to meet him in person in Sydney, in the late 1990s. The occasion was an official reception at the Spanish Consul-General's residence in Potts Point. I was there not because of the passport I held but because of the job my wife had at the time. I certainly felt like fish out of water.
After being given drinks upon arrival, we were introduced to Whitlam, who turned out to be a chatty, warm, genial old man (he must have been around 82). Delicious Spanish canapés were being distributed while we talked. Whitlam showed some interest in us, a young couple who had recently married and decided to settle in Australia. He subtly inquired if we still spoke different languages at home (we were childless at the time), and I promptly confirmed we did.
Whitlam instantly showed his wit and affability by telling us that, as long as we used the same language for 'pillow-talk', mutual understanding would be a certainty. But then, at some point during the chat, a little morsel of food left his mouth and landed on my shirt, leaving a little stain. I did not take much notice. A day or so later, being the Labor hero he undoubtedly was, and held in a status of almost sainthood by my in-laws, I was urged not to wash the shirt.
The indelible mark Whitlam left on my memory has nothing to do with the shirt or the canapé stain. His was a peculiar, mythical presence, a larger-than-life figure, yet that day he came across as one of the most down-to-earth, straightforward politicians you could expect to meet.
98 years of living is a lot of years: a very long life, one to be celebrated , now that it has come to an end.