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Margaret, Gough and Waterloo Bridge


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When two tall, dark-haired students locked eyes across a crowded room at a Christmas party in 1939, it sparked the beginning of a romance that lasted almost 70 years.

Adelaide author Susan Mitchell writes in her new book Margaret & Gough, published last week, that Margaret Whitlam (then Dovey) thought Gough was “quite the most delicious thing I’d ever seen”.

For Gough, it was an “instant chemical reaction”.

A few years later, in April 1942, the couple was married and, according to Mitchell’s book, enjoyed “four days of wedded bliss” on their honeymoon in the Blue Mountains. But they had barely had time to settle into their new Sydney flat before the war forced their separation.

The following extract describes what that time was like for Margaret and Gough, who died three weeks ago and is being farewelled at a memorial service in Sydney today. It comes from chapter three of Margaret & Gough, which takes its title, All the things you are, from the Oscar Hammerstein song that was popular in the year the Whitlams met:

Only six weeks after they were married, he received his call-up from the RAAF to begin his training as an aircrew navigator. While he was away Margaret continued with completing her social work diploma and became commandant of the VAD university detachment. It was not in her nature to sit around bemoaning her husband’s absence.

Gough travelled to a succession of training schools in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra. When he was at Fairbairn Air Base in Canberra he would regularly bring home members of his bomber crew and his squadron for one of his mother’s splendid home-cooked meals. After dinner, during which there had been no wine or beer, Gough reverted to his family’s habit of sitting at the table and reading. When he passed out encyclopaedias to his RAAF mates he totally failed to register their stunned expressions. He had no idea how eccentric this after-dinner habit appeared to them. If it was normal behaviour for his family, then for him it was entirely natural.

When he was on leave from the camp in Sale, Victoria, Margaret travelled to Melbourne just to be with him. On the long journey back to Sydney in the train she sat next to a soldier who was very feverish. Twenty-four hours later she was diagnosed with scarlet fever. She immediately returned home to her parents in Vaucluse to be looked after and recuperate.

Having never liked mathematical subjects at school, Gough found himself actually enjoying subjects like trigonometry because now they had a direct, practical application. He gained good grades. Flight Lieutenant Lex Goudie, who was Gough’s pilot during the war, is on record praising the pinpoint accuracy of his navigation skills.

Margaret appeared to be optimistic about their future together, even though Gough’s squadron was patrolling the Arafura and Timor seas and engaging in strikes on Japanese ships, barges and ports.

Not long after they were married, when he was home on leave, they went to the Wintergarden Cinema complex at Rose Bay to see the latest film, Waterloo Bridge. It starred her favourite actor, Robert Taylor, who played a British army colonel in love with a ballerina, played by Vivien Leigh. He is called away to the front, and does not know that she has been fired from the ballet troupe and forced to survive by working as a prostitute on the streets. It is renowned as a romantic but classic MGM tearjerker.

When the film finished, it was all too much for Margaret. Here she was, sitting next to her man in his air force uniform, the country was at war and she was so in love with him. Thoughts that she had never allowed to penetrate her customary optimism swamped her. The sudden reality of her situation, combined with the sadness she felt for the two main characters in the film, was overwhelming. She began to sob. Uncontrollably. Such was her distress and overflowing emotion that she was unable to get up from her seat. Gough neither needed nor asked for an explanation. He simply put his arms around her, held her close and in a gentle and caring voice said, ‘We’ll just sit here until you’re calm.’ It was some time before Margaret could feel calm. They just sat there, her head on his shoulder.

For the rest of their lives whenever they saw or experienced anything really sad, Gough would take her hand and say ‘Waterloo Bridge’. Those two words triggered for them a vivid picture of a young married couple in the dress circle of the Wintergarden in the middle of the war, the young man quietly and gently comforting his sobbing wife. Nothing else needed to be said.

Extract from Margaret & Gough – the love story that shaped a nation, by Susan Mitchell, published by Hachette Australia, $32.99.

Click here to read InDaily’s interview with Mitchell about her book.

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