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The Age

The Lord's prayer

Author: Rebecca Lancashire
Date: 05/08/2000
Words: 1409
          Publication: The Age
Section: Saturday Extra
Page: 3
HE was born in London's Dorchester Hotel and his first bottle was delivered by Room Service. It's not quite the silver spoon but it does herald the beginning of a privileged life.

And an extraordinary life - collecting rare chickens, building a zoo in Broome, 15 years as treasurer of Margaret Thatcher's Tory Party, surviving IRA assassination attempts, and restoring a Sicilian monastery.

Born into the McAlpine building clan, Lord Alistair has been called many things: eccentric, bon vivant, renaissance man. His school-teachers told him he was dim, his detractors mutter about self-promotion.

``Two things changed my life," McAlpine says without a hint of irony. ``Coming to Australia, and Margaret Thatcher." He arrived in Perth in 1964 to establish McAlpine's colonial property development arm, locked horns with Alan Bond, and did, as he would put it, ``a little business".

For 30 years he divided his time between Britain and Australia, living two separate lives. In one he was embroiled in Tory politics and his stately home in Hampshire, damaged by an IRA bomb; in the other he went beachcombing in Broome. His latest book, Bagman to Swagman , recalls the dinners and the deals, and dishes a fair amount of dirt.

Bond's ears will burn; so will Pauline Hanson's, Malcolm Fraser's and, perhaps, Primrose Dunlop's. Here's a snippet: when the Queen and Prince Philip were visiting Australia in the "80s, the Prince decided to go mushroom picking. The Western Australian security police mistook Her Majesty, approaching her husband from the rear, ``disguised" in sensible mac and head scarf, for a dangerous intruder. Over the radio came the message, ``we're going to have to take her out". An event that would have put Keating's patting of the Royal Person in the shade was narrowly averted.

McAlpine is the quintessential eccentric English Lord with, it seems, an entree to everywhere: he became a Catholic late in life, so a friend arranged a private audience with the Pope; master chef Albert Roux comes to visit and cooks him dinner; but there's nothing he likes better than a dusty night in a swag under a big Australian sky.

In Britain he calls himself a Conservative Monarchist. Thatcher ``gave me the opportunity to go into politics at 32 at a very senior level and to be at the centre of one of the true periods of change". He was treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party for 15 years. He still has a deep admiration for the Baroness but these days he also approves of Tony Blair.

In Australia he's a Labor Republican who loves the laid-back style of Broome, and the fact that he could buy land by signing a contract drawn up on the back of a beer mat in the local bar. And he bought rather a lot in the "80s: restoring old pearling masters' houses; establishing a (since closed) zoo for endangered species, and the luxury Cable Beach Resort.

We meet over breakfast at the genteel Windsor Hotel, where he stayed when he first visited Melbourne in 1958. ``I like interviews, they are better than going to a psychiatrist ... and it doesn't cost anything." The Age, thus cast in the role of therapist, wonders whether leaving school when he was 16, at the suggestion of his teachers, gave him a chip on his shoulder.

``I have often wondered how much those early (classroom) insults drove me on but I like to think I did it for better reasons than that."

But, he agrees, Australia was the making of him; it allowed him to forge his own identity as a developer, author and collector of everything from Australian bush furniture to American abstract expressionist paintings, varieties of snowdrops and, once, a whale's penis.

Today he's wearing a rare 1930s Salvador Dali-designed tie, one of his collection of historical ties, numbering 10,000.

Although he sold up his Australian holdings in the early "90s, he still loves to visit. His promotional book tour of Australia had a detour to Broome built in.

The other thing that has changed his life - apart from the Iron Lady and Down Under - is nearly dying last year. The rosy-cheeked bon vivant, photographed in his book raising a glass with artist Margaret Olley, has lost 20 kilograms, and speaks softly and carefully.

Already the survivor of a massive bypass operation, a checkup last year led to afurther heart operation, which went horribly wrong. ``I was in a coma, on life support for three days; they thought I'd gone ... but it just cleared suddenly."

McAlpine puts his recovery down to the power of prayer. Specifically the prayers of a group of Spanish nuns at Kalumbaru, a remote north-western Australian mission.

But his nightmare was hardly over: ``I had a collapsed lung, blood poisoning, a distended stomach (it stuck out by 22 centimetres, and it was pretty big to start with ...) Then I got a super bug ... I had the most amazing hallucinations; they were absolutely riveting. I thought people were murdering me, stealing my body parts. It was really terrifying ..."

His vocal chords were damaged in the post-operative trauma. ``I live quietly now. I can only speak at a soft level so I don't go to parties; I just have dinner with one or two people ... and I don't drink very much. I used to drink a lot. I am just more philosophical, more relaxed, more thoughtful about life. I'm just really enjoying myself."

He has the right ingredients: he's living in Venice, restoring a 14th-century monastery in Sicily and collaborating on a new book, an international guide to collecting. He is good friends with his three daughters - two in their 30s from his first marriage, and one aged 16 from his second.

``I had had a difficult relationship with my first two children because of the divorce - or maybe I was just crotchety and awkward and difficult - but I was reconciled with them about three months before the operation. It would have been terrible if the reconciliation had taken place because it had to, due to the operation."

Can this be the same person who wrote The New Machiavelli: The Art of Politics in Business - a guide on how to succeed in modern politics by being vile? A book on how to manipulate people for the ``greater good"?

McAlpine's advice on dealing with the media? Spread false defeat to gain public sympathy; or false accusation and then arrange for it to be exposed as such - so the accuser will forever be treated with suspicion.

The key to successful public speaking? Fake a speech impediment: a sudden stutter gets the audience's attention like nothing else.

As a collector, McAlpine has a strict policy of selling up completely every now and then. ``Throughout my life I have always believed in wiping the slate clean, of getting rid of everything to start again." Perhaps, as it is with ties, chickens and bush furniture, so it is with life.

In any case Lord McAlpine is clearly enjoying his free therapy session: ``If you were to ask me who would I like to be if I was reincarnated, I would like to be me! I have enjoyed it so much."

Bagman to Swagman: Tales of Broome, the North-West and other Australian adventures, by Alistair McAlpine, Allen and Unwin, $19.95


Lord Alistair McAlpine, writer, politician, developer, art collector

Born: London, 1942.

Career: Divided his time working and living between Australia and England, 1964-94; Treasurer of the British Conservative Party, 1975-90; opened Cable Beach Resort, Broome, 1988.

Books: The Serpent; Once a Jolly Bagman; Bagman to Swagman.

Lives: Venice, with second wife, Romilly, and daughter Skye. Has two other daughters by his first marriage.

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