I really hope that no one ever comes up with an absolute finding on what happened to Harold Holt.
The Australian language and sense of humour would be poorer for it.
For those who came in late, Harold Holt spent 32 years in the Australian Parliament and was the Australian Prime Minister when he disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, on December 17, 1967.
No trace of him was ever found. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of his mysterious disappearance. The Holt mystery has brought so much to the Australian language.
I thought I’d heard it all until this past week or so.
It started the other weekend when the Cronulla Sharks won the rugby league grand final – the club’s first ever.
From the winning stage, one of the Sharks’ executives announced it was time to “turn the porch lights off.”
Huh? What porch lights? Why had they been on?
The explanation wasn’t given for days until one news presenter referenced the line and then explained it came from a pithy saying about the Sharks’ hopes of ever winning a final.
It was said that hoping for a Sharks’ grand final was like leaving the porch light on for Harold Holt. It was never going to happen.
This was almost as amusing as naming the Glen Iris swimming pool the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre.
But there’s even more to the way Harold Holt contributes to Australian happiness.
I was talking about the “porch lights” comment to an old journo at a community newspapers conference in Bendigo last week and he passed on a story I’d not heard.
He said that as light failed on Cheviot Beach on that fateful December night, ABC radio news crossed to a well-respected reporter at the scene.
He was asked if the search would continue through the night and he replied, no, it wouldn’t because of poor conditions, and that, in fact, it had “come to a dead halt.”
Pause for stunned OMG moment.
Even now, you’ll often come across comic references to Chinese submarines, an allusion to the oddball conspiracy theory that he’d been picked up at sea by the Chinese. No one ever seems to quite explain why.
There’s also a conspiracy that the Americans did him in because there was a concern he was about to back away from Australia’s commitment to the war in Vietnam. There’s even a weird webpage in Australia by an alleged former Navy clearance diver who said he’d carted poor Harold’s lifeless body to a waiting fishing vessel.
Although, it must be noted the same bloke claims someone has implanted an odd electronic device in his throat to apparently prevent him from spilling the beans. Which begs the question ….
In some parts Harold is further remembered, through the phrase “doing a Harold”, rhyming slang for “doing a bolt”, for example, fleeing a restaurant without paying the bill.
Beyond the Aussie irreverent humour, he’s well-honoured. There is a Canberra suburb named after him. There’s the Harold E. Holt naval communication station. The division of Holt in federal politics bears his name. As does a sundial in Fitzroy, a boarders’ wing at Wesley College, and an American Navy warship – the first US ship to be named after a foreign leader.
And in the circumstances, we cannot imagine how this one had gone unremarked before: he is remembered in a large area at the south of Port Phillip Bay – the Harold Holt Fisheries Reserve.