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The life and times of the great Sir Les Patterson - Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Apr 01, 2024

Mark McGinness salutes Sir Les Patterson, the titan of Australian diplomacy, on his 82nd birthday

That legendary cultural icon & eminent Australian diplomat, Dr Sir Leslie Colin Patterson, would have been 82 on 1 April. His birthday is rather telling but also, rather spookily, he died on 22 April last year - the same day as his manager, Barry Humphries.

Les was born on 1 April 1942 at Taren Point, a modest waterfront suburb in Sydney’s south. Les’s mother never quite recovered. The family descended from convict stock; their ancestor, Ebenezer Patterson, had been transported for a felony unknown.

Despite such unpromising beginnings, Les rose ineffably to prominence. Elected to Federal Parliament, his by-word was often, “I’m no orator, Ladies and Gentlemen. I’m an Australian politician.” But he soon showed some flair and stood out from the pack. His time as Minister for Inland Drainage & Rodent Control in the 1970s showed a remarkable appreciation for disease.

His role as the Post Cyclone Tracey Commissioner is remembered still – mainly because none of the money got to the people of Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. Les thought it important instead to study how the Pacific Islands, well, their splendid 5-star resorts - coped with a force of nature.

Les was himself a force of nature. Astonishingly endowed - he has put the hose into hosiery - he emerged from a burgeoning political career - Minister for Shark Conservation in the 1960s, Minister for Drought, and Cultural Attaché to the Far East - when he first appeared on stage at St George’s Leagues Club in his native Sydney in 1974. Many in the audience assumed he was a club official.

He went on to greater things - Chairman of the Australian Cheese Board, Founder of the Sir Les Patterson School of Etiquette, protocol advisor to the Australian Federal Government – but the highlight was surely Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James.

He was knighted in 1976, but he seemed confused about whether it was a KBE or, his preference, the Order of the Bath. Despite an appalling education, he also picked up an honorary doctorate (in Australian Studies) along the way.

No one was more offended by him than Dame Edna Everage. Thrown together by their manager-in-common, Les would introduce Edna on stage with “Give her the clap, Laze n’ Genelmn, give her the clap she so richly deserves”

His long-suffering wife Gwen, a former hand model, bore Les a son & daughter (Karen and Craig) and he did give her a title. (He would misleadingly refer to her as ‘Lady Gwen’). Poor Lady Patterson was the subject of one of his most outrageous anecdotes (still on You Tube) involving hair removal cream and a Schnauzer. She must have enjoyed his frequent absences - in his later years, Thailand, where he played pocket billiards, and otherwise (mis)spent his time wine tasting and sauna construction.

An evocative, if not prolific, author, Sir Les produced some forgettable tomes - Les Patterson's Australia (1978) and The Traveler's Tool (1985). The Enlarged & Extended Tool was to follow.

He also recorded Live & Rampant: Les Patterson has a Standup and 12 Inches of Les.

In his long public life, he was nothing but intolerant, offensive, contagious – no one sprayed as liberally as Les.

And yet; and yet – although he may have lent an Augean twist to Barry Humphries’s ingenious stables, Sir Les’s pungent zestful presence is somehow missed.

Vale Sir Les.