Politics

I bought six suitcases from Alexander Downer thinking they were empty. The fishnets fell out first | Alexander Downer

The first things that fell out of Alexander Downer’s suitcase were some fishnets.

In late 2015, when Downer was UK high commissioner and living in London with his wife, Nicky, they decided to sell his late parents’ South Australian mansion, Martinsell, and auction all the contents.

Mahogany furniture, silver, crystal, a rare Hans Heysen painting, all went under the hammer. Heysen’s Gums in the Mist fetched $24,000, according to the Advertiser. A Ming Dynasty jar went for $800.

Alexander Downer luggage, purchased by Guardian staff member Tory Shepherd.
The cases were overflowing with old, beautifully made dress-up clothes; they also contained a number of dolls in various states of disrepair. Photograph: Tory Shepherd/The Guardian

Among the pile of stuff on the auction website the following year was a stack of six suitcases. I was moving house and wanted some hipster-type storage. I had previously bought a marvellous old steamer trunk that belonged to Montgomery Clift (or so I was told), and was thinking some vintage suitcases for old papers and photos and mixtapes would be just the ticket.

I bought them for $300, a motley collection of mostly old brown leather luggage. One had a tag that read “Fly TAA the Friendly Way”, with “Alexander Downer: Department of Foreign Affairs” scrawled under it. Another had an Ansett tag; yet another, old shipping stickers. Another was embossed with his mother’s name: Lady Mary Downer.

Unfortunately, the auction lot did not include his famous and loyal bright yellow suitcase. That one, bought by his wife to stand out on a carousel, was crushed by baggage handlers.

I had assumed the cases would be empty. I thought I’d just chuck a bunch of old tax returns in them, and stack them up in an appealingly shabby way in a corner somewhere.

They were not empty.

Alexander Downer’s tag from Trans Australia Airlines.
Alexander Downer’s tag from Trans Australia Airlines (subsequently merged with Qantas), in a more relaxed era of airline security – Downer says it is probably from the 70s. Photograph: Tory Shepherd/The Guardian

When they arrived, I found they were overflowing with quaint old dress-up clothes. Or were they real clothes, for tiny people? Beautifully made shoes and jackets. One cute naval jacket with “Georgina” scrawled inside the lapel.

There were dolls. A veritable bevy of creepy dolls in various states of disrepair. Was that … real human hair? One of them had eyes that seemed to follow you. Well, one eye anyway. Another was bald, with mildew stubble.

There were letters and brochures, but no secret cabinet documents. No minutes from that meeting with George Papadopoulos, former Donald Trump adviser.

Most of the stuff in there, Downer says, probably belonged to his sister, Una. The cases looked as though they had been used – as I had planned to use them – for storage. The suitcase equivalent of junk drawers.

Martinsell, an hour out of Adelaide in the Barossa valley, was Sir Alick and Lady Mary Downer’s country home.

Downer says the family decided on a clearance auction after his mother died, but that mistakes were made.

A book Sir Alick had written during the second world war, when he was a prisoner of war at Changi, was accidentally scooped up with other “valueless” books.

Inside one of the suitcases - a small dress-up shoe and ... fishnet.
Inside one of the suitcases – a small dress-up shoe and … fishnet. Photograph: Tory Shepherd/The Guardian

Sir Alick was a lawyer before the war, and a politician after it, and was the first Downer to become a UK high commissioner.

“We wanted to keep [the book] in the family archives, but because of the mistake, for which we are responsible, there’s nothing legally we can do about it,” Alexander Downer said at the time.

On the phone this month from London, Downer says it ended up at the National War Memorial, a good home. (He is now the executive chairman of King’s College London’s international school for government.)

The bag with the TAA tag probably goes back to the 1970s, he says, when he was a Dfat junior officer.

I recently donated the cases to a charity auction. They were good dinner party patter, but those dolls were a little creepy, and I didn’t really have the room for my hipster suitcase tower.

Spruiking the wares, I hinted that the suitcases may have contained a certain type of stocking.

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The buyer may be disappointed that it turned out they weren’t the fishnets he famously wore in a charity photoshoot, a decision he lived to regret. Rather, they were dainty and durable fingerless fishnet gloves.

Another story, maybe, from another time.

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