Illustration: John Spooner.
I DON'T pretend to be objective about Bob Brown. I don't think many people are objective about Bob Brown, but I'm not going to pretend to be. I like him. Always have.
Our first meeting that I recall was in the street in Launceston in the early 1980s. He was nursing his mother, who was dying in his little weatherboard house beneath Drys Bluff at Liffey. Towards the end of the '80s, I spent a night there. The place had no electricity and sparse furnishings but it was homely. His father, a genial old copper nearing his end, was then living with Bob. I remember their relationship as fond.
Around that time, Bob's father was driven off the road and possum guts were left in Bob's mailbox. The politics around him have always been wild, but he never ceased being genial. People hated him - he didn't hate back.
I knew he'd done it hard growing up in rural Queensland in the 1960s. He was God-fearing, gay and the son of the local policeman. Sorting all that out involved passing through a state he once described to me as spiritual terror. My first novel, Going Away, is about the passage to manhood - I dedicated it to Bob and Koori singer Archie Roach for ''answering in the affirmative''.
I see Bob first as a doctor. As a young man, he thought deeply about health - his health, our health, the health of the planet. It goes without saying that millions, if not billions, do not share his views on the environment or possibly any other matter, but it was Bob's fate to find himself at one of the great political pressure points of the age, if not the greatest, and to feel compelled to act.
That wouldn't have meant anything much had a movement not coalesced around him. It was that which made him dangerous to some and, for others, an inconvenience to be explained away.
A journalist said to me recently, ''You don't still think he's Jesus Christ, do you?'' I said: ''I think he's as good a person as anyone I know in public life.''
I can't judge how he played the game of politics, although he clearly played it well. Even his enemies acknowledge that.
What I saw was a man whose private and public life were pretty much one and the same, except perhaps when he was before the press playing his hand in the poker game that is Canberra politics. Even then, though, I'd often see humour in his face. He has frequent gusts of humour and a grin that never disappears for long.
He had many lonely years, and the happiness his partner, Paul Thomas, brought into his life is undeniable to anyone who knows him. There they were together during the media conference announcing his retirement. They summoned to my mind an image of an old car and caravan, one that was about to set off on a trip around Australia or through the Andes or pretty much wherever.
Once, years ago, I was visiting Weary Dunlop and he referred to Bob in a mildly critical way. I stuck up for Bob, saying, ''Weary, you would have been glad to have had him on the Burma Railway.''
I don't think anyone who knows Bob Brown would deny he is a kind man. He's also fearless. When we were younger we swapped poems we'd written. His were written during his years of solitude. If I had to describe them, I'd say they were quiet. Like the bush at night.
Martin Flanagan is a senior writer.