'Like parts in an old car': Bob Hawke's moving letter to a young girl on dying

It seems almost unheard of in our frenzied, digital age: writing letters to young constituents, responding to their qualms about everything from nuclear war to starving children, rubbish in the local park and the meaning of money.

But former prime minister Bob Hawke was a prolific letter writer, leaving a trove of political history littered across Australia, tucked away in desk drawers and storage boxes and the memories of now-grown Generation Xers.

As prime minister, Bob Hawke wrote letters to young Australians who were worried about everything from the Gulf War to rubbish at their local park. Picture: David James Bartho

As prime minister, Bob Hawke wrote letters to young Australians who were worried about everything from the Gulf War to rubbish at their local park. Picture: David James Bartho

Following news of Hawke's death on Thursday, dozens of letter recipients posted their old correspondence from Hawke online.

It provided an insight into the Labor stalwart's tenderness for the young, as well as his views on vexing issues like why humans die.

In one letter, he promised a 10-year-old girl he would do what he could to help children who were starving overseas. In another, he thanked a young boy for asking him to save the trees. He hand-wrote his thanks to the family of a four-year-old girl, who was upset after seeing Hawke's obvious pain at being deposed by Paul Keating.

In a letter that took on extra pertinence on Thursday, he explained his thoughts on death to Tracey Corbin, a seven-year-old girl in Peakhurst, NSW.

Now Tracey Corbin-Matchett and working in communications, she said she wrote to Hawke after her grandmother's death, looking for help to make sense of it.

"Perhaps when we grow very old, our bodies get worn out, or certain parts break down, like parts in an old car," Hawke wrote in reply on July 23, 1985.

"None of us can be sure of how long we will live. Because this is so I think you should try not to think too much about dying but think about all the nice things around you that make life so precious to us all."

The letter from Hawke "is my most treasured childhood memory", Corbin-Matchett said.

On Twitter, Amanda Perram said she can't remember why, as a young girl in Armidale, she was so worried about nuclear war but she felt compelled to share her concerns with the Prime Minister.

In a reply, dated September 26, 1983 and written by a senior adviser on behalf of Hawke, the Prime Minister agreed with her. The government was doing all it could to encourage peace and had appointed an Ambassador for Disarmament to represent Australia at the UN.

"The Prime Minister was pleased to hear that you are taking an active interest in this very important matter," the letter said.

On Thursday, Perram said the letter from Hawke made her realise he "truly cared" and "had really listened".

"He was a true leader," she wrote.

Other letters were less cerebral. Seven News reporter Jessica Adamson said she wrote to Hawke 36 years ago, as a young kid from the country, after meeting him at the Adelaide Test and giving him one of her Lifesavers.

A couple of years ago, at a black tie function, she showed him the letter he'd written back to her.

Penelope Modra shared on Twitter a letter Hawke's private secretary, Jean Sinclair, sent to her in 1988, in response to her letter voicing concerns about money.

The young Penny's suggestion that there should be no money in Australia and the rest of the world was "an interesting one", the letter said obligingly.

"It would be very difficult for countries or individuals to function without hard currency."

ABC journalist Conor Duffy received a lengthy two-page tome on behalf of the Prime Minister in 1991, sharing the young Duffy's concerns with recycling, the environment, poverty and the economy.

The letter said the government was sending foreign aid to needy countries, had waived sales tax on products made from recyclable materials and had "tried very hard" to create enough jobs for everyone despite the recession.

"I remember being so chuffed they made time for a know it all 9 year old," he posted on Twitter.

Hawke's propensity for letter writing was perhaps instilled in his early adult years. He was away from his young fiancee for three years in the 1950s while he studied a Bachelor of Letters, specialising in economics, at Oxford University.

Not one to buck his beliefs, Hawke was putting pen to paper until the end. The day before he died, he wrote one final open letter to Australians.

- SMH/The Age

This story 'Like parts in an old car': Bob Hawke's moving letter to a young girl on dying first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.