It was a classic Melbourne experience - but would not have embarrassed a Roman Emperor. Dinner with the Prime Minister and several thousand of his closest friends at the Vodafone Arena.
There were precise instructions on how to get there - preferably by chauffer-driven car, Henry's chosen method. The traffic was brutal and there was a decent measure of security on the way in and during the evening. The Arena itself was beautifully decorated, and one entered its central part where the tables were placed via steep steps over the cycle track.
The great and the good of Melbourne's corporate and sporting elite were there in force - the corporates because that is how they like to play, and the sports men and women because this was the sixth Prime Minister's Olympic Dinner.
Fine wines and beers were handed out as one reached the tables. Wolf Blass provided the wines, and I chose first up a "Gold Label Sparkling 2001". But one could also try red or white wine or a cleansing Crown Lager or Carlton Sterling. Soon we were called to order, and the Australian Army Band Trumpeters signalled the arrival of the official party. M C Tony Charlton described these good folk as they walked in - the PM and Mrs Howard, Victorian Governor John Landy and Mrs Landy, Premier Steve Bracks and Mrs Bracks, John Coates, Peter Bartels and Marilyn, Max Beck, Chairman of the Organising Committee, and Mrs Beck and others. (Apologies if the order is a bit wrong and if some notables are omitted - I was into my second glass of Wolf Blass by now and it is uncool to take notes at such events, especially if one is in the front row. "Why Henry?" you may well ask. "Who knows?" is the answer.)
Next Haylee Simpson sang the National Anthem, both verses with the audience invited to join in, and thank goodness the words were projected on the big screens placed around the Arena. (These screens provided everything one could wish for but replays, but no doubt any particularly arresting moment would have led to the use of the play-back option, this being, above all, an evening for the sportspeople.)
The action continued - the lights were doused and a lonely double bass player began Ode to Joy from a position high in the bleachers. After a poignant opening, suddenly the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Chorale joined in and the lights turned on to show a curtain rising to reveal them in all their glory. The lady in the bleachers, who had looked on the big screen the most serious person present, was no doubt mighty relieved as the arrival of such powerful reinforcements.
Then in a blaze of glory came the Olympic torch - in the hands of the lovely gold medal winner from the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Elisa Camplin. Elisa was suspended high above the Arena holding a large flaming torch. She managed to keep smiling as she was winched across the Arena to light the Olympic Rings in Mid-Arena, showing just a slight hesitation, followed by a quick jab and fast withdrawal as she lit the Rings. Who could blame her, I asked myself as I wondered if the now blazing Rings would set the roof alight. Thankfully they did not, and Elisa was lowered to the floor and unhooked with rapid efficiency.
The evening then moved to the Official Welcome. Wine glasses were being discretely filled - I switched at this point to the Gold Label Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2003 - a slightly too fruity drop in my humble opinion.
The Prime Minister praised the Olympic Champions past, present and future, the City of Melbourne, the voters of Melbourne and (I seem to recall) the staff of the Vodafone arena. He was followed by John Coates AO, President of the Australian Olympic Committee who proposed The Loyal Toast to "The Queen and the Voters (correction People) of Australia". Then Max Beck spoke of the wonder of The Occasion and of the wonderful help he had been given by His Committee and various other loyal helpers.
Finally, The Entree! Catering, of course, was by Peter Roland, and while the bread rolls were VERY crunchy, everything else was done to perfection. The Entree was a "Collage of smoked fish, consisting of trout mousse, barramundi, smoked salmon & marinated prawns - correction prawn". Simply delicious!
More music accompanied this delightful first course. Vanessa Amorozi sang Heroes Live Forever - a tribute to Sydney 2000. Then past Olympic champions paraded onto the large centre stage - from Peter Antonie AOM, Catherine Freeman AOM, Michael Klim (no gong but what magnificent ears!), William Roycroft MBE (wearing a wonderful mustard-yellow jacket) to (the program said) Ian Thorpe. If I remember right, Thorpie was not there, and later when being interviewed, Kieran Perkins said that Grant Hackett might be the surprise of the Athens Olympics, while Thorpie was "doing a lot of things." Ahem, a slightly sour note in an otherwise perfect evening.
Then more musical delectation arrived, as John Farnham, rivalling Henry for retired portliness it must be said, made a "Special Presentation". (Portly folk stand out in this crowd, believe me. Mrs Thornton consoles me, pointing out that for most of history being portly has been a sign of success.) Farnham sang, if that is the right word, three songs, backed in each case by the Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Chorale as well as some more traditional rock'n'rollers. It was when the girls in his ensemble began giving clenched fist salutes that I switched my idle thoughts of Imperial Rome to Berlin, 1936, but this seditious speculation quickly disappeared with the arrival of a classic Peter Roland Main Course - "Herb dusted rack of Gippsland lamb on sliced new potatoes served with fetta pastizz & oven-rosted vine tomatoes, a rocket pesto and balsamic reduction". Phew! Now I switched to the Coonawarra Cabanet Sauvignon 2002, a tasty little number if I recall aright.(Understandably some details are hazy from about here.)
This article was first pubished on HenryThornton.com.