Ghosts of Childhood
Published by Books Unleashed at Smashwords
Copyright 2015 Neil Landers
The author has travelled widely, worked on newspapers in Australia, Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, and done other work. The photo shows him in 1974 during a teetotal spell while working at the Australian Financial Review near the end of an almost decade-long battle with alcoholism.
Some matters in this, particularly in chapters 3, 22 and 25, are dealt with much more fully in two previous books, From the Somme to ‘Sydney’s Little Chicago’, a biography of his father, and Australia’s Most Embarrassing Spy Secret. Both are available for free on the internet.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted by any person or entity, including internet search engines or retailers, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying (except under the statutory exceptions provisions of the Australian Copyright Act 1968), recording, scanning or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the author.
The author asserts his/her moral right to be identified as the author of this book.
CHAPTER ONE – Night-time Fears
CHAPTER TWO – Unhappy Schooldays
CHAPTER THREE – Unmentionable Subjects
CHAPTER FOUR – Daily Mirror Reporting
CHAPTER FIVE – Wider Experience
CHAPTER SIX – Overland to Saigon
CHAPTER SEVEN – Working in Hong Kong
CHAPTER EIGHT – After Hours in Hong Kong
CHAPTER NINE – Working in Tokyo
CHAPTER TEN – Living in Tokyo
CHAPTER ELEVEN – Indian Roving and Afghan Smuggling
CHAPTER TWELVE – Highs and Lows in London
CHAPTER THIRTEEN – Athens and Ethiopia
CHAPTER FOURTEEN – LSD and Other Hospital Drugs
CHAPTER FIFTEEN – Life and Work in Wagga
CHAPTER SIXTEEN – US Police Batons v. Flower Power
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN – Back to Hospital
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN – Rock Bottom
CHAPTER NINETEEN – New Technology Woes
CHAPTER TWENTY – Working for Murdoch
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE – Searching for Truth
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO – The Birth of Countless Ghosts
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE – Traveller’s Tales
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR – Exorcising My Ghosts
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE – High-level Ghosts
Sleeping soundly each night as a child directly over where a man had fatally injured himself, after almost decapitating his wife in an adjacent bathroom, was not always easy. His wife, Clara Hess, was about to leave her husband Philip after their marriage had broken down. According to some neighbours, her ghost haunted the house.
By about mid-1943, when I turned five and knew vaguely what a ghost was, I had heard a little about this in my home, those of neighbours and out in the street. After I learned to read well I found out much more. In a wardrobe in my bedroom, used to store odds and ends, I discovered newspaper cuttings that graphically described everything.
My father George had rented his house to Philip Hess while he went to live out in the country with his first wife, who was dying of tuberculosis. Just after 1pm on April 29, 1929, after packing the last of her belongings, Clara Hess entered the bathroom and began touching up her makeup in front of a mirror alongside the bath. Her husband fetched a large shaving razor, walked in and gripped her strongly from behind. He then slit her throat from ear to ear with such force that he almost severed her head.
Slashing at his throat, he staggered into their bedroom, where he fired a small-bore rifle into his head. Fatally wounded, he fell to the floor in a pool of blood alongside a window.
That window was alongside my bed. Soon after the war, knowing what I knew, George pointed out discolouring to me in the floorboards under my bed where Philip Hess’s blood had dried. At the time he was installing new floor covering. Later my mother Olive told me how, after they had married soon after that event and moved into the house, she had scrubbed and scrubbed but had never been able to completely erase all the indications.
Whenever I said anything about the ghost stories Olive always told me there were no such things as ghosts and I should take no notice of them. I tried. But sometimes, when I awoke early in the morning, the house was dark, perhaps wind outside was slightly shaking the windows, and floorboards seemed to be creaking in the passageway outside my bedroom … I think most people will understand.
Adding to my fears was my brother Colin, who was born prematurely in 1931, seven years before me, and was mentally retarded. He was also seriously disturbed. Often he threw tantrums in which he sometimes became dangerously violent. On a few occasions he attacked me so badly I thought he was trying to kill me. Colin had a small bedroom on a built-over back veranda at the other side of the bathroom. I developed a fear that when I was asleep he would come into my room and try to kill me.
Me with Colin during the war
Another threat to sound sleep in that house began early in 1944 after one of George’s accountancy clients in our village of Bankstown, on the south-western edge of Sydney, was named in the Australian parliament as a major war racketeer. George began getting drunk every night in the front living room while playing 78rpm records. As he got drunker the music became louder. He would then sometimes put on a record of World War I marching songs and loudly join the singing. That could go on almost until dawn.
I did, however, feel safe when I could hear that sound drifting through the house.
Each afternoon, while improving my reading in 1944, I strained my ears for the first distant sound of a whistle that heralded the approach of a newspaper boy. When he neared with his billycart I went to meet him with two pennies for a copy of the Sun. By then Olive was usually in the kitchen shelling peas, stringing beans or peeling potatoes for dinner. I would lay the Sun on the floor and prop myself on my elbows over it. As she finished those tasks, put vegetables on to cook, and began preparing the meat and dessert, I would read stories to her. Any word I did not know she would tell me how to pronounce and what it meant.
My parents during the war
In that way I followed the northwards advance of Americans and Australians towards Japan, the progress of Russian armies towards eastern Germany and the 1944 Allied breakout from Normandy towards the Rhine.
When I played soldiers with other small boys in the street there were arguments over whose turn it was to play Australians, Americans or Russians, and whose turn to play Japs or Germans, and have to fall down dead when bayonets were run through them. Enthusiastically we attacked Japanese convoys and retreating German armies, making rising sounds we had heard on the radio as we dived towards them with arms spread wide as wings. The sounds from our mouths became staccato as we opened fire with our machine guns.
From late 1944 I was sick in bed much of the time for almost a year with whooping cough and other illnesses. Although I have clear memories from before that period, I have almost none during it. But I can remember the end of the war in the Pacific.
Music was playing and people drinking, singing and dancing in backyards or out in the street. An aerodrome on the outskirts of Bankstown was still an important base for the Australian Air Force. But British Fleet Air Arm personnel had replaced the many Americans who had begun arriving in early 1942. Everyone watched as searchlights near the aerodrome, rarely used since 1942, swung slowly and triumphantly backwards and forwards across a dark sky for a last time.
As people returned from the war, and regular work resumed at a group of terminating co-operative building societies George had started in 1937, he stopped drinking heavily. If I went to the bathroom early in the morning a light sometimes would be on in the living room. Now, however, the door would be open, and he would be working at his desk.
I was still trying to get to grips with events in that house. Before I went to bed each night I had to shower in the adjacent bathroom. A shower and water heater, installed at the end of the bath soon after the war, were about two feet from the mirror where Clara Hess had stood during her last living moments. I began turning off the light. Alone, just outside an eerie red glow from gas flames under the heater, I then stood in near-darkness under the hot water defying her ghost, if it did exist, to appear before me. It never did.
Outside of the house, my early years were mostly happy. My closest friend was Norma, a girl next door. It was with her, behind a large hydrangea bush in front of our house, that I first learned the difference between boys and girls.
As a result of a childhood bout of rheumatic fever Norma was not robust. But she was always happy when with me. Unhesitatingly she followed wherever I led, be it into the deepest recesses under our homes, braving the perils of rusty nails and hairy spiders, or climbing up trees. I liked drawing and became good at this. Norma always admired my drawings, as did her mother and mine.
When Olive saw me with her in, under or near our house she often told me to be careful with her. But in her house no one seemed to care what we did. After a while with me her nose sometimes began to bleed and she was put to bed. But soon she was up again as bright as ever.
In early 1946, a year late because of the illnesses, I began going to North Bankstown Primary School. It was up on the Hume Highway, just past the top end of Sir Joseph Banks Street, where we lived at the bottom end. After school and at weekends there were paddocks and other places in which to play before dinner.
Behind homes up the street was a dense forest of tall eucalypts clogged with undergrowth. Exploring through that was exciting. On my way home from school, alone or with a classmate or two, I often went through that forest, or else roamed along different streets or across paddocks.
Mild warfare involving rocks was endemic between boys from our school and those from a Catholic school a few hundred metres down the Hume Highway. If I was with boys from my school then or at weekends, and we encountered boys from the Catholic school, a hasty search for rocks to throw often followed. A few times after those encounters I returned home streaming blood after failing to dodge a sizeable rock. This worried Olive, who tried to make me spend more time at home in peaceful activities such as reading or drawing.
The great day of the week for Olive was Friday. This was when she put on one of her best dresses and hats and set off in the morning for Town, the shopping centre of Sydney, a distant and fascinating place where many buildings were five or six stories high and some even higher than that. During school holidays I often accompanied her. There were more people than a boy from an outer suburb could have imagined, all crowding along the cavernous streets, and giant department stores that lured my mother from floor to floor.
When his finances improved my father bought a six-metre cabin cruiser that he moored at Picnic Point on the Georges River. On that we began to spend at least one day each weekend. Usually we cruised to a part where fish were said to have been biting and threw a few lines over the side. I learned how to help with mooring, how when travelling to watch at the bow for calm patches ahead that warned of sandbanks just under the surface, and how to row a dinghy we kept at the rear. Before long I was allowed to row the dinghy alone into creeks and explore their shallow depths, as well as banks overhung with branches.
In late 1947 the semi-rural atmosphere of Bankstown began to change rapidly as migrants poured in from war-shattered Europe. A paddock that had been there one day would be gone the next time I went past. In its place would be mounds of earth, a truck or two, and a roaring earth-mover, topped probably by a native of a Baltic state who was sweating and cursing in the unaccustomed Australian heat as he struggled with levers.
A few months later the paddock would be covered with small wood-framed houses with walls of fibro – thin sheets of compressed asbestos and cement. Financing some of them were George’s terminating building societies and also a permanent society, similar to a bank, he had formed just before the war. Once a week, in a little new English tourer, he drove into the city for talks at government departments and at the head offices of banks and insurance companies that were financing the terminating societies.
In a large shed in our backyard was a photographic darkroom. On shelves around its walls were dozens of books, many dating back to my parents’ childhoods and some to the previous century, which covered a great range of subjects. Many were about foreign lands. I became an avid reader of those and from some developed a desire to one day see the countries they described.
The most prized book was kept in Olive’s wardrobe. This was a large bound and embossed volume filled with photographs on heavy art paper of misty highlands and castles in Scotland, a land she talked often of one day visiting but never did. On days when the weather outside was as drizzly as it looked in those photographs I would occasionally sit, encouraged by her, and pore over those Caledonian scenes, so mysterious and awe-inspiring to a boy surrounded by the brick bungalows, paddocks and, increasingly, little fibro homes, of Bankstown.
When I was nine, Olive began sending me to junior art classes at the Australian National Art School in Darlinghurst, just east of the centre of Sydney. Each Saturday morning I set out with a feeling of great anticipation. The classes ended at lunchtime. I then had all afternoon to explore the centre of Sydney and nearby districts.
Much transport in Sydney was by tram. Sometimes I was able to travel for hours on them without paying. On the old toast-rack type, in which the conductor moved around the outside on a running board, I kept moving to the side away from him. On newer trams with central corridors I got off whenever the conductor neared. Between the rides I often explored nearby streets.
Back at home there were still problems with Colin. Since I was old enough, Olive had made me help with household chores such as drying dishes and laying out the table. Always she tried to apportion the work equally between us. But this rarely worked out. If, say, I had dried the dishes after lunch, she would try to make Colin dry them after dinner. Usually there would be a wail: “I did it last time. It’s Neil’s turn, make Neil do it.”
“Neil did it at lunch time.”
“I don’t care. It’s Neil’s turn, it’s Neil’s turn.” Then he would run into his room.
Often all that angered me. But Olive would then tell me he was different from other boys and I had to try not to be angry with him. I began to feel sometimes it was my fault that Colin was like he was.
My parents sent him to an institution, or else to classes for backward children at ordinary schools, but he often refused to go. Much of his time he spent alone in his room. A doctor had diagnosed his problem as depression and had prescribed amphetamines to “buck him up”. All they did, however, was increase tantrums in which he often became dangerously violent.
As soon as I returned from the city after art classes he usually went to his room, if he was outside it, and slammed the door. He almost never sat at a meal table with me. Be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, if I was in the house he would collect his meal in the kitchen and take it to his room.
By now my relationship with George was deteriorating. This was partly because of long hours he was working at his office, work that was sometimes followed by evening functions he felt he had to attend. That meant he was rarely in the house to help control Colin when he was throwing tantrums. There were other reasons, which I only began to understand later. He always insisted that I should never cry, even if I had hurt myself badly and was in serious pain. Often he threatened to beat me if I did not stop. When he was present I always managed somehow to stop.
Over the years my parents had a succession of cats named Ginger. Normally they were male. Just after the war, however, one was female. Every so often she began to swell. Whenever Ginger was “due” and disappeared we searched under the house, the shed and other likely places. When we found her litter, five or so helpless little creatures, I took them around neighbours’ back doors to ask if anyone wanted any. Once or twice I managed to unload a male.
Each time a day finally came when George filled a large bucket and took Ginger’s litter from her for a last time. They were then put into the bucket one by one and held under the water until movement had ceased. At first that was George’s job. But when I was about seven, despite my protestations, it became mine. He ordered me not to cry and watched me closely to see I did not. Then I had to help bury them. It was a job I had to do a few times and hated.
As work at his building societies rose in line with the building boom the frequency of his evening functions increased. Wives often were expected to attend those functions. Olive obviously did not like them much but sometimes she felt she had to attend. On such occasions she would tell me they would not be home too late. I did not like to go to bed early on those occasions. To help pass time, and also sometimes during a wet day, I often began to play records from George’s extensive collection.
They did not always come home too early. On such occasions I would sometimes prepare for sleep. I still had a deep fear that when I was asleep Colin would try to kill me. My bedroom door could not be locked. So after closing it I would put the only chair in the room against it.
George when he was at home still liked a drink in the evening, although nowhere near as much as late in the war. People often gave him a bottle of spirits as a present, particularly at Christmas. As a result, he had a well-stocked drinks cabinet. Before long I discovered that, if left alone in that house at night, or worse, alone with Colin, the contents of his drinks cabinet could help calm any fears. There were usually more than a dozen bottles of spirits. By only taking a bit from each I was able to hide my actions, or so I thought.
When I was eleven Olive asked me if I would like to go to a boarding school in the country. I asked her why. In the fiercest words of her life to me, she said: “Because I have to get you out of this house, Neil.”
Katoomba, a cliff-top tourist resort in the Blue Mountains surrounded by some of the best scenery in NSW, is two hours west of Sydney by train. To there I went early in 1950 for the final year of my primary education at Clairvaux, the junior section of St Bernard’s College, run by the Catholic De La Salle teaching brothers. I had no idea what to expect.
George, of English and German-Jewish descent, was nominally Anglican. Mainly Scottish Olive was the daughter of a devout Congregational lay preacher. Their decision to send me to a Catholic school raised eyebrows among Olive’s anti-Catholic relatives. But neither at the time was religious. An Irish Catholic friend of my parents, who had a son there, had recommended St Bernard’s, which was cheaper than any Protestant boarding school.
Clairvaux, at the edge of Katoomba overlooking a sweep of unpopulated valleys, proved to be dreadful. The brother in charge frequently beat hell out of any boy he could find an excuse to get his hands on. Usually he used a length of stiff hosepipe that made a fearsome noise but left no marks. While I was far from being the worst of his victims I was not spared his hosepipe. Another brother was known mainly for hanging around in the lavatory and molesting the youngest boys when they entered.
Appointed prefects were given unlimited power. The previous year this system had reached a nadir under a boy whose father, a wealthy businessman at a nearby town, contributed handsomely to school causes. That boy was now at the senior school, but the mere sight of him was enough to terrify some of the younger boys. Sometimes he initiated new boys by forcing them to eat “peanut butter” sandwiches. Since they were given the choice of either eating up or being seriously beaten, they usually ate up, although they knew what the “peanut butter” really was.
Despite all that, the year’s main event for me occurred at home during the second term holidays. Norma was in bed all the time. But her mother let me into her bedroom for a while each day. Boarding school had ended my Saturday art classes. But I still frequently did drawings, usually of surroundings and the people in them, which I always showed her. Then I read books to her she liked, as I had done sometimes in the past. Norma lay whitely against the sheets and listened with interest as I read.
She was worse than I had ever seen her before. But I fully expected she would soon be up again, fit and chirpy, as she always had in the past.
Sometimes her mother entered and straightened bedclothes or adjusted curtains. She would ask if I wanted a cup of tea. Not fruit cordial, which we had normally been given in the past, but tea, the main drink of the adults. This she brought in china cups, complete with saucers, for both of us. She also often brought a plate of such luxuries as iced vo-vos, a biscuit, topped with marshmallow and strawberry jam, loved by most Sydney children. Members of her family and other neighbours began to talk to me during those holidays as if I had suddenly become an adult.
The holidays were almost over, and I was steeling myself for the return to boarding school, when Olive came into my bedroom one morning to see if I was awake, told me gently that Norma had died during the night, and left me alone. I cried my eyes out for quite a while as it sank in. Then I dressed and went out to the street, where a hearse was parked outside her house. I felt angry at my mother for not telling me what was happening. Returning to the back, where she was working, I told her as brutally as I could that “the death-cart has come for Norma” and did not mention her again.
Although I had had sufficient talent to attend junior classes at the Australian National Art School, and to be encouraged by teachers to continue there, I ceased from that day on to have the talent or inclination to draw.
The senior section of St Bernard’s, in Merriwa Street near the bottom end of the shopping centre, where I received the five years of my secondary education, had none of the abuses at Clairvaux. The brothers were mostly well-meaning and fairly ordinary men who spent much of their spare time running up and down the school’s tennis and handball courts. If they used corporal punishment it was usually with more than sufficient justification. There were no prefects, and the boy who had terrified those at the junior school had gone off to another school. Later he became a prominent provincial businessman.
The principal, Brother Cassian, had promised my parents I would not be forced to attend Catholic services or classes on religion. This had been ignored at Clairvaux, where he had no real power. But at the senior school he kept that promise. It mainly meant that during morning Mass or other church services I usually had to sweep the quadrangle. I think many of the boys envied me as they knelt in the school chapel, mumbling prayers and fingering their rosary beads, while I slowly pushed a broom around outside.
My best friend during the first year there was a boy named Dally Messenger. His grandfather, of the same name, was regarded by many Australians as the greatest player ever in the world of both rugby codes. When he arrived at the school near the start of winter there was strong expectation among the boys and brothers. Any team with a grandson of Dally Messenger in the line-up would surely be formidable.
Sadly, he proved hopeless at rugby and became known to many boys as Daggy Dal, after Dagwood, a bumbling comic strip character. He was not a fool, however. Like me, he was good at classwork and an outsider. We got on well. Our friendship culminated in November with a memorable betting coup.
We organised a sweep on the Melbourne Cup among boys in the junior classes. His given names were Dally and Raymond and the slight favourite was Dalray. A study of its recent form, together with that omen, convinced us Dalray could not lose. So, after collecting sixpences from many of the junior boys, we put most of it on Dalray with an illegal starting price bookmaker at a barber shop in the main street. When it won at 4/1 we scored a lot of tuckshop money. Dal left at the end of that year.
Years later, when I first began writing about these matters, I found someone I thought was him in a phone book and called. A female voice said all Dally Messenger’s grandsons were named Dally and I had the wrong one.
The senior school fielded four rugby league teams, based on weight, in a competition with the two government high schools near us, at Katoomba, and Lithgow to the west. We also sometimes played rugby league and union, one half of each, against visiting teams from Catholic schools in Sydney and elsewhere. I was not much good at most sports but could run fast and had enough football ability to captain our second heaviest team during my second last year. Olive was so pleased by a photo of me standing at the head of the team that she kept it under glass alongside her bed for the next few years.
My only claim to sporting fame
The games against Katoomba and Lithgow were preceded by debating contests between three-person teams. I was usually the last speaker for our junior and then senior team, with the job of trying to demolish opposition arguments. Our opponents were always female. To make matters worse, the halls were usually filled with girls who would laugh loudly at anything I said which they thought wrong. It would only take one to laugh and they would all join in merrily. I was always happier when the debating ended and the football began.
Almost every weekend we went for a long walk, either around the streets of Katoomba or adjacent Leura, or down into the valleys hundreds of metres below. Many of the streets had gardens filled with flowers, shrubs and trees from around the world. They were often lovely. Some species of Himalayan rhododendrons, which flowered profusely in November, were said to grow better near Katoomba than anywhere in the world.
The valleys sometimes were even better. Often we descended by a precipitous path, later closed, near Clairvaux. This took us down into the Federal Pass, a primeval dark green world of temperate rainforest, clogged with ferns, moss-covered rocks, rotting logs and giant trees, where the sun barely penetrated. In two of my six years in Katoomba heavy snow fell. On one occasion it reached down to the Federal Pass, providing us with one of the world’s most rare and beautiful sights: a rainforest covered with snow.
Just before the end of each term we showered, shaved when that became necessary, put on dry-cleaned suits, greased down our hair with Brylcream, a white gunk used by almost all boys, and in early evening marched off to Mount St Mary’s, a college for young Catholic ladies on the other side of the railway tracks. There we trooped past statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary into a large hall where the young ladies, chattering brightly and looking their best, waited under the watchful eyes of about a dozen nuns.
For most of the next few hours we waltzed and Pride of Erined our way around the hall. Although I had become awkward with girls after the death of Norma I managed to get honourably through the dances. At intervals I joined most of the boys at one end of the hall, where we drank cordial and ate cream buns. Most of the girls did the same at the other end. There were always boys who claimed afterwards they had managed to sneak up to dormitories or somewhere else with partners. But with nuns guarding every exit that was almost impossible and they were never believed.
My final year at school, 1955, was the most interesting. As the year progressed, disquieting events began to occur. At first there was an increasing refusal by boys in lower classes to take orders from brothers. Some of the worst offenders, I believe, had started in junior classes at Clairvaux, and could remember clearly the “peanut butter” sandwiches and other matters there. Attempts by brothers to discipline them only increased this resistance.
One thing led to another. Occasionally windows began to be broken and pieces of furniture to be smashed. A Holden utility vehicle recently bought by the school, the pride and joy of Brother Cassian, became a special target. Its tyres kept going flat and its petrol tank got additions of unwanted substances such as sugar. There were a few expulsions but the situation continued to worsen. Eventually we were all assembled in a large double classroom.
Looking as fearsome as he could, Brother Cassian addressed us for nearly an hour, making clear the fate of anyone involved if the “wave of vandalism” did not cease. He was given an attentive hearing and the only unfortunate note came at the end when he began looking around for a pair of glasses he had put on a desk in front of him while speaking. A forgetful man, he was convinced by junior boys sitting at or near the desk that he had not put any glasses there. Feeling with puzzlement into pockets, he dismissed the gathering and strode out.
Boys near the desk then took his glasses down to the school garage and placed them under a back wheel of the Holden, where they were smashed when Brother Cassian drove off somewhere soon afterwards. I felt sorry for Brother Cassian after that. He had had no control over what went on at Clairvaux and had done all he could to make the senior school a much better place.
The climax came not long after this at the end of the second term. Normally we had a night out at the movies at the end of the football season. We had just finished an unusually good season, winning most of our competitions. When we learned that, in view of recent events, there would be no movies, there was a mass revolt. Up to then it had mainly been boys in the junior classes involved. In the senior class we were preparing for our Leaving Certificate exams and had taken little part. That changed. Some of us also had been at Clairvaux and had carried bad memories from there.
Then playing frequently on radios around Australia was a pounding song called Rock Around The Clock, with music and words unlike anything most people had ever heard before. It was from a movie called Blackboard Jungle with which we were able to identify.
The senior classroom was in a separate one-storey building on the other side of the quadrangle. Although I had felt sorry for Brother Cassian I joined in what followed during the next few anarchic days. Between doing various damage we belted out Rock Around The Clock vocally, and also musically on desktops using makeshift drumsticks such as rulers. I even almost set fire to the classroom.
To save time and effort when sweeping the room, it had been our normal practice to lift loose floorboards and sweep everything under them. As a result, the space under the floor had become filled with dust and paper. When someone suggested that a lighted match dropped through a hole in the floor would send the classroom up in flames I maintained that, because of dampness under the floor, it couldn’t possibly. The argument became heated, bets were laid and I was handed a box of matches.
Briefly, when the excitement was dying, the hoses were being unscrewed and the bucket brigades disbanded, I decided it was advisable to explain to someone in authority how it happened.
Arguably, I had won the bet. Although the amount of smoke had been great the flames had been negligible and had done almost no damage. But I thought the brothers probably had informants and knew already who was responsible. So I went to the brother who was best disposed towards me. I told him it had been for a bet, I had thought there was no possibility of fire, and I had not previously been involved in events taking place. He listened without comment or expression and when I had finished said the matter was closed.
Despite those events the year ended peacefully.
Soon after I left Katoomba, Clairvaux was closed. After being empty for a while it became at first an institution for backward children in state care. Not many years later the De La Salle order also closed the senior college. It became the state government’s Merriwa Street Public School.
In the school holidays I was kept busy. George bought me a bicycle on which I often went for long rides. By then he had a bigger boat, a 12-metre cabin cruiser called Naiad, on which I often spent weekends with my parents. When I had nothing else to do I read, often in the backyard darkroom, which had a good reading light.
At about 13 I began going through puberty, a difficult time. Despite my awkwardness with girls I had mild sexual encounters with some at the time. When I entered the darkroom one day I saw instantly a book which had not been there before. It was a large old sex manual, its contents clear and sensible, complete with little drawings. I was skimming through it a second time, reading bits that interested me and looking again at the drawings, when it disappeared from the shelf. I was never able to decide who probably put it there. My mother or my father? Or did they get together for that?
I began borrowing library books and by the time I was 17 had read a fair amount of fiction and non-fiction. Voltaire became my intellectual beacon. For a while I struggled with writers such as Dostoyevsky or Kafka. But my favourites became the French short story writer Guy de Maupassant, the American humourist James Thurber and George Orwell.
I got on well with Alan, Olive’s son by her first husband. With him, during school holidays soon after going to the senior school, I had my first taste of travel further from Sydney than Lithgow. The owner-driver of a large semi-trailer, he had to deliver a prefabricated building to Bourke in the north-west of NSW. When his normal offsider was unavailable he asked if I wanted to go with him. I accepted eagerly.
I did not know Alan had a secret that had caused him great problems while he was growing and still did. He did not mention it. But from a few embarrassed questions he asked after we entered the mountains I soon realised its existence. He could not read or write. Later he would have been called dyslexic. I began reading aloud anything but the most common road signs. When we stopped for dinner I read for him what was on the menu.
We got to somewhere past Orange on the western slopes before stopping to sleep in the cabin. My first sight of light from a rising sun behind us spreading across the inland plains, as we descended towards them, was unforgettable.
I had never seen a kangaroo in the wild, only a few small wallabies. A drought in the far west was driving kangaroos eastwards in a search for better-watered country. We saw many. When we neared Bourke on an empty dirt road that evening we drove through a flock, attracted possibly by our lights, which seemed to contain hundreds of them bounding along. That journey left me wanting to see more of Australia.
This was an interesting time in Bankstown. As migrants continued to pour in from Europe its population was soaring. Industrial districts and new suburbs were sprawling across the municipality’s rural outskirts. In the process, many people were becoming rich. Some were being helped by means that were legally questionable.
Ray Fitzpatrick, George’s accountancy client who had been named in the federal parliament in 1944 as a leading war racketeer, had with the help of expensive lawyers survived a long battle with the government in the High Court of Australia. After the war he kept making more money than anyone in the district.
But minority opponents on the Bankstown Council began making allegations involving Fitzpatrick, and also municipal staff and members of the council whom he was said to control. They also made allegations involving his younger brother Jack, who had become head of the municipality’s electricity department.
Jack Fitzpatrick, who briefly before the war had been an opening batsman for NSW in cricket matches, owned a large shop that sold electrical and sporting goods. It was across the road from an office to which George moved his building societies in about 1950. Even when he was working for the council, Jack was often in his shop. I sometimes bought stuff from him or was with one of my parents when they did. It was from Jack Fitzpatrick, just before Christmas in the early 1950s, that George bought my bicycle.
Christmas had an unusual meaning for me. George never once to my knowledge had Christmas dinner in his own home. Each Christmas morning there were stockings at the end of my bed. Inside were presents with cards saying they were from my parents. By 11am, however, George had always left to have Christmas dinner somewhere else. Olive or no one else seemed to know the reason. It was one of many things he never talked about. I knew he had had a bad relationship with his father and guessed it went back to something in his childhood.
Olive’s links with her relatives were not close enough to have Christmas dinner with them. And George had not seen any since his parents and siblings had sailed soon after World War I to live in the US. On a few occasions we had Christmas dinner with Alan and his family. Usually, however, just Olive and I sat down to a forlorn table, with all the normal Christmas trimmings and delicacies, after Colin had taken his to his room.
The Christmas before George bought the bicycle I was infuriated when I learned he had gone only about five doors up the street to have his Christmas dinner with a family with whom my parents seemed to have little contact. Many years later, I learned the head of that family, Charlie Park, had replaced George in the mid-1930s as Ray Fitzpatrick’s regular book-keeper. Later still, I learned that Park in late 1944 had been considered at the highest legal and investigative levels of the Australian government as a co-accused with Fitzpatrick in criminal charges to defraud the government during the war.
The government, after deciding it lacked sufficient evidence for a criminal conviction, had begun the previously mentioned battle in the High Court, claiming civil damages from Fitzpatrick for conspiracy to defraud the government. The matter was settled out of court in 1950.
Something else George never talked about was work he had done for Ray Fitzpatrick before the parliamentary allegations in 1944. After the allegations, federal police and tax agents raided Fitzpatrick’s offices and that of his city auditor. But they found almost no evidence of any of his real financial dealings. The government did however soon afterwards extract from Fitzpatrick the then very large amount of £62,000 in back taxes.
Hidden on a top shelf in our backyard darkroom were folders stuffed with receipts and lists of figures. On their front were dates that went from the mid-1930s to early 1944 and the name Fitzpatrick.
To earn pocket money during school holidays I at first did an afternoon newspaper delivery run. Then I began working as an office boy for my father. Often I had to take papers across the road for Jack Fitzpatrick to sign in his capacity as a Justice of the Peace (notary). Because of some other stuff I occasionally took to him, I suspected, when George took me into Jack’s shop to buy me the bicycle, that he was doing work for him similar to what he had done for his brother Ray before the allegations in 1944.
At a more personal level, I felt he was falsely pretending to be a good father by buying me something expensive for Christmas when he would not be there for dinner on Christmas Day. By then my relationship with him was almost at rock bottom. While he discussed models and prices with Jack Fitzpatrick I was slightly behind him scowling. I can still vaguely recall Jack looking wonderingly at my scowls. My attitude, however, did not stop me accepting the bicycle and quickly putting it to good use.
Allegations against Ray and Jack Fitzpatrick in Bankstown Council and elsewhere were supported by the weekly Torch, Bankstown’s leading newspaper since 1920. The founder, and by then managing editor, Les Engisch, lived with some other family members up the street from us, as did his son Phil, the editor, in an adjacent house.
The Torch was anti-Labor and George all his life was strongly pro-Labor. Because of that, George was never too close to members of the Engisch family. But he met them sometimes at functions and, in the circumstances, had a reasonably good relationship with them.
In 1950 George and some of his Labor mates started a pro-Labor weekly newspaper, the Bankstown Observer. That further strained George’s relationship with the Engisch family. None of the Observer’s founders, however, knew anything about newspapers, and the venture was soon in financial distress. Ray Fitzpatrick bailed them out in return for editorial control. He then began using the Observer to wage a war against the Torch and deny allegations it was printing about him. George and others resigned as directors of the Observer but were locked in with minority shareholdings they could not sell.
Olive, anti-Labor all her life, did not like Ray Fitzpatrick, whom she had long been calling a crook. Nor, however, did she like his main Bankstown accuser at the time, Torch editor Phil Engisch. But she was a good friend of Phil’s wife, and also Phil’s father Les, with whom she liked to chat sometimes at our front gate. I had reason to suspect she was supplying Les with some anti-Fitzpatrick details appearing in the Torch.
Les, known like his son for an occasional bad temper, was the only member of the Engisch family with whom I had any interaction during my early years. A few times soon after World War II, when no one appeared to be home, I had sneaked with school friends into his large backyard from the forest behind to raid birds’ nests in his trees. But once he had been home and had sent us fleeing in fear across the back fence as he charged down his backyard shouting at us to “piss off you little bastards”, or words to that effect.
As allegations against Ray and Jack Fitzpatrick worsened they sometimes led to blows between their supporters and opponents at council meetings. Sometimes even councillors came to blows. I was still during school holidays taking papers across the road for Jack to sign in his capacity as a Justice of the Peace. I seemed to be the only person in the office who saw anything ironic in that title.
In 1954, after a Labor state government report supported allegations against both brothers in great detail, the government sacked the Labor-dominated council and replaced it with an administrator. That brought some local political peace. But despite all the details, little official action against the Fitzpatrick brothers personally followed that government report. The Torch and Observer kept attacking each other.
Almost everyone in Bankstown, however, had more important personal matters to think about than local political problems or allegations involving the Fitzpatrick brothers. I had normal problems of any teenager and some not so normal, particularly involving Colin. He was physically as well as mentally retarded and by then I was bigger and stronger than him. He now seemed more frightened of me than I of him.
Colin was no longer taking amphetamines and had a job with Bill Shallala, our Lebanese local grocer. Shallala, with the help of George, was starting a home-building company with Garney Gavan, a barber who lived up the street from us and who cut our hair. With George’s building societies channelling business towards it, the company, as soon as it was functioning, took off. In very little time, Gavan and Shallala was advertising itself in city newspapers as Sydney’s biggest home-building company. Instead of helping with groceries, Colin became a messenger taking papers to solicitors and cheques to banks.
All that helped make Colin feel important, to adjust to life, and easier to live with. I no longer needed to raid George’s drinks cabinet to calm my fears when alone at night in the house with him. But I still liked to play George’s records when both my parents were out of the house, and had found that the more I sampled the contents of his drinks cabinet the more I enjoyed the music. Often I became quite happy. I kept taking only a bit from each bottle, but more carefully than before.
Colin’s improved situation helped improve relations between my parents, which had reached a nadir during George’s heavy drinking near the end of the war. But there were still parental tensions. One cause of those was George’s secretary, Mrs Payne, who had joined him during the war. At the time there was discontent among his skeleton staff because they were required to work on Saturdays. When Mrs Payne joined, Olive told me grimly, the Saturday work soon stopped.
Sometimes Mrs Payne acted as George’s escort at functions. She was an attractive woman for her age who dressed smartly, was an efficient secretary, and could turn on charm when it was needed. She also had a hide like an elephant, an occasionally waspish tongue, particularly with women, and knew how to manipulate men.
My best memories of her were at parties or on our boat surrounded by men and swigging beer from a bottle. Sometimes she told salacious jokes that had the men all roaring with laughter, but with such style that, although this thought did not occur to me until years later, she did not appear coarse.
Despite a lot of gossip about her, she had a secure family life. She had a classy daughter, not too much older than me, who also worked at the office, and a husband who was an executive at a shipping company in the city and who got on well with George. Neither seemed to take any notice of the gossip. To Olive, however, she was always “that woman”. I would have been surprised later to learn she was ever anything more to George than a secretary and an occasional escort at functions, and probably Olive never suspected anything more, but that was how it seemed at the time to me.
It was sometimes worse when my parents did attend evening social functions together. After I began working in the office I began sometimes going to functions involving the office staff.
Olive was a good conversationalist with people she knew but she lacked the small talk necessary with strangers. She came from a teetotal family and another problem was her dislike of alcohol, which was often drunk in quantity at such gatherings. If someone insisted on thrusting a glass of beer into her hand she did not like to appear anti-social and would stand there with it, but without touching any.
George was still not drinking anything near as much as he did near the end of the war. At those functions, however, he often drank more than a bit. Before long he would sometimes start singing songs and putting his arms around women, particularly the younger ones, trying to get them to join his singing. If he drank too much he would sometimes goose them on the backside.
He also liked to show how he could cross his eyes and wiggle his ears. Those, skills he was proud of, he had learned as a child in Lancashire. If anyone thinks either is easy they should try doing one, let alone both at the same time, which he could do. During such behaviour, Olive appeared sometimes to shrink with embarrassment into a corner. I would cringe, or start scowling towards him. No, I wanted to tell everyone near me, he’s not my father.
The most important matters George never liked to talk about were during World War I. Neither did Olive. They had been close before, in 1915 at age 17, he had sailed to join the troops at Gallipoli. She had expected him to marry her when he returned from the war. But in 1918, after recovering from war injuries, he had married a second cousin at his home town of Leigh in Greater Manchester.
He never said a word about that war to me. Olive told me the only thing he ever said about it to her was that he was on the last boat to leave Gallipoli, after running messages for officers commanding the withdrawal. I did, however, know considerably more about his involvement in World War I than that in World II.
On a bottom shelf in the darkroom were small diaries he had kept after arriving at Gallipoli. The diaries included drawings of life in the trenches and caricatures of men there with him. A few were missing, after he gave them to people writing about the war. Although he wrote mainly about tasks such as digging trenches, he seemed to work mainly as a company clerk. At the end of each day’s entries were names of men killed, wounded or missing. Sometimes there were only a few names and other times many.
The diaries continued after his battalion, the Fourth, went to Egypt and then France. They ended in late 1916 during the tail end of the Battle of the Somme in an ocean of mud. From what I heard in conversations during visits by Olive’s relatives, I knew he was caught by a shell that probably contained experimental mustard gas.
For the rest of his life he had large rashes on his legs and the lower part of his body. Soon after the war he took me sometimes to Bankstown’s Olympic-length swimming pool to teach me how to swim. In the dressing shed afterwards I glimpsed the full extent of those rashes. Even that he would not say anything about.
As I continued sometimes during my teens to go through those diaries, and also sometimes to read in newspapers or library books about the Battle of the Somme, I began to modify some of my views about him. Increasingly, I began to understand such actions as making me drown kittens, or pointing out the bloodstains of Philip Hess under my bed, and why he insisted that I should never cry. I realised he had experienced a dreadful introduction to manhood and probably saw himself as helping to prepare me, understandably, for anything that lay ahead in my life.
During 1955, my last year at school, the political situation in Bankstown began to worsen bizarrely. Soon after nightfall on Easter Monday a mysterious explosion sent the roof of the closed Torch premises into the sky and the building disappeared in flames. At the time I was travelling homewards with my parents on our boat. The next morning the fire got a big coverage in radio news reports and on the front pages of newspapers.
Soon after dawn, Labor politicians began calling George wanting to know what was going on in Bankstown. After breakfast I joined hundreds of residents who watched as a team of 20 detectives sifted through the smouldering ruins looking for clues.
Phil Engisch, who had been in the building less than an hour before the explosion, implied to reporters that someone had caused the fire deliberately to stop him exposing corruption in Bankstown. The district’s representative in the federal parliament, Charles Morgan, told reporters a gang had controlled Bankstown for years. “The gang’s immunity has emboldened it to engage in excesses reminiscent of Chicago,” he said. Increasingly lurid newspaper stories began about “Sydney’s Little Chicago”.
Morgan, an inner-city lawyer, had been involved with George in building society matters since 1937. Helped by a recommendation from George, he had soon afterwards become Ray Fitzpatrick’s legal adviser. With the help of George and Fitzpatrick, Morgan in 1940 had become the Labor member for the seat of Reid, which then covered most of Bankstown. But soon after that Morgan and Fitzpatrick had fallen out seriously. According to George and other people, the cause was problems with a joint business venture.
Morgan was the person who started the allegations against Fitzpatrick in the parliament in 1944 and made many of the most serious allegations.
Ray Fitzpatrick and Charles Morgan
Fitzpatrick hired a muckraking journalist, Frank Browne, to take over the Observer and start hitting back against all the newspaper allegations. I was back at Katoomba by then. But I was reading newspapers when able, and Olive was sending me letters each week filling me in with details. Soon after the fire, Fitzpatrick went to our home just before dinner one evening, showed George a proof of an Observer front page, said there might be legal problems, and offered to buy George’s unsellable shareholding so he would not be involved. According to Olive, George accepted gladly.
The next day the Bankstown Observer appeared with a page 1 lead story implying Morgan was involved in a recent “racket” bringing in illegal migrants. The story quoted details from confidential federal government security reports mentioning Morgan. It did not mention that the reports were compiled early in World War II and concerned schemes involving Morgan and other lawyers before the war to help German and Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis.
That ridiculous and libellous story was obviously intended to lure Morgan into a court where he could be cross-examined without the benefit of parliamentary privilege. In light of Morgan’s period as Fitzpatrick’s legal adviser, when some offences were said to have occurred, that could have been embarrassing for Morgan. The story had consequences no one could ever have imagined.
Morgan went to Browne’s greatest enemy, Prime Minister Robert Menzies, and complained that the story was intended to hinder his work as a member of parliament. Because of what he had been writing in a weekly newsletter about Menzies and other members, Browne had many enemies on both sides of politics. Menzies listened sympathetically to Morgan. The upshot was that the parliament’s bipartisan Committee of Privilege, after hearings behind closed doors, found Browne and Fitzpatrick guilty of a serious breach of parliamentary privilege and recommended the parliament take “appropriate action” against them.
Robert Menzies and Frank Browne
On June 10, 1955, after some of the most extraordinary speeches ever inside the parliament, Fitzpatrick and Browne became, each for three months, the only two people the Australian Parliament has ever jailed. Several members, most newspapers and many ordinary Australians obviously disapproved of the decision to jail them.
After a writ of habeas corpus the matter went to the High Court and then to a preliminary hearing of our then ultimate court of appeal, the Privy Council in London, both of which supported the parliament’s legal right to jail them.
Inside and outside the parliament there were increasing calls for the release of suppressed evidence to the closed committee hearing that recommended parliamentary action. There were also calls to release, in particular, a report in 1944 to then Prime Minister John Curtin concerning the allegations in the parliament that year concerning Fitzpatrick. Morgan had called the report, by the Joint Parliamentary War Expenditure Committee, “the most secret document in Australia”. Other members had supported his claim.
While the two men served their sentence a court inquiry into the burning of the Torch heard evidence from most of the main participants in what many newspapers were calling the Bankstown Affair. Ray Fitzpatrick was not called and there was no substantial evidence of wrongdoing against him from anyone, including Phil Engisch and Morgan.
The court exonerated Ray and his brother from any part in the fire but criticised evidence by Phil Engisch and returned an open finding. Evidence that most helped change public perceptions and attitudes about the fire was given by a young woman, with whom Phil Engisch had been having a long affair, concerning her hours with him before it.
Calls meanwhile had grown in the press and parliament for the release of the so-called “most secret document in Australia”. A few days before the end of Fitzpatrick and Browne’s three months in jail, Menzies promised, after a long and angry debate in parliament, to release the document in a week.
A week later, Menzies told a packed parliament he had changed his mind and would not release it. Labor opposition leader Dr H.V. Evatt, who was waging a bitter war with Menzies over allegations of communist espionage, which followed the defection in 1954 of Soviet spy chief Vladimir Petrov, supported him.
I was home on holidays during part of all that. When I was not, Olive kept me informed with letters. As in Katoomba, that eventful year of 1955 also ended fairly peacefully in Bankstown.
Daily Mirror Reporting
News stories just after the fire at the Torch about preceding events in Bankstown were bad. Top reporters drove around Bankstown and interviewed people on one side of a long-running war. Not one appeared to interview anyone on the other side, or any of the many people in Bankstown who could have warned them to be careful about what was being said on both sides. If they did, it was not in their stories, which contained exaggerations that were sometimes ridiculous.
The coverage soon improved. But no journalist mentioned the important events during World War II. Not one that I could find, even in long background feature stories, mentioned what was partly behind influence Ray Fitzpatrick had in high places beyond Bankstown: his well-known power behind the scenes in harness racing, a sport in which a lot of rich or powerful people were then involved. None even mentioned that Morgan for a few years had been Fitzpatrick’s legal adviser.
I had advantages they did not have, but I thought they should have done better than that. When I left school I decided I wanted to become a journalist.
Early in 1956 I began work as a copy boy at the Sydney Morning Herald, which had just moved from its gracious old Hunter Street headquarters near Circular Quay to a grim concrete building, becoming known as Alcatraz on Broadway, which was nearing completion just south of Central Station. Inside, exposed pipes and wires ran everywhere. Some windows had yet to be installed.
My first job was making pots of tea and sending copy in the sporting section. Whenever copy was ready to go to the printing section below the chief sporting sub-editor would bellow “boy”. I would collect the copy from a basket and take this to a hole drilled in the floor. Chutes nearby ran to the “cage”, the production floor command post from where the copy was sent to Linotype machines. The chutes were not yet working. So I would put the copy into a container, lower it on a rope through the hole, which was over the cage, and jiggle it a few times to attract attention. Someone would take out the copy and tug the container as a signal to pull it back up through the hole.
Somewhere in the archives at the Herald there are still possibly photographs, taken during my first weeks in the industry, which show me operating that. Later I was promoted to ripping paper off teletype machines and sorting it.
Most of my fellow copy boys came from fashionable northern or eastern suburbs and had been educated at leading government or Protestant schools. The only one who stood out was a shaggy-haired figure with a look of constant bafflement at the stupidity of the world. Named Padraic Pearse McGuinness after a famous Irish revolutionary, he made clear his low opinion of the capitalist press. Some evenings he did not bother coming to work, going instead to meetings of the very left-wing Labor Club at Sydney University.
On one occasion he arrived late after attending court on a charge of offensive behaviour. According to the police prosecutor, he remained seated during the playing of God Save the Queen at a movie theatre. He then used language not then usually heard in theatres, on screen or off, to abuse those around him who stood, as most did at the time. After a prominent Labor politician told the court he had known Paddy since he was a small boy, and could not imagine him using the words mentioned, McGuinness got off with a warning.
The system was that after a few months as a copy boy an aspiring journalist would be called in to the office of Lew Leck, the editorial manager. If he was to receive a cadetship he would be given a brief speech about the great principles and traditions of journalism. Never mentioned in the speeches, I believe, was that among the profession’s greatest traditions were nepotism and cronyism. McGuinness’s father, founding editor of the Sydney Daily Mirror, had been a close friend of Leck. It was therefore assumed that, despite everything, he would get a cadetship.
Unfortunately, on the night he was to see Leck to be given one, Paddy called in, not knowing this, to say he had a Labor Club meeting to attend. And so for a while ended the career of P.P. McGuinness at John Fairfax Ltd, publisher of the Herald. Later he left Australia and found work at the London arm of the Moscow Narodny Bank, an important Cold War conduit for money to and from the Soviet Union.
Some years further on, his views far to the right of where they had been, he became for a while editor of the Australian Financial Review, the daily newspaper of the nation’s capitalist bosses, which was also published by Fairfax.
During the following evenings some of the other boys were given cadetships. Then I was called in. Leck said he could not imagine me becoming a journalist. But if I was interested in an apprenticeship in the machine or composing rooms he would speak to one of the foremen downstairs. I knew by then the Herald rarely gave cadetships to boys from working-class suburbs, as Bankstown by then was, or Catholic schools, and half-expected this. I said no and resigned.
For the next few months I worked as a copy boy at Sydney’s other morning daily, the Telegraph. Then I heard that the afternoon Daily Mirror, which was known for an official distaste of higher education, had introduced a policy of hiring university-level cadets and was looking for people. Thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship I had won on the strength of my Leaving Certificate pass, I was doing a free part-time Arts course at Sydney University. So I went to the Mirror and applied for a cadetship. Coming from Bankstown and a Catholic school, minuses at the Herald, were pluses at the Mirror, and they gave me one.
The Mirror had normally appointed cadet journalists from the ranks of copy boys or other staff who had not gone beyond high school. I was one of the first three overt university students for years, all from the Faculty of Arts, hired under the new policy. As such I was, like the other two, an object of some hostility. To some people there, particularly ones who had been trying for years to get a cadetship, real men did not usually go to university, and certainly not to the Faculty of Arts. There were, however, men there who were said to have sneaked off after work to evening Arts lectures at nearby Sydney University.
At first I typed radio and shipping columns. Then I was promoted to food prices reporter. Early each morning I went to the city markets to collect prices from regular contacts. Central food markets near dawn, with their noise, colour and bustle, are among the most wonderful parts of any city. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
For the rest of the day I usually sat in a room monitoring police and ambulance radios and calling their local stations for details about matters. My most frequent mentor in this work, when he was not out on a job, was a cadet named Steve Dunleavy.
On the last Saturday of 1956 I was considered ready for my first outside assignment. A house at a southern inner suburb had burnt down during the night and a family with several children had been left homeless. I was to go there with a driver and photographer and get a story that would help fill a hole in the early editions until the big afternoon sporting stories started coming in.
It was a hot sunny morning as we started out in a big American car. I was in the front next to the driver. Gliding past the little British and European things of most Sydney car-owners, it gave a feeling of power. We had a radio tuned in to the office and another to the police network. A turn of the latter’s switch gave us the ambulance network.
We never made it to that burnt-out family. Just after 8am a message crackled over the police radio and began being repeated. Almost immediately Jim North, the man in charge of police rounds that morning, was on the air, calling us. An explosion had rocked the Boral oil refinery at Matraville near Botany Bay. Sydney’s first oil refinery was on fire! And, as an 18-year-old first-year cadet on my first outside assignment, I was in an office car not too far away.
The driver put his foot down and went through the gates of the refinery in front of one of the first police cars to get there. There was much smoke and confusion. But when we stopped near the action it was clear the situation was already under control. An ambulance that had been nearby was just pulling away. Ahead of us, workmen were playing hoses on tanks. While our photographer took shots I hurried over to a foreman, who told me what had happened.
A hydrogen tank had exploded, seriously burning three men, and a fire and more explosions had followed. For a few minutes the situation had been dangerous. But the flames had been stopped before serious damage could be done. While the foreman was talking, hoses kept playing on smoking metal. The first fire engines, their sirens at high pitch, were coming through the gate. I thanked him and hurried back to our car.
It was near the deadline for our first edition, which went mainly to country centres, so I quickly composed a story, partly in my head and partly in a notebook, and radioed this to a copytaker at the office. The victims had been taken to the nearby Prince Henry Hospital. As soon as I had finished, Jim North, later for many years the federal president of the Australian Journalists Association, told me to go there and find out what I could about them. The photographer he told to return by cab.
At the hospital the gatekeeper had strict instructions: no press cars were to be allowed in. The driver accelerated away, swung the car around a few side streets and stopped behind the sprawling grounds of the hospital. “Okay,” he said, pointing to a wire fence, “over you go.”
In a slight daze, I climbed the fence, managed to get under barbed wire topping it without ripping my clothes, and dropped to the ground. Trying to look businesslike whenever I passed nurses or other staff, I walked past buildings and looked at hospital direction signs until I found the casualty section, where a police car was parked at the front.
Inside the entrance a doctor was speaking to two young policemen. The details he was giving were what I wanted: names, ages and addresses of the three victims, all of whom soon afterwards died, and their injuries and condition. So I stood to one side jotting them into my notebook. When the doctor left, the police, assuming I had every right to be there, filled me in with details I had missed. We were some distance from the hospital entrance so they offered to drive me out. I accepted gladly. They dropped me off at the Mirror car, waiting up the road.
I radioed the extra details to the office and we took our time going back. By then the first edition was running with big front page headlines over my story. Well, it was not quite my story. They had rewritten the start to make it sound more exciting, with part of South Sydney in peril. “Jazzed it up” as we said. The Mirror was good at that. But the details about what happened inside the refinery were mine and were correct. And we had clearly beaten the Sun. On stories like this the Mirror and opposition Sun, across the railway tracks at Fairfax, were two of the world’s most fiercely competitive newspapers.
The start was toned down in later editions. During the day the temperature had soared. By the afternoon, bushfires were blazing around the outskirts of Sydney. In the last edition the story was relegated to the lead on page 2.
After that I was put mainly onto suburban court reporting and sometimes had to do police rounds. The latter was not my ideal work. I had been lucky the first time and never had another success to equal that. A frequent instruction was to try to get photos of accident victims. That often involved going to the home of someone just killed, where family members were in shock, and trying to cajole from them a photo that would be returned if they wished. I did not like that and on the one occasion I tried I failed.
Some Mirror reporters at the nearby Evening Star Hotel after work liked to boast about occasions when, as families grieved in the living room, they had been able to sneak into another room and steal a required photo. I could never have done something like that.
The Mirror, near the end of its Norton era, was in what was called a pussycats-up-lightpoles phase. This neatly encapsulated two preoccupations of people in charge of its news pages. Ezra Norton, its owner, who also owned the notorious Truth weekly newspaper, was not as wild as his infamous father John, who founded the family company. Ezra did not much like humans or stories about them. But he loved stories about animals.
If police or firemen were called to rescue an animal anywhere a Mirror photographer, perhaps with a reporter, would be sent racing to the scene. I never had to cover one of those stories. But when doing court or police rounds work I always, as did all reporters, have to look out for any story angles involving that other, and much more important, preoccupation of people in charge of the news pages.
At the Evening Star on Friday afternoon we normally began a weekend’s drinking that sometimes did not end until the early hours of Sunday. After leaving, we most often went to nearby Chinatown to eat. Then we usually drifted to whatever pub that month was most popular with Mirror and other city cadets.
The Macquarie at Woolloomooloo, Sydney’s best-known waterfront hotel, was the favourite of many cadets. It had a large lounge where a jazz band played loudly and which on weekends got so crowded that movement became difficult. A favourite of some was the “arty” Newcastle near Circular Quay. Its walls served as a public gallery for aspiring young artists. This gave it one advantage: if the conversation wilted you could walk around pretending to study the paintings.
My favourite was the Royal George, down near the warehouses at Darling Harbour. On week nights, when I sometimes went there alone for a beer or two, it had probably the most avant-garde and diverse clientele in Sydney. Among them were serious liberal thinkers, the creatively inclined, eccentrics, beatniks, seamen and junkies. In court cases involving drug smuggling that pub often was mentioned.
For a teenager from Bankstown, educated at a Catholic boarding school in the country, with relatively liberal views about most of the problems that then divided people, and with vague feelings of identification with many outsiders of society, the Royal George during the week was interesting. At weekends it tended to be over-run by groups of people including cadet journalists and many of the regulars seemed to stay away.
Years later it was claimed in books and newspaper articles to have been the main watering hole at about that time for an exciting group of radical “free thinkers” called The Push, which helped shake up intellectual life in Australia. The group was initially based, I read, on students in the fifties of a notorious Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, John Anderson, whose anti-clerical, anti-military and other views were allegedly much feared by conservative Australians.
Philosophy was one of my two Sydney University Arts subjects – the other was English. During the day or evening in 1956 and 1957, depending on the hours I worked, I sometimes attended lectures by Professor Anderson, who was about to retire. I recalled him as a mildly acerbic old man who should not have frightened anyone. I did not recall ever recognising any fellow Philosophy students at the Royal George.
A young star thinker of The Push, I read, was my former fellow copy-boy Paddy McGuinness. I never saw him there either. I drank in the public bar and perhaps that was not the right one.
The much-publicised Push seems to have been just one of many parts of a progressive milieu that could have been found then in most large cities, and probably to some extent in many places since the heyday of Athens. Many groups in that Sydney milieu drank often in the same pubs, overlapped and interacted. They were based on employment, university faculties or special interests. I belonged to the city cadet journalists group.
The Royal George eventually changed its name, lost its disreputable Bohemian image and became known mainly as the place where the future Crown Princess of Denmark met her future husband.
My best friend at the Mirror, and the one with whom I drank most frequently, was Clem Lloyd, one of the two other overt university students who joined near the time I did. He was described sometimes as elephantine, not so much for his fairly large size, which varied according to how much he had recently been eating, but because of his lumbering gait. Veteran waiters at the restaurant in Chinatown where we usually ate sometimes appeared awed at the quantity of food he could put away.
We did much the same work and, in areas such as Labor Party history and Australia’s role in two world wars, had similar interests. Clem had a laconic wit and an academic ability that enabled him to pass university exams without ever seeming to study for them.
When the pubs closed, the Mirror cadets, together often with some from other newspapers, would set off, invited or not, to any party we had heard about. If we were not welcome at the party, or did not like it, we would move on. At most parties people often sang. One of the more respectable songs I can remember was sung to the tune of The Red Flag, a left-wing socialist anthem. It began:
“The working class can kiss my arse,
“I’ve got a foreman’s job at last.
“We’ll rob the rich, we’ll rob the poor,
“We’ll turn every working class girl into a whore.”
Being irreverent about left-wing socialism did not make us pro-Menzies. Another favourite, to the tune of There’ll Always Be an England, began: “There’ll always be a Menzies, while there’s a BHP …”
Our cadet groups were mostly male but there were often a few girlfriends or women’s section cadets. Some of the latter could match the males drink for drink, or appear to, and still look in the early morning as if they were at a fashion parade, the sort of event they usually had to cover. I had been drinking occasionally since before I was ten. Despite my relatively small size I was able to keep up with all except the most hardened drinkers.
I never fitted in too easily though. Often, as the evening wore on, I wandered out into a backyard or a street with a beer in my hand and stood there alone under the stars trying to solve the problems of the world. I know some of my solutions were ingenious.
Sometimes I would fall asleep on a living room floor and wake up a few hours later at dawn surrounded by drunken bodies. After a quick wash I would straighten my tie, comb my hair, find out what part of Sydney I was in, and set off for work.
Occasionally, probably after sleeping on a floor for a while, some of us went to one of the early-opening pubs at the city markets, where we paid some talented old alcoholic to pound out request tunes on a piano. After work on Saturday we often found out where any drinking had drifted to by then and re-joined it for a least a while.
While at the Mirror I began my National Service training, which was then compulsory. I could have deferred it, as most cadets did, but I wanted to go overseas as soon as possible, and proof of having done National Service was then required to get a passport up to a certain age. I was put into the Sydney University Regiment and during six weeks’ preliminary training in the Hunter Valley was paid more than I was as a first-year cadet at the Mirror.
After 11 months the Mirror fired me. They gave no reason but rarely did. It was often said then that anyone who had lasted more than six weeks at the Mirror could get a job anywhere in journalism. The next day I got one as a second-year cadet at Australian United Press.
AUP, later replaced by AAP, was owned jointly by provincial dailies to supply them with a metropolitan service. Because of the range of its work done by cadets it was known as a good training ground.
My first job each afternoon was covering the stock exchange, concentrating on anything of special interest to our country readers. I then went to our office in Pitt St near Circular Quay, a short walk from the exchange, wrote my finance stories, and helped the other most junior cadet rewrite stories in the final editions of the Sun and Mirror. After that I covered anything that came up. Before I reached 20 I had wider experience than many journalists get in a lifetime.
The most notable stories I covered were at night swimming carnivals. Australian swimmers were rewriting world record books. At least one world record was broken at the Bankstown pool where I learned to swim. Bankstown soon after the war had become so known for the number of Balts arriving in the district that when I first went to the senior part of St Bernard’s I was called for a while “a Balt from Bankstown”.
The best swimming story I covered involved Ilsa Konrads, the 13-year-old daughter of two real Bankstown district Balts, and sister of record-breaking John Konrads. As she climbed from the water, after easily winning a race at the North Sydney Olympic Pool, timekeepers stared at their watches in disbelief. While they checked the time with each other, Ilsa began licking an ice-cream.
When they all agreed she had knocked an incredible 16.9 seconds off the world 880 yards record and 13.2 seconds off that for 800 metres I hurried off to a phone. We had an arrangement with the American-based United Press International agency, which had an office two floors above ours. They put my story straight onto their wires and it probably got at least a small run on the front pages of many newspapers around the world.
After work I usually went around the corner for a few beers with the senior staff. My favourite was one of our political reporters, “Jungle Jim” Taylor. When his unit surrendered to the Japanese in Malaya he took off into the jungle and claimed he spent the rest of the war living there with a Malay princess.
On Friday or Saturday evenings I still sometimes drank in the same pubs as Mirror and other cadets and then went with them afterwards to parties. You could meet all sorts of interesting people at those parties.
One of Australia’s most publicised mysteries, the Bogle-Chandler case at the start of 1963, owed much of its enduring interest to conjecture surrounding the unidentified cause of the two deaths, beside the Lane Cove River, north of Sydney Harbour, after New Year’s Eve parties. Exotic poison or later, massive LSD overdose, were two popular theories.
There were suggestions of international intrigue involving the allegedly brilliant government scientist Bogle, a former Rhodes Scholar. Adding to that was the ethos of free love and avant-garde thinking among people, some in The Push, who attended parties that preceded their deaths and were questioned by detectives.
I was overseas when that case occurred. But years later I read a newspaper article by Tony Morphett, the brother of the married dead nurse Chandler, in which he mentioned a party some time before at which he introduced her to Bogle. Morphett was a Telegraph cadet when I was at the Mirror and AUP. He often drank at the same pubs as us and then went sometimes with us to the same parties or, as did others, gave someone the address of one.
The thought occurred to me that not only did I sometimes, at least briefly, attend parties similar to those which preceded the deaths but that there was a possibility, admittedly slight, that I might even have been for a while at the party where Bogle first met Chandler.
One Friday night’s drinking I later had special reasons to remember. Having been told during the week that cadets had lately been drinking in a particular pub in Kings Cross, a district then more Bohemian and less sleazy than later, I went to that pub after finishing work at AUP. When I entered the public bar I saw only one Mirror cadet, Steve Dunleavy, my former police rounds mentor.
Dunleavy introduced me to a middle-aged man with him. His name, Hugh Hastings, I did not recognise. He turned out to be Australia’s probably most successful writer up to then in financial terms. A wartime drama he wrote based on his war experiences, Seagulls over Sorrento, ran in London’s West End from 1950 to 1954. That, I read later, was a record before being easily eclipsed by Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap. Set on a Scottish island, the play involved a group of sailors engaged in secret testing of a new and dangerous torpedo. Boulting Brothers turned it into a successful movie starring Gene Kelly, released in 1954.
Hastings was a good conversationalist. It soon became clear he was a homosexual at least partly out of a closet in which probably the great majority then still were. That was a milieu in which such people could move fairly freely, and the fact that Dunleavy was with him did not surprise me. Dunleavy seemed to have an incredibly wide range of acquaintances, an important factor in his increasing success as a reporter. He also seemed, like most people in that milieu, including me, to have broadly liberal views about matters sexual or anything else. In particular, also like me, he seemed to have strong sympathies for underdogs and outsiders.
When Hastings suggested we go to his apartment and continue drinking Dunleavy agreed. So then did I. Three other men joined us as we left. At Hastings’ apartment we drank on for an hour or two with Hastings doing most of the talking. Mainly he answered questions by Dunleavy or me about his life. He had lived most of his adult life in London, which he enjoyed talking about, and which most interested me.
The others retired to bedrooms. Dunleavy and I, as we had done on many occasions in the past, stretched out on the floor to sleep. Next thing I knew, one of them, not Hastings, was on top of me. I fought him off me, rolled myself up in a carpet and spent the remainder of the night undisturbed. I had never had any contact with any of those men before that night and never did again.
I worked at AUP for about a year and resigned to hitch-hike around Australia. I was already planning to go overseas and did not want to do this without first seeing my own country. When the other overt university student who had joined the Mirror, Paul Coombes, suggested the trip I agreed willingly. He was not a close friend but I got on well with him.
The next three months were among the most memorable of my life. We hitch-hiked up to North Queensland, sometimes doing odd jobs to earn money. Our first job was at Forster on the NSW coast, where we helped dig foundations and pour concrete for a retail and apartment building. By the end of that week my soft city hands were covered with blisters.
Road traffic in the outback at the time was often sparse and hitch-hiking was not always considered safe. When we turned inland we sometimes jumped goods trains. We went to the first hill outside a town and waited until a train slowed going over it. Then we ran alongside, hurled our rucksacks into an empty wagon and clambered aboard.
At Mt Isa, the end of the line, we got brief casual work in the large railway shunting yard. And at Alexandria, then said to be the world’s largest cattle station, across the border in the Northern Territory, we helped dismantle a mineral prospecting site ahead of the approaching monsoon season and load everything onto trucks. It was that job I best remember: the heat and flies, the huge herds of cattle, and eating hungrily from cans around a campfire with white and Aboriginal site workers and station hands, all of whom seemed to mix easily.
Because rain was expected to soon make many roads in the far north impassable, we abandoned our plan to go around Australia and went south to Alice Springs. There we slept at night under the stars alongside the town’s water tower. During the day we sat in on a murder trial involving Albert Namatjira, the famous Aboriginal artist. Fired up by cheap wine said to come from the sale of some of Namatjira’s paintings, a few of his relatives had allegedly killed a young woman in a tribal dispute.
After a few days we were leaving the court when a police car pulled alongside and a large policeman put his head out. “Youse boys are leaving town tomorrow, aren’t youse,” he said.
We were planning to leave anyway. So the following day, at the first hill outside town, we jumped the twice-weekly Ghan. It consisted of a diesel engine, a line of empty wagons which had brought stuff up from the south, and at the end, an ancient passenger carriage. The next morning we reached one of the most god-forsaken places on Earth, Oodnadatta, a collection of tin shacks in an immensity of near-desert. In January 1960, not much more than a year later, it was the scene of the highest temperature, 50.7C, ever officially recorded in Australia.
As we sat back in an uncovered wagon, trying to avoid an already fierce sun overhead, a policeman poked his head, shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, over the edge and said we were under arrest. He questioned us for a while. Satisfied we were just two harmless city types, he let us go on condition we paid our fare from Oodnadatta to Port Augusta, the first town, from where we could start hitch-hiking again. That was the only time in my life I have ever been put officially under arrest in any country. It was also the only time in Australia I was ever questioned by any police person in connection with a possible offence.
At Adelaide we split. Coombes found work on a newspaper there. I returned to Sydney, where I applied successfully for an advertised job as a D Grade reporter on the Daily Advertiser at the old Victorian gold-mining town of Bendigo.
I liked Bendigo and the work. Mostly I covered courts. One case, in which the state’s Supreme Court sat in the main local courthouse, ended with the passing of one of Victoria’s last death sentences, which was later commuted. I had never worked in a country town, however, and had difficulty adjusting to its slower pace. Some of the Advertiser staff spent much of their time in the Shamrock, a picturesque old pub just up the road. Frequently I joined them. My career at the Advertiser lasted only a few months.
Late one Thursday afternoon I decided to join two other reporters in a journey to Melbourne, about 150 kilometres to the south, where one of them had a sister with a floor where we could sleep. It was payday, so we were flush with funds.
Victoria officially had 6pm closing but you would never have guessed that at pubs along the Calder Highway where we stopped on our way to Melbourne. Usually the front door was shut. But a knock at a side door would open that. Inside would be a crowd so thick that reaching the bar was difficult. There would have been no point in going to the local police station and complaining that the law was being broken. The local police, together with members of the highway patrol, all in full uniform, and with their caps or helmets on the counter of front of them, were usually monopolising the front of the bar.
It was near 11pm when we first saw lights on the outskirts of Melbourne. We were at the crest of a hill, after a long climb, and the driver had his foot down hard. Because of a turn just past the crest, I learned later, it was a well-known accident spot. The driver failed to take that turn. What happened next no one knows for certain. I was alongside the driver, in what in such situations is sometimes called the death seat, because of instinctive actions of a driver to save his own life.
According to doctors at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the only way they were able to imagine my unusual set of injuries being caused was by being thrown out ahead of the car as the door alongside me swung open, and by the car coming down cornerwise onto my stomach and bouncing off me, probably as the door swung shut again. After rolling along a gentle slope it stopped about a hundred or so metres past me with the driver and other passenger still inside and not too badly injured.
I can recall looking up at a great canopy of stars in a very black sky. I don’t think stars ever looked more beautiful. Much has been written about near-death experiences. Possibly that was mine. Then I passed out. Car passengers, flagged down by the least injured other occupant, found me beside the road. Believing I was dead, they put a blanket over me, including my face. Later I learned that people I had worked with in Sydney were told at first I had been killed. Clem Lloyd told me he had planned to go down to Melbourne for my funeral.
At the casualty section of the Royal Melbourne the doctors found external injuries mainly to my head and one leg. The most serious damage was internal: the lower part of my stomach was crushed flat against my backbone. After a nurse cut my clothes off, a surgeon was able to lift the unbroken skin of my stomach and leave underneath a large space. They were surprised to find that not a bone in my body was broken. The superstitious might be interested to learn that by then it was Friday the 13th.
Awakened in the early hours by a policeman knocking on their window, my parents caught the first morning plane to Melbourne and were soon at my bedside.
The first week I spent in a coma and a few times went close to death. On the fourth day the doctors returned me to an operating theatre for a long search of possible causes of problems but found nothing particular. After I regained consciousness two nurses brought a basin and tried to make me vomit. Eventually they succeeded – and up came an enormous amount of black, congealed blood that half-filled the basin. The pain was the most excruciating I have ever felt.
My remaining four weeks in the casualty ward were as good as could be expected. The doctors had feared brain damage but after tests told my parents there was no indication of anything permanent there. They said there might be some problems later in life but they expected an almost full recovery after a year or so.
When I left hospital I could walk only slowly and partly doubled over. But I could drive. George as he aged was driving less well and was now in semi-retirement. So frequently I drove him out to his boat, where he was spending much more time. During those weeks I became close to him for the first time since I was small.
The doctors had told me to wait a year before returning to work. And because the Bendigo Advertiser, while I was still in hospital, had sent a letter through its firm of solicitors to my Sydney home address sacking me, plus a few weeks’ pay in lieu of notice, I had no job back there. After a few months, however, I became restless and applied for casual work as a reporter at the Sun.
I could still walk only slowly and slightly doubled over, but George lent me his car to drive into the city. The Sun, after trying me out, began giving me three or more shifts of work each week that could be done sitting at a desk. Mainly it involved rewriting press releases. I also phoned people for quotes and extra details to go with stories other reporters were writing.
The person who gave me most of my jobs was Richie Benaud, Australia’s cricket captain, who was between tours and acting as an assistant chief of staff. He was good at his work and definitely the only perfect gentleman I have ever worked under at any newspaper office.
Richie Benaud shows how good he was at his other job
After six weeks of that, by which time I was walking better, the Sun’s sister paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, offered me full-time work as a D Grade reporter. I believe Benaud recommended me. As a casual I had been highly paid for my age. That meant less pay for more work. But the Herald was the paper whose editorial manager had told me a few years earlier he could not imagine me becoming a journalist. And the upmarket-suburb types he had thought at the time could become journalists were still struggling through their four-year cadetships. Not one, to my knowledge, went on to a successful career in the industry. So, with some understandable relish, I accepted.
The Herald had begun bringing out a Parramatta edition covering Sydney’s western suburbs, where much of its population lived, and where Benaud grew up. It had also opened an office out there. For most Herald staff, that was the equivalent of Siberia. Bankstown was not far from Parramatta, so it was there the Herald sent me. Most days I had to go around suburban courts with a driver, glance through court papers, speak to staff, and find any stories I could then, or about ones likely to come up soon. This was work I had often done at the Mirror. The person who shared this work with me, Mike Kable, drove his own car and went on to spend years, until a fairly early death, as one of the country’s best-known motoring writers.
I was always in a radio-equipped office car with a driver, often also with a photographer. If something good in the sprawling western suburbs came over the police or ambulance network we hurried off to that. On one occasion we reached the scene of an armed bank robbery before the first police. When I asked still-shocked customers and staff inside what happened, every person gave at least slightly different details. It indicated the problems police can face after crimes.
The photographer usually with me, Steve Dunleavy, father of my former Daily Mirror colleague of the same name, was working also for the Sun. On occasions such as that bank robbery he usually either caught a cab into the Fairfax city office or sent his film in by cab. I would immediately radio any details I had to the Sun but let someone there write their story. When I got back to the Parramatta office I would write a story for the next morning’s Herald.
Dunleavy Snr had once had a hard-drinking and womanising image similar to one his son was developing. But age was taking its toll; when I worked with him he was occasionally swallowing pills for various complaints. After jobs our driver usually dropped him off at his favourite pub near the office. He picked him up there later if necessary.
Police rounds, the source of many of the best tabloid stories, was where the Sun and Mirror competed most fiercely. Dunleavy Jnr was becoming known for the ruthless way he chased stories and the imaginative way he wrote them. “The biggest beat-up merchant in Sydney” was a common description of him at the time. But he was undoubtedly good at getting police rounds stories. He had an exceptional ability to mix with police and criminals, and those who were both.
Stories about him were becoming common in pubs where Sydney journalists gathered. I believe the one probably most frequently repeated in later years, not just in Sydney but in many such pubs around the world, and occasionally in print, was that he once while at the Mirror let down the tyres of a Fairfax car containing his father so the Mirror would beat the Sun to a story. I worked and sometimes drank with both father and son during those years. But I did not first hear that story until years later and was sceptical about it.
Any time not on the road I spent covering Parramatta Court, the most important in the western suburbs. Only several doors from our office, this was where a highly publicised inquiry in 1955 into the burning of the Torch had greatly changed the fortunes of some people in Bankstown who had connections with my father.
Usually I had lunch in a pub across the road where police and court staff ate and drank. Often groups would form around people such as detectives waiting to give evidence in a case. Reporters were allowed to linger with a glass of beer at the edge of such groups listening to the conversation. In the court and at that pub I learned a bit more about some people and matters connected with events in Bankstown in 1954 and 1955.
The two other reporters who most frequently covered that court with me were interesting. One, Richard Hughes, who covered it for the Telegraph, had a father of the same name who was at the time one of the world’s best-known newspaper writers on Cold War matters. When he was small his mother committed suicide.
His father covered fighting in North Africa during World War II. Later he covered the Korean and Vietnam wars for Britain’s Sunday Times and specialised in events behind the Iron Curtain for that newspaper. He was able to travel in the Soviet Union, which was then difficult for Western journalists. In 1956 he was the first journalist to interview the British diplomat spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean after they defected in 1951.
Richard Hughes Jnr later became best known as a jazz piano player. One of his daughters, Christa, became a notorious singer and comedian. Her on-stage antics for a while with bands such as one named Machine Gun Fellatio helped make him an extremely devout Catholic who was said to sometimes attend Mass a few times a day.
My other main fellow reporter, for the Sun, was Alan McClure. During the 1930s he had been well-known for his coverage of that era’s gang wars. Since then his life had been one of alcoholic decline, with periods in state institutions followed by attempts to pick up his career. His life when out of institutions had settled into a routine of going perhaps a few months without a drink, then breaking for a while before returning remorseful to the teetotal wagon.
The Sun had given him casual work at Parramatta mainly because his former wife owned a boutique there. Whenever the gutter loomed he headed for her doorstep, where he could get somewhere to sleep, plus a shower and breakfast in the morning.
Either on the booze, or over a shaking cup of coffee, he was a source of anecdotes about the gangsters, brothel madams and corrupt cops of the 1930s, many of whom he had known and drank with. But sometimes he was not in a state to work effectively. If the Mirror had a reporter at the court covering a good story I would phone one in to the Sun, or Hughes would if I was not there, and tell the copytaker to put McClure’s name on it. They all knew the situation.
Soon after going to Parramatta I turned 21, old enough for a passport, at least if you had done National Service. While at AUP I had stopped going to university and also to activities of the university regiment. When my mother told an inquiring representative of the regiment on the phone that the last she heard I was in the Northern Territory he went to my home and collected my uniform and equipment.
Compulsory service, until its return during the Vietnam War, was about to end. When I asked the regiment for a note saying I had done my service with them they gave me one. That I took to the passport office with an application and they gave me a passport.
After several months at Parramatta I felt I was ready to see the world and resigned. An old Dutch passenger liner, the Oranje, was leaving soon for Singapore. From there I planned to head, by land as much as possible, to Europe. To reduce the fare a little I booked to sail on it from Melbourne.
There were no farewell parties. I said goodbye to Olive in the kitchen, where she was preparing dinner. George then drove me to Strathfield Station to catch an overnight train to Melbourne. His heart had been increasingly troubling him. As we shook hands outside the station I think we both realised we would probably never see each other again.
Overland to Saigon
The wharf at my first foreign port, Tanjong Priok near Jakarta, was lined with armed soldiers as we arrived. The ship, with accommodation for hundreds, had left Australia with only a few dozen passengers. Most Dutch who had returned after the defeat of Japan had left before their country recognised Indonesia’s independence in 1949. We were to take on the last of those who had remained.
Because of a dispute over the western part of New Guinea, still occupied by the Dutch but claimed by Indonesia, relations between the two countries had reached a nadir. According to the crew, the Oranje would probably be the last Dutch boat to stop at Indonesia for years.
To get ashore, we had to run a gauntlet of armed soldiers on the wharf, customs and immigration officials at the gate, and more soldiers waiting outside. Some of the first passengers to land lost most of their valuables and money before they even reached the officials. They returned to the boat.
On advice, I took not even a watch. Paper money except small change I folded tightly and put inside my socks under the instep. I locked my cabin and in my hand I carried a big tin of Benson and Hedges cigarettes, of which the ship’s duty-free shop had a large stock. These, I was told, were becoming a recognised toll. If a soldier stopped me, I was told, smile and offer him a handful of cigarettes. I followed those instructions, which worked.
For safety, we travelled in groups and in cabs hired by the day or half-day after negotiating a price. Central Jakarta, some distance away, was in near-chaos. My main memory was of people clamouring to change our money whenever we left the cab. The most frequent attractions to which our first driver took us were public buildings or grand Dutch mansions. At some of the latter, he told us with curious pride, they were now occupied by mistresses of President Sukarno.
During the next four days we took on lines of passengers. Many were elderly Catholic nuns who probably had spent much of their lives at schools or hospitals in remote districts. With crew members behind carrying their battered suitcases or trunks, they struggled up the gangplank.
No bands played as the ship began to leave the wharf, watched by hundreds of grinning soldiers with their guns.On the wharf a lone European priest, at the front of a small group of embassy and shipping officials, went to his knees and began praying. Many of the nuns along the railings also went to their knees and began praying. Tears appeared in eyes, including those of some of the crew. Officers stood rigidly to attention, as if someone was playing the Last Post. It was a small moment in history: the ultimate end of the Dutch colonial presence in Asia.
The Oranje was bound for Europe with a stop at Singapore. I hoped to work for a while and save money in Singapore, where many Australian journalists had worked or were still working. Then, hitch-hiking where possible, I planned to travel overland to Athens, then on to London to find work.
Singapore, however, had recently been granted internal self-government and was in the throes of a campaign to put as many locals as possible into jobs. Because of this, my travel agent had told me, the authorities were often not letting people disembark there without proof of onward travel. Europe-bound ships would not sell a ticket to Singapore without that. The agent had suggested I buy an open-dated airline ticket from Singapore to London. I could then stay for a while in Singapore and travel overland later to London, as I planned. If I did not use the air ticket I could refund it later, the agent said.
Qantas, when I contacted them, assured me that if I did not use it I could get a full refund. So I had bought an open-dated Qantas ticket from Singapore to London. It cost a lot more than the ship passage to Singapore and took up a fair slice of my meagre savings.
An English journalist at the Straits Times told me getting work there would be almost impossible. He also said crossing Burma by land to India, as I hoped to do, was out of the question because of insurrections. He suggested I go to Hong Kong, where there were also many Australian journalists, and where, he said, I should not have any problem getting work.
I learned that getting to Ceylon by sea would not be cheap and knew air travel to almost anywhere was expensive. The food, colours and liveliness of Singapore were increasing a desire to see more of South-East Asia. So I decided to head overland to Saigon and try to get a cheap boat passage to Hong Kong.
I was told that hitch-hiking through Malaya at the time was difficult and dangerous. But travelling northwards through Malaya and Thailand by trains in the cheapest class proved to be a delight. The age of mass tourism had not yet begun. Nor were there people called hippies. A young foreign man making his way alone through their country, and by the same means as them, appeared a pleasurable novelty to many of my fellow passengers. Women eating snacks near me frequently offered me some. In Thailand, men passing around bottles of local whisky invited me cheerfully to join them.
The wet season had just ended and the countryside everywhere was lush. Village temple spires sparkled in the bright sunshine. I was going through a Buddhist phase, reading sutras, and reflecting upon the Four Noble Truths and Holy Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. Much of my brief time in Bangkok I spent visiting Buddhist temples. But often in them monks would sidle up trying to cadge cigarettes. The spiritual attractions of Buddhism began to fade.
When I entered Cambodia, after another third-class rail journey, the officer in charge of the border post, who had attended a training course in Australia, arranged a good cheap place where I could stay and took me to dinner. The next morning he fixed me up with a free ride in a government truck going to Siem Reap, the nearest town to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s main tourist destination. I was the only other person in the truck. Because of banditry in the area the driver kept a loaded revolver on his lap the whole way.
In Angkor Wat, a magnificent but still largely jungle-overgrown temple complex, which from the 9th to 15th centuries had been the centre of a major civilisation, I had my best introduction to an Asia that later only existed in hotel performances for tourists. On my second night there, hearing drums out among the stone ruins, and seeing lights, I set out along a stone causeway towards the source.
Eventually I came to a side temple, hemmed in by dark trees and creepers, where a religious ceremony was being performed by a sect trying to revive, I later learned, the Hindu cult of the three-eyed god Siva, the dominant belief during the early years of the Angkor civilisation. Siva, a great destroyer, but also a great restorer, of the Hindu pantheon, was depicted here, as he was usually, with a garland of skulls and a serpent around his neck. His third eye was focused inwards. That was good, since when it was focused outwards it could cause great destruction.
The scene was entrancing. Everywhere candles were flickering, their light barely penetrating beyond the nearest faces, where they seemed to reflect all the mysteries of Asia. Not far above and behind, the jungle and darkness merged. Offerings of food and cloth had been laid out around statues and paintings of Siva. In front of these, young women, in flowing silk garments that shimmered in the candlelight, were dancing. Their sinuous movements imitated those of women on worn bas-reliefs around the stone walls.
Unfortunately, the magic was spoiled by grinning young men in Western clothes. When they saw me, the only foreigner present, they came up saying “fou, fou” – French for mad – and making contemptuous gestures towards the dancers.
Those educated young men would probably have been businessmen, teachers or bureaucrats by the time Pol Pot’s communists entered Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975. The dancers would probably have been mothers with children nearing adulthood. I later sometimes wondered how many of them on either side of that cultural divide survived Year One of the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying solutions to their country’s problems, which reduced its population by about a quarter. Probably not many.
Vietnam, then little more known to most Australians than Cambodia, I entered helping to push an old American car in which I had obtained a lift from Phnom Penh. This had broken down half-way across the wide no man’s land between the two borders, causing mirth among the Vietnamese officials and jokes about American aid.
Their laughter stopped when they opened my passport. It was normal then to put occupations in passports and I had foolishly given mine as journalist. As soon as they saw that they said I would have to return to Phnom Penh for a special visa. One of the passengers in the car was a French priest. Eventually he was able to convince them I was just a young tourist, with no intention of writing about Vietnam, and they let me in.
When I reached Saigon by bus a young army officer who had done a training course in Australia helped me. He guessed where I was from when he heard my smattering of school French at a bus terminus restaurant. To my regret, I had done only one year of it at St Bernard’s. After a meal he took me around the city on the back of his motor scooter until he found a cheap but suitable hotel.
Saigon did not impress me. The poverty and corruption were serious and obvious. The tree-lined main avenue still had some charm. But its French bars were being converted into American ones. Outside the former, middle-aged Frenchmen, many of whom had probably fled from the north of the country after the defeat of their country’s troops there by local communists in 1954, sat at tables sipping cognac and sneering at young American aid workers hurrying past.
Only a little less obvious than the tensions between the French and Americans were those that seemed to exist among almost everyone else. There were still a few months to go before the outside world was to begin hearing much about an organisation called the Viet Cong.
I had little money left. But I had my airline ticket from Singapore to London. Expensive air flights went to Hong Kong but no sea passages that I could discover. After a week, however, I learned that a French cargo boat was sailing the next day for Hong Kong and had accommodation for a passenger. So I went to the French shipping company and asked if I could use my air ticket to pay for the boat fare and then get a refund for the difference in price from Qantas. At first they said it was out of the question at such short notice. But after a few phone calls they said it might be possible. When I went back later they said yes.
The next morning there was one last catch. The boat was due to sail at nine. But immigration officials said I would need an exit visa and the only person who could give me this, the head of the department, did not usually start work until eleven. Of course, they made clear, it could probably be arranged before that, and suggested a possible amount of money. I have always had an aversion to bribing officials and did not have enough money anyway.
The company put the sailing time back to noon. At 11.30am the department head gave me the necessary stamp. Outside, a taxi was waiting to take me to a river launch. The launch took me to the boat, now anchored in mid-stream. As soon as I was aboard it up-anchored – and I was on my way to Hong Kong.
Some months later I received a refund, after deductions for listed mail and phone costs, of the price difference between the boat and air tickets. This followed an odyssey that took the tickets from Hong Kong through Saigon, Paris, London, Sydney and back to Hong Kong.
Working in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong neither the British-owned South China Morning Post, nor its afternoon sister paper the China Mail, would employ me. But the Chinese-owned Tiger Standard, in the Suzie Wong bar district of Wanchai, did. There I spent a mostly enjoyable two and half years. For much of the time they were in some ways the most settled years of my life.
Like all the staff, I did not get paid too much. Nor was I expected to do too much work. Inflated travel and other expenses to help avoid tax were part of everyone’s deal. Each day I usually had a free lunch at a Hilton or similar hotel covering a Rotary or Lion’s Club dinner. After each lunch I wrote a brief story from a copy of the guest speaker’s address. If there was no such lunch the news editor, Jimmie Yapp, usually invited me to a lunch he and a few of the senior Chinese staff had each day at a restaurant near the office. I never had to pay.
A tough, friendly, fatalistic man with bright, inquiring eyes, and with a tie usually askew and hair not properly combed, Yapp was the best man, from a personal point of view, I ever worked under. He was born in South Africa of a Chinese Hakka father and Thai mother. The Hakkas were a widely dispersed minority often discriminated against by other Chinese, and sometimes called the “Jews of China”. It was a minority that produced the world’s two most successful leaders in the second half of the 20th century, Deng Xiaoping, who began and led the hugely important transformation of China, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
As a young man he became a reporter at the China Mail, an afternoon daily in Hong Kong. The job ended when the colony surrendered to the Japanese army on Christmas morning, 1941. That followed carnage as outnumbered and outgunned British and Canadian troops, supported by civilian militiamen of many ethnic backgrounds, fought sometimes fiercely building by building along the island, a very different situation to that later in Singapore.
Bowing in a correct way every time he came to a Japanese soldier – he liked sometimes to show people how – he made his way through the enemy lines and across China to Chiang Kai-shek’s wartime capital of Chungking. There he began working for the China branch of the British Ministry of Information.
Several months after I joined the Standard I arrived at work one day to find a waiting telegram. Yapp saw my face as I read it and asked what it said. When I told him my father had died of a stroke he told me to take the day off. George had taught me never to cry. I walked up a crowded hill behind our office to the only public place I knew in Wanchai where it was possible to be alone, a cemetery overlooking the racecourse at Happy Valley. There I cried heartily for the first time since Norma had died in 1950.
Yapp, who was raising a family, was already becoming the closest I have ever had to a replacement father. This strengthened after that. He was of similar height and build to George and had, like him, surprisingly wide, and also high, contacts. As with George, many had probably come originally through men he had met during a war.
His job was to find out what was going on in Hong Kong and get stories covered as well as possible. For reasons such as the colony’s sensitive geo-political situation, and the fact that many Chinese still had relatives across the border, stories sometimes were not covered the way they would have been back in Australia.
One morning he asked me to sit in his seat and tell anyone calling him that he was out. During the next few hours it became clear that a man said to be the second highest ranking communist in Hong Kong had defected and the man’s wife was telling callers Yapp was the only person who could answer their questions. I had to tell a succession of journalists, some based in Hong Kong and others calling from leading newspapers in the US and Europe, that he was out, and no one in the office could help them in that matter.
Although sitting only a few feet away from me working on something, he remained out until he learned the man had arrived safely in London on a flight he had booked for him. He then wrote a brief story about the matter that downplayed the man’s importance and omitted any mention of himself.
On another occasion he asked if I wanted the next day, a Saturday, to see the Walled City of Kowloon. Not the Walled City in the New Territories, to which busloads of tourists went every day, but an enclave under the approach to Kai Tak airport. This was where China’s great Sung Dynasty in 1279 made its last stand as the Mongols came south.
Because of its historical importance, China retained theoretical ownership when it ceded the rest of Kowloon to the British. Beijing, either before or after the communists captured that city, never exercised any real control there. The British, however, stayed out for fear of offending the government up there. As a result, the Walled City, under the control of gangsters, became one of the world’s worst centres of vice. Most of its small, old buildings contained opium dens or cheap brothels, and its narrow lanes were open sewers. Early Asian and Western movie thrillers sometimes showed heroes or villains venturing towards an uncertain fate in that sinister enclave.
Not too long before I arrived the Hong Kong government had decided to forget about the Beijing government, which was swamped with problems, and had sent in police to clean up the place. Hilton Cheong-leen, a member of the Urban Council, had heard the Walled City still had problems and wanted to ask questions in the council about those. The Urban Council, elected mainly by privileged Chinese, had little real power but was the colony’s closest thing to a parliament.
Cheong-leen, founder of the Hong Kong Civic Association, was – and remained for many years – the best-known spokesman for Hong Kong’s ordinary people, as opposed to its business interests, from which most Urban Council members came. He had a problem, however: he did not know how to get to the Walled City. It was in the centre of a huge, densely-packed slum district and no longer had any walls. The Japanese had knocked them down during the war, to prevent it becoming a centre for rebellion, and had used its stones to extend the airport runway out into the harbour. So Hilton Cheong-leen enlisted the aid of Jimmie Yapp, who had a reputation for knowing all sorts of things.
The result for me was a fascinating afternoon in which I walked gingerly along narrow lanes with the two men, peering sometimes through barred windows into former opium dens and brothels, which still had padlocks on their doors.
The enclave was still a centre of illegal activity. Now, however, its big money-spinner was dentistry. Because Hong Kong was refusing to recognise the qualifications of Chinese-trained dentists they had flocked into it. From every second or third doorway came the whirr of dental drills and unhappy sounds from mouths being kept open as wide as possible.
I began each week by going to the Supreme Court, in a grand old waterfront building that later housed the Legislative Council, and checking what was expected there. It was near the central business district Star Ferry terminal on the island side. My regular job was to cover anything worthwhile there. Sometimes that involved hours of work each day and other times almost none.
Covering the court with me was a young Tasmanian, Brian Cuthbertson, for the Morning Post and the China Mail; a woman for the Standard’s sister publication, Sing Tao, the biggest-selling non-communist Chinese daily, in the same building as us; a man for Sing Tao’s main Chinese rival; and a man from an agency that serviced all the other Chinese newspapers, of which there were many. We all co-operated, giving each other anything that might have been missed.
If there seemed nothing worth covering at the court I went to the Standard’s office in Wanchai Road, once the district’s main road and on the waterfront, but now well back as a result of expansion into the harbour. There Yapp often got me to help other reporters with stories they were covering. If there was a small Supreme Court story I sometimes just went next door to the Sing Tao woman.
The senior Chinese were mainly Shanghainese from a Jesuit college said to have produced an unusually high percentage of that city’s educated Chinese elite before the communists took over. Some reporters were Eurasian or Indian. I got on well with almost everyone. Most were good at their work. But Yapp knew my Australian accent might sometimes bring more co-operation from British and other Western, including Australian, people who largely controlled police and other government bodies, and the offices of many Western companies there. Often he gave me names and phone numbers of people to call.
Occasionally I went to disaster scenes. After one of Hong Kong’s worst-ever typhoons, Mary, in June 1960, I was one of the first civilians to venture out onto the harbour. PC Lee, our Jesuit-educated chief photographer, who was a stringer for Time-Life and other foreign publishers, hired a sturdy little launch and we set out as the winds eased. As the boat rocked wildly in a still heavy swell, he photographed ships that had gone aground and other damage. I tried to see the names of the ships and jotted down anything else interesting I could see.
If nothing much was happening, Yapp often told me to take the rest of the day off, as he often did with other staff.
For most of the time I was there the only other Westerner on the staff was an American from upstate New York named Norman Denny, who earned less than me. Norman, who lived at the Chinese YMCA on a diet said to consist mainly of bread rolls and tins of condensed milk, shared the Rotary and Lion’s Club lunches with me. After the lunches he usually went around the tables stuffing left-over bread rolls into his pockets. He was also known in the local newspaper industry for almost always riding to assignments on a bicycle, no matter what the distance.
For a while he was joined by an Australian, Diane, who had been the first, and longest, newspaper girlfriend in Sydney of Steve Dunleavy, my police rounds mentor at the Mirror, who was then working at the China Mail. I knew her slightly in Sydney.
Dunleavy called me just after she arrived and asked if I could get her a job at the Standard as he did not want her working in the same building as him. That I was able to do. He told her, correctly, that she would get less money but have more free time to do whatever she wanted. Diane was attractive and outgoing, without pretence or hang-ups. She got on well also with almost all the staff.
I had not known when I went to Hong Kong that Dunleavy was working there. He was developing a reputation there more colourful than what he had in Sydney, and stories about him in bars were becoming more widespread. In later years tabloid editors and publishers loved him. Rupert Murdoch, for whom he worked for many years in New York, was said to regard him almost as a son. In 1994, I read later, he provided the model for a tabloid hack in a successful Hollywood movie, Natural Born Killers. Robert Downey Jr, who played him, was said to spend time with him while he worked.
Steve Dunleavy in New York
According to other stories I read about him in print, or later on the internet, Dunleavy’s politics in the US were far right. What many people over the years have probably most associated with far-right politics is racism. In Hong Kong he was, in his unique way, probably one of the least racist people of any ethnic background.
The most incredible story about him there concerned his relationship with rickshaw men. These were a noticeable feature of life in Hong Kong, particularly at both ends of the Star Ferry service between the tip of Kowloon and the central business district, where they often congregated in large numbers. Most of their passengers were older and well-off Chinese. But their favourites were lone Western males who looked like rich tourists. These they would rush with a spiel offering them a “very nice young woman”.
Dunleavy was said to go with them sometimes not to brothels where they took Europeans but to ones, much cheaper, which the rickshaw men liked to patronise. Not only that, he was claimed sometimes to take some of them, dressed in Western clothes, with him to brothels where Europeans went. He would then introduce them at the entrance as his guests, and try to take them inside with him. That seemed to me not only anti-racist but also, in a way, dreadfully left-wing.
Most rickshaw men were emaciated after too many years smoking opium and I found that story a bit difficult to believe. He was also claimed to be the only person of any race in Hong Kong who could get a free ride on a rickshaw when he was broke. That I certainly did believe.
The last time I saw him in Hong Kong for some years was on a Star ferry on my way to work. He said he had just spent the whole night drinking in a Kowloon key club. They were expensive residential apartments that had been converted illegally into boutique brothels with bars. He looked and smelled like he had. When we left the island terminal a few rickshaw men came running up, obviously happy to see him. There was no spiel; he was no client to be taken to a brothel near the Wanchai waterfront. He was their mate. They were competing for the honour of taking him up to where he worked.
Diane had come to Hong Kong in a bid to resume her relationship with him. She quickly realised that was a lost cause and put it behind her. The Tiger Standard gave her time to do public relations work on the side for a cosmetics company and she seemed to enjoy her stay.
Almost everyone at the Standard had jobs on the side. Some of our Chinese worked for the US Information Service interviewing people who had recently been able to escape from China. For a while I worked also for them, turning those interviews into features to be distributed by the US government around the world, a job Jimmie Yapp arranged for me, as he probably did Diane’s job.
The picture many refugees were giving, as Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward turned through mismanagement into China’s Great Famine, was of conditions in many areas that were terrible. A later common estimate was that 30 million people starved to death between 1958 and 1962. Some estimates were much higher. The main problem I faced, incredibly, was trying to make everything sound less bad than it was, since to tell the facts would have been dismissed by many readers in most countries as just American propaganda.
A woman at the US consulate in charge of my Information Service work always made some changes. She told me someone above her usually made more. I was sorry when they stopped giving me work, but only because they paid so well.
Not long after that, the situation near the Hong Kong border, as refugees kept trying to reach and cross it, apparently became so bad that nearby Chinese authorities suddenly pulled away their large number of troops near the border for a few days and began letting the refugees cross. Half a century later, I read that Beijing authorities had still not officially explained that move.
It alarmed the authorities in overcrowded Hong Kong; the colony already had too many refugees with little or no employment. Extra police and troops were rushed to the border to help stem a flood starting to cross. Refugees they caught they took back across the border. But those just moved to another part and crossed again, together with some of the tens of thousands heading to the border from nearby districts as the word spread.
To make matters worse, many villagers in Hong Kong’s New Territories had relatives across the border. Those began doing what they could to help new arrivals. This led to confrontations with men trying to take them back.
The Standard sent staff to the scene. Among them was PC Lee, a former refugee himself after the communists took over in Shanghai. One of his photos showed a panicking young British police officer threatening Kowloon farmers with his revolver as they advanced angrily towards him. I believe it made the front page of many newspapers around the world.
After taking photos on the colony side, Lee drove into China to take more, then stuffed a few refugees into the boot. When anyone in uniform back across the border tried to stop him he flashed his press pass and kept driving. He did not stop until he reached a laneway behind our office. There he led the newcomers up a back staircase to the Standard editorial office, through that, and gave each some Hong Kong money. Then he led them down a front staircase and out into the street bustle of Wanchai, one of the most laissez-faire places on Earth, to survive as best they could. In the next few days he made more such trips.
My desk was alongside the entrance to the back staircase. The first person some of those refugees probably saw in the non-communist world was me sitting at that desk with a telephone in my hand, or typing something.
I did some freelance newspaper work. Once I scored the whole of page 2 in London’s News of the World with a story about the original Suzie Wong, the movie version of whose fictional activities were then exciting male fantasies at theatres in many countries. Later, because of the monetary possibilities, there were other claimants to the title. Sing Tao reporters who tracked her down were convinced, by details from women who worked at the waterfront hotel where the author Richard Mason lived while writing his best-selling World of Suzie Wong, that she was the person he extensively recorded to get most of his material.
Recently she had returned to the outside world after a long stay on an island used by the government as a drug rehabilitation centre. That explained why nothing had been written about her. The News of the World made only slight changes to what I wrote and used a photo I sent of her sitting in respectable street clothes on the edge of a bed. But they cut out the worst details about her drug addiction and the squalidness of her life.
My last few months working at the Standard were not happy. When the newspaper’s owner, Aw Sian, daughter of a man who made a fortune from Tiger Balm, a cure-all ointment, appointed an Australian former managing editor of the Straits Times in Singapore, Graham Jenkins, to take charge, nearly all the Chinese resigned. After Yapp went the editor, Kyatang Woo (we all called him KT), before he went also a few weeks later, asked me to act as news editor.
The situation became hopeless. The only good general reporter we had left, a young Macau Eurasian, had a heroin problem that was seriously worsening. For a while I wrote most main news stories myself as best I could, using phone calls, radio news monitored by reporters and help from staff at Sing Tao. Staff hired abroad, mainly in Britain or Australia, began to arrive. Most of the Australians were competent but some of the others seemed never to have worked on a newspaper.
Jenkins I found difficult to work with. When I asked for a raise he gave me a small one and told me I had sold myself cheaply. He then expected me to keep doing much more work than I had done previously, and more senior work than people being hired at salaries above mine, some of whom I also found difficult to work with.
Hong Kong was also becoming an increasingly murky place in which to work. One matter at the time, in which I had a slight role, will give some indication of this. It involved a young British male named Jones (his correct surname) who often drank in bars where journalists gathered. Jones was a thief and heroin addict. Most importantly, however, to most people, he was financing his addiction mainly by prostitution.
One day about a year earlier I had entered the office to find him sitting at a desk in the middle of the reporters room. I had looked at Yapp, who had shrugged to indicate it was not his doing. It transpired that Jones had stolen a file of cuttings from a British reporter at the Morning Post, removed any with the reporter’s byline, and taken the remainder as examples of his work to our incompetent Eurasian deputy editor, who had given him a job.
It quickly became obvious Jones had never worked on a newspaper. Yapp put him onto work such as sorting files. After a few weeks he resigned, saying he had a better job. For a while he went to Australia. But he was soon back in Hong Kong, living in a rundown hotel only a few buildings down the road from our office, which was used for a purpose many such hotels in Wanchai were.
Rumours about him became more frequent. According to police and other people I met at the Supreme Court, or at a bar where I often drank, his clients included senior British in the Hong Kong government and establishment. One was said to be a top Morning Post executive. There were also rumours that he was blackmailing some of those people.
Many Hong Kong residents were cynical where sex was concerned. More than a few might just have shrugged. And if Jones had been discreet the authorities might not have worried much about his activities. But he was living in a hotel in Wanchai where Chinese street women took their mostly working class Chinese clients, and often openly taking back there various Western men, apparently at least partly for the same purpose.
A colonial era that had earlier featured what supporters had called the “white man’s burden” was ending. There was, however, still something that could have been called the “white man’s image”. In Hong Kong that image had long taken a battering at many levels, and still was. But Jones was going too far. For that if no other reason, I was told, many senior British police and bureaucrats wanted him out.
Because of the relatively short time Jones had lived in Hong Kong, the police had power to expel him without going to a court. But people high up were preventing that power being used, my police informants said.
Then one day he killed a man. What is known is that in late afternoon he took an American in his thirties back to his room. Later a hotel employee heard agonised sounds coming from it. The employee entered with a hotel key to see the American in distress on a bed and Jones hovering anxiously over him with a hypodermic syringe. The employee left to phone for an ambulance. When he returned the American was dead.
Sing Tao reporters, tipped off by someone in the hotel, hurried down the road. They just had time to open the American’s passport and see other identification, which gave his occupation as missionary, when a few American men in plain clothes entered in great haste with a fairly senior uniformed British police officer. Americans grabbed the identification from the reporters and the police officer ordered them from the room.
Jones was taken to the colony’s police headquarters, at the business district edge of Wanchai. After an hour or so he was released without any charges being laid. He then went to the office of the Morning Post and offered to sell them a story about what had happened. When they showed him the door he came to our office and walked up to the editorial floor.
I was sitting at Jimmie Yapp’s old desk. So he walked up to me, said he had killed a man, and wished to sell us a story about the matter. He looked pale and shaky. Probably any money or heroin in his room had vanished and he was desperate for a fix. I took him to Jenkins’ office. What was said there I do not know but he was again shown the door.
Police-press relations, previously quite good, had undergone an upheaval, with all police information having to come from an organisation humorously named the Government Information Service. After first denying any knowledge of the incident, the GIS, following inquiries from almost every newspaper in the colony, issued an official press release. This said it knew that a person named Jones had gone to some newspaper offices and made allegations. That was it. There was no mention of what the allegations were, or whether they were true or false, and none of any dead man.
Most newspapers ran stories the next morning and there the matter ended.
A reasonable guess can be made concerning what organisation that “missionary” and the other Americans worked for. There were possible reasons, because of the rumours about the relationship of Jones with senior people in the government, and about known divisions in the police and Hong Kong administration about him, they might have thought him a good person to know.
There was a lot of friction over matters such as textile trade quotas. And the Hong Kong government had of necessity to be careful in its dealings with the Beijing regime. Because of those dealings it sometimes had knowledge about China, some people thought, its government was not always willing to share in full with the Americans. Or perhaps there were just complicated fights for personal reasons involving insiders with power. In Supreme Court cases I covered I heard indications of such situations.
Whenever I read later of the special relationship between Britain and the US I sometimes thought of that incident.
After Hours in Hong Kong
In the evening I usually had a few beers in one of two bars. The most frequent was the Ship Inn, owned by an Australian former chief ship’s engineer, in the tourist district of Tsimshatsui at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula. It had a steady clientele mainly of people who lived or worked nearby, notably British or Australian officers in the Hong Kong police force, and regular or irregular transients such as ships’ officers. Sometimes the connections for me with back home were surprising.
One evening, about six months after I arrived, I began drinking with a man I knew a little who was an officer on a Western-owned ship contracted to the Beijing government. Most of his time he spent sailing to ports up and down the Chinese coast. But every so often his vessel would stop at Hong Kong and he would go along to the Ship Inn for a while.
Another man, who Dunleavy had introduced to me a short while before, after earlier in the day writing a story for the China Mail about him, joined us. He had once been the personal pilot of Burma’s first prime minister U Nu, and had even briefly been jailed with him during that country’s problems after it became independent. By then he was working as a charter pilot for the United Nations. The previous day he had arrived on leave from the former Belgian Congo, then in the bloody throes of its independence, where he had been helping to fly out Belgian and other refugees, sometimes as machine-gun bullets ripped along the runway during take-off.
We drank on for a while, linked by the fact that we came from within three streets of each other in Bankstown.
The most colourful irregular transient was a swashbuckling old British seaman with sabre scars on his face. For years he had been running small boats between Hong Kong and a Christian section of the Celebes Islands in Indonesia, dodging pirates and Indonesian warships. On the outward journeys he took guns and ammunition to help the Christians defend themselves against nearby Moslems. On the way back he brought spices and other stuff that could fetch a good price in Hong Kong.
Occasionally there were wives or girlfriends of regulars. There were also some women of questionable morality. They abided by an unwritten rule: what they did outside was their business; while inside they were strictly off-duty. I had an impression they liked being off-duty for a while and welcomed that unwritten rule more than some of the male regulars. Occasionally there were visiting Australian “entertainers”. With one exception, the few regular such women were Chinese.
The exception was a blonde Russian. Known to everyone as Sandy, she was said to have once been the highest-paid “working woman” in Shanghai. She had had a luxury apartment, servants, and had been choosy in her clients.
That was well behind her, but she was making a living from former Shanghainese businessmen who were doing well in cities from Manila to Melbourne, or perhaps in the US. She claimed all they liked to do all night was talk about the old days in Shanghai. Most she met while lingering for hours over coffees during the day in the coffee shop of the Peninsula Hotel, one of Asia’s most prestigious, just up the road from the Star Ferry Tsimshatsui terminus. She was said to pay the staff a small fortune in tips.
After frequently as a small child hearing Russian music pounding out of the living room in the early hours from my father’s radiogram, I had grown up with a liking for that music. On the kitchen floor I had struggled over words in the Sun each afternoon as I read stories to my mother about the progress of Russian armies towards Berlin. As a teenager I had read at least parts of the works of Russia’s literary masters. I had also read about the country in our backyard darkroom, and had always had some interest in it.
Sandy had a natural interest in the land of her parents. Like many Russians, they had fled eastwards after World War I to escape the pro- and anti-Marxist turmoil, but had not been able to get past Shanghai. In the Ship Inn she liked to sit over a beer discussing with me Russia’s history and culture. She did most of the talking.
My other favourite drinking place was the Happy Bar. This, a hostess bar, was owned by a woman who had once owned a few bars in Shanghai. Known to everyone only as Momma-san, as were almost all women who ran such places, she had managed to get all her money out before the communists took over. She had an attitude to her staff, most of whom had worked with her in Shanghai and were often old enough to be my mother, which made the bar seem almost like an early retirement home. Many had regular customers, usually American or Scandinavian seamen, who used to visit them in Shanghai before 1949.
The most important regular customer was a delightful old Scotsman known only to everyone, because of his relationship with Momma-san, as Poppa-san, who was then nearing retirement after a long career as a functionary with the British Foreign Office.
He did not discuss his work but obviously it mainly involved making hotel and travel arrangements for Foreign Office personnel. When a senior British diplomat arrived on his way to, say, Taipei or Seoul, it was Poppa-san who met him at the airport, gave him waiting messages, and saw that he had a suitable hotel room waiting if necessary and a ticket confirmed for the next leg of his travel. Sometimes, I believe, he drove those diplomats across the border, with few people knowing, into China. The only thing he ever said to me about his work was that it was only for the Foreign Office and he had nothing whatever to do with the Hong Kong government.
Poppa-san had a permanent room in the Peninsula Hotel but usually ate each day next door in the European YMCA, where the food was much cheaper, and where I occasionally joined him for a meal or a coffee. Sometimes I saw him helping to load suitcases into an expensive car outside the Peninsula and then jumping into the driver’s seat alongside some distinguished-looking gentleman.
In the evenings I often joined him for a slow beer or two at the Happy Bar, which was near the top end of a street that ran up the side of the Peninsula Hotel. Momma-san, who charged reduced prices for regulars, often joined us for a while, as did a few other regulars or some of the women without customers. Momma-san had a stake in a larger and more normal hostess bar down the road. For all the time I was in Hong Kong that bar had a large photo in its street window in front of a curtain that blocked any view of the interior. Taken on opening day, it showed the representative of the British Foreign Office in the colony beaming in the midst of more than a dozen smiling young women.
A few years later, when I was on my way out of the Far East after working in Japan, I dropped into the Happy Bar for a last beer on what, by coincidence, was Poppa-san’s last night in Hong Kong, after the Foreign Office had rejected his pleas for an extension. Momma-san was crying and other women were dabbing at their eyes. It was the Happy Bar’s saddest night.
For most of the time I was in Hong Kong I lived with a woman I met in a bar. Like many in that business, she went under more than one name. I will use the one, Rita, she was using when I met her. She was a few years older than me, slightly shorter and liked to say exactly what she thought about anyone and anything.
Born in the Yangtse port city of Hankow, where her father had been a Nationalist government official, she had spent her earliest years moving frequently, first ahead of the Japanese during their bloodthirsty advance up the Yangtse valley. In 1938 they captured Hankow, the next major city after their horrific capture of Nanking, the recent capital of China. The chaos of the civil war against the communists followed. When the communists won, her father fled with his family to Hong Kong. There, with no industrial or commercial skills, and unable to speak the local dialect of Cantonese, he found it impossible to get work. Their first years were spent in a refugee camp.
In her early teens, Rita, the first daughter, joined a dancing troupe that toured the Chinatowns of South-East Asia. Most of her earnings she sent back to her parents. When she returned to Hong Kong she began working in dance halls for Chinese or bars for Europeans.
To help make ends meet, we moved into a third-floor room in an old building near the food markets in the poorest part of Tsimshatsui. It was only a few minutes from the Happy Bar. The room was just large enough for a double bed and some essential furniture but opened onto a balcony, roofed over by one above. We had a rudimentary washing space with a tap and did any cooking out on the balcony. Most of the building’s other inhabitants were working-class Chinese and the stairs were often crowded with small children. I gave Rita most of my regular income. From that she paid the rent and bought some food.
I worked during the day and Rita in the evening, usually as a taxi-dancer in dance halls for Chinese. Sometimes, however, she worked in a hostess bar not far from the Standard office. It had a clientele mainly of Westerners living on the island and was not in the street with most Wanchai bars, which catered mainly for sailors of the US and other navies. She said she worked there only for money from hostess drinks. I was not in a position to say I possibly disbelieved her.
Even when not working there, she liked to go there sometimes for a talk with friends. At about the time I usually finished work, and before customers began to arrive, she would call me sometimes and ask if I wanted to join her there. If I was about to finish work I would, and would share a large bottle of beer with her and some of her friends.
One woman I sometimes saw further down the bar on those occasions was one I could not forget. She was beautiful and seemed to have matching grace, charm and intelligence. Almost certainly she could have found a financially well-off and otherwise desirable man to support her. Probably she could also have found well-paying and more respectable work; perhaps, during the day, she had such work. Each time she was near the back with a few other women. Soon afterwards a regular customer, whom she obviously was awaiting, arrived and she went off with him to a back room.
I knew that customer well by sight and had sometimes spoken to him. He was a British lawyer who occasionally appeared in cases at the Supreme Court. He was also the most seriously crippled and misshapen person I have ever seen doing such well-paid work in public. He could walk unaided, but with difficulty.
Their relationship seemed to help make the other women feel good. If a woman like that could go off to a back room with a man like that, it showed they were sometimes earning money in a way much less ignoble that it was sometimes described; a way that could perhaps be called a praiseworthy personal service.
Apart from meeting Rita at that bar I usually saw her only briefly in the morning during the week. But at weekends we usually spent a fair amount of time together. In summer we often went to a beach and in winter out into the country.
Sometimes we visited a street with many fortune-tellers. These were shrewd old men who you could feel taking in everything about you through the corners of their eyes. Their modes of operation varied, involving cards that would be studied thoughtfully, types of dice and even birds in cages. Always they came out with predictions that were cleverly bland, within the realm of possibility, and had the desired effect of helping to make her feel better.
On Saturday evenings we usually had dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Afterwards we sometimes went to a Chinese movie at which she would translate.
Occasionally on Sunday, friends would visit her at our room. One of those was the former head dancer of the troupe with which she had toured South-East Asia. She was now earning money by giving private dancing lessons in a small rented room nearby. Anything extra cost more. Her nights she spent with favoured pupils; according to Rita she was very popular. In the mornings she went home for a few hours to an apartment in uptown Kowloon where her husband cared for their three small children. She was nearing 30 and said that by the time she reached that age she would have enough money to buy a good small business.
Sometimes also on Sunday we went to have dinner with Rita’s mother and two school-age sisters at the factory district of Shaukiewan, near the eastern end of the island. They lived in a hillside shantytown and at first she made me wait down on the main road. That was not without reason. A lot of the men there were unemployed and often bitter former Chiang Kai-shek soldiers. The only flag flown there was that of Nationalist China. Uniformed police, Chinese or European, rarely entered the place, and then only well-armed and in considerable numbers. But eventually she began taking me up to where they lived.
Her mother was a tough and cheerful sparrow of a woman. I liked her. We would go to a mud-floored open-air restaurant topped with a tarpaulin in the middle of the shanties and there have cheap but tasty little banquets. After that we sometimes took her sisters to one of the beaches on the other side of the island.
Her father worked for a pittance as a cleaner at a nearby factory and slept usually on the floor of the factory. Before this he had begun to be put sometimes into mental institutions. He rarely visited his family and I only saw him once. This was at about seven one morning after I had been awoken by noises outside our room.
The bed alongside me was empty so I went outside. There I found the landing and stairs crowded with almost every man, woman and child in the building. In the centre of this throng, half-way down the stairs, Rita with a look of ferocity was berating a late middle-aged man. I guessed who he was. My presence would only have complicated the situation. And if any person needed protecting, it was him, not her. I re-entered the room, where Rita soon afterwards joined me. She said someone had knocked on the door and told her he was abusing people on the stairs and smashing things.
The work situation at the Tiger Standard after the departure of most of the Chinese editorial staff improved as more people arrived.
One of the best of the newcomers, Richard Beckett, who I had known slightly in Sydney, and who later was an assistant editor of the well-known weekly Nation Review back there, taught me how to sub-edit. Briefly I became chief sub-editor on the sporting section, then acting sporting editor. That was the only section that still had some of its earlier Chinese staff. I also began to work increasingly down on the production floor, helping to solve editorial-related problems and get finished pages away. Unlike most of the newcomers, I had no problems with any of the Chinese staff down there.
Jenkins and some of the others upstairs, however, I found increasingly impossible to work with. One night I picked up my pay, walked out of the office and never went back.
Jimmie Yapp by then was assistant news editor of the South China Morning Post and KT Woo was editor of the China Mail, one of the first Chinese to hold such a high position in that British establishment company. Both said they wanted me on their staff and claimed there would be no problems arranging this. But both found what I already knew: for reasons I could only guess at, I was unemployable there.
I had not a cent in the bank, was owed nothing such as holiday pay, and could get no other work there. My domestic relationship had to end. I worried about this. Despite her usually bright exterior, Rita had deep tensions.
I did not doubt her early years had been dreadful. She said she had been raped sometimes as a child by an associate of her father. In her teens she had had a few backstreet abortions, which she once described vividly. Sometimes she had bouts of depression in which she talked about possibly killing herself. When I told her I would have to leave Hong Kong she put on a scene. Then she made the extraordinary suggestion that I live with her in the Nationalist shantytown where her family lived until I found another job.
When it became clear I felt I had no option but to leave Hong Kong she shrugged and piled her belongings there – most she kept at Shaukiewan – into a large laundry basket. She kissed me without affection on both eyes, a peculiarity of hers normally when she was being affectionate, and walked out without looking behind.
In the following weeks I boarded nearly every Europe-bound ship that sailed into the harbour and asked if I could work my passage to Europe. Despite trade union rules this could sometimes be done, particularly if a ship was returning for a lay-off and did not want to hire unskilled people who would have to be flown back to Asia. A few drinkers at the Ship Inn had managed to do this. I went out nearly every morning on launches run by the British or Norwegian Missions to Seamen but without success.
When the rent on my room expired, Brian Cuthbertson, the Morning Post reporter I had covered the Supreme Court with for most of my time there, let me sleep on a couch at his flat. By now I was broke and living on the charity of him and people I had often drunk with at the Ship Inn.
Then I learned that a French passenger ship known for its cheap fares was sailing in two days for Japan, a country which had English-language newspapers said to like having Australians on their staff. A few people had told me I would probably have no trouble getting work there. So the next morning I found out the cheapest berth still available, went to the Morning Post and asked Yapp if he could lend me the fare. He told me to return in an hour.
When I did he handed me the fare and wished me luck. Woo came in from his China Mail office, also wished me luck, and gave me a few hundred HK dollars to help keep me going until I had found work in Japan. I hurried off to the shipping company to finalise the passage.
By the time I got back to Cuthbertson’s flat it was late afternoon. There I packed my bags, showered, shaved and caught a lift downstairs, determined to enjoy a few farewell beers in Hong Kong. Waiting at the bottom for the lift was a Scottish ship’s officer named Crockett with whom I sometimes drank at the Ship Inn and who lived in the building. Crockett was trying to find a land job in which he could settle. To that end, he had recently begun doing occasional work for a New Zealand advertising man trying to start a small Hong Kong business. I met the Kiwi a few times at the Ship Inn when he was drinking with Crockett.
Crockett looked strange, so I asked him if something was wrong. He said that a few hours earlier he had gone to the Kiwi’s room, in a residential hotel near the Ship Inn, and had found him dead in a chair with an empty bottle of sleeping pills alongside.
It had been Crockett’s custom to ring him at nine each morning to discuss possible work that day. That morning, for the first time in weeks, he had failed to do so. When a doctor had arrived he had estimated the time of death at soon after 9am. Crockett had just come from making a statement to police and formally identifying the body.
I took him upstairs and poured him a beer. While I was doing this he pulled out several crumpled pieces of paper that had surrounded the body and smoothed them out. They were attempts at a final letter to his two-year-old daughter, then in the custody of her mother in New Zealand, so she would know, when she was old enough to understand, why he was taking his life. After writing a line or two he had screwed up each effort and begun again. We were able to put the pages into chronological order, with the first written boldly and the last a scrawl that meandered across the page and ran off the edge.
After Crockett destroyed them we went to a bar across the road from the Ship Inn and spoke to a woman he had been sleeping with in recent weeks. She shrugged. So, he killed himself. It happened all the time in Hong Kong. After a minute she excused herself and went back to a customer. We went off in separate directions, Crockett to inform a few other people, I to have my few final beers.
The next day, without any more problems, I sailed for Japan.
Working in Tokyo
The four-day voyage to Kobe was uneventful but not without colour. With seven other passengers, I was crammed into a third-class cabin through which large pipes noisily carried bilge water. There were few amenities in this nether region and we were prevented from entering most parts of the ship. Our first evening meal, consisting largely of bread and potatoes, was enhanced by free carafes of cheap red wine. That consolation, however, proved false. On the first night we ran into heavy weather and by morning every wash basin was clogged and overflowing with red vomit. They remained clogged until we reached Kobe.
By the time we berthed at Yokohama, after a few days in Kobe, I doubted if I had enough money left for the brief train ride up to Tokyo. But one of my fellow passengers, an American named Bernard Trink, who had been stretched out seasick on his bunk most of the time, and for whom, out of sympathy, I had brought bread, water and pieces of fruit, promised to lend me the fare if necessary.
When an immigration official asked me to declare all my funds on a form I wrote down a few hundred pounds sterling, several hundred US dollars and a number of Australian pounds. He glanced at this, stamped my passport with a two-month tourist visa, and waved me through.
Trink was just behind me. He was wearing a jacket and trousers of blue denim, a material then working class and not trendy. And his hair fell below his ears. This was when anything longer than short back and sides was considered suspicious. The official looked him up and down, sniffed him a bit, and asked to see his money. When he had laid it all out it did not amount to much. Senior officials were called and for a while it was touch and go whether they would let him in. Eventually, to my relief, they did.
The only journalist I knew who was then in Tokyo was Steve Dunleavy, who had left Hong Kong after an incident involving the wife of the editor of the South China Morning Post.
Dunleavy had shared a unit at a company-owned apartment block with a New Zealand journalist. One night he returned to that with two bargirls. In the morning he called a cab and took them downstairs. Just before he reached the cab the editor’s wife entered it. Dunleavy told her it was his cab and asked her to get out. When she refused he dragged her out, put the bargirls in and sent them homewards. The company sacked him later that day.
I had been told he was working on the English-language edition of a Japanese daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun. So when I reached Tokyo Station I bought a copy of that and called their phone number, intending first of all to ask him for a loan. A voice said he had recently left. The person said another Australian had also recently left. That suggested a possible job vacancy. I asked how to get to their office, which proved to be only about a kilometre away, went there and asked for one.
The man in charge, Kazuma Uyeno, asked me a few questions and handed me some typed stories. He indicated a typewriter and told me to change or rewrite what I thought necessary. Some of it needed a lot of work. When I had finished, Uyeno glanced through the results and told me what my salary and working hours would be. I started work two days later.
After a few days Uyeno realised my financial situation, from what I was eating at my desk during my meal break, and gave me an envelope with two weeks’ pay in advance.
The Yomiuri began life in 1874 as a respectable literary journal. In 1924 it was taken over by Matsutaro Shoriki, a former fast-rising chief of Tokyo’s secret police, who was sacked after a communist attempt in 1923 to assassinate Crown Prince, later Emperor, Hirohito. The Economist magazine of Britain in 2012 headed a long Christmas edition feature story about Shoriki “Japan’s Citizen Kane”, after the Orson Welles movie classic based mainly on the life of the notorious American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.
Although little known outside Japan, Shoriki had a career more incredible than that of Hearst or any other newspaper magnate in America or anywhere else. He turned the Yomiuri into a sensationalist downmarket Tokyo daily filled with sex, crime, sport and scandal. Its circulation soared. He also helped popularise American baseball and started Japan’s long-time leading team, the Yomiuri Giants. In 1934 he lured the American superstar Babe Ruth, who was overweight and past his prime, to Japan for a series of games. The visit, as tensions increased between the two governments, was controversial but a huge hit with ordinary Japanese.
Matsutaro Shoriki, left, alongside US ambassador Joseph Grew. Babe Ruth is at the far right
Right-wing and nationalist, Shoriki supported Japan’s campaign of military expansion, which ended in 1945. After the war the Americans put him in Sugamo Prison on Class A war crimes charges with Japan’s generals and other leaders. But in 1947, alarmed by the spread of communism around the world, they released him and later helped him regain control of the Yomiuri from left-wing journalists. Shoriki became for a while a senior cabinet minister, was credited with being largely responsible for Japan generating much of its electricity in nuclear power stations, and started its first private television network.
Under full Shoriki control the Yomiuri again became politically conservative. But it became a national newspaper and much more respectable than it had been between the wars, with good coverages of politics, finance and cultural matters.
The English Yomiuri office was in a Ginza district lane near the famous avenue of the same name. Like others around it, the lane was cluttered with small, mostly wooden office buildings, boutiques, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. All had been built quickly when the rubble had been cleared after the war. Jutting from most were neon signs.
Every few hours a messenger brought galley proofs of stories from the Japanese newspaper, which was in a large concrete building at the end of the lane on some of Japan’s most expensive land. Almost across the road from that was the main-line Yurakucho Station, the next past Tokyo Station and the city’s most central. A short distance from it was its main rival, the Asahi Shimbun.
Both had morning and afternoon editions. Their presses rolling day and night added to the din of trains going constantly overhead along the main line and underneath in a huge subway network, and of traffic pouring along the Ginza and central Tokyo’s other main avenue, Harumi, which intersected nearby. At about the time I arrived the Yomiuri passed the Asahi to become the world’s biggest-selling newspaper.
Japanese staff translated stories on the galley proofs and put them into a form roughly suitable for Western readers. My job title was rewrite man, an American term. The work mainly involved improving stories, trimming them to fit spaces and writing heads on them, what in Australian or British newspapers would be called sub-editing. The big difference was that the work often did involve a lot of rewriting. A few other foreigners, British, Australian and American, did the work part-time for a few hours on some days. I was the only person doing it full-time six days a week.
Most of the Japanese writers were graduates of leading universities and had fairly good English. But they tended to translate literally much in the Japanese stories, and those were written often in a polite and formal way that most Western readers would have found quaint, if not sometimes outright funny. An added problem was that they were often ambiguous.
Sometimes I would read a sentence to the writer and ask if it could be made clearer. He might confer with one or two colleagues. One might suggest an improvement that did not help me and another a different one. Sometimes one of them would shrug and tell me Japanese readers would understand what it all really meant. In the post-war Yomiuri, and I believe in its main rivals, it was apparently often bad manners to state facts clearly.
Part of the problem, Kaz Uyeno explained, was that the Japanese combined Chinese writing, with its many thousands of characters, often confusingly with Japanese phonetic writing, in which a character represents a sound, much the same as a Western alphabet. Adding to this, he said, Japanese sometimes used Chinese characters as if they were part of the Japanese phonetic system, and this in a country with regional variations in pronunciation.
The leading newspapers were technologically well ahead of those in the West. They were printing across Japan using facsimile transmission of pages before most Western journalists had heard the word “facsimile”. When a big story broke in or near Tokyo’s huge sprawl a Yomiuri reporter and photographer would beat the horrendous traffic by leaving in a helicopter from a roof in the centre. But after they got to the scene the situation could get weird.
The helicopter would head back quickly with photos while the reporter and perhaps photographer would remain at the scene if the situation was continuing. The reporter would radio a story back to a copytaker. Japanese journalists, an American-Japanese staff member explained, generally had higher social status than those in the West. Often they had been top of their class at school and university in Japanese and Chinese writing. This they liked to show with fine phrases and literary allusions. But they could not expect a copytaker, and possibly some uncultured person to whom the story then went, to have their superior knowledge and get their fine amalgam of Japanese and Chinese writing correct.
So they would sometimes resort to a way intrepid British had used many years before to get back to London the first news of great events. On the helicopter sometimes with them had come, from a loft on the roof where they left, a cage with a carrier pigeon. The reporter, when he was satisfied with his writing, would attach a story to a leg of the pigeon, which would head back across the rooftops of Tokyo to its loft. There a handler would remove it and send it off to appear, hopefully, in the next edition of the Yomiuri with all its linguistic and literary nuances intact.
A semi-retired journalist who could barely speak or read any English held the title of editor of the English edition. He did little more than sometimes put his official stamp on documents. The real editor in almost every sense was Uyeno.
Born and educated in Canada, he had as a young man, not long before Pearl Harbor, renounced his Canadian citizenship and moved to Japan. He spent the war in Shanghai writing press releases in English and French for neutral-nation or Vichy French journalists based in that city. During the war he married a Chinese woman and when it ended he took her to Japan.
Uyeno was my second best employment benefactor during those early years. (The third best, but without the lengthy and fairly close connection I had with Yapp and Uyeno, was Richie Benaud.) Although Uyeno was never a father figure in the way Yapp had been, he was a friend, helper and, when necessary, protector. He had perfect English, excellent French and Japanese I was told, and at home was said to speak only Mandarin Chinese. Those language skills helped give him influence high in the company, one of the largest in Japan.
Matsutaro Shoriki by then was an old man and semi-retired. But he was still very much at the apex of the company. As well as still owning the Yomiuri Giants, it financed a leading orchestra and other cultural bodies, and had fingers in many other pies. Every day the Japanese Yomiuri had a prominent story, with picture, of Shoriki meeting an important foreign visitor in fields such as politics, business, sport or culture.
The stories always implied what a wise and caring man Shoriki was, how distinguished each honourable visitor was in his field, and what a great believer the company was in international peace and friendship. At the English Yomiuri a writer would faithfully translate Shoriki’s words from a printed copy of what he said in Japanese. Sometimes I could not resist letting through some of the silliest platitudes or quaintest phrases.
Because of his language skills, Uyeno sometimes had to translate for Shoriki’s listeners at those meetings. He saw what I was doing and after a few times stopped giving me those stories to rewrite.
I once almost bumped into Shoriki. Literally. When I later obtained a working visa the company took me officially onto its full-time staff. I was given most of the rights of its permanent Japanese staff, who usually worked there all their lives. They included its annual bonuses, often a few months’ pay, and membership of its free healthcare system. That involved compulsory regular check-ups at a medical clinic in the company’s main building.
Particular groups in the company’s thousands of workers were each given a particular time for check-ups. As the then only Western staff member, I was put into a group of one person. Uyeno arranged a time for my first check-up, told me to make sure I was on time, and wrote words on paper in Japanese for me to show people in the building.
At the building I was directed along a corridor, around a corner or two, and gestured to go to the end of a long corridor, which was barely wide enough for two people abreast. When I was near the end a door opened and an old man emerged. Almost immediately I realised, from all the photos I had seen of him, that it was Shoriki.
If I had been a Japanese I would probably have been expected to bow low. That would have been ridiculous. But I gave him the slight bow I would have been expected to give any man of his advanced years in such a situation. He returned my bow with one more slight, as custom demanded. Then followed one of those little dances that can sometimes occur when two people keep turning the same way to get around each other. I mumbled “sumimasen” – excuse me – and we managed to get past each other.
On the side Uyeno had a job translating for a body called the Inter-Parliamentary Union. While staying in London not many years later I had lunch with him at Shepherd Market, an excellent collection of modestly-priced restaurants near his hotel in posh and otherwise expensive Mayfair. After lunch I went with him, in a chauffeur-driven car sent by the Japanese embassy, to the Palace of Westminster, where he dropped me off at the main gate. I walked away to catch a bus. He went inside to translate speeches to or by Japanese parliamentarians at a meeting in a side chamber at the House of Lords.
When darkness fell, the myriad multi-coloured neon lights of the Ginza district turned it into a wonderland. During my hour-long break each evening I wandered along the crowded lanes with delight, deciding where to eat. From its restaurants came the aromas of many countries’ cuisines. Ordering in restaurants was never a problem. All had plastic models of their dishes in their windows. If necessary, I led a waitress outside and pointed.
Smoke came from hole-in-the-wall yakitori joints, usually just a few stools at a counter behind a large brazier where pieces of beef or chicken on skewers were grilling over glowing charcoal. The smoke blurred the neon lights and increased the allure of the lanes. From bars and coffee shops came a medley of music.
At the entrances of some of the bars occasionally were woman elaborately made up in full kimono, with billowing, coiffured hair showing off to best advantage the nape of their necks. That, the only bared part of their bodies, was traditionally regarded as alluring to men, and was a sight becoming rare in most of Japan. Those bars, however, or the more common ones with young women in smart Western attire, were not usually for stray foreigners – or most Japanese. Most were for executives or senior staff of big companies and their clients.
Sometimes I caught a train to the similar but more downmarket district around Shimbashi Station, the next after Yurakucho on the main line. One of my favourite restaurants there was one where you sat on a stool and selected small plates of sushi from a conveyer belt moving around endlessly. I believe it was the first in Japan of the many thousands later found over much of the world.
For five months I worked full-time and openly on a tourist visa, twice extended for two-month periods. The main result of working illegally was that I had to pay twice as much income tax as if I had been working legally. But six months was the maximum a tourist visa could be extended and the authorities were adamant I would have to apply for a working visa from outside Japan.
Uyeno arranged a free return air fare to Hong Kong for me with Air France and gave me a document personally guaranteeing that I was a fit and proper person to live in Japan, plus one from the company guaranteeing my employment and stating my salary. With those I left for the colony, where I gave the papers to the Japanese consulate. I then went to the office of the South China Morning Post and China Mail, where I paid back to Jimmie Yapp and KT Woo the money they had lent me.
The next day I took off for a tour by trains and local buses around Taiwan. When I got back the consulate gave me a four-year working visa and I returned to Japan.
Then began the hardest-working period of my life. Apart from a normal 48-hour, six-day week for people on the permanent staff at the Yomiuri, plus some paid overtime, I also worked a few hours each morning at Esso Sekiyu, the Japanese arm of the US oil giant. After leaving the Esso office near Tokyo Station and having lunch I often had a small bottle of beer at a little sake shop near the station that also sold other drinks.
One of the last of a type that appeared to vanish soon afterwards in Tokyo, this had an uncovered dirt floor. Around its walls were shelves packed with big sake bottles labelled with stylised Japanese writing. With its wood panelling, and curtains across the top half of the entrance with more Japanese writing, it looked like something out of the famous 53 Stages of the Tokaido by Hiroshige, the great 19th century woodblock print artist.
The only other foreigner usually there was an English accountant who had arrived during the Occupation, married a Japanese woman and started a small import-export business. I got to know him well and he was a good source of advice on living in Japan. Like a surprising number of people I drank with during my early years, he had a close family member who had committed suicide. In his case it was his father when he was small.
My work at Esso, which Uyeno arranged for me, was similar to what I did at the Yomiuri. Mainly I improved translated local press stories likely to interest the company’s American executives. I also helped improve letters in English by Japanese staff.
Most big companies had a favoured Ginza bar. Some of the Esso Japanese staff once took me to theirs. For a few hours we sat in near-darkness in plush comfort and nibbled titbits while beautiful women, most speaking excellent English, frequently topped up our drinks. They smiled constantly, laughed when it seemed appropriate at anything we said, and made us feel handsome, charming, witty and sophisticated.
At the end our group leader was handed a bill for a sum that, from the number of noughts I glimpsed, would have gone some way towards financing another oil well in the Middle East. He signed it with barely a glance. Later it would have gone to the company’s accountant. At the end of the financial year it would have been deducted in full from Esso Sekiyu’s tax bill.
Living in Tokyo
Trying to find somewhere cheap in Tokyo to stay after I first arrived there, I went with Bernard Trink to a YMCA hostel. It was booked out and a staff person was ringing around trying to find budget accommodation for a few other Western travellers. Eventually he found a Japanese-style hotel that had begun accepting foreigners and told us how to get there.
The Angel Hotel was at the end of a lane in the quiet residential suburb of Shinanomachi, near the Meiji Shrine Outer Garden, where the National Stadium, the main site of the 1964 Olympic Games, was rising. Its two wooden floors were built around a courtyard. Covered walkways upstairs and downstairs looked onto a goldfish pond in the middle. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance and replaced with slippers in a personal box.
It was run by a dignified old lady with the help of several young woman, some still teenagers, from her home district in the far north of the main island. Their leader, Hanako, already matronly-seeming at about 21, had like most of them the paler skin of that part of Japan and a thin, evenly-spread layer of fat to keep out cold. Like many people in Tokyo, she was learning English ahead of the Olympics.
Usually I worked from 1pm to 10pm and got a ride home in an office car with staff of the Japanese newspaper who lived in the same direction. By then most Japanese were in bed and there was little traffic on the roads. The Yomiuri car usually dropped me off near the hotel soon after 10.30. Despite the late hour, Hanako would usually be waiting for me with her dictionary and questions about pronunciation.
Most accommodation rooms were on the upstairs floor. Each had eight bunks, four top, four bottom, along the walls. At the back of each bunk was a small wardrobe. At the front was a heavy curtain that could be pulled for privacy. Suitcases were usually stuffed under the bottom bunk. Most guests were country Japanese in town for a few days. No one was ever allowed to stay there during the day, common practice in Japanese-style hotels.
When anyone came in during the evening a girl would bring two small cakes and green tea on a tray, together with a small towel and starched cotton gown. The custom was to eat, sit for a while drinking tea and go down for a bath. The nightly cost of everything was 800 yen, the price of an ordinary evening meal or a large tankard of beer.
Bathing was essential. At first, if it was late and cold, I sometimes got into bed without doing so. No matter what the hour a girl before long would enter, obviously wondering why I had not come down for my bath. As soon as she saw me in bed there would be a scampering of feet along a walkway outside and down stairs.
A minute or two later Hanako would come marching in at the head of a gang of them, drag the quilt – there was no top sheet and no blankets – off me and order “bathu”. If I pulled the quilt back she would drag it off again. Then they would all fold their arms and in unison start to chant “bathu, bathu …” Surprised Japanese heads would appear from behind closed curtains. The chanting would continue until I had obeyed.
The bath was for group use and was the size of a small swimming pool. From 8pm to 9pm it was for women guests and staff. A girl with arms folded stood guard outside the entrance. At other times it was men only. The procedure was to wash thoroughly at a wall tap, sitting on a small stool and using a plastic dipper, then climb in for a relaxing soak to finish the day. The small towel supplied each evening was mainly to wash with. Later it was wrung out and used for rough drying. The heat that had soaked into your body in the bath completed the process of drying.
On the bunk above me was a tall, thin American sent along from the YMCA with us. Trink and I called him Cotton-picker because he could never say more than ten words in English without including “cotton-pickin’”. Cotton-picker spoke some Japanese and acted as our interpreter when necessary. He came from somewhere in the US Bible Belt and was then 28, apparently teetotal and, by his own admission, a virgin.
Recently he had been living in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido teaching English. While there he had become engaged to a local woman. The night before he was to leave for the wedding in Hokkaido I awoke in the early morning and climbed out to go to the toilet. To my surprise, Cotton-picker’s curtain was partly open and he was sitting up nervously in his bunk with a small bottle of Japanese whisky to his lips. I told him everything would go well and not to worry.
When he visited the hotel after his return to Tokyo I was not there. But Trink was and said he had asked him how the first night had gone. “Oh great,” Trink claimed he said. He had then explained that she had known “every cotton-pickin’ thing to do”.
I saw him once a few months later. I was strolling through a Ginza department store near the main Yomiuri building when I saw him, a tall figure striding along with his arms swinging free. Behind him, her arms laden with parcels that obscured her view, was an unusually short Japanese woman. Her legs were going like pistons as she struggled to keep up.
Trink also was a bit unusual. A New Yorker aged about 30, he had become an international wanderer after an unhappy stint in his home city as a social worker. At countries along the way he stopped off for a while before being moved on by dissatisfaction or the authorities. He supported himself at each stop by teaching English. His main relaxations were watching movies and writing poetry. Sometimes he insisted on reading to me his latest poems.
With his longish hair, eccentric dress of denim pants and jacket, and a face where nothing seemed quite the right size, he was probably not what most women would have regarded as a sex symbol. But at each stop he had acquired a girlfriend, usually one of his students, who had corresponded with him for the next few stops. He also sometimes read me parts of their letters. Most of his correspondents seemed to be neurotic.
He had an ambition to be a newspaper movie reviewer. Out of gratitude for money he lent me during my first few days in Tokyo I was able to get him work writing reviews for the English Yomiuri. Uyeno, however, said his reviews only told the stories of movies and after a while stopped giving him work.
A few months after we arrived in Tokyo the most sensible-sounding of his then correspondents, a young Thai woman, arrived on a tourist visa. They moved to an apartment in a far part of Tokyo where he had found a teaching job. Later they married and went to Bangkok. There he began writing for the English-language Bangkok World newspaper a column filling three pages – surely the world’s longest – called Nite Owl. When that newspaper closed, the Bangkok Post continued the column over one page. Eventually it ran for 37 years.
While stopping off at Bangkok some years after I met him I began glancing through Nite Owl, which at that stage I had never heard of. It had the most extraordinary range of details I have ever seen in any newspaper. In it were news from hostess bars and massage parlours that recommended particular staff, photos of go-go dancers, philosophical ramblings, dirty jokes, bad poetry and ordinary advice for tourists. God, I thought, what did I help launch into the newspaper industry!
Years after that, a journalist who had worked with him not long before in Bangkok told me Trink by then had a daughter and two sons. All three, he said, were living in Los Angeles.
When, early this century, I began googling the names of people I had known when young, I learned he had become, to use a word I saw several times, “legendary”. Not only was he was the subject of a great many internet pieces in Bangkok but he was also the subject of serious writing in publications such as the New York Times and Time magazine. The New York Times in an article head in 2002 called him a “Guide to a Richly Tawdry Bazaar” and wrote: “In 37 years of pub crawling he has become a monument to the world he writes about.”
Bernard Trink in his twilight years with a Thai writer
Among other items, Time in 2000 reviewed an unauthorised biography of him by a female sub-editor at the Bangkok Post. It was entitled “But, I Don’t Give a Hoot!”, the words with which he always ended his column. The book said he had upset many feminists and other people over the years. As he had aged, however, he had begun campaigning for the rights of Thai women and sex workers, and against child prostitution. It also said he had been happily married to the same Thai woman for nearly 40 years. Elsewhere, I read that his wife had become a volunteer Red Cross worker and followed him each night on his journeys through the city’s nightspots.
Each morning at first in Tokyo I walked to Shinanomachi Station and had a light breakfast at a cafe there before catching a train to wherever I fancied. I then often explored some part of the city I had not previously visited, or perhaps read for an hour or two in some exquisite little public garden.
The best place of all to explore was the large Meiji Shrine Inner Gardens, a serene oasis not too far from the big outer garden. It was always crowded on weekends but not during the week. There, cut off entirely from the sounds and traffic of the city, you could wander through a tall dense forest, visit a shrine dedicated to the emperor who helped found modern Japan, or sit and gaze at golden carp in a pond or ducks on its surface.
Not long after returning from Hong Kong with a working visa I moved from the Angel Hotel to an “aparto” at the top of a hill near Shibuya, a major centre to the west of downtown Tokyo. It was a typical Japanese apartment house, two stories high, of wood and concrete, and with a section of polished wood near the entrance where you changed into slippers.
My apartment was similar to millions in Tokyo: a small single room with a tatami matting floor on which bedding was placed each night, a large wardrobe for clothes, as well as the bedding during the day, and a gas ring and sink above some cupboards. A sliding window opened onto a view of hundreds of similar apartments, a few pines and gingko trees, and a jumble of neon-topped buildings around Shibuya Station showing through the car-fumes haze that usually hung over the city.
As was normal, there was only a communal toilet, but this was kept spotlessly clean by an old woman caretaker. Like most people, I had to use the local communal bath-house. Mine was a few hundred metres away and closed at 10pm, so I could only use it on nights when I was off or finished early.
Local bath-houses then had a place in Japanese life not unlike that of local pubs in Australia or other places. These were where people got together and exchanged gossip. The procedure was similar to that at the Angel Hotel. The main differences were that there were two tubs, the larger the size of a fairly big Western swimming pool, and you washed twice, before a quick soak in the smaller tub, and again before entering the big one.
There, with only their heads, and perhaps the top of their shoulders, above the water, men could spend up to an hour chatting and socialising. Many were happy to see someone on whom they could practise their English, and I was accepted as an honorary Japanese.
On my weekly day off I often caught a fast train out of the city and changed to a branch line. Japan then had hundreds of lines where, every hour or so, an old train with a few carriages would take villagers off through mountains and tilled valleys. At a stop that appealed I would alight at a farming hamlet and wander off along a single-lane road, past fields of rice or vegetables, into mountains behind. Within 90 minutes of boarding my first train I could be surrounded by forests that might have been in Siberia, with only birds, or unseen small creatures in the undergrowth, for company.
All roads led to a hamlet or village with at least one shop where you could buy something to eat or drink. Many often had a station on the line I had left, or else on another branch line. If not, there would be a bus service. By late afternoon I would be back in Tokyo, with my batteries recharged, ready for an evening’s drinking. That, after I first arrived in Japan, had mainly taken place in Roppongi, a district near the embassy quarter, where many people spoke English and many bars served hamburgers and other Western food. Later I began to range widely across the city.
Before long I had a knowledge of its entertainment districts better than most of the people I worked with. The biggest, with their streets and lanes lit with neon light, were as much a pleasure to wander around in as the Ginza. Their coffee shops, like most in Japan, sold alcohol. You could buy a moderately priced small beer or whisky and sit on that for an hour or more listening to pleasant music.
The best of all, to get the feel of Japan, was Asakusa, once the site of the world’s largest legal red light district. The brothels had gone and it now had something for everyone. It had always been Tokyo’s main theatre district – theatres and brothels went together in the old Japan – and there were still plenty of those. There were also funfairs with big dippers and merry-go-rounds for the children, bars, coffee shops, beer halls, innumerable little restaurants, and enough inexpensive boutiques to keep any woman happy.
This was where workers from industrial districts to the north and east of the city came with their families in the evenings or on their days off. After shopping or other activities they would walk through a big, elaborate entrance gate and down Nakamise Street. The centre of the district, this led past tiny open-fronted wooden shops to the large Sensoji Temple and smaller Asakusa Shrine. There they would light incense and make wishes, or clap their hands and invoke the spirits of their ancestors.
Sometimes while at the Angel Hotel I spent my night off with women I met in bars. When I returned in the morning, Hanako and some of the others would always indicate their disapproval with slight, sad shakes of their heads.
At the hotel, the bath was filled in early evening with almost boiling water and topped off periodically with more. By the time I arrived from work at night most guests would be in bed and the water would often need topping up. Soon after nights mentioned above, if they could catch me alone in the bath, the girls would troop in and one would turn the hot water tap as far as possible. I would move across to the corner furthest from it.
One of them would drop in a pole with a flat square of wooden board at its base and start plunging that up and down exuberantly to spread the heat. This would send small tsunamis of blazing water crashing into me, forcing me before long to climb out using my towel, not much bigger than a handkerchief, to provide the best cover possible. From the way they rolled around with laughter, it appeared to be one of the funniest things they had ever seen.
That was not a hazard I faced after moving to Shibuya. Sometimes I went down to the seamen’s bar district of Yokohama, which I particularly liked. It was alongside Yokohama’s Chinatown, which was claimed to be the best place then in the world to eat Chinese food, with good chefs of all the country’s most popular cuisines. You could have a delicious, moderately-priced meal first, and the women charged less than their sisters in Tokyo. Many spoke more foreign languages than English, usually German and at least one from Scandinavia. Those I met had the people and conversational skills needed in such situations with someone like me, were honest, and could have been called professional in the best sense of that word.
For a while I had a crush on a Chinese woman who ran a non-hostess bar in Roppongi. Brought to Japan after the war as a child by a sister who had married a Japanese, she had been educated well. Her bar was not expensive but was the best in that district, patronised by embassy staff and by students at Tokyo University, the most prestigious in Japan, which supplied many of its leaders. The latter were attracted there by opportunities to practise diverse language skills.
I reached the stage of taking her to the movies. But she was not for sale in the way other women I had associated with were, as I was well aware, and I lacked the confidence and social skills with such a woman to develop the relationship.
During my first year I found Tokyo fascinating. Eventually, however, it began to pall. I like big cities. But Tokyo was just too big, and its crowds too much. Its official population was about eight million. But greater Tokyo was put unofficially at more than 35 million. That was the area from which at least some people commuted each day into the centre. It included Yokohama, other satellite cities and towns, and districts near those where apartment buildings were rising alongside rice paddies.
Fortunately, I never had to travel on inner-Tokyo trains in peak hours. But just being within a hundred metres of a major train station there at such times could be almost hellish.
Japan had by then recovered from the war and its living standards were rising quickly. It was in many ways better than Hong Kong, and I was earning much more money. But in Hong Kong I had had a fairly settled domestic life and many people, Western and Chinese, I regarded as friends. During my last week there, when I was broke, quite a few people tried to help me in at least small ways.
Japanese men, despite outward affability in bars and bath-houses, appeared to carry small, invisible walls around themselves against other Japanese and more so against foreigners. I got on well with most of the people I worked with. One young man went out of his way to find my relatively cheap apartment for me and, with difficulty, convince the landlady that although I was a foreigner I would be a safe and respectable tenant. Foreigners were expected to live only in expensive and moderately high apartment blocks with other foreigners.
The only one, however, I regarded as a friend to whom I could have turned in an emergency was Uyeno, who was a foreign-born outsider among his own people.
Many of the Westerners I met in Tokyo had come in during the Occupation and could have been called carpetbaggers, much the same as those who had preyed on the US South after its defeat in the Civil War. Quite often they made clear their low opinion of Japanese they were continuing to exploit. Many I disliked, and they seemed to dislike me. Trink while he was at the Angel Hotel I considered a friend. The only other Westerner I would have called one was the English accountant.
Although I had drunk alcohol every night in Hong Kong I had rarely drunk much. Nowhere near as much as when I was at the Mirror and AUP. Often just two small beers, on both of which I would linger for more than an hour. I could not afford to drink much.
The rare times I drank excessively were when I attended cocktail parties marking the opening of places such as expensive hotels or big luxury restaurants. The organisers often sent invitations to the Standard. Sometimes I went, partly for the titbits that waiters brought around on trays, which saved me the price of an evening meal. Others circulated with glasses of cognac and other expensive drinks on trays. After being so relatively abstemious, it often seemed a pity, after a few drinks, and they kept coming around with more, to let such opportunities pass. “Another drink sir?” they would ask with polished politeness.
“Oh, I think I might have another one.”
In Japan, in bars or coffee shops, I often sat for an hour or more on a small beer or whisky with water. But I could now afford to drink as much as I wanted, and as the city soured I began to suffer depression and to drink more. On nights off I even began sometimes to drink at home alone, something I had not done since I had raided bottles in my father’s drinks cabinet during school holidays. Sometimes after work I also began to do this.
There was no need in Japan to worry about closing times or liquor licensing laws. On many street corners you just had to put into a machine a few coins, less than you would need for a cheap meal, push a button and out would come a small bottle of cheap whisky.
I had a good relationship with the only Japanese woman with whom I worked. She caused my decision to leave Japan. A few years older than me, but who seemed to think I was older than her, she was of homely appearance, pleasant, intelligent and normally sensible. After graduating in Japan she had studied in the US as a Fulbright Scholar. While there she had married an American but quickly divorced him. I regarded her work as the best in the office and sometimes said so. That might have helped cause an interest by her in me as more than a workmate.
One evening at work a Japanese man with whom I got on well invited me to dinner at his home. That was something no one had done in Japan and I accepted. Present at the dinner was his wife and the workmate who had arranged my apartment. After a fair bit of alcohol had been drunk the two men explained, with much embarrassment, that they had been asked by our colleague to approach me on her behalf. I liked her a lot as a person but had never thought of her in that way and became more embarrassed than them.
When I went to work the next day there seemed much embarrassment on the part of others and particularly on the part of the lady in question. It was a situation I felt at a loss to handle. I think she definitely had a family in mind. I was still only 25 and had many countries I wanted to see. I also now had a fair bit in the bank to help me on my way. I discreetly gave a resignation to Uyeno and indicated I would like to leave as soon as possible.
My departure was not managed without difficulty. First there was a problem of currency. My pay had been in yen and the travel agent insisted that by law I would have to pay in US dollars. Other people told me that was the law. So I went to the head office of the Bank of Japan, got through to an appropriate official, and asked why I would have to break Japanese law by buying expensive US dollars on the black market. He gave me his card to give to the travel agent. I was able to pay in yen for a ticket on a liner from Yokohama to Singapore, with a stop at Hong Kong, and a Qantas air ticket from Singapore to Sydney.
On the evening I was to sail from Yokohama I had too many farewell drinks in a few favourite bars there. At the entrance to the wharf I found that my passport, vaccination book and travel tickets were no longer in my inside coat pocket. Probably an expert pickpocket shortly before had spotted a good target.
After watching the liner sail I slept at a hotel in Yokohama, caught an early fast train to Tokyo, and at 9am entered the Australian embassy. Fortunately, I still had a Japanese identity card all foreign residents had to carry. The embassy gave me an emergency document valid for travel from Japan to Australia. I then went to the shipping company, which gave me a replacement ticket to Singapore from Kobe. A recommended doctor provided a vaccination book, then often necessary at passport controls, with backdated stamps. Qantas replaced my air ticket from Singapore.
I caught an overnight train to Kobe and beat the ship into port by a few hours.
When I boarded I headed for the bar. Standing facing it was what seemed to be the only other Westerner who boarded at Kobe. A young Japanese woman with him had her back to the bar, facing me. As I neared, she gave me a sudden smile of recognition and said hullo. When I did not recognise her she said she had met me twice with Steve Dunleavy when I had talked with him in a bar at Roppongi. It was a hostess bar where I went sometimes. That was while I was at the Angel Hotel.
On both times we had talked for a while. They were the only two occasions I met Dunleavy in Japan. We were only ever former fellow workers and occasional drinking companions. I had not seen him since my first year in Hong Kong.
After leaving the Yomiuri he had begun working as a bodyguard for a yakuza boss. A Western bodyguard carried big face in the Japanese underworld and he told me the pay was good. The yakuza to him seemed to be Japanese versions of something out of Damon Runyon, obviously one of his favourite writers. They were however criminals, and often unpleasant ones, who controlled activities such as prostitution and illegal gambling. The story that reached the Yomiuri was that Dunleavy got into trouble with his yakuza boss over something to do with a woman. Yakuza bosses were not people to cross, and he had fled back to Hong Kong.
The young woman was farewelling the man at the bar. As he turned, we simultaneously recognised each other. He was a British shipping chief engineer I had met sometimes with Dunleavy at the Ship Inn during my first months in Hong Kong. At the time he had been working for Jardines, Hong Kong’s biggest and most venerable company.
Later he had been caught going through customs at Bombay airport with a suitcase containing gold bars under a false bottom. According to one wire service report, it was thought to be the largest quantity of gold any person had ever been caught trying to take through customs at any Indian airport as accompanied passenger luggage.
During four days en route to Hong Kong we spent a lot of time together, usually in a lounge having a few drinks. He did not discuss the details of his offence with me, but probably corrupt airport staff in Hong Kong and Bombay had been involved. Probably there were others above them. There were no known charges against anyone else. He had had no option but to plead guilty and an Indian judge had given him a fairly long sentence.
Mainly he talked about Hong Kong and matters such as prison life in India. He had kept himself occupied by helping to repair all the prison’s old machinery. Because of this, he said, the prison authorities had treated him well. Part of that included being allowed to stay in the best cells available, those on Death Row. He was moved out only just before executions. Some of his anecdotes about those there for the usual reason were, to use a not inappropriate word, lively.
Most of the time I talked with him during the voyage he brimmed with beery good humour. But behind his bold front there were tragedies.
His father had committed suicide when he was young. Then, soon after he entered jail in Bombay, his brother, also a shipping officer and occasional drinker at the Ship Inn, had locked himself in his cabin while his boat was moored at Hong Kong harbour. After being heard pacing up and down for hours, he had hacked at his throat with a small axe, collapsed into a pool of blood and swallowed poison. When concerned crewmates were able to enter he was dead. His cause of death was given as loss of blood. I wrote a brief story about this for the Tiger Standard that omitted some of these details.
My fellow passenger had been given only the barest details in letters while he was in prison. I told him what I had heard and we changed the subject.
With considerable time off for good behaviour, he had been released after three years. A British government official in Bombay told him that, as a British subject who had served his sentence, he could return without problem to Hong Kong, where all his belongings were in storage, as were those of his brother.
When he reached Hong Kong airport, however, the authorities checked their so-called Little Black Book, told him he was persona non grata, and made him fly on aboard the same aircraft to Tokyo. There the authorities were more practical. After counting his money they gave him a two months tourist visa.
In Japan he corresponded with a lawyer in Hong Kong and drew up a course of action. He was booked through on the ship to Singapore, which meant he would be on the passenger list at Hong Kong as a transient. As thus, he hoped, he would avoid any official with the Little Black Book. The night before we arrived he began to fear his ruse would fail and that officials would take him off the ship and hold him incommunicado until the ship was ready to sail, something they were known to do occasionally. For much of the night we sat up in a lounge drinking.
Towards dawn the subject turned to his father and brother. “I suppose everyone thinks I’ll end up doing the same,” he said, with a mixture of pain and determination. “Well I won’t.”
Nearly everyone quickly went ashore after we docked. When, an hour later, his lawyer had not arrived, I did the same and went first to the Supreme Court, where I had sometimes talked to the lawyer while covering cases there, then to his nearby office. Failing to find him, I went to the South China Morning Post and had lunch in the staff cafeteria with Jimmie Yapp. At the back of my mind was the thought of possibly being able to use newspaper pressure if anything went wrong.
During the afternoon I learned in the Ship Inn that, soon after I left the vessel, his lawyer had arrived. With him he had a prepared application for a writ of habeas corpus, ready for quick submission to a court if necessary, and other legal papers. He had, however, been able to escort him ashore without a problem and had told him to go into hiding. The lawyer had then gone off to talk with government officials in charge of such matters.
At the Ship Inn I was told my fellow passenger was with Dunleavy and went to an address I was given. Someone, however, had realised that if anyone was hiding from Hong Kong officials the residence of Dunleavy was not the most sensible of places. After he got there he had been sent elsewhere.
When I arrived at the apartment the only person with Dunleavy was an Australian journalist he later married. She seemed in all ways a less attractive woman than Diane, his first newspaper girlfriend, and my former colleague for a while at the Standard. But she knew how to make money from writing. After their marriage ended she co-authored a book called The Happy Hooker, about the activities of a New York brothel madam, Xaviera Hollander, which sold a great many copies and helped make her rich.
Dunleavy also later wrote a best-seller. His, titled Elvis: What Happened?, was filled with previously-unpublished salacious details about the private life of Elvis Presley during his decline. The details came from three sacked bodyguards.
Elvis was given page proofs two weeks before its publication in 1977 and tried unsuccessfully to stop its release. On the day it was published he was found dead from various health problems at his Graceland mansion in Memphis. The book reportedly sold six million copies. But Dunleavy wrote it for a flat fee and received only a small percentage of the money it made.
I had come to see my fellow passenger. I left almost immediately after I found out he was not there. That was the last time I saw Dunleavy.
After talks, government officials in the afternoon told the lawyer his client could stay in Hong Kong. My fellow passenger came out of hiding and went to the Ship Inn to celebrate. I had a beer with him there. After that I went off for a last beer at the Happy Bar, and then to the vessel before it sailed for Singapore.
He was a man who reminded me of Ray Fitzpatrick, the former accountancy client whose problems in the Australian parliament in 1944 had helped drive my father to drink. They were both tall, heavily built men who enjoyed company and more than a beer or two. Both considered matters behind their jailing, indirectly in the case of Fitzpatrick, to involve simply financially advantageous behaviour rather than real crimes. Both took full responsibility for their actions and did not try to implicate anyone else. Both got on well with their jailers and fellow inmates.
Both also had lawyers who turned to that traditional British legal safeguard, habeas corpus, born out of attempts to prevent medieval despots keeping victims in jail without bringing them to trial. In one case a prepared application did not have to be put to a court. The other led without success in 1955 all the way to the Privy Council in London. Finally, both men had a boyish streak and there was even, as I recalled them, a facial similarity. But there were also, of course, big differences in their situations.
While passing through Hong Kong some years afterwards I was told, by a man who had known both of us at the time, that not long after those events my fellow passenger had married a Japanese woman and was by then raising a family with her. From what he said, it sounded like the woman who had been farewelling him in Kobe.
Indian Roving and Afghan Smuggling
I had only planned a brief visit to Sydney, mainly to see my mother, who was suffering increasingly from Type-2 diabetes, then difficult to control, for which she was being put sometimes in hospital. Partly behind the visit were worries about the situation involving Colin, whose behaviour and mental condition, after being good for several years, was again worsening. People who had helped him at Gavan and Shallala, and at a local church who had taken him under their wing, were moving away from Bankstown, and he had been retreating back into a previous cocoon.
That situation was not as bad as I had feared. My half-brother Alan and his wife Hazel had taken responsibility for him and Hazel had become like a mother to him. That was something Olive, despite her best intentions, had never been able completely to do. Their eldest son Graham and his partner had moved into the house while they saved enough money to start a home of their own. Graham’s partner, although much younger than Colin, had also, to my surprise, become almost like a mother to him.
Graham did not like the house, though, and told me he kept a hunting gun under his bed because of strange noises he sometimes heard during the night.
Colin had become deeply frightened of the house. The backyard shed had therefore been turned into a bed-sitting room for him. He entered the house only to collect meals and use the bathroom or separate toilet. As soon as I reached the house he was off into his backyard room in a huff, slamming his door, as if I had never been away.
I had no desire either to spend another night in that house. After a few hours in Bankstown I moved to a city budget hotel where I had left my bags. My intention when I first left Australia had been to go overland to London. I now more than ever wanted to do that. The next morning I hurried off to get passport photos. After arranging for a new passport I booked a boat passage. Two weeks later I sailed for Colombo in Ceylon.
From there I went north by bus and crossed by ferry to the south of India, a country that had strongly interested me since reading often about it in the darkroom when I was small. For several weeks, with a rucksack and sleeping bag, I wandered across the sub-continent by train. At first I travelled with a young Australian from rural Queensland I met in the south. He taught me the tricks of travelling cheaply there.
Some states, for example, had prohibition for their citizens. But if you went to a state tourist office and showed your tourist visa they would give you a permit to buy bottles of alcohol. They would then direct you to a nearby state liquor store where you could sell the permit for what, by local standards, was a fair bit of money. My companion knew the going rates.
On the trains we travelled third class, which was much better than fourth class, but considerably cheaper than the not much better second class. At stations we tipped an attendant a few rupees and stayed in the first class waiting room. In those you could leave your luggage safely, sleep comfortably on a bench at night and even often have a shower and wash your clothes.
Near the waiting rooms often was a high-ceilinged restaurant with all the faded trappings of the old British Raj. Tables were laid out with arrays of cutlery and starched white covers. Sometimes there were no customers. Waiters in white uniforms stood around doing nothing. Near the entrance, after we ordered, a cashier at a desk filled in forms without which many things apparently were ever done in India. Large fans usually whirred erratically overhead. Some restaurants had punkahs, hanging ceiling structures of wood and cloth, pulled backwards and forwards by someone out of sight to stir the warm air.
The service was always slow and polite, and the prices modest. From outside came the sounds and smells of food vendors. For an hour or so we could feel like we were back in the days of Kipling.
At Bombay I left the Queenslander and continued north alone. It became harder to stay in station waiting rooms, but many station buildings incorporated cheap hotels. Sometimes I stayed in accommodation near Sikh temples. As part of their religion, this was available free to travellers. A donation, however, was expected from foreigners in a box near the entrance. The accommodation was just a small room, with jute netting between a raised frame for a bed, and a tap and toilet outside, but was adequate.
This was the dry season and there had not been a drop of rain since I left Colombo. Near the Himalayan mountains I switched to local buses. Occasionally, when I arrived late in a small town, I laid out my sleeping bag on a bench outside the bus station and climbed in as beggars slept nearby. I never felt in any danger doing this and never had anything stolen. In the morning I would freshen up at a tap. Increasingly I ignored the dire warnings of tourist books by drinking tap water and eating at food stalls patronised by poor people. With one important exception, the worst I suffered was mild diarrhoea.
The exception was at Srinagar, in the Valley of Kashmir. It was just before the start of the tourist season and I was able to rent cheaply a houseboat on the central Dal Lake, my one accommodation luxury in India. The houseboat, a little bit of 1890s England, had sleeping and dining rooms with comfortable lounge chairs and chintz curtains.
The valley in early spring was even more beautiful than the tourist books said it would be. Snow still lay on mountains that rose up massively on all sides, and even on the forested lower slopes. But near the bottom the snow had melted and was coursing along dozens of streams towards the lake.
Almond trees were ablaze with pink blossoms. Between those were fields of rapeseed, an important source of vegetable oil, in bright golden bloom. Flowers were blossoming in meadows and even on the flat roofs of homes covered with earth. Willows hanging into water around the lake, poplars that lined roads and giant plane trees near old pleasure gardens of the Moghul emperors were bursting into leaf.
After a morning spent riding around the lake through all that splendour on a hired bicycle I had a bath in a small tub at the houseboat. Soon afterwards a fever began.
The owner rowed me across to a surgery where a doctor gave me an antibiotic injection and antibiotic capsules to take every few hours. By the time he got me back to the houseboat I was trembling and, despite the cold, was running with sweat. For the next few days, surrounded by Victorian furnishings and faded prints of guests during the Raj, I lay in a pool of perspiration fighting the worst fever of my life. Sometimes the owner came in, looked at me anxiously and refilled a jug of drinking water beside the bed.
Outside, small floating market boats went about their business, their owners calling out their wares. Passing these were water taxis with canopied roofs and fluttering curtains. Beyond the lake the valley was continuing to burst into life with flowers and green leaves. Occasionally I raised myself to the window and looked out, trying to console myself with the thought that if I was going to die then at least it would be in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Eventually I fell into a deep sleep. When I awoke 12 hours later the fever had gone.
After a few days of convalescence I returned to the lowlands, entered Pakistan and headed by bus for the Khyber Pass, one of the top destinations from my childhood darkroom reading. I had a visa to enter Afghanistan. But at the start of the pass an official at a checkpoint told me I would have to return to the nearby provincial capital of Peshawar for a permit to enter the pass. By the time I got back it was late afternoon. However, I was able to catch the last local bus leaving for Landi Kotal, a village near the top.
Slowly we began the winding climb. Around me were bearded tribesmen, each cradling an ancient rifle and strung with bandoliers filled with bullets. Under the seats were wicker baskets with clucking hens, and hessian bags with grain or vegetables.
As we went higher the ruins of forts or old gun positions, once occupied alternately by tribesmen or British troops, appeared on the barren slopes. When I looked eastwards during the sharp turns I could see shadows lengthening across the fertile, watered plains near Peshawar, the first of south Asia. This was a sight for which armies had marched since before that of Alexander the Great. Ahead lay mountains or high plateaus until I reached the outskirts of Istanbul.
At Landi Kotal, which I later saw described in a travel book as the smuggling capital of the sub-continent, a village headman told me I was in an area closed to foreigners and could not stay the night. There was no further public transport that evening towards the border, he said, but he might be able to arrange something. Soon afterwards an old truck chugged into view. The headman stopped it and put me aboard.
By the time I reached the Pakistan border at Torkham it was dark. The border post appeared to be shut. A light, however, was on near a sign that said no vehicle was permitted to cross after dusk. An official who appeared suddenly and saw me looking at the sign said the regulations made no mention of foot travellers and told me to keep going. He showed no interest in my luggage or passport.
With mountains rising blackly around me, I made my way cautiously across no man’s land. The Afghan border post when I reached it also appeared to be closed. But I was able to find a sleeping soldier and woke him. He hurried off and returned with a young official, dressed in a Western suit, who appeared pleased to see me.
“I thought you were never going to make it,” the official said in perfect international English. He quickly stamped my passport and told me that if I walked up the hill I would find transport. Puzzled, I walked up the hill and found, just over the crest, a convoy of trucks.
The drivers, sitting in a circle drinking tea, also appeared pleased to see me. They indicated I board the cabin of a particular truck and the convoy was soon on its way. When a partial moon came out it shone on white-topped mountains all around. Alongside us a stream rushed across boulders with melted snow.
After half an hour we came to a checkpoint and were surrounded by soldiers shining torches. My driver got out but indicated I stay aboard. Soldiers began to move along the convoy, looking into each cabin and searching under each truck. When they came to my truck and saw me inside they did not appear to search too thoroughly. They did, though, at the next truck. Not far away a few men in Western civilian clothes appeared to be overseeing the searches. Finally, after nothing appeared to be found, the convoy moved off.
An hour or so later, near the top of a pass, the drivers stopped for a tea break. By now it was almost freezing cold and I welcomed a mug of steaming heavily-sugared tea thrust into my hand. It had been a long day and as we moved off again I fell quickly asleep.
At three o’clock I woke up suddenly. Ahead of us were the scattered lights of Jalalabad, the first large town in Afghanistan. The convoy had pulled to the side of the road and the drivers, including mine, were under the truck extracting tightly-wrapped parcels. A few were already on the floor near my feet. I glimpsed parcels being carried to another truck. Realising all this was probably not something I was supposed to see, I pretended to be asleep as they opened the door to put more in. Later I realised the tea might have contained something to help me sleep
My truck drove to a walled villa at the outskirts of the town. A gate swung open, men emerged and the parcels were removed. The driver proceeded to the centre of the town, where he shook me and dropped me off at a hotel. After banging on a door in the bitter cold I was eventually let in and shown to a welcome bed. What those parcels contained I don’t know. But since opium was grown in the north of Pakistan I made a fair guess.
Kabul, where I stayed nearly a week, did not then have the reputation as a paradise for the world’s hippies it was soon afterwards to acquire for a while. But its relaxed attitude to all drugs, and the attractions of that to young foreigners, were evident in the cheap hotel district where I stayed. My drug of choice, however, was alcohol, which I sometimes indulged in a bit after rarely touching it since disembarking at Colombo. I enjoyed my stay.
Across the rest of Afghanistan and into Iran I travelled on returning Iranian tanker trucks that had carried oil products from fields there. The drivers travelled alone and charged me a small fee to sit alongside them. Tehran, where the Shah appeared secure on his throne with American support, and which was then known for its Parisian lifestyle, at least in the middle-class northern part where I stayed, I enjoyed even more.
By bus I travelled on, through Turkey, communist Bulgaria and the old Yugoslavia to Germany. There I changed to trains. By then it was mid-spring. Trees everywhere were in leaf, flowers were blooming as beautifully as they had in Kashmir, and the world could not have seemed better. Paris when I reached it was exquisite. All along the way the weather had been perfect, with rarely a cloud in the sky.
After I left Paris the sky began to darken. An English lady opposite me in a train carriage looked up at the lowering clouds. “Ah,” she said, “we’re getting near England.”
Several hours later I stood at a railing as a ferry approached Dover in a grey mist. I strained my eyes but could not see its white cliffs. Suddenly a small gang of uniformed schoolgirls aged about 14, whom I had noticed earlier prowling around the deck sniffing from behind the scruffier of the passengers, came up behind me. “This one smells a bit,” one of them said to her colleagues in a plummy voice. As I turned they studied me for a second as if I were a creature in a zoo. Then they went off to find someone else towards whom they could feel superior.
Indeed, I realised, I was nearing England.
Highs and Lows in London
A lot of the money I had saved in Japan had gone on two boat passages and the air ticket from Singapore to Sydney. I had mostly lived frugally and travelled cheaply during the few months it took to get from Colombo to London, but costs along the way had taken most of the remainder. I had also travelled as lightly as possible and some of my clothes were wearing through. Along the way I had asked my mother in a letter to cable some money to London for me, which I promised to pay back. It was the only time I ever did that.
In some of the worst clothes, which were unwashed, I left a cheap bed-sitter in south London on my first morning to buy something cheap for breakfast. I also had not shaved for a while. A policeman, seeing all this, stopped and cautioned me, apparently with the intention of possibly charging me with vagrancy.
I had my passport in a jacket. So I handed him that and said I had just arrived after an overland journey from Australia and had money waiting for me. He looked at the photo in the passport, back at me, and began to glance through the pages. Suddenly something obviously caught his attention. After staring briefly at a page his expression changed. He returned my passport with deference, plus a conspiratorial wink, and wished me a happy stay in Britain. That was the only time in my life, apart from at Oodnadatta, any police officer ever spoke to me in connection with a possible charge.
As he walked away I glanced through the pages and realised his attention must have been caught by a page opposite one with a large visa to enter Afghanistan. On the page was a stamp allowing me to leave Pakistan via Torkham, the border post in the Khyber Pass, which I had to go back to Peshawar to obtain. Beneath that was a stamp of the “Supdt. of Police/Spl: Branch, Northern Region, Peshawar”. Under that was another with scribbles.
Perhaps all three stamps were bureaucratic carryovers from the old British days in the 1800s when the Khyber Pass was a centre of international intrigue involving Britain and powers such as Russia in a so-called “Great Game” for control over the region. Pakistan and India appeared fond of bureaucratic procedures that went back to the Raj. Possibly, however, they might also have had a connection with that line of trucks waiting for me in Afghanistan and the ease I had crossing both borders after dark and they were officially closed.
That London constable would not have known about any of that. But he would have known, like police all around the English-speaking world, that the main work then of police special branches concerned political matters, usually involving national security, such as counter-espionage.
While I tried to get a job in Fleet Street the government employment service found me one at Battersea, just south of the Thames, as an editorial assistant with a racehorse form guide.
That summer and autumn turned out to be the best in London for many years. I loved the city. Each evening after work, armed with a multi-zone transport pass, I caught a double-decker bus and sat at the front on top whenever I could. At random points I got off and walked through streets in the long twilight before catching another.
The countryside I loved even more. At weekends, carrying London Transport’s detailed guide to country walks, I caught a train or bus out of the city and followed paths through woods, or crossed meadows to indicated turnstiles. Then I walked along the banks of canals, or followed winding lanes, into some picturesque village. There I would have a pork pie, or so-called ploughman’s lunch of cheese and bread, with a mild and bitter, at the local pub. After that I would follow a recommended route back to London.
By then I was living in a bedsitter at the district of World’s End, named after its best-known pub, just past where fashionable Chelsea ended and what was then slum Chelsea began. It was in a row of three-storey homes, built in the previous century, which was later replaced by expensive high-rise apartments. The only other tenant was a working-class English youth who, with a straight face, expressed surprise on learning that Australians spoke a type of English. I thought at first he was joking but decided eventually he was so uneducated and ignorant he was not.
My landlady was an old Irishwoman who spent hours each day in churches and liked to tell me about atrocities perpetrated on Catholics by Henry the Eighth and the first Queen Elizabeth. Her other main topic of conversation was that the government would not stop letting “darkies” into the country. Every time she passed one on a street she would tell me about it afterwards.
Near the entrance was a photo of her on her wedding day, pretty and radiant alongside the groom, a big, handsome man who looked as if he was probably one of the best catches in her district. But there had been no children. As the years had passed she had turned to shrewishness and the Church, and he to the time-honoured solace of the Irish male.
Each night, soon after pub closing time, the sound of her voice drifted up through the building as she berated him shrilly after he had shambled in, drunk as usual. The only times I saw him were when I came in during those episodes and he was near the entrance, a kindly-looking old man who stood there patiently while she carried on and on.
As the beautiful summer and autumn ended, and a grey winter set in, London lost its charm. Many of its residents began to seem as miserable as the weather. All my attempts at finding newspaper work had failed. Some of the people I worked with at Battersea, lower middle-class types with almost every known prejudice, were starting to appal me.
A few times I started friendships with young women I met in pubs but was unable to develop those further. Alcohol helped give me confidence in such situations, but its effects soon wore off. I had not otherwise made one friend in London. Occasionally I drank in Fleet Street pubs but never saw anyone I knew.
Increasingly I began to turn to the same solace as my landlady’s husband. Often I went on evening pub crawls along West End thoroughfares such as King’s and Fulham roads, or further afield. I had inherited my father’s feelings against the British class system and these worsened. Sometimes when I saw people who appeared upper class in pubs I scowled towards them.
Towards the end of winter I tossed in my job at the form guide office and went to work as a labourer at the Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, south of the Thames to the west. This was run by a company called Young and Co, one of London’s more eccentric. Its annual meetings regularly set records for brevity in the financial world as shareholders approved the accounts before starting to enjoy its products. After accompanying repasts, it was said, the caterers always counted the knives and forks.
The brewery was a quaint old place where much of the work that in any other Western country would have been done by machines was still done by hand. The products were delivered on drays pulled by draught horses. These helped foul up London’s traffic but provided great snapshots for tourists.
At first my work involved helping to roll the barrels from the room where they were filled to the storage room. This was a laborious process that involved manhandling the heavy barrels around a corner, down a slope, back up another slope to within a few feet of where they had been, and around another corner. Between 95 and 99 per cent of this work could have been eliminated by knocking a hole through the wall separating the filling room from the storage room.
The only important machine in this building was a fascinating contraption that had been working continuously since well back in the previous century. It was tended with loving care and always shown proudly to visitors.
Most of my fellow workers were alcoholic Irishmen who would normally have been unemployable. But with the economy at the tail-end of a boom started by the Tories in a bid to remain in power, and with the company desperate for anyone it could get, the government employment service had sent them along, just as it had sent me. The Tory bid had failed and the previous October Harold Wilson had been swept to power promising to transform Britain with “the white heat of a technological revolution”.
The pay was not high but there was a bonus of free ale. The official allowance for workers was two pints of mild. Office staff, who never mixed with the workers, were allowed two pints of the more expensive pale ale or bitter. The bosses had unlimited access to the stronger special ale, the most expensive. Not that this meant anything in practice. Soon after starting at 7am one of the Irish had usually broken into a keg of pale or bitter ale. For the rest of the day we helped ourselves whenever we wanted. Overseers did the same.
Before long I was promoted to the job of putting into the barrels a ladle of gooey stuff that clarified it by sticking to any little bits that remained after fermentation. The stuff, made in a chemical factory, then sank to the bottom of the barrel. In earlier years, I was told, it was extracted from the stomachs of fish. I also put in extra hops to make bitter ale bitter, and liquefied burnt sugar to make brown ale brown.
After drinking ale in the brewery intermittently during the day I would go out in the evening and drink more of it in pubs. I became therefore, in more ways than one, something of an expert on British ale. An impartial observer might have decided at this stage that I was developing a drinking problem. But I can’t recall any such thought occurring to me.
One small bright spot had appeared on my horizon. After my car accident near Melbourne I had made a normal claim for costs and damages under Australia’s compulsory third party insurance system. There was no question that all costs would be paid; the only matter to be settled was damages. Earlier my solicitor, who had done work for my father, had written asking me if I was prepared to return to Australia and appear in court. If I did, he wrote, I might get substantial damages. If I did not they might be much less.
At the time of the accident, doctors said, my alcohol content was so high the hospital’s top anaesthetist had to be got from his bed soon after midnight to supervise the tricky job of putting me under safely. The driver and other passenger were also drunk. That would not have looked good in court. I had not at the time of the letter wanted to return to Australia anyway, and had told the solicitor to settle for the best he could get. This had been followed by a letter enclosing papers to sign.
As the winter gave way to spring my mood improved. To be near the brewery I had, soon after I began working there, moved to a bedsitter in a large old house in Wandsworth. It was otherwise tenanted by a few West Indian families. They seemed happy to be in London, spent much of their evenings in their rooms with their children playing guitars and singing, and were all friendly towards me. After that old Irishwoman with her preoccupations I found them a relief.
Summer came again, not as beautiful as the one before, but summer. Again I began to catch buses to random points in the city after work and spend hours wandering through streets in the long twilight. At weekends I again caught buses into the country and followed the instructions in my London Transport guide along country lanes and across meadows. By then I was drinking a lot less than I had in the winter.
One afternoon I finished work and walked home from the brewery is spasmodic sunshine. Half an hour later, with hours of daylight ahead of me, I was having a bath when one of the West Indian women knocked at the door and said there was a woman downstairs to see me.
Puzzled, I dressed and went downstairs to find my former landlady, to whom I had given my new address. After whispering in alarm that the house seemed to be filled with darkies, she handed me a telegram. I returned to my room before opening it. From Alan’s wife Hazel, it said Olive had died suddenly the previous day. The date of her death was an easy one for me to remember: it was the day I turned 27. That evening I went out and got drunk.
Just as I had sometimes felt responsible as a child for all the problems involving my brother, and then for the death of the girl next door, although I had not in any way been responsible for either, I now felt partly responsible for the death of my mother. Why else had she died on my birthday? According to Hazel, when I had briefly returned from Japan, Olive had sometimes told her during my years in Asia that “everything will be right when Neil comes home”. Obviously she had expected that I would find a job in Sydney and settle down there. In the days that followed I kept drinking heavily.
A few weeks earlier I had received a cheque for about 800 Australian pounds from the accident settlement, and I was already planning my next moves. I realised I would have to try to get back into journalism in Australia. But I had seen Western Europe only briefly and wanted to see more of its main countries.
Most of all I wanted to see Athens, my original destination in Europe. An interest that began in my father’s darkroom as a child had increased when I studied Socratic dialogues while doing Philosophy at Sydney University. So I packed my rucksack and headed for the Channel.
Athens and Ethiopia
After travelling around Europe I left a ferry on a hot, sunny day at Piraeus, the port of Athens. The period of civil unrest that led to the Colonels Coup was then in progress. The day before my arrival the situation had worsened with the death of a student in a Piraeus street demonstration.
The next morning the main street of Piraeus was quiet and empty as several thousand left-wing demonstrators entered it with the body of the student. Shops were shuttered. Down side streets police and soldiers waited by the truckload with their teargas guns and other riot equipment.
I had continued drinking heavily since leaving London and was now in what sociologists might have called a quasi-revolutionary phase. Any bystanders in the main street that morning as the students entered the centre of Piraeus would have seen a strange person walking along the footpath near their front. Obviously drunk, he was shouting at them: “Man the barricades, you bastards, man the barricades.” That was me.
I realised I had to stop drinking. After a few days I saw a doctor, who prescribed the tranquilliser Librium. This was the first time I had taken such a drug and it worked well. As soon as I had some food in me, and had had a good long sleep, I felt much better.
The next few months I enjoyed. I moved to a cheap hotel in Athens near Monasterion Station. It was not far from the ruins of the Agora, the commercial and administrative centre of ancient Athens, at the foot of the Parthenon. Most mornings I walked to the Theseum at the Agora, the best preserved of the city’s ancient temples, and spent an hour or two reading. Then I usually walked several blocks up the road to the food markets, a huge, covered labyrinth always bustling with activity. There I sat at one of its many stalls and dined on crusty bread with black olives and feta cheese, or perhaps some grilled meat with green beans in olive oil.
At dusk I sometimes climbed up to the Parthenon, or wandered through the enchanting nearby Plaka restaurant district as its lights came on. I developed a taste for the thick, sweet coffee of Turkey, served in tiny cups, which is popular in Greece, and often dropped in somewhere for a lingering cup.
The civil unrest was continuing. After dark I often sat at a table outside one of the many restaurants in Omonia Square, the transport and commercial centre of Athens, waiting for the night’s demonstrators to arrive. The demonstrators always made a few circuits of the square chanting “Pa-pan-dre-ou, Pa-pan-dre-ou” – the name of the left-wing prime minister recently forced out after a conflict with King Constantine. Sometimes, with all the feeling of a people conscious that they had given the word to the world, they broke into “de-moc-ra-te-a”.
Then they would set off along the main avenue that led to Syntagma Square, the other main centre of Athens, near the palace and parliament. Often I went with them, near the front rank but keeping to the footpath.
The procedure was always the same. Half-way along the avenue they would be halted by a wall of police, shoulder to shoulder and several deep, with truckloads more waiting down side streets. An officer in the front of the police would bark commands through a loudhailer and the demonstrators would break into a stream of invective or more chants. A few young hotheads would hurl missiles at the police and would be restrained by some of the older demonstrators.
On most evenings this continued for a while. Everyone would then drift off for the late evening meals Athenians liked. A few times, however, events got out of control. Police fired tear gas and charged into the crowd. Before long the area was blanketed with gas and everyone hurried away with handkerchiefs over their faces.
Another country I particularly wanted to see before I returned to Australia was Ethiopia. I wanted to go there by land, through Egypt and Sudan. The first time I went to their embassy in Athens I was told it might be possible to fly in but it was out of the question at that time that I could enter by land. I was enjoying Athens or exploring other parts of Greece and in no hurry. Every few weeks I went back, asking if I could enter yet by land. Eventually they said they might let me in that way if I got a letter from my embassy “guaranteeing” me.
The Australian embassy staff, after I showed them a press pass I still had from my time at the Sydney Morning Herald, were surprisingly helpful and gave me a letter asking that I be given “all possible co-operation”. The Ethiopians gave in. I obtained visas for Egypt and Sudan and went off to book on a ferry leaving for Alexandria.
In Cairo not long afterwards I learned why I had had so much difficulty. A revolt, almost unreported in the rest of the world, had broken out among the Moslems in Eritrea, in the north of Ethiopia, against their Coptic Christian rulers. According to travellers I met who had left Eritrea, a common sight in some towns was Moslems strung from light poles or trees.
I did not like Cairo. The poverty was almost as bad as that in India. But the ordinary people generally seemed much less happy with their lot than those in India had often appeared. And they were much less friendly. It was the only place where I have ever been spat upon in streets. It was also one of the few where I ever felt sometimes in danger in ordinary streets during daylight. But I have one fascinating memory from outside the city.
After visiting some of the better-known pyramids and tombs I decided to see the small step pyramid at Saqqarah, the first of ancient Egypt. To get to the site, a vast burial ground that was largely unexcavated, I caught a bus to a nearby village. It was not a tourist attraction; I walked alone to the pyramid across a kilometre or so of empty sand. When I began returning to the village I noticed a hole in the ground and realised it was an excavation. Nobody was in sight so I descended steps into the hole. At the bottom I entered the ante-chamber of a partly excavated tomb.
Through light filtering in from above I could see the walls were covered with drawings and that dark passageways led further into the ground. The drawings were of everyday scenes at the birth of Egyptian civilisation – of workers in fields, children playing, and noblemen in their homes surrounded by their families and servants. In a way they never quite could in a book or museum, those people became alive for me. I was at the time a smoker, so I had a good supply of matches to provide flickering light. For more than an hour I remained in the tomb, studying drawings and probing along passageways into deeper chambers.
I have often felt a need to cut myself off, if only temporarily, from the rest of the world. I love being alone in forests. In cities around the world I have often caught a bus or train out of town to one and wandered through it for a while. The places where it is easiest to do this are in north-west Europe, particularly Germany.
Never, though, have I felt so completely cut off from the rest of the world as I did in that tomb. The silence was total, and the 20th century as distant as it was from people in the drawings on those walls. I had returned completely to an ultimate womb of much life on this planet – earth. When at last I made my way back out, blinking in the hot Egyptian sun, I felt almost as if I had been born again.
From Cairo I made my way down the Nile Valley to Aswan, where the High Dam was nearing completion. There I boarded an ancient cattle boat, which had been converted into a ferry, for the 300 kilometre voyage down the lake rising behind the dam to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.
Most of the passengers were local peasants but there were a few foreigners. One of them was a Time-Life photographer on his way to Abu Simbel, where a giant rock-hewn temple dedicated to Ramses II, one of the greatest treasures of ancient Egypt, was being moved under United Nations auspices to a new site above the rising water.
The voyage through the barren desert took two days. The only stop, just long enough to let off the photographer, was at Abu Simbel. During the day the heat was fierce. But at night it cooled down and we slept on the top deck. Wadi Halfa, which had had more than 10,000 inhabitants, was disappearing under the lake. As the boat approached its temporary mooring until a planned new Wadi Halfa was built nearby only the tops of the highest palm trees and buildings were visible. Sailing along the main street of a drowning town felt strange.
From there I caught a train to Khartoum, where I stayed for a while. Then I continued on to Kassala, just across the border from Ethiopia. The border had been closed for some time and I was prepared to fly in if necessary. But on the afternoon I arrived the Ethiopians reopened the border.
The next day, aboard the first public vehicle to cross legally for months, a local bus that had seen much better days, I bumped my way along a rutted dirt road into the realm of Emperor Haile Selassie, Lion of Judah, Elect of God and King of Kings. As we crossed the border the passengers around me, most of whom had been stranded in Sudan by the fighting, burst into song.
At Tesseney, the first large town, where the bus stopped for the night, the local Christians were celebrating the opening of the border. The town’s biggest building had offices, a bar and restaurant. After dark it appeared to be serving also as a brothel. Inside and outside, conga lines of men and women snaked drunkenly to music around wooden tables.
After being teetotal for a while in Athens I had begun allowing myself one small glass of local brandy each evening. Egypt and Sudan were not countries for that. In Tesseney I had a few beers with the revellers.
On the road eastward the next morning some tension was evident. There were no Moslems strung from poles or trees but machine guns poked from sandbagged positions in every village. Armoured vehicles patrolled the roads. On a few occasions the bus was stopped at roadblocks. We all filed out with hands raised to be frisked. After following a valley the bus began to climb. In two hours it had reached 2,600 metres.
That evening it entered Asmara, capital of the former Italian colony of Eritrea, which had been annexed insecurely to Ethiopia. Asmara looked like a typical Italian provincial centre. It had restaurants serving Italian food, boutiques and coffee shops. Despite the soldiers and tension it was the most pleasant town I had been in since leaving Athens.
Instead of taking the main road south, I took a branch road that led towards Lake Tana, the largest in the country. A day later my bus stopped for the night in a small village. There was still some light. So, after finding a room in the only hotel, I followed a path that led through a churchyard and up a hill. The rainy season was ending and the hill was blanketed, sometimes waist-deep, with wildflowers. Away from the hill, empty green ridges and valleys rolled into the distance.
At the top I came to a deserted army barracks. The roofs had fallen in. All the glass in the windows, and other fittings, had long since gone. But still visible in the stonework above the entrance to the command post were an inscription in Latin and a pair of carved fasces, the bound bundles of wooden rods that had symbolised legal power in a Roman empire far more extensive than the one Mussolini had tried to impose on these beautiful mountains.
Three decades had passed since Il Duce’s fascist invasion. Back in Italy there would still have been men alive who had once garrisoned this post. But now the buildings were overgrown with flowers. It might as well have been thirty decades. Or three hundred.
Not long after that I reached Bahir Dar, a town on the shore of Lake Tana with a textile industry utilising power from a nearby hydroelectric plant. The next day was a Sunday. Throughout the town, women in long white dresses covered by white shawls with colourful borders, and men in white trousers and similar shawls, filed through the streets to church. Their garments were spotlessly clean, but all had bare feet. Everyone carried coloured parasols against threatening rain.
I followed them into a church that could have been anywhere in Eastern Europe and stood at the rear of the congregation. Soon the church filled with the sounds of medieval music and Coptic chants that went back early into the Christian era.
When the service was over I walked along the shore of the lake. Thousands of streams run into Lake Tana and one runs out. Eventually I found a place I was seeking. There I stepped out across stones until I stood at the spot where the water of the lake quickened into the small stream that flowed out – and the Blue Nile, which provides 70 per cent of the water flowing through Egypt, began its journey to the Mediterranean. It was something else I had wanted to do since I was a child.
At stops along the way there were always food vendors and sometimes a rudimentary hostess bar, perhaps with a woman outside. During a longer stop I ventured into one for a beer. At the far side a few women were on stools in front of an array of bottles on shelves. Alongside the door was a bed.
At times the brutality seemed extreme. In a village I saw a beggar beaten to the ground and kicked savagely. In another village I saw a madman chained to a stake in the open howling like a dog and being treated as such. A man in my bus who spoke English told me he was a tertiary syphilitic.
In the playground at North Bankstown Primary School I had learned about what were called GPIs – for general paralysis and insanity, the worst symptoms of the lingering tertiary stage of syphilis, which ended with death. If you went past Sydney lunatic asylums, most of us knew, you could sometimes see them raving at windows. This was information that had probably come, via older siblings, from fathers or uncles who not long before had been away during the war. Wonderful penicillin in most countries by then was ending that scourge of the promiscuous. It was only in Ethiopia that I ever saw anyone dying terribly of it.
Most of the people, however, seemed happy. In the West in later years the only images we were often shown of the country were of people emaciated by drought and children with fly-blown faces crying. The Ethiopia I saw, at least in well-watered highlands away from fighting between Christians and Moslems, was very different.
Living standards for most appeared much higher than in Egypt or Sudan. Their food, strongly spicy meat stews on pancakes made from tiny grains that flourished in the mountains, with vegetable side dishes, was nourishing. The women mostly appeared happy and independent, more so than many then in the West, and extremely more so than in Moslem countries I had passed through. The children also looked happy.
Sometimes in the markets the people made me think of those in old Japanese woodblock prints. There was the same impression of sharp minds, earthiness and vitality. Later I was interested to learn that some earlier travellers had described them as the Japanese of Africa.
A feature of those markets was piles of honeycomb, from which they derived their national drink, a type of mead they called tej. The cheapest tasted foul. But if they strained the impurities out and left some of the sugar unfermented it was not bad. This seemed often to contribute to joviality in open-air restaurants during the evenings.
A few days after leaving Bahir Dar I reached the capital, Addis Ababa. For the heart of what I had vaguely imagined when small as an exotic African empire, it was disappointing. With its many eucalypts, imported from Australia early in the century, and livestock on streets of corrugated iron shacks, much of it reminded me of the ramshackle fringes of a few towns in outback Queensland I had passed through when I was 20.
From there I travelled eastwards on a bus and then on an old French train to Djibouti in French Somaliland, the last major overseas base of the Foreign Legion.
When I arrived at dawn a legion officer stamped my passport. Apart from administrative and some commercial buildings, Djibouti at the centre seemed a town mainly of bars for off-duty legionnaires. It appeared to have no budget hotel, travel agency or even reasonably priced restaurant. The cheapest restaurant had French cooks and waitresses. This was officially part of mainland France, with French wages and probably hardship bonuses. The bill, with service included, for a modest lunch came to quite a bit.
Much of my time in Djibouti I spent drinking in a bar with two legionnaires from the British Midlands, who came to my help in the morning when they heard me trying to use my small amount of French. They obviously welcomed the chance to talk to someone in English, and helped me with basic information, as well as inquiries about accommodation and onward travel.
Around the walls of the air-conditioned bar where they based themselves during the day were native women. Above a bar area with the usual array of bottles was a low space without enough room to stand but some bedding on the floor. If a legionnaire reached an agreement with one of the women they climbed up a ladder to that.
Before leaving Athens I had booked on a Greek passenger liner due to leave Aden, on the other side of the entrance to the Red Sea, in about a week. I had thought vaguely of travelling the short distance there by boat, even an Arab dhow. But it became obvious during the morning it would be cheaper to fly. When I learned that an old DC3 run by a local airline was leaving during the afternoon I was able to book a seat on that.
In late afternoon I landed at Aden. I asked the driver of the airline bus to drop me off at a cheap hotel. So he took me to one in the main Arab district of Crater, which was in the crater of an extinct volcano.
British rule was ending in a wave of violence. Except for occasional heavily armed patrols, the army had abandoned Crater, which I did not know, to Arab groups struggling to assert dominance. The most prominent furnishings in the hotel were large portraits of Egypt’s anti-Western President Nasser. The staff, however, were friendly towards me.
The next morning I bought a local English-language weekly newspaper at the reception desk. Briefly I stood on the pavement outside reading an item on the front page about the killing of a prominent Arab. When I realised I was standing almost exactly where this had occurred I became apprehensive.
That evening I went on a bar crawl that took me from the port district of Steamer Point to the foot of the volcano. This was one of the two areas still roughly under British control. The bars all catered for British servicemen. To help keep out unwelcome grenades, they had double entrances with wire mesh through which anyone entering could be clearly seen.
I had just left the last and was starting up a hill towards Crater when an Arab barman ran out after me and told me it would be madness to continue ahead. As long as I had a few drinks in me I always believed no harm could befall me. I told him I would be all right. The climb was a long one though, so when a passing taxi stopped I decided to catch it.
As it turned out, the perils of Aden during the last years of British rule were many. Instead of taking me to my hotel, the driver stopped at a secluded spot on the rim of the volcano, where he attempted to sexually assault me. I fought him off and went straight down the barren inside slope of the volcano, at an angle of about 45 degrees for few hundred metres, until I reached the Arab quarter.
There I found my way through the fortunately now empty streets to my hotel. I was possibly the only Westerner then in Crater. If I had bumped into even one person, I realised later, my chances of remaining alive might not have been too high.
The next morning, while standing under a shower, I heard just outside what sounded like a shot. A few minutes later the wheels of army vehicles came screeching in. I dressed and went down to the foyer, where the desk clerk told me rather cheerfully that someone else had just been shot dead outside.
When I went out, the army vehicles had already gone. A four-man foot patrol with helmets and body armour was moving cautiously along the street. The two men in the centre were keeping their rapid-firing Armalite rifles trained on the windows on either side. The man at the rear was walking backwards to guard against ambush from behind. A member of the hotel staff was hosing blood off the pavement and everything otherwise had returned to normal.
That afternoon I moved to a small hotel at Steamer Point. The room was cheap but I had to share it with a young Rhodesian. A few months earlier he had set out across Africa by land for Britain, where he planned to do an air pilot training course. Half-way across Ethiopia he had run out of money and had managed to get across to Aden, where he had declared himself broke.
The British authorities, following normal procedure, had confiscated his passport and had begun giving him a pittance until arrangements could be made to repatriate him to Rhodesia. A few days after this he had been placed in a most unusual situation when Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government had unilaterally declared independence from Britain. This had raised the question of whether the British authorities in Aden had any duty to continue supporting an impecunious citizen of such a country. Fortunately for him, they had decided that he was still to them a British subject, and had continued doing so.
The hotel was in an Arab residential area where there had been some trouble, but only a few hundred metres from The Crescent, the street where the tourist shops and hotels were located, and which was under constant army protection. At night, and even sometimes during the day, you could hear explosions or bursts of machine-gun fire in the distance, probably as Arabs fought each other.
Each evening the Rhodesian and I adjourned to a nearby club for British residents. There is nothing like occasional gunfire, as long as it is intended for someone else and not too close, to make free beer flow. By midnight, when the club closed, we were usually well under the weather, and without spending a cent. Unsteadily on foot, we made our way back to our hotel, keeping our eyes open for, on one hand, British soldiers, since we breaking a curfew in that part and they might possibly have wanted in the darkness to shoot us, and on the other, Arabs, since they might also have wanted to shoot us.
On the voyage back to Australia, on a ship filled mainly with elderly Greek migrants on their way to join offspring, I spent most of my time at the bar.
LSD and Other Hospital Drugs
I was unable to get regular newspaper work in Sydney but the ABC gave me casual reporting shifts while people were away on summer holidays. In particular, I helped cover Australia’s changeover to decimal currency on February 14, 1966.
After that I went to the Wagga Daily Advertiser as a sub-editor. Skills I had first learned not long before I left Hong Kong I had to brush up and improve. How best to sub-edit stories, how to lay out pages, how to write heads that fitted and might “grab” readers, and how to scale and best use photos.
Down on the production floor, where the pages were put together on metal plates, I had to again master the esoteric art of leaning over type in reverse image that was covered with black ink, while trying not to get any on me, and trying to spot anything wrong. That was so anything serious, particularly in heads or captions, could be fixed in time for the first edition. We had proof-readers, but they were part of a process that often took too much time.
I quickly got on top of the work. But adjusting again to an Australian country town was even more difficult after living in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London. I also still had a mass of unresolved tensions from my childhood. Adding to that was anger resulting from reactions to me, during my brief stay in Sydney, from some people I had previously known at least slightly.
By far the most upsetting incident, however, occurred in Canberra, soon after I went to Wagga. I had only once, and briefly, visited Canberra, our national capital. It was not far from Wagga, so I made it my first destination after I began working there, and had a few days off to go somewhere.
On my first morning in Canberra I was walking through the civic centre when I saw among approaching pedestrians Clem Lloyd, who had been my best friend before I first left Australia. While I was in Japan I had exchanged a few letters with him, the only time in my life I have ever exchanged personal letters with any man.
I had not, though, seen him since first leaving Australia. Happily I walked towards him with my hand extended and asked how he was going now. His face darkened, he did not shake my hand, did not answer my question, and backed away from me as if I had leprosy. This was a person who, until he had learned I was still alive after my car accident, had planned to go down to Melbourne for my funeral. I never saw him again in the flesh.
This went back partly to that accident. When I returned to work at the Sun as a casual after it I had no problem with anyone at the Sun, where I worked on a large floor at the edge of its reporting section. But just across a centre aisle were the Herald journalists. A few times some of them working near me had imitated my walk, slow and slightly doubled over, and implied, with words loud enough for me to hear, that I was walking that way because I was being sodomised. That was so nasty and ridiculous I had dismissed it and assumed almost anyone else would.
I next had a problem with what appears to have been an obsession of some people with my imagined sexuality during my last few months in Hong Kong, particularly with some of the Western journalists who began arriving after Graham Jenkins took over at the Tiger Standard. It appeared also, from innuendoes, that I was being claimed to be much older than I was.
Apparently something had been written about me, presumably in Australia, and was circulated in Hong Kong behind my back. Sometimes during my last few weeks, men who saw me sitting morosely over a beer in the Ship Inn would say things such “don’t take any notice of them”. When I tried to find out any details they would just look embarrassed and change the subject.
Increasingly in Wagga I began to suffer from the first serious depression of my life. It had one of the longest main streets of any country town in Australia. That main street contained one of the largest number of pubs of any of those towns. It was in those pubs that I soon started to spend much of my spare time. I also began living in a hotel, which did not help the situation.
Sometimes there were dinners where alcohol flowed. My most interesting was at a club for Italians at Leeton in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, which was in the Advertiser’s circulation area. The MIA’s then representative in the NSW parliament, Al Grassby, was already Australia’s most flamboyant politician, known for irrepressible enthusiasms and clothing in dazzling colours never seen before on a male in any Australian parliament. Later, as the minister for immigration in the Whitlam federal government, he did more than anyone to end the White Australia Policy and make the nation multicultural.
Grassby loved publicity, as long as it was favourable, and vigorously handled his own public relations. When in Wagga he often dropped into the Advertiser office to chat with staff and deliver copies of his latest speeches and press releases about his local activities. In the sub-editors room we all got to know him. Sometimes he invited staff to dinners at his favourite Leeton club.
That was how, not too long after I went to Wagga, I ended up one Saturday in Leeton surrounded by a hundred or more of Grassby’s Italian mates, who possibly included most of the leaders of the Calabrian Mafia in Australia. His already-rumoured Mafia connections later fuelled much speculation in books and newspaper articles. The speculation mainly concerned drugs and the highly publicised murder in 1977 of a district anti-drugs campaigner and political opponent of Grassby, Donald Mackay.
Al Grassby and Donald Mackay
The meal was lavish and the local wines excellent. Before we set off back to Wagga, Al offered each of us a flagon of the best local grappa. I was one of those who accepted. Grappa, popular with Italian farmers, is a type of raw brandy made from most of a crushed grape vine and not usually aged. I would not now recommend it to anyone, but I was not fussy what I drunk in those days. Al Grassby’s grappa, drunk alone in my hotel room in the next few nights, contributed to a rapidly deteriorating personal situation.
Our editor, Jack Dennis, as a young man had gone from Wagga to the Daily Telegraph in Sydney with dreams of becoming a sporting writer there. That had not worked out. After returning to Wagga with a drinking problem he had spent several years in Alcoholics Anonymous. To get me out of the hotel, he arranged for me to move in with one of the reporters, who had a vacant bedroom in his apartment. He also managed to manoeuvre me along to a local doctor, who gave me the address and phone number of a doctor in Sydney specialising in alcoholism and suggested I see him.
I told him I was not that bad, buried myself in work, and for six whole weeks went without a drink. I was now 27 and had known people who had had problems when they were 27. There was something about that age, I told myself, and as soon as I was 28 everything would be okay.
On the day I turned 28 I deliberately refrained from having a drink. The next day I resumed drinking moderately. It had become my practice to accumulate days off owing by working six days a week, then go to Sydney or Melbourne for a week off. A week later, with my drinking and depression worsening seriously, I set off for Sydney.
There I lost all control. After two weeks of almost non-stop drinking, and seeing the specialist doctor in Sydney, I was admitted to a private hospital called Betric at Summer Hill in the inner west. It was the only one then in Sydney that specialised in treating alcoholism and was not connected in some way with officialdom.
The next morning, after sleep assisted by drugs, I began to take stock of my surroundings. I was in a gloomy ward with about a dozen beds in what obviously had been a large home built many years earlier, perhaps for a wealthy merchant. There were many such homes in Summer Hill, and more than a few had been converted to private hospitals. The blinds on the large front window were kept drawn most of the time, but there were neon lights on the ceiling and lights at the ends of the beds.
Some of the patients when not comatose looked almost as miserable as I felt. A few, who had been there longer, were out and about a lot of the time in their pyjamas, or else sat up in bed reading. Others, who had been there longer still, got dressed in street clothes and went for walks.
Every so often a nurse checked my temperature or blood pressure and asked about my bowel movements. Four times each day, from breakfast to early evening, a nurse brought an initially large shot of brandy. This was to stop me going into the delirium tremens. I had not been drinking long or heavily enough for that, but it was a standard precaution. Later I saw a few people in the DTs and it was no joke. They did not see pink elephants but obviously did go through great distress, requiring heavy medication. One had to be sent to nearby Lewisham Hospital with its life-preserving facilities. You can die during the DTs; Betric had lost some patients this way.
The brandy certainly made the withdrawal easier. My hand shook badly while drinking it. But as soon as it was working its way through my system I began to feel much better. If the nurse had brought it just before a meal I would even manage to get a bit of food into me.
After an hour or so, however, the brandy would start to wear off. Any food I had managed to get into me I would soon be out in the lavatory vomiting up. Even when there was no food left in me I often retched and retched. The size of the brandies was progressively reduced. On the fifth day they were stopped. When the brandy did not arrive in my stomach at the expected time I shook and retched as I never had before in my life. This continued intermittently for a few more days.
Eventually I saw many people make withdrawals from alcohol. The period of the primary withdrawal was four to seven days and the symptoms similar. Many of those people had been drinking longer than I had been. But none of them ever seemed to dry-retch to the extent I did during that first week. I seemed to be trying to vomit up all the blood in my stomach, just as I had in the Royal Melbourne Hospital, when I had brought up half a basinful of it, black and congealed.
The other patients, most of whom I soon got to know, included labourers, housewives, a socialite, a university lecturer, a solicitor, the administrator of a fairly large public hospital and the head matron of another. Most were alcoholic but a few were addicted to an unrestricted medication called Relaxa-Tabs that was often displayed prominently in pharmacies and contained bromide compounds – what had sometimes been put in soldiers’ mugs of tea during the war to help calm them.
I could detect no common strand running through them that could not have been detected also in many people not alcoholic. About a third were women and those I found more interesting than the men.
The most interesting from a medical point of view was the university lecturer. She was a pleasant and outwardly well-adjusted woman who had married unsuccessfully in her teens and had lived abroad for a while. Probably few people who met her casually when she was not drinking would ever have suspected she had the problem. In her early twenties she had taken her first drink and had become an instant alcoholic. Since then she had been hospitalised many times.
She was still holding down her job, but before starting a lecture during her drinking episodes always had to fortify herself. If no conventional alcohol was available then Eau de Cologne, a favourite with some of the women at Betric, or anything else that contained it, would do. She had married a second time, again not too successfully, to an alcoholic.
Her daughter by her first marriage was then 16, training to be a nurse and showing strong signs, she said, of becoming alcoholic. She had several brothers, all to some extent alcoholic, and a sister who was a nun. Yet, she said, neither of her parents had ever had any problem with alcohol. That seemed to rule out a genetic factor, although not upbringing one, in the case of her siblings. But not in the case of her daughter.
Another I found interesting was the socialite. She was a well-spoken and normally well-dressed woman who had mixed often in the most fashionable of circles. When she learned I had worked in the past for the newspaper group controlled by Sir Warwick Fairfax, she told me about a conversation she had recently had with his wife, Lady Fairfax, at a party. She was not, however, a snob or poseur, which this might make her sound.
For some time by then she had been in a relationship with a former patrol officer in New Guinea who had risen to deputy district commissioner but had gone downhill to the gutter as a result of alcohol. So badly did he drink that he almost lost his eyesight as a result. Eventually he had managed to pick himself up and had gone as a mature-age law student to Sydney University, where he had sometimes come first in exams. He was now starting to build another career but alcohol was still getting in the way.
The two of them were not only living together but whenever he got back onto the booze they did that together. When he decided to try and get back off it they did that together also.
A few times in the past few years a taxi had arrived at the side of Betric Hospital with both of them almost blind drunk in the back. She had been helped into the women’s ward and he into one of the two for men. This time they had arrived soon after I did. His bed was almost opposite mine. I talked to him often and found him intelligent, open and likeable. Frequently she came in to see him, which is how I got to know her.
There was a general rule then in Australian society that men to some extent could talk about sex in casual mixed company but women, or respectable ones anyway, usually could not. Among the patients at Betric, and also at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous held there sometimes in the evening, this rule was reversed. Men rarely talked about sex but women did frequently.
Some, not including those mentioned above, said they had been molested as children, usually by stepfathers, and talked about this. They and others talked about men they had slept with while drunk, about their failure to get any satisfaction from this, and about their feelings of disgust with themselves when they woke up in the morning and saw the head on the pillow alongside.
The main drug used to treat patients was LSD. Twice a week the doctor in charge, or the senior of the two nurses normally on during the day, gave them wafers with the drug, then a relatively unknown medical curiosity in Australia being used experimentally. Undoubtedly it is an extraordinary drug that fully deserved the wide publicity it was soon to attract.
It appeared impossible to judge how people would react when given it. Sometimes they went into what in the hospital were known as “bad trips” and which later became widely known as such. When that happened they were pulled out quickly with a syringe of tranquilliser, which nullified its effects. But mostly they just lay there with peculiar looks on their faces. Later they mostly said they saw all sorts of strange lights and patterns.
The sense-heightening powers of the drug can be incredible. A man in a bed next to me sometimes asked me to turn down a radio in a room at the back because it was deafening him. When I said I could hear no radio he would tell me what tune it was playing and insist it was far too loud. If I went out to the room at the back a radio would be playing softly the tune he had said.
If you talked to people under the drug they sometimes made sense. In the opposite aisle of beds was a bulldozer driver whose main drink for years had been methylated spirits, a common alcohol solvent or fuel that usually contained some dangerous methyl alcohol. It always contained something to make it taste foul and deter drinkers. This he drank in preference to normal ethyl alcohol, which he could afford. Each morning, he said, he liked to knock down a few quick shots of metho, strained through a loaf of dry bread to make it more palatable, before climbing onto his bulldozer.
Despite this, he did not consider he had a problem with alcohol. His problem, he claimed, was that when he had too much metho in him he could not resist trying to beat up policemen. Most of them, he conceded, were only doing their job. He also admitted that when he attacked them, those who knew him would often, instead of arresting him, call someone in Alcoholics Anonymous. Police represented authority, however, and when he had too much to drink he just could not stand the sight of them.
Over the years he had been in court several times and had been sent sometimes to Betric’s psychiatrist, who part-owned the hospital, by the probation service. He was single and most of the time earned reasonably good money. So he could afford to pay for private treatment. By then he had spent a few periods in Betric.
Once he was under LSD he would become like a timid, frightened little boy. He would lay there whimpering over and over that all the world was against him, and asking why everyone kept picking on him. While this was going on, a middle-aged patient from the women’s ward, who was not on LSD, would hold his hand and act out a role of sympathetic mother for him, appearing to meet needs of her own in the process.
He made a lot of sense, but most of them did not. I believe it was hoped that LSD would help them see more deeply into their problems. With the possible exception of the bulldozer driver and one other, I heard no evidence of anyone seeing into their problems to any greater extent than if they had not taken the drug.
The other possible exception, and the person who behaved most unpredictably when given the drug, was the former New Guinea patrol officer. One day during an LSD session I was out in the kitchen when a commotion began in my ward. A large, strong man, he had suddenly begun flipping the beds alongside him onto their sides. Both beds had patients in them under the influence of LSD. They were on the floor, apparently still seeing strange lights or patterns and, it seemed, oblivious of any change in their circumstances.
The beds had metal frameworks around them so curtains could be drawn for privacy if needed. As I entered, the former New Guinea officer was trying to climb from the end of his bed onto his curtain framework and, it appeared, reach up to a large circular fluorescent light above. Simultaneously the framework was starting to collapse under his weight, frustrating this apparent intention.
The light was in a large patterned plaster circle, in the centre of a square of plaster, which could still often be seen on the ceilings of old homes like this. His partner, the socialite, not on LSD, was alongside him saying excitedly “it’s a mandala, it’s a mandala …” A mandala, usually a circle with a geometric pattern inside a square, is a feature of Eastern religions. It is particularly common in India. A diagrammatic representation of the cosmos, it is an aid to meditation. In Jungian psychoanalysis, which was popular with some of the patients, it symbolises the unity of the self.
Two other patients not on LSD, and less interested in Eastern religions or the theories of the pioneer Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, could see the danger and were rushing to turn off the power, both in the ward and at the main switch.
When the framework collapsed he picked himself up from the floor as if nothing had happened and brushed away people near him. In his hospital gown he strode out into tree-lined Prospect Road, a thoroughfare of that part of Sydney.
Briskly he strode off along it with two nurses and a few dressed patients hurrying after him. After a hundred metres or so the head nurse was able to position herself just behind him, ram into his backside a large syringe filled with tranquilliser, and hold it in place until it was empty. As that began its rapid work he slowed. Soon afterwards he stopped. Docilely he was led back to the hospital, watched by a few astonished pedestrians.
As he rested on the edge of his bed, groggy from the tranquilliser, I sat alongside and asked him what had been going through his mind. He remembered everything clearly, even down to me entering the ward and looking up him as he reached for the fluorescent tube. The circle of light, he said, had been the entrance to a tunnel, and at the end of that tunnel, along which he was going to crawl, was death.
Since there had briefly been live electric wires involved, death is what he might have found at the end of that tunnel.
I was among a minority of patients not considered suitable for LSD. In retrospect I was thankful for that. It was said to remain in the body and little was known of its long-term effects. In some cases its effects were said to have recurred years after it was last taken. It was also claimed later to be a likely factor in some suicides. In 1967 it was banned in clinical psychiatry around the world.
Despite that exotic treatment, Betric was essentially a place for drying out. Patients stayed usually for at least a month, until they had recovered their health and at least some degree of self-confidence and ability to cope with life. It was less strict than other such hospitals. After about two weeks, patients could get dressed and go for walks out in the street if they wished. After another week or so they could sometimes go into town for a few hours or home for a day or the weekend. Some before leaving, I was told, had even gone to work and returned to the hospital at night.
On one occasion I went to the home of the socialite with the bulldozer driver and another patient. She had a few clothes she wanted to pick up; the rest of us went along for something to do. I went with the bulldozer driver in his car and she went with the other patient in his.
Her home, large and surrounded by trees in one of the best parts of Sydney’s north-west Hills district, was furnished with a taste that would probably have helped make a good photo spread in a glossy women’s magazine. There we sipped coffee and talked for a while. When we were getting back into the cars out in the street she said suddenly she had thought of something else she needed to get and suggested the bulldozer driver and I go on ahead.
After he had gone a short distance my driver leaned across and nudged me in the ribs. “These alkies,” he said, “they’re as cunning as gutter rats you know.” He gave me a knowing look and explained: “She’s got a bottle hidden somewhere there. They’re going to get stuck into it.” I didn’t think that was her intention or that there was any other suspicious intent. But it pointed to an occasional problem with some of the patients there.
For the first few weeks I was given tranquillisers during the day. These were tapered off. The only other medication was sleeping tablets at night, which also were tapered off. The sleeping tablets worked well only for a few hours. As a result, the busiest hours socially were just before dawn. People unable to get back to sleep drifted out to the kitchen, where there was always a good supply of bread and other necessities left overnight.
By about 5am the kitchen was often the scene of some of the most jolly gatherings I have ever seen, with everyone engaging in animated conversation while making toast with Vegemite or honey and washing it down with mugs of tea or cocoa. Presiding over these was the regular night nurse, a middle-aged woman who had been in love with an alcoholic when young and after his death had devoted her life to caring for others.
After little more than three weeks I felt well enough to leave, but the staff urged me to stay longer. It was probably wise that I took their advice. Just during my stay I saw a man leave early and a few days later be back in a bed, very drunk and miserable, and starting the whole process over again. At the end of five weeks I was considered ready to leave. After ringing Jack Dennis, who knew where I was and had told me I had a job to go back to, I caught the Melbourne daylight express at Strathfield.
At Wagga I managed to walk down that long main street without a stop at any of its pubs for support. As soon as I was at my old seat in the sub-editors room Jack Dennis thrust some layout sheets, plus a ruler, pencil and other implements of trade, in front of me. Copy was quickly found to fill a few inside pages and I started working.
My hands shook a bit for the first hour or two, but no one appeared to notice, and everything became easier.
Life and Work in Wagga
I stayed nearly two and half more years in Wagga and came to like the place. Its older section had tree-lined streets with attractive brick bungalows and pleasant parks. Through much of that meandered a lagoon with grassy banks. Around its fringes curved the Murrumbidgee River, lined with willows dipping into its slow-moving water.
With some difficulty, I adjusted to life without alcohol. I began living again in a pub. It was, however, a homely old one near the Advertiser office, with excellent meals in a comfortable dining room as part of a reasonably-priced weekly deal. I soon found I could drink a soda water or lemon squash in the bar as easily as a beer. In the mornings I would read or go for walks, usually along the lagoon or the river bank.
For the first three months after leaving hospital I went sometimes in the evening to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, returning afterwards to work. Wagga had two thriving branches of AA, one mainly for Catholics and the other mainly for Protestants. Most members though would not have admitted that openly since AA was officially non-denominational. Many Wagga residents might have been surprised at how many of the town’s leading residents were then or previous members of AA. Then again, many might not.
I met a lot of excellent people at those gatherings but their hours, during a busy time at work, were inconvenient. Before long I did not feel further need for their support and eventually I stopped going. For the remainder of my time in Wagga, however, I continued to write occasional stories for them in the Advertiser.
At work, usually from 4pm to 12.30, with a break for dinner, I was kept busy. I immersed myself happily in the work and it became the main prop of my existence, replacing alcohol. Our system was for sub-editors to bring out pages individually, working from the centre outwards. Brian Junck, the chief sub-editor, would hand me stories and photos, tell me what pages to put them on, and leave me to it. Only the front page involved all of us.
Our other main task was writing editorials. If Jack Dennis could not think of any about sport, or Brian Junck or another sub any about a national or local topic, I had to write one about what was happening outside Australia. I was thought to have views dangerously liberal or left-wing. Any I wrote, particularly about the Vietnam War, then dividing the nation, were always scrutinised carefully but I rarely caused much offence. On subjects except Vietnam I usually pinched my details and viewpoints from the latest edition of The Economist, a liberal publication but not left-wing.
I continued to work six nights a week, accumulating nights off owing, and spend a week in Sydney or Melbourne. It was a system that suited me well. I enjoyed those breaks and never had any problem with alcohol during them. My only nights off spent in Wagga were on Saturday, when I usually went to Brian Junck’s home for dinner.
Brian was a thin, ascetic, harried-looking teetotaller then in his early thirties. A devoted father and husband, he was an exceptionally devout Catholic, with stern views on dress and behaviour.
In the Swinging Sixties it was impossible not to smile sometimes at some of his attitudes. Women whose photographs appeared in the Daily Advertiser always had to be correctly covered. On one occasion just before my arrival, I was told, he caught sight of a woman on a page about to go under the stereo press whom he considered was displaying too much cleavage. He snatched the zinc plate from the page, strode out to the photo-engraving department, placed it personally under a chopper, which was strictly against union demarcation rules, and removed the offending bosom.
The page was ready to go and the newspaper had a deadline to meet, so the plate was floated in the space left for it. The next day the first edition of the Advertiser had a photograph of a girl’s smiling face with, above and below, rectangles of white space that bore mute testimony to the extent of her physical endowment.
Brian also strongly supported the involvement of Australian troops in Vietnam. I was no fan of communism. But I could not see why conscripted young Australians should die to support what appeared a corrupt and unpopular government in a foreign military intervention that seemed likely to fuel nationalist feelings and help have the reverse effect to that intended. I also had an understandable dislike of some aspects of Catholicism. He was, however, well-meaning, and despite occasional differences of opinion we got along well.
Because of his unfortunate German name, of which he seemed sensitive, and an age that meant his formative years had been during World War II, as his father’s had probably been during World War 1, I made a fair guess as to one of the mainsprings of his personality.
His wife Noreen was a lovely but also sometimes harried-looking person who was a good Catholic but had more relaxed views about most matters. Religion for her consisted more of seeing the small local church was kept supplied with fresh flowers. When she could find the time, she liked to paint their surroundings.
They lived in a Catholic rural settlement called San Isidore several kilometres outside Wagga. Behind their home they had a large paddock where they grew crops and kept pet horses and other animals for their six children. One of the children had Down syndrome. When they learned of my problems with my brother they got him to call me uncle. I developed a good relationship with him, which helped me feel better about myself.
After dinner we would sit for hours – in front of a roaring log fire in winter – watching television, chatting and drinking cups of tea. At night countless stars often stood out clearly in the blackness. Some of the most deeply peaceful moments of my life occurred after stepping out into the dark, silent emptiness of an Australian country night to be driven home after those evenings.
The best known member of the staff, and very different in some ways to Brian, was our chief photographer, Tom Lennon, who had spent almost all his working life at the newspaper.
A Tom Lennon photo showing Brian Junck behind me in the sub-editors room
Often, even in warm weather, Tom wore a dirty old overcoat, with an old hat pushed back rakishly on his head. He was no respecter of important people, enjoying ordering them around when photographing them, and taking more photos than necessary. Usually they complied. Even Prime Minister Robert Menzies, a man known for his disdain of newspaper employees, was said to have meekly obeyed his orders during a visit to Wagga.
Tom lived at the end of a lane near the office in a shed that he shared with a changing variety of animals, birds and reptiles. Because of his reputation as an animal doctor, people often brought him injured creatures to help. Sometimes they left them in sacks or baskets at the front entrance of the Advertiser office. On one occasion I found a wounded bird and took it along to him. For weeks afterwards, until it was ready to fly away, he gave me a daily progress report on its condition.
He had a small flock of sheep that he kept in a paddock behind the Advertiser office, which was used as a company car park. The sheep were a frequent source of problems with the management. The best known of his animals were performing dogs, which he had taught to hop around on their back legs and perform simple tricks. They were a regular feature of entertainment in Wagga.
A bachelor, Tom was forever getting crushes on young women, usually barmaids. For weeks at a time the same face would keep appearing in football crowd scenes, or in stock photo subjects, such as a pretty girl in a local park on a fine afternoon. They were taken for days when there was not something better to help fill a page. He was, however, a fickle man, and the face would soon vanish, to be replaced by another.
If possible, he liked to lure young women to secluded bushland on the banks of the Murrumbidgee and take photos of them, often minus some clothing. Broad-minded people might have called the photos artistic, but others often described them differently.
Tom had been a good photographer but his eyesight was deteriorating. A recently-hired young assistant was starting to take better pictures than him. That was helping to make Tom increasingly cantankerous. The chief of staff Geoff Dixon, who gave him his assignments, had almost no control over him. Rarely a night went by when someone did not curse Tom for doing something wrong. The time had come, the management decided, to get rid of him. That was easier said than done.
Tom had already been fired a few times after fights with the management. But each time he had simply turned up for work the next day as if nothing had happened. This time the management was determined to make it stick. Dixon, who went on years later to head Qantas, our national airline, was put in charge of the job.
The pretext chosen was some photos of topless young women, taken among bushes down beside the river, which were found developing in the darkroom one evening. It was not the content of the photos, it was emphasised, but that everything was done with Advertiser equipment. Tom was given formal notice when his job would end and was told that this time it was for real.
I was holidaying in New Zealand when the day came and was spared the painful scenes when it was made clear the management was sticking to this. But they relented a little and said that if he behaved himself he could still sometimes have casual work. And Tom still had one card up his sleeve. The darkroom was crammed with his belongings and old photos, and he still had the keys to its inner and outer doors. Everything was not over yet.
A week or so later, when I was back at work, the first opposition newspaper in Wagga for several years appeared on the streets. It was only a weekly, and as such posed no real threat to the Advertiser, but it did have the management a bit worried. Edition number one mainly contained social pictures taken over the weekend. When the general manager learned that these were taken by Tom Lennon from lists supplied for the use of the Advertiser, and were developed in the Advertiser darkroom, he stormed down to the darkroom and changed the padlock on its outer entrance.
Just after that, on our other photographer’s night off, we needed some particular photos, so Tom was called in. He took the needed photos and arrived at the office with the film. But he did not have a key to the new lock on the outer entrance. When a spare key could not be found, reporters began unsuccessfully scouring the town for our off-duty photographer, who did have a key. By 9pm in the sub-editors room we were hastily redrawing pages and changing heads to suit the new layouts.
The management did finally get rid of him. He spent the remainder of his life as a casual worker at a hotel one block away.
While I was there the Wagga Daily Advertiser turned 100 and printed a special 80-page supplement to mark the occasion. A senior reporter spent a few months researching through files and writing or commissioning stories. I was given a few weeks to sub-edit everything and oversee the production side, in between helping to bring out the paper each evening. The reporter assembled a large stock of historical photographs and other material. I went to Sydney to commission work from artists at the Sydney Morning Herald.
Most of the pages were printed in advance. On the evening when we printed the final pages and published the supplement I had planned to write for it a definitive editorial on the role of the press in Australia. But the problems involved in producing the Advertiser each evening were many and varied. As edition time neared I was still struggling with problems and someone else wrote the editorial.
Not many sub-editors then working in Australia, however, could say they had produced the centenary supplement of a daily newspaper. When the press finally began to roll that evening I experienced a feeling of professional achievement I never later equalled.
Although I had enjoyed working in Wagga I preferred city living and wanted if possible to get back into metropolitan journalism. Soon afterwards I applied for a sub-editing job at The Australian, a national daily started by News Ltd in 1964. When that was rejected I wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald. Two days later I received a telegram asking me to contact the editor of the Australian Financial Review, which was also published by the Fairfax company. It was from Lew Leck, the man who 13 years before had said he could not imagine me becoming a journalist.
I contacted the editor of the Review, who offered me a job I accepted.
US Police Batons v. Flower Power
The Financial Review was then in a strong expansion phase, both in circulation and the number of its pages, and had attracted many good financial journalists. The copy of most of them was well-written and often for readers with specialised knowledge. Much of it often contained large slabs taken word for word from government or company reports. The Review liked to run many stories in full, no matter what their length, and spill them to later pages.
As a result, most night sub-editors had little more to do to stories than look for typing errors and put a head on them, which the chief sub-editor would change if he did not like it. I quickly learned to write the sort of heads he liked. Construction companies built, or failed to build, on previous results. Airline profits were stalled, took off or clouded. Unlucky miners could dig themselves into all sorts of strife. The work at night, after Wagga, was almost like having a holiday.
The main problem in the back of my mind when I returned to Australia was now looming larger than ever: my brother Colin. Alan’s eldest son and his partner had married and moved on to their own home. Alan’s second son had moved in with a wife, and again the arrangement had worked, although not quite so well. Now they also were almost ready to move to their own home. Alan’s youngest offspring, a daughter, was in no hurry to become too involved with anyone, and said anyway she would never spend a night in that house.
Meanwhile, the house was falling into disrepair. Cracks had opened in the brickwork, wallpaper was peeling off and mildew had appeared in many parts. Because of its proximity to a large shopping centre the area had been re-zoned and we had received good offers for the land. Already the house next door and others nearby had been torn down to make way for office or apartment blocks.
A few people, notably George’s daughter by his first wife, had been sounded out about the possibility of taking Colin in after the house was sold but had quickly destroyed any hopes. We had therefore agreed that he would move to Alan’s home a few kilometres away, where a wing would be built as his quarters.
There was no problem about money. Olive had died without leaving a will, which meant a long legal delay, and she had left little more than the house. But we knew we would get a fair bit for the land. Colin’s share could go towards paying for his new quarters. I made clear I would donate my share and, if necessary, money before the settlement of the estate.
Colin, however, did not want to go to Alan’s house. He would not sleep a night in our house but was insisting he would not move out of his backyard room. Another problem was that he hated Alan more than he hated me. During Colin’s violent tantrums when I was small Olive had occasionally turned for help to Alan. When he arrived he had sometimes started belting him with a heavy strap. A few such occasions I remembered well because, as soon as Alan had gone, Colin had looked around for someone on whom to vent his anger.
His physical and mental condition were clearly deteriorating. He had also obviously become addicted to aspirin and a cough mixture that contained codeine. Every week he was buying more boxes and bottles of them. At a family conference I said we had to start considering the possibility of some type of institution for him. Alan’s wife Hazel said fiercely that because of Olive’s wishes she would never allow that. The only child of an alcoholic mother, she had become very close to Olive.
Fate intervened. Two weeks before Christmas, 1969, Colin was found collapsed in agony on the back lawn. An ambulance took him to Bankstown Hospital. There it was found that a large duodenal ulcer had burst. The operation required was dangerous; surgeons would not proceed until we had given authorisation. Initially it was pronounced a success. Post-operative infection set in, however, and he went downhill rapidly.
He died a day or so later and a week before Christmas we cremated him at Rookwood. I still had many countries I wanted to see. The next day I resigned from the Financial Review and two weeks later I sailed for Panama.
The liner I sailed on was a rusting old tub, the Castel Felice, making what was believed to be her last voyage. The two main groups of passengers were young Australians on their pilgrimage to the lands of their ancestors and English returning home. Many of them spent much of the voyage drinking beer. I did not touch anything stronger than lemon squash. Air travel was become cheaper. When I left the ship at Panama I told myself that next time I would fly.
At a leisurely pace I made my way north through Central America. There was some revolutionary fighting going on in local jungles at the time. Businessmen were sometimes being kidnapped for ransom, or Yankees shot in streets, particularly in Guatemala. Some of the buses I travelled in had bullet holes. But I never once heard a shot fired.
Travel outside city centres was difficult without Spanish. Along the way I began travelling with a thirty-something American who spoke the language well. He obviously liked having someone willing to hear him talk. His father, he said, had committed suicide when he was a child, and he had a dominating mother who lived in an expensive apartment in New York. He also claimed to have a brother who had returned from Vietnam boasting about taking part in massacres and had joined the CIA. He seemed to me to be telling the truth.
Earlier he had worked for a financial company in Wall Street. Now he lived normally in Acapulco. When not too high on drugs, I gathered, he tried to work off his neuroses in the brothels there. He was the only person I have ever met who claimed to have suffered psychiatric damage because of over-use of marijuana.
His obvious main problem, however, was just drugs – any drugs. He had a compulsion to enter pharmacies and buy them. Every time we came to one he would pause at the entrance. For a few moments he would fight his devil. Then in he would go and start making inquiries. Central America and Mexico had almost no restrictions on the sale of legally used drugs. To judge from the looks on assistants’ faces, some of those he asked for must have been potent. Once he turned triumphantly to me after finding something he wanted and said: “Hell, you can’t get this outside of a nuthouse in the States, you know.”
Mental asylums were places he obviously knew well. Once he showed me a long poem he had written during his last stay in one. Its theme was that the only sane people in the world are inside such places; the insane are outside running the world. It was not the first or last time I heard that. I stayed for a while at a cheap hotel in Acapulco where he usually lived. When I went to his room to farewell him he was so high on something – LSD possibly, from the look in his eyes – he did not seem even aware of my presence.
From there to the US border I travelled with an idealistic young Californian who spoke some Spanish and had probably never tried anything stronger than weak beer.
On a cold, grey dawn, as the last of the night’s revellers returned wearily from the fleshpots of Tijuana, and long lines of Mexicans formed under bright lights to head for the factories of southern California, I entered the Land of the Free. A customs man eyed my rucksack but decided I did not look like a drug smuggler and let me through without inspection.
A week later I stood on a street corner in San Francisco surrounded by black Americans, some with green shamrock badges in their buttonholes, watching Chinese girls in Scottish tartans march past to the skirl of bagpipes in a St Patrick’s Day parade. I turned away convinced I had indeed entered a strange and wondrous land.
At that stage San Francisco was undoubtedly America’s most interesting city. It was tolerant, cultured and oddball. This was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the era of flower power, a time to make love, not war. US forces of peace were confronting in combat the forces of darkness in Washington and Wall Street – and San Francisco was the place to be.
Every day I travelled happily around the city on buses or rattled up and down hills on cable cars. Frequently I ended up in the district of Haight-Ashbury, the spiritual centre of America’s burgeoning hippiedom. There, amid the bearded and beaded, the smell of incense mingled day and night with the aroma of marijuana. My short back and sides haircut and conventional clothes obviously made me appear to some an interloper from the despised outside world – a tourist come to gawk at the weirdos. While I did consider some strange creatures, with many I identified at least a little.
Almost every day there was a demonstration or riot somewhere in or near San Francisco, usually against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Many of these took place near the Berkeley campus of the University of California, just across the bay, one of my occasional destinations. I sometimes watched those events almost like other people watch football matches. I think most of the participants on both sides, in their different ways, enjoyed them.
The demonstrators sometimes marched into action with arms linked, chanting or singing. Waiting for them would be lines of police, many of them thumping their batons lightly into their palms with looks of anticipation. A few times the confrontations became savage. Both sides, however, appeared to have rules by which they fought, and after a while they would call a truce.
The night before I left San Francisco I had dinner with the young man with whom I had entered the US. He lived near the Berkeley campus with his wife and two of his wife’s young female friends. They explained they liked it there because “something is always happening at Berkeley” – at that stage an understatement.
The previous day the US had invaded Cambodia. All along the way to Berkeley the police were out in force. When I arrived the four of them had just spent the afternoon writing letters to their congressmen to protest about the invasion. In a gracious old world touch, but for modern if dubious ecological reasons, the dinner was held by candlelight. After it they collected any scraps for their compost heap outside, and kept, for recycling, the cans from which the dinner had come.
Before leaving Sydney I had bought a 99 Days for 99 Dollars Greyhound bus ticket. Although by then it cost a hundred and something US dollars it was still a terrific bargain if you used it frequently, as I did for the next 99 days.
Buses were not the best way to get a good impression of US cities. The terminals were usually in the seedy downtown areas most of them had. My frequent introduction to a city at night included drunks on footpaths, groups of sullen minority people on street corners, rundown shops selling fast food, alcohol or pornography, and hotels with prices I could afford but which were not too welcoming.
I have always been fascinated by cities and must have been one of the world’s great destroyers of them, if only in the imagination. I liked to prowl through them, mentally deciding which parts should be preserved and which should be pulled down. Also where highways should run, the routes of train or tram lines I often planned, and the types of buildings I thought they should have. Sometimes when I travelled I fell asleep over maps of them. Perhaps it was because my father when I was young only helped finance sprawling suburbs, mainly at first with small fibro houses.
The upmarket suburbs of the US, with their variety, trees and gardens, I often liked. I also liked a lot of the countryside. Upland forests I often loved. I sometimes alighted at small communities in them and wandered around their environs for hours until the next Greyhound bus arrived. But I had a ball destroying most of the city centres. The best, I thought, was in Seattle. Those of Canada, particularly Vancouver and Montreal, I found much more agreeable, and spared my imaginary depredations.
While I was there the confrontation between Left and Right over Vietnam continued to worsen. Two days after the Kent State University incident, when four students were shot dead by national guardsmen and many others injured, I visited the Los Angeles campus of the University of California.
Because of the severity of rioting the previous day, Governor Reagan, whose political career was then believed by many to be ending, had closed the campus. But no one was at the entrance to stop me walking in. With its eucalypts, and utilitarian brick and concrete buildings, it looked almost Australian. But the obscenities painted on the walls were distinctly American, as were the police who peered suspiciously at me from cruising squad cars.
On July 4, America’s national day, in 1970 I was present in Washington at one of the climactic confrontations of that period. President Nixon had called for an Honor America Day celebration and had urged all patriotic Americans to show their support. Not long before, Time magazine had made the subject of its front cover the American flag. This was everywhere in evidence as I made way through the city.
Near the Lincoln Memorial heavily armed riot police were behind almost every hillock. With a bit of shoving, I managed to get through to the edge of the memorial pool, only a short distance from a stage at the centre of the action. President Nixon had left town. But on or near the stage were leaders of his government, along with famous public figures. Also present were a military band and honour guard, more armed police, and a large and representative gathering of the Silent Majority.
All were silent and grim as, after some speeches, a singer began the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Meanwhile, down the centre of the pool, having infiltrated through the crowds and jumped into the water, came a few dozen demonstrators with the battle chant, if not hymn, of the republic’s dissident youth. As the singer’s voice rose, so did the chant of the demonstrators: “One, two, three, four. We don’t want your fucking war. One, two …”
In retrospect, the United States came out of that day well. The Silent Majority remained patient and silent. And the police showed not just restraint but tactical brilliance. A lone policeman, apparently unarmed, stood at the far end of the pool. Every time a demonstrator tried to climb out at that end he pushed him or her back in. This effectively contained the demonstration and made the demonstrators look slightly foolish.
For their part, considering the tension and the large number of well-armed police who were present, the demonstrators made their point with courage. All that water, it should also be said, might have helped make some of them more agreeable people to be near in a crowded bus.
Meanwhile, above the singing on the stage, and the chanting in the pool, there arose bizarrely, only a few metres away from me, the sound of a hot dog seller offering his wares impartially, in the best tradition of American free enterprise, to Silent Majority and demonstrators alike. Some of the demonstrators reached up out of the pool and bought hot dogs from him. It could only, as people used to say then, have happened in America.
Several days later I sailed for Europe on the Queen Elizabeth II, my last long journey by sea. In the lowest class, where I went, it was still cheaper than flying.
For the next few months I wandered on, becoming as discontented with parts of European cities as I had with those of America. I liked the well-preserved or carefully restored centres of many cities. I also liked the way many had preserved areas of forest on their outskirts. But large parts, with their US-style supermarkets, unimaginative new apartment blocks and vehicle congestion, were not attractive. In those parts I also left in my wake imagined destruction and rebuilding.
The political turmoil then shaking the US was occurring also in Europe but was not as intense, perhaps because its nations were not fighting in Vietnam.
My most peaceful moments in Europe came during a week or so I spent based at Aviemore, in the highlands of Scotland. Aviemore, surrounded by some of Scotland’s finest scenery, is a tourist centre, but I was able to find somewhere cheap. For hours each day I walked along the banks of the River Spey, caught trains with a Scottish rail pass through the highlands or prowled deep into pine forests. Feeling I had returned to my main ancestral home, I also visited ruined castles or climbed heath-covered mountains. My mother’s influence on me in that respect was strong.
It was at Aviemore that, after four years of total abstinence, I began to drink again. I felt I had rid myself of anything I had carried from my childhood. At first, at a pub each evening, I had one whisky or ale, which I lingered over and enjoyed. But the number soon began to creep up. My savings were running low, so I headed back home.
In Sydney the Financial Review re-employed me on the permanent staff. I did, however, still have deep anger and tensions in me, which I had kept at bay either by earlier work or all that interesting and enjoyable travel. A few months later I was readmitted to a hospital for alcoholism.
The private hospital to which I was directed, after a check showed Betric was booked out, was at Strathfield, not far from Summer Hill, and was called Bromalan. It was larger than Betric and its biggest category of patients was female “nerve cases” – they just could not cope any more. Others, mainly male, were schizophrenic or seriously depressed. Some had alcohol or drug problems. Although their problems were more varied than those at Betric, most of the patients were more ordinary.
There were no shots of brandy to make the withdrawal easier. A few minutes after I was admitted a nurse injected paraldehyde, a powerful sedative that knocked me out for about eight hours. After that, apart from tranquillisers, plus sleeping pills at night, I was left to sweat it out. There was the same depression, anxiety and lethargy as at Betric. There was also similar dry-retching, although not to the same extent.
I had to pay for that hospital stay, which left me with almost nothing in the bank. So when I left after about five weeks I went to the Financial Review, which gave me casual work. Under union rules a casual was not supposed to work more than three full shifts in a week for one newspaper. That rule could be broken only in an emergency. The Review at the time was a permanent emergency. This was being worsened at the top by some key people, including its editor-in-chief, being seconded much of the time to other work in the company. Before long I was working at least five full casual shifts a week.
Only two night sub-editors had difficult jobs: the chief, and a production sub who had to wait downstairs, where the pages were made up. Following rough layouts from the chief sub, who would come down later to help, the production sub had to direct many compositors in throwing the newspaper together as a flood of metal type came through from what was said to be the world’s second largest battery of Linotype machines. Many of those machines were switched to setting Review edition copy as soon as they had finished setting all that night’s Herald classified advertisements, the company’s so-called rivers of gold, then claimed to be the largest volume of any newspaper in the world.
Those two subs downstairs had to quickly make exact cuts, reading reverse-type metal covered in black ink, and write spill heads. They also often had to rewrite initial heads, making them bigger or smaller, depending on changed circumstances. The worst time was from 7pm to 9.30pm, when the paper was almost ready to go, and most blue-collar production staff were switched to the more important Sydney Morning Herald.
I had often done some such work in Wagga. At the Financial Review, which usually had between 68 and 80 pages, and was mostly being put together in an increasingly mad late rush, the amount of such work was hugely bigger and more difficult. After a while the chief sub, before he could go downstairs to help, began sending me down to help the regular production sub. When he went on a long holiday I became his full-time replacement on casual shifts.
The only other difficult sub-editor’s job was a similar but more varied one during the day. When the regular night production sub returned from his holiday I was put on that. At night, when the Linotype operators had finished all edition copy for the Herald, they were switched, until they finished their shifts, to forward material for the Review, Herald and Sun.
This was often background stories reporters had been working on or, in the case of the Review, ones from papers such as London’s Financial Times or the New York Times. Airmail copies of those arrived each day and the Review had agreements under which it could cut out stories and print them. Other stories were from contributors for use on inside pages about subjects such as culture, property or travel.
When the editor started the next morning, proofs of anything set overnight would be waiting on his desk. Soon afterwards, someone from the advertising department would bring a book of open pages showing the size of the next day’s paper and the placement of ads. The editor would make quick decisions on what stories would go on what inside pages and leave me to get on with it.
I would draw up the pages, more precisely than they were done at night, order any photos, graphs or artwork needed, mark cuts, possibly sub-edit a few stories to fill small holes, and write heads and captions. Then I would handle all the little problems that came up during the day as the pages – usually about 12 but sometimes nearly 20 when ads were heavy and there were more pages – were put together.
The Review had a tradition of long expense-account lunch breaks for its editor or acting editor. At about mid-day he would leave for that. Usually he returned at about 4pm, when most sub-editors, including the chief, and other staff began arriving. Not always though. The record during my years there was 8pm. Reporters drifted in and out during the day. So also sometimes did people in charge of supplements or sections such as culture or property. But they had work of their own to do. Until the person in the editor’s chair returned I was, for all practical purposes, in charge of anything involving immediate editorial matters at the Financial Review.
The Fairfax management never liked that huge battery of Linotype machines and their operators to be idle. Sometimes, on afternoons when the Sydney Morning Herald classified setting was not too heavy, and there was little forward setting, a call would come from the head man downstairs. Linotype operators had nothing to do. He wanted copy from the Financial Review. And fast. That was an order.
Any forward reporters’ feature stories would have been sent down the previous night. So I would pick up a big pair of scissors on the editor’s desk for this purpose and thumb hastily through the latest copies of the New York and London newspapers for which we had cutting rights.
I knew the sort of stories to look for. Tycoons or companies that had made a killing by selling old masters in their collection. Successful investments in French vineyards. How much Liz Taylor might be able to earn from her next movie. Anything that could combine the imagined superior – and expensive – tastes in food, drink, art or entertainment of Financial Review readers with making lots of money.
Such stories, if they looked like they might be usable weeks or maybe even months later, were great. They were kept to fill holes on inside pages on days with little good news or in emergencies.
Then snip, snip, snip. I would cut them out and prepare them as normal copy. Quickly I would go through them and take out words such as “yesterday” or anything else that might date them. Night sub-editors sometimes had to do such work early in the evening when they were waiting for stories to be written, or after they had sent edition copy. Work that five or so of them would do at a leisurely pace I had to do hurriedly. Then I would give the stories to the boss downstairs and check how my edition pages were coming along.
Up to a point I thrived on pressure. But that day job often involved just too much work and pressure for any one person, let alone one in my situation. After a few months I began ducking across the road early each afternoon for a few quick beers to help keep me going. There were also my evenings to occupy, evenings when I found it difficult to wind down after all that pressure during the day. Of necessity I had to limit my drinking during the day. But in the evenings there were no restraints. Less than a year after leaving Bromalan I was readmitted for treatment.
I left again after about five weeks and went back to the day job there on five casual shifts a week. For a few months I was teetotal. But then I started again having quick drinks during the day to help keep me going. During the evenings, at first in pubs, then later alone in my room with a bottle of spirits, there was the same increasingly heavy drinking. That time I went only six months before being readmitted to Bromalan.
The doctor I saw during those years, the same one I saw when I was sent to Betric, was a psychiatrist. But he did not want to know anything much about me and was really just a prescriber of drugs. What later was called doctor-shopping was not easy in that medical field. You had to be grateful for any person you could get to treat you.
When I left hospital he wrote prescriptions for three or four of the most recent antidepressants and tranquillisers he had been put me on. One made my mouth feel dry and my vision a little blurry. But, with some misgivings, I took them all as directed.
Again I went back to the Review. It still needed someone who could and would do the day job. The few sub-editors who had the necessary ability had casual day jobs and were strongly resisting. Again the management put me back on that. This time I lasted only three months before I was again admitted to Bromalan for treatment.
As on the previous occasions, by the time I was admitted I was usually drinking one large bottle of normal strength spirits, usually whisky or brandy, every 24 hours, mainly at night and first thing in the morning to get me going, plus a fair amount of beer during the day and early evening. I was eating little and getting most of my calories from alcohol. As on the previous occasions, I was able to go to work, but with declining capability, right up to the time I went back to hospital.
By now it was all becoming familiar. First the nurse coming towards me with a big syringe of paraldehyde. “You might feel this a little bit,” she would say. That was an understatement: paraldehyde had to be injected deep and slowly. It was also, however, very fast-acting. Even as the needle was being pulled from my backside I would already be starting to drift off into blessed oblivion.
As at Betric, the women during those stays in Bromalan were generally more interesting than the men. The one I remember best was a middle-aged blonde who had once been Miss Bondi Beach or some such. For about 20 or so years since then she had been the partly kept mistress of Perce Galea, a man tabloid newspapers sometimes called the Prince of Sydney’s Gamblers. Galea was a devout Catholic, pillar of his church and good family man. My fellow patient claimed his wife knew about their relationship and did not worry about it. She was just “a bit on the side”. His income was mainly from horse racing or his illegal gambling clubs in the eastern suburbs.
Perce Galea enjoys a result at a race meeting.
Life involving him had obviously not been dull, but now the party was over. Although he came to the hospital sometimes with get-well cards and large bouquets of flowers, the message, she said, was clear: with her physical charms fading, he was getting rid of her at last. Her doctor was mainly prescribing Librium to help her through that difficult period. She also had, however, a sizeable collection of jewellery to help her achieve peace of mind and make adjustments.
A woman who did not lack a sense of humour, she was a source of mordant observations about the leading politicians and other well-known people she met in Galea’s gambling clubs, where she helped fill their glasses and see they were kept happy. I had many conversations with her. She would have made a great feature story in any newspaper. But the legal and other problems would have been daunting. And confidences told in such a hospital were a bit like those in a confessional.
The other I best remembered was, like her, there on a few occasions when I was at Bromalan. She was however almost as far from her in most respects as it was possible for any person to be. From what appeared a miserable family background she had spent much of her life in hospitals. To the staff at Bromalan she was the number one pest. She liked constant attention, was difficult to handle, and sometimes violent.
Her peculiar talent was to be able to swallow pills, open her mouth wide to prove to the nurse that she had swallowed them, then apparently later regurgitate them, hide them until she had a small stockpile, which the nurses were unable to find during lightning but not too searching raids, swallow the stockpile, triumphantly announce this, and then enjoy the fuss as a stomach pump was put on her to save her life.
Just before the last time I entered Bromalan surgeons at another hospital had performed on her possibly the most controversial of all operations, a lobotomy – they had cut off part of her brain.
At first there had been no change in her. But then she had started to come good. Each afternoon Bromalan held a group therapy session. These nearly always were miserable failures. All the patients able to get out of bed would be assembled in a lounge on the first floor. A nurse, looking as if she would rather be somewhere else, would try to make them interact with each other. The result usually was much shuffling in seats from most of the patients, most of them looking as if they also wanted to be somewhere else, and long embarrassed silences.
The most frequent speaker, to everyone’s surprise, became the former pill regurgitator, who had been promised that if she continued to improve she could go to Mount Olga, an institution on the northern outskirts of Sydney, where she would be taught an occupational skill. She was sick and tired, she kept saying, of spending her life in hospitals, and why couldn’t she go to Mount Olga now. She was still sometimes being difficult, and the nurse could only keep telling her that if she kept improving she could go there soon.
At about this time she seems to have developed an attraction towards me. At those group therapy sessions she often sat next to me and made friendly approaches. Often at meals she did the same. Handling females was still not one of my better skills, and this was a most unusual situation. I did my best to be friendly and encourage her without seeming to do so in any way that might possibly have been misinterpreted.
Not long after this, when I was leaving the hospital, I was down at the office when she walked past. She looked the happiest I had seen her; the previous day she had been told the date on which she could enter Mount Olga. I was off to help bring out a newspaper telling Australia’s richest people how they could make even more money. She was about to start an exciting journey, one that might eventually help her fit somewhere probably in a low-paid part of ordinary Australian society.
Seeing that I was leaving, she walked into the office, pulled me towards her and said “take me with you”. Then she laughed to indicate that she was of course only joking. It was one of the best things any woman has ever said to me.
From nearly four years between entering a hospital – later it would be called rehab – I had gone to one year, then six months, and now three months. Obviously I could not let this continue. I again needed paid work. The Financial Review had of necessity hired someone suitable on a permanent basis to do the day pages but it had a problem with its supplements. Published occasionally for the advertising revenue they brought, these were often only a few pages and could be handled if necessary by the regular day sub. They could though range up to 60 pages for the annual Defence and Japan supplements. Because of a lack of staff, work was piling up and the publication dates of some had been put back.
I was put to work helping to clear the backlog. I scrupulously did not touch a drop of alcohol and found ways to occupy my time when not at work, such as reading or going for long walks.
As another step in the right direction I began going at weekends to the home of Graham, my half-brother’s eldest son. After leaving the house at Bankstown he had moved with his wife Carol to Campbelltown, on the south-western outskirts of Sydney. A son had been followed by a girl named Lisa, then aged two and a half. I lacked experience in dealing as an adult with children of any age. With her I began to develop my first close relationship with one. She always seemed happy to see me and became almost like a daughter I would have liked to have had.
One morning, not many weeks after I left Bromalan, Lisa was standing in front of a radiator eating a piece of toast when she stood too close. She was wearing a nightgown of synthetic material and in a few seconds it turned into a ball of fire. Her mother did what she could. An ambulance rushed them to the Prince of Wales Hospital in the eastern suburbs, which had NSW’s best children’s burns unit.
When I learned of this a day later I went the following day to the hospital. She was standing naked in a cot in the centre of a small ward with other badly burned children. It was not a place I would advise anyone to visit lightly, and certainly not anyone with my then fragile state of mind. She was crying and was badly burned over most of her body. Fortunately, though, the flames had not reached her face.
On one side her mother, who had moved into hospital accommodation, and on the other a nurse, were helping to keep her upright. They were preventing burned parts touching the sides of the cot and doing what they could to distract her from what she must have been going through.
After staying briefly I left and walked down a hill to Anzac Parade, the main road through south-eastern Sydney. There I walked into the first pub I came to for a drink. I kept drinking non-stop almost day and night for a week and contacted my doctor. That morning a patient at Betric had attempted suicide by slashing his wrists and had been taken to a public hospital. There was therefore an unexpected bed at Betric, a place still difficult to get into, and it was to there I went.
The bed was against the front window. On the wall above it was what looked like spatters of freshly dried blood, which did not help my peace of mind during the first days. Betric no longer had shots of brandy during the first week, or treatment with LSD, but I felt less out of place there than at Bromalan. When I left about four weeks later I felt just about as down as any person could be. My self-confidence and self-respect were so shattered it seemed to me that neither could ever return.
One obvious thing any normal person would have done was go back to the Prince of Wales Hospital occasionally to visit Lisa, who was making a good recovery, and to add to the support for her parents. My reaction after seeing her in hospital, however, had been abnormal and continued to be.
Ahead of her were many years of occasional visits to hospitals, where doctors took skin from her backside, not touched by the flames, and grafted it onto all the parts that were. They did a good job. Eventually it was almost impossible to detect anything wrong. I never once, however, visited her during that period. When I next saw her she was a normal-looking 17-year-old.
In some ways this seemed to go back to Norma, the girl next door. I seemed to have a deep fear that if I got too close emotionally to another person it would be dangerous. Not for me but for that other person. To cope with this, I had thrown up around myself a small Japanese-type wall, which I had fortified.
It had not been my fault, of course, that she had been burned. Or anyone else’s for that matter, except possibly, in a distant way, people who had allowed the sale of such nightdresses for small children, something that was later stopped in NSW. Nor had I been responsible for the death of Norma, as I often told myself, or the problems of my brother, or anything else wrong in our house as a child. But all that was difficult to dispel.
After returning again to the Financial Review I took things easy at first, mainly bringing out supplements. But the sub-editor hired to do the day edition pages began increasingly going off sick for what proved to be incurable cancer. Whenever that happened I replaced him. During those few years I took pills prescribed for me, managed to handle any work pressures and did not touch alcohol.
When my finances improved I began to travel briefly again when I could get away, usually to New Zealand or Asia. Then I decided to go to Europe, with stopovers on the way at Manila and on the way back in Hong Kong. The start of my downfall on the last occasion was the hostess bars of Manila. I had thought vaguely of seeking work in London. But by the time I got there alcohol was already getting the better of me, and that was soon out of the question.
My most awful memory is from Hong Kong. By then I was again drinking much of the time day and night. Soon after I landed in the morning, after managing a bit of sleep on the plane, I called Jimmie Yapp, the closest I had ever had to a replacement father figure. Then still in a fairly senior job at the South China Morning Post, he sounded happy to hear me and arranged to have lunch with me at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
There was still a bit of time to fill, so along the way I had a few more drinks, which I felt I had to have. When I arrived and Yapp saw the state I was in his face fell. But he tried to act as if there was nothing wrong.
Just after I sat with him at a table, Richard Hughes, the father of the journalist of the same name with whom I had worked in Parramatta, came over and joined us. I knew him slightly by sight from my time in Hong Kong. He was still working for London’s Sunday Times and one of the world’s best-known journalists covering events in communist countries. Based now in Hong Kong, after living for a while in Tokyo, he was concentrating on China, Vietnam and other Asian countries rather than the Soviet Union.
He was the model for a fictional character, Dikko Henderson, an Australian working as a British secret service agent in Tokyo, in Ian Fleming’s last James Bond book, You Only Live Twice, published the previous year. Later he was the model for Bill Craw, an ageing Hong Kong journalist working for British Intelligence, in a 1977 novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, by John le Carre. Known for a sense of humour, he later enjoyed fuelling suggestions that he worked not only for Britain’s MI6 but for Russia’s KGB.
The former he probably did to at least a small extent as an almost automatic part of work that took him frequently behind the Iron Curtain in the depths of the Cold War. The latter was unlikely. But its chiefs no doubt helped him when it suited them. For example, by enabling him to interview Burgess and Maclean.
In joining Yapp, he was doing what most good foreign correspondents probably do often: preparing to pick the mind of a well-informed local who knew more about the city he was in than he did. As he looked at me with interest he seemed to think there might be a story involving me. The only story at that moment was not one that would have interested his readers at the Sunday Times: just another person who had let alcohol take control of his life.
I managed to get back to Australia and the day after I landed I was back in a bed at Betric.
The hospital at first was still much the same. This time, however, I was put on a drug, which I understood had the generic name hemeneurin, recently introduced there for withdrawals. It came in capsules that were unusually large, allegedly to prevent them being used in suicide attempts, which were known to all the patients as “bombs”. Two at first four times a day.
Hemeneurin was the greatest drug I ever took. Not long after swallowing them I would not quite have been able to leap a tall building at a single bound, but there wasn’t too much else I would not have been able to do. I would become relaxed, charming, witty – a person fully in control of my own destiny. The trouble was what happened when their effect began to wear off after a few hours. Before long I would start fretting increasingly for a nurse to bring around another two. I was not the only one. I saw some patients begging a nurse for them.
After a few days my dose was reduced to one bomb and the nurses began to space out the intervals between them. The seventh day, when they took me off hemeneurin, was one of the worst I ever spent in any hospital. Shakes, retching, anxiety, depression. Eventually I went into a seizure in which I curled up on the bed unable to move, with all the muscles of my body in a knot. It was not until after a nurse gave me a syringe of a sedative that I came out of that.
The use of hemeneurin appears later to have stopped. In 2015 I found only one English-language reference to it on the internet. That was in a 1985 New Zealand medical report that mentioned its former use for treating withdrawal from alcohol. There were mentions in other European languages with a lower case “h” indicating a generic name. Only the Germans used a cap “H”, but they cap nouns when other languages don’t. There were many references to a later British drug with the brand name Heminevrin, which appears to have been similar but safer.
By now it was obvious that, from being a hospital almost exclusively for the treatment of alcoholism, Betric had become, for many patients, one mainly for the treatment of drug problems stemming from the treatment of that. Many had a problem with Valium or Librium, for a long time the two most commonly used tranquillisers. Others already had a hemeneurin problem.
One man there at the time had a problem with paraldehyde, the drug I had been given to knock me out each time I had entered Bromalan. According to a nurse, he had been drinking some stolen from a pharmaceutical warehouse and had arrived smelling of the stuff. Paraldehyde was normally used only in hospitals and given usually by injection. It was, though, sometimes given orally. If not stored properly it would smell and was then dangerous to take.
It was easy to date my last trip into Betric. When I had begun going in and out of Bromalan a few years before, Gough Whitlam, to great acclaim from many Australians, including me, had been elected as prime minister. But he had since been getting into all sorts of problems. One group who did not like him was hospital owners.
During my second week, when I had begun to get out of bed often, I was sitting around one day in my dressing gown when suddenly the owner’s son, who worked there, began running excitedly through the hospital. At the entrance of each ward he shouted: “They’ve sacked him – the Governor-General’s sacked him.” Many of us trooped out to a television set in a big room at the back and began to watch the extraordinary events of November 11, 1975.
While Whitlam delivered his famous “Kerr’s Cur” attack on the Governor-General outside the parliament one man said one of his former drinking mates was among those behind him. A women patient claimed to remember Gough’s mother-in-law, who was said by staff to have been a former patient at Betric.
As for me, I did not mention that not far behind Whitlam was Clem Lloyd, whom I had once regarded as my best friend. At the time in Canberra he refused to shake my hand and backed away from me, I had learned later, he was the press secretary of Lance Barnard, the deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party and its spokesman on defence. Barnard was a down-to-earth man with a good public image, but was not regarded as a great thinker, and did not claim to be. Clem, I had read, was regarded as the brains behind him.
Mungo MacCallum, one of Australia’s best political writers for many years, later wrote: “When I arrived in the old Parliament House in 1969 it did not take me long to realise that Clem Lloyd was the best political brain operating in the building. When I left nearly nineteen years later I had still not met his equal.”
Whitlam, the leader, made all the party’s important decisions. But Clem was said to be the person who mainly formulated the details of the defence policies that the Labor Party, and thus Australia, when Labor won power in December 1972, adopted during the Vietnam War. During the extraordinary two weeks just after the election, when Whitlam and Barnard acted in effect as a full cabinet, until one could be formed, and made many important decisions, he was close to both men.
Clem Lloyd, and Australia’s only two-man cabinet
In January 1973 Britain’s Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington, came to Australia. Clem, as Barnard’s adviser, expected to attend a confidential briefing by Carrington to defence leaders. But the secretary of the Department of Defence, Sir Arthur Tange, its powerful top public servant since 1970, successfully had him excluded as a security risk. Clem angrily resigned but a year or so later returned to the government as an aide of Tom Uren, a left-wing cabinet minister.
The people behind Whitlam moved around as he addressed the huge crowd outside the parliament after the dismissal in 1975. One newspaper photo I later saw showed him at Whitlam’s shoulder.
By that stage I knew something about what was behind Clem’s behaviour towards me in Canberra. On one occasion when I had gone up from the production floor with page proofs at the end of a day shift, not too long before that disastrous journey, I had found at my desk what appeared to be pages of proofs from a book about to be published, with passages highlighted. I saw nothing in the passages with which I could possibly identify and threw the pages into a bin.
I presumed it was a book by a person who, I gathered from innuendoes by a few sub-editors, was writing about me. The person was a cadet at another newspaper when I was at the Mirror. I recalled him vaguely as someone who drank sometimes in the same pubs as most city cadets but did not seem to go later to the same parties as most of us. I never so much as had a conversation with him.
Later I glanced through some of his books and never saw my name or anything that could have been called a depiction of me. Between him and some other people, it appeared from the innuendoes, a fantasy life had been invented for me that bore almost no resemblance to my actual life. It involved views unlike any I had ever expressed and, most of all, a fantasy sex life. This person sometimes wore women’s clothing, which I have never done, and in the evenings went around bars or clubs for homosexuals, something I have never knowingly done. In all my life I have on a few times in foreign lands entered bars that when I entered looked normal. When I realised, after buying a drink, that they seemed mainly for such people, I finished my drink at a reasonable pace without conversing with anyone and left.
One sub-editor, when he came to work in late afternoon with too much beer in him, had sometimes briefly marched up down behind me, as I glanced through my completed day pages at my desk, chanting “something to hide, something to hide …”
The morning after I left Betric, for reasons mainly therapeutic and cathartic, but also because of the above, I sat down at a desk and began writing from which, many years later, came this and other books. I had nothing to hide but my father did. Lots, it seemed. So I started trying to find out more about him and all those extraordinary events in Bankstown when I was growing.
New Technology Woes
When I returned to the Financial Review after that last trip into hospital I mostly at first worked during the day on supplements. But before long I was again often doing day edition pages.
By then it was obvious that great changes were coming. For years there had been talk about computerised newspaper technology being developed overseas that was eliminating most of the jobs of the production workers. Reporters typed their stories into a computer. Sub-editors then called up the story on a screen and in effect did most of the work that had been done by Linotype operators, compositors and proof-readers, the three most numerous groups on the production staff of any newspaper. Printing as it had existed since the days of Caxton was coming to an end.
The printing unions had believed this new technology would not be introduced in Australia for many years. Fairfax executives were talking about introducing it in the near future.
Newspapers in Australia were highly unionised. Until then the undisputed power brokers of the industry had been the production unions, in particular the Printing and Kindred Industries Union (PKIU), which covered most staff. The members of those unions were mostly very professional. They had not enjoyed the notorious rackets of their British counterparts but had good pay and conditions. Under the new technology the production unions would lose many of their members and much of their power.
Two unions stood to gain: that covering clerks, to a small extent; and the Australian Journalists Association, to – many believed at the time – a great extent.
Increasingly the production unions were showing their anger. Almost every week there was industrial trouble at Fairfax. Sometimes, as part of a clever campaign, some blue-collar workers, drivers or electricians perhaps, would strike, but not members of the all-important PKIU. Ostensibly the campaign was over pay and conditions, but everyone knew the real reason. When PKIU members walked out it was usually only for a few hours, and rarely more than a day or two. The campaign, however, was disrupting production and increasing the tension.
During some strikes the production unions asked the journalists for their support. The usual majority vote of the journalists, when they did vote, was to continue normal duties. Most journalists rarely went near a production worker. I had to spend a fair bit of time with PKIU compositors.
There were all sorts of demarcation rules. A strict rule was that a journalist had to give permission for a page to go off towards the presses. Rules involving members of the same union were less strict. To give the most common example there, as in Wagga, compositors were not supposed to send pages until all corrections ordered by their co-unionists in the proof-reading department had been done. With a chisel they could, however, camouflage a mistake they or a sub-editor had spotted in a caption or perhaps at the start of a story.
Early Financial Review edition pages were supposed to start going in mid-afternoon. Often I had to ask a compositor to bend that rule a little so a page, which could be fixed in the second edition, could be sent in reasonable time. Usually they still obliged, but with increasing reluctance. I was under instructions from my union to work normally during production union strikes. Usually I managed to avoid going downstairs during short PKIU walk-outs. One morning, however, I had to walk with other journalists through a picket line when I arrived, which I did not like.
Late one morning not much later, when everyone downstairs walked out just after I had gone down there, I was told by an AJA representative to keep working there as if nothing had happened. One of the first management people down on the floor was the company’s editorial manager, Graham Wilkinson, fresh from a board meeting in a tie and pinstriped suit. A lot of stories sent down overnight had already arrived for early Financial Review pages I had laid out, so he decided they should bring those out first.
I found the needed stories on a metal bench, then directed Wilkinson across the floor a few times, lugging heavy trays of lead type, to the pages where they had to go and my layouts were waiting. He saw my unhappiness with the situation and had what was needed. So he gestured with his thumb towards an exit and told me to “get lost”. I was not going to argue with one of the most senior people at Fairfax and gladly obeyed.
The management announced a timetable for introducing the new technology and spelled out the consequences in detail. Many hundreds of jobs were to go immediately on introduction and more later. The frequency of the strikes increased. The management stacked many non-union posts with people who would be useful as strike-breakers. A few of them had resigned from their unions. Some of those people, and some in the management, went off to the US to get experience at newspapers using computers. The tension in the building became palpable.
On October 21, 1976, about 1,400 production workers in eight unions at Fairfax walked out on indefinite strike. Clerks and journalists voted to continue normal duties. That day I went to a travel agent and a few days later I left on a Lan-Chile aircraft for South America.
A week after the strike began it turned nasty. In angry clashes outside the building nails were scattered under vehicles, newspapers were dragged out of vehicles and set alight, and staff, including journalists, were attacked. Seven people were arrested and later appeared in court. By then I was in Santiago, the capital of Chile.
It was three years since the coup that had toppled the Allende Government and the worst of the army and police excesses that had followed the coup were over. But Chile was still very much a police state. Before I was out of the airport I sensed the tension and fear in Santiago. I booked into a cheap downtown hotel and was certain my belongings were gone through while I was out. There was always a man lounging suspiciously outside. I did not stay long in Chile.
Travelling partly by air but mainly by land, I went on a circular tour that took me through Peru, down Lake Titicaca to Bolivia, across the Andes to Sao Paulo in Brazil, then down through Uruguay and Argentina. I have some fascinating memories, for example of travelling through a mountain jungle in Peru to one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions, Machu Pichu, the last stronghold of the Incas, on a high peak with stunning views. I also have some disturbing ones.
On my first day in Rio de Janeiro I got off a bus in the downtown centre at mid-day during the week, with office workers all around me. Seeing what appeared to be a budget hotel a few metres down a side street, I turned towards it. A metre into the street a few urchins knocked me to the ground and tried to get at my money. I managed to hang on to my money and everything else, but only just, and fight my way back into the busy main street, where no one had moved to help me.
The day before I arrived in Buenos Aires, then under military control after a coup earlier that year had ousted the Peronists, a left-winger had ridden up to a policeman at a traffic intersection and shot him dead. This had given the police and army a pretext to crack down on dissent. That day marked the start of a reign of a terror that was to result in the disappearance of many thousands of Argentinians.
The next day I had a slight taste of what was to come there. I was strolling along the Calle Florida, the first of the world’s big traffic-free shopping streets, at the city’s heart, wondering why there was almost no one in sight. Along it slowly came a police car with sub-machine guns poking from its windows. Alongside me it stopped.
Guns were pointing towards my chest. For several long seconds the occupants studied me, presumably running their minds through a rogues’ gallery of troublemakers. I hastily took out my passport, said “Australian, Australian”, and extended it. They looked through the passport, decided I was not a person they wanted, and continued slowly ahead.
I always bought English-language newspapers when I could. While I was down in the north of Patagonia I learned from a small item in the business section of one from Buenos Aires that the great strike at Fairfax, after lasting 60 days, was over. So I crossed the Andes, went up the coast of Chile to Santiago, flew back to Sydney, and the day after I landed returned to work as a casual at the Financial Review.
Whenever I could I continued to get away on overseas trips. During my years in Hong Kong I had sometimes gone to the hilltop lookout at Lok Ma Chau near the border and gazed across the Lowu River into the empty ricefields of that mysterious and fascinating land, then so inaccessible. When Chairman Mao began the upheavals of his Cultural Revolution in 1966 it became even more difficult to enter. Sanity returned after Mao died in September 1976. In 1978 China began admitting ordinary tourists.
In June that year, with a group of them from Australia, I left a Hong Kong border post, with its tall flagpole and large British flag, and began to walk across the Lowu River on a railway bridge. The river is not wide or, except after heavy rain, deep. As I looked down through the wooden sleepers I could see a crouching Gurkha soldier with a gun watching for anyone trying to cross the river under the bridge. A hundred or so metres along the banks to either side other armed Gurkhas were watching.
On the other side was a taller flagpole and larger Chinese flag. Whenever the British had increased the height of their flagpole the Chinese had gone higher. As we neared the border post some in the group began waving copies of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Waiting guards looked at them as if they were idiots.
Inside the border post uniformed officials checked our passports, luggage and money. There were traces of smiles on the faces of some as we pulled out our travellers’ cheques, Australian, Hong Kong or US dollars, and British pounds. That was so everything could be counted and checked against what we had written on our currency declarations. Obviously money was something more welcome in the starting-to-change China than little red books. The officials even checked and noted any coins in our pockets. Every cent, however, was scrupulously returned.
China then had little tourist infrastructure. Sometimes during the next few weeks we stayed at government rest houses for VIPs. One woman claimed after a stop in a smaller town that she had slept in Chairman Mao’s bed. People stared at us in streets as if they had never seen Europeans before, which some probably hadn’t.
Every meal except breakfast was a Chinese-style banquet, with many large dishes of meats and vegetables from which we could transfer pieces with our chopsticks to our small bowls of rice. The profusion and quality of the food was embarrassing because the normal frugality of their food, after the problems of the Cultural Revolution, still showed on many people we saw. Anything we did not eat, however, no doubt went into other mouths soon after we left.
Everyone was helpful, there were no rip-offs, and tipping was impossible. Apart from attending big dinners, there was little to do at night. In Shanghai some of us were able to play ping-pong at the Foreign Seamen’s Club. The city that most affected me was not Beijing, Shanghai or any of the tourist centres we visited but Nanjing, the scene in 1937 of the most prolonged mass atrocity in modern times. As a person who had worked in Japan and had many favourable memories of the people there, I had sometimes wondered just how so many of them could have participated for months in what happened there.
What most struck me in Nanjing was what the city fathers seemed more than anything to have done afterwards: they planted trees, millions of trees, which by then were growing strongly. Damaged buildings near the centre had been rebuilt after the war largely to the ugliest of Russian socialist designs. I never went back there and those, from photographs, have since probably all been replaced by office and apartment towers. To me, however, Nanjing will always remain a city of wonderful trees.
Back in Sydney, more computer terminals were appearing in the Fairfax building. In August 1978 the Fairfax management reached an agreement with PKIU chiefs on changes.
At noisy meetings members of the AJA thrashed out what we would or would not do and how much more money we wanted. More executives and senior staff began going overseas to learn how to use them. Journalists, mainly at first on the Financial Review, started to attend training sessions. Dummy pages were produced under the direction of people who had returned from courses overseas.
One morning in September I walked into the Financial Review office to find desks at one end pushed aside. In the middle of the space created was a small desk on which sat a visual display terminal. A few people were looking and poking at it. One pulled up a chair and cautiously typed a few words. The words appeared on the screen, so he kept typing. Throughout the day, like children with a new toy, members of the staff sat down and typed into it for a while.
Production workers continued occasionally to strike, but these were of declining length and intensity. Many accepted generous redundancy payments and left. A trickle out of the industry began turning into a flood.
Every time there was a strike the company produced more pages using the new technology. Producing newspapers of reduced size during strikes, however, when many corners could temporarily be cut, was not the same as producing normal-sized newspapers under normal conditions in a unionised industry plagued by demarcation issues.
The people producing them were specially trained executives and strike-breakers. Some of the latter were former PKIU men who had been exceptionally good at their work and now were being paid handsomely for their efforts. Nearly all of them were working long hours. Also helping, at good casual rates, were fast women typists with computer experience from a staffing agency.
There were, however, still big problems with the equipment the company had bought. It therefore kept putting back the date to bring the new technology into normal everyday use. In Australia some weeklies and country dailies had already made the move, but no metropolitan daily.
Finally, though, early in 1979, an order of priorities was worked out, and a definite date fixed to start. The first pages to switch over were to be the daytime-produced edition pages of the Financial Review. Those were now under the control of a sub-editor, Peter Burden, who doubled as the motoring correspondent. When he was sick, on holidays or away at motoring events I had replaced him. As the person who was to lead the way, he was given extra training sessions and brought to full readiness for the great day.
Just before that Monday, however, Burden had a recurrence of a long-standing intestinal problem and had to enter hospital for an operation. Someone else had to be found quickly, and someone who had experience doing the Financial Review day pages. The obvious person was the one who did supplements, similar work, during the day, whenever there was one, and who normally stood in for Peter Burden when he was not available.
On March 26, 1979, John Fairfax Ltd, without any fanfare or announcement, took Australian metropolitan daily newspaper production under non-strike conditions into the age of digital technology. After all the sound and fury, all the strikes and angry clashes, and dramatic scenes on television of burning newspapers outside the Fairfax building, few events can have been so anti-climactic.
No lines of trained journalists advanced towards the positions held by the production unions on the floor below. From out of the trenches of the editorial department on the fourth floor, after finally managing somehow to send a few stories off in a computer, came a lone, partly-trained and reluctant casual – me.
No gunfire greeted me when I arrived at the production floor to see if the first stories had managed to go through the system, which they hadn’t. The production workers in fact, given the circumstances, could not have been more co-operative. Most of those still there were planning to get out soon after finalising their redundancy payments. Many seemed glad by then to be leaving. Some of those staying on were learning to operate new equipment and probably had good career prospects.
Only compositors were still needed in some number. Their work had been skilled, requiring a long apprenticeship. It had been reduced to cutting up pieces of paper after they came out of a computerised photo-setting machine and pasting the pieces onto thin cardboard as part of an interim process. Some were a problem, but even most of them were co-operative.
The first days were a hopeless shambles. The terminals Fairfax had obtained for a bargain price were “dumb”. This meant they had to be given every little instruction, and every one of those had to be perfect. Sometimes almost 20 keystrokes, all in the correct order, were required for simple commands that later required one. The relationship of those terminals to some already in use overseas was said to be roughly those of a blunderbuss to a guided missile.
After a day or so I found that if mine would not work a whack on its side with my palm might make it do so. Not too hard. Then it would not restart. I would also swear at it. “Work, you bastard,” I would say as I whacked it, but I doubt if that helped. From somewhere in the depths of the building, if I could not make it restart, a man in a white coat would come with another on a trolley and take it away. At the end of the week I was on my fourth terminal.
Not many stories came out of the photo-setting machine at my first attempts, although my computer said it had sent them. In fact, many never came out at all. The machine had a small metal plaque near the bottom at a side which gave, among many other details, the name of its designer in Germany, a Dr Something-or-other Hell. And our system used software by – I am not making this up – a Dutch company called Arsycom.
When the story kept refusing to come out, I found the original story as typed by a reporter or contributor and gave that to the foreman of the production floor. He took it to a Linotype operator, who set it using the old technology. After it had been proof-read, and corrected using the old technology, a sheet of glossy art paper was put over the metal and a proof pulled carefully. This was cut to fit and pasted onto a cardboard page being made up alongside stories I had managed to get through the computer and Dr Hell’s photo-setter.
Much of those first days I spent running up and down stairs between the production and editorial floors. Under an agreement between the management and the production union chiefs, who wanted to prevent any further advances by journalists into their sphere of influence, journalists were not allowed to touch terminals on the production floor, which had many for setting advertisements. A few were tucked away in small rooms for use by executives or the man from Arsycom.
Sometimes, when I could not face another flight of stairs, I sneaked in and used one of those. Most of the production union men by then were pitying me. If any saw me doing this they usually just looked the other way.
During the first week no one gave me any official instructions and only one executive of the company came anywhere near me. Ordinary setting was proving hard enough for me, and PKIU men setting fancy copy for display advertisements had been trained well. So whenever I had tables or complicated setting I took that along to them and asked if they could set it for me. They accepted gladly, eager for any work that would help keep themselves and other members of their union in employment.
It was the company’s strong desire that all such work be done only by journalists, but no one told me. By establishing a precedent that such work could be done by PKIU men I did, I was told later, create a problem for the company that took some of its executives a lot of time to sort out with union officials. That caused me not the slightest unhappiness.
The one executive who did come near me, although he did not say one word to me, was the most senior of all involved: Tom Farrell, the executive manager of Fairfax. Sometimes, when I looked up from my terminal, I saw him standing alone a short distance away with a perplexed look.
Farrell had a connection with important events during my youth. He was then an often highly-praised reporter for the Daily Telegraph. His connection with those events, however, was far from praiseworthy. In 1955 he had helped lead the way in the sensational, and in some ways at first increasingly ridiculous, stories just after the explosion and fire at the Torch. He, more than anyone, made me think they should have done better than that, and decide I wanted to become a journalist.
Not too long after the events of 1955 Farrell moved to Fairfax. When they bought a half-share in the Torch publishing company he became their representative on its board. From the start he had been the main proponent of the technology changes at Fairfax. Now he was the company’s general directing the battles in a war in which I was now briefly right at the centre. His role is detailed in the company’s official history, Company of Heralds.
During the first week I was under fire. But it was all coming from the editorial department behind me. Some sub-editors, a few of whom seemed jealous that it was me and not them in the spotlight, went through my finished pages carefully just before I knocked off, commenting loudly about any mistakes, real or imagined, they discovered. They were welcome to the job.
Only one AJA member, an instructor who helped me when he could spare the time, provided any real support. To him, the day production foreman and the man from Arsycom, who seemed to be working almost around the clock trying to solve problems, must go most of the credit for the pages I did manage to get away.
After that week more sub-editors were assigned to the work. I returned mainly to the relative obscurity of the Financial Review supplements, which for some time were brought out by a combination of new technology and old. Before long, four or five people, all better-trained than me, were doing the number of edition day pages I had been expected to do alone, and still were having problems.
Sydney’s other big newspaper publisher, the Murdoch-owned News Ltd, had let Fairfax make all the running. This was in contrast to the violent situation in London a decade later, when Murdoch led the way. A week or so after Fairfax introduced its new technology News Ltd moved. Within days reports were reaching us from its brick fortress on the other side of the railway tracks of well-trained teams of sub-editors, led by their instructors, rapidly converting the national daily, The Australian, to the new technology. They later proved to be highly exaggerated.
Although Fairfax made progress slowly the situation there remained a shambles for years. Instead of using one of the proven systems in use overseas, it had tried to introduce its own, planned to set not only a large amount of editorial and display advertising matter but late each week the huge volume of classified advertising for the Saturday Herald, still one of the largest of any newspaper in the world. And that with equipment mostly already obsolete. Eventually it scrapped everything and started again with a proven system.
I got through all that without drinking one drop of alcohol. It was not always easy. But I continued to work at my research and writing whenever I had the time. It really was cathartic. I was also managed to stop taking all the pills I had been prescribed.
I was helped by the unspoken support of PKIU men with whom I worked frequently during my time at Fairfax. During those years there, when my drinking periodically began to get out of control, they went about their business with me as if nothing was wrong. Whenever I disappeared for several weeks they knew where I had gone. When I returned to work they acted as if I had never been away. I was grateful for that; it helped me get through a difficult time in my life. I also felt sorry for having been part of a process that helped end the careers of most in an industry in which they had earlier expected to spend all of their working lives.
In my last year or so at the Financial Review I worked most of the time back upstairs as an ordinary night-shift sub-editor. Two other casuals often finished at the same time as me. One was a British former Fleet Street and Sydney Morning Herald sub-editor. The other, an Australian, was a former chief sub-editor of the weekend Sydney Sun-Herald. Both had recently reached the compulsory retirement age of 65 for permanent workers, had moved as casuals to the Review, and were about a quarter of a century older than me. They had known each other for years and got along well.
Each night after they finished they liked to have a beer together in a pub up the road. As they were about to leave one night at the same time as me they asked if I wanted to join them. I hesitated and said yes. I enjoyed my beer with them. They spent most of the time talking about the old days on Sydney newspapers and I was happy to listen. I felt no need to have any more drinks after that or the next day.
For the rest of my time at Fairfax, those single beers I had with them after work were the only drinks I had each week, which I continued to enjoy. There was, though, one slight aftermath that annoyed me.
The British man, who was married and a former president of the Sydney Journalists Club, was not a person about whom I ever heard any rumours. The Australian was a portly old bachelor who, leaving aside the incomparable Richie Benaud, was possibly the closest to a perfect gentleman I ever worked with. He was said to be a closet homosexual.
Possibly he was. I took the same attitude towards him as I had towards others I worked with about whom I had heard such claims. Whatever he did in his private life, within limits involving age, consent and mental competence, was his business. That was a view I had first heard expressed sometimes in my late teens and agreed with. He never behaved in any improper way towards me and I never heard of him behaving in such a way towards anyone else.
He lived not too far from me in inner east Sydney. So after those beers I always caught the same bus home as him. When a few other sub-editors, and one or two other people there, learned about this it provided them with more ammunition for their obsessions.
Working for Murdoch
Although I appreciated the fact that the Financial Review management kept giving me work every time after I left hospital, or took off overseas for a while, those problems with some people there, and also similar ones with some people elsewhere at Fairfax, mainly on the Herald, made me think increasingly of trying to find employment elsewhere.
One day, out of the blue, the finance editor of the Daily Mirror, Barry Flanagan, called me at work. He said he was looking for a casual sub-editor, that someone had recommended me, and asked if I was interested. I said yes. For a week or so I worked as a casual during the day at the Mirror and then went from there to night shifts at the Review. When the Mirror offered me permanent work I resigned.
The person who recommended me, I learned later, was the Review’s then acting chief sub-editor, who had been hired recently from News Ltd, and who not long afterwards became fed up with Fairfax, resigned and went back to News Ltd.
Flanagan, an unassuming man, was the best all-round journalist I ever worked under. He made sensible editorial decisions and handled technology problems well as changes began. He excellently rewrote parts of reporters’ stories if he did not like them or if, as often happened during the day in finance, sudden new developments made rewrites necessary. That was important because of tight edition timetables and the Mirror’s continuing war with the Sun. He could also improve sub-editors’ heads if he did not like them. All of that very quickly when necessary, while managing to remain a reasonably civil and decent person.
Sub-editing at Mirror finance was different from at the Financial Review. There, even after the introduction of the new technology, stories were often allowed to run on at great length, to be cut later by someone else. At the Mirror, as at most newspapers, sub-editors had to cut stories to fit exact and often small spaces. They had to try, even when making big cuts and the subject was complex, to keep in essential details and make the stories as clear as possible for ordinary readers. At the same time they had to watch for possible mistakes.
That was similar to what I had been doing in Wagga, but with the added problems of rapid edition changes and often much bigger cuts. It was challenging and I liked working at Mirror finance. I also, however, had an urge to travel again and could afford to do so. After a while I resigned and went off to Asia and Europe.
When I returned I went back to Mirror finance as a casual. By then a cloud was looming over the Mirror’s future. As digitisation spread among means of communicating news and information, afternoon dailies such as it and the Sun were becoming uneconomic. Their circulations and advertising were being affected but their relatively high editorial and production costs were not yet being reduced by new technology. And their particularly high distribution costs, as new editions every few hours had to be got through heavy city traffic to newsagents, or to rail or air transport, were worsening.
The Mirror finance section was almost alongside that of The Australian, which I had first tried to join while at Wagga. That was now a much different newspaper politically. Then it had been liberal, a bit left wing and the most popular newspaper at many Australian universities. Murdoch and his managers, however, had strongly supported Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. Many of the newspaper’s journalists had strongly opposed it. That led to industrial unrest, resignations, sackings and the newspaper moving to the right.
Rumours were increasing that the Mirror’s days were numbered, and The Australian was the newspaper I had most wanted to work at. When one of its executives early in 1982 offered me permanent work as a sub-editor on its finance section I accepted. I knew no one on the paper and was unaware of the situation there at the time. That year was becoming the worst in The Australian’s history. It was losing money heavily and its journalists were campaigning strongly against their increased workloads after a difficult introduction of new technology.
The industrial unrest ended with an event that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. One evening I had to work back late and was among the last to start. As I settled in at my desk I noticed Warren Beeby, who seemed the best and most-liked of the newspaper’s senior executives, walking past Mirror desks towards me with a pained expression. As he reached my desk I saw a hint of tears in his eyes. He turned into The Australian’s section and headed towards an editorial executive office at the far side.
When he emerged from that he indicated to a senior reporter sitting nearby that he enter the office with him. The reporter was said to be probably his best personal friend on the newspaper. A minute later an angry bellow was heard across the editorial floor. “So it’s the sack, is it?” The reporter emerged with a fierce expression and another was called in.
One by one, other staff, including sub-editors, followed. Then Beeby began going further across the floor and gesturing to finance staff. When several of them had gone he walked straight towards me. “Oh god,” I thought, “this is it.” But he gestured to a sub-editor sitting near me.
The previous day most of the staff had attended an unauthorised stopwork meeting in the company carpark across the road. During it a company command had arrived that we return or face dismissal. That had sparked angry debate, with some speakers saying we should return and others fiercely opposing this. There were many interjections.
I had stood at the rear saying nothing. When some began to return I joined others following them. During that debate I had noticed a low-level executive who was standing near me writing something in a notebook. He seemed to be writing the names of anyone who spoke or interjected. After the events of the following evening it become obvious that he had been one of the biggest winners from everything. Then I realised that every person who spoke or interjected seemed to have been dismissed. Even those who spoke strongly in favour of returning to work. One of those had been the first reporter sacked.
Not long afterwards, after a few more departures, voluntary or otherwise, I found myself acting in charge of a finance sub-editors desk that had plenty of work to do and almost no staff to do it.
The situation at The Australian had been worsened with the appointment soon after I went there of the most hopeless editor I have ever seen on any newspaper. That person, incredibly, was Sir Larry Lamb, the much-lauded former editor of Murdoch’s Sun tabloid newspaper in Britain. After taking the Sun downmarket with its famous page three girls, politically to the right, and greatly increasing its circulation, he was knighted by the Thatcher government in 1980.
Larry Lamb might have known how to market British tabloids. But to anyone trying to help get The Australian out on time at night he did not seem to have a clue. When I had somehow managed to finish most of my first edition finance pages with almost no staff I would put proofs on his desk, as he had asked. He would glance through them, miss any real mistakes that probably had slipped through, mark some ridiculous little thing on each page that no one else would have worried about, and insist the pages be held back until those been changed.
He would look at and mark other proofs. Then, with a few sycophants at his heels, he would head off to a pub where he had probably spent much of the afternoon.
The Australian had a large open-plan editorial office with small executive offices at the side. Staff arrived one morning to find all the most central desks pushed sideways and workmen sawing and hammering away at timber. It soon became known that this was to be a central private office from which Larry, sealed off from the journalists around him, could peer out of windows at them.
The office, dubbed the Fuhrerbunker by some staff, was not enough however for Larry, who was now editor-in-chief. According to a story that went around the office, he did not like the idea of having to go thirty or more metres to relieve himself in a lavatory used by colonials. So he told the company’s senior management he also wanted a private toilet in his office. That would have involved a lot of expensive plumbing work.
Murdoch by then was overseas most of the time, expanding his newspaper and other ventures. Since 1980 his Australian interests had been controlled by Ken Cowley, a former Bankstown boy who had become a printer. Cowley had approved Larry’s private office with misgivings. When Larry demanded his private toilet Cowley sent a message to Murdoch requesting his approval. Rupert, it was said, sent back a message that read: “Tell Larry he’s in Australia now and can piss out the window like everyone else.” In January 1983 Sir Larry went back to London.
With the help, I was told, of an executive head-hunting organisation, a rising young sub-editor at the Financial Review after I left was recruited to become the chief sub-editor of the finance section. It was the only time in my life I have heard of any newspaper finding a sub-editor that expensive way to replace another sub-editor. When I was told about that I felt rather flattered.
My replacement, Chris Mitchell, had political beliefs Rupert liked and exceptional production skills. He went on to head Murdoch’s Brisbane morning daily, and eventually to become The Australian’s long-serving editor-in-chief. By then he was said to be one of Murdoch’s favourite editorial executives in his global empire. Probably more than any one journalist, he helped keep Rupert pouring money into a newspaper that, with many more staff, became much better but never operated profitably. So the senior management seemed to know what they were doing when they hired him.
I was moved to a section doing arts, features and other early pages. There I almost immediately again found myself acting in charge of a sub-editors desk with a lot of work and almost no sub-editors to do it.
I have always loved train travel. Not long after they found a capable replacement for me on that section I went on the greatest rail journey of all, the Trans-Siberian. I flew to Tokyo, went by train to Niigata in north-eastern Honshu and from there on a weekly ferry to Nakhodka, the closest Russian port to Japan. Of necessity I had to travel in a tour group. Mine contained Australians, Japanese and Europeans on their way home from Japan.
The only other travellers on the ferry were members of Moscow’s number two ballet company, who had been touring Japan. The famous Bolshoi Ballet was filled mostly with dancers past their prime and performed for wealthy tourists or senior party bosses, they told us. They were the company that ordinary Muscovites who loved ballet went to watch. At Nakhodka they went to waiting luxury coaches.
We had to go through prolonged customs searches. Some people lost foreign newspapers and magazines, or books, including disapproved travel guides. Then we went to a train with just two carriages, one for Russians and one for foreigners.
Our first stop, Vladivostok, the home of Russia’s Far East fleet, was off-limits for foreigners. As we entered the city a few hours later armed men in uniforms entered our carriage and closed every curtain. When they were gone most of us peeked out. But there was little to see except warehouses. Then came jolts and noises as we were joined to other carriages. When we left, the train seemed about half a kilometre long, and we were next to a dining carriage.
After a few days at Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, and cruising on Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, we joined a following train.
Serving most of our meals all the way from there to Moscow was a waiter who might have made a better James Bond than some who played that role. In his thirties, he was intelligent, charming and looked like he could probably take care of himself very well in a fight. He spoke excellent English and appeared to have some knowledge of other languages spoken in our carriage, particularly German. Later, I read, it was a common practice to give promising security officers such work to help them keep their language and other skills up to scratch.
We also now had an unnecessary tour guide. Like our head waiter, she was obviously intelligent and well-educated. Almost anywhere outside the Eastern Bloc both of them would have been doing something of more social or economic importance than accompanying us on a train as part of an enormous state security and defence apparatus employing much of the nation’s best talent. It helped explain why the Soviet Union was falling increasingly behind most of the developed world, something easily visible in the occasional primitive farms and wooden peasant houses we passed.
The taiga forests of pine and larch trees that appeared to stretch endlessly in Siberia gave way to less dense steppe vegetation as we entered European Russia. Signs of habitation became more frequent between stretches of forest and we often began to see old factories. Thirteen days after leaving Nakhodka we began to roll at dusk past the grey apartment blocks, spires and onion-domed churches of Moscow.
There we stayed at an Intourist hotel with many people from Africa or poor south Asian countries who had come to learn about the advantages of communism. The food was good. But old women serving it provided a jarring note by constantly trying to prevent their Third World comrades getting second helpings. Many of those looked malnourished. But sometimes the serving women beat them back with ladles.
Our few days there were filled with conducted tours. My main impression, as it had been in Siberia, was of the weary cynicism of most people we dealt with.
Although the Cold War was easing, senior American military officials had recently been warning of hordes of highly trained Russian soldiers poised to storm at any moment through the Iron Curtain and sweep with thousands of tanks across Western Europe. Most of the soldiers we saw in Moscow were ungainly young peasant conscripts who looked more out of place there than we did. They usually seemed to be licking ice-creams and appeared as unfrightening as any soldiers could be. One of my best memories of the city are of a young Australian woman in our tour party blowing kisses at them from her bus window whenever she saw any. Some of them blushed.
Our group package ended in Moscow and we went our separate ways. I continued alone by train through Poland and East Germany to East Berlin, where all my pre-paid travel and accommodation ended after a few days.
On my last evening I collected my bags at my hotel and caught an overhead commuter train to the station at Friedrichstrasse, a street in the centre of old Berlin named after Frederick the Great. A great moderniser, Frederick was the father of Prussian militarism and fought many wars. He was also a great patron of the arts and fan of the Enlightenment spreading through Europe. For a while he hosted at his palace one of the brightest lights of that Enlightenment, the French philosopher Voltaire, my teenage intellectual beacon. More than anyone, Frederick probably personified the paradoxes of Germany, where I had some of my ethnic roots.
At Friedrichstrasse Station the many local commuters on the train turned towards the eastern entrance. I alone turned towards the western end of the platform. There a few uniformed men at a table glanced through my passport, into my luggage, and waved me towards a staircase blocked by a lone soldier with an AK-47. The soldier stood aside and I descended the stairs to a bridge over the River Spree.
On the other side I entered the most unworldly urban landscape I have ever seen. Around me was barbed wire. Ahead was an open space where lights shone brilliantly on high poles. To the side of the space were buildings where every window seemed to be bricked-in. Ahead to the other side was a lookout tower. I could not see one person, even in the lookout tower, or any other living thing. Nor was there any vehicle. Vaguely, I was reminded of a late-night movie in which aliens had destroyed almost all life on Earth.
A road led through the space towards what looked like a small shed, straddling the centre, where light shone through an open door. When I reached that, the closest of a few uniformed men at a table glanced briefly inside into my passport. A man alongside him in a different uniform glanced at my passport, then at a list in front of him, and gestured towards the opposite door. I was travelling lightly and no one wanted to look into my luggage. Grateful for my Australian passport, I stepped out of Checkpoint Charlie.
Ahead of me was the traffic and street lights of West Berlin, where I stayed for a while before travelling on by train to London for another stay and flying back to Australia.
During the next four or five years I alternated between the two sections where I had previously worked, usually as deputy chief sub-editor. The Australian’s industrial unrest had largely ended. The biggest problem now was the quality of its employees. Many of the last good ones had been sacked during the Night of the Long Knives. City journalists tended to be politically middle-of-the-road or a bit to the left. Murdoch had taken the paper further to the right and wanted managers and journalists who shared his views. The Australian now had a bad name in the industry and competent ones were not easy to find.
Good sub-editors were particularly hard to find. In the past, good reporters as they aged had often, if they had any aptitude for the work, joined a sub-editing desk, where their former experience was a valuable asset. Now they were usually joining a rapidly-swelling army of public relations people in large companies, government departments and the offices of politicians.
A sectional chief sub-editor usually spent almost all his – and later her – time checking the copy of the other sub-editors on the desk. As a deputy chief, I usually subbed most of the evening and switched to checking as edition time neared. On the chief’s night off I checked full-time. Check-subbing was important. Editors took responsibility in theory for the newspaper’s contents. But whatever we passed was usually what appeared in print the next morning.
The finance section had to be particularly careful about what it printed. Big companies and wealthy businessmen could afford expensive lawyers. Even if a newspaper got facts correct it could possibly face costly libel cases in court and even more costly payouts if it lost a case.
Many of the sub-editors The Australian hired during those years seemed rarely or ever to have worked on a newspaper. Often they made any copy they touched worse. If a competent sub-editor had handled a story by a competent writer a check-sub’s work was a breeze. We would just glance through quickly, possibly change the head, and set it. If an incompetent sub-editor had handled a competent writer’s copy there were sometimes problems.
If an incompetent sub-editor had handled an incompetent writer’s copy, something not too uncommon in those days, a check-sub could face a nightmare. By that time the section editor probably had gone home or, more likely, to a pub. All you could do sometimes, if edition time was nearing and copy was piling up in a directory, was set the story and hope no-one the next morning read it too closely.
Editors had earlier been coming and going so frequently that for a while it had been a joke to ask copy persons (girls were replacing boys) when they arrived at a desk on an errand: “Do you want to be the next editor of The Australian?”
“No”, they would reply, “I don’t want to be the next editor of The Australian.”
Editor of The Australian was one of the most prestigious jobs in the nation’s newspaper industry. They began lasting longer but were not too inspiring. Section editors, who varied greatly in ability, came and went frequently.
At least once a year Rupert Murdoch visited his Sydney headquarters briefly. You always sensed when he was about to arrive. Senior people would start dressing more smartly. Long hair would be cut. Section editors’ desk tops would become tidy. On one occasion pot plants appeared around the editorial floor. As soon as Rupert left, so did the pot plants.
During that period he seemed to realise that if The Australian was to be the quality newspaper he wanted he had to be less fussy about the political views of people who worked there, and to direct managers to hire accordingly.
Searching for Truth
I kept writing and researching the background events of my childhood during those years. The details of the main political allegations were not a problem: there was page after page in the federal Hansard in 1944 and again in 1955. There was also a small press coverage of some events in 1943 and 1944, a considerable coverage of those in 1954 and a huge coverage of those in 1955.
While still at the Financial Review I wrote a first version, from which eventually came this and other books. I even submitted it unsuccessfully to a publisher. That was a mistake. It was completed hurriedly during a bad time for me there, when I was taking tranquilisers and antidepressants. When I found some of it years later at the bottom of a suitcase I had left with relatives I thought it was awful. It needed much more work on the writing and much more information.
The inside story on the Bankstown Affair proved a problem. As a child I had heard much at the breakfast and dinner table from a man who had close links with people at the centre of everything and understandably knew more than any journalist at the time. While covering Parramatta Court I had learned a bit about some people I did not hear mentioned at home. I needed more than that and began going out to Bankstown to ask questions.
Most of the few dozen people to whom I eventually spoke had known my father at the time or had been involved in those Bankstown events. I had thought that by then the Bankstown Affair would be ancient history, but I found that in more than a few minds it was still very much alive. A few people warned I would open old wounds and not get co-operation.
That proved the case with some of those near the centre of the affair then still alive. Some preferred greatly that I not tell anyone about our conversation. One or two were friendly the first time I rang but could not hang up fast enough when I rang back. A few hung up as soon as I mentioned the name Fitzpatrick. Most people, however, provided some information, although it was mainly details I already knew.
I also had much material from the State Library in Sydney and its adjoining Mitchell Library, which keeps historic material, the National Library in Canberra and journals of the Bankstown Historical Society.
There were surprising gaps in the information on some events, particularly the burning of the Torch. Some I was not able to fill until years later. At times it appeared someone had gone around libraries deliberately removing anything on public record about some matters. But an interesting story soon began to emerge. It was a story that many people did not come out of too well. But few of them came out of it all that badly either. Probably not one came out of it as badly as they had been depicted by some of their enemies during their lifetimes.
In the case of George I found myself in a position of devil’s advocate, trying to uncover evidence of dishonesty when people kept assuring me that, at least in his case, there was none. He would not even, some of them said, help them fiddle their tax returns. There seemed little doubt, however, that he helped Ray Fitzpatrick during the war fiddle his. Details in the investigator’s report to the NSW government that led to it sacking Bankstown Council in 1954 strongly implicated Ray and his brother Jack in alleged wrong-doing. There seemed little doubt that similar undercover accountancy work by George for Jack in the early 1950s also helped him avoid legal problems.
The main reason he helped Ray Fitzpatrick became increasingly obvious. Fitzpatrick made a great amount of money during the war and continued doing so after it. But undoubtedly a large amount of what he made he gave to people who needed money badly. Many of those had health and other problems that began with service during World War I. Others had problems that started during the second great conflict. Among people with problems from that war was Jack Fitzpatrick, who served with a radar unit in New Guinea and Borneo. He returned with recurring malaria and serious back problems.
George was doing what he could to help people with problems stemming from those wars and never seems to have profited in any way from anything illegal he did to help those brothers.
Details about George’s early life took time to get. When I learned about two visits to Australia by my American uncle Walter I obtained his address and wrote him a letter. Walter, the second eldest of six children, of whom George was the eldest, was the only one to know him well. From 1921, when all the family except George emigrated to the US, until the start of the Depression, he was the only one to correspond with him. The result was a fine account of the family’s early years in Australia. That answered a few questions but led to more.
Walter’s sister Elsie in California and my half-brother Alan, with whom I had been in spasmodic contact, supplied a few answers.
Although Olive was long dead her younger sister Bessie was still alive. Bessie, who like George had been as extroverted when young as Olive had been introverted, proved helpful the first time I saw her. She was living alone in a church-controlled retirement unit and although her mind was starting to slip her memory was still good. As with some other elderly people I spoke to, the further back in time she went the clearer her memory became. Sometimes I had to get her memory back on course by mentioning George’s name, but instantly another recollection came flooding back.
To judge from what she said, George before he went away to the war had been happy-go-lucky. I picked up clearly, without her saying it directly, the way her family had considered themselves better than his, and had strongly opposed his growing romance with Olive.
Just after that visit Bessie suffered a minor stroke and was much less coherent when I saw her a second time. Now all she wanted to talk about were occasions as a small girl when she had been climbing around rocks at Sydney harbour near their home at the back of Rose Bay, or exploring dense bushland that went up towards Bondi Junction. Soon after I left her, either the same day or the next morning, she suffered a much more serious stroke. She never regained consciousness and died several months later in a hospice.
One of her sons, too young during World War II, joined the army after it, saw action in Malaya during the Emergency, went for a while to university at the army’s expense, and in Vietnam became a legal-trained warrant officer. His job was to go around with American counterparts sorting out all the problems when relations between the two armies got out of hand in places such as bars. He provided some information, particularly on relations within the family and on talk he heard during and just after the war about Ray Fitzpatrick.
The NSW Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages provided some, as did the NSW Association of Co-operative Building Societies, back copies of its journals, and a few former senior people in the movement. Blanche Barkl, the mayor of Bankstown when the state government sacked the council in 1954, was a delight on events there in the 1950s. Phil Engisch’s sister Lilian was enlightening on relations within her family.
Merle Peters, the author of several books about Bankstown and editor of the Bankstown Historical Society’s journal, was also helpful. At her suggestion I wrote brief letters seeking information about my father to the Bankstown Torch and its rival, the Express (the Observer was defunct). That brought a response from as far afield as Perth from people who had known George.
The most important response I got was from someone who gave me the address and phone number of Tom Hitchen, who had been his best friend for all his adult life. Like George a native of Lancashire, Hitchen had also been close to George’s first wife, who died on the last day in 1928, and other family members. He had been nine years older than George and I had not known he was still alive. He filled in several gaps.
I seemed to have almost everything I was ever likely to get on George or events in Bankstown. But on those behind the scenes outside of Bankstown there still appeared to be gaping holes.
I had discovered a gold mine for information on some people in the library at News Ltd. Apart from old newspapers, it had a great many files stuffed with clippings about people and stored alphabetically. I was able to go through those before many were destroyed during a process of digital modernisation. Only a small part was digitised for later use. Unlike at Fairfax, which only filed cuttings from Fairfax publications, people at the News Ltd library filed clippings from anywhere which they thought might later be useful.
One file, on Justice Stan Taylor, president of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission from 1943 to 1966, pointed to one gaping hole. But when I tried to enter that I at first faced only a brick wall.
Taylor, an industrial relations lawyer, in 1934 married a woman in Bankstown. At about that time he became a legal adviser of young Ray Fitzpatrick as he became rich from Depression road-building and other government-assisted work. Soon afterwards Taylor became a powerful background figure in the Australian Labor Party. In about 1937 he stopped doing legal work for Fitzpatrick but remained a close friend. Fitzpatrick needed a new legal adviser.
That was where George entered an extraordinary political situation. He was doing accountancy work for Fitzpatrick but was starting to work frequently with a city lawyer, Charles Morgan, in a new building society movement. George suggested Morgan to Fitzpatrick, who gave him the job. That led to Morgan becoming, with Fitzpatrick’s help, Bankstown’s representative in the federal parliament, then falling out viciously with him and starting all the parliamentary allegations about Fitzpatrick. During 1942, Australia’s darkest year, as the Japanese headed towards our shores, Taylor was the powerful head of national security in NSW.
There were, however, important facts involving Taylor I did not know. They were facts that, when Taylor in 1943 became head of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission, possibly only two Australians knew. One was another of Taylor’s close friends. Taylor himself in 1943, and possibly never, did not know the most important of those facts.
As the war progressed, however, some people in the US and then in Britain began to learn about them.
[*The Birth of Countless Ghosts *]
After more spasmodic work I decided I was unlikely to find out anything more and wrote what I thought was the best book possible in the circumstances. Just before finishing it I decided to fly for my annual holidays to Europe via the Soviet bloc, where travel had become easier, and obtained the necessary visas.
I was living then at a hotel in Bondi specialising in long-term stays. During the week I went to work, where I began usually at 2.30pm, by public transport. But it had become my habit each Sunday to drive to work via the sprawling Centennial Park in a little Toyota I owned. In the park I would have an alfresco lunch and proceed on to the office, where on Sundays I was the acting chief sub-editor of The Australian’s arts and features section.
On the Sunday before I left I bought some food at a usual shop, drove to the park, found somewhere pleasant to stop and began my lunch. It was a lovely day. Near me families were picnicking. Children were playing. Couples were strolling. Frequently joggers or cyclists would pass.
I had almost finished eating when I became slightly aware of something strange. A man jogging past me seemed to have done so a short time before. A minute or so later he came jogging back past me and glancing in a peculiar way towards me. He was a big, heavily built man in a singlet and shorts who looked much like a police officer.
As I turned away I noticed nearby, partly hidden near bushes just over the crest of a hill, a pink Cadillac. Yes, a pink Cadillac! Sitting in that, looking towards me, were a few other men, dressed in casual summer wear. They also looked like police officers. A few minutes later a young man on a bicycle rode up near me and began making what I think were sexual advances. I ignored him, quickly finished my lunch and drove away.
A day or so later I left my room to go to work. At the entrance I realised I had forgotten something, put down alongside the open doorway a briefcase I always carried, and re-entered the room. I was only inside about 15 or 20 seconds. When I returned the briefcase was gone. There was no one in sight in either direction. The only possibility I could see was that someone in an adjacent room had been spying on me, had dashed out and grabbed the briefcase the moment I re-entered the room, and re-entered their room.
A few days later I left my car and belongings with relatives, checked out of the hotel and flew by Qantas to Singapore. Then I went by Aeroflot on a recently-introduced cheap joint return ticket to Europe, with a few breaks allowed each direction, which Qantas seems to have stopped soon afterwards. I liked having interesting breaks on air trips. For value, it was the best ticket I ever flew on.
It was my first flight on Aeroflot and quite an experience. When I entered the plane at Singapore I could only see a few metres ahead because of mist from the cooling system. There was no seat allocation. Most passengers just charged in when the gates opened and grabbed a seat they liked, leaving me to find what I could. The hostesses looked like they had failed to make the national shot-put team for the previous Olympics. But there was caviar with dinner. I appeared to be the only person from outside the Soviet bloc on the plane.
After a stop at Delhi we proceeded to Tashkent, then the command centre for the losing war the Russians were fighting in Afghanistan. There we went down at a fairly sharp angle. The reason, I learned later, was fear of American-supplied surface-to-air missiles smuggled north across the mountains by local Moslems sympathetic to the Afghans. On the ground the Customs search of everyone’s luggage was exceptionally thorough. I believe they were mainly looking for drugs, said to be a serious problem among the many troops in and near the city.
After touring Tashkent and its surrounds for a few days I flew to Moscow and on with Aeroflot to Prague for another pre-paid tourist visit. That city, another I had always wanted to see, I left by train. A few hours later it slowed. Forest alongside the line gave way to ploughed fields and the first barbed wire came into view.
The only person left in my compartment was a woman opposite me, of similar size and age, who had been drinking from a bottle of spirits and trying to get me to have some, while trying in good English to engage me in conversation. Then came watchtowers, searchlights and border guards. Inside a pine forest on a hill I saw a few tanks.
We stopped in a holding pen where guards came through the now almost empty train. They checked my identification coldly and scrutinised the compartment. The woman with the bottle had disappeared. Later I realised she was probably part of their security apparatus. Other guards moved along the outside of the train checking under each carriage with mirrors on the end of poles. This was my first train crossing of Europe’s great barrier.
Finally the guards stood back and signals were sent along the line. A whistle sounded and slowly we began to move forward, past the last of the barbed wire. Then we began to gather speed across more ploughed fields, filled presumably with anti-tank mines. A few minutes later we slowed at a small station in West Germany. More uniforms but different colours. Along an otherwise almost empty platform a young woman was running, waving almost hysterically at what seemed the only other passenger, a middle-aged woman leaning from a carriage just ahead who was returning her waves.
I travelled through the night and the next morning was in Paris. After a few days there I caught a local train running to the north-east and alighted at the town of Albert in Picardy. From the station I walked along the D929, once known officially as the Bapaume Road.
With its nondescript old brick buildings of one or two storeys, Albert looked more like part of the industrial north of England than rural France. Even its small cathedral, once briefly the most famous in the world, topped by a precariously hanging gold Virgin, now looked, with the Virgin again upright and sparkling in bright sunlight, unkempt.
This was just after the 70th anniversary of the start of the event for which the town was most remembered. Shops all along the way had filled their windows with ageing photos of some of the uniformed men who in 1916 had marched along it. Most of them were British, but there were also Australians and men from many other British territories, as well as French, and men from French territories.
Many of those in 1916 were volunteers, often picked from among the fittest young men in their countries, and most looked in good spirits as they marched towards the German lines, which began a few kilometres outside Albert.
After I left the town I began to climb a long green slope. The view from the top was of almost picture-book prettiness. Behind the town, its buildings now blurred by distance and the haze of a warm summer afternoon, the River Ancre wound through green fields or copses towards its meeting with the equally peaceful Somme.
Just one lane in each direction, the D929 dipped through fields of ripening grain. It ran as straight as an old Roman road, which it once was. Two thousand years earlier it had been built partly to help imperial legions control warring barbarian tribes of northern Europe. After the next rise I came to the small village of La Boiselle. According to a few books I had read, a part I was seeking was not marked in any way.
But just before the first building in the village I saw a small sign beside the road that looked as if it had just been painted and erected. It read “1re Ligne Britannique”.
At 7.29am on July 1, 1916, this had been the centre of a British line that had stretched almost 30 kilometres. At last the British had switched their industry to full war production and had trained the men who had enlisted after the war began. All that year trainloads of men and supplies had rolled across northern France from the channel ports. Now Britain was ready to come to the aid of France, whose forces were being ground into the dirt at Verdun, to the south-east, and start restoring the balance of power in Europe.
Waiting along that line, fortified with hot soup and a tot of rum, were 60,000 men. Just behind them were 70,000 more. Behind those, stretching back to staging camps throughout the south of England, were another few million. To the south, linking with the British at the Somme, were the French.
As the final minute ticked away to the start of one of the biggest and most terrible battles ever fought on Earth, what many of the survivors in the first British line most remembered were the birds that took advantage of a sudden lull in the firing of heavy guns to descend to the fields between the two lines.
The British listened to the birds singing in the fields as dust cleared from a bombardment during the preceding days in which the British had fired more than one and half million shells. The bird life of Picardy was still as prolific. All around me they were singing among the ripening grain or flitting among trees where fruit was starting to fill out. Wildflowers were growing in profusion beside the road. Among them were red poppies.
About 50 metres ahead I came to another freshly painted small sign. This read “1re Ligne Allemand”. Here, as the sun began to shine through from a cloudless sky, the Germans, realising the significance of the lull in the bombardment, rushed to man their parapets from the shelters below and drag into position their machine-guns.
At 7.30 a British sapper a few kilometres to the north exploded a huge mine dug under the German line. This was the signal for which everyone had been waiting. All along the line whistles blew and officers motioned their men forward, some with the cheerful cajolery of a holiday camp. The first 60,000 British climbed from their trenches and began to advance in slow, orderly lines towards the Germans.
La Boiselle, where the two lines were closest, was one of the few places where they even reached the German trenches. Here there was savage fighting with bayonets and grenades. With irony, in that year of the Dublin Uprising, a brigade of Tynside Irish eventually wrested control with more than a thousand casualties. Most Germans had been little damaged in their deep bunkers by the bombardment, and the shells had not cut the barbed wire in front of them, as intended. At most places along the line, where the British often had to travel up to hundreds of metres, many of them never had a chance.
Many were hit by rifle, machine-gun or artillery fire before they had gone a few metres. Some fell back dead into trenches from which they were still climbing. Of those who did reach the German lines, many became entangled on barbs and were picked off at random by marksmen. At the end of that day more than 56,000 men lay dead or wounded, the highest casualties the British army has ever suffered in one day.
Further south, the French had waited five hours until after the British assault had begun. Then they had attacked at a run when the Germans had decided they were not coming. They had made considerable gains and were held back only by the failure of the British alongside them. Many of the British wounded lay out in the open for up to three days, tortured by their wounds and thirst.
After another mile (1.6 kilometres) I came to my main destination, the much larger village of Pozieres, straggling for about a further mile along the D929. Although surrounded in the distance by war cemeteries and memorials, it was just an everyday French village, not visited too frequently by tourists, and passed by as France had modernised.
To my right as I entered was a gentle slope, covered now again with fruit trees, vegetable gardens and outbuildings. It was up this slope, just after 1.30am on July 23, 1916, that C Company of the 4th Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force, my father’s, came charging to help establish temporary dominance over this now peaceful little corner of northern France. Most were loaded like mules with food, water, bullets, sandbags and shovels, or possibly the barrels or bases of Vickers machine-guns.
With a mixture probably of fear but also of relief that at last the waiting was over, they ran as fast as they could. Around them was a landscape blasted by weeks of artillery fire. Alongside were three other companies, from the 4th and 3rd Battalions, at the end of a three-wave assault that in 90 minutes carried the Australian 1st Division northwards about a mile, an almost astronomic gain at the Somme in 1916.
George would probably have been just behind with an officer. He would certainly have been carrying food and water. But instead of a rifle and whatever else most of the others were carrying, he would probably have had a bucket of grenades. If the troops ahead had run out of grenades during “bomb fights” with Germans holding out in trenches or ruined buildings he could have run up to them with those. In a pocket he would have had a shorthand notebook and pencil. This was before the age of battlefield wireless. If a message needed to be carried quickly to another officer, he could, if the message was long, have jotted it down with fast shorthand and raced off.
So enormous, however, had been the preceding bombardment that not a single live German remained above ground to oppose them.
One of George’s favourite pieces of music when I was small was Moussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, which captured the climax of a witches’ Sabbath and ended as the first light of a coming day appeared in the sky. Many times it helped keep me awake in the early hours as it blared at full volume out of our front living room.
On this low mountain, bare of everything except destroyed buildings near its top, men of the 3rd and 4th battalions dug frantically with entrenching tools as dawn approached. The heavy guns were now silent. Gunners on both sides had collapsed from exhaustion. And their leaders, uncertain where the front line lay, were afraid to fire for fear of hitting their own men. But everyone knew they would soon start firing again.
Before long many trenches were down more than a metre. Vickers and small Lewis machine-guns were in position, ready to fend off expected German counter-attacks.
The first light of dawn brought no end to anything demonic here. Many of the men began “ratting” the Germans out of their cellars and bunkers. First they found the openings to these. Then they rolled grenades or incendiary phosphorus bombs down the steps. If Australians had been killed by sniping from that position the Germans were shot or bayoneted as they came out, some shrieking and with their clothing in flames.
If Australians had not been killed from that position the Germans were taken prisoner. But these were still not safe. Some, after more than three weeks of frequent bombardment, were stark mad and had to be shot where they stood. Others became so petrified by shells that started exploding again overhead that they could not be moved to safer territory and also had to be shot. A few being moved to safer ground appear to have been shot by their captors as soon as they were out of sight of officers. After that the first German counter-attacks began, sending nearly everyone rushing to man firing steps or machine-guns in their trenches.
A few hundred metres to my left as I entered the village was the Pozieres cemetery. There, four days later, the 4th Battalion, one of two at the apex of a deep northwards indent into the German line, was subjected to a concentrated bombardment as serious and any ever experienced by troops in warfare.
By the end of that day a cloud of debris rose high above the village like, as official historian Charles Bean put it, “a Broken Hill dust storm”. Officers in the rear wondered how anyone could be left alive. The survivors, like the Germans before them, were losing control of their minds. Many were sobbing uncontrollably. Some were breaking down and running towards the German lines, to be shot dead.
That night the Australian generals, against the wishes of their British superiors, decided to relieve the 1st Division. By then the 4th Battalion had lost, dead or wounded, half its men and three-quarters of its officers. Some battalions behind, where massed troops had been caught accurately by curtains of shellfire, had lost even more.
At the end of the village, surrounded by a low chain fence, were a few square metres, owned by the Australian government and overgrown by grass and weeds, where once had stood a windmill. This was the highest ground near the centre of the battlefield. The high ground has always been important in warfare, and rarely more so than during the Battle of the Somme, fought overwhelmingly with artillery, where it was vital to see exactly where concentrations of men were located and how accurately shells were falling.
Here through that summer continued a savage struggle, often hand to hand, which was later commemorated with a diorama in the Australian National War Museum. Almost alongside was a memorial to all the war dead of the Australian 1st Division.
On the other side of the road was a more impressive memorial, with four model tanks at its corners, to the dead of all British tank units. This was near where, on September 15, 1916, the first tanks, 36 of them, nearly all of which promptly broke down, went into action. By then, no semblance of a building, or barely even a blade of grass, remained near this area, which to a depth of about two metres had been transformed into fine dust by artillery fire. A bag of the stuff is now in the Canberra War Museum.
In the distance were more villages, which had been similarly transformed, although none to quite the same extent as Pozieres. Among them, five kilometres to the south, was the village of Mametz. There, on December 11, after the Somme offensive had petered out in an ocean of mud, the war had come to an end for my father. A shell exploded near him and he was caught around the lower part of his body by what probably was mustard gas being used experimentally, ahead of an offensive with it in 1917.
The walk, uphill nearly all the way, had been tiring. In the centre of the village I caught a cab back to Albert. There I boarded a train in the direction of Paris, travelling at first along the line on which George had left the Somme, in his case towards a hospital in Rouen.
His legs and the lower part of his body were covered partly with rashes that were to remain for the rest of his life. And his testicles were surrounded by a scrotum probably the size at least of a football – testicles that were to help give him three sons, the first of whom was born with a hole in his heart that killed him at 17, the second of whom was mentally and physically retarded and the third of whom was me.
A lot of men on both sides survived with much worse injuries than his. Back in their homelands were already many widows and fatherless children. Psychological ghosts of that war probably lived on to haunt many of them in many ways.
They would also have haunted people in families in which no member had been involved. All I know about Philip Hess, who in 1929 almost decapitated his wife Clara in our bathroom, and then fatally injured himself alongside a window where I slept every night as a child, was what I read in a few newspaper stories at the bottom of a wardrobe in my bedroom. Obviously he was a deeply disturbed man. A fair guess was that one factor in that was his German name, a known then source of problems for people in Australia and other countries with such a name.
Another man with a German name in our street was Les Engisch, who in 1920 founded the local Torch newspaper, and who before the war had been a part-time member of the Royal NSW Lancers. Like many other places, Bankstown in the 1920s had men who had returned from that war with what would later be called post-traumatic stress disorder. I believe some of those caused so many problems for Engisch that after the NSW Government put tight restrictions on handguns in 1927 the local police gave him a permit to retain one.
In the victorious countries that war caused a deep reluctance to ever again sacrifice their men in such a conflict. In Germany it caused an intense desire in many people to revenge their country’s defeat. That led to another war, which was to cause even much greater damage and loss of life, and leave in its wake even more ghosts to haunt the lives of another countless number of people.
Two weeks after leaving the Somme I left Paris on the start of my return journey, one of my strangest. Another city I had always wanted to visit was Kiev, a city where, in many people’s eyes, Europe ended and a great semi-barbaric hinterland began.
More even than Moscow or Leningrad, 1500-year-old Kiev, with its monasteries and gold-domed churches, surrounded by wooded steppes across which Cossacks had swept, spelled to me the old Russian empire: the Russia of the tsars and of the music that had crashed through our house from my father’s 78rpm records when I was a trying to sleep as a small child, while the Russian armies were advancing towards Berlin.
I had planned to go there on my way to Paris. But a few days before I finalised my arrangements the No.4 reactor at Chernobyl had begun spewing its nuclear debris above the city. I had therefore swapped it with Prague, my first planned stopover when returning. The main danger now appeared over and my ticket allowed me to stop there, so I decided to do so. As I walked through the immigration control desk at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch Aeroflot’s weekly direct flight to Kiev the officer glanced at my ticket. “You are going to Kiev,” he said in astonishment. He shook his head in disbelief.
When the plane landed it was near sunset. Travelling into the city from the airport the almost empty airline bus was brought to a halt by a roadblock. The authorities were still leaving nothing to chance. They had driven steel pylons at an angle through the concrete surface of the six-lane highway. These were funnelling all traffic into an army checkpoint, where soldiers were checking each vehicle with Geiger counters.
I was now travelling alone, almost as I would through any normal country, with no tour guide to keep an eye on me, or restrictions on what I could do or where I could go. My hotel was right in the centre and seemed mainly for Soviet citizens. Some staff or travellers, when they learned where I was from, tried to give me letters to post once I was outside Russia. But I knew that was dangerous and politely refused.
Kiev while I was there had an unusual claim to fame. It may possibly have been the first large city in any country, and at any time in history, that appeared to be functioning almost normally but completely without children. They had all been packed off to relatives, or else to summer youth camps, as far as possible from Chernobyl.
Moscow had about five large airports spaced around it on a ring road. My flight from Kiev landed at one for domestic traffic. I was booked to leave in several hours from the international airport on a flight to Singapore; my main luggage had been booked to there from Kiev. When my transfer bus reached the airport I went to a check-in counter. A person behind a computer looked at the screen and called a guard. He took me off along passageways to a room where a middle-aged officer looked down at me from behind a high desk. From his uniform, he appeared high-ranking.
Without saying anything, the officer began going through a sheaf of papers, stopping to read parts. After 15 or so minutes he looked up. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll let you go.” Those were his only words. His voice sounded kindly and his expression seemed almost like that of a concerned father. The guard led me off to a transit section to await my flight.
After that I needed a drink. Just as I obtained one in a lounge an officer entered with many underlings. From his uniform, he appeared to be a general. Brusquely he said something to the woman behind the bar and gestured to the bottles on the shelves behind her. She began passing over every one of them with no indication that she considered this anything out of the ordinary. As the officer headed for the entrance, followed by the underlings with their arms loaded with bottles, staff were already entering from behind the bar with more bottles for the shelves. Their system obviously was starting to collapse.
I was still preoccupied, however, with the matter involving the other officer. I think he was trying to tell me they had nothing against me but that I should not travel again through the Soviet Union. I think also he might have been trying tell me I had problems with ASIO, something I had been made well aware of before I left. It was a feeling later reinforced by occasional stories about suspected Soviet penetration of ASIO at a high level during those years.
That was far from the worst experience I ever had at an airport. Like many people, I had different ethnic elements in my background. Mine were mainly British, but there was, I believe, a Jewish element mainly from Germany. It helped explain our German surname, which was not too common in Britain. My father’s father, from what my mother said, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy Jewish man and one of his housemaids. The father listed on the birth certificate was an illiterate miner who signed with an “X”, as many then did.
Probably both parents of my grandfather, and also the man listed as the father, and others before them, were part of a large Jewish or part-Jewish community who throughout the 1800s had settled in or near Manchester, for a while during that century probably the world’s greatest centre of industry and scientific research. Like probably many Jews who went there, or to places such as New York, seeking a safer future, they put their past and religion behind them and did their best to assimilate. Sometimes they married people of other or no religion, or had children with such people out of wedlock.
My father was named George Albert, after a British king and the deceased consort of Queen Victoria, who was still on the throne when he was born in 1898. George always gave his religion as Anglican. This was one of many things he would never talk about.
Olive only ever alluded to these matters. But she encouraged me to visit the Rickard Road home of a boy of my age named Philip Diamond, in a practising Jewish family. Their backyard backed onto the side of our backyard. He was a “nice” boy, she always told me, not like the boys up our street with whom I usually played. His mother always offered me something to drink and eat when I went there and made me feel welcome. I got on well with her son. But I was still small when the family left Bankstown.
During the 1950s I admired Israel for the way it seemed, at least among the Jewish majority, to be successfully building a society that combined the best of capitalism and socialism, possibly the only state ever to manage that. In my teens I even thought for a while of going to work on a kibbutz. Its stunning victory in the six-day war in 1967 against overwhelming military numbers, another in 1973, and then the dramatic rescue by commandos of hostages on a hijacked plane at Entebbe airport in 1976 increased my admiration for its government.
Most of my annual holidays I spent travelling in Europe. In 1990 I decided to fly by Alitalia, which had a bargain special ticket that allowed a return flight from Rome to several countries in the Middle East. One was to Israel, to which by then few European airlines flew. I planned to leave near the start of September, as I usually did. That way I was usually in the northern hemisphere during the best of autumn and returned home during the best of spring. At the start of August, however, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army occupied oil-rich Kuwait and ignored international demands to leave, causing tension throughout the region. That affected air traffic and caused me to delay the start of my holidays.
When that situation stabilised I took off for Europe. Soon after the start of November I left Rome for Tel Aviv. It was not a good time to visit Israel. The country was then half-way through the six-year First Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against the Jewish occupation of the Palestinian territories, in which many Jews and Palestinian Arabs were killed. That I knew.
What I did not know when I landed there was that earlier a man named Meir Kahane, the head of an extreme Jewish sect with members in Israel, had been assassinated in New York, allegedly by an Egyptian-born American citizen, and that members of the sect had vowed revenge. Israel’s security forces were on high alert.
The government travel people at Tel Aviv airport booked me into a budget hotel not far from the Hilton. The next morning, following a map, I set off towards the downtown centre. When I came to the city’s main bus terminal for country districts I saw that a bus was soon to leave for Haifa, the main city in the north. After learning at a tourist counter in the bus station that it would take me through most of the country’s scenic main coastal strip, would not take too long to get there, and was surprisingly cheap, I bought a ticket on that.
More than half the passengers on the bus were in army uniforms. Most were young men and women doing their compulsory army training and probably going home for the weekend. Many had their rifles with them, but without bolts, which was standard practice. Just in front of me was a middle-aged woman who appeared from her British-type insignia to be probably a major, and the only person of fairly high rank on the bus.
The city gave way to orange groves, vegetable gardens and often the Australian eucalypts I saw so often in dryer parts of the world. Along the way there was some trouble between Arabs and Jews on the bus. But a man in plain clothes alongside the driver, who was obviously a security officer, was able to control everything. Various people got on or off at stops. He was among those who left.
In mid-morning, just before we reached Haifa, the bus stopped outside an army base to let off the woman who seemed to be a major. The moment the door closed and the bus began to pull from the kerb all hell broke loose. A woman came running from the rear screaming hysterically. Behind her came a few men who were shouting.
It took me a few seconds to take in the situation. Just ahead of where the officer had been sitting were some elderly Arab men. It was they the woman was screaming at. But a woman in uniform sitting near me, probably no more than 21, had jumped to her feet to stop her.
On the older woman’s face was the most intense hatred I have ever seen. She kept screaming and screaming while trying to push past the uniformed woman. But the young woman was handling the situation perfectly, speaking to her calmly and applying just as much pressure as was needed with her hands and body to keep her at bay. Other young women in uniform had raced from further back to help her. They had positioned themselves firmly to keep back the shouting men who had followed the hysterical woman and obviously were trying also to get to the Arabs.
Uniformed men near me gazed out windows as if nothing was happening. Not one of them tried to help. But the women were doing a superb job. The Arab men meanwhile kept staring fixedly ahead, saying nothing.
With that standoff we continued on into Haifa and stopped at its bus terminal, which was almost empty. I walked to the entrance. Offices appeared closed and shops were shuttered. There were no waiting city buses outside and the only people in sight appeared to be a few security or bus company staff. As I stepped back into the terminal I heard nearby what sounded like shots. Not many seconds later a few uniformed men ran past me with guns.
It was my first-ever morning in the country and I had left my hotel intending just to walk around the centre of Tel Aviv. I had not brought my passport, or even much money, and had no idea what was going on. A few buses at stands were empty and closed. But one was almost full and ready to leave for Tel Aviv. I had a return ticket so I boarded that.
Back at the Tel Aviv terminal everything appeared normal. After something there to eat I went for a walk. A few minutes later I got an impression I was being followed. I turned a corner and looked back to see a man in a car looking around him to see where I had gone.
That was a day when many of the country’s security forces were deployed not just to try to stop Arabs killing Jews, their usual job, but to stop Jews killing Arabs. I read later, after leaving Israel, that members of that extreme Jewish sect did kill some Arabs that day. It was a day, I thought, when the Israeli government had better uses for its security forces than having people try to follow me around.
I kept walking around Tel Aviv’s centre and went by a city bus to the old port of Jaffa, just to the south, which I liked. My impression there was that the Arabs and Jews were going out of their way to be pleasant to each other.
Two days later I went on a standard bus tour to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and saw the main tourist attractions. Almost everywhere we stopped there were soldiers with guns and full battle kit. At one place we had to stand back a little because of young Arabs throwing rocks at us. At the Church of the Nativity, where Jesus was said to have been born, we had to cover our faces with handkerchiefs when entering and leaving because of tear gas being fired to keep away stone-throwers.
After unpleasantness I began encountering at my hotel I brought forward my date of departure. I allowed myself plenty of time to get to the airport by bus and arrived early. At the check-in counter a woman looked at something on her screen and picked up a phone. A uniformed thirty-something woman appeared and led me off to an office. There she wanted to know everywhere I had been in Israel and to whom I had spoken. I told her everywhere I had gone, that I did not know anyone in Israel and I had not spoken to anyone except normal restaurant or tourist people.
The woman took me to a small cell and left me alone there for a while with my open luggage, which obviously had been gone through. I suspected the idea was that I might have looked nervously for something hidden in my luggage. But there was nothing for me there to be nervous about and I ignored the bag.
Then a twenty-something man entered. From his accent I think he had grown up in Australia or New Zealand, probably the latter. He asked the same questions as the woman, at first in a friendly way. When he did not get answers he wanted his voice hardened. After he kept failing he put on a rubber glove and subjected me to the only search up my back passage in my life. What, if anything, he thought he might find I do not know.
The woman reappeared and again she questioned me, asking repeatedly whom I had seen. By now she seemed very cross. Finally she gave up and led me off through the airport to a departure lounge, where the last passengers were going through their final checks for my Alitalia flight back to Rome. Before I went through the barrier she asked if I had any complaint about her. I surprised myself by giving the perfect answer in that situation. I said I would not like to take off in any plane from Tel Aviv airport when all possible security checks had not been made. That only seemed to increase her annoyance.
I think Jews have made exceptional contributions to life in many countries and possibly have done more than any people to help increase our understanding of this world we live in. Those young women on that bus left a deep and favourable impression on me. But I also left that airport with a strengthened belief that it would have been better for many people, Jewish, part-Jewish and non-Jewish, if the state of Israel had not come into existence.
Exorcising My Ghosts
Probably not too many people have grown up in a house alleged to have the type of ghost some people still seemed to believe in during the first half of the 20th century. But as well as those produced by two world wars and other wars that century, there were all sorts of other ghosts dating back to childhoods. Probably they have always affected a significant percentage of all people.
I saw many probable cases during my stays in hospital, and worked or drank sometimes with more than a few. Others I read about every day in newspapers or see on television. My ghosts probably were not too bad compared with many of theirs.
That of the tragic Clara Hess I came to grips with fairly well, at the age of six or seven, when she kept refusing to appear before me as I stood under a shower in a bathroom lit faintly by a glow from gas flames inside a hot water heater. The two children of her and her husband Philip were then in the care of their maternal grandmother and probably too small to remember their parents. Hopefully, they grew up without ever knowing the truth about how their lives had ended, and without any resulting problems.
The other ghosts of my childhood took more time. Those involving Colin I largely got rid of after he died. Norma’s lingered for years. On the recommendation of a doctor, I visited a medical specialist hypnotherapist for a while in my late 30s. I thought I would be a poor subject for hypnotherapy, and never went into a stage-show-type trance. But I did relax greatly.
At first, deliberately, I went back to times, awake as a child early in the morning on dark nights, which I have described in the first pages. Then I consciously recalled some of Colin’s attacks on me. As I relaxed further I began to go nearly always to moments with Norma. Sometimes we were crawling under a house together, braving all the dangers there. Other times she was in bed just before she died. Most often I went to one when she was following me up a tree towards a branch, which broke when I was fully on it, and plunged me to the ground, causing considerable harm. She and her death were important to me.
Not too long after that I began sometimes meeting women through introduction agencies. Nearly all my sexual relations had been with women I met in bars overseas, which was not the best of training for such situations. I still lacked some of the necessary confidence and social skills. And alcohol, which has helped a great many more men than me in such situations, I did not like to use.
I thought then, and still do, that the most beautiful sight in the world is happy, healthy children with happy, caring parents. But, leaving aside a childhood background of a man suiciding after murdering his wife, my parentage did not program me too well for progress towards having such a family.
I was the product of two second marriages. Two of my father’s four children were born with serious problems that ruled out a normal life. I was also in the strange situation of working as a journalist on a national daily newspaper and being the only one of three children of a mother able to read and write properly. Colin could a little, and Alan learned to do so passably well not long before he died. Those were not good genetic pointers for anyone thinking of having children.
Such matters would have been even more important for any woman thinking of having children with me. Add to that my height (163cm), which many did not like, and the fact that the women I met often had problems of their own, which had caused them to resort to an introduction agency, and the prospects were not good. With only one woman I met did I get as far as sleeping with her. But she had a problematic former husband from whom she had not completely broken free and that soon ended.
The death of Norma was not too important in difficulties I had in that respect. But, added to matters such as the time I saw Lisa standing crying in a hospital cot, with burns terribly visible over most of her naked body, it added to a feeling that I was not a person for someone to get too close to emotionally. I deliberately avoided seeing her for about 15 years after that. She had some of the problems young women often have. But I was later heartened by the way she managed to cope with the problems of raising six children.
The numerous and complex ghosts involving my father I kept working on spasmodically. My book still needed more work and more information. For a while I gave up, resigned from The Australian, and went to live in London. A British passport I obtained through George’s birth there facilitated that. In London I was able to earn fairly good money doing casual shifts for a big publisher of weekly trade papers. I got on well with most people I worked with. But a miserable English winter helped send me back through various lands to Sydney, where The Australian re-employed me on its permanent staff.
There, as in many other offices around the world, women were rising slowly to power. I was not against that. A few I worked with, such as Helen Trinca, who edited feature stories, I thought would have made a much better editor than some of the men during that period.
Ruth Dunn, who later became the long-time chief sub-editor of an expanded desk handling most of the features, arts and other early-pages copy, I thought one of the most valuable people the newspaper ever hired. Every afternoon, without any fuss, she just kept shovelling pages off competently through the production process in the best state possible. I was always happy to see her pick up anything I subbed. I knew any changes she made would be excellent.
The women, however, were proving as mixed in their value as the men. Not long after I returned from London I was sent back to check-subbing on the finance section. Soon afterwards, a woman hired from the Financial Review became finance chief sub. Unusually, she was apparently given more power than the finance editor.
Her first edict was that every woman named in a story had to be titled Ms. I thought Ms made a lot of sense for women. But many of them, particularly older ones, still wanted to be called Mrs. A few insisted on Miss. That, I also thought, was definitely their right. Reporters at the time had a strict rule: always ask a woman what she wanted to be called and go on that. The rule was still being followed on other sections of the paper.
In the first stories I checked after that edict I kept whatever the reporter wrote, even if a sub-editor had changed it. When our new chief sub saw what I had done she called up the stories and changed everything to Ms. I kept putting in what the reporter wrote. The next day I was moved to another section and never check-subbed again. Later, however, that chief sub was moved to less important work and never again, to my knowledge, had such power.
I decided to give my book another go. Assiduously I obtained more information, rewrote parts, and sent copies of pages to some people that concerned them. I asked for their comments and if they could give me any more information.
One person who replied, late in 1991, was Gough Whitlam. In 1955 he had surprised many people in the Australian parliament by being one of the few Labor members to vote in favour of jailing Ray Fitzpatrick. His letter contained carefully worded political waffle that told me a bit but avoided issues I mentioned. I much appreciated, however, that he did reply.
About 15 years later it became obvious to me that Whitlam’s father, as Australia’s most senior legal public servant during World War II, had known more than almost any government official about matters involving Fitzpatrick. Confidential material released to the National Archives indicated Whitlam Snr was kept fully informed during 1944 about the progress of high-level investigations aimed unsuccessfully at criminal charges against Fitzpatrick and was advising Prime Minister Curtin about the situation. In 1955 it was highly likely that Gough’s father, still active behind the scenes in public affairs, passed some of his knowledge on to his son.
By that stage I was normally having one small beer each week. Just one. All of my periods of excessive drinking that ended in hospital had been preceded by a period of abstinence. So I decided that one drink a week might help ensure I never did anything like that again. I enjoyed those weekly drinks, usually in a pub I liked but not one of those where I had previously drank.
I do not recommend this to anyone else who has had a problem with alcohol or other drug. Such people should always try to try to act appropriately for their own physiology and circumstances, and not those of anyone else. It did, however, seem to help me. Paid employment in work I liked doing despite all its problems, something I was fortunate to have, helped much more to get me through the rest of each week. So did reading newspapers or exploring Sydney, something I had always enjoyed.
During those years I was fortunate enough to almost always enjoy excellent health. A few years before the end of the century I went under a surgeon’s knife for the first time since that car accident four decades earlier. That was at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital to remove my gall bladder after a large gallstone had lodged in my pancreas and caused dangerous pancreatitis, which had first to be cured. The surgeon, after asking about the operation scars on my stomach and obtaining details from Melbourne, scheduled a one-hour operation using modern keyhole surgery.
The one hour turned into five when he found his keyhole equipment could not penetrate scar tissue above where he had expected anything, and he had to open me up. He was angry because he had to cancel a few operations. Later he described the tissue as being like a thin sheet of rock. The cause, he said, was probably a type of abscess that can occur after such accidents. The surgeons during their second operation had not been expecting something that high up and had missed it, he said. Over time it had healed naturally.
By then a fantasy life some people appeared still to be inventing for me had become excessively strange. I gathered that for the past few decades I had been living with my mother. The head nurse in the ward where I was sent after the operation was worried about her; obviously she had to be of advanced years by then. She asked if there was anyone who was caring for her while I was in hospital. Since she had died more than 30 years earlier while I was living in London, I did not like to think of the state she would have been in by then.
During this period I began to have a problem with males behaving in sexually inappropriate ways, most often in parks or on public transport. Depending on the circumstances, I either ignored their behaviour or got away from them. I had had a minor problem with innuendoes from some people ever since I went back to work after that car accident. The worst, strangely, had been during my last few months in Hong Kong, at the end of my only long period living with a woman. In the next few decades, even during the worst of my alcoholism, there had only been innuendoes, and then only from a small minority of people. This was something new. I think the growing use of digital technology played a part.
The problem became more serious when people began targeting me in lavatories. Everyone has to use a lavatory sometimes. Most people do not have a bowel and bladder area externally and internally scarred after being crushed against their backbone by a bouncing car. The bottom of my stomach is misshapen as a result of scar tissue. I was also developing a common male prostate problem.
The first incidents occurred at Bankstown Library, which I had begun visiting often during my research. Because of that I began using a small lavatory just inside the entrance of the nearby Bankstown Square covered shopping centre. Soon afterwards I was followed almost immediately into the lavatory by two men. Sensing something wrong, I quickly entered a cubicle and locked the door.
As I left the cubicle and walked quickly towards the entrance door one of the men, of similar size to me, rushed in front of me. The other, unusually large, rushed up behind me. The probable purpose, I realised afterwards, was so that it would look on any security camera focused on the door that I was leaving the lavatory with them. I later had many reasons to believe that was the purpose.
During the following years I began to encounter problems, although rarely as bad as that, in other libraries and shopping centres and also at railway stations where, as a frequent train traveller, I most often used lavatories.
While going through puberty I had sexual contacts with girls. I also at about 14 had one with a boy of similar age, during a mock fight of a type boys often engage in. It was slight and brief. The big old sex manual left at the time in our backyard darkroom told me such behaviour was common during puberty and I should not worry about it. I didn’t.
I have never since committed any type of sexual act with any male person. Or have I ever behaved in any way that could have been reasonably interpreted as a desire to do so. If I had done so I do not see why it should have been of any importance years later to any other person. I have worked with many men and women of overt same-sex orientation over the years. The first was an English journalist who spoke and, unusually, could read Japanese, and who did casual work at the Yomiuri. With him and most others I got on reasonably well and had no problem. I took the view that whatever any of them did in their personal lives was their business.
I think most people I have worked with over the years shared this view. I only ever had a problem with a small percentage of people with whom I worked. Most of them were ostensibly heterosexual. I did my best to ignore them, which was all I could do.
I also had a growing problem with people apparently spying on me sometimes in my accommodation. Much of it appeared connected with what I have just mentioned. As a result I began more frequently changing my accommodation each year, checking out just before my annual vacations and leaving belongings either in storage or with relatives. Those problems caused me sometimes to drink more than I should have done. But never did I go back anywhere near what I had drunk during my years in and out of hospital.
Soon after the turn of the century I had another health scare when tests at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital showed blockages of up to 80 per cent in four heart arteries. That went back partly to my childhood. My father had loved big thick steaks and, more than anything, blue-veined cheese. So had I up to then. I often even used to eat the same cheeses, particularly Stilton and Gorgonzola, George most liked.
The doctors sent me straight off for bypass surgery. Again I was fortunate. After successful surgery the doctors said I would probably not be able to return to work for three months. But I preferred, when not travelling, to work and earn money. Five weeks after the operation I was back at The Australian. A few months later I spent two weeks wandering around Nepal, a country I had never visited.
I had any number of traveller’s tales, usually happier than those in the previous chapter, of the type that many people who travel abroad during holidays regale captive audiences with after they return. Travel was my great vice and I treasure memories any tourist would. My first stroll down the Champs Elysees, for example, which was in bright spring sunshine with flowers in full bloom all around me. Or my first sight of the skyscrapers of Manhattan, rising distantly in the first rays of dawn, after an overnight ride on a Greyhound bus.
The AJA award under which I worked provided for annual leave of more than six weeks. That usually enabled me to take off around the world each year to visit countries I had never seen, or revisit some I most liked. I normally left the day after the holiday began and returned the day before it ended.
Most frequently I travelled around Europe on Eurail or local rail passes. Often I travelled on overnight trains; with a Eurail pass they usually had cheaper beds than any budget hotel. I slept well on trains and loved watching the Alps, or perhaps Norwegian fjords, slip past as the sun rose.
In the British Isles, or countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, or most countries in Eastern Europe as all the old barriers went, I nearly always had a small beer in the afternoon or evening. Just one, and always a local brew. Usually it was after a walk around town seeing the sights. In France, which I most frequently travelled through, I usually had a Pernod or glass of house red in the best little bar I could find. Near the Mediterranean I usually had a glass of local wine or in Greece the brandy.
Elsewhere in the world I often did not drink at all. In some parts, including North America, the bars and local booze rarely appealed. In Moslem countries it was often out the question. In some places it was dangerous. And sometimes in Scandinavia it cost too much. I was always happy to have a coffee instead.
I did not mind travelling alone. I was able to go wherever I wanted and whenever. During those journeys I had many enjoyable conversations. Almost anywhere in the non-English-speaking world I found people who liked to practise their English. In places where they spoke a type of English, the far north of England, for example, people often liked to engage in conversation as soon as they heard my Australian accent.
I always enjoyed strolling around big cities, small villages or through picturesque countryside, particularly in Europe. The most walking I ever did in one day was not long after the Berlin Wall came down. I got off an overnight train at Zoo station in the west and caught a bus to the Brandenburg Gate. There I joined the crowds of happy people who were continuing to troop past the old barriers.
History has always interested me; those people around me were celebrating perhaps the most significant single event in the second half of that century. For much of the day and into the evening I walked with them through the downtown parts of pre-war Berlin and back into the west. Apart from East German sausages in rolls I had a few of their beers to help keep me going and also to celebrate that momentous event.
Back in Australia, when not doing what I could to help bring out The Australian, I continued to work spasmodically at my research and writing. The more I learned about Ray Fitzpatrick the more incredible some aspects of his life, and particularly continuing official secrecy about him, appeared.
Fitzpatrick had died in 1967 and anything he had done wrong during his life was fading well into the past. Few people connected with events involving him remained alive. Confidential government material is supposed to be released after 30 years. The legislation covering this mainly concerns cabinet papers. But there is a clause, I have read, which covers other government and parliamentary papers. Long after 1985, however, I was still finding it impossible to discover anything in Canberra about important events in 1955 that involved Fitzpatrick. There seemed to be no reason for that continuing secrecy.
Material not released under the 30-year rule included suppressed evidence to the parliament’s privileges committee in 1955. The evidence had led to the committee recommending the parliament take “appropriate action” because of the article in the Bankstown Observer, the pro-Labor weekly my father had helped found in 1950, against Fitzpatrick and Frank Browne, the journalist Fitzpatrick had hired. The article had made various allegations involving Charles Morgan, then still an associate of George in the building society movement, whom George in 1937 had recommended to Fitzpatrick as a legal adviser.
In 1940 Fitzpatrick had helped Morgan get elected to parliament but after they fell out viciously Morgan had begun the 1944 parliamentary allegations about him. Most of the suppressed evidence to the committee was by Morgan.
A hole in the Canberra wall began to open just before the end of the century when a then member of the privileges committee presented to the lower house a committee report recommending the release of that 1955 evidence. A year later the Liberal leader of the lower house, Peter Reith, moved that the house release that and other material. Supporting the motion, an opposition Labor member for a seat near Bankstown called the material the parliament’s “last great secret”. The parliament unanimously voted in favour. As a result, various government departments and offices began releasing material to the National Archives.
None of that was reported at the time in any newspaper to my knowledge, or mentioned later in any newspaper. I had again given up trying to find out anything more about such matters. I only learned about it several years later when something I was reading on the internet caught my attention. I immediately began trying to find out anything I could.
By then there were hundreds of pages in the archives. They included investigative reports, evidence to support those reports, memos from departments, particularly those of the prime minister and the attorney–general, and personal writing by some people. The most important was the report in 1944 by the Joint Parliamentary War Expenditure Committee to then Prime Minister John Curtin concerning allegations in the parliament that year concerning Fitzpatrick. That was the report Morgan in 1955 had called “the most secret document in Australia”.
The report pointed to a startling fact. During 1944 a top federal investigator, Jack Magnusson, began gathering sufficient evidence to enable a planned federal government prosecution of Ray Fitzpatrick on criminal charges of trying to defraud the government. But it soon became obvious to Magnusson that someone, who could only have been high in the government’s investigative apparatus, was spying on him with the aim of keeping Fitzpatrick informed about what he was doing.
That crippled Magnusson’s investigations and caused the government to launch only a lesser civil charge of conspiracy to defraud, requiring a lesser onus of proof. But even that failed, and was eventually settled out of court after remaining before the High Court from 1945 to 1950. The incredible situation involving Magnusson suggested a connection with Justice Stan Taylor, who remained a great mate of Fitzpatrick, and who in the crucial year of 1942 had been the powerful head of national security in NSW. But then I again seemed to hit a brick wall.
My final breakthrough came one day in 2013, soon after I finally stopped doing work at The Australian, when something I read on the internet caught my eye. It concerned espionage and a man named Alfred Hughes in the wartime security service, who had worked later in the Sydney Vice Squad. A bell rang in my mind.
I had, separate from those parliamentary papers, been able to obtain top secret evidence Justice Stan Taylor gave early in 1955 to the long Royal Commission on Espionage that followed the defection of Soviet spy chief Vladimir Petrov in April 1954. A note Petrov took with him pointed to Taylor as a friend of communists and possible helper of espionage by them.
Taylor was able to defend himself successfully. But his full evidence was kept secret for long afterwards. During his lengthy evidence he was asked, after being questioned about people in different positions, who was in charge of watching over “subversive persons”. When he said he was not sure about this, his interrogator made a casual but strange mention of a possible person whom Taylor had mentioned during unofficial questioning before the hearing, and whom his interrogator thought might have been named Hughes.
Taylor said there was a man named Hughes among 80 police officers seconded to his security department from the NSW police. He said Hughes was now “a sergeant in the vice squad” and indicated he could speak to him if necessary and find out if he had been in charge of that area. No first name was given. His interrogator had appeared satisfied with his answer and passed on quickly to other matters. It did not seem important at the time and I had forgotten about it.
I began finding out anything I could about Alfred Hughes and about Soviet espionage in Australia, something that had not previously interested me much. Before long the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place.
Truth has often been said to be stranger than fiction. It certainly proved to be in this case. In 1942 Taylor made Hughes the state’s head of counter-espionage. They became close friends. During the war, as well as Fitzpatrick and Hughes, Taylor had another close friend: Ben Chifley, the treasurer, who was in charge of the home front and in 1945 became prime minister. In 1949, as a result of heavy US and British pressure, Chifley began a new security service, ASIO, modelled on Britain’s MI5.
During the war, in a top secret project called Venona, US codebreakers began working on intercepted messages to Moscow. British experts joined them. Several of the messages were from Australia. Some pointed to the existence of a person who appeared to have high contacts in the Australian government and was codenamed Ben in Moscow. Chifley appears not to have known anything about this when he started ASIO. Nor when he died in 1951.
By 1948 messages decoded in the US pointed to Alfred Hughes as Ben. As ASIO got into stride a high-level team inside it, formed with MI5 help, found evidence of this. The Royal Commission on Espionage sat from May 1954 to March 1955. During it 119 witnesses were called. Hughes, who had probably been much more important to the Russians than almost any of them, was not. He was a detective-sergeant in the Sydney Vice Squad from 1945 until an honourable retirement in 1960. ASIO agents finally interrogated him in 1957. But they or no one else ever took any action against him.
The Russians had soon known about Venona. But to try to stop them learning about constantly improving technology and particular findings, the Americans maintained high secrecy about it throughout the Cold War.
When the parliament jailed Ray Fitzpatrick in 1955 the Americans were understandably worried about nuclear weaponry and long-range delivery technology the Russians were developing. In 1953 the Venona intercepts had led to them executing two atomic spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. As nuclear brinkmanship increased, fears grew around the world of a possible Armageddon.
In a climate of growing international paranoia, people at the top in the US and Britain seemed to think it even more important that the Russians not know how much they knew. Nor anyone else. Secrecy about even the existence of Venona became more extreme. The Americans did not officially admit its existence until 1995.
In the mid-1980s the secrecy was partly breached during legal battles in Britain that helped make an international reputation for Australian lawyer Malcolm Turnbull. The battles were sparked by a former MI5 assistant director, Peter Wright, then living in Tasmania, who tried to publish an autobiography, Spycatcher.
The small group of people in Australia in 1955 who knew about Alfred Hughes and Venona included Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who was understandably anxious, in that dire international situation, to maintain the best possible relationship with our two nuclear-armed protectors, the US and Britain. Most people in that small group would not have wanted Fitzpatrick ever again to go into an open court, where he might have been cross-examined about matters in some of the material released to the National Archives. That risked bringing in Justice Stan Taylor, and in turn people more dangerous.
Stan Taylor and Alfred Hughes
People high in the security establishments of the US and Britain who knew about the situation in Australia would not have liked that.
Ray Whitrod, an Adelaide police officer, after the war helped start ASIO and lead investigations into Hughes and that Moscow code name. In 1955, after Morgan’s suppressed evidence to the parliament’s privileges committee, Whitrod personally questioned Fitzpatrick and Taylor. By then he was acting officially as head of the Australian Federal Police, a new role. His questions partly concerned personal links of Hughes with both men during the successful wartime efforts of Hughes to help Fitzpatrick avoid a criminal prosecution. If ever cross-examined in an open court, Whitrod could have been a very worrying witness for people anxious to preserve the secrecy of Venona.
So could Jack Magnusson, who in 1943 and 1944 had spent much time investigating Fitzpatrick and after the war had begun began working for ASIO. Then of course there was Alfred Hughes. In his case, apart from the Venona fears, there were also possible fears for influential people stemming from his 15 years in the Sydney Vice Squad. And so Ray Fitzpatrick never again entered a court on any serious matter.
Potential publishers said a resulting book I wrote about this, Australia’s Most Embarrassing Spy Secret, was well written and researched but would not sell enough copies to justify them printing it. In 2014 I published it on the internet.
The journalist who best covered events in Bankstown in 1955 was Alan Reid. In a story in the Sydney Telegraph he wrote: “The political content of the Bankstown Affair is almost unbelievably high.” That situation faded quickly after Fitzpatrick left jail and the secrecy began on matters involving him. But two politicians with close links to Bankstown remained powerfully in the background.
One, Jack Lang, could have been called the greatest living ghost of the Australian Labor Party during that century. In his Telegraph story, Reid described him as having “a genius for probing mercilessly Labor’s sore spots”.
In 1931, as the Labor premier of NSW, Lang helped topple a federal Labor government as the Depression worsened. Early in 1932, some of his measures to fight soaring unemployment helped bring NSW to a situation in which armed conservative men were said to be marching on Sydney to join like-minded men and help topple his government, by force if necessary. In the city there was talk of opening government armouries and distributing weapons to Lang-supporting trade unionists. On both sides were men who had fought in World War I.
That situation ended in May 1932 when the state governor, Sir Philip Game, dismissed Lang and appointed an interim conservative government. The government won a following election in a landslide. Lang never again held power but he badly split the Labor Party. His most determined enemy was the pragmatic Ben Chifley. In 1939 Lang’s opponents won control of the NSW party machinery from him. In 1943 they expelled Lang from the party.
An imposing man with a savage tongue, Lang kept hitting back from his power base in Bankstown. One of his many supporters there, but with declining fervour, was my father, who met him sometimes. At federal elections in 1946 Lang wrested the local seat of Reid from Charles Morgan, who was still closely associated with George in the building society movement. Lang’s campaign was financed and directed from the background by Ray Fitzpatrick, who was still waging a bitter war against Morgan.
Morgan’s losing campaign was financed heavily and secretly by the central command of the federal Labor Party, whose leaders wanted badly to keep Lang out of the federal parliament. Their fears were justified. During his one term in Canberra he caused them a lot of embarrassment. Lang repaid Fitzpatrick by helping him get around some of the problems he was having at the local and state government level.
In his old age, Lang became the mentor of a young Bankstown man named Paul Keating. In 1969, at only 25, Keating became one of the youngest members ever of the federal lower house, representing the seat of Blaxland, which by then, after boundary changes, covered much of Bankstown. His rapid rise continued and he served briefly in the Whitlam government just before it was dismissed in 1975. In December 1991 Keating became prime minister.
Most people seem to have regarded the three most effective of Australia’s 12 prime ministers since Menzies as Keating, his predecessor Bob Hawke, and his successor John Howard. I never met any. But if I had not gone off to St Bernard’s College in 1950 there was a fair chance I would have ended up in 1951 in the same class at Canterbury Boys High School as Howard. I had no such near-connection with Hawke. But for several years in my life I possibly managed to sink even more alcohol on many days than he did at the time.
Paul Keating, when I left North Bankstown Primary School, was starting his primary education at the Catholic school a short distance down the Hume Highway. He was one of those who did not reply to letters I sent at the start of the 1990s with relevant pages about his connections with events in Bankstown during the 1950s. When I sent the first, before that to Whitlam, he was our federal treasurer. By the time I sent a second he was our prime minister. Undoubtedly he would have been a very busy man. But I had reasons to believe he was aware of what I wrote and was unhappy about some of the details.
In the pages I sent to Keating I began with a quote by him about Bankstown while he was a child that gave an impression he had no knowledge of many events in the district during the 1940s and 1950s. The quote was in a biography of him in 1988 by Edna Carew, a journalist at the Financial Review when I was there. I proceeded to give several reasons why he must have been aware of those events from an early age, as he had said himself to Carew he had grown up surrounded by local politics.
At the time I wrote those pages I did not know that Paul in 1954, then aged 11, was one of the closest people to the dark and apparently empty Torch building when an early-evening explosion sent part of its roof into the sky. I did know, though, that his then close school friend, Michael Gavan, was one of two boys who walked past the building just before the explosion and was a key witness at a court inquiry into the explosion and resulting fire. Michael was a son of Garney Gavan, the barber who cut my hair and lived up the street from us. Because they went to the Catholic school, I sometimes when I was small threw rocks with my public-school mates at one or two of Michael’s older brothers.
The writing I sent Keating mentioned other connections of him or his father with Bankstown events before, during and after 1954, including with relevant people in or behind them. One, of course, was that with his mentor Jack Lang.
Jack Lang and Paul Keating
After pointing out similarities between Keating and Ray Fitzpatrick I suggested Fitzpatrick was a role model, as distinct from mentor, for him. While Paul was young, Fitzpatrick dominated politics in Bankstown in much the same way that Keating later for a while dominated federal politics. Both men, as well as strong support from Labor voters, also had wide support among people in the business and professional world whose political inclinations were probably more to the right. Both had their roots in Bankstown’s large Irish community. And both were ruthless and sometimes foul-mouthed men who showed no quarter to enemies but had reputations for getting things done.
I emphasised, however, that there had never been the allegations of corruption and illegality that had followed Fitzpatrick throughout his life. I also said his father, who later headed the Central Bankstown branch of the ALP, helped clean up the mess in Bankstown.
Something else I did not know about Keating was an interest he had in Soviet espionage in Australia during the Cold War. On August 18, 2015, The Australian gave a long run on its front and inside pages to a story about details in a book released the previous evening entitled More Cloak Than Dagger, by a 92-year-old former ASIO officer, Molly Sasson.
A fluent German speaker who worked in British Intelligence during and after World War II, Ms Sasson in 1969 became the first female intelligence officer on ASIO’s Soviet desk in Canberra. Her job was to write daily reports on the activities of suspected Soviet spies in Canberra, gleaned from intercepted telephone calls, listening bugs, agents’ reports and hidden cameras. The reports went to ASIO’s headquarters in Melbourne. The Canberra office she described as “a den of misogyny”.
Increasingly she began to realise, as counter-espionage operations kept failing, that ASIO appeared to have someone at a high level working for the Russians. But when she expressed her fears she was not taken seriously. That caused her eventually to write and publish her book, the first about such matters not authorised by ASIO.
The Australian said the book supported what some intelligence experts had long believed. It said they were calling in particular for the release of a 1994 report commissioned by then prime minister Paul Keating believed to contain evidence about Soviet infiltration. The experts believed ASIO was compromised by up to four Soviet moles during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The newspaper said successive governments had refused to release the report and ASIO had never commented on the issue of Soviet penetration in the final decades of the Cold War.
That had strong echoes of the situation in the first decades of the Cold War, when Keating was young, and going back to that in 1942, before he was born. That was the year when a few high-ranking American security people decided to start intercepting messages to Moscow. It was also the year when an incredible situation began in Bankstown involving Ray Fitzpatrick, Stan Taylor, Alfred Hughes and then treasurer Ben Chifley.
When Keating became prime minister he probably, as such, became able to access top secret information not always available to those below him. In light of his childhood background it is interesting to speculate on why he commissioned that 1994 report that was being kept secret, and what he might also have learned about matters involving Bankstown events that had been kept secret throughout his life.
Keating described Bankstown when he was small to Edna Carew as a “villagey” place where many people knew each other. His father and mine were active in local Labor Party politics. Their paths crossed sometimes, as did those of our families. When Paul left school at 15, I read in one biography, he worked briefly at Gavan and Shallala, the real estate agency George had played a key part in starting. There he would have worked with my brother Colin.
One small connection came after my parents’ deaths. Our house, after standing empty in disrepair for several years, was torn down and replaced by a drive-in McDonald’s hamburger joint. The parking area for that extended to Rickard Road and was across the road from the parking area for the Bankstown Square covered shopping centre, one of the biggest in the southern hemisphere. Alongside the McDonald’s a complex of three office blocks was built around a courtyard with palm trees.
In that complex was the local electoral office of Paul Keating. If not in Canberra, Keating during his rise to power much preferred to be in one of the better parts of Sydney’s upmarket eastern suburbs. The cafes and ambience were more to his taste. Other attractions included his favourite antique dealers. Occasionally, though, he would have had to go out to his electoral office.
Sometimes he might not have been able to get out there during the day, maybe for something he had in a drawer that he needed to look through. Perhaps a dirt file on some person or organisation in his electorate that had again dared to criticise him. I believe some politicians keep such files.
Late in the evening it would not have taken him too long to get out to Bankstown along the Hume Highway. His driver would have stayed in the car outside while he let himself in with a key and went up to his office. The complex extended into what had been our property, just behind where our house had stood. Part of the rear building was over where once had stood the shed with a darkroom where, as a child, I had spent many hours reading about foreign lands I one day wanted to see. At its closest point it was probably only a few metres from where Clara Hess was killed.
My mother taught me not to believe in ghosts. Not, anyway, that sort. But some of our neighbours appeared to believe seriously that the ghost of Clara Hess haunted our house. It is not for me to say that I was indisputably right about this and those neighbours were indisputably wrong. If, perchance, they were correct and, late one dark night, her ghost returned, looking for our house and for someone to haunt, it is not completely beyond possibility that she might have encountered Paul Keating.
What might have happened then I shudder to think.