About John Tilston

John Tilston has written for some of the world's most respected economic and financial media, including the Australian Financial Review, The Sunday Times, Business Day, Financial Mail, Newsweek, Investors Chronicle and Dow Jones Newswires. He has a graduate degree in economics and has written six books (so far).

‘The Father of modern Queensland’

We should adopt a new calendar in Queensland: this year should be designated 27 AG. The year 1964, for instance, should be 16 BG. That’d be After Goss and Before Goss.

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Wayne Keith Goss, Premier of Queensland from December 1989 to February 1996, transformed the place, dragging it out of a morass of corruption and maladministration to lay the robust platform for better government, hitherto missing-in-action accountability and transparency, and a set of values in keeping with the modern world. The details are for policy wonks, but Wayne Goss undoubtedly enabled the good burghers of Brisbane to hold their heads up and take pride in their city.

His life story is short in the telling and unremarkable until he became a political leader. He was born in 1951 in Mundubbera, about 400 kilometres northwest of Brisbane. He grew up the eldest of six siblings in the hard-slog Brisbane suburb of Inala. His parents, he later reminisced, ‘believed in hard work, believed in the family. And they built a barbershop from nothing to a very successful business that looked after our family very well’. And ‘like most barbers, Dad’ who was also president of the local branch of the Labor Party ‘could talk about any subject at great length and with great expertise’. He attended the local state school and must have applied himself diligently because he won a place at the University of Queensland, not something a lot of kids from Inala then did. On graduating with an LL.B, he commenced working as a solicitor.

In the early 1970s he was deeply angered at the heavy-handed treatment by the Queensland police, egged on by the Bjelke-Petersen Government, of anti-apartheid protestors demonstrating against the touring South African rugby team. He got involved in setting up the Caxton Street Legal Service, which provided free legal services to those who couldn’t afford lawyer fees. They took on cases for people who were arrested in the hundreds by the police. Later he also became involved with the Labor Lawyers Association.

He joined the Labor Party in 1975 following the abrupt and dubious sacking of Gough Whitlam’s Federal Government by the old soak who was the Governor General. He needed a convincing catalyst because he later said that in those days he thought the Labor Party was ‘too conservative: … they were just a dreadful bunch in Queensland’. It ‘was appalling. They didn’t want you in the branch if you used a verb in a sentence. And I wouldn’t join for that reason’. However he decided, eventually, he wanted to make a contribution to the welfare of Queensland, so relented and signed up.

He stood for parliament on the Labor ticket in 1983 after an approach from a small group seeking to modernise the party. He won his seat narrowly with a swing towards him. He was elected Leader of the Opposition in 1988 as party powerbrokers believed, rightly as it turned out, that the party needed a new, smarter image that mirrored the reforming Federal Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in Canberra: one that oozed competence and a vision for the country. Goss was a snappy dresser and a confident speaker with a lawyer’s appreciation of the precision of words. This was a shock to the body politic that had become accustomed to the often incoherent blathering of previous long-serving premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The public must have liked it because Goss led his party into government in December 1989 with a thumping majority, despite fighting the headwinds of a conservative gerrymander. Brisbane electorates were especially attracted to his cleanskin image and coherence.

In some respects Goss had it easy at that point. The state was in a mess, much of what needed to be fixed was obvious, and in any event the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption had laid out a wide-ranging framework for reform in its recommendations released five months before the election. These days Premiers seem to lack any sort of coherent plan at all but Goss knew much of what had to be done. But while the framework was clear, it would require deft footwork to keep the government running while completely overhauling it with all the inherent tensions.

Yet he headed a young and untested government, necessarily short on relevant experience. Goss himself was just 39 years old. His talented triumvirate of key advisors and fixers were young too. Kevin Rudd, later to become Prime Minister, was just 33. Peter Coaldrake was 39 and Wayne Swan, later to become Federal Treasurer, 37. Goss with this group drove the government. Rudd, playing everything close to his chest, developed policy. Coaldrake, who went on to a successful academic career at QUT, forensically reorganised the bureaucracy, while Swan ran shotgun on the Party. Women were noticeable by their absence in the corridors of power. Anne Warner was the only woman minister and she was way down the pecking order. Yet Goss did have an accomplished wife, Roisin, also a lawyer and eventually a Ph.D, who was a key source of advice and support.

Goss03Rudd later remembered that Goss’s energy ‘was phenomenal. Very few of us could keep up with him’. This was no doubt aided by his phenomenal fitness. He was often seen running a quick ten kilometres along the Brisbane River towards Toowong in the early evenings.

But it was also a product of his secure confidence in his own intellect, though not in a shallow ego-driven way of so many politicians. He could and did have robust discussions, especially behind closed doors with advisors. He could wait until he’d heard all the arguments before stating a position: he felt no need to intimidate others with his view at the start of a meeting. Perhaps also unusually for a politician, he did not suffer fools gladly. He had little time for bureaucratic empire builders. Some thought him arrogant, yet shrinking violets can’t run a government. But if he was sometimes inclined to arrogance, the edge was often shaved off with his keen sense of humour.

He said many years after his Premiership that he saw it as very important to have advisers ‘who’ll take you on. And they’re very rare, and when you lose them, it makes it hard to do the job. The credit to Swan and Rudd they would take me on. I mean, they were wrong most of the time, but…’

One of my favourite anecdotes has him telling those responsible for a restructure of his ministry to make sure there was some small and insignificant ministries because he had some small and insignificant ministers. He sure did. He had some too whose hearts may well have been in the right place but who couldn’t run a chook raffle. He increasingly chose to hide his humour from the media lest it be willfully misinterpreted as flippancy. Flippant he was not.

And he was a relatively cautious Premier, not given to impetuous judgments or seat-of-the-pants policy announcements. He said later that he had no wish ‘to be a working class hero for three years and a mug for the rest of my life’.

The fortune of all politicians in the Westminster system, good and bad, who do not leave office at a time of their own choosing, from Winston Churchill to Bob Hawke, is rejection. Goss was defeated on the floor of Parliament after a knife-edge election. He contemplated a move to Federal politics by was stopped in his tracks by the discovery of a brain tumour, which was successfully removed in surgery.

When he left parliament in 1998 he didn’t look back, gave his successor as Labor leader Peter Beattie plenty of clean air. He had spent is two years on parliament’s backbench earning an MBA at his old university. After parliament he sought out real jobs in business, including leading the Queensland Art Gallery to set up the Gallery of Modern Art at Southbank.

He had a hinterland that sustained him. I wonder whether that was a key factor in his success. He didn’t come to politics through the traditional Labor path of unions or special advisor to a politician. Neither for that matter did two key advisors Rudd, a diplomat, and Coaldrake, an academic. He was not an insider. Coming up through the ranks seems to imbue in politicians that the primary purpose of their jobs is to win power, and that expediency is often the best policy. They are, after all, pursuing a career. Goss wanted to make a difference, and once he had, he moved onto to new ventures.

Sadly whatever cruel trick of fate led to his developing the brain tumour returned several times, and eventually took his life. He died on 10 December 24AG at the age of just 63. At his funeral amid a flurry of tributes, one of his successors as Premier, Anna Bligh, described him as ‘the father of modern Queensland’.

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Full disclosure: I worked as a senior civil servant in Goss’s department between 1991 and 1995.

Occasionals – Beyond NIMBY to good design outcomes

A magazine article of not too long ago

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So, I take it that you’re reading this delightful magazine because you value good design, as I do. Like me, I imagine you feel that a life in a turgid grey world of dank, dark corridors, sunless rooms and bare walls, is a much diminished one. We want our spirits lifted, our possibilities extended and our social exchanges fulfilling. Good design helps us reach these heights; bad design shuts us down.

But where does our personal boundary on responsibility for good design begin and end? Mostly we consider our own private domain, our home, our garden, perhaps some elements of our workspace, are within our remit. But accountability for the design of places and spaces beyond this realm is less clear.

Well, it is time for us to grasp the nettle. We must also take responsibility for the design of our neighbourhoods, town centres, schools, hospitals and regional shopping precincts. These are the places where we live half our lives, outside our home.

Society lost its way sometimes during the last Century. Mostly we seem drawn to Victorian and Georgian houses and public buildings. But for twenty five years after the Second World War some dreadful mistakes were made that we are still living with today. Think, especially, of awful social housing schemes that delivered high rise slums surrounded by fields of concrete, and of charmless suburban shopping centres set in acres of arid car parks that turned their backs to the world. This happened all over the developed world, and we have our share too. There are the high rises of Carlton in Melbourne, the expressways disfiguring Circular Quay in Sydney and Brisbane’s North Quay, and any number of insular big retail boxes in our suburbs.

The history and culture of a nation are written in its buildings, public spaces, towns and cities. We are attracted to Paris by Haussmann’s parks and boulevards, to London by Wren’s churches and to Florence by Brunelleschi’s il Duomo. Australia is beginning to create a design-led heritage in our remodeling of spaces in our big cities, but still too many of us spend our working and public leisure time in drab surroundings. Teachers and pupils slave away in school buildings that do nothing to spark their imagination, nurses and doctors operate in claustrophobic hospitals and office workers surf the ‘Net in campus style office parks that too often mimic suburban retail boxes.

I worked for a while in a local government in New South Wales and became depressed by the poor design standards of proposed buildings and their surrounding space. Then I got angry. Now I want to get even.

There are three excuses commonly trotted out by developers and their apologists. These are that good design is a) too expensive or that it is b) too subjective; and the particularly egregious c) that if someone is prepared to pay for it, the design must be good enough.

Actually, these are myths. Let me enumerate:

a) Good design incorporating a set of sustainability principles will lower project lifetime costs. The real issue is that the costs of poor design are usually borne by someone other than the builder.

b) Furnishings may be a matter of taste and fashion but design is not. There are design principles. They are variously described as robustness, durability or sustainability; usefulness or efficiency; and beauty, or the ability to delight people.

c) Individuals often do not have the market power or frequently have little or no choice. They just have to live with a drab school, airless office or sunless apartment.

People must be at the heart of design for the built environment. Places that delight tend to be valued and cared for. Places that do not tend to cost us in crime, high maintenance, poor health and social exclusion.

These days, too much discussion about the public realm is in black and white terms – for or against. It is NIMBY (not in my backyard) versus short-sighted development. This typically leads to a win/lose result – developer wins, community loses – and often to a lose/lose result – no new development, no new jobs or activities, and bland, barren public spaces.

We need to move beyond this paradigm.

Community activists – you and me – should focus on pestering, nagging and insisting on good design outcomes in our streets, towns, cities and shopping precincts. We demand that our representatives, and some of us in appropriate forums, work with developers, including those from governments, to deliver good design outcomes. We deserve nothing less.


Occasionals -Dramatis Personae in ‘Mole Hunt’

Afterword from ‘Churchill’s Mole Hunt

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The Second World War spluttered to a start onto an unprepared Britain at the end of what the poet W.H. Auden described as a “low, dishonest decade”. The country knew it was heading towards conflagration from early 1939. Trenches had been dug in London parks, entrances to public buildings had been sandbagged and Parliament had passed war regulations ready for the fateful day.

But despite the cosmetics, it was not actually organized for war on that forlorn Sunday, the 3rd September 1939. Civil servants still moved at a leisurely pace, no doubt in part taking their cue from their political masters. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did not like to be disturbed after dinner. At the weekends, staying at his official country residence Chequers, he frowned on any interruptions at all. Indeed, there was only one telephone and that was in the butler’s pantry.

Across London, nighttime socializing extended into the small hours. Typically dinner at the Savoy would be followed by a show at a West End theatre or maybe the ballet at Covent Garden. Then it would be onto a nightclub, perhaps the Café Anglais in Leicester Square or the Coconut Grove in Regent Street, for champagne and dancing to the ragtime of Harry Roy and his Orchestra or the trad jazz of saxophonist Art Gregory and his St Louis Band. It didn’t make for early starts at the office the next morning.

Throughout the government precincts of Whitehall and Westminster, the old boy network prevailed. It was the way to get ahead, and many did so by frequenting the Establishment ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs around St James’s. It was said MI5 only recruited from the bars at Bootle’s and White’s. So supposedly homogeneous was this group of men running Britain that it was unthinkable that they would not support the nation in war.

And yet for the five years leading up to World War II, many in the British Establishment had great affinity for the dictatorships of Europe. Even Winston Churchill once said how much he admired Benito Mussolini.   

As we now know, a few of the privileged were less than fore square behind the war and several were traitors. The most renowned are commonly known as the Cambridge Spies because they had been recruited while at that town’s university – Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean and Anthony Blunt – double agents for the Soviet Union exposed long after the war was over, but active during it.

There were less high profile spies. There were persistent rumors of a spy in the Admiralty in the early years of the War. No then-secret papers yet released have been able to prove there was one, but the suspicion remains strong.

Churchill, a lifelong fan and client of the secret services, was very suspicious. He fired Lord Sempill, an extreme right-winger, from his job in the Navy because he believed him to be a security risk

It is a matter of historical record that Britain’s naval intelligence was not as good as Germany’s in the early years of the War, as the Official History reluctantly acknowledges. The German code machine – now widely known as the Enigma Machine – did not fall into Allied hands until 1941 and from then on the Allies had the upper hand.

But in the autumn of 1939, there was much anxiety in the corridors of power in London.

We will never know the full details of what went on within the Admiralty’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence – the nerve center of operational information about the battles a sea – because many files and documents were burned at the end of the War; some long-forgotten senior officer wrongly, or maybe conveniently, considered it to be in the national interest.

This story has been about what might have happened. It weaves supposition and possibility through established historical record.

Some of the main characters and some with bit parts are part of history. As far as surviving information allows, I have been true to the known historical record and facts, but clearly interactions with fictional characters are how I imagined them to be based on what we know about personalities and their views.

MI5’s Maxwell Knight did operate his 5(b)5 counter intelligence section out of Dolphin Square in Pimlico and Admiral Karl Doenitz did meet with Captain Gunther Prien on the Weichsel in Kiel Harbour before the audacious attack in Scapa Flow. Joan Miller was a pretty, feisty 21-year-old working for MI5 who infiltrated The Right Club, led by Conservative M.P. Archibald Ramsay. The Russian émigré Anna Wolkoff made dresses for the Duchess of Windsor, Unity Mitford and Princess Marina and served the best caviar in London in the South Kensington Tea Rooms owned by her parents.

The winter of 1939/40 was unusually cold – the coldest for 100 years at that time. Kew Observatory at Richmond in west London recorded the coldest January since 1791. On January 29, 1940, the river Thames froze over for the first time since 1814. It was the first of three severe War Winters.

The action took place in central London and we know in many cases in which hotels, parks and offices. Most of the public houses in which key meetings take place in the story still exist, though one or two have since changed their names. The public house formerly known as The Northumberland Arms in Northumberland Street in Whitehall, for instance, is now known as The Sherlock Holmes.

And finally, it is instructive to see how hindsight makes the unfolding stories of history seem inevitable. Things were not nearly so clear back in August 1939. 

By May 1940 Britain was in crisis. Chamberlain had resigned on May 10 to be replaced by Churchill, still deeply suspect in the eyes of many, especially the ruling Conservative Party. On the same day Hitler had finally ordered the ground war in Western Europe into action and, over the next fortnight, the Panzer Divisions overwhelmed the Low Countries and France. Could the invasion of Britain be far behind?

The arrest of Wolkoff and Kent on May 20th 1940 was the final straw that led to action against those under suspicion. There was too much at stake to worry about civil liberties. Fifth columnists were rounded up under Section 18b of the emergency Defence Regulations. Caught in the net were: Archibald Ramsay, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and many others from The Right Club. By December over 1000 people were in detention. This was steadily reduced as the tide of war turned. By 1943 there were about 500 still interred and when Hitler killed himself in 1945 there were just 11 people detained at His Majesty’s pleasure under 18b regulations.

I have listed below the subsequent career, so far as I have been able to discover it, of the historical figures in the story who get more than a passing mention, except for Sir Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. I assume readers of this humble tale of what might have happened will be acquainted with their life stories.

John Tilston

Cambridge June 2006

The British

droppedimageMaxwell Knight, who was born in Surrey in 1900, was an eccentric. He was recruited into British Intelligence from the right wing British Fascisti, a group set up in the 1920s to counter the growing influence of the Labour Party and Trade Unions. He lived with Joan Miller for a while (see below). After the War he remained in MI5 but also wrote several books on natural history. He later became a popular presenter on BBC of children’s’ programmes known as Uncle Max. He died of a heart attack in 1968.

Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence from 1939 to 1942, was highly regarded by many of his contemporaries but suffered from never gaining Churchill’s full confidence. Nor did he aid his own cause by once sending a memo to Churchill pointing out that the First Lord had been overstating enemy losses at sea. In 1941 he played a crucial role in establishing intelligence co-operation with the United States after a productive 90 minute meeting with President Roosevelt. Just days after being promoted to Vice Admiral in mid 1942 he was relieved of his duties, after falling out with the Joint Intelligence Committee (the British Government’s top spy coordinating body), and sent to India as the Flag Officer Commanding the Royal Indian Navy. He retired in 1945 and died in 1971, aged 83. These days he’s considered to be one of the unsung heroes of the war.

droppedimage_1Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels, was born in 1908 into a wealthy banking family. He was educated at Eton and went to Sandhurst, but didn’t distinguish himself at either place. It was in the war that his star started to burn brightly. He began working in Naval Intelligence for Admiral Godfrey in May 1939. He remained in that capacity for the whole of the war and was central to much of the work done. After the war he worked for Reuters and eventually created Bond, partly it seems in his own image. He died in 1968.

droppedimageJoan Miller was born in 1918. After the time described in this story, she lived for a short while with Maxwell Knight, but soon realised she was being used as a cover for his homosexuality, which, despite being widespread in London society, was illegal at that time. She married Tom Kinlock Jones in 1943. She continued working in MI5 but transferred to the Political Intelligence Department. She died in 1984. Despite MI5’s efforts to stop it, her daughter published Miller’s book about her experiences, entitled One Girl’s War: Personal Exploits in MI5’s Most Secret Station, in Dublin in 1986. Some critics have suggested she embellished her story.

The Germans

Karl Doenitz promoted to Rear Admiral for the Scapa Flow attack and eventually ended up as Admiral of the Fleet, commanding the German Navy from early 1943. Hitler anointed him as his successor when he killed himself in his Berlin bunker in 1945. He was head of state for 20 days before he was captured. He was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials – though most Allied sailors believed he fought hard but fairly – and spent eleven and a half years in prison. He died in 1980; he was 89 years old.

droppedimage_2KapitainLeutenant Gunther Prien was born in Germany in 1908. He won his papers in the German merchant marine at the age of 24, but could not find work. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and the Kriegsmarine the following year. He scored the first official U-Boat victory in the war and on his first patrol sunk three Allied ships. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class when he stepped ashore from the Scapa Flow mission. He quickly capitalized on his fame by publishing his memoirs entitled ‘I Sank the Royal Oak’. After Scapa Flow, he was credited with destroying 28 merchant ships. While leading a U-Boat wolf pack attack on an Allied convoy in March 1941, he was killed when U-47 was sunk.

Herbert von Dirksen was born in Berlin in 1882. He worked as a barrister and an assistant judge before the First World War, in which he won the Iron Cross. After the war, he joined the diplomatic service and served in various European posts, finally replacing Joachim von Ribbentrop as Ambassador to Britain in 1838 when the latter was appointed Nazi Foreign Minister.

On the outbreak of war he returned to Germany where he retired. He was a member of the Nazi Party but in June 1947 was cleared of responsibility for Nazi atrocities committed. He died in 1955.

The Italian

Antonio Maringliano, the Duke del Monte, was the Military attaché at the Italian Embassy, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The Americans

kentTyler Kent was born in China in 1911. His father was a serving U.S. diplomat at the time. Maxwell Knight interviewed him while in prison and said he was telling him the truth when he said he didn’t know the Roosevelt/Churchill documents would be passed on. He told Knight he thought Ramsay would use them for political purposes. After his release from prison in 1945, Kent returned to anonymity in the U.S. He died in a Texas trailer Park in 1988.

Joe Kennedy was US Ambassador to the Court of St James from 1938 to 1940. He was opposed to the war and tried to influence the British government against declaring it, but once it started, he more or less supported the Allied war effort, despite the fact that he was no friend of President Roosevelt. He resigned in November 1940 in protest against what he saw as Roosevelt’s determination to enter the war. His children, including the future President JFK, cut quite a dash on the London social scene.

The Right Club

domvilleAdmiral Sir Barry Edward Domvile was born in 1878 and began his career in the Royal Navy in 1892. He was interred by the British Government in 1940 and was released from Brixton Jail in July 1943. His fascist views were not dimmed by the enforced years of quiet reflection. He published his memoirs, entitled From Admiral to Cabin Boy, four years later and developed a conspiracy theory that he dubbed “Judmas” (‘the Judaeo-Masonic combination, which has wielded such a baneful influence in world history’). After being introduced to Hitler on a visit to Germany in 1936, he wrote: “This remarkable man was fully alive to the evil potentialities of Judmas, and was determined to remove its influence from Europe. He died in 1971.

ramsayArchibald Ramsay was born in Scotland in 1894. In 1940, he was interned in Brixton Prison under special wartime regulations that allowed the Home Secretary to detain people who were deemed a threat. He was the only M.P. to be detained under this regulation. Some believed his profile and membership of the House of Commons saved him from being charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act for passing information to Nazi Germany. In fact, some Labour Party M.P.s suspected he’d done a deal to stay out of court by keeping the membership of the Right Club secret.

In 1941, while in detention, he sued the New York Times for libel for reporting he had been spying. He won his case by arguing that if he had been guilty of spying British authorities would have charged him, but the court awarded derisory damages of a farthing, effectively suggesting it regarded this as a technicality.

He was released from Brixton in September 1944. He lost his seat in parliament in the 1945 General Election that also turfed out Churchill. In 1955 he published a book in self-justification entitled The Nameless War, and he died in March of that year. He said in his book that he kept the names of Right Club members secret because of the “well-grounded fear of Jewish retaliation of a serious nature.” He did entrust the list of members to Tyler Kent for safekeeping and was discovered when his flat was raided.

wolkoffAnna Wolkoff was the daughter of Admiral Nikolai Wolkoff who was an aide to Tsar Nicholas II based in London. Anna was born in Russia in 1902 but remained in London with her father after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rendered his services superfluous.  In 1940 she was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. She was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. At her trial she threatened to kill Joan Miller, who gave evidence at the trial. She didn’t. She was released in 1947 and went back to the Tea Room but that closed soon afterwards. She eked a meagre living out of dressmaking. She died in 1969.

Admiral Nickolas Wolkoff. Born in 1870. He and his family remained in London and, latterly, ran the Russian Tea Rooms. He was interned during the war and died in 1954.

A list of members of The Right Club maintained by Sir Archibald Ramsay emerged after the War. It included: William Joyce (who as Lord Haw Haw broadcast Nazi propaganda and who was executed for treason after the war); journalists A.K. Chesterton and Francis Yeats-Brown; the aristocrats Lord Redesdale, the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Westminster, Lord Sempill (also a pilot in the Armed Forces), the Earl of Galloway and the Marquess of Graham (who later became a Minister in the Rhodesian Government and signed that country’s illegal Declaration of Independence in 1965); Conservative Party Members of Parliament John Stourton, John Mackie, James Edmondson, Mavis Tate and Thomas Hunter; Commander E.H.Cole from the Royal Navy; colonial public servant Aubrey Lees; Samuel Chapman; Ernest Bennett; Charles Kerr; Margaret Bothamley; H.T. Mills; Richard Findlay and the delightfully named Scot Serrocold Skeels. There were three on the list – Joan Miller, Marjorie Amor and Helen de Munck – who, unknown to Ramsay, were from MI5.

The Right Club’s Red Book

According to Professor Richard Griffiths, the police had the leather bound book containing the names of members of the Right Club found in Tyler Kent’s flat until October 1944. But the best guess now is that it was returned to Ramsay after his release. Nothing was seen of it until the late 1980s, when it was discovered at the bottom of an old safe in a solicitor’s office.

Luckily, the finder passed it onto Professor Griffiths, who used it as a primary source for his book, Patriotism Perverted: Captain Ramsay, The Right Club and British Anti-Semitism 1939-40, then deposited the book at the Wiener Library. It is now publicly available for viewing.

The Ships

royal-oakHMS Royal Oak now lies in 30 metres of water in Scapa Flow, almost upside down, with her upturned keel reaching to within just five metres of the surface. A wreck buoy marks her hazard to shipping. 

She was built in the naval dockyards at Devonport, Plymouth during World War I and fitted with an awesome array of firepower, particularly her eight 15″ guns – the largest guns ever fitted on a British Naval vessel. They each weighed 100 tonnes and were capable of firing 876-kilogram shells onto targets up to 29 kilometres away. Identical guns from her sister ships HMS Ramilles and HMS Resolution are on display outside the entrance to the Imperial War Museum in south London.

speeThe Graf Spee remains at the bottom of the entrance to Montevideo Harbour. There is frequent talk that it will be salvaged.

Other historical figures who make a fleeting appearance in this story include Royal Navy Admirals Sir Dudley Pound and Sir Charles Forbes; the politician Lord Boothby; Churchill’s chief contact with the Intelligence Services in the early days of the war Major Desmond Morton, head of Economic Warfare; his daughter Mary, who as Lady Soames was the only one of his children that survived into the 21st Century; the Soviet Union’s English spies Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, and one of their lovers Jackie Hewitt; the Italian Foreign Minister and Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano and the German Ambassador to Rome Hans-Georg von Mackenson.

Leslie Hore-Belisha was a British Jew who served as Minister of War in the Chamberlain government. He was forced to resign on January 5th, 1940. It might have been coincidence that Archibald Ramsay had agitated for his removal.


Occasionals – ‘Grotesques’ at Queensland University

A draft for a section of Meanjin to Brisvegas: Brisbane’s journey from colonial backwater to new world city

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Brisbane 2006

Art too often takes itself too seriously. It takes itself even more seriously when it feels unappreciated and when experimentation is frowned upon. It was ironic then that that most staid of institutions, the University of Queensland, should have been   poking benign fun at it in the august portals of the Great Court at St Lucia, in Brisbane. There, nestled around the archways above the cloisters that enclose the two and a quarter hectares of the Court are 48 ‘grotesques’ – carvings of heads of interesting people and animals – and several friezes.

The choice of St Lucia for the University campus in the 1920s was controversial. Many saw it as being too far from town. But once decided and eventually acted upon, in 1935, the government-appointed architects, Hennessy, Hennessy and Co, designed what a University pamphlet describes as  a ‘great semi-circular quadrangle around which the various buildings are arranged, all connected by means of an arcade, enabling students to reach any portion whatsoever’.

The Government of the day, under Premier William Forgan Smith – who had the main building named after him – decreed that the buildings were to be ‘original in conception, monumental in design and embodying the Australian spirit of art with English culture’ to reflect the progress that had been made in Queensland.

It must have been the directive to be ‘monumental’ that led to the grotesques and the statues. The ‘English’ no doubt led to statues of Shakespeare, Darwin, Chaucer and the quote from Disraeli used in the British parliament when he was leader of the opposition to Prime Minister Gladstone. He was critical of a proposal to exclude some subjects from a university curriculum to avoid sectarian tension. A university, he said, should be ‘a place of light, of liberty and of learning’. This inscription is carved in the stonework above the main entrance to the Forgan Smith Building.

The buildings of the Great Court are clad in distinctive sandstone that was quarried at Helidon, 140 kilometres west of Brisbane. The builders made no attempt to match the sandstone so that the effect is a range of colours – purples, lavenders and violets, creams, yellowish beiges and browns – that are seen to best effect when the stone is wet from rain.

All told, it took 40 years for the Great Court project to be completed.

The grotesques and the statues represent the Very Great and the Good. As well as the English ‘greats’, there’s also Plato, Justinium, Mendel and Lavoisier. But with apologies to those great ghosts, it’s the more cryptic grotesques that capture the imagination or tickle the fancy.

About half the grotesques were sculpted by John Muller, clearly a man with a keen sense of humour. And I believe, without any evidence, that he took it upon himself to inject the ‘Australian spirit of Art’ the government had called for into his work. The life and humour he injected into his work on these caricatures in stone is suggestive of and certainly reflects Australian humour.

Muller had developed a sound grounding in carving and stonework in his birthplace Dresden before arriving in Brisbane in 1911 at the age of 38. He worked on the Treasury Building and the Brisbane City Hall before starting work on the Great Court in 1939 when he was 66 years old, beyond retirement age.

There’s no record of the instructions Muller was given and a fire that burnt down his house in 1952, a year before he died, destroyed all his own paper work. Many of the grotesques are anonymous, with a suspicion they represent someone. But without any records, identification is now done by supposition. Anyway, the University thinks he was given a free hand. He also worked on a number of friezes that depicted Queensland history and university history but managed to keep his impish humour well in check on that section of the work.

It was on the grotesques that he let himself roam more freely. So there are various grotesques on the Main Tower identified by the University only as ‘a scholar with a scroll’ or ‘an unidentified academic wearing a mortarboard’, or ‘a musical horn blower’.

Then there is ‘a gloomy scholar or teacher, possibly meant to represent J.D. Story, the University’s Vice Chancellor from 1938 to 1960’. Clearly not a man renowned for his sense of humour.

Above the Arts Building entrance there’s a grotesque of a man with a hammer, believed to be a construction worker on the site. Next to him there’s a man with an umbrella, believed to be Mr Bell, a clerk of works who was regularly on site and who always carried an umbrella whether it was raining or not. This is alongside one showing a jovial man in a hat, thought to be Dr Colin Clark, one of Australia’s most distinguished early economists – he had worked with John Maynard Keynes in London.

At the Law Building site there’s a bespectacled man with a beer mug in his hand. It’s believed this was based on a Mr Robinson, a crane driver on the construction site who was always joking with Muller about beer.

There are several grotesques that might be called generic. There’s a footballer, a sailor, a monk, a warrior, an old man laughing and a scribe, among others. There’s a mythical reptilian creature and a frog holding a University of Queensland shield. There is also a philosopher with his face bandaged. The University reckons this either indicates toothache or, since it is close to the Law entrance, that it’s a talkative advocate with jaw ache.

And was Muller having a dig at university life when he carved a sage of Laputa, a character from Gulliver’s Travels who pursued visionary projects to the neglect of practical concerns? Perhaps it was more of a warning.

Muller died in 1953 at the age of 80. He’d been working on the site until the end. By then about half the grotesques had been done and carving stopped for 20 years. In 1976 the University decided it wanted a few more on the newer buildings. They selected Rhyl Hinwood to take over Muller’s work. She didn’t get the same freedom of choice enjoyed by Muller, but fortunately the University maintained the mood and style set by the earlier Dresden master.

One of Hinwood’s first sculptures was that of Muller who she did at the Law building, apparently using a small clay model that Muller had himself done. Otherwise Hinwood’s work mostly represented particular academics who had graced the University, like Geology Professor Dorothy Hill, in 1960 the first woman appointed to a full professorship at an Australian university. There are a couple of exceptions. One is a grotesque of Donald Russell who had joined the university as a cleaner in 1946 and soon after became the caretaker. Another is of William McKenzie a member of the Jinabara tribe (his Aboriginal name was Gaiarbau) who assisted in University research and helped in recording music and legends.

I guess because Hinwood was working in an age that took itself more seriously and maybe she had to report to a committee (and they only deliver impish art by mistake), but her work seems to be more accurately representational of its subjects and less of a caricature. Her work is very good but it’s not as much fun as the earlier work by Muller and his helpers.

There’s another marvellous aspect to all this art around the Great Court. It does not shout out for attention. It is there, in the same sandstone as the rest of the building. You have to look for it. It seems much more in keeping with the spirit of enquiry and perhaps that’s also representative of traditional Australian spirit.


Occasionals – Black Tuesday 1987

Introduction to ‘Bull Market: The rise and eclipse of Australian stock exchanges’

chalkies

Australia’s stockbrokers showered anxiously and shaved with unsteady hands as they prepared for work on Tuesday 20th October 1987. News was filtering through that Wall Street, fifteen hours behind the Australian East Coast, had just closed after a devastating day of losses, far worse than the 1929 stock market crash that led to the world wide Great Depression and which had seen grown men in despair leaping off buildings to their death.

The New York Stock Exchange, at number 11 Wall Street, which commonly sets the tone for Australian trading, saw its primary market indicator, the Dow Jones Industrial Average index, nosedive by 508 points, a plunge of 23 per cent, compared with a then-mightily disturbing fall of 13 per cent on the first day of the 1929 meltdown.

Now the tsunami of panic that had already engulfed London, Tokyo and Hong Kong, was heading for Australia. London’s benchmark FTSE (Financial Times Stock Exchange) 100 index had shed 10 per cent; Tokyo’s Nikkei 15 per cent; and the Hong Kong stock exchange lost 11 per cent and promptly shut itself down for a week.

Melbourne share trader Jock O’Connor was in the middle of an early morning tennis lesson when a friend bailed him up. ‘Did you hear New York collapsed last night?’

‘I couldn’t believe it’ he said later. ‘Everyone was in shock because of the enormity of it’.

If they did not hear the gloomy news from colleagues, they got it from the morning newspaper editions they read on their commute into the city. ‘Black Monday Crash’ screamed the front page headline in The Australian. ‘Panic sell-off grips New York’ and ‘London plunge biggest ever’, where, reporters said, ‘nothing could be done to halt the carnage’. The usually sedate and restrained the Australian Financial Review’s front-page banner headline shouted: ‘World Markets Collapse’.  Yet the late night Monday print deadlines meant that the newspaper did not, literally, know the half of it. The AFR reported that ‘the Dow Jones Industrials index crashed more than 200 points in the first two hours of trading’ and it missed the afternoon’s larger collapse, which was now being reported on radio and breakfast television news. There were parallel reports of near-hysteria in New York where blue chip stocks, along with almost everything else, plummeted as shares were sold mercilessly. 

Yet there were optimists about, who would later be seen to have been clutching at straws, hoping this was to be a ‘correction’ not a full blown bear market. ‘Recovery is possible’ wrote veteran AFR scribbler Albert Smith, while the newspaper’s back page sage ‘Chanticleer’ wrote ‘that expectations late yesterday (Monday) were that [Wall Street] would recover some of its lost ground.’

Nonetheless, the question in everyone’s mind in the leafy suburban stock broker belts of Australia’s major cities early that Tuesday morning was not ‘Will the Australian Market fall?’ but ‘By how much?’

It was soon to be revealed in dramatic fashion on the nation’s stock exchanges’ trading floors that were still then in operation.  It was to be their last major dramatic play, however.

In Sydney, a quarter of hour before trading opened at 10 o’clock, the large blackboards above and around the trading floor were already stacked with sell orders with no buy price to be seen.

Gavin Larkin, a novice ‘chalkie’ in Sydney – one of the young men who used to record latest bids and offers prices for shares on the blackboards in response to shouts from traders milling about below – recalled that adrenaline was pumping before trading started. The market opened in chaos.

‘When the bell rang, it was a cacophony of yelling’, he recalled.

With newly-installed computer systems being trialled to handled just the top 20 stocks struggling to keep up with the waves of panic selling of shares, twenty minutes after stock exchanges opened the All Ordinaries Index had shed more than 14 per cent of its value, after 30 minutes it had fallen 16 per cent and after 45 minutes it was down 440 points or 21 per cent – the level at which it ended the morning session.

This wiped a massive $44 billion – $101 billion in 2015 dollars – from the market capitalisation of listed Australian stocks, which was enough at the time to buy Australia’s largest company BHP almost three times over.

Some people coped with the pressure better than others. In the mid-morning mayhem, one of Larkin’s colleagues dumped his chalk and eraser, left the building and never came back.

‘He was a real mover and shaker, he had just been dropping everything he earned into the market,’ Larkin recalled. ‘He turned around and said “I don’t give a shit. I just lost $250,000”’.

The greatest damage was done in the forty five minutes after the 10 o’clock opening as investors scrambled to sell high profile stocks, including hitherto high flying darlings of the market dominated by the some of the country’s most influential businessmen, such as John Elliott’s conglomerate Elders IXL, Peter Abeles’ transport behemoth TNT, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bruce Judge’s disparate investment vehicle Ariadne, George Herscu’s property and retail business Hooker Corporation, Larry Adler’s insurance firm FAI, Fletcher Challenge and Robert Holmes à Court ’s Bell Group.  This collection of shares lost an average of a third of their value, with TNT losing almost half. This was to be a turning point from which almost all these entrepreneurs never recovered. They had grown rich on the back of easy lending by foreign banks looking to get a foothold in the deregulating Australia in the early 1980s. Some overstepped the mark and eventually fell foul of the law for various corporate transgressions. Only Murdoch subsequently flourished.

Even the genuine blue chips, those solid, unflashy companies running generally tight operations took a big hit, including the major banks, which on average shed almost one fifth of their value. BHP slid 41 per cent; building materials supplier Boral fell a mind-boggling 60 per cent; and the well-led clothing and rubber goods maker Pacific Dunlop was down an equally astounding 44 per cent. For anything of lesser quality there were often no buyers at all. Veteran broker Bill ‘Captain’ Edwards said: ‘There were just no buyers for the crap stocks.’

The top thirty six stocks then accounted for 55 per cent of the All Ordinaries index. Because they were large and liquid, they took the brunt of the selling. Volumes were massive. The turnover in Bougainville Copper and TNT were six times higher than their average volumes; Pacific Dunlop and ANZ Bank were up well over five times; and the unfortunate Boral saw its volume ramp up by factor of four and a half. The most active stock by value was BHP, which saw $88.2 million ($202.9 million in today’s dollars) worth of shares change hands.

Around 300 people packed the public gallery overlooking the Melbourne trading floor, while they were standing twenty deep in Sydney’s gallery, anxious for a peek at history, bleak though it was, being made. Crowds gathered outside to stare in disbelief as the electronic price and index tickers silently reflected the turmoil inside the exchanges. In Sydney, those looking in from the street had to put with a persistent drizzle.

As the morning wore on television news programmes made live crosses to exchanges around the country, shell-shocked market commentators found coherent response difficult when asked for their views. Don Stammer, a respected economist with Sydney stockbrokers Bain and Co said: ‘In this market you don’t need to be an investment analyst, you need to be a clinical psychologist’. Afternoon newspapers rushed onto the streets with headlines such as the Melbourne Herald’s ‘The Crash of 1987’.

After the rough and tumble morning, with chalkies clambering over each other to write their prices up in the correct spot amid a typhoon of noise from shouting traders, Larkin and his remaining colleagues retreated to the pub. ‘We felt we’d earned it – everyone was just dazed and confused,’ he said.

There was, however, to be no respite in the afternoon session and the market eventually closed down 25 per cent, taking the day’s accumulated losses to $55 billion – $127 billion in 2015 money. Australia had another record, albeit that this one was unwelcome. No other major market had suffered such a precipitous one day fall; nor has one since. It was greater too than the 2008 crash that we have come to call the Global Financial Crisis, when the market shed 8 per cent on its worst day.

Former Australian cricket captain Kim Hughes was a rookie floor trader with local brokers D.J. Carmichael and Co at the Perth Stock Exchange on the day. ‘It’s scary, really scary,’ he muttered to an enquiring Australian Associated Press reporter. To add to the tense atmosphere in the dramatic morning session in Perth, the air-conditioning failed. Hughes said that while traders had to shout orders over each other they did not have direct contact with the panicky investors who were desperately telephoning his office. He felt frustrated at being unable to help the clients whose savings were disappearing by the minute. ‘We can’t do much for them because there just aren’t any buyers,’ he told the reporter.

But there were some buyers. Shares cannot sell without buyers. Chalkie Gavin Larkin recalls that the only person buying significant volumes in Sydney – which had the largest turnover on the day – was the flamboyant stockbroker Rene Rivkin, who was recovering from surgery to remove a brain tumour. Rivkin had sold all his holdings earlier in the year when he became ill, fearing he might not survive the operation.

‘He appeared back on the trading floor for the first time since his hospitalisation, with his head swathed in bandages, using a walking stick’, Larkin said. ‘He was pretty much the only person on the day buying and later credited it as the making of his second fortune.’ Rivkin, like most other 1980s entrepreneurs sailing close to the wind, was later to have a spot of bother with the law too.

Some institutions were also buying, mostly in the morning session, seeing value in the rapidly retreating market, before they too eventually got cold feet confronted by the relentless wall of sell orders.

That bleak day inevitably became known as Black Tuesday. It left in its wake shattered men on the trading floors of the exchanges. Even hours after the close of trading, most brokers remained shell-shocked. They had anticipated some downturn following Wall Street’s crash overnight but they were stunned at the speed and magnitude of the fall.

The managing director of the stockbroking firm ANZ McCaughan, David Browne, later recalled a climate of fear. ‘The way it manifested itself is panic and nobody had seen this before, nobody could give appropriate guidance as to where the end might be,’ he said. Browne says both local and international investors were rushing to sell.

‘We obviously had a lot of wrath. We had a number of entrepreneurs globally – not just Australia – but globally who I guess were shuffling paper at a rapid rate,’ he said. ‘And we had fairly highly geared retail customers, so once a wheel fell off then the exponential effect was dramatic.’

While there was general surprise and bewildered head shaking at the worldwide financial slump in the wider community, there was also a more than a modicum of schadenfreude. The typically blokey atmosphere in the stock markets and especially on the trading floors, and the long bull market, had created arrogant and insensitive self-styled ‘Masters of the Universe’ typified by Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, which premiered just seven weeks after the crash, with his immortal line ‘Greed, for lack of a better word, is good’.

Floor trading was a robust activity, often played for high stakes. It was often more like a sport than the more sedate corporate life of the companies whose shares they were trading. Many traders were known to each other only by nicknames, as if mimicking life on the playing fields. Reminiscing years later, a gathering of former chalkies remembered Blockhead, Jughead, Huggie Bear, Chicken Man, Piggy, Wombat, Snake, Fabulous Phil, The Hobbit, The Tree, Windscreens, Fruitcake, The Skipper, Fingers, Milton the Monster, The Fuhrer and The Godfather. It was not a place for shrinking violets.

The Sydney Morning Herald eventually called the October ’87 crash ‘Yuppies Armageddon – a day that dismantled a lifestyle’. Elsewhere there was plenty of commentary about traders ‘riding for a fall’ and self-absorbed ‘yuppies getting their comeuppance’. It would be another twenty years before we saw their like again.

The impact of the crash on the people inside the industry was dramatic too, because the market did not recover for ten years. It has been estimated that in the six months after the crash, 500 stockbrokers lost their jobs. In the much bigger market of London, an estimated 10,000 people had lost their jobs within two years.

Trading floors were closed in 1990 to be replaced by fully electronic buying and selling, and the chalkies were all retrenched; floor traders became screen jockeys, although most had little taste for it. The old and new jobs were like chalk and cheese, demanding a shifted skill set and aptitude.

John McDonough, a former trader still in the industry twenty years later, but working as a financial adviser with private clients, felt it was ‘not as much fun’ as it was back then. It was, he observed, quieter, less colourful, and characters who would make your day, had left’.

That Black Tuesday of October 1987 was to be a signal turning point. Things would never be the same again in the Australian stock market. Old ways were dying out anyway, driven by technology and globalisation, but this savage day turbo charged change.

There had been significant changes in the past, such as when exchanges ditched the daily call, when the chairman of the relevant stock exchange assembled brokers in a room and systematically (and tediously) went through each listed share to enable trading in one stock at a time. They switched to the trading post system that evolved onto the trading floors that operated on Black Tuesday. There was the amalgamation of the independent city-based exchanges into the Australian-wide organisation. There was the change from stockbroking partnerships to limited companies and joint ventures with major banks. There was the de-mutualisation that led to the current publicly listed entity that is the ASX. Each of these changes was important and had its own distinct impacts. However, none were such an efficacious working catalyst as Black Tuesday.

Within two years, the stock exchange trading floors were replaced by electronic trading, changing irrevocably the nature of the industry.

In many ways, the changes in the operations of Australian stock exchanges mirror the changes in the wider world itself. They are just as much a result of a globalised world, aided and abetted by unprecedented technological improvements and the remorseless advance of financial capitalism as most clearly shown by the worldwide chain stores in local shopping mall or the late lamented local car manufacturing industry. And yet at another level it has been the epitome of it. For a hundred years Australian stock exchanges were ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’ to which access was restricted to close relatives and neatly-brushed private school boys, when suddenly, in less than a decade, it leapt into the front line of the new Gordon Gekko era of greed is good.

The change was best encapsulated by Jim Bain, in some ways the Godfather of the old Sydney stock exchange modernisation in the 1980s when he described the change in recruitment to the industry.  Bain was a third-generation stock broker who by virtue of family patronage had privileged access to his firm. Yet he was an early protagonist in the need for change and fought vested interests to eventually lead that change as the final chairman of the Sydney Stock Exchange before its amalgamation with other Exchanges into the Australian Stock Exchange.

He said his first twenty years in stockbroking – the 1950s and 60s – when his firm was considering employing someone, ‘we asked the following questions: Does the applicant come from a stable family background? Does that person have a reputation for honesty and integrity? How many jobs has the applicant had over their working life? A basic education to Leaving Certificate standard with reasonable conversational and writing skills was essential. A university degree was regarded as being useful but not considered a high priority. The standard of personal hygiene, dress and appearance as well as the personal presentation of the applicant were regarded as very important factors.

In the last decade or two, Bain said in 2001, the position had changed to the following general requirements. Is the applicant going to bring a large amount of captive business? Has the candidate obtained an MBA degree, or at least two university degrees? How many jobs have they had during their working career (with the emphasis on many rather than one job)?

‘Now this may be a more commercial attitude to building a successful and competitive firm. It could, possibly, maximise the bottom line’, he said. ‘The cost, in my opinion, is a lack of long term staff commitment and loyalty to the organisation’. In these terms, of course, this was nothing more than ‘it was better in my day’.

But reading between the lines, one can see that there has been a substantial change in values that might be broadly conceptualised as a move from integrity, and an instinctive belief that this is in the long term interests of the firm, to short term deliverables that make an immediate contribution to the bottom line. That is not to suggest, of course, that all was goodness and light until then. The Gentlemen’s Clubs were not paragons of moral rectitude. 

Although the move to computerized trading had begun the previous week, there were still active trading floors in 1987. These were physical market places where the business of haggling over and trading shares was done.

Big Bang in London in October 1986 changed it all, as the tsunami of global trends and digital technology washed over stock markets the world over.


Occasionals – Better than sex. Not.

A true story from quite a long time ago

ff

Eastern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)

We left Grand Reef aerodrome at 9.30 in the morning in four Allouette choppers, heading south west, ascending quickly from the flat valley floor, but only high enough to comfortably clear the surrounding hills. Flying too high exposed the chopper to an unnecessarily larger number of guerilla groups with SAM missiles.

I was sitting on the right at the back, my rifle muzzle out in the clear blue sky. On my left, squeezed between me and the chopper tech-cum-gunner, was Selby James, rifleman number two in the four man stick. He was a quiet, straight-out-of-school conscript, whose body language suggested he was overawed to have ended up in a commando unit. Nothing in his background had prepared him for it and, like me, he would never have volunteered for it.

Up front, between the pilot and our machine gunner Joost van der Westhuizen, was the very young Lieutenant ‘Jug’ Thompson, not long out of school himself and most recently fresh out of a year’s officer training, anxious to make a name for himself. He was blonde, shorter than most and stocky. Van  der  Westhuizen was an RLI  (Rhodesian Light Infantry) regular of Afrikaans stock. He was mid-twenties, a volunteer. He was dour but a competent, sensible type. But that he talked a lot about ‘kaffirs” marked him down as a diehard: in the Nazi mould of considering the native population, and hence the terrorists, as sub-human cannon fodder. And so they gave him a cannon – a belt-fed monster of a machine gun weighing 25 pounds.

We troops never knew where we were going when we were on a Fire Force operation. Speed was of the essence. News came through to headquarters of a sighting or a skirmish, and we were scrambled. Usually five choppers were dispatched, four with troops and the fifth as the command vehicle – called the K-car – with the officer commanding the operation – usually, in our case the dashing Captain Kip Beamish – on board. He would be briefed while airborne.

No time was spent on briefing for the rest of us. In any event, each contact with the enemy was similar in its essential details so that a pre-contact discussion might only trigger too much thinking on our part.

But you could pick up the general direction and pretty soon after getting airborne you would get an indication from chopper tech/gunner, who was tuned into the ground-to-air and air-to-air coms, how far we had to go to get to the drop zone.

“35 minutes”, he shouted into Selby’s ear above the din of the rotor blades. Selby passed that onto me with a smile and a thumbs up. Selby wasn’t one of my more gung-ho fellow troopers, he didn’t wear a bandanna around his head, for instance, so I guessed he was feeling as anxious as I was. I was always anxious when we scrambled. Rather than firing me up, my adrenalin seemed to put extra effort into survival of the organism. 

This was a longish flight. Mostly we were in the air for less than 30 minutes. We didn’t usually head south west either. Most trouble seemed to be to the north, in the Inyanga or Inyazura districts. The ‘terrs’ had strongholds in some areas of Inyanga, though this was never openly acknowledged. We knew they controlled Inyanga’s Honde Valley. The police reservists and territorial troops there only reluctantly strayed outside their heavily guarded base camps. Yet whenever crack troops – like us in the RLI – were sent in, the ‘terrs’ melted into the hills, presumably believing discretion to be the better part of valour, at least for now.

So the south west would be new. It was confirmed when we landed. This was woodland, not the open savannahs or grasslands we were used to. It affected the light. There were more shadows than usual. You couldn’t see as clearly. And it also meant that the choppers that would remain overhead for as long as possible would not be easily able to see the enemy on the ground.

We were dropped in a clearing to the south west of the dominant hill in the area and told to sweep towards it. We spread out, and swept in a straight line, about 15 yards apart. I was on the extreme left, Selby next to me, then van der Westhuizen and on the right Thompson, my leader, 45 metres away. Why wasn’t he closer to the middle when he could control things better, I wondered.

We moved forward at a careful walking pace, acclimatising to the light, the vegetation, and presumably as Thompson got instructions from Beamish in the K-Car. Suddenly I saw a terr lying down in a firing position facing us perhaps 40 metres ahead. I dropped to one knee and double tapped two shots into his back. The other three stick members dived for cover. There was no movement, no responding fire from the terr’s support. We all stared at the body. Now I could see it was a log, a fallen tree trunk.

We got up and were ordered by Captain Beamish in the K-Car in the sky to make rapid progress towards the southern base of the hill. We were 150 metres from it when we heard a concerted burst of firing. We saw tracer bullets shooting at right angles in both directions in front of us and Selby and I instinctively dived to the ground. There was no cover to be had, just flat earth and thin tree trunks, but the bullets weren’t coming our way.

We waited until the shooting stopped, got up and moved forward and went to ground again 30 metres short of the small clearing into which we calculated our troops to our left had been firing. I had a found a comforting rock that easily shielded my body. Selby had a natural depression in the ground that he seemed to quite like.

Selby shouted “There’s a terr, down there on the left”, and he started firing, repeated single shots. Before he’d got off his first round, I’d seen the guy too. He was walking through the trees about 70 metres away to the left, his Kalashnikov semi-automatic in his left hand by his side, unaware of us and looking up to the sky, watching the choppers. I opened fire too. The terr went to ground and we lost sight of him.

It was quiet on the ground for several moments, with only the sound of the choppers circling overhead at some distance.

Suddenly a blast of firing exploded to my right. I looked round and saw van der Westhuizen and Thompson running towards the clearing, firing their guns from their hips. I didn’t move. I looked across at Selby. He showed no signs of wanting to move either.

The firing stopped and van der Westhuizen and Thompson were in the clearing where the terrs were. Selby and I got up and joined them. There were perhaps a dozen bodies lying inert and one man propped up against a tree, alive but badly wounded.

Thornton walked towards us, eyes ablaze. “Shit, that was better than sex,” he said to us. We had expected a bollocking for not charging forward with him.

“You must have had some strange girlfriends”, I said, and then after a suitable pause, “Sir.” He looked at me disdainfully. He must have known that I was covering up for my cowardice, but he didn’t have the wit to respond. Or perhaps he thought it wasn’t worth the effort.

Instead he pointed to the wounded man propped against the tree and said, “patch him up. Special branch will want to ask him a few questions.” And as an afterthought, “Don’t give him any morphine, we might need it.”

Selby and I knelt down beside the wounded man. He was conscious. He had a stomach wound. Selby set about trying to patch it with a bandage while I took his arm to look for a vein into which I could insert a needle for the drip of saline solution I was carrying. We all carried a bit of medical kit to share around when needed.

I couldn’t find a vein. I looked at him. He was about my age. He didn’t look at me. He was moaning and saying “Amai, amai” – mother, mother – over and over again. Selby had attached a bandage to the wound; I hadn’t managed to generate a vein, when the life went from him.

We stood up. Numb. Too much had happened in so short a time. Thompson was sitting on a rack having a cigarette. Van der Westhuizen was talking to the machine gunner – there was an affinity between the beasts of the machine gun burden – of second stick of our guys that had arrived from the south: the ones who had had the initial firefight and probably done most of the damage.

One of them had just thrown a phosphorous grenade nearby to pinpoint the scene of the battle to the choppers above..

Selby and I wandered among the dozen dead bodies. The battle was over. We knew our cleaning up chores would start soon.

“Shit, look at that,” Selby said, pointing to an inert body lying face down. It had a bullet head sticking out of its back. He walked up to it, and shoved, rather then kicked, the body with the soul of his boot. There was something odd about how the body resettled.

Selby bent down, grabbed the shoulder and turned the body over. The terr wasn’t dead.

It was a sign of how washed out we were, because there was no consternation. There were no histrionics. No one pointed their rifle at him.

Someone said, “You fucking wanker!” It was Beamish. He had landed in the K-Car. Twelve dead terrs was an unusually high number.

There was a familiarity in his tone that we all recognized. It was of the same tone of the white farmer who had just discovered his black foreman had neglected a key duty.  It was almost comical in the circumstances but more than that it was a friendly comment, in a master-servant way. As if an old mate had walked into a pub and been greeted with “How are you, you old bastard.”

Beamish escorted him to the chopper, and the uninjured wanker was taken away to one of the interrogation centres.

“Right get on with it,” Thompson said rather pointedly to Selby and me. “Take these fuckers to the DZ.” Van der Westerhuizen was pointedly excused from the grisly job. The message was clear enough. If we couldn’t do the men’s stuff, we could clean up the shit.

We slung our rifles over our backs. They didn’t sit there too well there because we had back packs on. In the RLI, you invoked a blood curdling stream of crude invective from a non-commissioned officer if you were seen with a rifle on your back. But it was a greater sin to leave your rifle unattended, especially in a combat zone.

We both walked over to the dead man nearest the 40 metre path to the DZ. Each of us grabbed a foot and we dragged the body along the dirt path, choking back sighs as we struggled to drag the body and keep our rifles on our back. But you know in the Army there is no point in complaining. It’s the sort of little tiresome incident that ‘makes a man’ of you.

Also you are dealing with a dead man. Someone who was alive 15 minutes ago. Deep in the brutality of an African war, feelings squeeze through in the quiet moments, when the adrenalin has subsided.

Then suddenly the dead man’s plimsole – we called them takkies – slipped off his sockless left foot into my hand that had steadily slid down from the ankle under the pressure of the literal deadweight and my upward angled right shoulder trying to keep my rifle aloft.

The smell made me retch. This dead guy must’ve been on the move for weeks, and quite clearly had not taken his takkie off in this time. Who could blame him? Wherever he camped down, even in the friendliest of kraals, he’d have to be ready to run 24/7. I wouldn’t have taken my shoes off either.

It took us about half an hour to drag all the bodies to the DZ for uplifting by chopper to the Special Branch centre. One other body was notable. It had no head. There was no sign of a severed head anyway, so we assumed he had been shot and killed in the act of throwing a grenade. By this time we had become inured to dragging the dead bodies, so we were more intrigued than nauseated or disturbed. Now I only remember a neck stump of raw meat.

When we reconvened with the heroes who had been instrumental in ‘clearing out the gooks’ we saw that the two sticks – ours and the other one that had swept up from the south – were in loud argument about who had done the killing. It seemed that Thompson and van der Westhuizen might have blazed their way, Audie-Murphy-like (Rambo movies hadn’t been made back then), through a group of already dead or dying men.

Selby and I shared a smirk.

The names in this story have been changed because it may be that none of us are especially proud of any of this.