Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Memoir - Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia

At the moment the memoir consists of a series of leaves or postcards that slip between time periods without following a chronology or trying to tell a structured story.
 Appreciate feedback, reactions and suggestions.
Cover art: with kind permission of Rachel-Ireland-Meyers (see
 Blue Echo

 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken

Leaf 2 “Returning to Erin” Ireland April 1999

I stood at the podium in St Patrick’s Hall deep inside Dublin Castle. Towering gilt covered columns and large mirrors lined the walls. Thin, long banners floated down the walls in between the mirrors and columns.  Many of the banners bore cattle motifs belonging to the Anglo-Irish nobility who gathered here century after century at the beck and call of their English monarchs. Above me, three massive painted panels by Vincenzo Valdre covered high and sweeping ceilings. The first depicted the coronation of King George III, the second, Saint Patrick introducing Christianity to Ireland, and the final painting was of King Henry II receiving the submission of the Irish Chieftains. This hall had, for centuries, sent a sharp message to the Irish, from nobility to peasant, about power and dominion.

The Irish Government/University of Cork sponsored FOI Conference was a rare opportunity for a junior lecturer to speak at such a venue in another country. I faced a sea of Irish faces, many bearing a striking resemblance to those I saw every day in Tasmania, including my cousins on the Cody and Gleeson sides of the family. I was extremely nervous despite repeated rehearsals in the morning shower, I had not yet found the right opening. Finding the start of a talk or lecture is always the difficult moment for me. 

If I can get an interesting opening or one that I can use as a hook, the rest of the talk flows naturally. Yet until I see the venue, and get a feel for the audience and the atmosphere, it is hard to crystallise the opening. Looking out on the assembled Irish public servants, journalists and academics, finally inspiration came to me as I waited on stage to be introduced.  I found the ‘hook’:  a link between my theme of government transparency, the history made within the confines of Dublin Castle  and  my mother’s ancestors being transported from Ireland in the 1840s. My talk had found its beginning:
“I find it strange to be standing here today- at the heart of colonial British administration from the place where my ancestors, male and female in chains, were transported as criminals to the other end of the world – talking about access to government information. I’m the first of their descendants to return to this country and after three months of living with ‘soft days’ I know why my ancestors never returned home.” 

Over the next 12 months I revisited parts of my Irish ancestors’ long, slow route to Australia. I gave invited talks in Cape Town, where their leaky old transport ships would have rested at anchor, and later at the Rocks in Sydney where they were likely to have berthed before being consigned like trade goods or human cattle to Van Diemen’s Land. In all three places my talks were given in the converted buildings of the British colonial regime – in Dublin Castle, a converted prison in Cape Town and the old government buildings in Sydney.

The invitation to Dublin was achieved through networking, a skill few academics or public servants seem to master despite the fortune spent on business cards and the piles of cards collected and distributed at conferences.  An email from people given one of my cards is rare. On the other hand within a week of returning from a trip, I’ve emailed everyone whose details I collected. If no reply is forthcoming, they are allowed to drift out of my networks. If someone replies, they go into one of my contact lists (administrative law teachers, FOI contacts, personal, by location or some other category). Only 5% of those I contact ever keep in touch. Yet in 20 years, this 5% has turned into a significant network. Networks are like gardens requiring regular attention where seeds germinate, bloom and often fade away over time.

 In early December 1998, I received an email from Maeve McDonagh, a striking red-haired academic from University College Cork. Maeve was an Irish expert on FOI who had worked in Australia. We met via the FoI Review, a publication I edited for a decade, and Maeve had visited Tasmania a few years previously for a seminar and stayed with my family. She had arrived in late November (late Spring) only to encounter snow falling on the mountain where we live. Maeve is one of those vibrant Galway women with a lilting voice and flashing eyes which give enough warning signs to know you would want to avoid her ire.  Maeve’s email  asked if I could help Cork Law School with a problem. Each year in January they invited a US academic to Ireland who would teach a legal writing class in return for an airfare and a small stipend. All that was required was a few hours of lectures, some one-on-one feedback with a hundred or more Irish, Spanish and German students over a four month period and marking two sets of essays. An American legal writing teacher (a position yet to gain a significant foothold in Australia) had cancelled at the very last moment and they needed someone within three weeks.

Frantic consultations with family, the Dean of the Law School and the deployment of my annual and long service leave found me committed to living for four months in Ireland whilst my family remained in Tasmania.  My return to ‘home soil’ after a 40 hour journey was almost thwarted as the Garda (Police) insisted on a work permit and seemed unmoved by my explanations that the people at Cork Law School had said it would be okay to complete the details (which only they had) on the form after arriving, an arrangement not cleared with the authorities.  It was Cork, late Saturday night and I was an Australian, so I was allowed in with a passport stamp saying  “report to the nearest Garda Station in 10 days,” a deadline my Irish colleagues kept insisting could blissfully be ignored. Meanwhile, on the same night in Dublin, a Japanese student with a fully completed permit, but in their luggage, was refused entry and held in custody for four days. Maybe a few ancestral spirits had removed the ‘barriers’ for my return ‘home’.

Leaf 3 “Words and Pictures” Elphin Road Launceston 1965 or early 1966

Two memories battle for a precise location in my early history. One is where I’m aged about six, checking letterboxes because I have conflated the sending out of pamphlets about the introduction of decimal currency with the idea that actual money was being delivered.  I have a strong impression that the struggle to find money was a constant part of my mother’s waking hours. My venture into postal theft reaped poor dividends as the Government simply sent out cards showing the likeness of the coins and banknotes to come. The second memory is heading to the newsagent to buy a copy of Smash, a British comic, with a penny or ha’penny with a coin that may have been given to me by an old man who lived in the same group of flats as our family.  Maybe this was the old man who taught me draughts and a few basic card games.  

The struggle to read the borrowed Dick and Jane books from East Launceston Primary School still lingers with me today, especially the frantic efforts I made to avoid the terror of trying to read aloud in class before my stuttering and mangled pronunciation ended in tears.  Yet those struggles and terror quickly disappeared with my private and mental devouring of the pictures, actions and words of Smash comics. Comics remain a treasured part of my reading material, and like Clive James in Unreliable Memoirs, some of them rank equally to Arundhati Roy, Kerouac or Shakespeare. As I type this, the latest 5 issues of The Phantom are sitting on the table waiting to be read with sweet pleasure and anticipation. Comics taught me I could master words and language, even if I had little talent or capacity to show that mastery with my voice.

When I first started writing these vignettes I would visualise a scene or recall a photograph and then develop the story around the image.  Image - my mother and I in our best outfits on the steps of a public building and the camera catching her beauty. Another image – a late Friday night almost two decades later and I am in the backseat of a speeding car, packed with local youth, as beer cans are being hurled at a pursuing police car.
For several years I have urged law book publishers to add colour and images to their text books or to produce a “Rough Guide” series to the law where cases and principles are supplemented by the back story, pictures and other information in drop boxes and other devices. Many of my academic colleagues would almost sneer at the ‘dumbing down’ of the delivery of ‘the law’ in this way.  For me, it is making the law accessible and interesting. A few years ago Lynden Griggs, my colleague at UTAS, and I wrote an article advocating teaching property law using just six cases. The idea was that we would trace the story, including the legal and the social aspects, from the beginning to the aftermath of the case. The idea was that this ‘six pack” of cases could put law cases and principles not only in their context, but also make them come alive with their characters, dramas and intriguing stories of hope, despair and chaos. This method would provide a way to immerse students in the detail of the law as well as into the drama and struggle behind the dry cases set out in the textbooks and case law. 

Leaf 4 “Freedom Fighter” Cape Town July 1999

The words “Freedom Fighter…”  were splashed across a large picture of me in the Argus newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa: an honour in the land of Nelson Mandela and the inspiring jurist Albie Sachs.  I was halfway through a rapid 3 day trip (including return travel that started with a lecture in Introduction to Law in Hobart on a Wednesday morning - a hurried filming in my office of a Lateline segment on FOI (that never went to air), a taxi to Hobart International Airport, a series of flights, – Melbourne - Kuala Lumpur –Mauritius – Johannesburg  - Cape Town, 48 hours at a conference then a return set of flights – Cape Town - Johannesburg – Sydney – Hobart, followed by another Introduction to Law lecture on the Monday morning, just to give a presentation to a conference about FOI in South Africa.  When I asked an organisier for the South African Human Rights Commission why I was there, he simply said, “after what you have to say about the experience elsewhere and what best practice is in relation to cabinet information then our proposals will look moderate.” Deep in the text of the Argus article is possibly the only use by an academic in a media interview using the term “ratshit”.

Three very different encounters have stayed in my mind from that trip. The first was being confronted by the slums on the way from the airport in Cape Town. It was my first near but still fleeting and remote encounter with mass poverty. It was intriguing to see the range of housing even within the slums. In one location, a large two storey concrete building lorded it over the rest of the buildings. Stretching out in almost prefect concentric, regulated zones were different types of housing: nearest to the two storey building were those constructed of better tin; as the zones went out the tin quality dropped quickly; and finally, tin was soon replaced by cardboard. On the edges of stagnant water pools (large puddles) were the most improvised dwellings. It seemed that poverty clearly had its own levels.  The second encounter occurred at a reception during a conversation with a white male who was a former member of the South African Defence Forces.  He was telling a story from the apartheid years about Armoured Personnel Carriers and the ANC. Another person, a black female left the group at the same time as I did.  She made a phone call where she related the man’s story and seemed to be urging some kind of action or response from the person on the other end of the line. Whilst the gathering was multi-racial, it was clear the scars, wounds and enmities from an earlier period were not buried, instead, they still lingered just under the surface of collective memory.

The final encounter was a lesson in the difference between necessary accommodation at work and separate lives after hours. A very mixed group from the conference, in terms of race, gender and countries went to an elegant wharf side restaurant. As we walked in, the conversation slowed to a stop. The absence of non-white faces among the diners was a stark contrast to our multi-ethnic group. During the course of our meal several ‘coloured’ passers-by stopped and looked into the restaurant. A couple appeared to make a spur of the moment decision and came in for a meal. One of my companions remarked the next day that there were very distinct worlds for most South Africans, nearly uncrossable divisions between their multi-racial working lives and their very race-centered non-work existence.

Leaf 5 “An inferno on the edge of town” Whyalla, South Australia  December 1977 – February 1978

A magnificent sight, driving on the edge of the South Australian desert with Dad at the wheel. Great forks of lightening rippled towards the earth from all locations around a perfectly flat horizon.  I felt like I was at the epicentre. Every few seconds another series of dazzling bright streaks, a fresh lightening bolt would appear, often before the previous one had faded. The blue sky disappearing into night wore a blanket of dark cloud and the flashes highlighted the redness of the soil. I was on my summer holidays before starting my second year of University. We were driving towards a complex of steel and iron rising out of the landscape: BHP’s Whyalla Steel Mill

Dad had moved to work at Whyalla after being retrenched in the massive lay offs of over 700 workers, almost half the workforce, at Mt Lyell, Tasmania in 1976. The retrenchments ripped apart Queenstown, a small isolated town of about 8,000 people. Many families were forced to do the unthinkable and leave town, an unimaginable moment for many in that town, including for my family. Untill that moment, an attitude had prevailed that the history of Queenstown, despite all the experiences of mining towns everywhere else, would be eternal. I had completed a social sciences assignment in matriculation college in 1975 which attempted to explain this attitude based on the evidence of surviving the economic crunch of the 1890s, the Mt Lyell Disaster of 1912, two World Wars, the Depression and hard times in the early 1960s. There was a feeling and an optimism that the town would be there for centuries.

At the same time as the retrenchments, two retiring Directors of Consolidated Goldfields, the then owners of Mt Lyell, received golden parachutes of several hundred thousand dollars each. The events of the Whitlam Dismissal, the invasion of East Timor, the Mt Lyell retrenchments and the golden parachute for the directors added sharp dimensions to my thinking and attitudes. The lonesome outsider started to form a critical and sharp political view of the world.  The accidental discovery of Bob Dylan (I was attracted by the cover and the poetic liner notes) via his Desire album and Bruce Springsteen’s tributes to the working/struggling classes of small towns finished the forging of a radical edge to my politics and social views.
After a long period of trying to find work with hundreds of others on the West Coast, even trying for jobs on Groote Eylandt, the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Dad eventually scored a job at Whyalla in South Australia and the family pulled up its roots and went with him. For a family that considered a once a year trip to Burnie (100 miles) as a major and largely joyless adventure, this appeared like a journey of no return. I stayed behind in Tasmania to continue my first year at the University.

Whilst my TESS (Tertiary Education Student Support) allowance was minimal (calculated on Dad’s previous wage at Mt Lyell and not on his unemployment benefit or much lower new wage), it did entitle me to 3 return trips to my home (the definition of home  now incorporated my family’s new home in South Australia) each year. No more money could be found for me to live on but I could spend more than double my monthly TESS cheque on each trip home three times a year if I wanted.

Bored and keen for money, during my first summer in Whyalla, I rocked up to the employment office at the steel mill. I lied about my educational background claiming that I had just finished college and had no intent of going on to university. My long hair and shaggy beard seemed to do little to undermine the creditability of my story. I was hired. Thus began my short but intense career as a shift-work mill labourer in the hot desert sun. There were a number of Tasmanian employment refugees like my father at the mill. We identified ourselves by drawing a rough triangle (the general shape of the island state of Tasmania) on our helmets with the year of our arrival in the middle of the triangle. My red helmet had a yellow triangle and a ‘77’.
 The main, and never ending, shift task was using a special metal ‘key’, a metal rod about a metre in length with a ‘V’ at one end. The labourer would approach a 6 metre long steel girder laying on its side push the ‘V’ at the top of the bar into an edge of the girder and with the right degree of force and timing ‘flick’ the bar over. It was a simple task that anyone could do and the degree of instruction matched its complexity – a handful of minutes on the first day. But it was, in fact, a simple task that sometimes went horribly wrong. Errors in estimating the force, timing and/or getting the flick wrong would result in the 6 metre several tonne  girder whipping back suddenly. When this happened you had to do two things: first, let go of the bar – or have your arm wrenched from its socket; and second, step back, duck and dive backwards as your bar spun would often spin back towards you. The turning procedure needed to be done every few minutes. If you failed to turn a girder the whole section of the rolling mill would be on hold until you recovered your turning bar, tested your arm and successfully flipped the girder.

There were three shifts, morning from 8am - 4pm, afternoon from 4pm - midnight and night shift from midnight - 8am. You rotated through these shifts over three weeks. Labourers, desperate for money like me, could also volunteer for overtime.  Sometimes, overtime was an extra three hour shift or a rare but enriching double shift with full meal allowances. The only drawback of overtime was having to rock up at the start of the next normal shift – a killer after a double shift. For a very good reason there were few volunteers for overtime.– the overtime job that awaited you. Few people volunteered for a second lot of overtime. After eight hours of flicking steel girders, with little access to water, your stamina and concentration was fairly low.  The overtime job was ‘bundling’.  Bundling is such a simple phrase that described something Dante would have struggled to depict. Girders would emerge from the furnaces glowing red hot, twisted and warped. They needed to be straightened between massive heavy-duty rollers. After the rolling, the girders would be collected in bundles of 8-10 by massive forklifts and taken out into the desert to cool off. The cooling took several days. The cooled girders were then returned to the rollers to be further straightened.

Bundling required the labourer to twist a thick wire around both ends of the bundle and a third wire in the middle. Donning a full face mask, thick leather gloves and a thick leather apron with your trusty flip bar in one hand and the wire in the other you dashed from the shelter towards this massive pile of glowing red steel with two other work mates. There you stood like a leather clad medieval knight on the edge of a dessert in the middle of summer to undergo your ordeal.  Step 1, twist the long wire in half forming a small loop at one end. Step 2, tap the new double strand wire one third along and about halfway along which allowed the wire to be folded at these ‘joints’. Step 3 walk quickly up to the mass of steel, surrounded by heat, burning dust, choking air and slide the wire underneath and up behind the bundle. Step 4,  reach across the red hot steel – avoiding contact - insert bar in loop twist until wire is super tight. Step 5, ignore the honking forklift drivers right behind you (on a bonus for each bundle collected – whilst the bundlers were on a flat minimum wage).

Five quick steps.  25 seconds in total if done flawlessly.  My maximum limit was about 40 seconds of exposure to the heat, choking fumes and horn blasts. Stuff up the bundling and the second attempt would generally take another 40 -50 seconds. Third attempts were simply suicidal. On second attempts you started to forget things like why there needed to be a loop, you would neglect to put in the ‘joints’ and struggle with trying to fit a straight thick iron wire around a stack of red hot steel. This was often followed by the ultimate moment of induced forgetfulness. Thick leather offered some protection from heat but it was not a very fireproof barrier against direct contact with red hot steel. A quick lapse of concentration would be immediately accompanied by the smell of fresh burning and the necessity to quickly retreat. I never got burnt but several times I exchanged my smoking holey gloves or apron for new ones. Once the girders were bundled, you retreated to the shelter taking off helmet, gloves and knocking back endless quantities of water. If the bundling was completed in the first attempt and in minimal time you had the luxury of fresh air, water and time to refocus on the next foray. When you staggered through a second or third attempt you had no time for any recovery.  Labourers who failed to complete overtime tasks never got a second opportunity.

Stand stills were frequent at the mill. Rolling the warped red hot steel between the straightening wheels required attention to speed, the weight to be applied and the positioning of the girder. The rolling operators seemed to be a hot-bed collection of dope smoking and white horse riding (heroin) cowboys and inattention and therefore hold ups were common. During the day and early afternoon shifts when these stoppages occurred,  labourers, like me, had to grab tins of yellow paint and  repaint all the safety rails, just in case a ‘boss’ was walking around. ‘Bosses’ had to suffer big pieces of machinery not working but would not tolerate a free loading labourer. Over several weeks, I painted the same safety railings at least 15 times. When stoppages occurred after the afternoon shift  meal beak (7.30pm) or on nightshift, when no Bosses were on the job,  you could curl up in a corner and try and sleep or read under the lights. Generally I was the only reader in the rolling mill area. Reading Kerouac, Salinger, Tom Robbins or political philosophy in the strange twilight and backdrop of a night time steel mill on the edge of the desert added a special atmosphere to the task.
A few weeks of enduring an antipodean version of Dante’s Inferno led to the fateful decision to forgo a few extra weeks of wages and head back to Tasmania to enrol in a special 2 week intensive Introduction to Law course. A series of letters exchanged with my friend Sally (met in my very first Political Science tutorial and my first ever private school friend) persuaded me to give law a go. At that point I had no realisation of the role played by law in creating and preserving the status quo that I had started to rub against.

Leaf 6 “Talking to the Generals” Phnom Penh, Cambodia August 2007

We had just driven across Phnom Penh in a small convoy, small flags fluttering at the front of the vehicle.  Negotiations for this meeting had been going on for a couple of days. We were waved into the Headquarters of the Cambodian Defence Ministry. Car doors were opened smoothly by officers in smart dress uniforms. On the circular creamy marble stairs at each turn, there were pairs of silent and still guards. As we climbed the levels, the amount of insignia, colour cords and braiding on the statute like guards increased. The seven of us (including our interpreter, four Ministry of National Assembly officials and my Cambodian off-sider) were ushered into a massive room.  We were seated at two long polished wooden tables separated by a wide gap in the middle. At each seat was a microphone. It was like a photo from the Paris Peace Talks of the late 1960s or early 1970s. Opposite sat eight men in full dress uniform, adorned with medals and overflowing braid, and one lone civilian. Behind each officer, and a few paces back, fully armed sentries stood at attention. I wanted to whip out my camera to catch the scene but decided that this would probably be a deal breaker.

At one point in the meeting, I referred to a section in the Cambodian Constitution. The translation was followed by looks of concern and the hands of the Generals started to move towards their jackets. My immediate thought was that I had derailed the talks with a stupid comment. It was both a relief and surprise when all of them drew out their pocket constitutions to confirm the accuracy of my Cambodian constitutional knowledge. At that point, I reflected that reaching for their constitutions rather than their guns may have been a sign of progress in Cambodia’s long and very troubled history. 
Later, in the course of a few terse exchanges, it was apparent that the Generals were deeply concerned, but it was hard to fathom the cause.  Then, enlightenment: the Generals thought the ‘right to information’ was also the ‘right of every soldier’, regardless of rank,  to release information. They had been reeling from the thought of Cambodian privates exercising constitutionally guaranteed rights to hand out information to anyone who wanted it. A quick clarification that FOI officers, authorisied to make decisions about release of information, ought to be senior officers operating in a firm line of command placed negotiations back on a smooth path.

As we left the compound I reflected on how a shy, tongue-tied boy from a small mountain mining town had found himself dealing directly with generals and Ministers in a far away land (Eespecially after a childhood of imagining being a solider in Vietnam). Yet the stories of those I worked with and my visit to S21 quickly evaporated any sentimentality or light heartedness. S21 was the former school where over 14,000 Cambodians and a handful of non-Cambodians were systematically tortured, interrogated, photographed (often in their torture chair) and then killed, Most of the people I worked with had been young children or young adults during the Khmer years.

Throughout my work in Cambodia there would be times when these 40-55 year old survivors would gently recall some aspect of these troubled years. It might be a comment about how my local 45 year old consultant was the family ‘elder’ for his extended family.  Or the NGO activist, who acted as a go-between with government officials, recounting how as a young teenager he walked across Cambodia, eluding the Khmer Rouge and then swum underwater sucking through a reed to get across the Thai border before becoming for a period a teenage gunrunner. 

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