"Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour."
- Arnold Toynbee 1889-1975
A Voyage of Constant Change
Writers are the product of the world about them. A world of conflict and change that for me was best illustrated by the contrasting images of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the introduction of the native political movement in Arctic Canada the subject of my first novel White Bird Black Bird. These changes have greatly influenced my writing life. I believe that the ancients have a lot to tell us about the human condition. Although technology has come a long way since Socrates introduced us to the idea of ethics, I believe his ideas are as valid today as they were in ancient Greece.
The gods joke at our expense. I was often tempted to share in the joke, by provoking the gods of good fortune, to test my ability to deal with adversity and turn it to my advantage. Some people might call this adventuring. I would prefer to say that this was my way of saying who I am.
The Ancients who led the Way
In my memoir My Voyage around Spray (with apologies to Captain Joshua Slocum) I end the final chapter with a message from the Temple of Apollo at the ancient Greek site of Delphi. The gods instructed us to "know yourself." For me looking back on more than fifty years of the writing life the instruction seems clear cut. But for people starting out, and even for people in middle age, Apollo's edict is fraught with difficulties. The demands of fashion and modern expectations often lead us to false conclusions about what is right for us. In my quest to seek the ancient's wisdom I visited sites including, Knossos, the Parthenon, Epidaurus, Mycenae, the Valley of the King. Ephesus and Karnack. It was while we were journeying up the Nile on our way to Abu Simbel that we tested the fates and our travel insurance. We boarded a plane at Aswan Airport. Abu Simbel was about 280 km south of Aswan, deep in the Nubian Desert, a few metres above the waters of Lake Nasser. The flight had its hair-raising moments and the in-flight service was appalling. There was an all-Russian crew on board. When we got back to Aswan we were told that the plane was flown out from Moscow shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The crew were owed thousands of roubles in back pay. They decided to fly the plane to Egypt in lieu of unpaid wages. The plane was stolen and had not been serviced for months.
Challenging the Gods
I think there must be a guardian angel watching over me. I don't wear a St Christopher medal but there were times when I could do with one. I started using light bush planes when I was the editor of the Dawson Creek Star. Where's Dawson Creek? It is located in the Canadian province of British Columbia and is about as far as you can go to grow cereal crops in Canada. I used to regularly fly into remote mountain settlements chasing stories. The editor who followed me was killed in a plane crash. It was in the Arctic where I learnt to use planes like people usually use taxis. My patch covered 1,300,000 square miles of Arctic barrenlands. Planes falling out the sky were regular events. Probably the most famous Search and Rescue mission that took place on my watch was SAR Hartwell. I flew with SAR Hartwell looking for a pilot and his three passengers on a medical evacuation from Spence Bay to Yellowknife. For hours I lay prone on the ramp of the C130 scouring the snow covered countryside but I never found the missing plane. When it was found only the pilot survived. He had survived by eating the buttocks of the British born nurse who was flying with her patients to Yellowknife. Life is hard in the Arctic. In 1971 I took part in the Canadian North Pole Expedition. I was a witness to the first woman to land at the Pole and visited an ice station where an angry cook shot and killed one of the station staff for criticising his cooking. The shooting caused an international incident which I have written about in my memoirs.
The Corridors of Power
I believe it was the English novelist and scientist, CP Snow, who first coined the expression the corridors of power. It may seem like an unlikely location for adventuring but believe me what goes on behind closed doors of any government bureaucracy can challenge the most intrepid among us. If you want to find out more read my novel When the Lions are Drinking. The lions are the embankment lions that decorate the sides of Thames River in central London. According to the Thames watermen's saying when the lions are drinking London is in peril and likely to flood. I served the Thatcher Government for about four years. I was working for the British Foreign Office. I was sent to Brussels to represent HMG (Her Majesty's Government) at an information meeting about future European Union film projects. At the time relations between London and Brussels were strained. Although English was one of the official languages, in Brussels it was the custom to use French. I didn't have much French. When I was introduced to a very elegant French lady who was chair of our committee I used my few words of French. This was enough for the committee chair to decide that there was no need for simultaneous translation. The meeting started and I was soon in deep trouble. A British colleague, who worked for the Commission, saw my difficulty and arranged for a translator. I learnt an invaluable lesson. Never pretend to be something that you're not.
My father often pretended to be something that he was not. It was part of his job. He was one of the Australian government's first spies. Robert Frederick Bird Wake started his spying career in the 1920s working for Naval Intelligence in Sydney. His first spying mission, in 1920, was to Noumea to find out what the Japanese were doing on New Caledonia. (They were mining nickel for their war machine.) My non-fiction work No Ribbons or Medals: the story of 'Hereward' an Australian counter espionage officer, tells my father's story from start to finish.
The Day the World Changed
In my experience there was no event more challenging than the fall of the Berlin Wall. The removal of the Berlin barrier on the 9 November 1989 started a process that moved the balance of power from East to West and set us on a path which eventually led to Muslim fundamentalism and its threat to world stability. This theme is partly explored in When the Lions are Drinking but my own duties at the time were more concerned with finding new markets for the British information service in Eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a great fillip for young diplomats who saw themselves as heads of missions in places that I had never heard of before. Gradually I got to know the geography and started dealing with broadcasters in places like Ulan Bator, Alma Ata and Bishkek.
I had never been to Berlin before. When the chance came to accompany one of Lil's office colleagues, Horst Flick, on a return visit to his native town of Berlin I jumped at the chance. Horst had served in the German air force in World War Two and was captured within two weeks of enlisting. He spent the rest of World War Two as a POW at the pleasant Surrey county town of Guildford. It was towards the end of the war and the German POWs were allowed to visit the Guildford cinemas. In this way Horst started to court Muriel, an English rose, who had caught his eye. Muriel's parents were absolutely appalled when their daughter started going out with Horst but they married and had a son. Horst maintained contact with the Old Country especially his boyhood friend, another Horst, who lived in East Berlin. When the wall came down Horst Flick drove along the autobahns and into the former capital clearly excited about the prospect of seeing his old friend again now liberated from the harsh tyranny of the old regime. When we got to Paul Robeson Strasse where Horst, a retired railwayman, lived in a comfortable flat and on a good pension, Horst from Guildford was astonished to find that Horst in Berlin was not exactly over the moon about the collapse of the wall. He was frightened about losing his pension and subsidized rent. Indeed there were a lot of people in East Berlin who saw the collapse of the wall as a harbinger of hard times ahead. This experience reminded me that the West consensus was not always the last word on a subject.
After retiring to Port Macquarie Lil and I decided that it was not an occasion to rest on our laurels. We travelled to Tasmania, crossing Bass Strait in the Devil Cat which became an unwanted adventure when an engine failed and the skipper had to get a tug to tow us off Station Pier in Melbourne. What was advertised to be a short comfortable six hour voyage turned into a 12 hour nightmare as we hugged the coast. I never particularly liked catamarans as readers will find when they read My Voyage around Spray. As soon as we got to Tasmania we changed our return booking for the more conventional mono-hull ferry which took about 22 hours to make the crossing. The mono-hull weighed about 22,000 tonnes and Devil Cat weighed 400 tonnes. There's a lesson there for naval architects. My hero Slocum knew all about the importance of the forces of nature and importance of a deep keel.
Lil and I have participated in a number of adventures together, here are some of them:
- Hitch hiking through war torn Europe in the fifties, meeting the English stage producer E. Gordon Craig, walking across the Lombardy Plain and discovering the Medici town of Sabionetta where Western theatre was performed behind a proscenium arch for the first time.
- Living in London digs, providing three course meals to demanding visitors with no money and a metered gas ring for a stove.
- Crossing the stormy Atlantic and arriving in Toronto. Lil with something called Asian flu and me a "landed immigrant" who was only let in when I corrected my poor long distance sight with glasses. We started our married life together with Lil nursing at the Toronto Sick Children's Hospital and me looking for a job as a reporter. It was the start of winter.
- Taking our trusty Pontiac across the American plains and up the Caribou Highway through the Rocky Mountains to Dawson Creek. While driving on gravel through Pine Pass at an altitude of 5,500 feet, one of the Pontiac's wheels was suspended in mid air on a particularly sharp curve. Lil closed her eyes as we negotiated the bends. There were no guard rails.
- Dealing with the challenges of a macho Australia in the early sixties when men and women at social gatherings remained at opposite ends of the room.
- Driving across Canada and up the Mackenzie Highway to Yellowknife. Lil was pregnant at the time. We had with us our eldest daughter Michelle, our cat Zeus and a canoe. We had been fitted out in Ottawa for the journey which took four days. The last leg was over one thousand miles of gravel. We went off the road some sixty miles outside Yellowknife. With the help of a passing truck driver we managed to get back on the road and limped into Yellowknife in the dark with the temperature at about ten below zero Fahrenheit.
- Maintaining a family in sixty below Fahrenheit and coping with the demands of young children when the lights suddenly went out and the town's only electricity supply failed.
- Coping with life in a small English west country village where the locals, at first, greeted us like visitors from another planet.
- Commuting from the English Home Counties to London where British Rail often lost its way with signal failures and trains running into one another. Some 30 people were killed at Clapham Junction on one of my regular commuter rides into town. Sometimes commuters were abandoned miles from their destinations and had to walk to work in the snow.
- Walking to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's tallest mountain at 2,228 metres or 7,310 feet. Lil and I were in our sixties at the time.
- In early 2014 Val and Lil in their late 70s and 80s decided to move to France..
The New Berlin
Lil at Apollo's Temple Delphi
Dawson Creek BC Canada
Fran Phipps: The first woman to land at the north pole
Palace of Westminster
Spy Bob Wake in a Brisbane newspaper cartoon
Brandenburg Gate Berlin
Dawson Creek BC Canada
The family en route to Yellowknife Northwest Territories
The Devil Cat Ferry
Together we hope to deny the attrition of old age