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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vietnam and Damascus, via Coronation Drive

Let’s get it straight right from the start. I’m not a political radical. Sometimes I wish I were, because radicals have strong ideals, but I am too cynical about some aspects of human nature for that. In fact, no-one could be more cynical about politics than I.

When it comes to power, human nature isn’t all that pretty, and politics brings out the worst in most people - not everyone, but way too many of them. No matter what happens, if you can’t compromise with your principles in politics, then you won’t make it in the power stakes. And politics is all about power.

This applies to those who believe in democracy, fascism, Marxism or anarchism – or any other ism – name your poison. If you have strong principles, then, in politics, you may remain pure – but probably powerless. Mahatma Gandhi was the only one I know who was an exception… but then, he was a superb lawyer too, and never claimed to be a politician (though in the end, no-one understood politics better than he did!)

I said in another story how I grew up in the country and on a farm. It was impossible with that background to remain on the land and expect anyone other than non-urban-based politicians to try to look after your interests. That didn’t leave you with much choice, really, in Australia. It probably still doesn’t, though Libs and Labor try to make the right noises to attract the country vote. Both of them know that with an 80% urban population, electoral success lies in the major cities.

Thus my prejudices were strongly fixed when I headed for Brisbane in 1965 for Teacher’s College, and nothing really gave my complacency a powerful jolt until I went to university full time in 1968. Even so, a few incidents made me pause briefly to reflect on such things in 1965.

One was that this was the year I put my name in the hat for military service. All male youths of my age had to do that. It was quite exciting really. Had my birthdate been pulled out of the hat, as several of my friends’ names were, off I would have gone to Vietnam on what I believed was a mission to save the world from the evil communists.

Secondly, one of the lecturers in Politics at Teacher’s College actually was a communist. His name was Ted d’Urso, and he was the first communist I’d ever seen – as far as I knew, anyway. No-one could have been a Commo in Calliope! Amazingly, he looked just like all the other lecturers. He was dressed in a white shirt and tie, and didn’t have fangs or anything. He just said,
Some of you in this room are going to be sitting in a paddy field in Vietnam in two years, and when you come under fire for the first time, you’re going to say “What the hell am I doing here?” All I want to discuss with you are some facts you can check with any reliable source, Then you'll know why someone in a black t-shirt and pants, someone you won't even see, is going to try their best to kill you….
You tend to sit up and take notice when someone says that to you. I liked Ted d’Urso. His lectures were always interesting, even though he had no strong sense of humour as far as I could see. Maybe he reserved it for family and friends. He did have deep rage and a strong sense of justice and that made up for the lack of humour. Full credit to the Queensland State Department of Education for employing a maverick. The world needs people with a strong sense of justice even more than a sense of humour, and heaven knows, often enough you surely need the latter….

Sir Raphael Cilento [1940]
Thirdly, one evening after Damodar Singhal’s lecture to our class in Contemporary Southern Asia, Damodar chaired a speech by the eminent medico, Sir Raphael Cilento, entitled something like ‘The Red Menace to Australia’. I decided to stay on for it.

I don’t know if anyone these days remembers Sir Raphael Cilento, but in 1965 he had a formidable public profile. Perhaps they might be more likely to remember his daughter Diane, who’s better known than he is, as she married Sean Connery, the original Bond; James Bond, Agent 007. You know the one - the real one. I can't resist putting in a picture. She went to Enoggera School where I prac-taught, but is a lot older than I.

Diane Cilento and her [then] hubby
Well, Sir Raphael’s lecture was illustrated by red arrows pouring down from the USSR and China through Indo-China and the Malay Peninsula and all of Indonesia, straight for Australia’s red heart. The Domino Theory was alive and kicking, and Sir Raphael, a curious political mixture and wannabe politician who really should have stuck to medicine, was intent on getting the message across in no uncertain manner. I thought he had a point, at the time.

Damodar was one of the politest people I ever knew, so at the end of the lecture, and in spite of the fact that it was mainly poppycock and Singhal could have ripped his theories to shreds, he thanked the good knight politely for the address, which he described as ‘Sir Raphael’s interpretation’ of the politics of Southeast Asia.

Sir Raphael’s face flushed at this vote of thanks. I thought for a fraction of a second it was modesty, but it was outrage that the word ‘interpretation’ was used. To him it was tantamount to an attack on the eminent doctor’s integrity. What he was doing was imparting fact, not opinion…. He swept out the door in a huff.

There’s a fascinating follow-up to this Cilento story I’d love to share with you, but not here and now. Another time, perhaps. But I think, for the first time in my short life (I was 17 at the time), I suspected that there were more ways of looking at an historical or a political problem than a ‘right’ one and a ‘wrong’ one.

Still, nothing much shook my political views until I arrived back on campus in 1968. What a perfect time to be a student! Contrary to popular perception, Queensland University was the most radical university in the country apart from Monash, and Monash University was perceived as most radical only because of the press coverage it got nationally.

QU was radical because Queensland had the most repressive and compromised government in the country at the time, with Joh Bjelke-Petersen becoming Premier in that year. Read on….


  1. Ooh shiver me timbers ,the dreaded Joh! Can't wait to hear your view of him and perhaps of his cohort, Russ Hinze.
    UNE certainly had its radicals in those days, when I arrived as a naive country girl in 1969 (so naive that at the Orientation Dance I declined to dance with one of the most trendy student leaders -because I'd never seen a man with long hair in real life before!!). Exciting times when many necessary changes of attitude were born. I didn't understand a lot of it, but my friends were being called up for National Service too and we didn't like it at all.The Vietnam war was becoming very questionable by then. The students were such a varied lot; it was a very rich cultural time and I wish it was more like that on campus now.

  2. I avoided comment about that pair as I think the events much later showed the country what those who stood in their way were dealing with. Except that people's political memories seem to be about a week. See, e.g., this!
    I'd stay away from those men with long hair if I were you! :) Yes, if there is ever a time to be radical and idealistic, it's at university. Regrettably, there is no culture of dangerous thought amongst students now, as far as I can see. The only thing that fires them up is something to do with student allowances. Or am I just getting pathetically old-fashioned? There's something very wrong when the staff are more radical in their thinking than the students....

  3. We need a 'like' button on this blog response! I'm impressed by your detailed memory of events. It's a bit of a blur to me ,but then you know the saying 'if you remember the 60s you weren't really there'..

  4. PS. I did end up consorting with those long hairs. That's why I only got my PhD thirty years later. The times were very different, all right. I feel the western world was beginning to head in a more useful, more humane direction, but the'greed is good' of the 80s put a firm stop to that. Thank you for this wonderful viewpoint of such an interesting time in history.


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