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Memoir

Even further north

WHEN I WAS at primary school in Earlwood, a solid western suburb of Sydney built largely for, and by, Diggers returned from the First World War, "the north" meant the North Shore, a snooty region inhabited by rich people speaking an odd, different language. As, I later learnt, did the Aborigines who had lived on the opposite sides of Sydney Harbour before We arrived. This land of mystery, faintly menacing, could be visited by crossing our newly completed Bridge, the wonder of the world, a trip that also gave us a thrilling glimpse of Pinchgut, or more for­mally Fort Denison with its fairytale tower far below where, we were told, our convict ancestors had their guts cruelly pinched by a diet of bread and water in full view of le tout Sydney or, in the then more fashionable white-armband view of our history, our British forbears had exposed to public censure the odd boozy lad and lass who had temporarily forgotten our treas­ured ideals of strong tea, fair play, social deference and hard work.

Then, a few years later, my northern horizons expanded enormously. Like my grandfather and my five uncles, my father, Sydney Duncan Sayle worked for the New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR), got mail from his office marked OHMS, and had a gold pass that entitled us to low fares and, in my case, a thrilling ride on the footplate of a steam locomotive hauling the night express north, the beefy stoker in a black singlet shovelling coal into a glowing firebox, the driver working a wailing whistle to wake crows in the sleeping bush beside the track, which we railway families learned to call the "permanent way". Then, as the train panted up a long incline, my sister and I had the privilege of tossing the Sydney papers to the fettlers – maybe they are now called maintenance officers – who raised shovels in greeting as we steamed past. Our destination was Taree, from where we took a "battered service coach" over a rough bush road, and a steam ferry to Forster, now a trendy holiday resort, then a fishing village with a few cottages to rent. Silent pictures were shown on Saturdays in the village hall, with a rope down the aisle to separate Us from the local Aborigines, an arrangement both sides had grown up with. This north was an earthly paradise and, as I soon learnt, north was a direction that could offer us opportunity, even help in need.

The thirties were dark years in Australia, as in all New World countries, when exports collapsed and loans were called in. Part of my father's job was to keep in touch with the railways' few remaining big customers, and none were more important to the NSWGR than Sydney's flourishing community of Japanese, big buyers of Australian wool, scrap iron and minerals and importers of low-tech Japanese manufactures like bicycles and shirts. In the Japanese manner, they saw business dealings as a basis for socialising. Dad often spoke warmly about them, using words like polite, friendly, well-dressed, good neighbours, a pleasure to deal with. The unspoken comparison was with our resident Chinese, unkempt keepers of market gardens and rumoured smokers of opium and players of an illegal game, fan-tan. The White Australia Policy was first aimed at excluding them:

Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. No more Chinamen in New South Wales.

True, the Japanese were not altogether white either, but in a world with little use for our wool, wheat and minerals, at least the Japanese were here, and buying. When I was eight, my father brought home a handsome book his Japanese contacts had given him, Golden Jubilee History of Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) 1885-1935. It was bound in gold-embossed red leather with many exquisite hand-tinted photographs. This Orient, to my young eyes, was as it should be. At school, I was starting to draw maps showing Australia's place in the big, wide world. I learnt that NYK (meaning "Japan Shipping Line") linked the two busiest ports in our respective countries, as it does today. But, while my new book listed such facts, with statistics to back them up, what cap­tured my youthful imagination were the doll-like beauties in kimono with paper umbrellas riding in rickshaws through the wide streets of NYK's home port, Yokohama, and the handsome red-brick buildings, shrines, temples and, in the distance, the snowy cone of Fuji. Yokohama looked both efficiently Western and delicately Eastern at the same time, an intriguing contrast with official Sydney's British stuffiness, a promising attraction of opposites. Even then, we had much to offer that Japan needed and Japan had much that we found useful: I learnt that Japan, through our British ties, had once been our loyal ally, and Japanese warships had convoyed Australians to the European and Middle Eastern battlefields of the First World War, although they had declined to join the fight. I treasured my NYK book, daydreaming that one day I might see picturesque, spick-and-span Yokohama for myself.

 

ON SEPTEMBER 3, 1939, the Sayles group round our family radio to hear Neville Chamberlain announcing on quavering short wave from London that Britain was at war with Germany. We all knew Australia would soon be, too. "It's come," said my mother, looking at me anxiously, as many a mother looked at her sons that night. Soon, a new generation of Australian soldiers and airmen were leaving Sydney by troopship for Britain and the Middle East, and my father was back in uniform. No Japanese escorts this time, but this was not yet a world at war, as the first war had been. As our anthem says, Australia is "girt by sea". To the west there is empty ocean, to the east a wide sea, New Zealand and then more ocean, to the south, only empty ocean, ice and penguins. Our north was shielded by the Dutch East Indies, firmly held by immoveable Hollanders, and closer, New Guinea and Papua were somehow Australian.

The new war was like all Europe's wars, fought east-to-west. To join in, our men had, as before, to go far away from home. True, Japan was then mired in fighting in China, but their buyers were still with us, shipping even more wool now, and iron and steel scrap as well. Still thinking of guns on big ships, we had the Royal Navy to defend us from its impregnable base at Sin­gapore, with our own new Garden Island naval dock in Sydney Harbour in support, conveniently overlooked by the imposing Japanese consulate on the heights of Point Piper, which, as it happened, had a good view of the Heads in the other direction. Australians were by no means united in support of the war in the Balkans and North Africa. On a bridge spanning the North Shore Line was daubed: "Not a man, not a gun, not a ship for the bosses' war".

That blissful ignorance evaporated on December 8, 1941, when the Japan­ese Imperial Navy destroyed part of the American Pacific Fleet lying at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – an attack so unexpected, and seemingly so successful, that it had something of malevolent magic about it. Pearl Harbor made instant allies of the United States, Britain, Australia and the rest of the "British family of nations", as the Empire was informally called, but the new allies in the next six months suffered a string of defeats no one then alive could forget; nor would they ever see our world quite so innocently again.

On Pearl Harbor Day, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, Hong Kong and Malaya. The new British battleship Prince of Wales and the veteran battle cruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese bombers flying from Japanese-occupied Saigon. On February 15, 1942, the British general Sir Arthur Percival surrendered Singapore with its 100,000 defenders – among them some 15,000 Australians – to General Tomoyuki Yamashita. It was the greatest disaster ever suffered by British (or Australian) arms. Four days later, Darwin was heavily bombed, the first-ever air raid on an Australian city.

Soon after, as an impressionable schoolboy, I saw two Australian divi­sions, urgently called home from the Middle East, disembarking from the British liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, moored side by side in Sydney Harbour. On May 6, the Americans surrendered the fortress of Cor­regidor near Manila. Their former commander, General Douglas MacArthur, had flown to Australia days earlier promising: "I shall return." Three weeks later, Japanese submarines fired shells into Sydney's seaside suburbs, causing trivial damage but enormous panic, and released two midget submarines – "steel coffins" naval historians have called them – to sneak into Sydney Harbour. One grounded, the other's torpedo, fired at the heavy cruiser USS Chicago, exploded under an old ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 19 sailors. The British admiral commanding the Sydney port ordered a guard of Australian naval ratings to fire a salute over the dead Japanese submariners and, in a short speech, honoured brave enemies, a generous action in a savage war that is remembered in Japan to this day. It was now, truly, the Second World War.

No one then alive will forget our year of fear, 1942, when every threat from the north coalesced into one, the hordes of Asia pouring down on our heads, even to the deceptively secure south. I joined our school cadet corps and practised with a rifle and a World War I machine gun. I can still feel the kick of a .303 Lee-Enfield on a 14-year-old shoulder. After Darwin was bombed, we dug slit trenches in our school playground, Sydney was blacked out, petrol rationed to a trickle. The dapper Japanese wool buyers
disap­peared – interned or shipped home. American soldiers arrived, first a few, then in more reassuring numbers.

In September 1942, at our local cinema, I saw a strange, disturbing film – one of Cinesound's Voice of Australia newsreels that were keeping us posted on the gloomy progress of the war. It opened with Cinesound's familiar logo, an ear-twitching kangaroo, a southern cousin for MGM's roaring lion, leaping out of frame, then the title Kokoda Front Line! But instead of crashing bombs and shrieking shells we saw a quiet young man in a war correspondent's uniform – he could have been a soldier – seated on a stool in what looked like a Sydney lounge room, complete with vase of flowers. Damien Parer, who had shot the film in the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea, then delivered the most eloquent speech ever made to-camera by an Australian, in an accent clearly marking him as one of Us:

Eight days ago I was with our advance troops in the jungle facing the Japs at Kokoda. It's an uncanny sort of warfare. You never see a Jap even though he's only 20 yards away. They're complete masters of camouflage and deception. I should say about 40 per cent of our boys wounded in those engagements haven't seen a Japanese soldier, a live one anyway. Don't underestimate the Jap, he's a highly trained soldier, well disciplined and brave, and although he's had some success up to the present, he's now got against him some of the finest and toughest troops in the world – troops with a spirit amongst them that makes you intensely proud to be an Australian. I saw militiamen fighting over there, fighting under extremely difficult conditions alongside the AIF and they acquitted themselves magnificently. When I returned to Moresby I was full of beans. It was the spirit of the troops and the knowledge that General [Sydney] Rowell was on the job and now that we had a really fine command. But when I came back to the mainland, what a difference. I heard girls talking about dances, men complaining about the tobacco they didn't get. Up at the front they were smoking tea some of the time. There seems to be an air of unreality, as though the war were a million miles away. It's not. It's just outside our door now. I've seen the war and I know what your husbands, your sweethearts and brothers are going through. If only everybody in Australia could realise that this country is in peril, that the Japanese are a well-equipped and dangerous enemy, we might forget about the trivial things and go ahead with the job of licking them.

Only nine minutes long, shot with heavy, clockwork-driven cameras, Parer's film is a miniature masterpiece that won an Academy Award, the first Australian film ever so honoured. Looking at it six decades on, it is easy to see where it gets at least some of its power. Intentionally or not – Parer was a devout Catholic who had considered the priesthood as a vocation – it res­onates with Christian imagery. One sequence, of a wounded Australian being tenderly carried by Papuan bearers ("fuzzy-wuzzy angels" in the innocent parlance of the time) echoes innumerable devotional pictures of Christ carried to his tomb. To every cinema seat in Australia, Parer's film brought another alarming aspect of the threat from the north. Our enemies there had resourcefulness, courage and cunning – all aspects of Satan in Australia's majority religious traditions.

 

BUT, IN THE cold light of hindsight, the devilish downward thrust of the Japanese had already been halted when Parer's film was shown, and turned back well before the Oscar made its cameraman world famous. In truth, as we now see, Japan's war in the Pacific was lost even before it began. The perceptions, widespread in Japan in the 1930s, that the Asian colonial empires of the Europeans and Americans were military houses of cards, and that Japan, with its successful synthesis of Confucius and Henry Ford, had found a style of industrialisation more consonant with Asian tradition, were sound enough. But liberators all too often turn tyrants and Japan's invasion of China proper in 1937 soon became, or at any rate was seen to be, a typical, if belated, attempt to build an east-west empire, like all the empires in Europe and Asia that had gone before on "the world island", stretching from Barcelona to Beijing. A paradox soon appeared: the deeper Japan thrust into China, supposedly to free it from non-Asians, the more Japan needed oil, the indispensable lubricant of war in our times, which could only come from outside Asia, and particularly from America. Inevitably, the paradox brought Japan to confront the only two constants of American foreign policy: opposi­tion to empires, except its own, and rejection of restraints on trade, if not imposed by the United States.

The clash came to blows in the northern summer of 1941 when Presi­dent Roosevelt, by executive order, embargoed shipments of oil to Japan, unless the Japanese agreed to withdraw not only from Indochina, where they had extorted rights of passage from the captive Vichy government in France, but also from China, the object of Japanese ambition for almost half a century. "The Americans were demanding too much," was the reported comment of young Emperor Hirohito, a notably close-lipped monarch, on brushing his name on the declaration of war on Britain and the United States – not delivered until after hostilities had begun, as warn­ings tend to take the surprise out of surprise attacks. The faction-riven military regime that then ruled Japan, as far as any one group has ever done, laid plans to seize the oil of the then Dutch East Indies and continue the war in China to the victory that remained ever more elusive. This meant neutralising the Philippines, then an American protectorate athwart the tanker route to Japan, and eliminating the threat from the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, the only substantial naval force in the Pacific, and the British base at Singapore.

"Don't miss the bus!" clamoured the patriotic press in Tokyo as German armies drove into Russia and got within sight of Moscow, promising to elim­inate the perpetual threat from Japan's north. In total radio silence, the Japanese strike force of four heavy aircraft carriers sailed for Pearl Harbor while the Japanese in Saigon prepared to land in Malaya. But then the Germans, ill-equipped to fight in winter, stalled in the snow outside Moscow. A week before Pearl Harbor, Japan's desperate gamble was lost, although few would have guessed so at the time.

Invading Australia was far beyond Japan's resources, but there was always the hope that the bombing of our far north, plus naval demonstra­tions against our southern cities, might induce neutrality or even a Vichy-like acceptance of token occupation. If the Japanese could seize the port and air­field at Port Moresby, the roadless island of New Guinea-Papua might be a barrier against a counterattack from the south, just as we hoped it was to be our shield to the north. On May 4, 1942, aircraft from American carriers and USAAC bombers flying from Townsville and the Atherton Tableland near Cairns, engaged the escorts of an invasion convoy headed for Port Moresby. USS Lexington, a light carrier, was sunk but the Japanese convoy turned back to Rabaul. On June 3, 1942, the Japanese navy, attempting a second Pearl Harbor at the island of Midway, was ambushed by island-based American bombers (the cracking of the Japanese naval code on the eve of the war helped). Japan lost three heavy carriers and a fourth was crippled. The strik­ing force of Pearl Harbor was gone, never to be replaced. It would have been the moment for second thoughts in Tokyo, but sober and considered accept­ance of hard truths has always been difficult for quarrelsome, rudderless Japan, and ordinary Japanese knew nothing of these setbacks.

On July 21, 1942, Japanese troops, trained in jungle warfare in Taiwan, landed at Buna, a small Australian administrative post, and Gona, an Angli­can mission on the northern coast of New Guinea. Their aim was to seize the airstrip at Kokoda, the only one in the district, climb over the spine of the Owen Stanley Range and descend on Port Moresby.

The Japanese were superbly equipped for the terrain with split-toed rubber boots, light assault rifles, mountain guns, face paint and veils – every­thing they needed, in fact, except the biggest necessity of all, food. Unopposed, they might just conceivably have dashed over the trail, looting food from native villages as they went, and caught the defenders of Port Moresby in disarray. But they were opposed, notably by the 39th Militia (con­script) battalion raised in Victoria, unversed in jungle warfare and armed with heavy, obsolete .303 rifles, the weapons we had practised with at school. The orderly fighting retreat of the 39th, one of the most hazardous operations of war anywhere, let alone in dripping jungle high above the clouds, is the subject of Parer's brilliant film. Towards the end of August 1942, before it was released, the Australians on the trail noticed that the Japanese attacks had suddenly ceased. Cautiously retracing their steps, they found skeletal Japan­ese who had committed suicide using hand grenades, and signs that they had begun eating their dead. The unwilling native porters they had brought with them from Rabaul had either gone bush or collapsed from hunger. The elab­orate camouflage and deception, body paint and snipers in trees described by Parer, that had harassed the retreating Australians, all took time. And Japan­ese soldiers like anyone else, must eat. Engrossed in their their devilish tricks, they had simply starved to death; by retreating the defenders from the south had induced them to defeat themselves.

Kokoda, and the simultaneous Australian success at Milne Bay, was one of the turning points of the Pacific War, proof that the Japanese could be out­fought. Far away in Burma, one sharp observer drew the implications. The future field marshall and later governor-general of Australia, Sir William Slim, wrote: "If the Australians in conditions very like ours could do it so could we. Some may forget that of all the Allies it was Australians who broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember."

At last the war ended. By then a very junior Sydney newspaper reporter, I tried to explain how atom bombs worked and covered the delirious celebra­tion in Kings Cross, Sydney, of VJ, Victory over Japan Day. In the next few weeks, I interviewed scores of emaciated Australian prisoners of war freed from Japanese camps and wrote about their sufferings. More than a third never came home. The lesson was of northern cruelty, and, when the full story was told, of Japanese self-deception. Blocked in their drive south, bogged down in China, the high command in Tokyo devised a plan to strike though Burma, liberate India from the British and join hands with the Germans deep in the Caucasus on their own desperate search for oil. But after Midway, any new Japanese adventures would have to be supported by land, and this could only be by a new rail link through the jungles of northern Thailand. British, Australian and Dutch prisoners captured in Japan's first dizzying months of success were to be the labour force. But the flimsy wooden bridges the POWs built at immense cost in lives were soon demolished by American bombers flying from India, and the invasion of India, Japan's last throw of the dice, fizzled out, leaving 160,000 dead Japanese behind.

Japan, wrecked by war, faded from the headlines; I went back to Sydney University. Immigrants poured into Australia from Europe with (after 1953) a handful of Japanese wives of Australian servicemen stationed in Japan.

I missed Korea, where the north had invaded the south, having left Sydney to see the big world I had read about in the war headlines. It was not until 1966 that I resumed the north-south theme on my first assignment for the London Sunday Times to Vietnam, where a new war was edging onto front pages. This new conflict had a familiar pattern. Ostensibly, a clandes­tine organisation, the National Liberation Front, nicknamed the Viet Cong (short for Vietnamese communists) were trying to subvert the internationally recognised government in Saigon, but, as Saigon and its American ally explained, the NLF was actually a tool of the North Vietnamese, who were in turn instruments of the Chinese in Beijing, in their turn fronts for the conspiracy's world headquarters in Moscow.

Sir Robert Menzies had described the process as "the generally down­ward thrust of Asian communism", the red tide drawn by gravity down the map with, unlike the previous flow of the enigmatic Japanese, treasonous rivulets of support here in easy-going Oz (metaphors about fluids and domi­noes, often mixed, were popular in those years). In 1975, the north wind prevailed over the south, as we know, only to have the process repeated in 1979 when the Chinese invaded Vietnam from the north, to be turned back by the Vietnamese using the mountains of modern weapons left behind by the departed Americans. As we have since learnt, the Chinese were in conflict with their own north, the then Soviet Union, and feared that the Viet­namese were plotting with the USSR for a possible war on two fronts.

 

BUT, BY THIS time, we Sayles had moved, first to Hong Kong, then to a much smaller town, a village really, in the mountains between Tokyo and Fuji. Why Japan? Partly because of my childhood meetings with those polite folk with their quaint book, who had inexplicably turned menacing monsters. Partly because of the war they made on us. More proximately, because of what I saw in Tokyo on a visit on my way home from Saigon to London in 1966. The city was a forest of cranes building skyscrapers, a new metropolis rising from the sad shacks and sheds left over from the old – an exuberance I was to see again, years later, as Shanghai awoke from the dark nights of Mao. The future of the world was being shaped in North Asia, I decided, not in the provincial rice fields and barbed wire of Vietnam. In 1970, I persuaded the Sunday Timesto send me back for a longer visit, and, in 1975, when Vietnam ended, my wife Jenny and I moved north, initially for six months. Which turned into 30 instructive years.

One of our first discoveries was that the Japanese saw as their danger quarter, not the south, east or west, all with good historical claims, but the north. The Shogun's official title was "Great Barbarian-Conquering General" and the barbarians in question were the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago who have been reduced by Japanese alcohol and land grabbing to the status of tourist attractions. The old-time samurai warrior, unwilling to admit that he had anything so unmilitary as a wife, referred to his lady when he had to as "kita no kata" (the person from the north) and gave her the cold side of the futon, where she could give body cover in a surprise attack. To this day, the bulk of the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force – what less squeamish people might call "army" – is stationed in the north of the northern island, Hokkaido, opposite four foggy, fishy islands occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan, a dispute that has prevented the parties signing a peace treaty 60 years after their brief war had ended in Japan's defeat.

Vladivostok ("the ruler of the East") was a naval base closed to all foreign­ers and most Russians until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and not much visited since. It was not until 1995 that I was able to look around Vlad as part of a journey of discovery to the Russian, formerly the Soviet Far East. I arrived by a Russian airliner – what a used car dealer might call a rough old banger – from Niigata in Japan. I was greeted in the shabby arrival hall by a friendly dog, not sniffing for drugs, guns or subversive literature, but just a dog an airport official had brought to work. The bus into town took us through birch woods and crumbling villas straight out of Chekhov. Downtown Vladivostok was a museum city from the 1930s with peeling blocks of flats and theatrically rutted roads navigated by second-hand cars shipped from Japan – I saw one with the name in Japanese of a Niigata butcher shop. The shops carried shoddy merchandise left over from the Soviet era, easily outshone by suitcase traders from nearby China offering the cheap clothes and kitchen gadgets familiar from our own discount shops. With the Russian roubles they collected, they bought furs and carved amber jewellery to take back home – an ancient trade revived.

In the harbour, I was able to inspect the dreaded Pacific Fleet, quietly rusting at anchor. Locals (it was easy to talk to them strolling the streets, but they declined to sit down indoors) told me the warships and submarines had not put to sea for many years. Vladivostok was not exactly a hive of indus­try, but there were some signs of economic rebirth. The Versailles Hotel, a baroque remnant of the 1910s, had a flourishing casino with Finnish bounc­ers, British croupiers (they held Scotland Yard gaming licences) and a clientele dominated by Chinese merchants and New Russians, mostly former communist officials, who had done well from Russia's klepto-capital-ist economic reforms.

With all that, Vladivostok still felt like a beleaguered outpost of the Cold War, both terrified and terrifying. Near every barrack-like block of flats was an atomic shelter, heavy doors swung open, now used for junk storage or for growing mushrooms. I noticed that their entrances mostly faced south. "For the sunshine?" I asked innocently. "No," I was told. "Because the American nuclear rockets would have come from the north." Google tells me that the US and Canadian governments are haggling over who is to pay for decommis­sioning the radar stations of the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW) which once ran across the far north of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, alerting American cities about Soviet missiles coming the other way, over the Pole.

 

IS FEAR OF the North a universal human trait, did we bring it from Europe, is it rational, and is Australia's an especially severe case? It is certainly true that Hadrian's Wall and the Great Wall of China, which held firm for cen­turies, faced north, while the Maginot Line, the Hindenburg Line and Hitler's West Wall all crumbled at the first serious push. It is also true that the only fortified city in North America, Québec, faces south and was built to keep the Americans out after they briefly held Montreal during the Anglo-American War of 1812. Québec now advertises for American tourists, and the DEW still runs across its northern wilderness.

Geography, especially political geography, may offer a better explanation. Our world, to simplify it visually, is shaped like a jellyfish with three long tentacles hanging down or, avoiding gratuitous gravitationalism, extending towards the South Pole. The northern hemisphere is mostly land, surround­ing the frozen North Polar Sea, a breeding ground for fierce barbarians; the southern hemisphere is mostly sea, interrupted by Africa, Malaysia-Indone-sia-Australia and Latin America. The north has the mass and the numbers; so if we in the south take them all on, separately or even together, we're bound to lose. Hence all the southern danglers are touchy about would-be world rulers, meaning those who try to link Euro-Asia and North America. North-bashing tends even so to be ambivalent. Fidel Castro denounces Los imperialistas yanquis at wearying length, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe says his opponents are plotting with Tony Blair to recolonise Rhodesia. But baseball flourishes in one, cricket in the other, and both eagerly seek north­ern know-how, loans and/or handouts.

The case of our own slice of the globe is the most complex our planet has to offer. North to south we have Russia, the last and greatest of the west-east land empires; China, the world's oldest and most populous surviving civili­sation; China's country cousins of Vietnam; the Malayan Argonauts of the Pacific; the backwoodsmen of New Guinea and then ourselves, including the scattered remnant of what were for millennia the world's most self-sufficient people. Whatever we think we are, most Asians see us (on an Asian time-frame) as Johnny-come-latelies from Europe; either welcome additions to the meridianal mix or interlopers from an alien world, depending on how we comport ourselves.

We've been a long way north from Pinchgut. Or maybe not so far. It may have pinched a few recalcitrant guts, but the name is more likely coarse sailors' slang for the place where the channel narrows. Certainly, the fairytale tower has nothing to do with convicts. Built by Colonel George Barney of the Royal Engineers in 1855-57, it is a Martello Tower, the only one in the south­ern hemisphere, with smooth-bore cannon (three are still there, built-in) deadly against wooden ships, useless against iron or steel and even then obsolete military engineering. It was built to keep out the Russians – once our allies, then our Crimean War enemies, then our allies again, then our enemies and who knows whether allies or enemies in the future.

There is, in short, enough variety on our meridian to confuse or intrigue all who live on or near it.

Go north young man or woman and see for yourselves, but let's leave gravity at home.


From Griffith Review Edition 9: Up North © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review