The contours of Australia’s politics and culture have always been dictated by the country’s geographical isolation – initially from the United Kingdom, and then from its post-war suzerain in the Land of the Free.
The island state of Tasmania, often the butt of raunchy incest jokes from the mainland, is even more removed from the rest of the world than its northern neighbours, and its capital city Hobart is closer to the South Pole than Jakarta.
For that reason, it’s notable that a small town Tasmanian boy from a perpetually stricken farming family would become one of Southeast Asia’s most revered journalists.
What makes Neil Davis’s story remarkable is that he travelled to the continent at a time when his country’s restrictions on non-European immigration were still in force, and when most Australians didn’t think about their northern neighbours beyond the real or imagined existential threat posed by Japan, Indonesia and Communist China.
Davis died in 1985 while filming an abortive coup attempt in Bangkok, back in those days one of the favourite pastimes of various military factions and regular enough for locals to set their watch to.
Tim Bowden’s wrenching 1987 biography, a project already in the works with the subject’s consent, labours under the hurt and melancholy of the author suddenly losing a dear friend and the vocation losing a universally respected and loved member.
The irony of Davis being cut to ribbons for such an inconsequential story after covering the seismic events of almost every country in the region is never lost on Bowden, who often uses the almost whimsical attitude to death that his friend cultivated during his 25 years in Asia, without deadening these reflections by surrendering to overwrought temptations.
Based on a series of interviews, Davis’s work diaries and personal correspondence with family members, Bowden charts the cameraman’s enviable professional achievements – a warm friendship with Indonesia’s Sukarno which endured after the military takeover, the only western cameraman to cover the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese soldiers on both sides of the divide, and an enduring infatuation with Cambodia which led to exclusive interviews with Lon Nol, not long after the coup leader suffered a stroke.
The narrative is dotted with personal snapshots of the man’s personal indiscretions, shambolic sexual proclivities and the infamous Australian tendency towards ridiculous machismo, once culturally ingrained and now, for better or worse, going out of fashion. One story from Davis’s football days sums up both the man’s peculiar charms and the author’s elegance in rendering them, and it would be remiss not to quote it at length:
“During the beer session a raunchy debate began about who had the biggest penis in the team. Davis, who was enviably endowed in that department, backed himself, but quite good money was going on the only other contender in the phallic stakes… Davis’s sense of fair play was outraged when his rival worked up a half-erection. A split second before final measurement, he dashed his glass of icy-cold Cascade beer into the crotch of the partly tumescent contender, putting things back into the correct perspective. Davis won.”
If Australia really practiced the egalitarianism so celebrated in the country’s Ned Kelly and Gallipoli foundation myths, and if Neil Davis enjoyed the posthumous reputation he deserved, these few lines would be set to music and sung before the AFL Grand Final.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]