Book Review: One classic career

Book Review: One classic career

120824_13

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]

MOST VIEWED

  • US think tank warns of China's 'ulterior motives'

    A US think tank on Tuesday warned that spreading Chinese investment in the Indo-Pacific follows a pattern of leveraging geopolitical influence at the expense of the nations receiving investment, including Cambodia. The report looks at a sample of 15 Chinese port development projects, noting that the

  • More than three tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia seized in Mozambique

    A total of 3.5 tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia was seized by authorities in Mozambique late last week, according to the NGO Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES' information was based on a report from the

  • Defence Ministry denies weapons in smuggling case came from Cambodia

    After a Thai national was arrested last week for allegedly smuggling guns from Cambodia to Thailand, Cambodia's Defence Ministry has claimed the weapons seized during the arrest are not used in Cambodia, despite the fact that both types of rifle seized are commonly found in

  • Shipwreck found off coast of Koh Kong

    Royal Cambodian Navy researchers are working to identify a decades-old shipwreck found earlier this month off the coast of Koh Kong province. Divers found the 70-metre-long wreck on April 4 about a mile from Koh Chhlam island, according to Navy officials. Deputy Navy Commander Tea Sokha,