Wilfred Burchett as he never was

August 2, 2009

FigureheadBy Patrick AllingtonBlack Inc, 2009239pages, $29.95

I just finished reading — with various degrees of interest, amusement and irritation — Figurehead, the first novel of Adelaide-based writer Patrick Allington.

It tells, to quote from the book's back cover, the story of "Ted Whittlemore, a radical Australian journalist, who in the late '60s saves the life of Nhem Kiry, later to become known as 'Pol Pot's mouthpiece'.

"The consequences haunt him for the rest of his days. When the Khmer Rouge take power in Cambodia, Whittlemore watches, fascinated and horrified, as the ideals he holds dear are translated into unfathomable violence. In the intervening decades, as he tries to sense what went wrong, it is as if Kiry's life becomes intertwined with his own."

The author's note informs us that "in the characters of Ted Whittlemore and Nhem Kiry, some readers might recognise elements of two people: the Australian journalist/propagandist/agent of influence (depending on your viewpoint) Wilfred Burchett and the Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Sampan."

Wilfred Burchett has had a number of known or alleged manifestations: war correspondent, spy, agent of influence, secret communist, traitor etc., but not until now as a fictional character. So, naturally, I was curious to meet his new re-incarnation: after all, he also happens to be my father.

Allington began Figurehead as a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Adelaide, the charmingly creepy capital of South Australia, also known as the "Athens of the South Pacific" and the "City of Churches".

In the 1950s, Australia's former colonial master, Great Britain conducted a number of atomic tests in the desert north of Adelaide. They were kept secret from the Australian population and military personnel were exposed to the effect of the atomic blasts.

No one bothered to warn the local Aboriginal people.

And no one, at least not publicly, bothered to monitor the fallout from the tests. For all we know, the dust that blows from the desert during Adelaide's blistering summers may still carry radioactive particles from the atomic test site in Maralinga.

Why do we mention this? Because the real Wilfred Burchett was the first Western correspondent to describe the horror of atom-bombed Hiroshima and warn the world of the after-effect, what he called at the time "The Atomic Plague".

For this, and other "sins", he was never forgiven by the masters of the universe. He is still ritually denounced as a "traitor to Western civilisation" in the Australian media.

Interestingly, in Figurehead, Whittlemore/Burchett splits into two distinct characters. Indeed, Whittlemore/Burchett's mentor is Wally Ball/Burchett. Let's quote Whittlemore on Wally:

"One day, behind the shed that was the foreign correspondents' bar, I stumbled upon a different news conference. It was being held by the legendary Australian journalist Wally Ball — 'Aussie Pinko', as the Americans called him.

"Wal was a true rebel. He had reported the whole war from the North Korean side, offering up a wholly distinct version of events. Now he was offering a radically different version of the peace negotiations.

"I listened to him and I began to think that we had been watching different wars. From that moment my routine changed: first I attended the daily UN briefing and then I sought out Wal, who told me the truth.

"Less than ten years my senior, Wal was a veteran. In 1945 he had taken the train to Hiroshima and broken the story of radiation sickness: 'A Warning to the World', his famous headline screamed.

"'You know what?' Wal told me. 'I got back to Tokyo and the Americans still called me a liar. Since that day, I haven't taken anybody's word for anything.'

"'I asked Clarrie about you. He says you're not a reporter. He says you're a partisan, a propagandist.'

"'He's right, mate, but think about it: I'm hardly alone. Clarrie's a partisan, too, because he believes, at least he tries his hardest to believe, that there's a difference between independent experts and Western apologists.

"'You're a partisan, too. Listen, here's the truth: objectivity exists so reporters can claim they don't have opinions and so people who only have a spare fifteen minutes a day can pretend that they are informed. Balance is for acrobats. Look around you: do you see anyone; can you find me one person, who is neutral? The only difference is that I don't mind admitting it.'"

Allington's Whittlemore/Burchett is a bitterly disappointed, confused, dying alcoholic who has to be repatriated from his beloved Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to his hometown of Adelaide where his pathetic middle-aged lawyer son shoves him into a nursing home where he is bullied by a high-powered female publisher into writing his "confessions".

And this is where we bitterly disagree with the fictional re-incarnation of Wilfred Burchett.

Ted Whittlemore is Wilfred Burchett reclaimed, or rather damned by suburbia where he dies a miserable death.

The real Wilfred Burchett was kept out of his country of birth so that his writings wouldn't corrupt the impressionable minds of innocent sport-worshiping suburban Aussies, while their democratically elected betters were busy aiding and abetting their great allies: the US and Britain in perpetrating war crimes in every corner of the world.

The hateful Khmer Rouge, like Al-Qaeda, and countless other horrors, are the result of US-led Western interference. We elect the governments who perpetrate war crimes; therefore we share responsibility for them.

That is why, unlike Allington's Ted Whittlemore, Wilfred Burchett and other courageous voices who dare stand against rapacious power will always be relevant. And they don't need PhDs in creative writing from Adelaide University: only courage and compassion, and readiness to put their lives on the line in the name of truth and justice – for all.

[Abridged from ]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.