The Weekend Australian - Review

Send­ing a strong sig­nal

- Ross Fitzger­ald’s most re­cent book is an up­dated edi­tion of his mem­oir Fifty Years Sober. Australia News · Australia · Radio New Zealand · Citadel Media · Albert Einstein · New York City · United States of America · England · Church of England · Indonesia · Java · John Prine · Sharada Urvashi · Ubud · Lombok · Schapelle Corby · Myuran Sukumaran

Florence Vi­o­let McKen­zie (1890-1982), known as Mrs Mac, is some­one who, up to now, I’d not heard of. But thanks to David Dufty, an ex­pert in Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence dur­ing World War II, I now re­alise how cru­cial she was in train­ing our first women sig­nallers and code break­ers.

Mcken­zie was Aus­tralia’s first fe­male elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer. She was the founder of the Women’s Emer­gency Sig­nalling Corps, which was ini­tially ded­i­cated to teach­ing Morse code to women.

She was the first fe­male mem­ber of the Wire­less In­sti­tute of Aus­tralia and the first woman in Aus­tralia to hold an am­a­teur wire­less li­cence.

As a poly­math with a flair for pub­lic­ity, McKen­zie pub­lished The Wire­less Weekly, wrote a best-sell­ing 600-recipe All Elec­tric Cook­ery Book and was a pi­o­neer pre­sen­ter on ABC ra­dio.

Dur­ing the war the pe­tite, be­spec­ta­cled McKen­zie presided over an im­por­tant en­ter­prise. As Dufty chron­i­cles in Ra­dio Girl, up­stairs in a large old wool­shed in Clarence Street, Syd­ney, un­der the su­per­vi­sion of young fe­male in­struc­tors she had trained, rows of men and women in uni­form and wear­ing head­sets were loudly tap­ping away at their small ma­chines.

It is a mea­sure of McKen­zie’s con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort that, by mid 1945, her sig­nalling school had trained 12,000 Aus­tralians and Amer­i­cans in Morse code, in­ter­na­tional code and vis­ual sig­nalling.

Af­ter learn­ing that Al­bert Ein­stein had gall blad­der surgery in New York, McKen­zie wrote to him wish­ing him well and ex­plained how, when teach­ing Morse code “down un­der”, she often used pas­sages from books about his sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies. In her cor­re­spon­dence, she signed off as “F. Vi­o­let McKen­zie (‘Mrs Mac’).” Thank­ing Mrs Mac for en­clos­ing a boomerang and a didgeri­doo in her let­ters to her fa­ther, Ein­stein’s step­daugh­ter, Margo, in­vited her to visit them in the US, but she was un­able to do so be­fore Ein­stein died in 1955. A signed photo of Ein­stein, Dufty writes, had “pride of place in Vi­o­let’s liv­ing room, and each year on his birth­day she would dec­o­rate it with flow­ers”.

Hav­ing been sickly as a child and later see­ing her brother Wal­ter, also an en­gi­neer, suc­cumb to al­co­holism, life was not smooth sail­ing for Vi­o­let McKen­zie. But to be the first fe­male en­rolled in an elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing course in Aus­tralia, she had, long be­fore Wal­ter’s death, bought his engi­neer­ing busi­ness and un­der­took a num­ber of jobs that male en­gi­neers thought were be­neath them. The rea­son for this was that be­fore be­ing able to en­rol in a diploma of engi­neer­ing she had to prove she was work­ing as an en­gi­neer.

Dufty ex­plains that the rea­son Ce­cil McKen­zie, an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer, wanted to marry her was that, when he looked so mis­er­able about a bro­ken valve he had bought from her wire­less shop in Syd­ney, she burst into tears.

In a low-key Church of Eng­land cer­e­mony at Auburn in sub­ur­ban Syd­ney, they were mar­ried on De­cem­ber 31, 1924. On July 9, 1926, McKen­zie gave birth to a still­born daugh­ter. Sadly, she had no other chil­dren.

Ra­dio Girl fea­tures some won­der­ful illustrati­ons, in­clud­ing a pho­to­graph of McKen­zie in­spect­ing a pa­rade of uni­formed mem­bers of the Women’s Emer­gency Sig­nalling Corps in 1940. Think­ing about the life and times of McKen­zie, I’m re­minded of Peggy Seeger’s song Gonna Be An En­gi­neer, which be­gins: “When I was a lit­tle girl I wished I was a boy / I tagged along be­hind the gang and wore my cor­duroys. / Every­body said I only did it to an­noy / But I was gonna be an en­gi­neer.”

Af­ter read­ing Dufty’s fine bi­og­ra­phy, I be­lieve that, as well as be­ing an in­spi­ra­tion to women young and old, F. Vi­o­let McKen­zie de­serves to be re­garded as an Aus­tralian leg­end.

Bali is a spe­cial place for Aus­tralians. For some of us it’s a touch­stone, a much-loved haven. Un­til she died in Jan­uary, my dar­ling wife Lyn­dal, who spoke Ba­hasa In­done­sian and some Ba­li­nese, trav­elled with me each year to Bali. We al­ways stayed at the Puri Saraswati Bun­ga­lows, a home away from home in cul­tur­ally rich Ubud, next to the Royal Palace.

In­done­sia is the world’s most pop­u­lous Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tion. Yet de­spite an in­flux of im­mi­grants, mainly from Java, Bali re­mains pre­dom­i­nantly Hindu.

In 2009 jour­nal­ist Deb­o­rah Cass­rels left Syd­ney to set­tle on the tourist is­land. She be­came this news­pa­per’s first Bali-based cor­re­spon­dent, cov­er­ing events through­out the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago.

Her mem­oir, Gods and Demons, has a rather in­ti­mate open­ing, deal­ing with the un­rav­el­ling of her 20-year re­la­tion­ship with the then edi­tor-in-chief of The Aus­tralian, Chris Mitchell. Af­ter that, the book, ded­i­cated to their chil­dren Jake and Ruby, moves to its main pur­pose.

Cass­rels un­peels the tourist ve­neer of Bali, and other parts of In­done­sia in­clud­ing Lom­bok and Java. She writes about a web of power, cor­rup­tion, pol­lu­tion, tainted al­co­hol, vig­i­lan­tism, gross overde­vel­op­ment, sex­ual ex­ploita­tion and Is­lamic vi­o­lence and ter­ror. She was acutely aware of the clash be­tween tra­di­tional Ba­li­nese cul­ture and in­cur­sions from the West.

Cass­rels writes well of the early re­lease and re­turn to Aus­tralia of ‘‘celebrity pris­on­ers’’, Re­nae Lawrence and Schapelle Corby, and of their “fickle and am­bigu­ous” re­la­tion­ship.

She writes of the vi­cis­si­tudes of life as a writer and her trou­bles with peo­ple she met and/or re­ported on. One man, ar­rested with a small amount of drugs, threat­ened to sue The Aus­tralian, ac­cus­ing Cass­rels of phone hack­ing, “defama­tion and brib­ing po­lice for in­for­ma­tion”. As she puts it, “How easy it is to pierce the rep­u­ta­tion of a jour­nal­ist”.

Cass­rels’s nar­ra­tive is ab­sorb­ing at times and the illustrati­ons are a high­light. I like the un­dated shot of beau­ti­ful Ba­li­nese girls in cer­e­mo­nial sarongs and elab­o­rate head-dress, cel­e­brat­ing the an­nual agri­cul­tural fes­ti­val in Plaga, cen­tral Bali. This is the ex­otic Bali we know and love.

The most poignant one is a colour photo of Cass­rels, with one of her In­done­sian as­sis­tants, at Bali’s Ker­obokan jail in Novem­ber 2013, in­ter­view­ing Aus­tralian pris­oner Myu­ran Suku­maran, who was a key mem­ber of the so-called Bali Nine, con­victed for traf­fick­ing heroin.

As we starkly re­mem­ber, Suku­maran, 34, and his co-ring­leader An­drew Chan, 31, along with a num­ber of non-Aus­tralian pris­on­ers, were ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad on the prison is­land of Nusa Kam­ban­gan in Cen­tral Java on April 29, 2015.

In the fi­nal chap­ter, Full Cir­cle, Cass­rels, back in Syd­ney in 2017, travels to the Camp­bell­town Arts Cen­tre to see Myu­ran Suku­maran’s post­hu­mous art ex­hi­bi­tion, An­other Day in Par­adise.

“Many of his dis­turb­ing self-portraits, painted in Ben Quilty’s style us­ing thick oils, had been cre­ated in [Suku­maran’s] last days from Ker­obokan and Nusa Kam­ban­gan jails.” As Quilty, Suku­maran’s artis­tic men­tor and the ex­hi­bi­tion’s co-cu­ra­tor, sug­gested, “he had turned the mir­ror on him­self”.

 ??  ?? Mrs Mac in­spects her troops
Mrs Mac in­spects her troops

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