The Weekend Australian - Review
Sending a strong signal
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”.