The veteran reporter, commentator and author’s first trip abroad came with inflight rewards: smoked salmon, caviar and the birth of a stellar career.
Mike Carlton on his flight into a war zone as a cub reporter
My widowed mother took a photo of the plane that carried me away from Australia for the first time. It was a smoky old Boeing 707 parked on the tarmac at Mascot, as everyone called Sydney Airport back in 1966. Those were the days before air bridges, when you strolled across the concrete and climbed the stairs to go on board. The 707 was the latest word in air travel, an aviation marvel.
“Qantas jet on which Michael left for Singapore,” my mother wrote on the back of the photo. I remember that she tried to suppress her tears as I disappeared into the departure area, tears of pride for her firstborn son who was about to soar skywards and tears of sadness for the chick flying the nest.
I was 20 years old. As improbable as it sounds, I was off to become a foreign correspondent in South-East Asia for the ABC – the Australian Broadcasting Commission as it was then. Looking back, I haven’t a clue why they chose me for the job. I’d left school at 16 and had four years of journalism under my belt but I was still wet behind the ears, a boy going on a man’s assignment.
No matter. There I was up the pointy end in First Class, seat 1A. That’s how the ABC flew its journalists years ago.
“More champagne, Mr Carlton? Will you have the smoked salmon or the caviar?” I didn’t know; I’d never tasted either. “Both, please,” I said as James Bondishly as I could manage. The steward flourished the silver servers, spooning out a splodge of Beluga and curls of pink fish onto the fine bone china. There were little mounds of chopped onion, tissue-thin slices of lemon, crumbled hard-boiled eggs and a delicate sprig of parsley. I had never imagined such luxury, such elegance. “The captain would like to invite you to the flight deck… ”
Singapore was an assault on all the senses. It was like diving headlong into a curry. A colleague drove me into the city at twilight on streets steaming from the monsoon rain, weaving through a teeming, honking tangle of cars, motorbikes, buses and taxis, past the Chinese shophouses ablaze with lurid neon signs and food stalls lit by bright white pressure lamps, along dark, curving avenues fringed with palms. The night air was hot and sweet and sour, cloying and clinging. Intoxicating aromas floated on the breeze: the perfumes of mysterious fruits and spices and meats cooked on charcoal blended with the sharp whiff of two-stroke exhaust and tropical decay. It was ambrosia.
I did five years as a foreign correspondent. I went twice to the Vietnam War and for three years I was the ABC’s bureau chief in Jakarta. I worked in London, New York, Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi and Lusaka. And in the 52 years since, I’ve travelled the world I don’t know how many times.
But there has been nothing to match that first glorious flight in the 707.
Mike Carlton with his mother, Enid, in Singapore in 1968