Books about international relations are written from a variety of levels and perspectives: while some are narrated from the lofty heights of policy-making and negotiations, others reveal more of the human side of diplomacy. Drawn from tenure of over 40 years in Australia’s Foreign Service, Howard Debenham’s book does both – and more. It recounts a fascinating array of experiences and adventures through a career which included eleven overseas postings in nine countries as well as a stint in the Senior Executive of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.
The book has a powerful autobiographical narrative which starts with his family’s bush origins and charts the modest and challenging circumstances of the author’s early years including his chance beginning in the Foreign Service when he had to choose between it and the life of a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea.
He provides highly engaging accounts of surviving through life-threatening incidents and having to deal with situations such as hijackings, massacres and a rogue elephant on the loose. Additionally, he pieces together the untold, and often harrowing, tale of the problems faced by Australian consular officials in helping Australians in trouble abroad. As High Commissioner to Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s, he was quite evidently at dangerously close quarters to the key players involved in the civil war. So it is not surprising that he provides such a clear-headed and insightful account of the fairly murderous politics of the insurgency to date.
Similarly, his posting as Consul-General in Washington DC during the fateful events of 11 September 2001 uniquely equip him not only to describe the day as it unfolded but also to provide a gripping assessment of the meaning of 9/11 and its place in history. This is masterfully expounded in the final chapter and makes the book a compelling read for anyone interested in foreign affairs.
As noted on the dust jacket of the book by the ABC’s Phillip Adams, Howard Debenham has a ‘gift for narrative’. In the words of former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gareth Evans (with whom Howard shared a close working relationship for some time), he has a ‘real flair for story-telling’. Indeed, the author is further distinguished by his ability to provide, throughout the book, instructive and easily digestible historical settings.
Howard Debenham, ‘Waiting ‘Round the Bend: Recollections of Childhood and a Life in Australia’s Foreign Service’, Barrallier Books/Echo Books, Geelong, 2013.
Reviewed by Russell Lansbury, Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney