Like many children I had no real idea of what my parents did for a living so the last thing I expected on a visit to Sydney in 1973 was to hear my dad on local radio, speaking from faraway Hong Kong.
I was at the home of John Higgins, who had been my father’s first Editor long ago on the Western Star in Roma in country Queensland. I was having a great time when I was hauled out of a tree in the backyard because the Big Baxter was on the radio.
He was talking about someone called Francis James who had been released from a Chinese prison and was now in Hong Kong. Bax had thrown a party for him the night before the broadcast at our flat in Macdonnell Road.
Your 10-year-old Girl Reporter was nonplussed that the Big Baxter was on the radio at all, let alone that he was speaking all the way from Hong Kong. So you’ll forgive me if that was the most memorable thing about the occasion. Suddenly the urgent instruction to be quiet when Dad was on the phone made a bit more sense.
Francis James was a controversial figure and many people – the Big Baxter included, who knew him better than most – have tried to piece together the truth behind the magnificent show he constructed.
In a nutshell, his story goes like this:
In 1969 James claimed to have visited a nuclear test site in China’s remote Sinkiang province where he interviewed three leading nuclear scientists. His story was met with scepticism from many sides and, possibly in an effort to clear his name, James returned to China later that year and disappeared without trace.
For three years it was presumed that he was in a Chinese prison – a fact only confirmed by a brief announcement from China’s official newsagency Xinhua shortly before he was handed over at the border with Hong Kong.
His reappearance did not quell the sceptics and to this day James’ name is mired in controversy.
It was a few years later that I met him. He was in Hong Kong on his way to Moscow. Just stop and think for a moment, how thrilling it was for your Girl Reporter, raised on a steady diet of Cold War espionage, to have Francis James – the closest thing I thought I knew to a real-life spy – in the spare room, and heading to Moscow of all places.
I would love to say that Francis James was a spy. But I can’t. He was flamboyant, he was eccentric, a teller of tales both tall and small. But even my father never got to the bottom of his story and he spent a lot of time trying.
My interactions with Francis confined my impressions to a healthy mixture of delight and terror. He was a demanding tutor at the dinner table, constantly disappointed in my grasp of current affairs, but also a patient explainer of things he felt I should know.
He gave me my first ever English toffee apple and delivered it with a stern and lengthy lecture on the importance of a rigorous and regular programme of dental hygiene, for example.
One of Francis’ most memorable stays at our flat coincided with a visit from a distant relative of my mother’s from the Queensland country town of Toowoomba. He had won a cruise in some test of luck in a forgotten magazine and during his Hong Kong stopover was detailing a long list of woes about his treatment at the hands of the ship’s purser.
Francis, on hearing his tale, disappeared into his room and emerged in a uniform jacket, bedazzling in its medal content. He marched our very shy and embarrassed cousin down to the ship and called for the captain. I heard the encounter ended with drinks and jovial tales in the captain’s quarters followed by an upgrade and a place at his table each evening for our cousin thereafter.
Years later, in 1986, he was wearing that jacket in the much-missed Bunga Raya restaurant and bar in Lockhart Road to meet the former Mr Baxter and our little girl who was just a few months old. It was the last time we saw Francis and he and my father, the old double act, were in fine form.
“No, no,” Francis admonished my husband when he picked up a bottle of wine from the table to refill my glass. And both he and Bax crowed in unison, “A gentleman holds a bottle of red wine by the neck, a woman by the waist – and a bottle of Champagne by the derriere.”
As we left my husband, a former navy man, said to me, “You know most of those medals are fake, right?”
No, I didn’t, still don’t – and don’t care either way. Nothing about Francis James could surprise or disappoint me. He was a Tall Tale made flesh and the world’s a duller place without him.
When Francis died in 1992 the best my father could say was that the people who knew him best had gone to the grave before him with his secrets. “The rest of us can only wonder about him,” he said.
He wrote a lot to me about Francis but never strayed beyond his customary caution about most of his story. But he did say that Francis was important to him, as important as John Higgins, whose big old radio – a dinosaur even in 1973 terms – had first brought Francis James to my attention.
“Not since Johnnie Higgins had I met a man who wanted answers to the questions I ask.” Bax wrote.
“Higgins opened my mind to varying viewpoints, Francis taught me to look more closely at people, to try to find what it is that makes them walk that way. But when you’ve done admiring the ankles, return to the mind. Always the mind. Examine the mind of the person, not the appearance.
“Listen, analyse, compare, then speak. Silence is golden. Never speak until you are ready, and always with a witticism, a quote, a pun, a jest.
“That’s what I think he tried to teach me. The same things that my dear mother tried so hard to instil in me as we walked home on a Sunday night after a round of Benediction. Good humour above all else.”
Obituary: Francis James – The Independent, 28 August, 1992
The real Francis James story – by Greg Clark, first journalist to interview James after his release from China in 1973.
The Curse of James – by Your Girl Reporter
My spies through my little eyes – More from your Girl Reporter on the spies I didn’t realise I knew
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network