On 16 January 1973 Australian Francis James emerged from three years’ imprisonment in Canton (now Guangzhou) with just a brief announcement from China to herald his expulsion to the border and into the waiting arms of Hong Kong and Australian officials.
He collapsed at the Hong Kong border into the arms of John Slimming, Government Information Services director, and an Australian consulate official and was taken straight to the Matilda Hospital, a fair wreck of a man, according to my father the Big Baxter.
Australian newspaper The Age, which had secured a contract for the James story, dispatched top gun Creighton Burns to Hong Kong and had just one instruction for Bax, their local stringer – get a photographer.
“Greg Clark from The Australian got into the hospital room first and knocked off a strong piece for his paper. Francis was a bit embarrassed by it, because he was under contract to write his story for The Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald,” Bax said.
“The Age had a top man coming in to handle things and I was given one task: to organise a photographer.”
If Bax was miffed at being overlooked to cover the story, he never said. It was the common lot of the stringer, after all. If anything I suspect he was happy to hand the story over to someone else because of his own friendship with Francis.
Bax said the best black-and-white photographer he knew in Hong Kong at the time was Dinshaw Balsara, who took the shots of Francis sitting up in bed in a dressing gown and an enormous black hat.
My father said he often wondered about the stories Francis told in those first crucial hours after he regained freedom.
“Ballsi would shake his head at me and say, ‘Your friend Francis, that’s some man.’ I suspect he told Ballsi some things he didn’t tell me,” Bax said.
What Francis told The Australian’s Greg Clark lay dormant for nearly 20 years. After Clark’s initial article, a furious Graham Perkin, Editor of The Age, slapped an injunction on him and his newspaper and the story was abandoned.
It’s a tale full of the fantastical flourishes that could only invite scepticism and yet, and yet… there was always an ‘and yet’ to every Francis James story and Clark’s account has a little beauty, right at the end.
If Francis told my father anything, Bax didn’t repeat a word of it. He always managed to sidestep the controversy that swirled around Francis like the folds of his signature black cape.
He spoke of him often but I never heard him give any kind of opinion on the veracity or otherwise of Francis’ story.
Derek Davies, the Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, never lost his trenchant scepticism and, as Clark relates, his opinion was important to Francis in restoring his reputation.
“Derek and Francis saw some matters differently but I have no feelings or observations on their relationship,” was all my father would say.
Creighton Burns, The Age’s top man, noted that James in those early days at the Matilda didn’t want to talk, except to old friends, but once he started he couldn’t stop.
“He positively concentrates on not talking about China. But every now and then he is drawn back to some private association to those three years when he was shunted from one prison to another,” Burns wrote.
From his hospital bed he telephoned his tailor to apologise for not having paid his last bill, dated 1969. “I have been unavoidably detained old boy, for reasons beyond my control,” he is reported to have said.
His tailor forgave him – inviting Francis to his daughter’s wedding a few years later, as recounted by your own Girl Reporter in The Curse of James.
Then, according to Burns, he asked for someone to come and measure him for new clothes – striped pants, black jacket and court breeches of purple velvet.
“You know, those chaps took my shoes with the silver buckles – I can’t possibly understand why,” Francis told Burns.
Thanks for indulging me in a long run of articles about Francis James – these were prepared earlier and have got me through a stressful house move which, not unexpectedly, has left me struggling with a pretty severe bout with my old friend Ankylosing Spondylitis. If it keeps up I may take an early winter break, but I’ll be back with more Adventures of a Girl Reporter in a couple of weeks.
The real Francis James story – Greg Clark, October 1992
James asks for purple velvet breeches – Creighton Burns, Sydney Morning Herald 18 January, 1973
Creighton Burns: an ornament to his profession – tribute by Michelle Grattan, The Age 24 January, 2008
Read more Baxter:
A masterclass in China watching in three parts:
© Sally Baxter 2015
This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network