It will shock you, I know, to learn that Your Girl Reporter is not averse to the occasional act of thievery. Every so often I am reminded of past misdeeds which trouble my conscience to greater and lesser degree. The recent publication of a new book by journalist, author and artist Derek Maitland was one such reminder.
The Fatal Line documents the biggest public enquiry ever held into Australia’s commercial broadcasting industry from the ringside perspective of Maitland and his fellow whistleblower at Sydney’s TCN Channel Nine.
I knew Maitland as one of the noisy, amorphous group of Hong Kong journalists on whose fringe I dwelt in those years of childhood when you don’t care what people do for a living. So it was a surprise years later to see his name on a bookshelf in England. And it gives me enormous joy that accuracy enables me to begin my tale of crime and misdeed with the following observation:
It was a dark and stormy night.
I forget the precise nature of the function which had drawn me out in the middle of a bitter English winter but the location was a hotel on the seafront at Eastbourne on the mild south coast.
Not particularly mild in December with a gale blowing and bits of ice in the choppy rain slicing into your cheeks as you struggle out of a cab and across the slippery pavement as fast as your poor frozen toes can carry you, but mild compared to the rest of the country.
I can’t tell you now which hotel it was – the seafront was pretty much all hotels, built in the Edwardian heyday of railways and leisure time. Eastbourne had always pitched its charms to the cream of society and was proud in the 1990s, well past that heyday, that its genteel old hotels had been largely retained.
Some were in better shape than others and this hotel was a little shabby, a fine lady not yet fallen on hard times but scrimping her pennies and making do on last year’s petticoats.
I must have been early because I sought refuge from the storm in the lobby which, like so many of those old hotels, sought to recreate the charm of a Victorian drawing room.
There was a range of mismatched comfortable chairs around the warm and friendly fireplace, a table in the corner with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle depicting an improbably sunny scene of the South Downs and – just out of reach of my thawing fingers – a case of books.
It will surprise no one that it was the books which drew my glance but it surprised me that there on the shelf was a name I recognised. Could it be the same character from faraway Hong Kong? The same Derek Maitland?
If it was, then I must have it. I looked around and assessed my chances. At no point did it occur to me to seek out the manager and ask for it, in exchange for some token amount.
Instead, I rose casually and selected the Maitland book and a few others, paused at the table to slot a piece into the jigsaw puzzle and returned to my squashy chair to settle in for some fireside reading.
Or, at least, that’s how I hoped it would appear.
The book was titled The Only War We’ve Got and promised a black comedic romp through the Vietnam War. It was written, according to the dust jacket, to express the author’s fury over the conflict and his fear of the American military complex.
But was it the same Maitland? The boy in the combat helmet and fatigues with the camera didn’t look anything like the bloke I remembered – but age will do that, as I have since discovered for myself.
I shoved the book discreetly into my handbag, returned the decoys to their shelf and headed to the function. I spent the rest of the evening trying to picture Derek Maitland in various Hong Kong settings, to marry my dim recollection with the boy at the back of the book.
And then it all came back to me in a flooding rush the way the worst of repressed memories are wont to do. Maitland was the one with the boat. The infamous Mudskipper, a traditional Chinese junk named, unpromisingly, for an ugly fish which flops and wallows in the mudflats at low tide.
Hong Kong is not just the famed deep water harbour from which it takes its name, it’s a myriad of islands with sheltered bays and choppy channels between them and out on the water is a natural place to be.
There are families in Hong Kong who have lived their entire lives on the water, and not always in the spacious comfort of a 38ft junk – as a child I liked to imagine myself growing up in a tiny sampan, one of the toddlers roped to the crowded deck by an ankle until I learned my limits.
But I burn easily.
By the time I left Hong Kong the traditional three-masted sailing junk had mostly vanished from its waters but they were everywhere during my childhood, the great workhorses of the harbour.
They appeared so serene from the shore but up close you could hear the sails snapping and beating a heavy, hard wind-driven thrumming and the booming smack of the prow as it handled the swelling channels between the islands. Who wouldn’t want to spend a day aboard one?
But I burn easily.
There was nothing remarkable in Hong Kong about a day out on board a boat. The junk trip to a secluded beach was a favourite outing for most corporates and just about all my school years ended with one. But these were usually modern fibreglass affairs that bore little resemblance to the real thing.
Only Maitland actually owned a traditional junk. Inevitably, the Spackman family was invited aboard and in spite of the stories of near-misses and other mishaps that were in wide circulation among the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press, there we were at the jetty for the appointed hour.
I was disappointed at the lack of sails, but not for long – they were rare by then in any case – but thrilled at the old fashioned steering system of ropes and pulleys which connected the long iron bar of the tiller to the rudder.
The Mudskipper was built in Canton (now Guangzhou) and in a previous life was a ‘snake boat’ – smuggling refugees and narcotics between the mainland and Hong Kong. And we were headed for Cheung Chau, once the home of notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai, whose cave on the island you can visit to this day.
You can imagine the chug chug chugging joy of Your Girl Reporter, out on the water in a pirate ship, in my head outrunning the gunboats and racing for the safety of our pirate’s cave with our loot.
But I burn easily. By the time I boarded the Mudskipper I should have learned, from painful prior experience, boat trips were not for the likes of me.
And the Mudskipper wasn’t going to outrun anything. Instead, in keeping with her reputation, she broke down as we approached Cheung Chau. We floated, for what seemed an age but was probably only hours, while I cringed below deck under a white t-shirt which stuck to my lobster coloured flesh. I burn easily and had, once again, taken cover too late.
Finally help arrived in the shape of a police launch which towed us to the main Cheung Chau wharf to the cheers of thousands of fishermen and cargo junk crewmen, who clapped us ashore as we disembarked in the gathering dusk.
It was humiliating. And not just for me. Maitland’s romance with the sea did not survive much after that event and he later confessed that his subsequent maritime excursions were confined to the occasional voyage on the Star Ferry between Kowloon and Hong Kong island.
I have the book still, in spite of the dishonest nature of its acquisition. It is mine by theft, committed very much in the name of Maitland and his stinking boat. For such a man did I risk my good name.
The Fatal Line by Derek Maitland can be acquired honestly through Amazon.
The seaside in the Victorian literary imagination – Jacqueline Banerjee, The Victorian Web
Famous Pirate: Cheung Po Tsai – The Way of the Pirates
A history of the junk boat – Isobel Smith, Yachting and Boating World
Hong Kong: The life of a Tanka boy in 1980 – Michael Rogge
© Sally Baxter 2016
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This post was also published at the Australian Independent Media Network