Turmoil: Letters from the Brink

Robyn Williams


Edited extract of the Introduction and Chapter One in Turmoil: Letters from the Brink by Robyn Williams

I did not expect to be here

I did not expect to be here like this. My Williams family is short-lived and I have exceeded their span by an embarrassing chunk. So here I am, in what I thought would be my twilight years, as fit and busy as ever; the brain beneath the grey thatch and the wrinkles still pretends it’s 18. I’m enjoying every precious moment and look back on a life that’s unfolded in a way that seems almost scripted: one golden period after another.

Until now.

Today’s uncertainties were not in the script. I knew the world faced challenges, global ones, but I also knew that smart people with huge determination were ready to face them. As a society we were becoming more civilised and sensitive to others; we thought we understood the nature of his and hers, girl and boy, friend or foe, truth and lies. No more. It’s a shouting match — and the good guys can’t match the bullies’ megaphones. Look at science. It is treated with disdain by the funders and the ‘deplorables’ alike. Presidents and captains of industry call climate science ‘a hoax and a fraud’. Shock jocks and columnists, expert at stoking grievance, make ordinary people feel cheated. They turn decent folk into people some of us would, yes, be willing to deplore. Briefly. When I was growing up they were family.

It’s also hard to know when you’ve done well. So many friends and colleagues get fired, so many brilliant young men and women can’t get jobs (unlike the way I did in one go, walking off the street in 1972), so many ‘great leaders’ become great wimps. Captains of cricket resign in tears.

And as for those political labels thrust on people as if they are a regrouping of the Bolshevik plot of a century ago, no headline or incendiary paragraph is complete without the word left looming like a threat to your continued wellbeing. This was one I saw, among many, in an editorial:

… this simple undeniable truth sits at the very heart of the great climate change con job. Reality stubbornly refuses to do what the left has so hysterically promised and foretold it will do.

My communist father would have pissed himself with acid amusement at the genteel, mild-mannered — even earnest — souls of the scientific community being labelled as socialists, followers in the tradition of Che, Gramsci or Red Ellen. Left? Not even pink!

This is not the last act I expected, to see public discourse in this state. To see ignorance lauded and scientific research regarded as an optional ‘belief ’. Much worse, this is not the fate our gorgeous and largely benign civilisation deserves. The disparagement of science is an affront to the sublime beauty and complexity of the natural world that we have only recently begun to comprehend.

There is a striking disjunction in Australia. We have some tremendously talented people, young and old, keen to do good work and collaborate effectively. But we also have institutions and leadership that are, in the main, dreadful, gutless and dull. Why is this so? Should we all become New Zealanders?

The chapters that follow are reflections on this turmoil from a personal point of view. Are we facing an age of confusion and failure? A prelude to the kind of collapse that Jared Diamond writes about, but this time on a global scale? Or is this merely a short interlude, a transitory spell in the armpit of history before a new creative generation arises, no longer willing to dally with the squalor of present headlines?

These reflections focus on what may seem to be a collection of random topics: success and failure (where is the boundary between pleasure and pain?); hatred and evil (do you just give up amid the turmoil of loathing — is there a better way?); personal loss (grief can perhaps be the greatest turmoil of all); and Oxford and the Australian bush, two places I know and love and where the turmoil dissipates immediately and serenity comes quickly.

I’ll admit that this is very much an attempt to convince myself that the turmoil, this age of venom and spite and ignorance, is transitory. It cannot last because it is self-destructive. People are too good. My parents were right, in their idealism at least.

In February 2017 I walked in the sunshine through the glorious campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, and watched student after student, mostly young women, walk past me with their heads down over the screens in their hands. Finally, along came one who was looking up and admiring the trees, some of which were Australian eucalypts.

‘Good morning,’ I said smiling, though fearing she would call the campus guards to protect her from my unwarranted intrusion. ‘Why aren’t you examining your phone? Why are you the only one looking at the lovely landscape?’

She smiled back, totally friendly. ‘It’s a beautiful morning,’ she replied. ‘I’m enjoying it.’ I told her I’d just landed from Australia and she wished me well.

A simple encounter, but significant. A generation is beginning to look up from the tyranny of its gadgets and the confusion of its polity. Schoolkids are saying no to guns. They are turning back to books with pages. Evidence is coming in that they want to emerge to the world, if given the chance. And so, I am confident that my final personal chapter, Act Seven, is going to be OK after all. The first acts, all remarkably positive and forward looking, will not be crowned by an anomalous crunch.

Or am I wrong?


Turmoil and me

Few would dispute we are living through times of uncertainty and turmoil. But compared to what?

When I was born Hitler still had over a year to go. The 30th of January, my birthday, had a singular significance for Adolf because on that date in 1933 he first took ruthless charge in Germany. I was born in 1944 and World War II was in its final agonies. Although the war ended in 1945, its reverberations went on for years, even decades, in parts of the globe beyond Britain, where I lived, and in Australia. That really was turmoil.

There is something different, though, in these  worrying years of 2017 and 2018 as I write. Few of us have any sense of progress, of a future direction, of how to escape what most people I talk to, especially the young, regard as a bewildering mess. Right-wing politics has managed to form some kind of strange alliance with the workers and convinced them that retail politics — the urgencies of this week’s bills and upsets — is all that matters. Next year is too far off. Next decade is unimaginable. Make rage for the moment! This moment.

Turmoil. For us it seems to mean a mess without logic; without human purpose. Here come the robots. There go the jobs. And cars will drive themselves to their next appointment. Empty.

It really is tosh. But it is also, and this is the significance for me, the first time in my life that we don’t have any real sense of where we are going, and this is bad. Turmoil today is aimless.

My own tale can be played as a series of chapters running from an unpromising start of war, austerity and national PTSD, to a succession of flukes: recovery, affluence, travel, career, all accompanied by the welcome backdrop of sex, drugs (wine) and rock ’n’ roll. It looks like a fortunate life — up till now.


I appeared in High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, where my family had evacuated to escape the London  Blitz. World War II had just over a year to go. I was nearly evacuated in a bucket, my mother told me,  because she mistook my advent for another kind of  motion. So, the pattern was set: I’d just missed being born in the dunny.

My life has been a beguiling succession of acts in what can look like a drama with some lucky logic. My parents were not married. My father Gwyn, it turns out, had wedded someone called Elizabeth (about whom I know nothing) in 1933, and met my mother at political meetings. So far, so unpromising.

But then, when I was barely 15 months old, Act One saw us escape from terrifying global conflict as the war ended and Britain became a nation with plans to rebuild and reform. Two years before I was born William  Beveridge produced his famous document on welfare and the abolition of the ‘giant evils’ in society. Don’t forget this was, incredibly, in the middle of a world war. And the Beveridge Report was taken seriously by both sides of politics. Education was transformed in schools for the lower classes (like me) by Tory minister RA Butler after consulting the other political parties (an Act passed when I was six months old); a national health service was conjured from the ashes of victory by the Welsh wizard Nye Bevan. Despite the political rhetoric, there seemed to be a common purpose. All this when Britain was near bankruptcy. (In 2018 Australia, despite our blatant wealth, we dare not contemplate even simple projects such as fast trains or affordable dentistry.) The rationing that had made many foods unavailable was gradually lifted and we had tangible signs of everything getting better. Stuff was in shops. We saw brightly coloured things called bananas and peaches. Austerity, on a level the present generation can only imagine, slowly faded away.

The postwar spirit lifted fast — you could feel the buzz. Even our music moved from wistful reflection to a new kind of bounce.

Act Two: 1950, we were off to Vienna. I was nearly seven. We lived in relative luxury. I learned another language and more than another culture. There were Austrians, Germans, the occupying Russians and Americans we lived with, and the countries we visited around Europe. We were so privileged. What’s more I had already discovered reading. I remember at my primary school in London (or was it infants?), before Vienna, at the age of five, doing a reading test in class. Those who got the word right could go home. The first word was piano and I got it straightaway. Off I went. That day I discovered I could read with ease and, with the companionship of books, I could now be in a magical world forever more. Whenever I felt like it. Soon I was reading in two languages.

At the libraries in Vienna I had a random selection of books in English and German that I consumed with unswerving intensity. I have since looked up some of their titles and discovered I was reading epics such as Charles Reade’s Cloister and the Hearth at barely eight, plenty of Maxim Gorki and Hugh Lofting and German romps such as Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives or The Flying Classroom in the original. Now I learn that Kästner’s books had been burned by the Nazis in  the 1930s.

Act Three: We returned to London. Straight to a Grammar School (thanks to RA Butler, the Tory minister, who nowadays would be taken as a Bolshevik) with old-fashioned scholarly standards and pasty 11 year olds who’d been nowhere. I was unfairly judgemental about these lads — most had barely one parent and were drastically hard up. There were two exceptions. One was David Scheuer, whose father was Czech and whose mother lived in Paris. David was, like me, bilingual. His elder brother Mike Sarne, also at the school, would go on to be a pop star and then to direct films. (His notorious version of Gore Vidal’s transgender frolic Myra Breckinridge, starring Raquel Welch, Mae West and John Huston, is judged by some to be the worst Hollywood film in history.) David became an actor and shameless consumer of 1960s dope, dolly birds and foreign ciggies.

He would disappear to LA for mysterious frolics with the Mamas and the Papas and other sundry ravers. Grinning, he’d offer you a fag saying: ‘Cancer stick?’ He died of lung cancer quite young.

The other boy with some worldly poise was Michael Goldacre from Australia (Sir Henry Parkes was a relation). He was athletic, obsessed with cricket scores, came first in all subjects with no apparent effort and turned out to have a sister who looked like Brigitte Bardot. Both David and Michael became firm friends of mine and it was Michael’s family who triggered my eventual escape, in 1964, to Australia.

Being in London in the years from 1955 was dull at first but there were signs of massive change. The shops were stocked once more, not lavishly, with exotic produce. Immigrants from India and the West Indies brought strange fruit such as avocados and spices that most of us had not seen before. Cars looked somehow brighter and sleeker, not so boxy and rough. Our clothes became less lumpy and endlessly repaired as new fabrics appeared to make us look fresh and ready. Then: Elvis. And Bill Haley. And their British imitators Tommy Steele and Guy Mitchell. The late 1950s ended with glorious uproar.

Then it was the 1960s and The Beatles and a sweep of exuberance and creativity took hold that came with a new optimism, a conviction that almost anything was possible. And it was.

Act Four: Oz! An odd time, you would guess, to up sticks and travel, alone, age 20, to distant Australia. But I was escaping deep poverty. My family, what was left of it, had no income. I had hitchhiked around Europe every year with friends David Scheuer and Michael Goldacre, sleeping on beaches or in vineyards. We spoke French and German and knew how to negotiate foreign parts and be ‘on the road’. Jack Kerouac had shown us the romance of travel without a dollar and we imagined ourselves to be the European equivalent: troubadours on Route Nationale Sept, the highway leading to the south of France — basically schoolkids on a cheap vacation in search of sex, but in our imaginations we were on an adventure, pursuing exotic delights. Eating little but grapes and cheese for days on end in no way blunted  our spirits.

So, the next big challenge was to do the same globally. My mates all promised to come with me to Australia, but one by one dipped out. Leaving me alone with a ten-pound ticket — the special fare available to intending migrants — on the Castel Felice sailing from Southampton in 1964. Despite my ticket, I planned to stay in Australia for just two years, saving lots of that fortune you could earn working on the Snowy Scheme, then hitchhiking from Sydney to London. When the ship docked at Pyrmont in Sydney I had two problems. The first was that my documents insisted I was female (the Welsh spelling of Robyn did it) and second, I had nowhere to live and no job.

The man from the migrant assistance outfit (called Big Brother — seriously!) solved the first problem by taking out a biro and crossing out Miss on my documents and remaking me male by writing Mr. (Were today’s gender uncertainties so simply solved!) He next dealt with the second difficulty by announcing I was to live in ‘Mosman’ off Military Road and go to work at the Repatriation Department. I had visions of a distant barracks off a troop route somewhere in the distant bush and was astounded to find myself at the harbour end of Raglan Street in Sydney’s poshest suburb blessed with the best views on Earth. And the job was not some horrid exercise in transnational deportation but a clerical task, calculating pensions for old soldiers. What’s more, the Repatriation office in the Grace building  (now a swank hotel) turned out to be three minutes from the Royal George pub, favourite of the Push. It was the 1960s drinking HQ for bohemian icons such as  Germaine Greer, Richard Neville, PP McGuinness, Robert Hughes and many more. My luck was holding.


I was able to scoot off to Oz in 1964 because I was free. My father had died in 1962. My mother was house-bound and broken.

Gwyn Williams seems now like a stern ghost from an old film made in Wales. He was born barely in the twentieth century, in 1905, and I last saw him alive  55 years ago. I’ve tried to find people who knew him but most of those have gone too. There are few traces left.

What I know is this: he was handsome, clever, athletic, sang in Welsh, was a coal-miner from age 14, became a mining engineer at 17, a trade union leader and a spy (amateur in the extreme) in the 1950s. He had a formidably strong personality that used to scare me shitless. I was secretly glad to hear he’d died at only 57. Isn’t that shameful? But I was free. In one bound.

I now remember some good things about him. I loved lying in bed on weekend mornings with my parents (I must have been five or six) as he sang songs in his confident tenor voice. I was reminded of this when, in 2016 in Swansea, I visited the house where Dylan Thomas was born. I recorded my tour with Steve, who’d restored the small home on the steep hill, for ABC Radio. Our conversation lasted over an hour and for me was almost like an exuberant trance as memories came back. The lovely Welsh accents and lilting phrases; Steve put an ancient LP onto a record player with a real horn, like in the movies, and over the scratches and crackles came a song my father used to sing, ‘Sosban Fach’, about a little saucepan, and though I hadn’t heard it for over half a century, I began to sing along with it. Something was embedded. Those songs, that Welsh language. The program, ostensibly an ‘archaeology of Dylan Thomas’ for The Science Show, was heard by some who know me as my ‘goodbye’ program. But it wasn’t a farewell, more a celebration of memories of youth.

Gwyn was also an idealist and a communist. He had taken on a few of the favourite phrases from the Stalinist claptrap of his age, but he didn’t take them seriously. Even amid the turmoil of his adult life — the Depression, World War II and the Cold War — he still believed in some sort of Promised Land. It was only towards the end, ruined by the tiny conspiracies of the tinier circle of comrades, an irrelevant rump left behind as the world changed, that he faltered; his once strong body wrecked by miner’s diseases, his spirit gave up. I am now 17 years older than my old man was when he died. Strange feeling.

As a spy his career was brief and, apparently, ineffectual. I’d love to see his files from MI5. I gather there were three of them, mainly because the spooks kept getting his name wrong. There was one for George Williams, one for Gwyn and one for Gwynfor. In September 2017, I happened to meet a young student in Sussex who was investigating a history of one of my father’s unions, that of the scientists, and I was told that there is much material about him at Warwick University. I can’t see myself trekking there to investigate. What could I find? Acres of old print about quixotic plans and tedious meetings. In Vienna, Gwyn was assigned to something called the WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions) housed in an old palace in the centre. I thought and knew little about it until a couple of years ago when I read Le Carré’s  book Absolute Friends and there were the familiar initials WFTU, likened by Le Carré to a communist front organisation. As I remember it, it had all the airs and graces of a mini United Nations. Plenty of pricey drinks under the huge chandeliers.

My mother, Ray (Rachel) Davies, was a complete contrast to Gwyn. So much so that I can’t imagine how they coexisted intimately for so long without murdering each other, let alone conceiving and raising three children.

She too was athletic, more a bundle of muscle in her younger days: trim and strong, with an Eastern European face and black hair in rising waves from a widow’s peak as they liked to perm it in those 1940s and 1950s styles. She too was mysterious in her family provenance.

My late brother Shwn tried to research it when he lay dying in his hospital bed, a laptop on the crumpled sheets. The records from Lvov in Poland, he found, were all gone. The ‘Davies’ family that eventuated in the East End of London in the 1920s (?) had a variety of surnames and I lost track of Ray’s brothers who bore them. She seemed uninterested in her family and its heritage beyond the lives of her own children and our exploits until her health collapsed.

Ray was a natural linguist and lateral thinker. Her brain could jump and make humorous connections that would often leave listeners mystified. I find I have similar foibles, a brain like an electric grasshopper, and there are only a few familiars who are able to deconstruct my jokes or references to exasperated bystanders, offering them links I’ve assumed are obvious. I, and Ray, perfected the allusion from nowhere. (These days Jonica has assumed the burden of being my interpreter.)

When I told my mother I was off to Australia in 1964 she was saddened but couldn’t stop me. She was agoraphobic and housebound. Her cosmopolitan zest and love of the Continent were quashed forever. Like Gwyn, she had been marooned in the twilight zone. I was to carry the torch on her behalf, she told me. The promise of untold wealth to be earned in the Snowy  placated her somewhat.


Act Five: The ten-quid trip to Oz, as I indicated, was a con. I had no intention of staying. It was a way to get to the other side of the planet, then hitchhike the Big One, back home after the required two years’ stay, accomplishing a venture that would become common-place in the 1960s and 1970s as many a hairy youth ventured to India and beyond in search of enlightenment.  I duly set out from North Sydney station in August 1966 aiming to reach Piccadilly in mid-December. This was achieved on the dot (18 December!) and I arrived with an Australian wife called Pamela. We had heard the new Beatles LP Revolver in a record shop in Kuala Lumpur and hit London just a couple of months before the explosive release of Sgt. Pepper’s and all that came with it.

I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of London. My university years were coupled with television appearances from 1966 to 1971 thanks to Pamela, who was working as a casting director for ATV and Lew Grade and the BBC. (Her first series was The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan.) She helped me get a couple of agents who would provide a variety of gigs from costume dramas and cop shows to Monty Python, The Goodies, and four months as a stand-in for Tom Jones. Life consisted of sitting in the audience seats in big TV studios trying to write essays on xylem and phloem transport in ancient plants or the classification of bony fish and suddenly being required to take Tom’s script as he went off to make-up (or something in the caravan with one of the dancers!) and rehearse the sketch for his variety show with Peter Sellers, or Cher, or Terry-Thomas, and then back I went to botany or dogfish parts.

I had five years of that kind of utterly contrasting life: one day with the Monty Python team on location, the next sitting in a monumentally tedious lecture on the evolution of ferns.

It seemed random, basic biology plus 1960s showbiz, but it was a perfect preparation for science broadcasting. That started, for me, in early 1972, in time for the closing of the Apollo era. On what was supposed to be a brief trip back to Sydney, I walked off the street into the ABC just as the last two sets of men prepared to go to the moon. Pamela had wanted to see her family again and we were intending to stay for 12 months. ABC Science had a fluke vacancy and I was there to do the slog work as a gopher to help those on air present the live broad-casts from the moon for Apollo 16 in April and the final adventure, Apollo 17, in December. One day in April I was jolted from sending messages into the studio with bits of research for the on-air people to talk about when-ever the astronauts took a break. The founder of ABC Science, Peter Pockley, was hosting the broadcast and had been on air for hours, probably since before dawn. Then, during a news break, he simply left the ‘live’ studio, told me which switches to press and said: ‘Take over.’ I had two minutes’ notice and survived. I can’t remember what I said — something prosaic, no doubt — but I was now a broadcaster. How did all that happen?

Act Six: The ABC kept me on and another Act unfolded. I did the lot: radio, TV, print, the first phone-ins on ABC Radio. We were even allowed to venture on to commercial networks. (Or were we? I don’t recall asking permission.) It was a magnificent training.

Science was in its second postwar phase, following Kennedy and the space race, an era when Australian research was taking off and the revolutions of genomes and genetic engineering and the human history of this southern land and much more were reaching new levels of discovery and meaning.

It seemed all set. A smooth growth to greater riches and insights and, who knows, peace on Earth. After Woodstock came the Age of Aquarius and Alternative Australia in places such as Nimbin in northern New South Wales and pleasant pastures near Perth and so on. Once you removed the flake and the hash you found a generation with a genuine concern about building a better future. This was not much reflected in orthodox politics, and Barry Jones, soon to be a minister for science in the Hawke government, was moved to call his book on what was possible Sleepers, Wake!, after William Blake’s entreaty for everyone to open their eyes to a  fresh reality.

And, yes, science and technology everywhere did flourish and achievements were spectacular. But the link to social goals has never been set clearly and confidently in the public mind, let alone mainstream politics.  Science meant funding and funding means taxes. Taxes are bad. So it went on for decades as our leaders gloried in the successes but ducked when they needed to pay for them — even though they paid for themselves. And now we have a standoff. Turmoil.

But in the midst of public turmoil, my personal Act Seven included unexpected joy. My marriage to Pamela had run its course; the kids were grown up and she had met a terrific guy, a conductor called Christopher Bowen. I had been abroad a lot with a couple of fellowships at Oxford and reporting assignments. That’s when Jonica appeared — another fluke in this apparently charmed life.