Chapter 14......The Front Row
As the day of the meeting at the Miami great Hall approached, the pace quickened with the media showing increased interest, particularly since the day that Louise Pemble had managed to make the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald. Now the electronic media were asking questions and with Channel Nine leading the way I only thought it fair that the others too, should be invited. It was a policy that I always adopted, levelling with them all. Sometimes, they acted like sulking prima donnas, not wanting have me speak to any other. I could simply not be bothered with their silly little games. For the moment however, they all wanted a slice of the action. Courtesy and respect for people is a property sadly lacking in the Australian media contingent. Not so however with the Japanese. When Rebecca Henty rang me from Sydney and apologetically asked me if Tsuneo Sugishita, from Yomiuri Shimbun, a newspaper in Japan with a daily circulation of something like 12 million copies, could attend, I was as delighted as she was surprised. It was almost as if the journalist thought it an intrusion to ask. “No, not at all, I would be delighted,” I told her. “It will give the reporting a non-biased representation.” From that point on I was to have and retain a friendly rapport with the Japanese press. Always courteous, they never came to see me without a small gift for my wife and one one occasion when a ‘thirty minute interview’, extended to four hours a Sydney bureau chief, from Asahi Shimbun, took us both to dinner at the ANA. To this day we exchange Christmas greetings; he having been brought up in a Christian school. Forging friendships, building bridges with these people was never a problem, selling them our land, when they did not live here was another matter.
The morning of May 21 saw the lead article feature a photograph of myself holding an announcement. Later I will not be so gentle with the Bulletin, but in this instance I was indebted to them.
One of the biggest problems was getting the message across with very limited money for advertising. On this particular day we had photostated an advertisement that had run the previous day, blown it up and Malcolm North had photographed me holding it. You could not possibly miss it for it appeared under the headline grabbing caption, World Focus on Stance Against ‘Japanvasion’,; that confounded word again. With the SMH and the Australian joining the fray, the turnout it seemed was guaranteed. It was at this point that I began to worry, for I realised my limitations when it came to speaking publicly. Apart from my school days, when I ran from it, my marriage ceremony, when I had no option, my experience was nil. The one thing I was certain of, was that I hated it. My wife suggested speaking into a tape recorder, with inflections here an expression there. It didn’t help, so I gave it away. I reckoned that what the people wanted was the message and not the delivery, they I assured myself would understand. A couple of days later, barely forty-eight hours before the show was due to get under way, I went down to the hall to check out the public address system. To use a phrase I nearly died on the spot. When I had approached Keith for the hire of the hall, it never occurred to me that the hall was the gymnasium cum assembly hall. I was mentally tuned into a crowd of about 50 to 100, but this, this was a potential threat. I had visions of television cameras, panning an empty hall and telegraphing to the rest of Australia, just how apathetic we really were. If the Gold Coast, could not get all excited what the Japanese were buying, then this fellow Whiteside, was off the beam. They would have a field day, if that happened, I would be crucified. Terrified that the hall would be all but empty, I set out to canvas all the radio stations and post bills in shops. It was a frantic time, now all we could do was wait and hope. By now I was beginning to realise that I was to the media what a meaty bone is to a pack of wild dogs. Whilst Melburnians, drove home, or sat stationary in traffic jambs, I was telling 3AW’s drive-time listeners what was happening on the tourist strip. It was an amusing aside just thinking about the reactions of some of these people from all walks of life. What were they thinking, what were they saying. It was in a sense, a bit of a fantasy, a bit unreal. Phone calls and letters reassured me that it was anything but, I had as I had suspected touched a nerve, a nerve that business and government tried to ignore. By now the small group of people who had first assemble at my home, were becoming just as anxious and nervous as I was. This Sunday evening they had come to here the speech that I had written and all were agreed that it was extremely good. One or two were agreeably surprised that I could have put it together, whilst one said he thought it was, quote” quite brilliant”. The other reason for their presence was that Murray Hogarth a journalist for the SMH, was appearing on the Don Lane TONITE Show, and Lane had asked me to take part. Since it was at such short notice, this had to be done over the telephone. I thought the whole thing was a bit of a flop, but as the visitors sat in my lounge watching and listening, I was in the bedroom, no less than six feet from the television set, speaking to them through Lanes studios in Melbourne. Such is the wonder of modern communications.
Of those who sat in the lounge that night, one had undertaken to chair the meeting, his name Geoff Sharp, a name he was to say at the meeting ‘not known to many of you’. In truth he was not known to me either, but was suggested to me by an acquaintance of his, who believed, that he shared views similar to mine. That he did, made it no easier to be seen to do so publicly.
Sharp a man who held public office had a friend who had not only fought against the Japanese, but was actively pursuing compensation for those POW’s who suffered as a result of Japanese abuses. Peter Collas on the morning of the meeting apparently spoke with his friend and warned of the danger, presumably to his position in the public arena, that it would not be in his interest to participate in the meeting. If that was the case then Collas was only doing what I would have done in similar circumstances. When Sharp rang me, that's not what he said.
“I think we should call the meeting off”. I could not believe it. I had come this far and at the 11th hour, he wanted me to call it off.
“Peter (Collas) says that we are not prepared and that if the meeting is a flop, then it will harm any future attempt to raise the issue again. In any case he doesn’t think that you’ll fill the front row.”.
That sort of negative talk was the last thing I wanted to hear. To do so on the day was devastating. “OK Geoff, if that the way you want it, I wont hold you to chairing the meeting, but I’ve made a commitment to those people to speak and I intend to honour it. In any case, how the hell in the name of good patience does any one pull the plug at this late stage”.
Privately I thought, “its all very well for them, they bugger off and I am left to hold the baby”. By evening Geoff who had stuck to his undertaking to chair the meeting had put the events of the morning behind him. He couldn’t have been more helpful. As we drove off to the hall, we conjectured on how many people might be there. We did not have long to contemplate, for as we approached the Gold Coast highway at Miami, it was lined with cars.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, “Geoff said, hardly believing his eyes.
I could not resist the temptation,
“Reckon we’ll fill the front row?”
“Yes, you were right. You were right about the mood of the people too”. Of that I was not so sure.