Getting to know George

Two blades of grass

“A man who can make two blades of grass grow where one grew before is a benefactor of mankind” Johnathon Swift

On my mother’s side, I am a direct descendant of W.J.T. (Big) Clarke, once described as ‘the most hated, feared and respected man in Victoria’, a very successful land baron in Tasmania and Victoria, a man of very dubious ethics.  On my father’s side, I come from a family of small English farmers driven out of farming by the repeal of the Corn Laws. My grandfather  was a surgeon on a hospital ship at Gallipoli and later Director of the

 Hobart Hospital until his retirement. My father was an original appointee of CSIR now CSIRO. He was the discoverer of cobalt as the cure for Coast Disease, where ruminant animals became emaciated and died in fields of waving grass.

As a child, I used to accompany him on his field trips to Kangaroo Island and Robe, where I was seized with the romance of it all and vowed I would somehow spend my life in such environments. Accordingly, I went to university in Adelaide and got a Bachelor Agricultural Science. My father bought some 7000 acres of ‘coasty’ land for five shillings an acre between Robe and Beachport, where I attempted to farm the best 1200 acres of it. At this point, a grandmother died and left me 500 pounds, and I took off (1951) for the joys of England and Europe and got into the usual scrapes of a young man of 22. When I returned I married and resumed my farming attempts and fell flat on my face. I sold out to more competent locals and got a job as a research agronomist with the South Australian Department of Agriculture. In 1964 I was offered a job as the Adviser to the Beaufort Farm Club.

I was offered the position of Senior Livestock Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in a team put together by the then State Rivers and Water Supply Commission of Victoria to implement an irrigation project in Ethiopia. The background of the whys and wherefores of how this came about has an Alice in Wonderland quality too long to go into here, involving Harold Holt [the then Prime minister], Haile Selassie the Emperor of Ethiopia, and other players. After five years in Ethiopia, TAO offered me a post of Project Manager in Gambia in West Africa. This project collapsed after a year when FAO ran out of money, and I went home on leave without pay for a few months, when I was appointed with the Kiplingesque title of “Livestock Policy Development Adviser to the Governments of Sind and Punjab” in Pakistan until I retired in 1980.

The year that Harold Holt disappeared at Cheviot Beach saw, for some strange reason, various heads of state come to Australia for his memorial service. Among them was Lyndon Johnson from the USA, the President of Brazil, and Haile Selassie from Ethiopia. The presence of such grandees caused much fluttering in the dovecots of protocol, and the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission were allotted to Haile Sellasie, who was mightily impressed with what he saw. Haile Selassie demanded a uni-national team from the UN. The only countries he would accept were those with a similar climate to the proposed Ethiopian site, and which also possessed the necessary expertise; the only acceptable countries were Australia and Canada. So various team members and I arrived at Addis Abeba only to find that we were not being paid! State Rivers nobly used its own money to pay sundry cash-strapped wives in Australia. In Ethiopia team members were all staying at the Ghion Hotel [quite grand in a 1930s way] where the management said “No worries. We are used this. We know we will get paid eventually and we are happy to see your 

bar bills rising as you cannot afford to go elsewhere”. Eventually, FAO, of course, started paying us so, our first cheque was enormous. All the arrears on unpaid salaries and all bills in Australia and Ethiopia duly settled. The environment was virtually that of Central Queensland with the Awash River on its western flank and extinct volcanoes to the east. My first attempts to fence off ground to establish some idea of the carrying capacity had to be abandoned as the locals simply cut the wire and stole it to suit their own purposes. During this phase of the project, I found my equipment was smashed, and I faced an angry and frightened Afar pointing a rifle at me. We reported the matter to the local police, which merely removed the elderly and saintly looking village headman and locked him in the stone jail without any water until the villagers produced the culprit. A major disaster followed. At night the Afars as was their custom lay down in the grass to sleep. During the night, the Issars, their hereditary enemies from the other side of Alledeghi plain crept up and killed the Afars by knifing then as they slept. Uproar! The head of the Awash Valley Authority, the Ethiopian institution especially created for the project, reported the matter to the Emperor who was furious as the project had become the apple of his eye. He summoned the Governor of the province and told him to deal with the problem. He duly did so.

He sent armed police into the Issa village from whence the killers came, machine-gunned the inhabitants, and burnt their village to the ground. He then said there would be no more trouble. Undoubtedly true, but not something the Australian government was like to regard as acceptable.

About then I was offered the job in Gambia in West Africa by FAO, and my family flew the mild run trans-Africa to Banjul in Gambia.

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