Blazed path for journalists in Middle East

DAVID BALDERSTONE

DAVID BALDERSTONE

JOURNALIST, WRITER AND BROADCASTER

20-1-1946 - 29-8-2013

BY GARETH BOREHAM

David Balderstone paved the way for a generation of Middle East correspondents when he became the first Australian to take up the post for Fairfax in 1977.

The Melbourne-born journalist and author had a lifelong interest in the Holy Land that was sparked by an illustrated Bible given to him as a child by his godmother.

This led him firstly to Cairo, where he freelanced in 1970-71 for London's Sunday Times and Daily Express, covering President Nasser's death and subsequent events.

A few years later, he persuaded then Age editor Greg Taylor that a resident Australian newsman should be based in the Middle East, writing for Australians, given the region's importance as a booming trade partner and a source of stories.

Along with his wife, Sue, David spent six years based in Jordan, covering one of the most volatile periods in the region's troubled history.

He reported on the Shah of Iran's fall, Middle East peace moves and setbacks, the Iran-Iraq conflict from both front lines, and the civil war in Lebanon.

His coverage included rare interviews with Ali Khamenei - who later took over as Iran's supreme ruler following Ayatollah Khomeini's death - and PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

David - who went on to write two novels based on his Middle East experiences - was a wonderful storyteller, and family and friends have fondly recalled this innate

ability.

For years, he entranced his young nieces and nephews - not to mention their parents - with accounts of the quirky events and experiences that filled his life. David always found the funny side - and suitable embellishment if needed!

One of the best tales involved the bombing of his hotel while on assignment in the Middle East.

David spoke of nonchalantly wandering downstairs and inquiring of the man at reception: "Excuse me, do you think I could move rooms to the side of the hotel that's still standing?"

David Robert Balderstone's life was a fabulous story of adventure in itself.

He grew up in Canterbury, the youngest son of Jack and Lesley, and was just seven when the family was devastated by his father's early death.

As a child and encouraged by his elder brothers and sister, David developed many of the practical skills that were to stand him in good stead during his eventful life as an international correspondent.

With an ability to fix most things mechanical and electrical, he was able to call on this resourcefulness during many a tense situation in the Middle East - whether repairing vital shortwave radios or getting vehicles through dangerous

territories.

He worked miracles with the Sunbeam Avenger he and Sue bought second-hand in London and drove down through Europe, Turkey and Syria to take up the post in Amman.

On that journey the exhaust pipe fell off in the no-man's land between Turkey and Syria. Unperturbed, David wired it up with a coat- hanger kept handy for such a purpose. In Aleppo, a local mechanic welded it permanently, declaring the car would now be fine to "drive to Japan".

David's sharp memory and eye for detail enabled him to condense many of his stories into his two Middle East-based novels, A Road from Damascus and The Baghdad Chameleon.

His time as Radio Australia's Philippines correspondent in 1990 also inspired him to highlight the plight of boat people in his 1997 play, Dead Reckoning.

His former colleagues recalled a fine writer and witty entertainer with a penchant for the piano. The image of him "swaying and smiling like Liberace" across the keyboard is indelibly imprinted in the mind of Middle East Times correspondent John Munro.

In critiquing his work, Munro wrote of David's ability to probe beneath the surface and enlarge the reader's knowledge.

"What he has done is no small achievement. After all, a man who can rattle out Waltzing Matilda on the piano with such aplomb, even to the accompaniment of incoming shells fired by swashbuckling Lebanese militias, doesn't need to be in the same league as Leo Tolstoy."

Sadly, such an adventurous life takes its toll on body and soul. David fought off countless bugs and illnesses, enduring bouts in hospitals both local and foreign.

He had a resilience to adversity, though, which perhaps can be traced back to when, aged 19, he spent a year in and out of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He had been in an almost-fatal car accident, writing off brother Peter's car and coming close to losing his right leg.

For years he walked with a limp, prompting Age colleague Geoff Hutton to think he had seen the ghost of David's father in the Spencer Street corridors. The accident put an end to athletics; he had been a champion schoolboy hurdler.

But in 1997, the limp was cured when the metal plate in his leg broke and the brilliant surgeon John Harris fixed it in such a way as to lengthen the leg and banish built-up heels forever.

David maintained a passion for news long after leaving the rigours of daily journalism.

More recently, he played an important role with the Asia-Pacific Journalism Centre, advising on programs for reporters covering different cultures around the globe.

David is survived by wife Sue, brothers John and Peter, and sister Ann. He will be greatly missed by them, as well as an extensive wider family of sisters and brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews and their off-spring.

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