A Conversation with Michael Clancy
Q. 1 You have achieved much through education. Where did your career path start?
I suppose, going back to the beginning, my first job was working as a cadet naval architect with BHP at its Whyalla shipyard before ditching that job and with the aid of a Commonwealth scholarship I went back to Adelaide and to Adelaide University full-time to study science/engineering. That led to another scholarship to do a PhD degree in astrophysics so the engineering component fell by the wayside.
As President of the Adelaide University Postgraduate Students Association I became vocal in student politics and in my final year, while I was writing up my thesis, I was invited to apply for a diplomatic trainee position with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Out of more than 800 applicants, 24 of us were chosen and after a year of retraining in international politics, law and economics, I was sent abroad to lie for my country.
While in Foreign Affairs (as it then was) I was posted in Vienna with the International Atomic Energy Agency, then Hong Kong and finally Seoul where I was deputy head of mission. My final position in Canberra was as director of the OECD, Science and Energy Section. It was a terrible job, as I had to fly to Paris and Vienna regularly for consultations with OECD officials. Hell on earth that was! “Oh no, not Paris again; anywhere but Paris!” [tongue firmly planted in cheek.]
I left DFA when I turned forty to strike out on my own. It was a fascinating life but the Department ‘owned you’. You could be sent anywhere at any time.
I had my own company in Taiwan for 10 years before moving to the Philippines in 2000. That’s another story. Our business was in the area of market research and entry strategies, political and economic risk analysis. It was in Taiwan that I wrote my first book – commissioned by the Pearson Group A Business Guide to Taiwan. From that grew an association with The Economist Group and I was commissioned to draft their Taiwan country reports for the EIU.
In 2000, and for a variety of reasons I shifted my business to the Philippines. We had a similar risk analysis business but also a second company developing a business information portal known as Virtual Asia. We came close to becoming millionaires before the burst of the dot.com bubble but didn’t quite make it. Our problem was that we had a company that was actually profitable as distinct from a ‘greenfields’ business. If we had an ‘idea’, the brokers could put in any numbers they liked in order to attract capital; but if we had a proven business model that had cash flow and was actually making a profit, then the ‘value’ of our company was much less because its valuation was based on traditional accounting models. We were offered $5 million by a Hong Kong broker on two conditions: firstly we had to guarantee we could be ready for an IPO within six months; secondly we had to kick-back under the table, 25 per cent of the money raised to the broker. I declined. I still wonder if I did the right thing.
Anyhow, we stayed in the Philippines for much of the past decade. Our web business converted to a web design and content development company and our political and economic consultancy partnered with the Economist Intelligence Unit to run their business-to-business country program. Our membership was mostly multinational corporations. As a result of the association with the EIU we branched into weekly newsletters, commentaries, business forums and conferences–including the 2006 ASEAN Business Summit that covered 3 days and with 2,500 participants.
In 2009 and well past my 60th birthday, we relocated to Australia – firstly to Sydney, which my present wife found too cold and then to the Gold Coast, which we have come to love.
The thing I have learned about education is that we never stop educating ourselves and that over the course of our lives we have to continually reinvent ourselves if we are to stay relevant. I think I developed early on a brace of skills that has enabled me to do that.
Q.2 How did you get into writing?
I have always written. I remember in Grade 3 our teacher (Mr Thurston) gave out a class project whereby we had to describe what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember I could not decide between being an astronaut (in those days we called them ‘spacemen’ – Dan Dare was my hero) and a journalist. Well I never did become a spaceman but I did become an astrophysicist for a while. Fascinating area, but no money in it which is one reason when given the chance to shift to diplomacy, I did so. But my love of science and technology, as well as my enjoyment of computers, has stayed with me.
As for the journalistic aspect, well that has always been there. In high school I had a Monarch Remington typewriter that my parents bought me one Christmas and I used to type all my English essay assignments and learned to touch type even before I got to university. I would write small plays and sketches that our school theatrical group used to perform and which morphed into a ‘revue group’.
As a diplomat of course, much of my business was reporting; anything from drafting despatches while overseas to cabinet submissions in Canberra. It was my period in Foreign Affairs that gave the second formative period of my life. I don’t pretend to be an economist but I am a good economic (and political) journalist. The fact that I had studied and used statistical analysis during my ‘scientific period’ helped me immensely and gave me skills that no arts graduate had.
When I branched into my own business career, report writing and analysis were the essential ingredients of our client work. Through the association with The Economist Intelligence Unit, our work was lifted to a new level and took in conference management – again writing was an integral part, developing briefing papers for delegates, conference programs and such-like. Having an in-house web team that could undertake the design work helped immensely.
Writing my first book was also a great experience and gave me an important insight: once you have the content – all the rest is packaging; you can create a book, a blog, a website or CD-ROM (as they used to be called). The key is to get the material organised and written. To me writing well, not only means the words, the grammar and the syntax; it also means using our software productively to correctly lay out our work and make it a pleasant read. I now teach these things at TAFE and elsewhere and have written a number of training guides based on courses I have run. We are at present building our own online bookstore.
Running a full research unit within our company in Manila, honed my editing skills and from that I gained editing contracts with the Asian Development Bank and with a couple of UN agencies.
I now make my living on the Gold Coast working from a home office, as a writer and editor. I write three monthly political blogs for a UK company – on Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam; am presently editing a series of books on the Knights Templar for a UK publisher, have a couple of local clients I write and edit for and, of course, I have my teaching in computing and writing skills which I love.
Q. 3 Whose writings do you admire and why?
Hmmmm. That’s a hard one.
My all-time favourite book was that by Jock Marshall and Russell Drysdale Journey among Men. It was published back in the Sixties by Sun Books. Sadly, I loaned my copy and it was never returned. I will never forget the hilarious story of ‘Nopants Nora’ as told by Jock Marshall and sketched by Drysdale. Marshall and Drysdale arrive at this one kangaroo town somewhere in the north of Western Australia and in the bar meet Nora. One local comes in and notices she is in the family way: ‘Who is it this time?’ he asks. Then Nora gives her classic reply ‘If you’d been cut by a circular saw, would you know which tooth had done the damage.’ A wonderful response and one I will never forget!
I enjoy historical biographies and have many on my bookshelf. I love Shakespeare – with which I became familiar in high school and have loved ever since; and I enjoy reading poetry. A few more quotations that have stuck with me since my early days and which I identify with:
Shakespeare: ‘Let me play the fool; with mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come and let my liver rather heat with wine than my heart cool with mortifying groans’ – Gratiano (Merchant of Venice) must have been me in a former life.
Kenneth Slessor: ‘Country towns with your willows and squares and farmers bouncing on barrel mares…’ In my younger days I connected this poem with Strathalbyn, near to Adelaide; nowadays, I feel it has a touch of Bangalow. Anyone who loves rural Australia can identify with this poem. It is as real today as it was when Slessor wrote it.
Robert Frost: The road not taken: ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.’ That is my all-time favourite poem and the one I wish I had written – and not that damned American! (Only kidding.)
I admire poets; I am hopeless at writing poetry – and yes, I have tried but my efforts will never see the light of day. Instead I just read other poets and wish they were me.
Q.4 What has having a family taught you?
I lost my first family. I was young, career driven and neglected the importance of family. There were other factors of course, but I certainly was partly to blame for the breakdown of my marriage. When you are young, you have so many competing demands from family and from career and you are pulled in so many directions. My marriage breakup was a heart-wrenching experience and I spent more than 10-years in the wilderness, a bitter man because of it.
Then I met my second wife – by accident and through a misdialled phone call – and I feel God gave me a second chance. We are approaching our 10th wedding anniversary at the end of this year and I can honestly say that my second marriage has opened up the most blessed time of my life.
This time around I put family first, ahead of anything else. I am fortunate that my wife has been so supportive of me. We ran our business in Manila together; I ran the research side of the business and she ran the events management. She is a very capable woman and I am very proud of her.
I now work from home and play the role of a ‘house-husband’. Sharon goes off to work each day in the car and I make the bed and cook the evening meal. While she works odd hours, I try and make sure that we have at least one day each week we can enjoy each other’s company. She is my inspiration. I have had my run; now it is her turn to build a career and I want to support her in any way I can.
Q. 5 You have had a varied career; what were some memorable moments?
Another tough question; there have been so many.
The first was my introduction to cooking which I wrote about in the recent competition and which has become a lifetime hobby. Its tactile and gets me away from a computer screen.
In Hong Kong: looking after the Queensland Goodwill Parliamentary Delegation – an annual event that we came to dread. The first was led by that renowned Australian statesman and diplomat Russ Hinze and the stories of him are quite unrepeatable; the second was led by a politician whose name escapes me but who was quite religious and ran a prayer meeting at the Consulate praising the Lord while at the same time fondling the backside of his Hong Kong tour guide (female I might add). Bible in one hand and female backside in the other; what a guy! Wished I had a digital camera for that one. I heard he later became premier but this happened in the days of JB-P and I vowed not to set foot in Queensland while he was premier.
Then there was the time that former Governor-General Sir John Kerr came through Hong Kong while en route to London and was staying at the Peninsula Hotel in its Presidential Suite. I was assigned to look after him and was staying in an adjacent bedroom. On the Saturday afternoon, his wife had gone out shopping and Sir John wandered into my room “looks like you need a drink son” he said handing me a crystal cut glass half full of the hotel’s best whisky.
He invited me back into his suite, which had a lounge area almost the size of my present house. There we sat for the afternoon, two blokes binge drinking on whisky. We were there until dinnertime and I said hardly anything. I did not have to; Sir John, getting increasingly drunk, blurted out the entire saga of the 1975 Constitutional crisis and I was spell-bound. I would never repeat what was said – not that at this distance I can remember all of it; but he was a man deeply troubled by what he had done, although he felt he had no choice. History had dealt him a bum hand. He had great admiration for Whitlam and less for Fraser. But bottom line, he was first and foremost a jurist and he did what he felt had to be done by following the law and the Constitution.
I knew both Whitlam and Fraser and ended up admiring both men. I doubt either would now remember me.
While working in Canberra I was invited with my wife to dinner at the Lodge one evening. Steve Whitlam was a fellow diplomat and a friend and the invitation came through him. I don’t think we were singled out and I understand that there were several such evenings hosted by Gough and Margaret but we were privileged to be among the list of invitees. Following dinner, we were invited up to Sydney to spend a weekend at the Whitlam home. Another magical time, and the only time an Australian prime Minister – in his pyjamas – has cooked my breakfast for me. The Whitlams were a lovely couple; brilliant and gifted minds, obvious love of one another and just plain, nice people.
Malcolm Fraser I met after he had left parliament when he came through Seoul with Richard Pratt who was seeking the Hyundai car franchise for Australia. Pratt was off being entertained by his Korean hosts and Fraser was on his own for much of the time. As chargé-d’affaires at the embassy it fell on me to look after him, which I did for three days. There were some hilarious and even frightening moments. Fraser after all was now a private citizen while I was representing Australia in the absence of the ambassador and, in strict protocol terms, I outranked the former prime minister. This led to a couple of truly embarrassing moments and I had to be nimble of mind to recover the situation. Fraser could see the hilarity of my discomfort and put me at ease. I might add he was a remarkable man, truly down to earth and a pleasure to be with. One of the nicest – if not THE nicest – politician I have ever been privileged to meet. Bob Hawke was the worst.
Only twice have I ever received thank-you notes from politicians – both hand-written. The first was from Malcolm Fraser, the second was while I was in Manila and because of our connections with The Economist, it fell on me to host a dinner for the Lord Mayor of London. But that’s another story.
I suppose while I am on a role I would have to tell you the story of the time the Speaker of the House – name long forgotten – came through Seoul leading a parliamentary delegation. Ahead of the visit we kept getting diplomatic cables marked to the attention of Pat Clancy and to which we kept cabling back telling Canberra that my name was Mike Clancy. Finally, a day ahead of the visit we found out that Pat Clancy was the Speaker’s private secretary. Mystery solved.
Well, I went to the airport to meet the delegation and Pat was one step behind the speaker. He looked at me and I looked at him and we both let out a gasp. We were dead ringers of one another. It was as though I had discovered my twin brother.
Well, to cut a long story short, we sat together at the hotel over a beer and discussed our ancestry. His family had left Ireland in the 1840s for Australia; mine had left around the same time and gone to England. I told him a story from our own family’s oral tradition of an uncle in Australia who during the 1850s had been hung in Wagga Wagga for sheep stealing. His face lit up: “that would be Uncle John” was his response. The connection had been made.
There are many such stories – I could go on for hours.
Insightful moments? Yes there is one that stands out. I had parted from my family and was in Taiwan building my business. I realised it was my son’s birthday and with that realisation I broke down sobbing uncontrollably because I was not there to be with him and to enjoy the day. It was the most heart-breaking moment of my life when I fully realised what I had lost by being so focused on my career. That was the moment I vowed that I would never make the same mistake again. My son now has a son of his own and happily invites me regularly down to Sydney to spend time with them both. For that I am thankful.
Q. 6 Who in the course of your life deserves the most thanks?
You mean aside from my wife who puts up with me and inspires me?
It’s hard to pick out any one individual but if I really had to choose, I suppose I would pick my high school English teacher, Mrs Durney at Marion High School in Adelaide who really encouraged me to write.