Reporter Eric Campbell guides us through the world’s smallest, silliest places

Every Auntiephile will know a bespectacled man who travels the world to deliver insightful programs on Foreign Correspondent, providing warmth, wit and wonder at how others go about their daily lives.

Eric Campbell seems to have been around forever, and I hope we see his sagacious reporting for many a long year to come. A previous book, Absurdistan, was both fascinating and quirky, reason enough to request his new book, Silly Isles. I’ve now read it, finding a record of many things including fraught travel, eccentric customs, unusual traditions, eyewatering stupidity, incredible absurdity and, perhaps best of all, Campbell’s often idiosyncratic humour.

As an islander, a sixth generation Australian (Tasmanian, at that), I laughed at his tongue-in-cheek perspicacity in the prologue. It highlights something that some see as a national identity crisis, but tempered by soft humour:

“Insularity tends to bring out the silly in people, and distance or sovereignty allows islanders to indulge it. Could (Australia be) laid back and welcoming but terrified of boat people if we weren’t girt by sea?”

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“ And let’s not start on Tasmania.”

The humour continues in Chapter 1 as he confirms the fact he is quite an agreeable chap: “Let me say… that I have never killed a human being, stolen a disabled person’s crutches, pulled wings off butterflies or joined the Young Liberals.” That delightful humour appeals, but appears immediately before he admits eating whale meat while in Spitsbergen. Divergent, indeed.

The book is not all fun. It carries information that could be handy on trivia nights. After Vasco da Gama bumped into it in 1498, Zanzibar was Portuguese for 130-odd years until the Sultan of Mombassa bumped off everyone white on the islands. By 1698, the Sultanate of Oman took over, running a highly profitable slave trade, followed in 1898 when Britain made Zanzibar a protectorate. This lasted until independence in 1963 when the Africans, finally in charge, murdered 20,000 Arabs and Indians. They drove out many more, including a young Farrokh Bulsara, later better known as Freddy Mercury.

Please don’t get me wrong. Silly Isles is more than a light and even lighthearted look at bits of land with water surrounding them, it’s a serious look at international affairs.

We read about Spitsbergen and polar bears; there is the periodic Faroese whale slaughter, teaching children about the tradition behind the bloody massacre; we visit islands under dispute by Japan and Russia, one calling them its Northern Territories, the other the Southern Kurils; then troubled Sri Lanka where the military finally wiped out the minority Tamil Tigers, “…along with thousands of civilians who (got) in the way of the government’s mortars and shells.”   

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One especially interesting chapter is entitled Spratly Islands. Campbell visited them in April 2014. The Spratly Islands (a misnomer if ever one existed, they are most commonly submerged and semi-submerged reefs) are located in the oil-rich South China Sea and are in dispute between a number of nations, including China, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Campbell and his cameraman, Wayne McAllister, took a three day trip on a flimsy and grossly overloaded ferry to an islet populated by Filippino troops and a small number of civilians. It is an attempt to prevent a Chinese takeover. Life there is hot, humid and most unpleasant; there is a constant noise factor from the Chinese dredges digging up the outer reef and grinding it into sand. This is taken to other locations for the formation of manmade islands the Chinese say are for peaceful purposes. The lie is put to this when military aircraft from other nations, Australia included, overfly them, only to be given the warning they are flying through Chinese military airspace.

The intrepid Aussie news crew ran a blockade of Chinese gunboats to get to the crew of a Filippino navy vessel stranded many years ago on a submerged reef. The men are changed occasionally, dependent on slipping past the gunboats. In the meanwhile, the price they pay for maintaining a sovereign right to one of the ‘islands’ is a dreadful life on a rusting hulk that looks likely to split in two at any time and sink.

The entire book is a fascinating read.

Our Starts at 60 membership should swamp Dymocks with orders for Silly Isles. It’s an adventure story, but not after the style of a Pattinson or a Cussler; this is true to life and so much better reading for it. Oh, and the fact the main character is no gung-ho figment of imagination but a likeable Australian news reporter, a man effectively scared sh**less at times for the sake of getting to the nub of a story.

Silly Isles by Eric Campbell (published by HarperCollins Australia) is available now from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.


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