Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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Can I ask you, what was it like to be in a British concentration camp with lots of other Italians in the middle of India?

Well, first of all, there were no Australians there, mind you there were British, — not even British, they were basically Indians. So to me the story of the escape was part of my heroic chapter, was part I had to escape because I felt that it was part of my duty, so the escape was a natural try, a failed escape and the fact that other people behind me, they tried, they were shot, automatically closed the chapter, so no more escapes, better do something else, whatever. So you see it is part of the sequence of events in a life of everybody, that was a trial, that part of me needed to escape, the necessity of proving to myself that at least I tried to.

Did you have any rational belief that you'd get away?

Well, dreams are always possible, and in reality I had a map, this map of India with the Ganges rolling down towards Calcutta, that way Burma, and so the idea of going, I mean the great thing about dreamers, they don't know what they are talking about, they don't know the details and without this kind of dreamers nothing will happen.

But the escape wasn't successful ... why wasn't it successful?

But, very simple, because we didn't go more than probably two or three kilometres. There was a big type of revolution in the camp and the guards did the alarm, they sent the Gurkha troops came around and around us, and that was the end of it, but I don't think the thing could really, in perspective, could have any chance of success because the continent of India and the difficulty of mixing with the Indians was such type of impracticality, that I think that it just proves that how many people at any time, they are just simple fools.

So the whole thing was the action of a fool?

I was a fool.

Were you treated in the camp as a fool, when you went back?

No, on the contrary, they thought I was a hero, just for trying, you see that was [what] it amounts to. A lot of history is made on the history of fools.

Were there any useful, practical, consequences for being seen as a hero?

Well, I mean first of all, I have self-respect, I tried, that's it, but also because that gives some sort of credibility to what we're doing later on. I mean, it was transient, for after a few months we were moved from that camp somewhere else. But it was also a question of pride, of trying, but even before I went there, I remember on the actual voyage from Ismailia to Bombay, I tried to put the ship on fire. I did my best to sink the ship. I didn't succeed but all this type of thing is part of this chapter of the heroic kind of period in which you are living and anything is justifiable. It didn't succeed and I think that even the alarm, at that time, I mean the British could take five people or 10 people and shot them straight away in the war, as the German would have done but, again, because I think the British were too civilised, didn't take that step.

You think you should have been shot?


You'd have done it?


Now, just to sum up, what do you think was the legacy for your later life of your time in that camp. What were the particular things that you were able to learn and things that you had time for there, and how did you emerge as a character out of that camp?

Well I don't want to build too much on that period, it certainly was an important segment of my life, a segment of maturity of thinking, mainly self-appraisal. Examining the mood and the character of other people was certainly important period, five years, four years, important for my stability, mental and otherwise, to complete my studies, a stepping ground for what happened later on. Without the concentration camp and the war, I don't think I could have done what I did further, so that was an important episode of my life, but I don't want to give much importance to that, there were other battles that I had to try to win, further on.

One of the things that we were going to talk about that would be interesting to explore a little bit more, is your view for the future ... your role of multiculturalism as a concept, not just in Australia, but perhaps looking more broadly at the world and the fact that we have many different cultures having to live in fairly confined quarters with each other now in a rather crowded world. What is your view of multiculturalism and what kind of multiculturalism can actually work?

Well I came to Australia in a way not as a immigrant — even now I don't consider myself an immigrant in Australia even if I am here, technically an Australian — but the mentality and tradition an Italian. Certainly in Australia is an interesting experiment. I think it is a celebration of diversity, very important and controlled process, thanks to the civility of the British or the Australian in this case to be able to maintain a sort of chemical balance that I hope will continue to be controlled. Australians are very lucky in a way, fortunate to have this kind of diversity, that more than a multicultural, is a sort of addition of different capacity of people to stimulate, they called the Indigenous here, and I think it is working, it is working. If the Australian people to maintain that kind of equilibrium we will be a very happy society.

There is sometimes a debate goes on between the American form of ethnic mix, where what is asked of people is that they make it terrifically clear that their becoming part of the country means their putting being American before being Italian or whatever else, and what's been seen as the Australian and Canadian idea which is a group of people of very different backgrounds cohabiting happily together in the same country. Do you think that it's important for Australia that it maintain a sense the people have of belonging to very diverse cultures or do you think that question of primary allegiance to Australia as a first thing might be something that could be promoted? What's your view of the brand of multiculturalism that could work in Australia?

Well, I can't conceive that no-one will tolerate that these newcomers, they have allegiance to somebody else or something else. I think that's paramount, sooner or later these people must make up their mind where to belong to. With all traditions and their loyalties on their own family or whatever, sooner or later, they must make up their mind, and Australians are sometime too much tolerant. I don't like a certain kind of political involvement or movement that I could see here and there, particularly in this critical period of European type of appeal, in the long range, I think that Australians should have no alternative, incidentally. They must tolerate this diversity, and with time, that kind of diversity will eventually blend and merge in a total local kind of expression, a little bit of what happens in the States, where immigrants of say, last century, they are now totally Americans, so that process will take time, you can't hurry consensus of origins and Australia, in a way, they are doing pretty good job.

Are you a naturalised Australian?

Of course, yes.

What does that mean to you?

Well, first of all, you must make up your mind where to belong to. I mean, when you spend more than half of your life in a new country, in my case, it is almost 40 years, you have no alternative, no ambiguity, so certainly I belong to Australia, even if I have roots, I have roots somewhere else, even if I go occasionally, as I do, in Italy and I can recognise a context and I recognise a sign of my origin, still I feel that eventually home is here, no doubt about that. And I suppose that for me, immigrants, that should be the way to behave. I mean sentimental and ethnic origins cannot play it long-range, we unfortunately ... we cannot leave it too soon, sooner or later we must make up our mind and even if I feel intensely this traditionally Italian, still I can't help that time in Australia.

Could you imagine your children going back and choosing to live in Italy, now?

Well, my children got another kind of ambiguity themselves in a way. One is married to a Hungarian, the other two are married to Italians, so they have their own problems to settle, but I could see that probably that process that is much more accelerated in my case. Still it takes a bit more time, because of the fact of having two of them, an Italian wife, automatically delayed that process of, let's call assimilation, but certainly the third generation I could see already they feel entirely Australian. That process I could see is natural, obvious.

And in relation to the world at large, do you think that one of the significant problems that the world is going to have to overcome is the fact that ethnicity is becoming a bit of a problem in the world because we are all getting so crowded, we're all getting so closely together and our political and geographical borders don't always match our ethnic, our specific ethnic groups? I mean, this is happening in Europe now, what's your feeling, looking at Europe, do you think we're going to see a lot of regionalism emerge?

Partly the episode that I think are exceptionally ugly in Europe today ... what is being really recognised is that science and technology is making so easy communication, is so easy making transport for which what was initially, type of friction of distance, doesn't exist anymore. Now the chance of knowing each other, I think that the communication particularly, meeting of different people and art particularly more than anything else, is one of the factors, will eventually blend these kind of people. I think that in the future, there will be more and more an emphasis on communication, economic transfer, financial institution and type of dealing with different kind of group, this will probably gradually blend differences and will avoid the kind of extremism of the militarism and all type of ‘isms’, religious or otherwise. I am very much confident that soon more than later there will be a much better understanding between people, so the chance of military confrontation will become less frequent than that has been in the past, due to this technological development of communication, transportation, of people and goods, so I am from that point of view optimistic that relationship in the group of people will eventually [be] easier, become more friendly.

You were talking at lunch about the significance of the biennale and I would like to ask you about that. What do you think is the real importance of the biennale in Australian art life?

Well, the biennale has opened the gate [coughs] to these kind of exchanges, exchange of art, of criticism ... of tourism, of visitors. These exchanges are just as valuable than all other type of dealing, because it is done by young people.

What does it really offer people, what at its core is it giving us?

Well this exchange of, really, contacts is getting friendship, particularly, and I could see artists coming from Europe, or from America, or from Asia, from Japan particularly, I could see that the more and more emphasis that all these communities are giving wisely to this exchange and of biennale is a great movement of art in Australia, opening the gate to what was overdue. I mean, the biennale has been around more than 20 years old, I wish we had started it 10 or 20 years earlier but certainly it is a great collective experiment that is giving more and more exposure to Australia, that means more than anything else to the rest of the world.

As an individual what kind of excitement do you find in the biennale? When you go there, how do you experience it?

To me it is always exhilarating to go in the Biennale Pavilion or could be in the gallery, meeting artists, and seeing the kind of adventurism, in any of these creative elements of artistry. It is an adventure of incredible pleasure, experimenting and creativity that is built into the biennale, where the communication cannot be instantaneous. Sometimes this needs some sort of, almost, time reaction and any chapter of the biennale, and if I could [talk about] the history of the biennale for the last 20 years, we have a fantastic volume of episode that cannot be told in five minutes. It is an absolutely feast of event for which every chapter has got light ... has got light, friendship, contacts, really life in itself.

Now, talking of feasts, when you first came to Australia, you must have been struck by how uninteresting the food was. Now you are someone who is interested in good food, could you tell us a little bit about the history of change in that particular artform, if you want to call it that?

It's a part of the culture of mankind, and Australia in reality is typical for the isolation. When I came here, the traditional steak with eggs and plonk and type of very dense thick tea, undrinkable, that was part of my experience in the early ‘50s. What you have now today is absolutely, absolutely, a new life that you could experiment with a dozen and dozens of varieties of food of any nationality. Australia is very fortunate of having these kind of contacts. I mean Australia has changed tremendously and in a way, when we talk about the culture of the company, Transfield, I think that our success is very due to the blend of the multiculturalism in our company, to the different races, and the question of having the different ability of fitting our people in different ways wherever we are with different kinds of cuisine, particularly in Italian incidentally, and also the additional, the cultural way, of art tradition, so Transfield ... has been to me also part of the world that in a way I have had to create, I created myself, but is a fantastic world in itself, that is part of the Australian life.

But what part has food played in Transfield's rise to fame?

Well, if I would have a case to mention, about my cook, my main cook, Genaro [sp?], is an artist himself and I think that we have in Sydney, particularly, but I would say in hundreds of sites where we're working, the basic to maintain a good standard of cooking and, in a way, traditional Italian cuisine, has also been part of our type of penetration in the country if I might say so, ambassadorial type of penetration. If you could feed people properly, you automatically get happy people, happy working people, and the surrounding become much more cheerful.

What advice would you give a young person starting off the way you did, all those years ago, in a new venture?

Well, still I believe, there are plenty of opportunities, I don't think that yesterday was much better than today. The opportunities exist today, but the people must be prepared to start, I mean, to give a chance to anything. To do it properly, even from very modest beginning. Altogether I have seen many companies starting, not only Transfield, but also a lot of segment came out from Transfield, dozens and dozens of small company, disgruntled foreman, for instance, disgruntled executive that didn't like, eventually started by himself, incredible. I could have mentioned dozens of little companies that were built as part of the lateral development of the main company, utilising small opportunities. I would say to the youngsters, any young, first of all they must have type of confidence in himself and then he could start with and then could start any little business, could be a little restaurant, could be a little workshop, could be even to work with somebody else to start learning, why not? Nothing wrong about working with somebody else, another company. And that's part of the experimentation, to learn and then start in due course. I think that people should give a chance to themselves first, then do something else. If somebody loses that confidence, I think that's the end of it. I would encourage anybody to start anywhere now, instead of waiting for tomorrow.

If you had a young Franco Belgiorno-Nettis working for you, the way you worked for the company that first brought you to Australia, and this young person did you what you did and branched out and became your main competitor, what you would say to him, how would you feel about him or her?

Well, you could certainly have a bit of resentment in the beginning and myself ... [interruption] ... bloody thing [phone], that's yours ...

If you had a young Franco Belgiorno-Nettis working for you, who did to you, what you did to the firm that you were working with when you first came to Australia, and branched out and set up on his own, how would you feel about him?

Well, obviously I would certainly resent it but, a few days ago, the very foreman that started with me [at] Transfield, in Port Kembla, died. He was a great fellow, he created a lot of hatred at the time, 1973, when he left. Still I sent him a telegram the other day, of complimenting him for the great help he gave to Transfield and the constructive work he did further for Australia. That means eventually, sooner or later, you must realise that each people doing something to answer their own ego, or their own cradle and for the betterment of themselves, you can't stop them, it could be certainly a type of personal grudge, but you can't help — it's part of life.

As part of the wave of Europeans who came here and had such a profound effect on Australia, what do you feel about the new wave of Asian migrants that are coming to Australia now? Do you feel that this is a very important part of the Australian mix and what do you think it is going to mean for Australia in placing itself in this part of the world?

If you see the opinion of Australians in the early ‘70s, it would be unconceivable for Australia to be so measured by the Asian immigration. Now, Asians becomes accepted and is unavoidable and Australia has no alternative. They cannot get any more immigrants from Europe, they cannot raise their natality and they have to face the music of accepting Asians as immigrant. And in reality it will be the necessary destiny of this islands in the Pacific, this white tribe in the Pacific, to be gradually blended with Asia and I would imagine that the next 200 years, Australia will be almost Aboriginal compared with the Asians that will be flooding the country. I could see that happening and there is nothing that would stop. Australian are certainly in the process now of deciding the kind of blend of immigrants; in the future I'm not sure if they will be able to do so. The strength ... the strength of population will be the only factor deciding the destiny of this country.

As a European do you feel good about that, thinking about your grandchildren who presumably will be living here. Do you feel positive about that move?

Well, certainly it could not be very happy as part of the future, so far as your race is concerned, but in reality we cannot know, I think, that anybody will control the event of mankind. It looks to me that these things are outside the capacity of the will of each single group. I am convinced that the flow of strength in the world will depend essentially from the virility, from the ability of one race to overcome the other. And I could see that the natality of this part of Asia, by far much greater than the white race, and I'm not sure if the next couple of hundred years, we might have a reverse of what happening the last thousand or so years ago. That's something for which people could think about. I don't know if they could prevent it but this is the realities.

Asian domination of the world?

Well, at least it is part of the world, no doubt about that.

Now you've been in Australia for well on 40 years. What sort of Australia can you imagine emerging in the next 40 years? How would you describe it, will it be a republic, what will be the racial mix ... what will be, where will it stand in the wealth of the nations of the world?

Australia is trying desperately to justify their presence here and in reality they have to do miracles, they have to do jumping around to justify, not only to be here, but also to control this vast amount of land. I mean, it is almost ludicrous that 17 million of inhabitants, the population of Mexico City, could control a continent of this dimension. So it is up to the Australian to accept the reality, mix with these people, and the people that are much closer to us are the people that probably are most likely to be the one coming here and there will be no other alternative. I think that Australia will justify more with dignity, their presence here, in real English [than] unnecessary links with traditional empire that is at present.

Transfield is doing a lot of business with Asia. Do you think that other companies should be doing more? Do you think that there is enough being done?

Well, there again, we have no alternative. I mean, the amount of work available in the country here for me recently is declining. Australia is risking to be marginalised in Asia and in the country here we have no alternatives but to start getting contacts with the people around us — commerce, financial, economics — and we are certainly moving fast. That is how the company is doing, so, and I don't see nothing wrong about that, as a matter of fact, it would be for the better kind of communication in this part of the world that will accept the persons, or better, to be accepted, these persons with them, and more or less to justify our presence here ... [interruption and request from producer] ...

[I did ask him that before and he gave quite a good answer but we'll see what he does now.]

Franco, you've told us that you are not a religious man and you are this son of a railway man from southern Italy living in Australia, not particularly religious, but you managed to get the Pope to come and visit the workers. How did you do this, how did you bring it off?

Could be an accident, could be a miracle, I don't know what happens. In reality, the Pope probably wanted to talk to a multicultural community and there was no better multicultural community than Transfield. We might have, at the time, probably 60 different nationalities and we were extremely fortunate to have the Pope in our major workshop, talking to this crowd, an incredible feast, it was a great picnic day, a great event for us and for Australia, incidentally, that we had the Pope in our workshop.

Did he enjoy himself?

Well, I think he enjoyed it, he made a remarkable speech, the fact is, he said it was a very touching, it was a very touching experience for everybody, family in particular, a lot of families of our people and surrounding Seven Hills, Blacktown. To me it was also a touching experience in the way he spoke. He talk about the nobility of work, speaking about the sanctity of staying together, stability of family and if I remember, he quoted the gospel, in some cases, and referred to the necessity of people working. It was a very good point for every one of us and one of the great points that he made, that if somebody doesn't work, he's not entitled to eat.

Well, that’s an industrialist dream to come and have the Pope tell his workers to work harder?

Exactly, as a matter of fact, that was an incredible experience for the thousand and thousands of people that were there that day, not withstanding all the security. The people enjoyed it immensely, his presence, and that will remain in the history of Transfield, and personally in my history a great moment.

Did you notice any increase in productivity afterwards?

... [laughing] ...

Did it have any influence on your attitude to religion?

Well, for some sort of a reason, I am still, I am an atheist, or I am agnostic, I don't know exactly the difference between the two, and he didn't change my attitude but I have a lot of respect for him and for religious people. As a matter of fact, if I have to find an alternative to an agnostic and the religious as a friend, I will have no alternative to make a choice.

It must be a very unusual Italian from southern Italy not to believe in God?

I don't know if this comes to a critical attitude on myself or the kind of experiences in the family. My father was not a religious man, my mother certainly struggled many time to take us in church, to my place in Cassano, in Gioia del Colle. The question of going to the church was just normal, to go to Mass. But it didn't leave much impression to us even if we were studying religion at the school and even at the military academy, but eventually the decision about religion ...

[end of interview]