Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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In looking back at your childhood what do you think were the most significant experiences that shaped your life later on — that, looking back, you realised you drew on in your later life?

Well certainly the period I would say from [the ages of] six, seven, 10, 12, it could have been probably when I spent time with my father and on occasion with my grandfather as a little child, more of less. Working with him, for instance, when my father, he could have been probably young, I suppose, and he was building his own house and yet he built all the hinges and locks and padlocks whatever himself, because normally he was doing many things himself and we were in Gioia del Colle in the shop of my grandfather; normally I was helping my father at night-time.

What kind of a shop did your grandfather have?

Oh, just an old blacksmiths — of course, during the day, he would look after the horses or whatever, implement of the country, but that was typical because there were no electricity, so everything was done by hand, all the machines, everything all just very primitive. So I could make the holes on the hinges or whatever, but I remember one evening I was holding the kerosene lamp and my father was working. Of course I had to hold the kerosene lamp near the anvil and in no time there was darkness. I had dropped the kerosene lamp, I couldn't believe it, I was terrified — what my father ... would have done to me [but] he didn't touch me, I was surprised. I was expecting my father would beat me. That kind of a thing as a child helping my father, certainly was an experience. I was doing it subsequently when he was coming home from work, helping him, but that particular episode to me was a touching episode.

Why do you think you escaped that night?

As I said to you, he understood that I was tired probably, the lamp didn't burn altogether, the kerosene could have been broken down into a bigger fire, whatever, but that was a typical little episode that touched me. In the future I was helping my father or even my grandfather, even sparks near the anvil were beating the hot iron or whatever, but the fact that the working with these people, helping them, I could learn a little detail of working, artisan, craftsmanship, that eventually is still in my body. Even now I could go back to my little experience. If my father was working, for instance, I had to be very careful, to be attentive, to give to him the tools at the right time or whatever, I had to more or less forecast when he wanted them. That was the typical attitude of my father — pretending that I knew what he wanted, you follow, little details that in a way would shape a childhood. You understand?

And if you made a mistake, if you did the wrong thing, were you in trouble?

Oh yes, no doubt about that. I mean, my father would not hit me with the hammer, but certainly with the hand of the hammer. He would just, gently, I could feel that it was a good thing to take into account that I try to be very careful. Little things like that, eventually, there was the feeling of being very careful, attentive to the work I was doing. I suppose that as a child, these little episodes must have created in me certain attitudes that are still prevalent in me.

And what kind of attitudes?

To do things at the proper time, to be properly what you are doing now, that eventually is my philosophy. I tell to my people what are the secrets of success, and still I say to them even now, that the secret of success is that you do properly what you are doing now.

Do you think that its important for a professional engineer to understand how to use tools?

Well, when you go into the profession of engineering you have a background of knowledge, technicalities, etc, but certainly even in my type of casual, chaotic, type of succession of event, still we try to muster these succession of event to make sure that you stay in program. You try to build up a schedule, and as much as we can do this kind of scheduling, programming, there are gigantic differences anyhow, that means that whatever careful care you put into preparing or doing something, it is still not enough. So the tendency ... when we took to the small details of any projects, small or big, it is incredible how you should be extremely careful in every little sequence, because even if you do anything properly, it is likely to be different anyhow. That means you cannot forecast eventually the time, the completion and the finality of the job. We talk about particularly profitability or otherwise, that eventually determines the success of any big project. Then you concede that, notwithstanding the care in every detail, you aren't sure that eventually the final result will be the same one, or the good one.

Well given that you've built the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, I hope you can predict safety?

Well you see, the sealing of the tunnel, that certainly is a great masterpiece of engineering and even there, first of all, you've got to have the preparatory period, which you must be able to get the consensus of all the environmental, politicians, fundamental financial structures. But even if you have all these type of complex put in place, now is to build it and make sure that by the time you reach the finality that the job is done, and works and becomes a success, and particularly if you didn't lose money, because eventually you could have made a masterpiece of engineering but you personally could go bankrupt. How many cases there have been of great works being done and the builder or sculptor eventually had to collapse before the end.

Although you did tell us about the oil rig which you built that lost money, but you were still so proud of the engineering, and that's an interesting one for you, isn't it. Which is more important to you — in the end you are proud of the engineering, aren't you?

Even this oil rig, certainly a great job, if you think that on the magnitude of self-propelled or sort of double submarine — and we built because BHP, the great Australian company, told me ‘look, you probably much better than we can, because we already have enough problem with this kind of project’ and certainly I underevaluated the problem because the project eventually became a great success from the engineering point of view. But at the time we lost about three million [dollars] but the very reason why — because the industrial guru decided that the toilets had to go a couple of hundred yards away from the oil rig instead of what I saw done somewhere else, not in Australia, where all the facilities I talk about were just on the same level of the construction site. That kind of constant movement of ants up and down, of the labour, we just ruined the whole project. Little details like that are very important, could just make or break the system.

Now, looking back, you appreciate the fact that your father's harshness taught you a respect for detail and the need to concentrate at the time. When you were a child did you see it that way?

I don't think that children really realise all this kind of thing. It is for that reason ... essential that in the family structure the children should be kept at bay by the family — that is very important that there is a controlling authority in the system. You could just shape the child in that period, to me is very essential to realise that what I am is what I was made at that period.

You believe very much in the idea of authority being a controlling authority. Does that extend right through your life to all aspects of it, where you feel that the exercise of authority must be very firm, strong and hierarchical?

Well, certainly there is a balance of authority, a balance of freedom, that more and more as you grow, you realise that there must be a balance between the two. You could have some extreme rigidity for which you could curb and tutor, and you curb creativity, but certainly in the period of formation you could make a saint of somebody if you put them in a cemetery ... in a seminary, sorry ...

... cemetery as well?

... almost the same, or if you put them in a sort of military academy, you could shape the same man in different ways, it depends very much what you make out of it. I firmly believe that it depends on the education, the constriction, the limitation, how you shape people, irrespective of their own personality that definitely are different. You, you cannot invent the personality, it still remains in the background, but certainly it is very essential that in a community of family or society, there must be some type of guidance and I'm not surprised that if you learn the cult-ic type of development that we see in certain cases today in many parts of mankind, you can't be very surprised of the results.

You were firmly under your father's authority and control in the home, but when you went and joined the railways very rapidly you were put in authority yourself. How did you find that transition from being the boy, who as far as his father was concerned could decide nothing for himself, to being someone who was actually in charge, in a position of authority?

Well certainly there are different kind of latitude, a different kind of freedom, different kind of authorities, but there is a pride in the father successfully and in the spirit of development and other episodes. Eventually you get freedom, even in different kinds of surroundings and discipline. In reality, even if you are a railway station master you have a certain kind of discipline, you know what you are supposed to do. At least you know exactly. Sometime, depending at least in the case of my father, sometimes I couldn't forecast what kind of discipline is happening to me this afternoon or tomorrow. That was typical ... [interruption] ...

When you came into a position quite young as station master and you had to exercise authority, having up to that stage being very much under your father's authority, how did you get on with that? Did you have any difficulty making that transition?

I certainly was not in a position of exercising much authority. In the beginning I had to learn, let's face it, you get in new surroundings, a new environment, and you have to learn the question of traffic, train signal, and so in the very beginning is always to learn and it is only the process of learning and gradually you build up enough experience to eventually build up authority. I don't think the authority comes immediately ...

But you were made a station master very quickly, weren't you?

Well, one year and a half, that was just enough for me. Yes, I took the corresponding segment of controlling, having done the corresponding examination. I have to learn and eventually I had some authority, but not very great authority, it was just beginning. Even a station master, a young station master, you had this special period of exercise during the 24 hours but, as I said, it was a good way of learning with sufficient knowledge at the corresponding authority.

What else did you learn from that period as a station master?

Well, it was important, because I was already one of the top men, young as I was, in the little community of Trebisacce. That is a place in south Calabria, because I was mixing with the priests, mixing with the mayor or chief chemist. I was just part of the important people, so you build together connections and of course with the senior station master and becoming a bit of a teacher, because I was always in that period, and subsequently, I've been always trying to exploit what I knew already and I was teaching to the son and to the daughter, of all the station masters, some sort of maths and physics, so there was always some giving and obtaining relationship. This was very important, very important, the period of my life in a very short time ...

It was your first little network of connections?

First ‘annexion’ ... first network or connection.

And how did the people of this town think. What did they think of this 19 or 20-year-old boy who was there as one of their more senior number?

Well, certainly is interesting to me, even this faith at this sort of time, and certainly is a very interesting period of my life, being respected. I would say, you mix with these important people, you become part of the elite in the little town, that is quite an important experience for me.

And it was a value that you have retained for the rest of your life. You like to be able to be accepted as part of the group ... .

As part of the community ... I was part of the community, mind that, there was a period when fascism was in full power and I was made chief of the club of the railway employees, which means I had to look after the welfare of these people [...] it was a type of club that keep all the people together in the railway. In that period it was important for me, an experience to meet and supervise more or less the welfare of these people.

Was this part of the fascist system?

Well, always to look after the employees, and therefore it was part of — I didn't realise at the time — it was part of the policy of the fascists, but certainly I was in charge of that kind of little club, quite an interesting experience.

So, did you learn from this that it was better to be in charge than not?

Fantastic, it is always good to be in charge, no doubt about that, it is always a good feeling.

So,. the next thing you did after the experience on the railway was to go to the military academy. Now this interest that you have always had in the relationship between authority and discipline was probably given really its first systematic direction when you went to the military academy?

It looks that you are just almost turning the page to a new chapter and [coughs] you do a bit, what in Latin called tabula rasa, a complete new clean sheet. And to me, it was a new adventure, a new experience, a new opening in your life. What would have been subsequent, I didn't realise it at the time ...

Franco, have a good cough and start the military academy story again because it'll be easier for Frank to cut that out. Yes, just start at the military academy. I'm a bit gravelly this morning too ... I thought you'd prefer that, am I right ...

The themes of discipline and authority had been very important ones throughout your childhood but when you went to the military academy, you actually encountered ideas of authority and discipline in a very systematic form. Could you tell us about your time there and what you learned from that experience?

Well, certainly in a military academy, I had to realise pretty quickly that the kind of discipline was pretty tough, rigid but also well-balanced. At least I knew in what respect in every day and every hour of the day so it was not sort of an unpleasant experience, almost a welcome, because it was already part of my mentality. I could see that was essentially ... gradually as I grew up in the four years of that period and eventually in war, subsequently, I felt that it was just a natural sequence of events. To me it just was natural for that kind of, let's call, profession. The importance of discipline was absolutely a necessity. So I'm not surprised ... of course it was a gradual ... in the beginning it could be a bit hard of course, because you have to almost to be, ill-treated to facing the unknown that sometimes is discipline and you have to more or less react in a positive, conscientious, and type of accept the mentality as discipline. Once you get to the kind of form of momentum automatically you show them that that's the way to do it.

So could you give me an example of the kind of thing that was almost ill-treatment that you had to deal with and how you dealt with it?

When we say ill-treatment, is the kind of toughness. I mean, since the very beginning of the day, you have to get up at that time, irrespective of temperature, irrespective of your health conditions, you had to just be at that time, to do what you are told to do; that is the kind of discipline that is typical of the institution, of a military institution. I don't see anything wrong about that and the people are supposed to be prepared to this kind of sacrifices. As a matter of fact, even today, if I could see that somebody will take the opportunity of, say, bad weather and not go to work and vice versa, the other fellow, because is bad weather, and must feel his duty, he will do that with enthusiasm, you could see the same kind of event on different kind of personality or different kind of mental habit — automatically you see the different kind of results.

In the military academy you were taught to obey — were you taught to take initiative as well?

Well, certainly they don't speak normally of initiatives. I would say that the Military should not be given too much initiative, they should be told to do something and shut up. Basically even when I was in war and really in a position of commander of that particular unit, I did not know very much beside that particular unit. And doubtless the secret, I think, of the echelon in a great organisation that people should supposed to know what is within their kingdom without going outside and that's the only way of building constructive organism. If somebody goes outside their own sphere there will be unavoidable chaos, so I could understand as in the military institution in the mentality of soldiers, they should be doing what they are told and try to avoid to become critical.

The government that was telling the military in Italy, when you graduated, what to do was led by Mussolini. What did you think of him and what did you think of his regime at the time?

Well, I was in a way fortunate to be able to stay very close to Mussolini as well as Hitler and also King [Victor] Emmanuel [III]. There was a period in 19 ... I think 1939, it was 1939, when Europe was already more or less in, a sort of, very spirited atmosphere that Germany subsequently declared war and eventually Italy was drawn in the war, wheeling, dealing. And I was there in Rome because we had to be on parade as part of our presence as a military academy. And in that couple of days I was close to the circle, the inner circle, of Hitler, Mussolini and the King, and I was very close and to me they looked just as puppets, all of them, quite frankly, particularly Hitler. He had this face that looked pretty drunk to me but that was part of the unreal atmosphere that eventually, as time went by, I was close to this kind of unreality of the history and what I could talk about, or could think about, Mussolini is beside what I could even conceive that I could talk about him or think about him. Certainly we were all enthusiastic about his presence in Italy. Let's face it — we were part of the system and I had a lot of admiration for Mussolini.

In retrospect do you retain some of that admiration?

Of course if you see the sequence of events, that you consider all the great type of epic of war, then you could see now with a different kind of eyes, a different kind of experience, but put in that period when I was there, soon after military academy and close to the sequence, I didn't have any critical eyes about what was going on. It looked to me that it just was normal. That's strange. This kind of unreal world that I built artificially and still are there and could see me as part of the world, or in many parts of history.

But as a trained soldier you also felt it wasn't your job to criticise the government?

No, I don't think that it was my job, no I don't think so. I didn't feel that — at that time, I was utterly convinced that I had to do what I was told to do. That was part of my type of activity to go into war ... was part of the system which I was operating. It is strange that this could appear today even to me, but the fact that I was prepared for that kind of sequence of event and the concept of criticising ... even if there could be of course, every day, a motive of being critical, certain happening, but on the total I was convinced that that was the way to do it.

Isn't there something of a danger in a system that relies on authority and discipline — aspects of life which you admire and methods that you see value in — is there not a danger in that does lead to the suspension of criticism of authority and if that authority isn't a good force, it has much less restricted power?

No, no doubt looking inside of the experience you develop in different kind of surroundings, might not be a pretty ... almost ridiculous, this kind of a system, no doubt about that, and you could build up a sort of monumental, monumental castle that can't stand up, but that reality of conclusion that if you start to assert a kind of principle, you can't be surprised of that kind of system.

Well, the system sent you off to war and could you tell us what you then learned out of what became the next chapter in your life after military academy, which was active service in North Africa?

The system sent you off to war in North Africa. Now out of this next chapter of active service what, looking back, do you feel were the really important things that you learnt that stayed with you for the rest of your life?

Well, until I was still in the war, or even subsequently in concentration camp irrespective of the events, rather dramatic, that were part of my experience, I was still part of the same system and I would say that even, in concentration camp, I didn't change dramatically or to any extent my mentality — even when there was a question of deciding in concentration camp if you were a fascist or not a fascist. I had to make up my mind that I was a military and such, as an officer, so my type of allegiance was to the king, not Mussolini, so therefore at that time there was a some division even of officers in the concentration camp. And I had to opt for the King, because I had sworn already, given allegiance, to the King, so I had maintain the kind of mentality that was part of the military academy education — so not only political issues but talk about the military academy and war and the kind of loyalty to the system that you had already asked to serve. It was only much later when you started getting some freedom of operation — I am talking about when I came back to Italy — that you started to get some critical analysis of succession of events.

So you were asked in the concentration camp as to whether or not you were a fascist?


And you had to declare yourself?

Yes, yes I had to.

And so in deciding you were loyal to the king, did that mean that you said you labelled yourself as a fascist?

Well, I labelled myself as against fascism.

As against fascism?

Against fascism, of course. As a matter of fact, in India, there were camps for the fascists and camps for the people not fascists. So you had to become anti-fascist. At that time there was no question of being black or white, you could have half-colour, so you must make up your mind what you want to be even if sometime you must have certain kind of ambiguity. But at that time clearly I had to decide and I was convinced that my position was clearly on the side of the King, not the side of Mussolini.

So you went to an anti-fascist camp?


You had no difficulty with that decision?

No, no, no difficulty, even if I knew that this kind of a drama was typical of Italy at that time, when you had to give allegiance to two people — that eventually they separated. That was a type of little drama, big drama, that I suppose must have had a lot of problem with many Italians, I am pretty sure about that.

And so in thinking about fascism now, what is it in fascism that you see perhaps in retrospect to admire, and what is it that you think is not admirable in the fascist system?

Well, the question of fascism and so [on] are of type of 'isms' you could see characterised all over the world and would be communism, and you could have so many other ‘isms’ of all kinds. Unfortunately these kind of movement that are brought to the extreme could become extremely dangerous for mankind, this extremism, that we have already enough of those kind of moments in the history of mankind, and unfortunately it just is a disease and you can be affected — or even you be a sufferer unless you find the right atmosphere, the right kind of doctor, who will cure you, you can be sick forever.

So are you a political pragmatist?

So ... my political pragmatism is still to maintain certain kinds of civility for which you need a certain amount of discipline, no doubt about that. You need a certain kind of order because I think that if you create or you have a complex that is in disorder you have only the destruction of the system. I don't see any system that could prevail or survive unless there is a certain kind of order, so the kind of order that could be more or less closer to disciplinarian mentality, I could see that there is a necessity — we can't do unfortunately without it.

[end of tape]

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