“Life is made up of the most differing, unforeseen, contradictory, ill assorted things; it is brutal, arbitrary, disconnected, full of inexplicable, illogical and contradictory disasters which can only be classified under the heading of ‘Other news in brief’.”

Maupassant, Pierre et Jean, 1887

January 1990, latitude −34 degrees south, longitude 172 degrees east, the north-western seaboard of Northland, New Zealand. 

Descendants of European settlers, or Pakeha, frequently allow the glorious landscapes of their country to speak for themselves. Likewise, their Australian neighbours have a way of telling it how it is. If they want to give a name to a large river, for example, they choose a name which, to them, is obvious: ‘Big River’. There is a small bird found in eastern Australia with the most attractive plumage and charming song. That same bird has a habit of searching for prey on exposed mud flats, leading to its rather dull but, one supposes, factually correct name of Mud Skipper. New Zealand, where I was brought up for my first few years until my mother decamped to England, makes little effort to attach colourful or grandiose names to objects which speak quite loudly enough for themselves. The Maori would name features of the landscape in the poetry of their tongue, giving lakes, mountains, and plains an almost mystical quality. Without a written language, their long descriptions have been translated into phonetic, Anglicised versions, which themselves seem to add mystery and rhythm. But where no Maori name existed, the early European visitors, like their Australian cousins, wasted little effort.

1990 was the year of the Commonwealth games in Auckland. I found myself on one glorious midsummer morning standing on Ninety Mile Beach, a mathematically inaccurate name (it is, in fact, closer to fifty miles long) which is quite incapable of doing any justice to the sound and sight of water meeting land in front of me. The most beautiful and unspoiled golden sand stretching as far as the eye could see on a wide, wholly uninterrupted vista, rising gently on my right to an unbroken line of cliffs, and falling away on my left, some seventy metres away, to the roaring breakers of the Tasman Sea. It seemed to go on for ever, both from behind me and ahead of me, fading into what appeared at first glance to be fog or sea mist, but which, on closer inspection, was salt spray thrown tens of metres into the sky by the waves crashing incessantly on to the sand. 

And there was no one there. 

I could see the occasional footprint – even a hoof print from time to time – but there was no sign of any human life, no habitation, no camper vans, tents or caravans, and no trace of the detritus or litter which reveals the presence of human beings.

Just this beautiful, powerful, warm sea.

Dressed for an early morning run, I simply ran into the waves, exhilarated. My eldest brother had been keen to inform me that the amount of water that would fill the average household fridge would weigh approximately one ton. And fridge after fridge and then more fridges cascaded onto the beach, plucked me up and threw me back each time that I dived, head first, into the breakers.

The heavy artillery shouldered its way over and under me, while the cavalry triumphantly rose and swept forward, chasing the battalions of infantry further and further up the beach, bustling and scrambling for footholds, before rushing back to regroup for the next assault.

And all the time, the noise of this tumult and the drifting salt spray hung over my senses.

Time stood still.

I lay, exhausted but invigorated at the very edge of the waterline, meeting only the advance guard scampering up the beach towards me before retreating, giggling and jostling, back to the next breaker.

As I looked through the spray up at the bright blue sky, I wondered what could get better than that? At that moment, rather selfishly, I considered that I was, after all, in the best of all possible worlds.


But, of course, moments like that could not – and indeed should not – last. And I was brought down to earth pretty rapidly that evening when I put a call through to my wife, Carmel, at home in England. She had not joined me in New Zealand because she cannot set foot in an aeroplane, but she was always very supportive of my comparatively infrequent trips back to where I consider to be my homeland, to be with my brothers and my father’s family. In this call, however, it was clear, despite the poor connection, that she was unhappy.

“What’s the matter?” I said. “Are you all right?”

“Not wonderful. Have you seen the reports coming out of Romania?”

“The New Zealand Herald isn’t exactly strong on the northern hemisphere,” I replied, before biting my tongue at my insensitivity. “Well, no,” I spoke more softly, “I haven’t.”

The New Zealand Herald was a newspaper more noted for its charm than its coverage of events on other continents – the reader was treated to a diet of local and parochial snippets. I had not seen television for days, if not weeks. One of the blessings, at least in those days in New Zealand, was the comparative concentration of the broadcast media, both radio and television, on the affairs of the local community and a limited amount of coverage of current affairs in the wider southern hemisphere. Exposure, in England, to three broadsheet newspapers, and both national and international coverage of news on three separate TV channels was a luxury I wasn’t sure that I missed. 

I explained that I really didn’t know what it was that had upset her.

“You remember before you left that we saw that man in charge of Romania being executed with his wife?”

“Yes, sure, it was Ceauşescu and his nasty-looking spouse. It was rather brutal, but I suppose it saved the expense of a show trial.”

“That’s a horrid thing to say, but that’s not the point.”

“And the point is?” 

I stopped – each time we spoke, we interrupted each other. The typical echo which one had to endure over these thousands of miles meant that we had to adopt what my ex-RNZAF father called the old ‘RT’ practice, Receive – Transmit, saying one’s piece, and then shutting up while the other person replied. One word or even a cough transmitted over the phone would effectively block out anything being sent by the other.

After a pause, she carried on.

“There are these dreadful news flashes coming in from Romania showing thousands of children locked up in orphanages. No one seems to know how they got there, although it’s been suggested that it’s the fault of the government, or Ceauşescu, and they are in the most dreadful state of repair.”

“Who are,” I said, trying to be flippant, “the children or the orphanages?”

“You wouldn’t say that if you had seen them.” She sounded genuinely upset.

“I’m sorry, that was silly of me. What’s going on? What have you seen?”

She told me that news teams had had access to what appeared to be orphanages in Romania and had found children in the most dreadful state of neglect, in buildings which were falling down around them.

There appeared to have been a universal cry for help for the country – to provide clothing, food, and even toys for these poor wretches, who appeared, in many instances, to be half-starved. 

They were crammed together in the most unpleasant living conditions and were horribly deprived.

Already, tradespeople of every description were on their way to try and carry out repairs to the crumbling buildings in which the children were housed. Trucks with food and clothing – some in convoys, some individually from local church groups and the like – were heading east across Europe in a confused but generous attempt to do something, anything, to address the suffering in the faces of the poor waifs who were caught on camera.

“Well, the sooner you get back here, the better, because you need to see the coverage on UK television of what has been revealed in Romania. It really is quite dreadful. TV cameras have entered a number of orphanages, showing children who have been left to waste away, either through government indifference or lack of money to care for them. 

“There are many people going across even now to try and help – painters, decorators, electricians, plumbers, you name it. When you come back, I want you to see what you can do.”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “You know that I would be very happy to get stuck in, but you also know that I only have to look at a shelf and it falls down.” 

My legendary DIY skills had been the butt of many family jokes over the years, and I was not entirely sure what I could do to contribute positively towards any aid endeavour which required skills of plastering, wiring, or painting. Even hammering nails might be a problem.

Nonetheless, I was perfectly happy to return home at the end of the Games and be brought to account, and Carmel seemed marginally reassured when we rang off.

What on earth, I wondered, had been discovered? I had not recalled any particular news item when I left for New Zealand, but obviously things were now being unearthed which demanded international attention. My usual disinclination to read any newspapers on holiday was replaced by a need to access as much current news as I could, and the next day, on my return to Auckland, I got hold of the main broadsheet, and a back issue of The Times.

Sure enough, it was reported that things looked pretty bleak and that, as Carmel had said, television crews and reporters had found their way into a number of orphanages, broadcasting footage which revealed buildings in a dreadful state, and children in worse. I knew of the revolution in Romania, which was itself not many months old, and I knew also that President Ceauşescu and his wife had been shot by firing squad. Countries within the Warsaw Pact had, for some time, been shaking off either direct Soviet rule or the governments of puppet dictators. The Iron Curtain still existed, but was itself retreating, and a new dawn, heralded in particular by the demolition of the Berlin Wall, had given all of us, particularly those who had seen the wall being built in the first place, hope for a new Europe and a less anxious life.

Now, however, it seemed that those positive developments were being accompanied by harsh reality. Reports suggested that the poverty, let alone the instability, in countries like Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania appeared to have persuaded those countries that if family income was so meagre that a child or children could not be properly nurtured or fed, then the children should be removed to ‘orphanages’, notwithstanding that one or even both of the child’s parents remained alive. It was taken that the state would provide a basic standard of care and certainly a better one than that which was available to the parents – and it was even imagined that there would be a time when the family’s situation would improve, and the child or children could be returned.

But things had, it seemed, got out of hand. Children had been discarded and put into these establishments and simply abandoned. Such was the demand that government ability to provide adequate resources for their children – in terms not only of food, warmth, and adequate buildings, but also in terms of staffing – simply did not exist. If plans had been made, they were not followed. 

To Western eyes, the situation appeared appalling and cruel, and, as Carmel had said, a wave of volunteers had already begun to sweep across Europe to see what could be done for the children. Not only were convoys of aid making their way across the continent, but medical staff, sacrificing their own leave and even in many cases, wages, were taking time off to access the orphanages to see what they could contribute toward an increasingly problematic presentation of malnutrition, developmental delay, and disability, both mental and physical.

I was, of course, powerless in New Zealand, but it was not long before I had returned to England, when Carmel gave me more examples of the horrors which had been unearthed during my absence. From what she said, it seemed that our television screens were full of more revelations every day. 

Then, only days after I had returned, breakfast television included an interview with a young student doctor who had himself only recently returned from Romania. Carmel and I were riveted by what he had to say. He had been assigned to one of the orphanages and had first-hand knowledge of the conditions in which the children were existing. And there was worse.

“The aid, the comforts, large and small, from blankets to toothpaste – everything that householders back in England are putting together for transmission across to Romania – is being pilfered,” he said. “It simply will not get through to the children. Even if the aid gets to the orphanage itself, it is then taken away by the staff, who take it all home. 

“While there is no excuse for it, it is simply the case that the economy in Romania is in such a dreadful state that many of the staples which householders in the UK regard as almost a birthright, staples which are so commonplace and which can be easily transmitted by lorry from England to Romania, are simply unavailable anywhere in the country to anyone other than those who can afford to buy goods in ‘dollar shops’. 

“I beg everyone who is watching this programme,” and he looked directly into the camera, “please do not send aid. It will not get to the children. Instead, we, you, everyone, must move heaven and earth to get the children out of those places.”

The interviewers appeared to struggle to find words to say in response to his plea. Either it was wholly unexpected or they were caught up in the emotion of the moment, an emotion which was certainly shared by Carmel and me, for we looked on in stunned silence while this young medic recounted his own experiences.

The programme moved on and I, of course, had to go to work. There was little time to say anything and indeed neither of us knew quite what to say, so troubling was that news item. But one thing was clear. Carmel had made up her mind. Her husband might well be hopeless at DIY, but what we could not provide in terms of skilled labour, we would offer, instead, by way of a loving home. 

“I think it would be a good idea if you went over there and brought back a child – perhaps two.”

Half-ducking the issue and half in agreement, I had to get to work. “Okay,” I replied, before climbing into my car. “Sounds like a plan.” 


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