Michael Brissenden on the Journey That Changed Him

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Aug 24, 2017

A trip to Europe for author and ABC Four Corners reporter Michael Brissenden meant many firsts – and one poignant last. 

It was 10 November 1989. It had been a long journey from Canberra but we were finally on approach to Frankfurt. Europe was on edge; a lot had happened overnight.

Our plane landed with a dramatic announcement from the cockpit: East Germany had opened its border with the West for the first time since the Berlin Wall had been erected in 1961. Applause and cheers rippled through the cabin. 

“This is a very special day for me,” said the captain. “I’ll be getting off this plane and setting off immediately to see my family. I fled the East 15 years ago and I haven’t seen them since that day.” More cheers and applause.

Everyone on that flight would have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. The fault lines of history had shifted and somehow we had been part of it.

This was a special day for me, too – for other reasons. I had come to Europe with my father and we both knew it was for the last time. Parkinson’s disease was eating away at him and, at just 62, he was dying. He could no longer drive or walk far but his mind was still active and engaged. He was writing a novel, a thriller set in Italy, Yugoslavia and Albania. My job was to get him there and back, to make sure he got to meet the people he’d arranged to see and to choose the restaurants, drink the wine and share in the adventure. Along the way, I hoped to capture some reflections of a life well lived. I had a tape recorder and my plan was that we’d talk and drink duty-free Scotch in our room after dinner. 

We drank plenty of Scotch but he was reluctant to open up. He didn’t really want to talk about the past in personal terms. He didn’t want to talk about the future much, either. So we talked about where we were. He accepted that he was seeing Europe for the last time. I was seeing much of it for the first time and the place was in upheaval.

We got lost in Ljubljana. When I asked someone for directions, I apologised for not speaking Yugoslav. “Neither do we,” was the response in English. “We are Slovenian.”

In Split, on the Croatian coast, we got caught up in a nationalist march – swept along by an angry, chanting mob demanding independence. 

We took the car ferry to Italy. Dad loved Italy and Italians. He was a poet first and foremost and had a special thing for Byron and Shelley, who exiled themselves there in the 19th century. We drove on to Sicily and ate spaghetti vongole with a couple of Mafia investigators who worked for the [late] crusading judge Giovanni Falcone.

It was a successful trip but Dad almost didn’t make it home. He collapsed at Frankfurt Airport before we could board our flight. We spent three days in an airport hotel while he regained his strength. He died a few months later. He never did finish the novel. I always thought I’d do it for him one day. Now I’ve written one of my own. I think he’d like it. I’ve dedicated it to him. 

His debut novel, political thriller The List, is out now.

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