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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Author's Preface


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, - so the ancient Chinese saying [Lao-tze of China, the “Old Master”, circa 604 – 531 BC, reputed founder of Taoism.] has it, - and thus in April 2004, I embark on an attempt to place on paper my considered thoughts on a life that has involved about two million miles of air travel to over 70 countries in all Continents (except Antarctica), and also to the islands of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans.   The fields of service varied from the Caspian Sea in west central Asia, to Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains, and from the palm fringed shores of the Coral Sea at Papua New Guinea, to the barren islands of Cape Verde in the Atlantic ocean three hundred miles off the coast of West Africa.  I have argued the case for socially just, sustainable development, at innumerable meetings, in the ivory towers of the World Bank and ADB, and in the United Nations Agencies, as well as in the mud huts of African villages, and in bamboo houses on poles above tidal areas in the Indo-Pacific.

When I was appointed as an Assistant Professor by the University of Rhode Island USA, in 1967, (just 12 years after leaving school on my 15th birthday, and starting work on the family fishing boat), an Aberdeen TV journalist remarked on his local magazine programme, - “did he think at 15 years of age when he packed his canvas baggie and headed for the boat that first day, that it would lead to this”?  Well, I certainly did not.  My fishing work commenced around the Republic of Ireland where I experienced the kindness of the Irish, as well as their wit and wisdom. The work continued around Scotland, from The Firth of Clyde to the Orkney Islands and the Moray Firth.  Then by one of those quirks of fate, I was offered a remarkable opportunity to serve in Africa.

However, I believe my real career in global fisheries development and management did not blossom till 1973 when I was sent by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation to the vast, mystical and populous land of Indonesia to manage one of the UN’s most ambitious fishery projects.  The fisheries work will naturally colour most of the accounts in this book, as will my Scottish roots and background, but what I trust readers will find most interesting are the observations on life and events that occurred during those past sixty years, and some selected community memories that stretch farther back.

Apart from what I gleaned from history, from the press and the media, and personal observations on world events, I have always had an interest in how ordinary people view these matters, and how they make sense of our amazing participation in the beautiful, perplexing, and sometimes frightening reality of life.  These ordinary persons have been Scottish and Irish fishermen, housewives, teachers, African peasants, Russian students, World Bank economists, political prisoners, mission workers, military personnel, refugees, Arabs and Israelis, Sinhalese and Tamils, Chinese and Malays, academics and  politicians, conformists and radicals, hippies and drop-outs, religious zealots, agnostics, secular humanists, musicians, writers and poets.  The list of those I have been privileged to come in contact with, and to learn from, is as broad and as rich as life’s tapestry itself.

I have tried to reflect their views, concerns and aspirations honestly and without prejudice.  If I give special weight to some, it is because their contributions have come out of deep suffering, - out of painful years of affliction or oppression or from the grinding mills of poverty and hardship.  I think of esteemed late friends and colleagues who were survivors of Passchendaele and Ypres, of wartime ghettos and concentration camps, of poverty and unemployment during the depression, of the holocaust, the killing fields, of the refugee camps, of Robin Island or Muntinlupa prison, or of personal and family struggles with ill-health and misfortune.  As my dear late friend, Peter Buchan, the fisherman poet, described them, they are, “the folk wi’ the wind in their face, a’ their mortal days”.

Having worked in universities, colleges, training centres and extension services, I have an interest in how knowledge and skills are passed on to future generations.  Learning by rote was the norm in our grandparents days, and that approach continues in much of the developing world. New approaches to education that are practical and flexible offer much hope in my view. I refer to some of these ideas and innovations in the later chapters. 

In addition to the world-view of a range of persons across the globe, I have commented on some of the world’s leaders and major political events.  I went to Africa at the tail end of the era of the British Empire, and was recruited by the Technical Cooperation Department of the Colonial Office.  On my first African assignment I observed first-hand the transition from Colonial rule to self-government to full independence, former Northern Rhodesia becoming the state of Zambia under President Kaunda.  I saw over the border in Southern Rhodesia / Zimbabwe, the seeds of indifference and inaction on gross inequalities in ownership of land, being sown by the Smith regime and the UK Government, which would give rise to the brutality of Mugabe’s later rule.

The early 1960’s period also covered the era of Belgian withdrawal from the Congo, the Katanga secession under Moise Tshombe, the death of Dag Hammarskjöld in an apparently engineered plane crash, and the abominable U.S. choice of Mobutu to lead the new country of Zaire (the Congo).  South Africa continued to be governed by the apartheid regime of Afrikaans whites, oblivious to basic human justice and to world opinion.

I was working in the United States when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  That was during the period of campus protests against the Vietnam War, the rise of the hippy culture, and the election of Richard Nixon as President.  As I was familiar with the names of all the Nixon Cabinet, I later took a deep interest in the Watergate affair, watching the hearings on television, reading every book on the subject, and even staying a night in the Howard Johnson’s motel (from which the bugging was monitored by the ‘plumbers’ unit) located across the road from the Watergate complex.  Occasional assignments with the World Bank allowed me to spend time in Washington DC and to get a flavour of that nation’s capital, and of cultured international Georgetown, nearby across the Potomac river.

My period of service in Indonesia and the Philippines allowed me a close glimpse of the strong-man rules of Presidents Soeharto and Ferdinand Marcos.  It also provided a view of the corruption and nepotism prevalent in much of the developing world.  Almost as interesting as the presidents mentioned, was the behaviour and amassing of wealth by their wives, Tien Soeharto and Imelda Marcos.  I was in the region when Benigno Aquino was denied election as Governor of Manila (by blatant manipulation), and when he was murdered on his return to the Philippines, and when the peaceful ‘people’s revolution’ took place, effectively removing Marcos from power.

Some years were spent in Rome, Italy, and while enjoying that experience, I never failed to be fascinated by the political movements varying all the way from fascism to communism to anarchist groups, and the Italians’ unfailing capacity to bring a semblance of order out of the seeming chaos.  I happened to be in Rome the day Pope John Paul ll was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca, and I used to visit a family near the Adriatic coast where they lived next door to the high security prison where Agca was incarcerated.

As a young teenager I spent a summer holiday in the south of Ireland with a wonderful elderly lady, a niece of the Irish MP of the early 1900’s, John Redmond.  She had taught music to the family of the Emperor and Empress in the Hoffburg Palace in Vienna Austria, before the First World War.  To a 14 year-old Scottish boy in 1954, Vienna was on the other side of the moon, and I sadly took little note of her tales and accounts of that period, but to my surprise, in 1986 when on an assignment for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation located in Vienna, I was to visit the Hoffburg Palace often to see a friend who worked there for the Austrian Foreign Ministry. 

During the later period of the Vietnam War, and the time of the horrendous killing fields regime of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, I was working in S.E. Asia.  I came to know and assist in small ways, some of the “boat people” who fled Vietnam and spent years in refugee camps in the Philippines and other parts of the region. 

Later I spent a memorable year in Vietnam, working with its fine, serious and industrious people. One of the friends I had in Hanoi was among the last group of children to escape from South Vietnam when hostilities ended.  He returned 25 years later as a successful businessman, determined to help his country’s return to economic prosperity.

I was greatly honoured to be asked by FAO and the ADB, a few years after Pol Pot died, to lead a development project to design, and later to implement, management of the rich but vulnerable fisheries of the Great Lake of Tonle Sap, and the Mekong River.   It was an enriching and encouraging experience to see the people of Cambodia rebuild their land despite its blood-stained past, and conserve its natural resources for the benefit of the whole nation.

Observations in regions and territories that had been ravaged by war, and conclusions on the impacts of these conflicts, confirmed and increased my deep abhorrence of military actions, and my serious doubts about the wisdom and the true motivation of those who commit their countries forces to conflict and bloodshed.  In these conclusions I found to my surprise, that I was supported by many former generals and senior military officers, writers and war correspondents, as well as by the world’s greatest pacifists.  (Practically none of the politicians and diplomats in the USA and UK who agressively promoted the Iraq war, had ever served in combat themselves, and none of them or their most ardent supporters would send their own sons to die in that conflict.)  My anti-war views were naturally shared by civilians who had suffered terribly, but also by serving soldiers and airmen, many of whom recalled their active service duties with extreme dislike.  I received such personal accounts from soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the 1st and 2nd world wars, (on both sides), and ones who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and other scenes of conflict.

The madness of war and its brutalising effect on combatants was in stark contrast to the nobility and magnanimity displayed by its innocent victims.  I found similar attitudes among those who endured oppression or injustice.  The courage and integrity of unnamed and unrecognised heroes and heroines in the wastelands of man’s inhumanity resembled delicate flowers blooming in the desert.  Individuals I knew or met, who were survivors of the Holocaust, the killing fields, the apartheid regime, or of one of the numerous brutal dictatorships, often had a beauty of character, and a serenity of soul, despite all they endured.  It was, as the Russian dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn [The Gulag Archipelago, volume 3, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Harper & Row, 1978] described the triumph of human spirits against impossible odds, “poetry under a tombstone, truth under a stone”.

From these and many other experiences in different parts of the globe, I have compiled a simple patchwork quilt of reflections, impressions and observations.  I dare to hope that readers might find them entertaining, enlightening or even amusing in parts, and perhaps glean some encouragement for present times, and hope for the future.


David B Thomson

* Note on poetry and quotations:  Most of the quotations from books, poems and songs, are selections only.  I have made slight amendments in places for the sake of grammar or clarity, and occasionally altered a word or phrase that did not accurately reflect my train of thought. Where such liberties have been taken, the quotation is marked by an asterisk. I trust that the few deviations from the originals in no way misrepresent the esteemed writers whose works are quoted.


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