Saturday, March 12, 2011

Memories of the Sikorski Effect

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 23 February 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

I was going to make a comment on some of the policy issues involved in the NSW election. However, I have done far too much serious writing recently and just don’t feel like it.

So, for a break, I thought that I would go in a new direction, my first and so far only serious attempt to start writing a novel. It was to have been called the Sikorsky Effect.

This was not the type of the type of book that might win the Booker prize. It was a straight commercial thriller set in the aerospace and defence industries.

The basic plot was simple enough.

An Australian aerospace company was negotiating shares in several major global aerospace developments. To a degree this was bet your company stuff as the firm sought to build into a globally competitive player capable of developing major aerospace platforms in its own right.

The story followed developments sprawling across time and space. The leading characters, and especially the main character, were playing a complicated game.

Their overseas parent was moving out of aerospace into new sectors that seemed more profitable. The Australian company was left sitting like a shag on a rock as the only remaining aircraft manufacturing activity within the group.

The leading characters decide to do something new, to break away, to build and then float as a major new aerospace and defence company.

The complex dance that followed involved governments in Australia and in four other countries; complex negotiations with international aerospace majors, with unions and banks; all the tensions and risks of major bids; the development from ground up of new business activities.

In the end, of course, everything was to turn out for the best. However, it was to be a near run thing.

This plot may sound remote from my normal interests as you see them through this column. Where, for example, would I get all the information I needed to make the story both taut and credible?

The bit I have left out so far is that, at the time, I was the senior Commonwealth official advising on industry development policy towards the electronics, aerospace and information industries. I was also managing the national IT and newly re-established national space programs.

I had always been interested in writing. It wasn’t just the writing itself that interested me, but also the often weird and wonderful lives of the writers.

A year or so before the time we are talking about, I had been back in Armidale full time at the University writing my PhD thesis, a biography of my grandfather. While it was sometimes hard and frustrating, I really enjoyed the writing process.

This was very different from all the official writing I had done. I had a chance to play with words, to try to express things in new ways to get my story across. I decided to keep a writer’s diary too record thoughts, scenes and people for later use.

The work that I was now doing back in Canberra was quite fascinating.

It involved me in major civil and defence purchases and brought me in touch with science and technology. I met many of the officials and business people involved with the sector in the US and Europe, learned about company strategies, about all the issues involved in complex high technology projects.

Talk about boys with toys!

I went on official visits visiting aerospace plants in eight countries, flew in helicopters and watched satellites being made. All this went down in my writer’s diary.

The notes that I took in that diary weren’t the official notes, but the detail that I thought might be used in my novel. Everything was disguised

At the time, we were trying to negotiate Australian industry involvement in the planned A320. My hard headed former colleagues in Treasury were actively opposed. They saw it as far too risky.

Unable to get Government funding, key industry executives and I looked for other levers to get Australia into the project. I worked the Government side, they the industry side.

We thought that we had a deal stitched up to be confirmed by the Minister on an official visit to Europe. The then Airbus CEO arrived late and somewhat drunk, calling for champagne. Disgusted, the Minister left, and the whole thing fell over.

All this went down in the diary with a particular focus on atmosphere, the look and feel, personalities, language and incidental details.

After all this, what finally happened to the Sikorsky Effect?

I became more interested in the doing rather than the writing. The writer’s diaries were put aside, finally to be lost in one of the many house moves.

What remains are especially vivid memories imprinted by the act of writing.

No comments: