Tony – the Dalai Lama, Princess Di and war.

Posted: September 30, 2019 by The Sprink

This is Tony. Born before WW2, he grew up in Birregurra (before Brae made it worth a visit) moved to Melbs with his sisters and mum living in Housing Commissions while attempting an Agriculture degree at Melb Uni. He was the only person in the course to fail EVERY subject in first year. Somebody said, “You can’t fail botany- all you have to do is draw a gum leaf”. But you can, if you turn up at two thirty in the afternoon for nine am exam.

So how’d you become a war correspondent?
Those were the days when there were NO journalism degrees. I was good at English at school, so  wrote to the little Benalla Standard saying ‘I’m good at English can I please have a job?’ and it somehow worked. Next minute I’m a reporter with over 40years of journalism, based all over the world. Reporting in about 80 countries, and living in London, Hong Kong, Beirut, San Francisco , New York, New Delhi- and even Sydney. I had 30 years with Newsweek, the American News Magazine, and I’ve written for the Old Herald in Melbourne, the Daily Mail, Sunday Times and New Statesman in England, Newsweek and The New York Times, The Monthy and New Matilda in Oz. You can Google all this shit under “Tony Clifton, Australian journalist. But if you just put “Tony Clifton” you will get ten thousand entries about Andy Kaufman’s famous fictional character Tony Clifton, who was a drunken, oafish, womanising lounge-singer (I can’t sing, for starters).

The Benalla Standard’s reply to Tony’s ‘applicaiton’

What was the news like in Victoria during the 50s?
All sports and police courts, coroners reports and unimportant things like, I once had to interview a boxing kangaroo. Lots of dead people at inquests. I remember a policeman describing the death of a baby who had drowned, and he began “the deceased was by occupation, a child””

Tony and the boxing kangaroo, post-interview.

When you were working in London during the 60s – how good were the drugs?
It was the 60s: so yes, exactly like you’d think, but more pills than weed. Mandrax, Benzedrine… you’d buy an LSD soaked sugar cube wrapped in a silver paper that you had to keep in the fridge freezer in case it melted. Early on, heroin was legal if you registered as an addict – I knew guys with full time jobs who got daily ration, and as it was pure, they were no more disabled than if they were on Panadol. I was sharing a crummy apartment in West London with the now notable Hollywood Director John Irvin (The Dogs of War with Christopher Walken, and Raw Deal with Arnie) who was making a doco on strippers in Soho. He said “I just hired a funny group called The Who to play, and they cost fifty quid. Come watch” – I’d never heard music like that before I came staggering out, my brain running out my ears.

Who have you interviewed?
When you’re a hack you talk to everyone. Paul Keating, Francis Bacon, Sonny Rollins, Vanessa Redgrave, Prince Charles, Indira Gandhi, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat…
– Saddam Hussain: I asked him questions about the future his interpreter went white and warned me “You can’t ask him things like that. In fact he just had a British journalist hanged as a spy.” I Was braver back then – or stupider.
– Margaret Thatcher: very sharp, didn’t like journos much. Like our pols.      – – Benazir Bhutto: the PM of Pakistan until she was assassinated, lovely lady, but a fantasist about what she could do in a strict Muslim country.
– Tina Turner: we chatted for hours she was fantastic.

Did you talk to the Dalai Lama about reincarnation?
A lot. We met many times, we became quite good friends. I asked him “How do you know you are a reincarnation?”
He said “The first time I wake up each morning, I write down my dreams, where I recall my past lives”.

I 100% believe it.
They have a very complicated ritual finding the next DL: they have to look for a child born the day the last DL died, Then to test if he is the new DL, they  take a number of possessions to that kid when they reach about age five. Some of the things belonged  to the old DL and others random – the kid who only chooses the possessions of the old DL becomes the new DL.

A photo of a photo of good pals DL and TC


  1. My first was a nasty civil war in Nigeria when Biafra tried to break away – it was famous for the starving children photos with the big bellies. I was arrested by the army and ridden out in a jeep into the jungle thinking I was about to be shot – but they just dropped me off in Ghana.
  • Northern Ireland – American publications were the most interested in this. Belfast was the first time somebody fired at me in anger. I was with a British soldier, and we got a spatter of bullets pinging off the road and the kerb and the rain filled utter we were lying in. And the soldier said, “He’s an IRA sniper firing through that letter box up the street. I could hit him through the door, but the bullet would go through him, and then into the house behind where it would kill old Mrs O’Reilly. And I’d be court-martialled.”
  • East Pakistan war turned into the Bangladesh war – Muslim West Pakistani soldiers tried to subdue Muslim East Pakistani freedom fighters.  A Muslim friend said to me “Muslims would never kill other Muslims.  They killed tens of thousands of them of course.

What was Vietnam like?
A disaster for America and they should never have been there. Neither should Australia. It was a civil war between Vietnamese and not our problem. The American way of “winning” was to use superior firepower to kill and destroy everything in their path.  One vicious tactic was to draw a square on a map of a few hectares in area. This was designated  “free fire” zone on the theory that every Vietnamese in it was a communist sympathiser. In fact they were mainly peasants. But the were mown down from the air and on the ground, and then we hacks would be invited to view the lines of dead. And you’d see dead women and children and old people all “communists”. At one of these show and tells, a friend said ‘that looks like a 10yr old girl’ and the US soldier said, ‘Yeah but she is old enough to throw a grenade’. It was nasty.

Well, did they do any good while they were there.
As the war came to an end, it was clear the North would take over the city. So the Americans organised children from threatened areas out, on enormous transport planes. I volunteered to help load the kids on and we spent the morning taking about little babies, children, nurses and mothers onboard. I waved the plane off, and said to my mate ‘Well at least they’re safe” and went back to work. Another reporter rushed into the office an hour  after and told me that plane crashed and burned after it left the airport, and most of the people on board were killed at the end of the runway.

War isn’t good. OK once during The Gulf War I was in a tank battalion (45 tanks) in the armoured personnel carrier behind the lead tank. We were charging across the desert firing into the mist at the Iraqi military and – you know how you go to the movies and suddenly the hero runs across the screen and everyone fires and he still makes it miraculously? Well, we lined all the tanks up in front of these burning buildings in the Kuwaiti desert and suddenly two guys on motorbikes come from the left, dived through the flames and every one of our tanks opened up on them. But nobody hit them and they made it out safely. We thought ‘Well maybe it’s true what they say on movies’.

What was the worst war for you?
Cambodia was the worst one – the Khmer Rouge communists killed 2million people, and I had friends captured and murdered. People would escape to Thailand and tell you horrific stories with no emotion, about how people would be picked to die: anyone with glasses or good clothes or nice accents meant they were rich or educated so they were killed. I asked ‘How did they do that?” and they said “They gave someone from the village an axe who would have to smash all their friend’s and family’s heads in.” The ones who escaped may well have had to kill their own mothers. Numbed by horror – they had seen so much they had been drained. You’d expect them to cry but they didn’t, they couldn’t.

Did you have a lot of nightmares?
I know people who do, a lot of soldiers, friends and colleagues with PTSD and high level of suicide rates. I’ve had a number of friends/colleagues commit suicide who had all been in Vietnam and Cambodia – but why they did it is too hard to pinpoint. How can you ask a dead women or man why they ended it?

Has anything made you cry??
I’ve seen people shot, tortured, killed or driven to suicide. As a reporter, I had to tell the world about it so what I was doing had a serious purpose, and there was no point crying, I was too busy to cry. But I have cried for myself like in London when a dustman came knocking at my door, holding my dead orange cat Fizzy by his tail and asked ‘Is this yours? I just ran it over’. I cried then.

I fckn LOVE cats, I feel that, I’m sorry. You’ve seen more wars than many armies – what is the weirdest thing about our army?
The Australian Army are infamous for being secretive in a way I have never experienced it with any other army – it is easier working with the Russians. I had a KGB agent in Beirut who kept me up to date on what various leftist elements were doing. But the Australians behave if we hacks were the enemy- and they still do. I was lucky not to be involved with the Australian army, but my Aussie mates hated being with them because they were consistently lied to and kept away from most action, despite many of the reporters / photographers having seen more action than the average Australian soldier. I would look at Mideast average when I got back here, and I’d see a clip relayed by our military, describing a “fire fight””. They release small action pieces  from Iraq or Afghanistan, almost invariably two or three guys are standing up and firing off random bursts into the middle distance. Then they put it up saying “Australian troops engaged in a fire-fight with Afghan rebels” and I’m like “No I’ve been out in Iraq and Afghanistan, and under fire they would not stand like that, they’d be pressed to the ground”. Even in press conferences with allies, the Aussies they won’t wear say their names. So FYI in case you missed it: the Australian press loath the Australian army PR.

You got to go to Charles’ and Diana’s wedding – what was it like?Spectacular. I sat way back in St Pauls, but behind the Queen, the Queen in the press seats and remember vividly it was so glittery. The guests brilliantly sparkled in robes and jewellery, uniforms, helmets and medals, the guards wearing brilliant plumes in their shiny helmets, the 18 century gold-gilded carriages – even the horses were dressed up.

I can’t believe you were in Tiananmen Square on THAT DAY.The kids like you see in the Hong Kong reporting today,  had basically settled in (it was almost like a holiday camp) and that day, the army sent in some really tough Chinese troops.  I heard gunfire and instantly recognised it as an AK47. I told my interpreter ‘we had better GTF out of here’ and he said ‘A Chinese soldier would never shoot a Chinese person.” (Does this remind you of my note about Muslims killing Muslims?) Literally 3min later a student came running up holding a blood-soaked shirt above his head and I yelled, ‘RUN’.

Tony’s story

We haven’t touched on your years in San Fran, New York, Honkers, India..
The great thing about being a reporter for a rich magazine like Newsweek or paper like the Sunday Times was that you were paid to live in the sort of cities and countries most people only see momentarily from the decks of their cruise ships (when they’re old and their knees are shot, like mine are now). So I lived in London in the whole of the sixties, and it was just like it says in the movies. Great art, clothes, food- you could see the Stones for a three  dollar entrance fee on Eel Pie Island. Or if you were a jazz nut like I was, you went to listen to Dizzy and Coltrane and Miles. My mother was an artist, so I could go to the great museums in London and Paris and New York, and take time off in a job in Cairo to fly off to the Valley of the Kings. I remember saying to a mate once, “”Do you know, I’ve spent time in the tombs of the Ming emperors, the great Mughals, the Pharaoh Tutankhamun and Jesus Christ (among others).

Having worked in all those  countries, where would you LOVE to go?

You can’t see everything in the world but I would like to go to St Petersburg, Kyoto, and down the Amazon to a town called Manaus (where rubber came from, they have a huge opera house built buy millionaire rubber merchants a hundred years ago early settlers) and Madagascar for the amazing wildlife.

After everything you’ve done –  what’s life like as a retiree?

I kick it around Collingwood at bars like Nighthawks with street-artists and young musician friends, sometimes throwing parties in my converted warehouse.  I am quite happy to hang out having been on the road for so long – it was physically wearing, you might sleep in the best hotels, but in my speciality, you spent too many weeks in shit hotels, or trying to sleep  in armoured vehicles or on the bloody desert sand. And the food wasn’t all that great- I remember eating a steak from a US army ration kit, and saw it had been packed and sealed seven years ago. The American ration bags were designed as MRE (meals ready to eat) and the troops immediately renamed them Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. I still freelance occasionally – anyone from New York Times to Weekly in India – but mostly chill at my favourite café Libertine. It is really nice to do nothing.

You need to write a book, man.

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