Young kids today – embarrassing themselves all over the Internet with their ill-advised photos! They will never be able to obtain high public office! Of course, I think the only difference between the current and previous generations is in the wide availability of evidence of their indiscretions after the fact. There exists (or at least used to exist 20 years ago) a photo of me, which I think is understandable, but with a bit of spin in the media would stop me becoming Prime Minister. Let me explain.
During my 4th year at university I lived in a student house (I was 20). There were four of us in a large house on Vincent Street opposite Hyde Park in Mount Lawley. Besides me, there was a just-graduated accountant, a med student who seemed to spend most of his time partying, an artist and normally a random person or two crashing on our sofa. The artist was an interesting guy – a Thai orphan raised in Australia. Much of his art focused on satirising the military. We had a series of paintings around the house of Godzilla sized cartoonish characters in military uniforms (usually from World War 2) rampaging through cities or battlefields. Right outside my bedroom door was a giant Goofy-like character throwing tanks around. He also had an original 9 foot Nazi Swastika flag in his bedroom (the house had very high ceilings).
I have met a few overt racists in my time, and this artist was definitely not one of them. If he was harbouring any fascist tendencies they were very well hidden. He claimed to be interested in the art of Nazi Germany and so collected artefacts from that time. Kind of like admiring the films of Leni Riefenstahl while ignoring their propagandistic purpose. He had a few other items as well, but tended to buy them, hold onto them for a few months (taking photos and drawing them) and then sell them to fund new items. While we were in the same house he sold a SS dagger to buy an original Luftwaffe uniform jacket. This is where I join the story.
He normally took photos with a blue-eyed blond-haired friend modelling the items he bought. The artist never appeared in the photos himself as he said he didn’t fit, being a dark-skinned South-east Asian. However, the Luftwaffe jacket would not fit his friend – it was very small. At the time I did a lot of long distance cycling and was quite small myself. At just over 5’9" and just under 59kg, I was borderline underweight according to the Body mass Index. Also I have blue-eyes and, at the time, had sun-blonde hair. So the artist asked me to put it on and I thought “why not?”
That jacket was small. The length was about right for me, maybe it was for someone an inch or two shorter. Still, I could barely do up one button. I was forbidden from trying a second in case I ripped it. It was uncomfortably tight across the shoulders and chest. Whoever wore this originally was very small – either they were a young teenager or undernourished (or both!). The artist said it dated from 1944, towards the end of the war. I guess by that stage Germany was desperate for manpower and pressed anyone they could into service. It was also made of poor material. It felt like a Hessian sack, very rough to touch. Again, this is apparently not unusual for uniforms from that time (as times were tough). Lastly, the jacked had a small rip just below my last left rib. Was it a bullet hole, or just an accident from sometime during the 50 years since its manufacture? We didn’t know and there was no mention of it in the accompanying documentation.
Then two photos were taken and my career in public office finished before it began. Or probably not. Those photos are 20 years old now. I look quite different (no hair and much heavier for a start!). I never saw the result. I don’t even know if they were actually developed (this being before digital cameras) or if they still exist. However, I learnt more about the conditions at the end of the war in those few minutes wearing that jacket than in my high school education (or various jingoistic war movies). I feel great pity for the poor boy who wore that same jacket half a century before me. I can’t say I regret it.