From Queanbeyan to the world: My life as a diplomat

FROM the streets of Queanbeyan in the forties to the corridors of power in the United States and Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, Howard Debenham has certainly lived an interesting life.

The career diplomat, who has served in India, South Korea, Japan, Israel, Italy, Yugoslavia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the USA over the course of his 43-year career, has shared some of the fascinating cross-cultural moments he experienced in his new book, entitled Waiting 'Round the Bend: Recollections of childhood and a life in Australia's Foreign Service.

Now retired in Sydney, Mr Debenham said he resisted the traditional policy-based screed issued by many former diplomats in favour of something more personal.

"I wanted to show the 'how you live it' side of life in the Foreign Service," Mr Debenham said.

"But I also wanted to give people a bit of a sense of how it is that a home town boy can get involved in something like this.

"Then having introduced the boy, show something of how he developed as a person and an adult in a pretty demanding environment overseas," he said.

He tells stories from both the personal and professional sides of his career abroad, including a number of brushes with death, such as narrowly avoiding being stoned to death in India, or being trampled by a rogue elephant in Assam, or being in Washington DC while the September 11 attacks were unfolding.

"I very much get stuck into my take on the meaning of 9-11 and where the West should tidy up its act quite a bit and not get so carried away with 9-11 as an isolated event-3,000 deaths compared with tens of millions who have died from terrorism over the last 40-50 years.

"So there's some light-hearted stuff, there's some deep stuff, and there's some really serious and dangerous stuff," he said.

There's also a chapter entitled 'My Queanbeyan' about growing up here in what was then a fairly typical country town.

"I'm very comfortable with my roots," Mr Debenham said. "Queanbeyan was a small town when I was born there and went to school at Queanbeyan Public School.

"It was a country town that was very aware of the Second World War. Many of the men went off to it, many came back. Interestingly I think many of them came back with a much more understanding attitude to refugees and people who had suffered in other parts of the world.

"Queanbeyan in the fifties became an immigrant town, and a very welcoming one. But it was a very typical country town…with localised ambitions and very unaware of the world.

"Life's much more complex these days, and I think the town of Queanbeyan is much more complex too…but it still has its community identifications," he said.

*'Waiting 'Round the Bend: Recollections of childhood and a life in Australia's Foreign Service is available in hard cover, paperback or ebook online at, or at Paperchain book store, Manuka.

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