This review is a bit special because I actually know the author. Bruce Nicholls, author of “A Briefcase in Transit: Undiplomatic Reflections of a Trade Commissioner”, is my uncle. One of the advantages of knowing people who write books is that it is really, really easy to get signed copies.
“A Briefcase in Transit” chronicles Nicholls’ time working as a Trade Commissioner for the Australian Foreign Service from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. A recent graduate, Nicholls had applied and interviewed for a position with the Trade Commission, but after never hearing back had taken up another role instead. Months and a phone call out of the blue later, he’d received his formal offer, accepted it, commenced training and was finally notified of the location his first posting. Over the next decade and a half, Nicholls would live in India, Germany, China and Hong Kong; grappling with new cultures, a healthy work/life balance and the eccentric and charismatic people he met along the way.
This book is probably best understood as a collection of anecdotes and vignettes that provide both broad and detailed observations about the nature of the Trade Commission before it was replaced with AusTrade in 1984. Nicholls paints quite a romantic picture of the Service, with echoes of the British colonial lifestyle in the lavish parties, the importance of sporting events and the lingering distance between foreigners and locals. Most of the book is dedicated to Nicholls’ escapades in India and China, with Germany understandably providing far less opportunity for drastic cultural clashes. With an enthusiastic, humorous often self-depreciating style of writing, Nicholls brings the characters and events of his memoirs to life. However, the book is not by any means a pair of rose-tinted glasses looking on the past. One of the most interesting parts about this book is its inclusion of some extremely eye-opening official documents from the times. It’s hard to think that that only a couple of decades ago, sexism could and did so blatantly influence internal government policy and Nicholls does not shy away from honest commentary about such failings.
“A Briefcase in Transit” has a very strong professional focus and the book almost entirely concerns Nicholls’ working life. While it is entirely understandable that he would want to keep his family life private, I think that including some more stories about his home life, and how his wife and children were coping with moving from country to country, might have given the book a little more of a central narrative. It’s a tricky balance, but I think that the result is that this is a book which is going to perhaps appeal to a more niche audience with a specific interest in the history, politics and industry of Australian foreign trade.
Nevertheless, Nicholls’ book is a critical work of history, documenting an era in Australian diplomacy that was about to change forever. “A Briefcase in Transit” is a fantastic addition to Australian writing and is a unique insight into a highly prestigious profession.