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On Coral's calmness

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COMMENTS

5 October 2012 09:05

Minh Bui Jones, co-founder of The Diplomat and editor of  American Review magazine, writes:

When David Llewellyn-Smith and I started The Diplomat a little over decade ago, it was among other things a quixotic attempt to find an Australian take on world affairs. We didn't know what that was but we happened upon its voice in Coral Bell.

In the aftermath of the 'day that changed the world' (aka September 11, 2001), Coral, in her prose and in herself, exuded a steady calmness that was unsettling for those who didn't know her well, which included me. In time I learned to appreciate this characteristic as one of her defining qualities and one that stood her head and shoulders above the field.

One of the less distressing side-effects of 9/11 was the elevation of international relations from academic cave to public stage. Overnight everyone it seemed was interested in hard and soft power. The demand created a supply of experts and pundits who could comment on anything from international security to terrorism and religious fundamentalism. It was manna for the media, and editors such as myself were spoilt for choice (and we abused it). Yet it didn't take long before we started to work out the genuine from the carpetbagger.

Coral stood out because she was different. She knew her stuff, carried no airs and was exceedingly generous with her time. I can't count the number of times I came running to her for advice and a last-minute essay. To this day I wonder whether The Diplomat would have succeeded without her contributions. Without a doubt, the magazine and the reading public would have been the poorer without her.

It's a rare thing in an international relations expert to possess a balance of theory and experience, history and imagination, realism and hope. Coral had this, and she had a 19th-century prose style to match it. Through her writing she explained the chaos of international events and human affairs in simple and clear language to her baffled compatriots. For the rest of the world, she brought an antipodean temperament and perspective to the great questions of our time; she was our George Kennan in thick glasses, blue floral dress, white sneakers and a string of pearls.

I'm one of many whose life and work has been enriched by my acquaintance and friendship with Coral. I knew her as an editor, which meant that our relationship was never a straightforward one.

Theoretically, we could be laughing over lunch one day and not speak to each other again for a year or two. Yet she has been ever-present in the way I looked at the world. I can still hear her voice, 'It has happened before and life will go on.'