“If it’s in the paper, it might be true.” Here goes then – Max Watts, Annandale resident, journalist, academic, activist and enigma, spent last Sunday celebrating his 80th birthday – all or some of which might be true.
Max’s life has undoubtedly been a full one, with his travels taking him all over the world. Growing up in a secular middle-class family in Vienna, Max’s travels have taken him literally all over the world. He has spent time on several continents in a true multitude of jobs, ranging from sailor to academic, to hostage of the French government – but ask Max what he himself is most proud of, and he is unequivocal. “When we first realised that the American soliders [in Vietnam] were beginning to resist inside the army,” he said. “I became what we call a FRITA – a Friend of the Resistance Inside The Army. That was an accomplishment, because I recognised something which I did not understand why it wasn’t obvious. As far as I could see, it was very obvious soldiers were beginning to resist – and that was part of a generalised phenomenon.”
According to long-time friend Vivienne Porzsolt, picking out a single emblematic Max story is virtually impossible. “It’s the great variety of his life – the way he survives, the way he adapts to different environments – he’s such a bundle of contradictions,” she said. “He’s self-absorbed, and he’s the kindest person you like; he’s streetwise, he’s naïve; he’s a chauvinist, yet he’s very, very supportive of women in many ways.”
Ever the iconoclast, Max remains willing to argue the toss with any journalist foolhardy enough to attempt it. “The main point is, I’m not dead,” he observed, with unwitting clarity. “The only reason I’m alive is because I couldn’t take a plane I was supposed to take, because the French fascists blew up the control tower in Maison Blanche, in Algiers. The plane crashed – December 1961, that’s exactly the time I was supposed to be dead. I’m sorry I missed it…”
Today, he remains engaged, acting as a consultant for lawyers bringing cases on behalf of the people of Bougainville and Papua New Guinea against the likes of Rio Tinto. He also remains a writer for a number of publications, not least Reporters sans Frontières.