Story Archive



Posted on October 9, 2013 by
on the road at


An outback town can be passed through quickly, just a place to fill up the tank and grab a coffee, all smiles to the locals. However the longer you stay in a place the more you sink into its history, the ballast that rights the town against drought or recession or, occasionally, plenty. The past doesn't die, it just ferments in the blood of the living, especially in a heritage town like Burra in South Australia.

I have spent a lot of time in Burra, drawn into the beauty of the surrounding landforms, the yellow rolling hills a softening antidote to my many years in the blood red of the desert. The last time I was there significant rains produced a green as unreal as a pauper on a spending spree.

Just outside of Burra is the Goyder Line, a line beyond which farmers were advised to not grow crops. Despite its current green the country will certainly dry up again. The ruins of farmhouses stand like postcards to that fact.


Some of the old ruins, like Len Bence, are still walking and talking. [Cultural explanation to overseas readers. Australians say things like that if we are fond of each other] He has just turned ninety. That he was ever older than 25 is a miracle after flying 30 missions over Nazi Germany. Not only 30 missions but a great deal of those after his plane had dropped 'chaff', or strips of aluminium, that confused the German radar. Even a non-military man like me can see that the problem with dropping something to confuse the enemy's guns is that they aren't confused before you've dropped it.  

The old man who often shouted me a chai soy latte is a Second World War hero. Not a triumphant one, or one who talks about it, but he is one none the less. After the war he returned to his birthplace of Burra
with his English wife, Muriel, with whom he still lives in a rambling old cottage that is almost as elegant as her. They started a clothes shop which employed around nine people at its peak. On the day a government tax man arrived and gave him yet another form to fill in, Len said .. what will happen if I don't do it? .. You will be fined two hundred pounds Mr Bence. Len walked downstairs and gave his staff notice. The shop was closed immediately.

Hampton Cottage - Len Bence

Len had started painting when he returned from the war. The professional psycho-babbler in me would see it as a some cathartic process to address the hell of war. Len gives that no weight ... I just liked drawing. He was good at it too. Untrained but with a superb sense of composition, Muriel and Len opened a gallery in Paxtons Cottages. Reading between the lines they made a small fortune. There were no government inspectors or staff and he was bloody good. He told me that one day he took one thousand pounds, a fortune in those days. Muriel made jams from fruit grown in their garden which were sold with an original Len Bence painting as a label.

One of many fascinations I have with a man like Len is that he has faced death so resolutely and so often. He did it repeatedly as men were dying around him. Sometimes friends just couldn't go on. He didn't judge them. But for him, as a young man, he did feel invincible ... It was fun. Ben has shown me his flight operational commands,
all thirty of them, written in perfect handwriting,. He stole them at the end of the war in traditional Australian fashion. All these documents could have been, probably should have been, the script of his death ending with a report that Bomber Commander Len Bence was shot down over the Ruhr Valley. Some people, at the core of their lives, must simply be fated to survive. I don't know how or why but lives like Lens make me ask the question. 

Here is one of Len's stories. His mother had asked for a photo of him. He was passing a photographic studio after having a few drinks and was taken up five flights in an old war time lift. As he was elevated toward the studio he realised how badly he had miscalculated his need for a piss. The lift lurched upwards such that his bladder screamed out for release. When they got to the top the photographer remembered she had forgotten something. The prehistoric lift was summoned and started its downward journey while Len, wartime pilot, faced a huge dilemma. A pot plant stood invitingly before him. Could he … would he .. he bloody well had to. When Len, between missions, later returned to pick up his completed photo he faced the young woman with more trepidation than a German Messerschmitt. Thankfully she didn't say anything. 


Len loves telling these stories but he hates being old. His face crinkles almost in disgust at his failing body. I sense he is bewildered that it has got to this stage. After facing death so squarely in the eye he must now face it with dimming sight. I have sat with him and Muriel quite often, them drinking wine, teetotaller me eating their expensive cheese which he pretends to hide when he sees me coming - I did eat a lot of it one time - and I feel I am in the presence of one of the most fascinating men I have ever met. I wonder if at some deeper level there is safety at being in the company of such a powerful warrior. This is what real travel means to me. It takes you to another world and another time and most often comes when you sit and listen.




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"a green as unreal as a pauper on a spending spree" - classic
patricia lang
Beautiful testament to a lovely gentleman
'Lovely' might be pushing it a bit.But hes a great guy  
Kate Klein
"This is what real travel means to me. It takes you to another world and another time and most often comes when you sit and listen." Yep, you're pretty good at this Raymond.
Not sure if you are taking the piss Kate. I actually do listen to older people you know ... or people with something to say or people funnier than me or cuter. So really its just older people I listen to.
Jacqueline sidwell
What a wonderful story about a wonderful man & his wife. this is the kind of story that enriches one's life. Thank you Raymond.
Thanks Jacqueline. 'Enrich' is a compliment. So much that passes our way in the media doesn't enrich anything.
Edward Gil
Hi I just went through Burra last November on the way from Adelaide to Broken Hill and I love the great outback