Admirable Artists, Reflective Reviews

Artist Profile: Fred Smith

Tonic. That’s the predominant word that comes to mind when I consider The Dust of Uruzgan. Once in a while something happens along that is kairos – the exact thing that is needed at a particular time. Fred Smith’s heartwarming book is one of those.

My connection with Fred is as a host of a musician at our local Folkie. He and his band stayed with us (in varying combinations) for four days of glorious spring weather. If you’ve read my other posts you’ll know I love music and love to billet musos. I get to meet a lot of really interesting people, and our shared conversation give me a glimpse into their world of The Biz (which I’ve reluctantly accepted I couldn’t actually sustain as a lifestyle, with all the touring and late nights … no matter how much I love to play guitar and sing … still, a girl crone woman is allowed to dream …)

Like most of the artists we host, Fred left a gift as a thank you: the book and CD Uruzgan combo.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading his book. The Greek God Kronos might’ve been guiding that, because by the time it found its way to my bedside table Kairos was firmly in control: I was at the tail end of the manuscript for my second book, communicating with my publisher about the nitty-gritty of submission while deliberating on the specific wording of the front- and end-matter, to ensure it stated exactly what I wanted to express. This was all squeezed in between my work-for-money jobs. I really related to Fred’s descriptions of his turning inwards for his song-writing and outwards for his diplomatic work, and the struggle to balance the two while servicing both – and remaining sane.

The chapters are titled by the names of the songs he wrote there, the varying moods of his experiences reflected equally in both elements of his craft. This immediately orientates the reader not only to the chronological sequence of events, but also to the author’s approach and how he integrates his artistic soul and diplomatic role into one, drawing from both to become his whole person: looking inwards to project outwards … to make sense of the whole experience.

Fred’s book details his time in Afghanistan as an Australian diplomat, based in and around Tarin Kowt. I now know much more about the intricacies of Afghan power brokers, and the history of how they came to power; as well as the reasons why Australia, along with the Dutch, Americans and other internationals, were in that far-flung place in the first place. I understand more about what was achieved there, as well as what was ultimately unachievable. For someone who has no direct experience with people serving in the Armed Forces, this is illuminating and educational.

Smith is a natural storyteller, as his eight albums (and counting!) already attest to: his writing is like a conversation over a cuppa on a Sunday afternoon, sitting in the garden enjoying the balmy weather. His deeply-personal reflections that take the reader on an emotional journey of what it’s really like to lose colleagues to IEDs, and the vagaries of his diplomatic role in trying to balance the fractious political climate of traditional Afghan society with its many players, overlaid by the international intervention in Uruzgan province in the 2000s. All in a laconic Aussie style with his wry sense of humour that cuts to the chase.

Fred admits in his book that he struggled to start it, and wondered why when he is a creative expressionist in other forms. I’m so glad he did take the time to bring this part of his life experience to life – in book form as well as his singer-songwriter music that speaks straight to the soul. Here is one reader that has grown immensely from the privilege of reading such a wonderfully-written and engaging book.

Thank you, Fred Smith, for your gift of the book and the CD: I treasure them, and they have pride of place on my bookshelf.

If Fred Smith has not made it to your listening ears and reading eyes yet …

be rewarded by making it so.

This post is published as Australian forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan. My thoughts are with you, Fred, as you “grieve for the place, for friends there, and for what feels like the end of a rich connection”. 

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