John’s notes for February

tom keneally Shame and The captives by Tom Keneally

Today I watched an ABC ‘Landline’ program on how Cowra farmers have returned to growing asparagus, a cultivation that began in WWII when a large number of  Italian prisoners and detainees laboured for local farmers. Some of these men returned in later years to show their families where they had lived and worked. In fact, they shared a large camp outside Cowra with a large group of Japanese prisoners and others. Japanese prisoners were relatively rare as a culture of dying for the Emperor led many to an essentially suicidal death. Most such prisoners were already dead to their familes. A return from prisoner hood was unthinkable.

Keneally, in his workmanlike way and customarily fine use of language, has taken these elements and worked them into a factional piece that calls it for a screenplay. Central is the theme of shame and it’s causes. In the case of the Japanese prisoners, it is relatively clear cut and very few were left out the imperative to break-out; not necessarily to prosecute war (they had instructions to not do so) but to achieve an honourable soldier’s death. It would seem that the level of lack of understanding of theses feelings was only matched by the sheer determination of many. Keneally includes a contemporary story line of one Japanese prisoner who did survive captivity but now survive his own shame.

The reader knows what the outcome will be (it is a reasonably familiar tale) so Keneally has fleshed out various strands. The life of the Japanese within the confines is spelled out even down the level of some homosexual activity. There is a to-be-expected range of attitudes but the extreme nature of the NCOS’s relationships to their men wins out. Some of those who fail at initial immolation seek it elsewhere in the Australian bush – even self-beheading on a railway line.

There is a love-torn relationship between an Italian field worker and the wife of an Australian prisoner of war. There is shame. There is the desperately broken relationship of the camp CO and his wife. There is shame. There is the story of his Deputy who has some inkling of what might happen. There is the constant background issue of how POWs are being dealt with in different contexts and the fears and bargains their loved ones strike with themselves to try to ensure a bearable outcome (not unlike the stages of dealing with death). There is the story of the two machine-gunner who were fated to meet the initial onslaught and bring desired death to hundreds before their own truly heroic deaths.

This is a typically good Keneally read with impeccable research and his effective prose. His description of the death charge and outcome is as fine a piece of writing as could be desired. I await Vol III of his history of Australia due out  later this year. His coverage of WW II will be looked forward to.

house on the ocean A House on the Ocean, a House on the Bay by Felice Picano 

This is the third volume of Picano’s Memoirs (‘Men Who Loved Me’ and ‘Ambidextrous’) and it taken me time to acquire and read my copy. It has suffered with the passage of time. It openly glories in the 70’s in New York and Fire Island where he summered with the glamorous and gorgeous for ten long summers. (houses on the island might face the ocean or the bay, some both)

It is remarkably detailed in looking back on his life after 20 years but he had always been a detailed journal keeper. However, some of the lyrical descriptions of which he is always capable, while a pleasure to read have to infer that the novelist side becomes dominant.

We learn a lot about his struggles to establish himself as a writer and his and others love and lust lives along the way. I found it eventually somewhat tiresome that Picano needs to so self-justifying reporting other people’s responses to his work and his place in the emergence of Gay Literature (the violet Quill group). Do I need to be told twice that everywhere he looked on the subway, he saw people reading his work (and reminds us of publishing numbers in detail)?

The key problem in this piece lies in the title – the dominant location of Fire island and its Summer inhabitants and the exclusive world they created. They were not to know that the formalisation of where and how they lived, ate, swam, partied, cruised and had sex was, while reassuring and self-glorifying at the time, just a passing phase in the evolution of homosexual awareness. Looking at that world from afar (Picano is just three years younger than me) at the time, that world was suffused with a desire to be able to share in it. Now, I can see that my world was evolving as well but in different and perhaps more effective ways. The sad part of this story comes with the hint of the oncoming epidemic in the closing pages. It is difficult to have review images of men glorying in a world that was secretly dooming them day after day, night after night, encounter after encounter.

David Marr  The Prince: Faith, Abuse  and George  by David Marr

It has been said repeatedly that it was unfortunate that Cardinal Pell did not care to be interviewed for this piece, perhaps understandably but certainly limiting. It is symptomatic that this is self-limiting and can to be part of understanding George Pell. He is not his own man, because he sees himself as the church’s man. Perhaps Christ’s man but certainly a Princely guardian of an eternal church.

What may seem to be a controlled, traditional, cold, intellectual approach to problems is made emblematic in the belief that the church was fit to examine internally accusations of sexual misbehaviour before reporting these matters to the police. This dovetailed neatly into a set of procedures that clearly minimised the church financially and in terms of bad publicity. This is not to deny that Pell personally is capable of charm and pastoral beneficence and that ‘in-house’ counselling was made to those who used the ‘Melbourne Response’. However, clearly, the ‘Firm’ comes first and has the ‘trickle-down’ air of infallibility.

It is sad that so much of this ‘wagon circle’ mentality continues to prevail while so many feel lost and disappointed with their church. Unfortunately, Marr’s piece serves to effectively list and detail the process contained within Pell’s career while the subject still remains something of an empty shell. We shall probably never know how Pell internalises these conflicts between priestly brotherhood, the demands of the church universal, general pastorship and the rightful demands of society at large.

We are left with a basilisk stare:-

He never lost his temper but his colour rose all afternoon. He smiled once or twice after negotiating a difficult passage. He clasped and unclasped his hands never quite in prayer. He droned, he snapped. At times he stared at those six politicians with a gaze focused somewhere south of Macquarie Island.’

turkish Gambit  Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

This is number two in the Boris Akunin series of investigator novel by Grigory Chkhartishvili focusing on the career of his hero Erast Fandorin which continue to this day though the author has removed himself to Brittany. Number seventeen is on the way and it’s rumoured that he may soon touch on the period of the Russian revolution.

Chkhartishvili has often been in the news of late as a strong opponent of Putin’s personal corruption as well as his corrupt exploitation of Russian/Slavic nationalism in league with the resurgent Orthodox Church.

Like Keneally (mentioned above), he meticulously (lovingly) researches his historical contexts; in this case it is the Plevna siege in the Russo-Turkish war of the 19th century. His investigating character, Fandorin, is still a relatively young man and he brings his respected talents to  solving a Bond-like situation involving high-level treason and espionage and the increasing involvement of international journalist correspondents. There is even a false accusation of homosexual treachery which is quite well-handled.

This is an enjoyable tale of known history interwoven with expected story lines of love, honour and disappointment interwoven with a political context which continues to bedevil sizable portions of the world today with the recent Balkan wars, the Chechnya debacle, post-Ottoman Middle East and the growing homophobia that finds support in the most paranoid aspects of modern Slavic nationalism.

drinking Drinking for England by Fergus Linnane

I have to confess to a few associations with this text particularly at the old Twelfth Night club under the Bowen Hills theatre when it was a favourite haunt for local journos and the Shakespeare Hotel in Surry Hills, Sydney in the days of the bibulous Richard Beckett (associated with Cyril Pearl, John Hepworth). Fergus Linnane comes from a similar background but has lived and worked into the new world of what is left of modern journalism. This is an unapologetic paean to the history of English boozing, sometimes joyful, sometimes disgusting and sometimes morally bankrupt.

While a lot of the material stretches a long way back (14th century and earlier), its treatment is not historical but rather as a collection of anecdotes. In my dotage, I found the recounting of the condition of Georgian and early Victorian Lords, worthies and Parliamentarians as rather grim and a reminder of regrettable social, moral and sexual mores of the powerful persons at those times.

He does, however, spent most time lovingly on London (Soho) pub life from the thirties to the sixties with emphasis on the world of journalism, literature and the Arts in general. While there is a sense of warmth and pleasure with occasional gaudy excess, he makes no attempt to look at what was happening in less celebrated circumstances and ‘lower’ class pubs and homes – that might disturb the tenor of the piece.

I found enough to evoke some old and fond memories but also to contemplate whether it was all worth it for those who found early graves and ruined relationships.


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