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One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

*

I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

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'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

Three months in this place does what to a man?

Three months in this place does what to a human being?

There’s no doubt that December is the month of looking back, scanning the year for highlights, the things that have mattered.  For me, one of the highlights (amongst many) was my three-month time as Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy via the generosity of the University of NSW Canberra.  I was in-residence at ADFA from September to November, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I loved every minute of it…even though, for the first few hours, I sat in my bare white office in the Academy Library and thought, Oh my, how on Earth did I end up here?

I remember earlier this year how I’d read through the application details and quickly concluded that a military environment wasn’t exactly the right fit for me.  Twice now I’ve protested in the streets about Australia’s involvement in military conflict overseas.  Frankly, I’d rather see the defence budget reduced and money on education and the arts – including education in the arts – increased.  And then there’s the simple fact that I’m just not interested in the machinations of war: the machinery, the strategy, the winning at all costs (and what terrible costs they almost always are).  However, it was said to me that if I was feeling uncomfortable about being in the military environment then perhaps that’s exactly where I should be.  So I started working on the application and soon found that I was interested in definitions of masculinity – how are men truly and perhaps profoundly tested in times of extreme conflict?

Needless to say, it was a complete thrill to be awarded one of the two residencies on offer, and as the time came closer I became more and more nervous.

Really, was this the right thing for me to do?

And the question was turned up to eleven on that first day in September when I sat in that bare white office in the Academy Library.  Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t approach my research through philosophical or academic lenses.  Rather I’d simply expose myself to as much material as I could find amongst the extraordinary resources available (the ADFA Academy Library is known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of military material): fiction, non-fiction, poetry, feature film, documentary; I also had some fantastically energising conversations with UNSW Canberra academics.

Just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

End-of-residency presentation day: just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

One of the things I found very interesting about being ‘in residence’ at an academic institution, in contrast to other residencies I’ve been on (for example, Bundanon, Cataract Gorge, Varuna), is the feeling of connection to the topic, as opposed to being in delicious isolation (which, at the right time, has benefits).  On the ADFA campus I was constantly surrounded by material, and it wasn’t only the material in the Library – even going to get a coffee got the thoughts flowing as I was almost always surrounded by men and women in military dress.  It all added up to a very stimulating and thought-invoking time.

So, for three months I filled my brain with stories and observations and conversations, and some questions evolved.  Who is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good person?  Who is a good being?  And then other questions came to the surface, questions about fact and myth, how nations tend to love the latter for not entirely malevolent political reasons.  I don’t have the answers, of course, but I’m looking forward to continuing to think about these questions and see what original work might result over the coming months and years, decades even.

Have my views towards the military changed?

I’m not sure they have, but I do feel as though I have a better (though, in the broader scheme of things, still cursory) understanding of Australia’s military history, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what service men and women go through to achieve strategic goals.  I still consider the military mechanism for resolving differences completely and utterly barbaric and absurd.  But perhaps I’ve been given a touch of insight into the humans beneath the camouflage, and, more or less, there’s a diversity to people who have served and who are currently serving.

When Australians think of their military history, they might always conjure the larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat.  But that larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat is not all there is to it.

And that larrikin ‘Digger’ might not even be true.

*

Much gratitude to UNSW Canberra for the opportunity, and thanks to the staff for being so helpful and welcoming.

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Source: Canberra Times, Fairfax Media.)

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions.

Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the café, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.  An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting.

They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were – our country was – under attack, we were being invaded.

Except we weren’t; my imagination was simply getting carried away with itself.  Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but – thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars – there were no explosions; it was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn’t know.

But those young military men and women: they were real enough, they are real enough, because I’m currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  No, it’s not the most bizarre holiday you’ve ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy.  It’s just that, courtesy of the University of New South Wales, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I’d even visit let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some – many, most – may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn’t always entirely obvious (or true)…

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which commissioned this piece and published it on 11 November 2013.

But what does she really want him to do?

But what does she really want him to do?

Day in, day out, there they are, on the terrace below, in uniform, camouflage for some, others in blue or green or white, so it’s a military uniform – because they’re soldiers.

It’s not because we’re being invaded, though the assumption is that one day we might be, or it might be us who’ll do the invading, all hell might break loose, yet again.  It’s just that those people, those men and women in uniform, those soldiers, are my environment at the moment.

Because I’m currently the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of the University of New South Wales Canberra.  ‘Creative Fellow’ being just a posh name for writer-in-residence.  Which itself is a posh name for professional day-dreamer.

I haven’t talked about it much, because, primarily, it’s taken me some time to work out what I’m doing.  I’m here for three months, and I’m two months down the track, and it’s only now that things are coming into some kind of focus, though that might not be entirely true, or accurate.  The thing is I’m a natural-born pacifist; I’ve marched in the streets to protest wars.  I’ve always been of the view that there must be better ways to resolve disagreements than standing in a field and pointing weapons at each other.  I like books and music and drinking coffee in my garden while chatting to the chooks – hardly the sort of bloke who gets off on putting an enemy in the crosshairs.

So, no, the Australian Defence Force Academy is not my usual habitat.

Thankfully, as mentioned, I’ve come in via UNSW Canberra, which runs the academic side of ADFA, so that I simply get to spend my days in a very comfortable office in the library, looking down at people in uniform…when I’m not madly researching and reading and writing, of course.  And that’s the thing: I’m finding the place extraordinarily thought-provoking, inspiring even, and bloody productive, in a roundabout kind of way.  As I rather childishly (and potentially inappropriately) said to a senior academic the other day after he’d asked me how I was going, ‘I’m having THE BEST time.’

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’; this probably says as much about me as it does about Australian military history.  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

Are all men who've served their country 'good'? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Are all men who’ve served their country ‘good’? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Recently, over the last handful of years, historians – the courageous ones at least – have been turning their attentions to what our soldiers were truly like.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, 2010) by Dr Peter Stanley, who for almost three decades was the Australian War Memorial’s chief historian and is now associated with ADFA/UNSW Canberra.

This excellent book, which jointly won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History, asserts that an army is a reflection of the society it serves, which means it is a reflection of everything that that society is – warts and all.

Stanley has also been instrumental in establishing Honest History, the soon-to-be-launched organisation based in Canberra dedicated to telling military history how it is without the dramatics, especially as Australia builds up to celebrating the centenary of 1915, when, apparently, though I don’t believe this for a second either, our country formed some kind of identity or purpose – or even found its soul – on a Turkish beach.

So that question remains: who were those men who served, and who are the men who serve now, considering there are just as capable women filling key roles, including in active duty?  Eight weeks down, do I have a clue?  No, not a single one, even though I’ve researched and read and written like a bastard.

Except to say this: (1) I couldn’t do what these men do/have done; (2) I maintain my view that war is senseless, barbaric, and an insidiously bewildering mess; and (3) men who deserted – those who discovered that for what reason they just couldn’t blow up another person, or even go anywhere near a front-line – may well be the truest heroes of all.  Because – and here’s that word again – they were honest with themselves.

Really: deserters as heroes?  I’m serious.  Deadly so.

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