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As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.

Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the ‘fact’ that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war. To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, ‘I object to war.’ I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting – they hated each other with an unfathonable intensity – so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.

But I did engage with war stories.

Very much.

I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeated regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns). I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) – as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.

I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald’s classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old. At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, ‘What will happen to him?’ She said, ‘We don’t know, do we?’

I said, ‘But I need to know.’

Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only ‘solution’ is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.

Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than ten minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker’s fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is Stephen Crane’s American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy – perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim

I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson’s astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.

There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley’s gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for history, and Charles Glass’s very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013).

I could go on.

What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire – or there is an approaching army at the end of my street – and I only have time to rescue three war books?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 7 November 2020.

A laneway in Alexandria, Egypt; photograph dated 1941. Source: Australian War Memorial.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it.

Of course, I have mentioned it, on social media and sometimes in person, and there is also a reference to it in my bio on the About page, but there’s no post. Which is why I’m writing these words now.

The point is, in the first half of 2019, my novel BODIES OF MEN will be published by Hachette Australia.

Which is really very thrilling.

What’s a little odd, though, is that I currently don’t want to talk much about it, except to say half a dozen quick things.

The first is that the novel began when, in 2013, I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the residency I researched different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; I left the residency with the scratchy, sketchy handwritten first draft of a manuscript. (I recorded some thoughts on the residency experience in The ADFA Diary section of this blog).

The second thing is, yes, BODIES OF MEN is a war story, but my intention has been to shine a light on a previously hidden (or politically and/or historically unwanted) war experience, to tell a story that is as much about love and intimacy as it is about what happens when men have guns in their hands.

The third is that most of the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941.

The fourth is that I wrote 38 drafts of the manuscript.

The fifth is that towards the end of the drafting process I collapsed. But more about that at a later date.

The editing begins – for real.

And the sixth is that earlier this week, which was complete with high family dramas and financial pressures and crap weather (wind and freezing rain and snow in the countryside and on the mountains down south, so the opposite of Egypt), the astute, caring, and eagle-eyed editorial team at Hachette Australia sent me their edit of the manuscript – and a blue sky opened in my heart and everything feels better.

I have one month to review the editorial suggestions and get an updated version of the manuscript back to Hachette. If you see me looking frazzled again, please administer whiskey and chocolate.

Sincere apologies for not telling you more about the actual story in BODIES OF MEN, but I am so looking forward to sharing it with you.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from a diary of an Australian serviceman who served in the Middle East in 1941; the diary is in the Australian War Memorial:

Be yourself: simple, honest, unpretending.

'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.

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