A Beautiful Moment in China

A Beautiful Moment in China
Yes, I look weathered; it had been a long climb. But I was about to reach the Buddhist temple outside of Shao Xing.

Friday, 6 September 2013

National Anthem: Advance Australia or Dance Australia?

“What country do you come from?” someone asks me during an overseas trip.

I rise from my chair and stand erect. Eyes gazing to the far horizon, I place hand firmly over heart and announce in tremulous voice: “I come from Girt-by-Sea.” And walk off before the obvious question comes.

Advance Australia Fair, our Australian anthem, is wide open for criticism on the grounds of anachronistic language. “Our land is girt by sea” is the most glaring example. (Although I must say that “girt” is a crisp, concise monosyllable with a lovely ring.) I daresay some other anthems could also be derided in the same ruthless way.

Words and music
But why, when people discuss a national anthem, do they almost invariably talk about the words rather than the music? Oh yes, there may be a brief comment on the tune, calling it “stirring”, or “dull”, or whatever. But the commentary on the text tends to be much more elaborate and analytical.

I suppose one could blame our education system, in part, for not equipping the populace with the skills, concepts and vocabulary to appraise music and explain why the listener considers it good, bad or indifferent. (Learning to actually make music gets even less priority.) Going further, it seems clear that the curriculum of the education system is largely a reflection of the prevailing values of society—or at least of those society places in authority. Literacy and numeracy hold sway, with some recent emphasis going to science—and now history, by which hangs another tale or two.

If my country could conduct an informed public debate about alternatives to our current anthem, I would urge attention to questions about how the music might induce a better attitude towards life within our community.

For instance, why do nations always assume that their anthems must have the beat of a walk or march? Musically speaking, we are talking here about 4/4 or 2/4 time. There seems to be an unwritten rule that the song must suggest military discipline (through marching) or stately pomp (as in a slow procession). Sometimes this feels to me like humourless authoritarianism.

Let the nation dance!
Surely there’s another way of loving one’s country and caring for it? A more light-hearted way that might even be fun. A way of feeling free within social relationships. Such an attitude might be better expressed and encouraged with a 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm, as in a waltz. Why not have a national anthem sung with the joie-de-vivre of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube? You laugh perhaps, but I’m serious!

All of this leads us to the question of what a nation is. Do we want it to be a fortress, perhaps a base for campaigns of conquest, whether military or economic? Or can we conceive of a nation as a fertile ground for joyful cooperation and creative freedom?

Put it another way: should we have an anthem whose tune imparts a message of not “advance Australia”, but “dance Australia”? Really.

A book for our time
Matters like these—the State and freedom, language and music—preoccupy the minds of the battling characters in my book, Song of Australia. They are living during the First World War when Australia was only fourteen or so years old and confusion about national identity was huge. The themes still echo in today’s society. This is a book for our times.

Song of Australia is now available as both e-book and paperback. I invite you to look at it—here and here.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Song of Australia Is Born

It’s almost a cliché: for an author, the launch of a new book can be somewhat like the birth of a child. (I know some people would argue against that comparison!) Still, with joy and relief I can announce that my book of historical fiction has been born and is now available to readers. (Perhaps I should say the e-book is available: the paperback will be out in just a few more days.)

I’m very satisfied with the final product. In length it’s a novella, although it comprises three stories connected by recurring characters, setting and theme. No, I won’t spoil it for you by giving away any more than that! Of course, I have been banging on about various things related to it in a few posts to this blog—magpies, national anthems, sacrifice of life and so on. But you can find out much more for yourself if you just click here 

The version on sale there is for downloading to a Kindle, but you can also read it on your computer. By the way, did you know that if you don’t have a Kindle reader, you can get an app to allow you to read Kindle books on smartphones and tablets? And it’s FREE! Just look there on the Amazon page for the links and details.

I’ll soon be announcing the publication of the paperback edition. And whatever version you read, I look forward to hearing anything you have to say about Song of Australia.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

What is a life worth?

One of the enduring traits of the human psyche is the inclination to believe that, at certain critical moments, the welfare of a tribe or society is best served by shedding the lives of some of its individuals. As trees let their leaves die and fall to the ground to become humus for the plant to thrive, so we are prepared to allow—and even compel—a number of our fellow citizens to die for our greater good.
It happens in times of war. It can be seen in some religious belief and practices.

Blood sacrifice
And, if you burrow below the surface of your own personal psyche, you might find the same impulse operating. When we watch the news and see scenes of disaster, we may exclaim: ‘Oh, those poor people—how awful for them!’ The overt expression of compassion is sometimes exaggerated to disguise our sense of relief that others suffered instead of us.

Or we might intone clever, quasi-religious turns of phrase like: ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ Yes, even behind that innocent little utterance we may be unconsciously offering the lives of the victims to purchase our own safety. Just as often, of course, we say such things covertly, in the refuge of unvoiced thought.

Consider it from the other end. Could there be circumstances when dying is the best thing you could do for other people? Or for your god or conscience? Blood sacrifice, vicarious atonement—primitive superstition or valid ethical position?

Australia tries to build its sense of national identity on a narrative of sacrificed lives. Every year since 1916 Australians have engaged in a commemorative ritual called ANZAC Day, on 25th April. That was the day in 1915 when the troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps made the landing at Gallipoli. It was in the early months of the First World War and in military terms it was a disaster for them.

World War 1 and national identity
The battle that followed lasted months and was lost. Yet the national and community leaders of the time spun the story that little Australia—a nation born only fourteen years before—had shown that it was the equal of any other on earth. Moreover, they claimed, the way Aussie diggers handled the Gallipoli campaign and other battles during the war showed that the Australian character was unique.

In later years ANZAC Day has ostensibly commemorated the service of Australians and New Zealanders in all wars, but the Gallipoli landing still dominates as the foundation. If you examine participation in ANZAC Day in terms of numbers, organisation and public enthusiasm you will probably agree that it rivals Australia Day as the major national occasion of any year. And the numbers and enthusiasm for ANZAC Day have actually been growing in recent years—especially among younger people. Why?

Coming: Song of Australia
I’ll probably return to all of this in a future blog post. The main point of raising the topic now is that it’s a central theme in my book, Song of Australia. This work of historical fiction will be released within the next few days! If you like stories that spark your imagination with powerful characters while stimulating thought about the human condition, you will enjoy Song of Australia. Watch this space for the coming announcement.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Australian literature's new jewel

Due to author Jon Doust, contemporary Australian literature is now blessed with an outstanding new boys-to-men novel that belongs in the tradition begun with Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1889.

I spent years before adulthood absorbed in the story of Tom Brown and other books like Louisa Alcott’s Little Men, HH Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  I loved those stories and on reflection I think they gave me language and concepts with which to deal with the exigencies of growing up as a boy, often in all-male settings. And later, as a parent and a school-teacher, I still found in them a rich trove of archetypal characters, themes and situations that helped me to adopt a fruitful perspective on family and professional life.

Jack Muir, the narrator-protagonist in Jon Doust’s novel, also draws great succour from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He reads the book early in his own horrid years as a boarder at Grammar School in Perth. He tells us how it sustains him in that environment.

If it wasn’t for Tom Brown I might not have made it through. Next to Jesus, Tom Brown’s Schooldays has to be the greatest story ever told. Dad gave it to me one night when I was at home in the holidays … I didn’t sleep that night until Tom Brown had finished his schooling and gone on to Oxford and learnt in the summer of 1842 that his great mentor and headmaster Dr Arnold had died. I cried. And I longed for one more crack at Flashman, the evil, bullying bastard who tormented all small boys and those who protected them.

Coincidentally, some months before reading Boy on a Wire I returned to the Tom Brown story for the first time in more than fifty years. I was amazed at how much that book still moved me. One scene that still has the most profound effect on me comes near the end of the book. Tom is talking with young Arthur who is recovering from his near-fatal fever and their conversation turns very deep. Don’t ask me to explain now the power this scene has for me: I might attempt to do that one day after much more reflection.

But for present purposes I’ll mention a statement made in that scene by Tom Brown. He is nearing the end of Fifth Form and the two boys are reflecting on their life at Rugby. Tom lists what he wants to achieve and take away from the school at the end of Sixth Form, and then adds what he wants to leave behind.

“I want to leave behind me,” said Tom, speaking slow, and looking much moved, “the name of a fellow who never bullied a little boy, or turned his back on a big one.”

It’s the sort of statement that might have come from the mouth of  Doust’s young Jack—except that his language would probably be more earthy, in a mid-twentieth century Australian way, and sizzling with anger.

Jack encounters Tom’s Flashman in many guises at his own school, along with sanctimonious hypocrisy and cruelty in the teachers. Repeatedly in his narration he refers to Hughes’ nineteenth century novel as he lives out his own variations on its themes, often saved only by his quick tongue and gift for clowning.

Jack’s difficult family relationships form another important strand in this deeply moving—and often hilarious—story. Following a diagnosis by their doctor in Jack’s infancy, his parents put many of his problems down to Pink Disease, a serious condition said to be caused by mercury in babies’ teething powders. They teach him to eat salt as a remedy.

One can hear in Jack Muir an echo of Holden Caulfield, Salinger’s adolescent boy in Catcher in the Rye. Holden’s story occurred some years before Jack’s, and in the USA rather than Australia, but there are fascinating parallels worthy of exploration. There is in Jack, however, none of the whining attitude that is an irritating trait of Holden.

Boy on a Wire is a superb novel, soaked in humour and pathos, and raising urgent questions about Australian society and humanity at large. The prose is magnificent, simply because you don’t think of it as prose: it is a voice, ringing truly into your ear with the vernacular and candour of an Aussie adolescent.

Jon Doust has given us a novel worthy of a position in the canon of boys-growing-up literature, right up there with Hughes, Salinger, and Golding. The story is very much about boys behaving badly, with all the coarse language and anatomical details that involves. If you’re a parent you may have qualms about your lad reading it. But I believe you should give it to him. And read it yourself.

Boy on a Wire is available as a paperback published by Fremantle Press. I read it as an e-book on my Kindle, downloaded from