East West Street, Philippe Sands

The shared humanity that binds us has had a few moments when all hope seems lost. Humanities ability to be inhumane is well documented; none more so than the Nazi era. There is no series of events that have shaped every aspect of culture for so many. It still lingers through art, literature and film. And here Sands passionately and elegantly with how the people and their actions of Nazi Germany helped shape international human rights, international treaties on genocide and set precedents for laws protecting the individual from the state and groups from other groups. The only good thing coming from the close to 20 year period of Nazi influence over Europe? Perhaps. 

Sands maps a personal and professional connection from Polish-German-Ukraianian-Russian city of Lviv through World War I, the Great Depression, through the early days of Hitler and the subsequent human crisis of World War II. The deeply personal connections are so well drawn showcase how we are all interconnected and if only we realised this deep connection could we prevent what was to come. 

This is deeply satisfying and sad addition to the story of  a world where Nazism was dominant. I found the legal evolution of crimes against humanity and genocide profound. There’s so much of the language that the Nazi used still being thrown around today- about refugees, about Muslims, about groups against groups. Is there another period of humanities inability to see their connections? 

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Fromelles and Pozieres: In the trenches of hell, Peter Fitzsimons

You have heard of Gallipolli, right? The cult of Gallipolli, that failed sideshow of a campagin that saw the young men of ANZAC together for the first time, has overshadowed the events of the Western Front. If you know Gallipolli, you should know Fromelles and Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt and Messiness and Menin Road and Polygon Wood and Broodesinde and Hamel and Ameins and Mont St Quentin. The fact is that Gallipolli did not change the course of the war. It had little bearing on the wider war. Yes, it was horrid. But compared to the Western Front, it was shower in the horrific storm of World War I.

There’s few things to be sure before you start: the Australians don’t just dislike the British, they know better and could do a better job (according to Fitzsimons); the Australians can run faster, throw mills bombs further, shoot straighter, see in the dark and sense a counter attack (according to Fitzsimons); the Germans were always so disciplined, made excellent trenches and dug outs and they looked after prisoners of war with courtesy and respect (according to Fitzsimons). And did you know that Hitler was in the trenches at Fromelles? He was and did you know, he was a good soldier! Got all that?

Fitzsimons begins by drawing an intricate picture of the ANZACs directly after the Australian veterans were evacuated to Egypt after the failed campaign. The retraining, the R and R, and the mindless Britishness of the experience really grates on the veterans. They had saved the Empire’s face at Gallipolli hadn’t they? Hadn’t they proved themselves under fire? Yes, they had. But soon the word is passed around, they would be heading to France to face the Hun. 
Gallipolli did not prepare the Australians for the Western Front. The enemy was well dug in and technically superior in artillery and defensive tactics. Fitzsimons relies on a free flowing narrative style, with detailed set pieces exploring the backgrounds of the average soldier and their experience of the trenches. The research and structure is perfectly balanced between traditional history and Fitzsimons’ reputation of realism and literary tendencies. 

I have read a lot about World War I, yet none had kept me awake, thinking of those men in those trenches, knowing death is so close. Despite the repetitive elements (see above), the complete work is powerful and compelling. That’s something that Fitzsimons might consider: yes the British military brass failed at key moments, but in the whole, they were victorious (in their eyes and according to history). The leadership may have failed the Australians but our government must have known that the British had bigger objectives than protecting the men of a loyal dominion. As these battles that make up the broader World War are increasingly well known the heroism and horrendous truth of the trenches will be more important than scoring points against the Brisith. 

Island Home, Tim Winton

Moated in by oceans, sharing no borders…curious, oppressed by the relentless familiarity of their surroundings.

Tim Winton’s writing has always evoked the landscapes of Australia. It is itched into the skin of his characters, it is dripping from the dialogue. Every part of his writing feels as if it has come from the land, that it is of the land. Winton’s writes of the land as a religious experience. At no point does he fall into cliche; nostalgia is absent. It is a remarkable person who is able to look back, write and make every sentence fresh.

In his non-fiction writing, Winton’s poignant poetic phrases are no less powerful, provoking the inner workings of one of Australia’s most celebrated thinkers. Island Home is a rare piece of non-fiction for Winton. After reading this you will want to know more. He touches on his thoughts of the current fear and loathing political climate, he transcends environmental and green politics. I want to know his thoughts on Australia’s foreign policy; our place on the world stage; his view on what Australia might be like in 20/20.

Island Home travels across various parts of Winton’s life and career. The early days and his warm reflections of a childhood full of freedom and the bush and the sea is most profound. What might come across as self-indulgent by a less person (and writer) is instead evocative and stunning in its pure simplicity. His reflections on his time at WAIT are striking for their honesty. All the way through the land, the sea and that which grows from it, is celebrated. Yet, he never appears to be an expert or didactic. Winton should write more non-fiction, he should write in the first person more.

A piece of art about Australia by an Australian, when it is about the people or the land, is nearly always political. There’s a great fear of artists reaching beyond entertainment into political discourse. The land in Australia has always been political. It has always been about power. But it is the spiritual power that Winton is most concerned about; protecting the land is a spiritual act. It is not solely a political act. Winton’s portrait of the land reaches into the political. This passage from ‘Paying Respect’ was my favourite part of the book:

As a kid from a devout religious family I was always acutely aware of how skittish people could be about anything to do with the sacred. My neighbours and schoolmates did not exactly welcome expressions of spiritual devotion- that sort of thing made them very uncomfortable, even angry – and in this regards, despite two generations of multiculturalism, Australians haven’t changed much. We’re pretty good at maintaining a secular public space, and that’s worth celebrating, but we’re a bit tin-eared about matters of religion and anxious about using terms like ‘sacred’. This strikes me as a bit ironic, for we live on the most spiritually potent continent imaginable. But apart from family, the only thing sacred to most of us is our much-vaunted ‘way of life.’ And what is that but an unspecified mixture of political, financial and spatial liberties enjoyed in sunshine at the island’s margins? Not even the confected sanctification of Anzac Day can rival it. But the recent recommissioning and deliberate sacralization of the Gallipoli myth is telling, because it suggests a spiritual vacuum, a palpable absence at our core, as if deep down, ordinary folks want to submit to something grand and sublime. But Anzac has been coarsened by the politics of nostalgic regression. It’s close to becoming the sort of nationalist death cult we revile when it appears in others places or under a different flag, and I fail to see how such a false sense of the false sense of the scared nourishes the individual or the community, because the only thing it sustains is the security of those who send our young men and women to new wars, some of which have proven every bit as pointless and wasteful as the bungled adventure in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Island Home was a pure joy to read and experience. You will walk away intensely jealous. You will look at the land differently; you will look at yourself and your family and friends and notice how the land has shaped them. Take your time; enjoy it.

its’ palce on

Mourn

It is hot. There’s no sea breeze reaching the field. The grass is dry and crackling under foot. The smell of aero guard and sun cream. The sound of the bowler grunting, the thud of the ball hitting the willow. A polite clap. Joyous slapping of arses after a wicket. A sport played by both genders, but being an Australian male playing means actually showing emotion. It does have a blokey underbelly. But I’ve seen men cry after a close final win. I’ve seen tough working class train drivers discuss the best way to make a curry with an opposition player with Indian heritage. I’ve seen upset bowlers kick the ground, growl at their team mates.

There is something about this sport. Non-contact, but violent. Seemingly simple, but intricate and sometimes haunted by tradition.

Each year I sit in the same seat at the Sydney Cricket Ground, this grand motif of the game. A bowl of green in the middle of our largest city. A smallish ground by Australian standards. So petite. The new shiny stands give away to the grand old stands. It is this that makes the game, the old and new, not competing but complementing each other. The celebrity, money and coverage couldn’t be without the tradition.

Why do some Australians like it so much? Is it that it has grand contradictions? Much like our history? Australia, the ancient land, invasion and disease and dispossession almost killing off the first Australians. The new world brought so much that still kills and hurts. But also, the rule of law, untenable freedoms. People have escaped war and poverty by coming here. Now we lock children away on island concentration camps. That’s just not cricket.

Some people say Australians are simple, uncultured. There is a simplicity to the game. A bat, a ball, somewhere not necessarily flat.

Some people say Australians are the wealthiest people on earth. There are innovators, scientists, brilliant writers and worldly thinkers. There is a complexity to the game. Subtlities, slights of hand, technique, an entire dictionary of words that surround it.

There is a routine and repetition that requires complete concentration. The ebb and flow of fielders walking in. The bowler back to their mark, repeat. The odds are this, one person against eleven. An individual-but-team sport.

I haven’t cried for a couple of years, but I have had to leave work early today after hearing the news. I am on the freeway behind a car doing 90. I am crying. But today, I’m not a pansy, or pussy. Today, it is more than a game.

The People Smuggler – Robin De Crespigny

This is a book based upon various interviews between Robin de Crespigny and Ali Al Jenabi, a ‘people smuggler’ from Iraq via Kurdistan, Iran, Indonesia and every jail hell hole. Ali Al Jenabi is a child of Saddam’s Iraq; a country suddenly regressing from a progressive, innovative and wealthy nation with a rich cultural heritage to one under the dictatorship of a man prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people.

The voice of Ali builds, slowly, gently, by the third section, the voice is echoing in your ears. It will keep you awake at night. The brutal sensibility of his reflection on his detention in Abu Ghraib is a haunting piece of personal struggle. The question that continues to bounce around my head is simple: how can humans treat other humans so poorly?

There is a rumour that Australia didn’t respond to reports that the SIEVX was in distress because they didn’t want to receive any more asylum seekers. I wonder if the woman who was taking her son to meet his father survived, or if he weeps alone in the land of opportunity.

This account, when held with various David Marr’s articles and Dark Victory, will form part of the history written by my children. This history will condemn the politicians and society that allowed for the continued demonisation and detention of refugees arriving by boat. How can a country so rich be so poorly led? Ali accounts in detail the task of bringing refugees from Iraq across the globe and onto Australia. A painstaking journey of bravery and courage. Families taking such a trip show resilience, innovation, passion and a desire for liberty. The kind of people who will make Australia great.

I have no support from the Iraqi embassy, I am given no preparation on what to court…I don’t have a chance and Australia makes sure I don’t. They have their Thai lawyer, AFP witnesses and six others from Australian embassy to make their case.

Throughout Ali’s voice is honest, brutally so, his aggression, sometimes transcending into violence, is not hidden or air brushed. His motives are multilayered and in the final court case, the comparison to Oskar Schindler is provocative. The clarity and insight into the lengths people to go to seek freedoms we take for granted. As much as this is Ali’s story we must ask, what kind of country closes his eyes, covers it ears and pretends to be silent? This book tells us so much about Australia in the last 20th century and the early decades of the 21st century.

‘Look Ali…The government want to lay blame for boat people on smugglers like you, but you’re not working out as a good scapegoat…it is becoming clear you are also a decent, kind and compassionate human being, and its difficult to whack someone like that…’

Ali is clearly bias in his personal account. Your own political and moral views will inform your approach to the story. I am unreserved in my belief that the treatment of refugees arriving by boat in Australia has been hideous. For more than twenty years the narrow minded, politically motivated demonisation of refugees has disgusted me. How can we fear the poorest people in the world? Finally Ali is jailed in Australia for eight years, (despite not living in Australia or breaking any law in Indonesia) with a four year non-parole period. His story doesn’t end there. Even the removal of John Howard doesn’t lead to the granting of refugee status to Ali.

I am stuck by how many of the other prisoners are Aboriginal. All my jury were white but in jail at least eighty percent of inmates are black, yet I understand they make up only two and a half percent of Australia’s population.

At times it does feel like de Crespigny’s fingerprints come through; had there been substantial editing? Though Ali is obviously talented, the cinematic feel of the descriptions and the final tense moments are the work of an experienced writer. I love d every word. I leave this reflection with this little piece. In January 2008 Ali has been in detention for 19 months, Justice Lindgren hands down a condemning judgment.

He finds the former Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, committed ‘an egregious failure’ to obey Parliament’s command by leaving my case unresolved for eighteen months.

Yes, the same Kevin Andrews now a minister in an Abbott led-government. No doubt there are more stories like Ali’s out there. They should be written, published, made into films, shown around the world. Just then the society that allows such treatment of people already tortured might be shamed into changing.

The Motorcycle Diaries

There is a brisk energy in every sentence of Guevara’s seminal work, The Motorcycle Diaries. The fresh, poetic voice is unfiltered and infused with idealism and heart. This is a book of human kindness, all that is good and bad about humanity is here. The ultimate companion to any one wishing to make a difference in this world, The Motorcycle Diaries is a timeless, heart breaking, pleasure.

As if patiently dissecting, we pry into dirty stairways and dark recesses, talking to the swarms of beggars; we plumb the Ivy’s depths, the miasmas draw us in. Our distended nostrils inhale the poverty with sadistic intensity.

Writing during a period of less than a decade since the hideous scar of World War Two, Guevara gives a passionate and personal insight into Latin America. The gap between the poor and the rich is so stark that the diary could fall into a monotone diatribe of the world’s wrongs. Instead, the pure hospitality and hope of the portraits drawn by Ernesto allow for what is an idealistic hope that will not be surrendered.

The stars drew light across the night sky in that little mountain village, and the silence and the cold made the darkness vanish away. It was- I don’t know how to explain it- as if everything solid melted away into the ether, eliminating all individuality and absorbing us, rapid, into the immense darkness. Not a single cloud to lend perspective to the space blocked any portion of the starry sky. Less than a few metres away the dim light of a lamp lost its power to fade the darkness.

Ernesto, despite the moments of isolation of the trip, often alone with the natural features, does not overstate his political or personal desires. Of course, his friend, Alberto is an ever reassuring presence; but this is all Ernesto. We don’t have to believe his vision of the world, but effortlessly, you do. No matter your politics, the mythical Che is humanised. This is not a political diatribe, it would be too easy to label this as from the political Left. It is of the humanist tradition.

It is Ernesto’s observations and seamless prose that allows the natural environment to consume the humans roaming the land. I can’t help but compare this period, the 1950s Latin America, to Australia at the same time. There are times when Ernesto could be describing Australia. The mineral wealth and the dispossession of the Indigenous people and the intrusion of the colonial mentality into every facet of life is remarkably familiar. I sense many similarities in the discoveries of Ernesto and Alberto to that of the Freedom Rides through New South Wales in the 1960’s. With that comparison, who is our Ernesto?

We know the end; we know that this man who we come to love and share his pain and joy, is dead, killed. Knowing the end of his life and all that came before the untimely death will not weaken the beauty of his diary.

From 2014,The Motorcycle Diaries will be on the NSW HSC English Course prescribed text list in the Area of study: Discovery.