Book Review: Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC, by David Hastings

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_odyssey_for_the_unknown_anzacWho is this ANZAC?

David Hastings’ Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC is a great deal more than a fascinating story of a lost soldier of the First World War who was ‘rediscovered’ and reunited with his family 10 years after the end of the war. It is also a commentary on how the British Empire saw war then as an extension of Greek mythology, of how the colonies of New Zealand and  Australia saw themselves at the beginning and during the war, and particularly how psychiatric medicine was still in its infancy.

Actually, George Brown’s case was a stuff-up right from the beginning. He should never have gone to war to fight in Gallipoli and the Western Front,  because of his psychiatric condition. It was recommended by army medical staff on the ship going to war that he should be discharged. Someone lost the paperwork.

After bitter experiences in both theatres of the war, he was found wandering the streets of London, wearing civilian clothes and an Australian army hat.

From the London streets, David Hastings unfolds the often dark story of George Brown as he is sent to Australia and more or less ‘lost’ in a medical institution for returned soldiers.  No-one really knew who he was or where he came from – was he an Australian from the outback or a kiwi from Eketahuna or Stratford? It was not until a photo was eventually published  in the Sydney Sun  in 1928 that  the mystery of who George was, and where he came from, began to unravel .

This book and the way Hastings, a journalist by training has written it, reminds the reviewer of another journalist, Simon Winchester and his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne where the connection is made between a reality, in this case brutal war,  as opposed to a brutal murder, and mental illness. Both books explore the context of the times, conflict and tragedy and its affects on family and individuals.

David Hastings has added a timely addition to New Zealand’s war writing. In this book, he allows us to understand that war and conflict cannot always be told in the poetic  heroics of the Odyssey and the Iliad, but rather can also be told in terms of deep personal loss and tragedy.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Odyssey of the Unknown ANZAC
by David Hastings
Auckland University Press
ISBN: 9781869408824

 

WORD: The Power of Poetry: Dr Paul Millar with CK Stead, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Fiona Kidman and Bill Manhire

While it was raining and bleak out in the street
We had wonderful words to finish the week.

So National Poetry Day saw five craftspeople read and discuss their poetry, in this, the second poetry-focused event of today. Dr Paul Millar from the University of Canterbury had cleverly selected a number of poems to introduce the guests.Auden was read to introduce CK Stead, because Stead has a great love of Auden.

Stead shared some of his tasks as Poet Laureate and the guidelines that come with such a commission. WW100 was written for the Navy on the 100th anniversary of WW1. He read a series of beautiful vignettes; each a glimpse of some aspect of war. They were very visual and included Mansfield reflecting on the loss of her brother, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘Passchendaele’ and ‘In Memorium’. This final poem was for his Great Uncle.

We then moved to the more lyrical poetry of Selina Tusitala Marsh. ‘Eviction Notice 113’ was written on the death of her mother and links the family home to her mother, as gradually one becomes the other. Her reading was rhythmic and musical and urgent. It really made the words come to life, truly put them in orbit. Her next offering was the poem she was commissioned to write for Queen Elizabeth. We had the conditions, the guidelines, the performance and the response. It was a very clever way to use words, to unite 53 Commonwealth nations.

Ali Cobby Eckerman is an Australian poet who weaves her Aboriginal experiences into her poems. Meeting her removed son at 18, her own Mother at 35. This was gritty writing, raw and difficult. ‘I Can’t stop Drinking’ says much about how experiences shape us, and the danger of judging on appearances. “…don’t judge too hard, cos you don’t know what sorrows we are nursing.”

Fiona Kidman took us to her childhood memories of country living, ‘living at the end of Darwin road’. The landscape plays a big part in her poetry. She reflected on the Irishness of her Dad and her memories of Christmas.

Finally Bill Manhire launched us into a list of all the things we had as kids in the 1950’s. It was brilliant and I just itched to rush off and create a visual. I loved his quote from Emily Dickinson about poetry, “a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense”. He also shared a poem commissioned for the war memorial services. ‘Known Unto God’ brought the Somme experience to the current time, and finished with a young girl in the Mediterranean.

It was a powerful hour of wondrous words. I was reminded of the importance of spoken poetry, rather than my silent personal reading.

We ventured back out to the dark, wet streets with a song of words in our hearts to keep us warm.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

(ed’s note: books to come. Possibly also pictures.)

 

Book Review: Glory, by Rachael Billington

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_glory

Mozart once referred to Opera as a conversation with many people all speaking at once, and yet all are perfectly understood. In this, the Centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign, there will be many conversations, many stories and many points of view. As I write this, Kiwis are joining in mass commemoration of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915. And, no doubt we’ll be involved in further recognitions of the tragic losses that were to come thereafter. This is the year of the Great War, after all.

Into this space, veteran author Rachael Billington adds her own take with an epic tale of relationships, love and heroism at Gallipoli, from the British standpoint. It’s easy to look at the campaign only with ‘black-tinted’ glasses but in fact Britain lost nearly 73,485 troops, nearly 5 ½ times that of the ANZACs. The Anglo angle in this book is prominent. Viewers of Downton Abbey will recognise the common themes of egalitarianism over class and the betrayal of the patriotic dream when the great adventure turns horrific very quickly.

Interwoven with the gruesome details of on-the-ground battles are the fates of a promising lawyer, Arthur and his girlfriend Sylvia. Arthur is almost immediately flung into the fray, unprepared and naïve. He survives by disobeying orders and befriending an intelligence officer aboard the landing ship, leading him to an alternative fate. At home Sylvia sits in her ‘perfect’ world on the estate, awaiting the titbits, from her correspondents, that tragically float back from ANZAC cove.

Another key figure is Dorset country boy Fred Chaffey, who is literally flung out of the first landing boat onto the shores of the peninsular by the first page. He spend three days sheltering behind the dying, pinned down by snipers and isolated from his unit. Eventually, he becomes a runner for an Australian captain and spends much of the book travelling between like landmarks like Quinn’s Post, Chunuk Bair and Shrapnel Alley whilst encountering a raft of personalities from across the Empire, and of course our friend Arthur. Their stories will eventually intertwine like some mad helix of fate.

Supporting the story are a host of other players, including real personalities from the time such as Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, the blundering fool behind the decision to dig in, rather than retreat, when troops were mistakenly landed at the wrong cove. He’s described as a man with a “silly voice and even sillier habit of writing in his diary – filled with long Greek quotations” and, “far worse, his manner of giving commands as if they were invitations.” It shows Billington has done her homework. There is even a selected bibliography in the back.

“My grandfather died at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, on August 21st 1915, she writes on her website. “(Yet) my grandmother …continued to believe that he would emerge from a Turkish hospital or prison camp.” In a sense the inspiration behind Glory was a mix of that story and the new horrors from her WWII childhood. “Publishing Glory is an emotional business. Naturally people are interested in my grandfather’s story…his heroic and pointless death is bad enough. But for me it exemplifies the muddled thinking that surrounded both the idea of the campaign and its execution.”

In layer after layer, Billington deftly presents this in her book and one can’t help finishing with a real sense of sadness that the whole thing was such a futile waste. New Zealanders will come together this year, along with the world to commemorate this most deft act of incompetence and horror. If we learn one thing from Glory it will be to thoroughly question the actions of our leaders and challenge their right to lead, because lest we forget, they are as fallible as anyone else. Glory is an epic tale, thought-provoking and slightly familiar. It doesn’t cover new ground but, like a good movie, it will cover ground and leave you wiser for it.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Glory 
by Rachael Billington
Published by Orion
ISBN 9781409156697

Book Review: Gallipoli, by Peter Fitzsimons

Available now in bookshops nationwide.cv_gallipoli_fitz

Peter Fitzsimons’ Gallipoli is very Australia-centric. This is one of most intriguing aspects of the book.

It does not try to suggest that only Australians fought at Gallipoli, but the flavour, the perspective, and the prose all have an Aussie accent and use of words − sometimes stark and brutal, other times colourful − that could only be from one country and one time.

There have, of course, been many books written about this failed military adventure, but this is not just “another Gallipoli book”. It is a fascinating, highly informative book, with deep emotive characteristics. The latter is something Fitzsimons is famous for. His other books, such as Kokoda, describe events now etched deeply into Australia’s culture.
Gallipoli is a lengthy tome, at 824 pages, including notes, references, bibliography and index. This may seem overlong. But Fitzsimons puts the landings at Anzac Cover and Cape Hellas and the subsequent eight months of bitterness, into the deep context of the politics that surrounded the ill-fated campaign; including the failure of the British and French navies to break past the Turkish guns lining each side of the Dardanelles, immediately prior to the campaign. He captures the historic context of Turkey as the Ottoman Empire is failing. The politics from the British, Australian and Turkish perspective are woven into the story, in relation to each significant point in the book. Thus, Churchill gets a bad rap, and Kitchener’s refusal to order the right type of high explosives, is one cause of his eventual downfall.

Of course, all of the familiar Gallipoli stories are covered. Did the landings take place at the right place? Probably not, if one of the simple maps included in the book is accepted. The “burial truce”, when Turks and Anzac worked together to bury their mountains of dead is another example of a familiar story. Although these and similar events are basically familiar, Fitzsimons adds considerable detail, often omitted from other accounts.

The oft-told story of the withdrawal of the ANZAC, Indian and British Forces from ANZAC Cove is an intriguing example of the added detail that Fitzsimons has brought to bear from his obviously extensive research, using archives, battlefield reports, and personal diaries and letters from every level of the combatant armies – from Turkish and Anzac privates to Imperial generals, politicians and journalists. The intensively detailed planning by Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Brudenell White, one of the few officers that gets a good rap throughout the book, is illuminating to read, and the fact that it was so carefully and successfully followed by the evacuating armies is astounding.

There are many personal accounts and human touches from both sides of no-man’s land woven into the overall narrative. And the epilogue traces many of the characters, both ANZAC and Turk, beyond the Gallipoli experience to their respective post-war fates.
This may be an Aussie-centric book, but it adds to the overall understanding of what, why and how the Gallipoli campaign was fought and how the ANZAC legend was created.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Gallipoli
by Peter Fitzsimons
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781741666595