I’m ashamed to admit that there are many, many large gaps in my knowledge of Australian military campaigns. I’m sure I am not alone.
Barry Stone’s new book The Desert ANZACS provides deep insight into Australia’s oft-overlooked conflicts in the deserts of Mesopotamia, Mediterranean and North Africa. The books would be a great addition to the library for anyone who loves military history. I’ll certainly be giving a copy to my father this Father’s Day!
It can be an arduous process researching and writing books like this, the facts can be so elusive and the returned soldiers have passed away or getting older. So I wrote to Barry and asked him about this process and how it has affected him.
There has been a bit of a publishing flurry in Australia now covering Australian military campaigns. Is it just the anniversary of WWI at the moment, or is this part of a bigger interest in the community? ANZAC Day crowds have been growing in numbers for years now and I think interest in this defining period of our history is real and growing, though it certainly is reaching fever pitch with all of the 100-year anniversaries that are descending upon us. Have you found Australians are hungrier for these stories than ever? Why?
I think there is an abiding interest in reading individual stories, the experiences of ordinary diggers as recorded in their meticulously recorded and often lucid diaries. What struck me as I read the diaries of these ordinary people was their eloquence, an impeccable blending of natural prose used to describe the carnage and waste in which they were engulfed.
Barry, I see that your father obviously provided some inspiration for this book. What was the defining moment when you decided to write this book and why?
My father never served overseas and I’m grateful he didn’t. He was an aircraft mechanic and worked on Liberator bombers, mostly, in Darwin. If the war had gone another 6 months he would have been posted overseas. I used to enjoy listening to his war stories and included one here in the book, because the experience of serving was as much a defining moment in his life as it was for those who fought on the front lines. As he grew older, his memories of the comerarderie he experienced seemed to grow in importance. A good story of the war, such as it was for him, was never far away.
Much of the material you have used is from diaries and interviews with survivors. How do you go about researching a book like this? How long did this take?
The great Australian writer and Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, sadly no longer with us, once said that writing a book is like throwing a fishing line into a river - you’ve no idea where it will go or what you will catch, and the current takes it where it wants. Writing a book is a little like that. You begin with faltering steps. Your inquiries lead you down alleyways you never knew were there, but you follow them anyway. The book took some nine months to complete, and hardly a day passed when I wasn’t writing, or adding to or improving what I’d already written.
How did you decide on the structure of this book?
The basic structure wasn’t too difficult to construct. The theme was clear enough - write an account of the conflicts in the Middle East and other desert theatres that involved Australians. I created a chapter outline that would focus on various areas/themes, and tinkered with that outline as the book progressed.
Were there any major problems you had to overcome writing a historical book like this? Was it a difficult process?
Probably the biggest challenge was to keep the book coherent in terms of themes and timelines. I didn’t want it to be strictly chronological, I wanted to be able to surprise the reader with what might be on the pages to come instead of it being a more unimaginative account of events in the precise order they occured. There is an inherent danger in doing that - the danger of repetition - and I owe a debt of thanks to my editor, Dale Campesi, for helping me in that regard!
What do you think readers will get out of this book that has been missed in other accounts?
The reader will see the various conflicts through uncommon eyes, and read stories not told before in the mainstream media, and so gain a fresh perspective on events they may already know quite well. And there are other events - ‘crusades’ like the assembling of the Dunsterforce - which is covered well but which, really, needs a book all its own. A fascinating story, that one.
There is so much to admire about the soldiers and support crew who fought these desert campaigns. They could never have imagined the difficulty and horror that lay ahead in these shocking, extreme conditions. There is so much talk about harnessing the ‘ANZAC fighting spirit’ – usually when Aussie athletes go off to major sporting events! Do you think that’s appropriate?
What was it these soldiers had? Was it innovation – like the tunnels of ‘the Rats of Tobruk’ – courage, or mental toughness? Do you think there is still an ‘ANZAC spirit’ in Australia?
I think our diggers had a far greater degree of innocence and naievete than northern hemisphere soldiers did. We left chock-full of confidence. Recruitment of course slowed markedly once the full horror of war became apparent and lists of dead and missing began to be posted back home. But its true we had a certain spirit of larrakinism and a “can-do” spirit. It’s also true , though, that we suffered a greater percentage of casualties than any other participating nation. We should have been neutral, I believe. Our nation would be a far better and happier place today if we had.
What would you like to see more of published in Australia?
Poetry and plays. There is far too much spurious fiction around, and too many celebrity names on book covers in the hope a photograph of a cricketer or some other sporting icon will spur sales in what is a challenging time for publishers. I could probably make a decent living as a ghost writer if I chose to go down that path. Won’t be happening, though.
What do you like reading in your down time?
I like non-fiction I must say - I think the world is a far more interesting place than any fictional world that might be concocted. History, natural history I enjoy. But most of the reading I do is connected to whatever project I might currently be working on. For instance since Christmas I’ve written 150,000 words for a book on the world’s greatest walks to be published worldwide next year. Ask me about a walk, I’ll talk your head off.
Describe your typical writing day.
A typical day might see me write 800 - 1,000 words. Everything is done on my laptop and I work from home. I love to write and try to write something every day, even weekends. It is rarely ever a chore for me. I don’t plan on retiring - I hope to continue writing till the day I die. But although I’ve now either written or contributed to over 25 books I care little for leaving any so-called “legacy”. I like what Woody Allen once said when asked the inevitable and rather silly interviewer question: “Are you proud of the legacy you’ll one day leave behind?” “What do I care about a legacy”, he replied. “I’ll be dead”. Perfect.
Describe your workspace (or office)
I have a workspace at home with a desk that looks out over Nattai National Park, but I rarely sit there. I spend my time in what my family calls our “Big Room” - 14m long and 5m wide with windows everywhere. We live on an acre in rural Picton south of Sydney, and its very peaceful. A good environment in which to work. Or not work!
I see also that you are a travel writer, who do you write for?
I’ve written for Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper, and various premier travel magazines such as Destination, Vacations & Travel, Holidays for Couples and Signature. It began as a hobby in the 1990’s and is still pretty much a part-time thing, but I love it because most editors don’t interfere with what I send in and the writing can be very personal and subjective.
What’s your favourite holiday destination? Why?
I love Italy because of its working-class grittiness and relative lack of pretence. The people are hard working and real, and I like the fact it doesn’t have the “polish” of Switzerland or other more affluent countries. I like paying one euro for a cappucino and 5 euros for a margherita pizza in Naples instead of 15 euros in Zurich.
Favourite bookshop/s. Why?
Berkelouw Books in Norton Street, Leichhardt - I love all the little knick-knacks they sell!
Screen or book?
Book/s that changed your life?
The first book I wrote as sole author, “I Want to Be Alone”, an historic overview of hermits and recluses released internationally some 5 years ago now. When I received my author’s copies, I hugged one to my chest and slept with it under my pillow that night. Thank you, Murdoch Books.
What are you reading now?
My tax papers.
What do you plan to read next?
My 13 year-old son is currently reading an Agatha Christie, and although its fiction I’d like the time to read A Pocket Full of Rye, but am about to begin a new project on the world’s 1,000 greatest travel destinations. So probably won’t have the time.
What do you recommend for a cheeky holiday read?
Errol Flynn’s autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways.
I was sent a review copy from Hardie Grant Books, however all opinions and comments are my own.