Russell Darnley’s ‘Seen and Unseen’: Testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

I bought Russell Darnley’s Seen and Unseen some months ago and tucked it into a corner of my Kindle, dipping into some of the ‘stories’ in the gaps between my backlog of novels-to-read.

With some holiday time on my hands, I decided to start at the beginning – and I couldn’t stop reading. I now saw that the ‘stories’ formed a coherent narrative woven from threads of spirituality, self-discovery, and an expression of one man’s understanding of Australia in the world.

The motif of the seen and the unseen, drawn from the Balinese notion of sekala and niskala, signifying the ubiquity of the spiritual world, is the strongest of these threads: How else to interpret the first and last sections of the book, when Darnley converses with his dead grandfather on the cliffs at Coogee?

But Seen and Unseen isn’t an extended navel gaze. There’s wonderfully powerful and evocative material about intellectual life in seventies Sydney, about student parties in inner city flats, about the study of Bahasa Indonesia in the brief period when the Australian Government was prepared to fund it generously.

In reading Darnley’s book, I realised that he and I had moved in intersecting circles in the seventies and eighties but had (perhaps) never met. As a university languages school head, I rode the crest of the Indonesian studies movement for a few years, but Darnley’s book brought back uncomfortable memories of my having to close an Indonesian program as funding tightened and the popularity of the language waned in the face of Japanese and Chinese. I was also reminded of the hopes for deep engagement with Indonesia during Gareth Evans’ tenure as Foreign Minister, and the dashing of those aspirations under his successor.

For a newish Australian (I arrived in 1977), Darnley’s account of a childhood in Coogee was fascinating; I’ve lived mostly on the north side of the Harbour Bridge, and Coogee is foreign territory for me. Indeed, the biographical thread running through Seen and Unseen is subtly and tenderly handled. While the ‘stories’ follow chronologically, there are gaps, but the reader is given to understand that each story tackles a new stage in the author’s progress through his professional, personal and spiritual life. The middle section of the book is set mostly in south-east Asia, from which I drew two main impressions: One was Darnley’s wonderful work in establishing and running an overseas study centre for Australian students; the other was his extensive knowledge of Indonesia, and especially Bali, based on his years of residence in the region.

But the core of the book – in my view at least – is the section dealing with the author’s voluntary work in the immediate aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombings (for which he was awarded the OAM). The description of those days is the most harrowing and powerful writing I have encountered in a long time. I had the strong impression that Russell Darnley’s life up to that moment in 2002 was a preparation for the awful work that he volunteered to do, including searching body bags for identification evidence. Russell Darnley surely was the right man in the right place.

Seen and Unseen: The testimony of a man who kept faith with his vision for Australia in the world.

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Stuart Campbell is a Sydney author. News of his latest novel Cairo Mon Amour can be found here.

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Picture gallery: Fading traces of the Soviet era

Aeroflot ticket, 1974. Lost aesthetic or Communist kitsch? (author’s collection)

When I was studying  Russian in Moscow in 1974, it was unthinkable that in  less that twenty years, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would be no more.

For my literary invention Ivan Zlotnik, the flawed Soviet diplomat in Cairo Mon Amour, the USSR was there to stay. Zlotnik gambled his freedom on the date of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. Did he win or lose? That’s for the reader to judge.

Forty-three years later, tourists buy up Communist kitsch in nostalgic homage to regimes whose harsh outlines soften over the decades. But more permanent traces of the Soviet era remain, as this small gallery shows:

Remnant plaque, Berlin (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Symbols of communist industry and military power, Prague (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Vintage URAL motorcycle spotted in a Budapest street (photo: Stuart Campbell)
Soviet Memorial, Budapest. The Russian reads ‘In honour of the liberating Soviet heroes’. (photo: Stuart Campbell)

Going easy on the f-word in fiction


Writers are getting more foul-mouthed

The recent Guardian article on the increasing rates of foul language in literature got me thinking about my own use of the f-word and its derivatives.

I checked my f-quotient in my last three novels and – yes, my language is getting fouler with every book, rising from a demure 0.012 f*cks per hundred words in my first novel to 0.031 f*cks per 100 in Cairo Mon Amour, my latest.

Highly skilled at cursing

Confession time: I spent my early years on a council estate just outside London, and I Iearned to handle the f-word like an East End fishmonger. Later I became part of the Australian intelligentsia, and honed my skills so that I could out-f*ck any Professor of English Literature in the room.

But why do I use  f*ck in my novels?

Here are the results drawn from the 26 f*cks in Cairo Mon Amour:

  1. Sometimes I use it to locate a character on the British class scale:

Bellamy said, “If we’re right about this we’re finished when those f*ckers from Ealing work out that they’ve put us together.”

“How come you talk like a barrow boy sometimes? I remember that from Shemlan. It’s quite a turn on, you know!”

2.  Here’s a similar example, where I contrast the restrained and courteous Pierre with a thug:

“It’s a .22 calibre model 70,” he grunted. “Israeli military issue. Good quality. Liberated from the enemy. Probably used to shoot some poor Egyptian f*cker. Haha!”

“Take it back,” Pierre hissed.

 3. And here’s Pierre learning to swear in English:

“Well, sort of gallop like f*cking hell. We’re being shot at.”

 4. In this example my Soviet diplomat Zlotnik is supposed to be speaking in Russian, and the f*ck is a translation of the common Russian curse:

 “Where’s that f*ck-your-mother Englishwoman gone?” Zlotnik rarely cursed. It had all unravelled, all gone to shit. He sank into the sofa.

5.  In this last example, I have a bunch of American diplomats fleeing Egypt on ship. There has been a stream of f*cks as they lose their cool. Here’s the last one:

As the Cynthia’s engines groaned rheumatically into life, an American in a suit and a baseball cap pointed at the Soviet ship and shouted, “Look, they’re unloading f*cking missiles!”

I’m actually very pleased with my self-diagnosis: Every example has been strategically selected. There’s not a gratuitous f*ck in the book. Obviously, I was well trained!

Let me know what you think!

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Click any of these links to buy a copy of Cairo Mon Amour

Amazon.com

Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com.au

Austin Macauley Publishers

 

Australian murder mystery with a perfect sense of place

Western Australian author Steve Rogers’ novel An Artifact* of Interest is so filmic in character that you’ll excuse me for referencing some Australian movies in this review. It’s a murder mystery set in the Kimberleys with the little-known Bradshaw cave paintings at the heart of the plot – but no spoilers here.  As a thoroughly urban Australian who rarely ventures fifty clicks from the coast, I relish the novels and films that transport me to the bush: The terrifying petty brutality of Ted Kotcheff’s film Wake in Fright; Ellen Roxburgh’s ordeal in Patrick White’s novel A Fringe of Leaves; the mystical film version of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Rogers’ novel is another retelling of the bush: A young city man on a rural adventure; a mysterious death; an anthropological mystery; an unlikely romance. It’s the style that conveys the mood, with Rogers employing present tense and a relaxed regard for point of view, which results in a feel of spontaneity and authenticity of place. Short chapters, suggestions rather than conclusions – these yield a laconic and fluent narrative that leads us through the plot rather than shoving and dragging us. You can almost spot the dissolve between chapters. I loved the imagery of the bush, and my mind kept returning to Margaret Preston’s painting of Western Australian gum blossoms

*Yes, it’s spelt with i for a good reason: Check out the definitions of artefact and artifact.

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Find out about Stuart Campbell’s latest novel here.

An Orwell for every age? My 1984 isn’t your 1984.

“Shouty,” I muttered to my companion as the curtain fell on the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of 1984 this month. But while I’m often disappointed by theatre in Sydney, I usually get my money’s worth in the ensuing days as I ponder the reasons.

There was a lot of shouting in this 1984. I was confused (as many critics were) by the stilted university tutorial at the beginning. I felt assaulted by the flashes and bangs. I thought the torture scenes had the tone of a high school play. This wasn’t my 1984.

But just because Orwell’s masterpiece was a seminal text of my youth in the sixties, why should my 1984 be the 1984 of somebody born forty years after me? When I read the book, the world was lurching from one Cold War crisis to another. Young people of my generation seriously believed that we could die in a nuclear holocaust. For teenage me, Julia was the epitome of sexual emancipation. For political me, 1984 revealed the hypocrisy not just of totalitarianism, but of society per se. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders had exposed the power of advertising: Was totalitarianism so distant from the socially corrosive power of unbridled capitalism?

I couldn’t possibly explain any of this to someone born in 1990. It’s all about me, and I can’t fathom what 1984 means to a me who has never known economic recession, who has probably never been a member of a trade union, whose parents weren’t evacuated from London in WWII, whose foreign bogeymen are Islamists rather than Communists. But the Sydney Theatre Company’s production gave me a clue. It took me a few days, but I got it – sort of.

As a footnote, I used 1984 as a literary prop in my novel Cairo Mon Amour. Check out how I did it here.

So this is how Brexit happened!

Brexit. How the hell did it happen? OK, I confess that if I had been allowed to vote in the land of my birth, I would have voted Remain. But Sebastian Handley’s Brexit: How the Nobodies beat the Somebodies gave me a long pause for quite a lot of thought. He wouldn’t have persuaded me to vote Leave, but his book gives a rare opportunity for insight into the thinking of a committed Brexit campaigner, and is a valuable corrective to the ‘them vs us’ smear that characterised a lot of the so-called debate around Brexit. Handley’s book is highly original, and as such difficult to categorise: Memoir? Handbook for revolutionaries? Political manifesto? Structurally, it’s couched as a breathless series of diary entries. Stylistically, it’s Spike Milligan meets The Young Ones (influences Handley acknowledges at the beginning of the book). The narrative voice is somewhere on a cline from faux-naif to skilled orator. There’s also a love story woven into the gaps between Handley’s indefatigable campaigning for Leave in Brighton. And in the end, Handley answers the question How the hell did it happen? Through quintessentially British amateurism, with small squads of loosely connected enthusiasts bashing out leaflets and learning how to dodge the slow-moving ideological missiles of the Remainers. If like me, you’re still baffled by the Brexit vote, this is essential reading. If you’re a Leaver, read How the Nobodies beat the Somebodies, and have a well-deserved gloat!

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Stuart Campbell’s novel Cairo Mon Amour is published 30 June 2017. Click here for details.

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