HOME ON THE RANGE

Blistered by centuries of heat, the Flinders Ranges north of Adelaide form one of the world's most spectacular landscapes. Temperatures in December exceed 40 Centigrade, and rise higher as summer advances. Fortunately, when I ventured into the Ranges a few years back for Australian Gourmet Traveller with photographer Julian Kingma, the weather was considerably cooler…

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Oncoming vehicles, of which there are few, shimmer off the highway like mirages. The radio, idle chatter, the dull roar of tyres on the blacktop - one by one they're erased from our consciousness, replaced by awareness of the looming peaks and a deepening silence. We're a few hours north of Adelaide, yet even as we draw closer, the ranges seem distant, layered across the horizon, each layer projecting its own shade of mauve, blue, olive, pink - the dusted colours of the heart.

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Twenty-seven years ago I came up this route in the wake of 19th-century explorers and pastoralists who attempted to conquer a vast continent. Now I'm returning, wiser, too, about the Aborigines and their struggle to survive and how this great mass of earth itself came to be.

Time has passed yet the journey remains the same.

Soon enough, the geology of the Flinders is brutally exposed - low peaks devoid of flesh or dressing, their red-rock insides spilling out, staggeringly beautiful forms that overwhelm a deep blue sky. Eight hundred million years ago, the earth's crust here stretched to create a deep hollow, allowing the sea to flood in and deposit massive rocks and debris. The world's oldest known vertebrate fossil, dated at 560 million years and resembling a tadpole, was discovered nearby in 1999. Today the ranges have stabilised, more or less: a few kilometres underground, geothermal energy bubbles away off hot rocks, and earth tremors occasionally shake and rattle the crockery.

The first European to see these peaks, in 1802, was Matthew Flinders, the great navigator of Australia's past, who called them a "ridge of high, rocky and barren mountains". They were named in his honour. Forty years later, Edward John Eyre passed by on his doomed attempt to reach Australia's mythical inland sea. "In the midst of these barren, miserable plains," he wrote, "I met with four natives, as impoverished and wretched looking as the country they inhabited." These were the Adnyamathanha who'd occupied the hills for maybe 10,000 years, creating their Dreamtime, and whose descendants survive today.

The early Europeans, eager for new pastures, brought their families and strange animals - not only horses but Afghan camels to beat the waterless distances, and rabbits that would eventually rip their paddocks apart. The rain will follow the plough, they swore, and for a while it did. Every few kilometres, we pass another abandoned pile of stones, an isolated chimney, frustrated oaths to progress that map the broken hopes of dreamers who bared their souls to the winds of opportunity. On a scrub-dotted plain is the grave of Harriet Anna Salmon - died 30 October 1885, aged 28 years - with its humble script: "Weep not for me, my children dear, I am not alone but sleeping here. My debt is paid, my grave you see, so all prepare to follow me." The sun beats down fiercely on a lonely life and a lonely death.

By lunch we reach Quorn, born in 1878 and once the thriving junction of the Sydney-Perth and Adelaide-Alice Springs rail systems. In 1888, reported the Register, the town was "often subjected to an influx of strangers of diverse nationality, languages and tongues; and, of course, some with morals as mixed…" Today a warning notice says, almost wistfully, "Look out for trains". The Ghan changed route in 1980, the ornate station is deserted, and stockyards once filled with bleating sheep and barking kelpies are scattered with rusty wagons and wheat growing from seed spilled long ago.

Survival here takes a tenacity of spirit and hard work, but also luck; when that runs out, all the persistence in the world isn't enough. On a rise north of Quorn we spot a deserted farmhouse; the gates are locked, the windmill broken, the well dry, the track up to the residence erased by nature. Stranded like a shipwreck, its Victorian-era rooms are now the grand home of stray sheep - with frayed curtains, electric lamps dangling without power, wasp nests on its doorways. A ghost house surrounded by a thousand empty hectares. Thriving communities just a few generations ago, broken estates like these stand as noble and tragic as any ancient monuments, while surviving properties have found a new life catering to worldly travellers.

Even before we park at Arkaba homestead, on the southern tip of Flinders National Park, Pat Kent bounds out to greet us, a champion of "down to earth" luxury tourism in the region. With his partner Sally, and New Zealand-born chef Scott Hannan, he's turned an iconic Flinders property into a haven for well-heeled guests, its four-bedroom homestead and one-bedroom coachman's cottage now a resort overlooking the sun-drenched Elder Range.

Overseas visitors come from the United States, Britain and Germany. Italian honeymooners love the space; they're not likely to bump into relatives. "Or any Vespas," Kent quips. "People always talk about places being unspoiled, like they were years ago. But this place is unspoiled since the beginning of time. The dinosaurs walked out of town 65 million years ago. You can pour yourself a Coopers, sit back and stare at the ranges, and 600 million years of Earth's existence stares right back at you."

The property's name comes from the Aboriginal "akapa" ("underground water"). The swimming pool overlooks a creek where sunlight filters through giant river red gums. Recent rains have brightened the leaves. How old are these behemoths? "Up to a thousand years," says our guide, Kat Mee, "but it's difficult to tell. They grow when it's damp and don't when it's dry." The struggle with the elements never ends.

We spot two western grey kangaroos, resting in the heat, conserving energy. High from the gum branches comes the screeching of corellas. "Smaller of the white cockatoos," Mee explains. She points to an Elegant Wattle, its seeds ground by Aborigines for bush damper, and the Spiky Acacia, its other name filled with grim humour. "They call it Dead Finish - if your sheep are eating this in the drought, you know you're finished." Kestrels float on air currents, along with a whistling kite, its long wings tipped in black; the birds circle over porcupine spinifex, spotting for reptiles, rodents and small marsupials.

Deeper into the gorges we drive, on rutted "two-tracks" bordered with the intense yellow of native daisies, shaded by black oaks and casuarinas, the earth here a powdery white, the gully walls rich with red ochre. The ochre - prized as body paint by Aborigines, the mica it contains dancing in firelight - was traded across different language groups as far away as Queensland. Above, the sky suddenly swarms with pink and grey cockatoos, flapping to perch on the long spindly branches of river red gums.

That night we relax outdoors and enjoy Arkaba's cuisine: saltbush lamb loin with goat's cheese gnocchi, sautéed chanterelles, truffles and pea purée. "Sitting around this table," says Kent, "I get a front-row seat into people's lives. Most of our guests are successful people who've had a crack at life and made something big happen. The locals understand that attitude. It takes a special kind of person to make it here - courage and grit, drive and determination. People are used to toughing it out. The only things bigger than people's hats in the Flinders is the size of their hearts."

The next morning we drive north, avoiding emus bouncing their strange hard feathers beneath curious eyes. Up the highway a little is the Blinman Hotel, where I stood decades earlier. Nothing has changed, except there's a new licensee, Italian-born Tony Cutri. He's been wiping the bar here for the past 25 years, surrounded by stone walls and mementoes that stretch back to 1869 when copper mining put Blinman on the map. Back then it was a far rougher place; now, says Cutri, "Any trouble I sort out myself." What's the current population? "Twenty-five." (Later, I tell a local farmer this. "Thought it was eighteen," he says dryly. "Must have grown.")

A short drive away is Angorichina Station. Spread over 520 square kilometres, it's been in the Fargher family for four generations. Guests arrive on an aircraft piloted by Ian Fargher, who took over the property with his wife Di in 1981 when wool was still the backbone of Australia's bush economy. Twenty years ago, they turned to tourist accommodation. The 1860s stone homestead is classic outback vernacular - the place grew, says Fargher, as necessity dictated and wealth allowed.

With piercing green eyes and leathered skin, Ian Fargher sums up the character of the Flinders in a single word - resilience. "Not too many families have walked off the land, despite the drought. We're still here. Even as a kid, I never thought about a life away from this property." His mate Grant "Pud" Reschke grew up here too. "It's where we want to be."

On his bike, Pud rumbles along as Diesel rounds up twenty strays with a canny understanding of sheep psychology. "Nothing beats a well-trained dog," says Pud, explaining why a good pup fetches up to $4000. "Worth every cent," he adds, as Diesel leaps on the bike with acrobatic precision. Once the property carried 10,000 sheep; today it's down to 3000. "Most people are in the same boat," says Fargher. "Nobody's fully stocked. And shearers are hard to get."

By mid-afternoon, the shearing shed throbs with activity. Built in the 1850s of native pine ("much cooler than iron"), it's one of the oldest operating in Australia, and retains its original galvanised roofing, shipped from England as ballast on the clippers that returned with Australian merino wool. The shearers are still a tough lot, keeping largely to themselves, men whose tattoos do most of the talking. Over the din of electric shears they play rock music to take their minds off the monotony and pain of backbreaking work, their muscled forearms sweeping the combs expertly under the fleece. The burly contractor Neville Clarke lifts his battered hat and counts as the animals emerge in near-naked shock. How many are they shearing? "We'll know when we stop."

As the sun settles, Fargher drives us to John's Hill, 800m above sea level, commanding a 360-degree panorama of the entire ranges. Buffeted by winds that suspend wedge-tailed eagles high above, we steady ourselves while Fargher explains the cycle of mountain upheavals and endless erosion that slowly created this pastel-hued vista of immense curves and shadows. "How slowly?" He takes his notepad and feels the thickness of a sheet of paper. "That's how much the Flinders are worn down in a single year. To create this has taken 800 million years."

Later, over the gourmet dinner she's prepared, Di Fargher describes her Flinders vision built on high-end tourism and technology. "Before, we were isolated. Six local farms relied on a party phone line until the 1980s. Now we're hooked to the world via the Internet." And the young women of the Flinders are returning, she says, armed with university degrees and looking for bush husbands. "'Must have country interests'," she laughs. "The next generation of daughters will run the Flinders, you'll see. Check out the Prairie tomorrow…"

Straight out of a Russell Drysdale canvas, the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna confronts a main street that seems to go nowhere and, beyond that, the wide, dead-flat emptiness of the outback. Inside, it's a lively jumble of traditional hotel rooms and newer suites where some big names have stayed while shooting movies, including Holy Smoke stars Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. The Prairie's culinary reputation rests on its "feral food" - kangaroo and emu, yabbies, quandongs, native limes and bush tomatoes. Gelato of wild berry and rosella flower rounds out a unique meal. "We've only got one bar," says licensee Jane Fargher, "so station hands and truckies drink with Parisians." On cue, a busload of French tourists rolls in. "It's all pretty amazing."

After lunch we head along the rough and recently flooded Brachina Gorge Geological Trail into Wilpena Pound, the giant natural amphitheatre that's the hub of the Flinders Ranges National Park. At its southern edge sits Rawnsley Park Station, transformed by Tony Smith and his wife Julieanne into an eco-tourism centre. "I grew up here as a farmer," Tony reflects, "but the glory days of sheep and cattle grazing are gone forever."
 
Rawnsley Park boasts eight villas designed by Adelaide architects Ecopolis, featuring recycled timbers, natural ventilation systems, and concrete floors to maximise thermal mass. Each villa has a tiny glass panel in the living room wall showing the rendered straw-bale construction, and bedroom skylights for star-gazing.

On our last evening, we turn off the highway and bounce down a 12km track. Tourism has come far in the Flinders since the early 1980s, but in the place where I camped all those years ago, nothing has changed for eternities. We walk between high boulders along a tree-lined creek bed and into Sacred Canyon, one of the few Aboriginal sites open to travellers. On the canyon walls are age-old engravings, or petroglyphs: circles and other symbols that represent springs, camp sites, animal tracks and human figures. From these markings are drawn legends of the Dreamtime.

As the sun drops, I make out the faintest stars, beginning their transit across what will soon be darkness. The sense of infinity here has always been profound, for the original inhabitants and those who came later - and for those still to come. In a timeless land, a suitable place for dreaming.

 

This article first appeared in the February 2011 edition of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

iPhone: the new Leica?

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We're spinning through certainties faster than a speeding bullet.

It seems almost every day another long-held, cherished concept or technology is challenged and shattered on grounds of price, availability, ease of operation, miniaturisation and portability - and even cachet.

Twenty years ago any serious street photographer was clutching, with Magnum-stamped credibility and Lee Friedlander attitude and anonymity, her or his well-worn Leica M-series (2,3,4,6 - the 5 was a sad aberration), confident they were holding the world's finest 35mm rangefinder film camera with unparalleled functionality and quality of image. The movement was silk and the lenses pin-sharp.

I bought my first Leica (M3) in 1974 for a song and then my treasured M2 in 1981, and shot the hell out of them around the mean backstreets of Sydney, London, New York, Athens and Asia. Decades of improvement had brought this rare species to a peak of performance (with a hefty price to match), a tech-and-art pinnacle that none imagined could be surpassed: the camera as pure extension of the human eye. I lost both cameras in Rio to a couple of knife-wielding slum kids, and replaced them with a solid Nikon F2. - my sleek German handgun superseded by a huge but reliable Japanese brick.

Dreams of again owning a Leica receded but never went away. The world was turning anyway...

Digital burst onto the scene and Leica didn't know how to react - holding back, then stumbling reluctantly through various clunky iterations of a digitised M series towards today's M10, a beautiful piece of machinery (at last) if you have a spare $10K to invest - and we're talking body only, not matching Leica lenses, for which add another $10K for a decent kit. Germany did it best, as always. What certainty could be more certain than German camera engineering? Precision plus. For those who could still afford it, their investment, both financial and psychological, was secure. 

Meanwhile, across the planet in a cave in Silicon Valley (also known as the Valley of Analog Death), some university dropouts in jeans and tees were developing a product that would conquer the world. Steve Jobs, Uber-Nerd of the 21st century, flipped the telecoms industry on its back with the iPhone, a smartphone that was also a beautiful thing. A mobile phone, messaging system, a music machine, apps conveyer, a whole lot of things we never thought we needed. Oh, yes, and a camera.

Not that cameras hadn't been stuffed and squeezed into mobile phones before, providing an entire generation with family photos that reduced kids in the pool and partying adults to pixilated Martians. But the iPhone camera spoke a different language, from the very outset: the potential for serious photography. And it got better, and better. To the point where, this 2017 summer, heading for Greece, I left my Sony Nex-7 with Nikon lenses, a combo I'd sworn by for the past five years - the Leica I was having when I couldn't afford a Leica - lying on the bench in Sydney. 

In a life-changing moment, I decided to leave it at home and use my iPhone 6S...

First things first. I switched the iPhone over to 'noir' mode. This put me in a Lecia mood, with the additional boost that everything I saw before I pressed the shutter was in black-and-white. Don't forget, getting that Cartier-Bresson monochrome tone with the Leica M-series meant peering through a less-than-brilliant viewfinder, seeing the subject in its natural colour, framing a composition while waiting for the Decisive Moment, and simultaneously 'seeing' in your head the result in black-and-white.

With the iPhone it was already there in black-and-white; the whole world was monochrome, and that made a stunning difference to what I was doing. The final tonal range - the highlights, the contrast, the blacks - were there before my eyes. Which meant I could focus on the composition more, and the moment. Or moments. Because that was the other breakthrough.

The speed at which I could shoot three or four frames in a row was spectacular. In a bracket of four shots, grabbed in a second, I could almost always be assured of capturing the Decisive Moment. This happened repeatedly to start with, to the point where I questioned how good my photography would be without it. But gradually it settled, and I was again shooting only one image or perhaps two of every subject. The iPhone button, highly sensitive to the touch, had itself trained me to be decisive.

So, framing, seeing the contrast levels, grabbing the right moment - all this quickly became natural, a wonderful reversion to the great days of Leica photography. And where the Leica was relatively small and unobtrusive, the even smaller iPhone to its benefit was totally obvious - everyone assumed I was just another tourist taking snaps of the scenery. With the ubiquitous iPhone you can be half a metre from the subject and still not appear to be shooting their photograph so much as the wider scene. Nobody seems to care.

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Okay, there were downsides.

Firstly, the iPhone weighs a fraction of a Leica. You could kill someone with a Leica (and I'll bet someone, somewhere has) but whacking someone with an iPhone won't save your life. That means if you drop one on the sidewalk, it's as good as useless. You could drop a Leica in a rice paddy (and many photographers in the Vietnam War did) or have it fall off the roof of your moving car (as a friend once did) and it would still keep going. The iPhone isn't a toy, but nor is it a heavyweight tool.

But there'a a more common and constant side to the body weight issue: camera shake from such a light frame. For this I developed a simple and very effective solution: holding the camera horizontally with two hands, the right hand little finger under the frame as a stabilising base, and 'twisting' the body in opposite directions with the hands while shooting decisively on the screen button with the thumb. Very sharp. (I don't recommend the other option - using the side volume button as a shutter release - which tends to move the iPhone and lens when you really want stillness...)

The results were surprising in the iPhone, and even more surprising on the Mac Pro laptop. On the 15" screen, the images were strong enough and sharp enough to publish in a book. (I'm hoping they will be shortly.) Doubling the image size still gave acceptable quality, and thereafter the image breaks down quite rapidly. But who takes street images to blow up to poster size anyway?

I took maybe a thousand images in three weeks in Greece, and my excitement grew every day. I was back in Leica-land. I send a dozen or so images to my great photographic mentor Ed Douglas (he who worked on the West Coast with the likes of Imogen Cunningham, Judy Dater and Jack Welpott), who quickly wrote back: 'I think I hate the idea of iPhone photography but your work does look like it was created with a Leica and carries the feeling of a photographic tradition with it. Beautiful work.'  

The iPhone 7 claims to be better than the 6S, but reviews suggest not to any remarkable degree. Either way the results are pretty stunning. And in the not distant future, another contender is due to hit the market. RED, the Hollywood digital movie camera maker than slayed giants like Panavision and Arriflex, has announced its first-ever smartphone, the RED Titanium, with a miniature lens that will potentially get close to Leica performance. It won't be cheap (tipped at $1600+), but a lot cheaper than a Leica. And you can slip it into your shirt pocket. Meanwhile, Huawei's new P10 smartphone carries a Leica-branded so-called 'Summarit' lens - a marketing ploy, or a hint of greater things to come?

Perhaps it's too early to announce the death of the legendary Leica M-series. Or maybe the Wizards of Wetzlar are working on a smartphone that will shatter all before it. We all know about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Now, with smartphone cameras, we're into the realm of certain uncertainties. For serious street photographers, that's a positive waiting to happen.

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017

MOSCOW STAIRS

In the Khrushchev era, from the mid-Fifties to the early Sixties, Moscow experienced a postwar building boom of standardised workers' apartments, know even today as 'Khruschovka' blocks - rapid reinforced-concrete construction, five stories high, with modules of 20 apartments (four per floor) that could be multiplied to create entire new neighbourhoods. Progressively these Khruschovka blocks are disappearing, replaced by modern tower blocks 20 or 30 stories high. The stairwell of this block, in the south-western Zyuzino district, had just received a fresh coat of near-luminous green paint when I arrived. The afternoon winter sun coming through the windows did the rest... 

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017

OUCH! GREAT WORKS, TERRIBLE REVIEWS

The nail biting starts early, and never stops. Writers and filmmakers alike crave attention and praise, while bad reviews tend to induce panic, rage or despair. Most of us have suffered a few critical knocks (my worst was 'Oh, why was I reading this dreadful book?') and taken a drink or several, and moved on. Remember, you're never alone - others have been slaughtered too. If the critics have you in a funk, don't despair - take a look at these early damning reviews of now-classic works. Ouch indeed.

"Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary.

"Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.”

Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary.

"The old master has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares." Time, 1958.

"The old master has turned out another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares."

Time, 1958.

“The arguments are selected from the customary communistic sources and arguments... Consistency is not, and any informed reader knows that it cannot be, a quality either of the Communistic mind or Communist propaganda.” San Francisco Examiner, 1936.

“The arguments are selected from the customary communistic sources and arguments... Consistency is not, and any informed reader knows that it cannot be, a quality either of the Communistic mind or Communist propaganda.”

San Francisco Examiner, 1936.

“[American Psycho] is throughout numbingly boring, and for much of the time deeply and extremely disgusting. Not interesting-disgusting, but disgusting-disgusting: sickening, cheaply sensationalist, pointless except as a way of earning its author some money and notoriety.” Andrew Motion, The Observer, 1991.

“[American Psycho] is throughout numbingly boring, and for much of the time deeply and extremely disgusting. Not interesting-disgusting, but disgusting-disgusting: sickening, cheaply sensationalist, pointless except as a way of earning its author some money and notoriety.”

Andrew Motion, The Observer, 1991.

"Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847.

"Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.”

James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847.

“This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap…” Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1967.

“This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap…”

Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, 1967.

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive...” Orville Prescott, The New York Times, 1958.

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive...”

Orville Prescott, The New York Times, 1958.

“No better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population…’ The Springfield Republican, 1885.

“No better in tone than the dime novels which flood the blood-and-thunder reading population…’

The Springfield Republican, 1885.

“The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.” Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review, 1961.

“The book is an emotional hodgepodge; no mood is sustained long enough to register for more than a chapter.”

Richard G. Stern, The New York Times Book Review, 1961.

“Sentimental rubbish... Show me one page that contains an idea.” The Odessa Courier, 1877, on Anna Karenina.

“Sentimental rubbish... Show me one page that contains an idea.”

The Odessa Courier, 1877, on Anna Karenina.

“The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better his original film was…Part II's dialogue often sounds like cartoon captions... its insights are fairly lame.... It’s not really much of anything that can be easily defined.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 1974.

“The only remarkable thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II is the insistent manner in which it recalls how much better his original film was…Part II's dialogue often sounds like cartoon captions... its insights are fairly lame.... It’s not really much of anything that can be easily defined.”

Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 1974.

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine… There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humour.”  The Sporting Times, 1922.

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a specialty of the literature of the latrine… There are whole chapters of it without any punctuation or other guide to what the writer is really getting at. Two-thirds of it is incoherent, and the passages that are plainly written are devoid of wit, displaying only a coarse salacrity [sic] intended for humour.” 

The Sporting Times, 1922.

“For all [Lowry’s] earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.” The New Yorker, 1947.

“For all [Lowry’s] earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel.”

The New Yorker, 1947.

"Mad Max is ugly and incoherent, and aimed, probably accurately, at the most uncritical of moviegoers." Tom Buckley, New York Times, 1980.

"Mad Max is ugly and incoherent, and aimed, probably accurately, at the most uncritical of moviegoers."

Tom Buckley, New York Times, 1980.

“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” L.P. Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925. "What has never been alive cannot very well go on living. So this is a book of the season only..."  New York Herald Tribune, 1925.  

“Mr. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a good shaking. Here is an unmistakable talent unashamed of making itself a motley to the view. The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.”

L.P. Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925.

"What has never been alive cannot very well go on living. So this is a book of the season only..." 

New York Herald Tribune, 1925.

 

“Simultaneously fascinating and repellent, Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s colorful but dramatically unsatisfying inside look at Mafia life in 1955-80 New York City.” Joseph McBride, Variety, 1990.

“Simultaneously fascinating and repellent, Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s colorful but dramatically unsatisfying inside look at Mafia life in 1955-80 New York City.”

Joseph McBride, Variety, 1990.

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”  Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, 1867.

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” 

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, 1867.

“Nothing short of an invasion could add much to Casablanca.” Time, 1942.

“Nothing short of an invasion could add much to Casablanca.”

Time, 1942.

THE MEAT SHIELD

DIGGERS AND GREEKS by Maria Hill (UNSW Press), reviewed by Tony Maniaty

In the greatest conflict ever, failed Allied operations were subsumed into the thrust for absolute victory: Dunkirk might have been a dud, but D-Day was a bold success and Hiroshima the atomic coup de grace. Winning was everything, and wasted feints, pouring men into suicidal battles and hopeless rear-guard actions were all part of the cruel mix; thousands must die so that millions might survive, and victory be assured. Such grim logic, unassailable at the height of total war, breaks down over time. How vital were those losses to the outcome, how many staggering errors were glossed over in official and popular histories, and why, half a century later, are some of the worst still unchallenged?

AUTRALIAN TROOPS IN GREECE, 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

AUTRALIAN TROOPS IN GREECE, 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

Maria Hill’s study of the doomed Australian campaigns in mainland Greece and Crete in the spring of 1941 goes to the philosophical heart of the matter: do individual lives, even individual nations, matter when everything is at stake? Did the War Cabinet in London, faced with the greatest conflagration the world had seen, and planning their military responses against Nazism on an equally historic scale, bear any responsibility to the fate of the Greek people, to Greek soldiers and partisans or to thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops despatched into near-certain defeat, with the high risk of death or capture? The meat shield, 'cannon fodder' in World War One parlance. How much of what transpired in those dark weeks was sacrifice, and how much was high-level ineptitude? And worse: how much was outright deceit? Exploring this contentious ground with substantial research, Hill - a Greek-born immigrant to Australia - delivers harsh verdicts against the British and Greek leaderships.

By late 1940, it was clear that the Italians alone could not conquer Greece. Hitler was furious that Mussolini had tried, fearing the outcome that soon transpired: Germany would have to deploy scarce divisions to finish the blotched job. The Greeks had fought hard for six freezing months, but they had not chosen to fight Italy and didn't want war with Germany, yet such were the convoluted times, and mess they found themselves in. On 6 April 1941, German forces swept into northern Greece - ten divisions, 100,000 men, nearly 1400 aircraft - and Greek resistance proved futile.

Why then did Churchill insist, eight weeks earlier, that more than 60,000 Allied troops - including 17,000-plus Australians - be shipped urgently from North Africa to mainland Greece to help defend the indefensible? Code-named ‘Lustreforce’, the British-led campaign carried an air of unreality from the outset. When the Australians stepped ashore in Athens in March, weeks before the Germans invaded, they found the German legation in the Greek capital still open for business, its swastika flag flying in the breeze. ‘This situation,’ Hill observes, ‘must have appeared ludicrous to the troops deployed to Greece to fight the Germans.’

Britain believed it carried more weight in Greece than it did, and sought to expand its political and commercial influence through the link between the British and Greek royal families, to a point where ‘the cornerstone of British policy in Greece was the monarchy’. Implying support in war proved unwise, a point noted by the British Chiefs of Staff committee as early as 1939: ‘It will be to our advantage for Greece to remain neutral as long as possible, even if Italy declares war against us. As a belligerent she will undoubtedly prove to be a liability...’ Churchill was undeterred: he wanted Greece dragged into a Balkan front, a base for air attacks on Rumanian oil fields supplying the Nazi war effort. The Greeks, like the neighbouring Turks and Yugoslavs, feared the consequences of a German invasion, and boldly attempted to play three cards - pushing London to provide military supplies to fight the Italians on the Albanian front; resisting British pressure to allow an Allied expedition to enter Greek territory; and hoping to keep a supercharged Germany at bay.

ALLIED FORCES MOVE NORTH IN GREECE , 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

ALLIED FORCES MOVE NORTH IN GREECE , 1941 (AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL)

This frantic stir of wheeling, dealing, and duplicity is well caught by Hill: the sense of foreboding in Athens is immense as a Nazi assault, bigger than anything the Allies can counter, becomes inevitable; the lethal consequences for not only Greece but also for the Allied expedition are obvious. Britain, as Hill suggests, was hoisted on its own petard: the government in Athens, fearing the worst, caved in and agreed to allow the Allies on its soil, and political frenzy soon turned to military disaster.

In all this, Australia was kept largely in the dark. Canberra relied heavily on cables from London regarding events in the Balkans but these, says Hill, omitted what British intelligence really knew. Attending talks in London on the Greek campaign, Prime Minister Robert Menzies cabled his deputy Artie Fadden that ‘the overwhelming moral and political repercussions of abandoning Greece’ (this was Churchill’s public stance) along with ‘the estimate made on the spot by our military advisers’ (dubious) had secured his vote.  Menzies more likely was playing politics, clinging desperately to his hopes of reciprocal British support in the likelihood of Pacific war with Japan. Canberra was worried about fortress Singapore, not outpost Athens.

Greece, as Australian military intelligence soon discovered, was crawling with fifth columnists, the result of Berlin’s open courting before the war. The Germans knew the country well and had support within key elements of the Athenian political class and military leadership - information and contacts that would help enormously in both the invasion and occupation. The Athens phone exchange was German-built and about 50 Germans were still working there. (Since most telephone communication went through the exchange, noted an Australian officer, ‘security was quite a problem.’) By contrast, Greece was largely a mystery to the Allies. They had no decent maps, only a handful could speak the language, the Allies had almost no experience of mountain warfare nor adequate clothing for it, and the Greek Army was exhausted and torn by divided loyalties. Many of its commanders, Hill claims, were defeatist: ‘The myth of German invincibility had affected Greek morale, as had their pro-German inclinations.’ 

As the Australian forces pressed north, the situation grew increasingly bleak. Entire regions were collapsing in the face of the Nazi assault. One Greek general signed an unauthorised armistice with German commanders, other units ‘packed up without reference to their GHQ’, the capitulation of the Greek army was imminent. Greek refugees, some close to starvation, were choking the roads. Yet many Greek troops fought bravely, in some cases ‘dying to the last’; militias and civilians supported the besieged Allies as the Luftwaffe strafed relentlessly in the absence of Allied air cover, rattling even battle-hardened Anzacs. ‘Thebes was badly plastered, Larissa was a pancake and Lamia in shambles,’ wrote a sergeant. The campaign had become a rout. Australia’s commander, General Thomas Blamey, was said to be almost in tears as he gave the order to retreat and evacuate.  

On Anzac Day, as Allied forces fled south to the Peloponnese, scrambling onto whatever craft they could find, the British Ministry of Information issued a message informing the dominion populations that all was going well. ‘(1) Excellent collaboration and harmonious relations between British and Greek people. (2) Admiration for Greece which her heroic resistance has evoked on the part of the British public.’  Three days later, Menzies wrote in his War Cabinet diary, ‘Winston says “We will lose only 5,000 in Greece”. We will in fact lose at least 15,000. W. is a great man, but he is more addicted to wishful thinking every day.’ A day later the campaign was over; the Germans had captured 7,000 men, and the vengeful Nazi occupation of Greece had begun. Hitler had triumphed.

GERMAN PARATROOPERS LANDING IN CRETE, APRIL 1941

Crete, and the forces sent to hold and defend it, would suffer the same fate. At sunrise on 20 May 1941, an armada of German planes flew over the island, dropping 10,000 paratroopers ahead of a major amphibious landing of German forces. Once again Australian forces, under British command, found themselves in the frontline without having been part of the planning. So too were the Greek forces and Cretan civilians; all, says Hill, ‘victims of British deception’, led to believe that adequate defences had been constructed when few had been put into place. On Churchill’s orders, Crete was to be a bastion against German advances into North Africa. In the evacuation of mainland Greece, 45,000 troops had fled to Crete, turning it into an operational zone and a prime German target. The stage was set for disaster, in Hill’s view, because of ‘British ineptitude and mismanagement’. (Even as Germany’s airborne invasion approached, ‘from 1300 to 1730 hours a siesta or rest period was indulged in by all officers...’) On the ground, German forces were outnumbered - but their air superiority gave them victory in just ten days. One Greek defeat had quickly followed another.

There were rare moments of glory. Hill singles out the Australian defence of Rethymnon airfield, valiantly held until surrender was inevitable, but everywhere German Stuka dive-bombers created hell for Allied troops already suffering ‘war neurosis’ - and for Cretan civilians, seemingly fearless as they hunted for Nazis, said one observer, ‘like Daniel Boon stalking Red Indians’. Desperation set in: to ward off hunger, Cretan women gathered ‘weeds by day and snails by night’, and in places the Allied evacuation was accompanied by the stench of rotting bodies and broken sewers.

Of the forces left behind in Greece and Crete, nearly 4000 Australians became POWs, but several hundred escaped in Crete, some joining partisan groups for the war’s duration and others working on behalf of British intelligence. These ‘stragglers’, officially listed as ‘missing in action’, found a new role among guerrilla fighters and the rural poor, and helped to generate a heroic legend in contrast to the bleak images of defeat framing their initial involvements in Greece.     

‘Debacle’ is a term too easily used in military history, but the Allied campaigns in Greece more than qualify. The obstacles were as obvious as the outcome; soldiers were despatched into zones of defeat where almost nothing of strategic value could be achieved. Some historians still argue that the Allied resistance in Greece, albeit inadequate, critically delayed Hitler’s assault on Russia in the bleak winter, a view endorsed by Stalin himself. But the trade-off, notes Hill, was a massive weakening of the Allied position in North Africa. Post-war, British commander General Archibald Wavell took the ‘grand design’ rationale, admitting ‘it may have been psychological and political considerations that tilted the balance in the end over military matters. To have withdrawn... would have been disastrous to our reputations in the USA and with other neutrals’. The official Greek history painfully underlines this cold stance: ‘...it was agreed that a British Expeditionary Force be sent to Greece, for the prestige of the British with little hope of a successful outcome of the operation.’

Diggers and Greeks is strong on information, but short on style. Hill is certainly no Antony Beevor, seamlessly weaving telling moments of conflict into a grand portrayal of the human condition. Her strength is research, and her telling of this extraordinary episode - as the campaigns turn to tragedy not only for the hapless Anzacs but also for the doomed Greeks they were sent to defend - is often as blunt as the Greek earth itself. But her view that Australia officially ‘neglected’ the Greek campaigns because they were failures (unlike, as she puts it, ‘the inspiration to Australian war mythology’ that Gallipoli has been) has echoes in the swift engulfment of Singapore and the capture of thousands of Allied troops barely one year later. The war was ultimately won, but the levels of mismanagement, delusion and deceit that created these catastrophes has defeated even the mythmakers.

This review first appeared in The Weekend Australian, April, 2010.

ENTRÉE: six months in a paris writing studio

In 2016, French-Australian author Sophie Masson asked me to answer a few questions about my 1989 residency in the Keesing Studio in Paris, as a visiting writer sponsored by the Australian Council for the Arts. My answers run below, along with a few images from the era. The Keesing Studio, funded by a bequest from the author Nancy Keesing, has been home - six months at a time - to dozens of Australian creative writers eager to experience the ‘Paris factor’. I encourage authors to apply.

TONY MANIATY, 'SELFIE' IN MIRROR, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

TONY MANIATY, 'SELFIE' IN MIRROR, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

When were you the Keesing Studio resident? And why did you decide to apply for it?

I was the studio occupant for the first six months of 1989. I always wanted to spend time in Paris writing a novel, a long-held dream, so I figured six months would cure me. I ended up staying in Paris for three years. I didn’t get the residency first time around, I applied but missed out - the person who was chosen pulled out, and the Australia Council rang and said, ‘Can you go in her place?’ I was on the next plane, although the flight itself turned into a nightmare. As we approached Europe, the captain informed us that violent snowstorms were blanketing all major airports. We’d have to divert to either Brussels or London; in line with French democracy, the passengers were given a vote, and Brussels won. We took a bus through blizzard conditions down to Paris, where I discovered my luggage was lost. I spent my first days in Paris buying fresh underwear. But I was in Paris and that was all that mattered.

What did you work on when you were there, and did it change from your original vision as a result of the residency?

I had two concurrent projects. I was editing my second novel ‘Smyrna’, so had the very enjoyable task of sitting with my Penguin editor Bruce Sims in the studio fixing the book line by line. Since it was Paris, we also consumed a fair amount of wine. (I maintain the novel was the better for it, and I’m sure Bruce agrees.) Then I moved onto what was to be my third novel, titled ‘The Conduct of Arrows’, set in Brazil in the early 1960s. I’d been to Brazil for research a few years earlier and brought copious notes and files to Paris, ready to crack 'the big one’, the novel that would cement my career. I began writing about the tropics of Brazil in the depths of a miserable European winter, and by spring I had the first draft. Penguin wanted to publish it but I wasn’t happy with the result. My six months was up, and, out of cash, I returned to Sydney to work as a producer on the SBS World News desk, which quickly saw me sent back to Paris as their European correspondent, a gig that lasted until 1992. Paris again had me in its wonderful grip. I spent two years running around Europe, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Little did I know that the Brazilian novel would sit in a drawer for another twenty years before I tackled it again. I’m polishing what I should be the final draft, but you never know... 

KITCHEN, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

KITCHEN, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

What were your first impressions of the Keesing studio itself, and its neighbourhood, and how did that evolve over the course of your residency?

When I walked into the studio it was pretty bare, with no kitchen bench space. Being of a practical bent, I immediately took the metro to the nearest timber yard, bought some wooden planks, found the location of the nearest BHV store (a French hardware chain) and bought nails and cheap tools and got to work. For the first day or so I was building, not writing. I prowled the surrounding Marais streets by night and found leftover furniture and set myself up in the studio as a second-hand king. I built a folding screen to create a separate office space. The only thing that irked me was the lumpy single bed (since I was single) but the notorious Madame Bruneau - fierce moral guardian of the Cite des Arts, where the studio was situated - would not countenance swapping the single for a double. There was a tiny TV set, black and white. Once I’d set up the kitchen I was cooking pasta and was as happy as Larry.

Did you go alone, or with a partner? In either case, what were your favourite things about living in Paris for six months,and your least favourite things?

I went alone but a strange thing happened: I met a French woman. This turned into a torrid affair, complicated by the fact that (a) she was married to an Englishman, and (b) she had an eighteen-month-old daughter. It was further complicated by the fact that their best friends in Australia had asked me to deliver a present for the baby girl, which I duly did. One thing led to another and I had to write back to my Australian friends to inform them that not only had I delivered the present for the baby girl but that I'd run off with the mother. (The husband, I discovered to my relief, had left her.) So my Paris sojourn began to resemble a Feydeau farce. As spring came, Paris turned into the great outdoor city it was, and still is, and I came to love everything about it. The food, the markets, the bookstores, art stores, cafes, even now I struggle to think of anything I didn’t like in that city. 

BED AND LIVING SPACE, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

What did you think about it as a writing/ideas environment?

The Keesing studio was a good place to work at night, but by day I found it gloomy; it was a new concrete building in a wonderful old neighbourhood, the worst possible combination, and whenever I could I escaped to write in libraries and cafes, or along the quays if the weather was fine. But I wasn’t complaining; the studio was in perhaps the best location in Paris, it was clean and rat-free, and best of all, it was free. I did all my manuscript typing there. (This was in an era where typewriters were still considered practical tools, not curiosities.) I should mention that when I was awarded the residency, there was no living stipend attached; I explained to the Australia Council that one couldn’t live in Paris on love alone, they agreed and came up with $10,000 for six months - which thereafter became a fixture of the residency. 

Tell us about your favourite Paris places - sites, culture, food…

I loved the Jewish restaurants in the Marais, which back then was not trendy by any means; there were still plenty of trades and working class people around, and the odd ‘derro’ lying on the footpath, although by the time I returned to Paris in 1991, it was already showing signs of gentrification, and now I find the area insufferably self-conscious. Bars and cafes: my regular haunts were the La Tartine on rue de Rivoli in the Marais, said to be where Trotsky had written his radical texts (and where the toilets had not been renovated since) and La Palette on rue de Seine, filled with the bartered artworks of students from the the Beaux-Arts across the street. Food: my favourite restaurant when I could afford it was the Balzar, in rue des Ecoles near the Sorbonne, where the dry old waiter got to know my order: cold lamb with endive salad and fresh mayonnaise, and a glass of Morgon rouge. I loved the Paris metro too, and prided myself on knowing the shortest ‘correspondences’ between stations. Notre Dame did nothing for me, nor the Louvre, but the Musee Quay d’Osay housed my favourite painting in the world, Van Gogh’s 'Portrait of Doctor Gachet'. It was always incredible to see it hanging there.

WRITING DESK, KEESING STUDIO, PARIS, 1989

What experiences stand out for you in the time you spent in Paris?

I was invited by a friend to her parent’s place one day, they were ‘having a few people over’ for drinks. The ‘place’ turned out to be the entire top floor of a building in Saint Germain du Pres, an apartment of twenty or more rooms, and the 200 people there quaffing Bollinger were attending the Paris Air Show, and were aircraft dealers - people who bought and sold Jumbos to airlines and fighter planes to African dictatorships. For a boy from Australia, even for a journalist and author from Sydney, this was a heavy crowd. Paris, behind its historic laneways and facades, was home to some of the richest people on the planet. At the other end of the spectrum, I loved sharpening my pencils in the Cafe Select and drinking my coffee and being left alone to create for hours on end. The fact that everyone in Paris saw this as perfectly normal adult behaviour was enlightening.

Do you think the residency has had a lasting impact on your work, and in what way?

Paris taught me the value of literature, and its place in a civilised society. In early 1989 I’d had one novel published by Penguin, with another about to be released, but the words ‘Penguin’ and ‘novel’ seemed to create some magical ether that opened doors at all levels. One night I met the head of the French equivalent of my principal funders, the Australia Council Literature Board, and asked him if they had negative front-page stories in France about writers getting grants from the taxpayers' funds - as we did at the time in Australia. He looked at me, more than a little baffled, and asked how much money was involved. I had no idea, but I said something wildly extravagant like five-million dollars a year, hoping at least to impress him. He shook his head, unbelieving. ‘Merde,’ he said, searching for the right metaphor. ‘But that’s, that's just... the wing tip of a fighter plane!’ My time among the Parisiennes gave me enormous respect for French cultural values, not to mention their sense of theatre.

All images copyright Tony Maniaty 2017