INTO THE WILD

The land of my father's ancestors, Greece’s rugged Mani peninsula was once a no-go zone for strangers - even Greek strangers. I first went down there from Athens in 1984 as a young traveller. In 2009, with photographer Julian Kingma, I returned to the Mani to find that, while the Maniots may be seducing more travellers these days, they've lost none of their famed pride and passion.

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Shimmering in summer, ice-clad in winter, the grey-green Taygetus mountains rise off olive-strewn plains, shutting out progress and warning of what's to come - the barren, southern-most finger of the Peloponnese, battered by the howling tramontana winds and inhabited by black-draped villagers with stern codes of honour. As much blood-stained opera as geography, the Mani peninsula has long been a destination approached by foreigners, even other Greeks, with high anxiety.

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"You're mad," said an Athenian friend when I first came here. "If you look the wrong way at a Maniot, he'll slit your throat." That was 1984: she'd never been to the Mani, not even to its more hospitable edges. "But I'm a Maniot," I protested. "That's how we got our family name." My Greek father was born in Turkey and had never been to the Mani either, but some ancestors had fled from here, and he'd certainly inherited their qualities of resilience and authority. As a lumbering bus carried me deeper into the Mani on that opening journey, I looked out a dusty window and saw, crudely painted in metre-high letters: "Stop! Communists go back!" They were unswerving supporters of royalty and right-wing politics. Now, four hours from Athens and a quarter of a century on, I'm wondering if "Long Live the King" and "Death to All Traitors" still hold sway.

The fishing town of Gythio is a useful start, though hardly the Mani in extremis; that comes later. It's a short drive south-east of Sparta and handy, if you're coming from the capital, for an early lunch: the sight of raw octopus drying in the morning sun might not stir your appetite, but marinated anchovies (gavros) and deep-fried whitebait (marides) - hyper-fresh off the boat and stacked like bullets on the plate - are difficult to resist, especially if you add a glass of pungent Maniatiko ouzo and ice. Across a causeway sits Marathonisi (fennel island) - called Kranae by Homer - where mythical elopers Paris and Helen spent their first night of bliss. Today it hosts a shabby but hard-working boatyard; in the Mani, practicality always wins over looks. The typical Maniot has no interest in out-styling those around him, just as his great-grandfather's primary interest was in out-gunning the neighbours. Today's warning sign is more likely to be, "Stop! Fashionistas go back!"

But they come. Both coasts of the Mani - the Aegean in the east, the Ionian in the west - are dotted now with substantial stone houses, bloated replicas of the villas of the past, and most of the owners are wealthy outsiders. I spot a blazing red Ferrari, with Athenian plates of course. In 1984, Gythio seemed - like most of the Mani - a backwater, its charms buried under grime. Today it sparkles with Euro-cash. So great is the construction boom that Albanian stonemasons have been imported to erect the faux fortresses; the locals have long forgotten how to carve the deep-grey rocks that shaped their own architecture.

"What's changed most?" I ask 80-year-old Mitsos, sitting patiently at his family-run taverna, watching the fishing boats come in. "Tourismos," tourism, he unravels in a shaky voice. "They changed everything. Foreigners came, they know the place now." The first wave appeared a decade ago and saved the Mani from deeper penury. "I was a poor boy, one of eight," Mitsos declares. "We didn't bother anybody. But if anybody bothered us, we soon knocked them down." He quickly warms to the Mani's us-versus-them ethos. "We fought the Italians in the war and chased them out, and before that, Greece was occupied for four centuries - but no Ottoman Turk set foot here." The Mani is famed for producing the country's toughest sea captains, police chiefs and army officers, a source of local pride and beyond challenge. ("In Athens," a waiter boasts, "those who protect nightclubs are all Maniots too.") Does old Mitsos see himself as Greek first, or a Manioti?

He laughs, at the idiocy of my question. "Manioti!"

The rudiments of Mani life and rejection of external influences ("we don't use spices in our cooking," says another local, "because the Turks did") emerge the deeper south you go, well beyond the clichéd Greece of classical ruins, whitewashed houses and plate-smashing Zorbas. None of that here: crumbling stone walls still delineate who owns to a centimetre exactly what, and empty shotgun cartridges from the hunting season (migratory birds from Africa, quail, wild boar) hint at a deeply embedded culture of vendettas that survived into the 1970s. "A hard life makes hard people," says George Rostandis, my guide. "This is the life they live, and love."

Coming off the winding, rock-strewn road into Kotronas Bay, we stop to absorb the view, a panorama of cloud-churned peaks and water so blue it seems out of place, too pretty for the Mani's intrigues and darkness of spirit. If this is hell, it's set against heaven. That night at En Plo, the eatery of Greek celebrity chef Mary Panagakos, we'll feast on Maniot specialties - pork sausages called loukanika, laced with chunks of orange and lemon peel, wild thyme and oregano; a salad of dried figs, lettuce, walnuts in grape juice and pomegranate seeds; and a roast of goat, potatoes and artichokes cooked on a bed of fennel, flavoured with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and oregano, and slowly oven-baked in its own juices. The meat is robust in flavour. Even goats here thrive on hardship, drinking sea water and feeding on thistles.

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Down on the wharf, Petros Perinarkos coolly displays his catch: a three-kilo snapper. "I've worked since I was five years old. Every day we ate fish, it was the poor cousin of beef. Now it's just for the rich." Poverty sent a lot of Maniots away to Germany, to Australia, everywhere. "They worked in the frost and sun, and went to bed hungry." Since curses and the evil eye still count in the Mani, I'm curious if he knows any superstitions about the sea. Perinarkos nods solemnly: "But they are secret. If I told you, they might come true. About the sea you don't joke." Another fisherman, Aris, waves dismissively and laughs. "All rubbish. I don't believe in paradise or hell - life is only what we eat and drink." Deftly gutting a pink-red barbounia, much prized in the tavernas, he smiles cheekily.

"And no need for Viagra - here we eat eels!"

If summer is devoted largely to fishing, winter is the season of olives. The harvest starts in November and runs until February, and picking and pressing go on across the coldest months. Olives are the Mani's big cash crop, grown on steep terraces carved into the hills centuries ago. I spot groves filled with olive trees, unharvested. "The owners have given them up to rot," says Alexi, one of the young pickers. "Nobody collects them. You only touch what is yours." Driving uphill, we spy an old woman going our way. She's bent, impossibly tiny, all in black with a white sack on her back. Where is she headed? Her eyes narrow. "To collect olives." Can we take her photo? "Oxi," no. Would she like a lift? "Oxi." She proceeds as if the exchange had never taken place. "That's how all the Maniots used to be," says Rostandis, shaking his head. "Believe me, these are very difficult people."

The land is harsh, and prone to earth tremors and quakes. The shifting plates under the Maniots' feet - a constant reminder of their tenuous grip on the land - surely added to their troubled psyche. Yet in spring the peninsula hosts Europe's most stunning wildflower display, with over 600 species, while roadsides yield herbal treasures in abundance.

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Ahead waits the lighthouse at Cape Tenaron, where the escarpment falls hard to the sea; a terror for shipping, perfect for pirates. In the absence of fertile soil, piracy kept a lot of Maniots alive, and this was the ideal point of attack; ships rounding the southern-most tip of mainland Europe were laden with bounty and exposed to jagged rocks. When a French ship came to grief in 1786, locals plundered its cargo, its rigging and its timbers. An observer of the Mani pirates wrote, "They cannot resist, they say, the alluring spectacle of so many European vessels continually passing before their eyes..."

Graveyards cling desperately to the windswept hills as hawks and eagles wheel overhead, looking for insects and lesser birds. "This is the entry to the underworld," Rostandis declares. "The Death Oracle, the Gates of Hades." A small crypt-like stone structure rises from a field sprinkled with bright purple crocuses. In pre-Christian times, worried Greeks came here to consult priests about the afterlife. The Maniots were the last Europeans to convert to Christianity, in the 10th century; as befits extremists, the ferocity of their resistance gave way to profound conversion, and some villages boasted up to 30 churches, with family-appointed priests.

As we drive north again, up the west coast, rows of turquoise beehives suggest order and industry. Then an apparition rises off the hilltop like medieval Lego, a series of massive stone boxes piled on boxes to create disturbing shapes and a sense of foreboding. It was here - in the village of Vathia - that Maniot family feuds reached their pinnacle, an English traveller in 1805 noting the community had been "divided into two parties for the last 40 years, in which time they reckon that about 100 men have been killed." Today the austere towers are just as they were when I clambered through them 25 years ago, except for one telltale sign; on doors are numbers, evidence of a doomed effort in the 1990s to convert them into tourist lodgings.

The rooms are again empty, wrecked, splattered with bird droppings.

"Why would anyone pay to stay here in the heat of summer when they could holiday at the beach?" asks Rostandis. He's right; why reside in a labyrinth of cells an hour's walk up from the crystalline sea? Yet the towers of Vathia retain an eerie fascination. Reflections of power, much as skyscrapers are today, they were instruments of revenge too - "spite architecture", built ever-higher to block their neighbour's view. As battles raged and shots were exchanged, the towers rose, each side vying for vertical supremacy. Now only the wind hisses through the ruins, and wild fig trees threaten to engulf the place.

We retreat to Areopoli, a bustling market centre that hosts, behind a simple façade, one of Greece's best traditional bakeries. Presiding at Artos is Melia Tsatsouli, as authentic and crusty as the country bread (psomi horiatiko) that emerges from the 200-year-old wood-fuelled oven. "Sugar, flour, sunflower oil, cream," she calls, mixing up sweet bread, "and ground oriental seed called mahlepi, to give flavour." And then, the magic ingredient: ouzo. "You'll honour me if you drink one, and I won't take no for an answer." She sloshes out a generous shot. "You must learn how to do business with the Maniots." It's eleven in the morning, but time for Tsatsouli is obviously flexible. We clink glasses: "Yia mas!"

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The shop is packed. One man buys 10 aromatic loaves for family and friends. Some have come far for the delicious tiropites (cheese pies), and koulourakia Smyrneika (sweet biscuits), others for the hard-baked paksimadia that Greeks dip in their morning coffee.

Tsatsouli knows all about elopements and vendettas. "Only these days we're civilised," she says. "The children know each other, so the matchmakers have nothing to do. By the 1990s, the 'old minds' of the Mani had emigrated to the Lord - and young Maniots went to Athens to study and found a different life." The photos of Tsatsouli as a young woman, coated in a veil of flour, offer a classic Greek beauty, windblown in a floral dress, legs on show. Widowed in her twenties, she raised six children and remains optimistic. "When I retire," she tells her customers, "I will find myself a rich American, or even an Australian, and live my life!"

A few steps away, in the fresco-filled Orthodox church of the archangels Gabriel and Michael, Patir Yiorgis oversees a dwindling congregation. "Once it was an incredibly religious part of Greece," he reflects, opening his palms. "A double problem faces us - the young men don't want to be priests any more, and those who do can't find women eager to be priests' wives." Does he have this problem? Father George laughs. "I have three teenage boys who make my life difficult. It's a war. A daily war in the house."

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It's hard to imagine any priest having the power to stop Maniots from warring; in the words of one early observer, it was customary "for priests to wear a brace of pistols" as they pursued their religious duties. "It was difficult," Father George agrees, "but a priest's opinion carried weight. To have an idea of the distrust between the Mani families, imagine this - you see a wall, you think the wall is solid, you see no window, no opening, only the barrel of a gun. You see no person, and then you feel the bullet, and that's it."

Our journey closes before a glistening bay. The fishing village of Limeni once served as the sheltered port for Areopoli, although in the wild winter it's said to be anything but safe. These days a culinary drawcard puts Limeni firmly on the map: Takis Fish Taverna, hailed as one of Greece's finest and frequented by presidents of the republic, business tycoons and actors. "The queen of Denmark also," says owner Takis Kalapothaki. Opened for business in 1986, shortly after I first trekked along these shores, the taverna keeps expanding.

Kalapothaki has no trouble naming the house specialty: "Fresh fish." In the modern world, nothing could be simpler or more complicated. "By the traditional Mani way of preparing it; we cook the fish slowly over hot charcoal, with salt on the fish." And not any salt. "It's from very old salt fields near here. There are rocks, with deep holes, and they fill them with buckets of salt water and it evaporates." Sounds easy enough, but I've discovered nothing here is easy. "One single rainy day in August," says Kalapothaki, "and you don't get any salt for another year."

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The long tides of history lap at our feet, blue and white tablecloths flutter in the breeze, lunch customers are settling in, overlooking waters so pristine we can spot schools of bream two metres down. The undersea world of the Mani constantly re-creates itself, every day and every hour - unlike the land behind us, strong and stubborn yet worn by the centuries. "What makes this place different from the rest of Greece," he reflects, "is the people. We had nothing and we fought for everything." Outsiders may arrive with bulging pockets, the kids might depart for Athens and beyond, the vendettas are fading into legend, but Takis Kalapothaki and his fellow Maniots remain a breed apart - those stone walls are still in place.

"We consider ourselves the toughest of all," he says with a broad smile, and just a hint of danger.

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This article first appeared in Australian Gourmet Traveller in March 2010.

revisiting MICHAEL HERR'S 'DISPATCHES'

The death in 2016 of author and screenwriter Michael Herr focused attention on his greatest achievement - Dispatches - and its stellar place in the realm of creative writing. Arguably the Vietnam War’s most enduring literary legacy, it was described by John Le Carre as 'the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.' Dispatches is indeed an enduring anthem to a conflict that shaped and defined a generation: a cultural reflection of heady times, a literary spectacle that conveys the energy of a rock concert, the speed of an action movie, the deluded insights of a drug trip and the questioning and suspicion of the Establishment. But is Dispatches a vibrant example of war reportage gone feral, or a deft work of the imagination, a novel posing as journalism? In numerous conflicting statements, Michael Herr only muddied the issue.

In the four decades since its 1977 publication, the reputation of Dispatches has solidified (and one might argue, calcified) within the New Journalism pantheon. Feted for its radical departure from war reporting norms, and stylistic innovations, it’s held by many to be the authentic account of what ‘being there’ was like; only writing of such unconventional nature, the argument goes, could sum up such an ‘unconventional’ war. Herr based his 200-page account on his year-long experience in the hellhole of Vietnam, in 1967-68, when he filed for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other magazines. Free to roam the battlefield without daily deadlines, he wasn't beholden to values historically instilled into, and expected of, daily news reporters, including the treasured concept of ‘objectivity’.

In an interview in 2000 with The Observer newspaper, Herr described his mission as 'part of the [1960s] decade thing. I had done the decade, and it had to end in Vietnam’. Yet unlike many artefacts of that tumultuous era, Dispatches hasn't dated. Re-reading Herr's pyrotechnic text reveals a journey imbued with contemporary, universal and timeless relevance. Moving across its jagged landscape, the reader is taken, as in a game of chance, on a random route without the comfort of narrative coherence or even a clear overarching argument. The book becomes a reflection of the war itself, one which the American nation has stumbled into, become hopelessly lost in, and from which there's no way out other than withdrawal and defeat.

From the outset, Herr establishes the hallucinatory quality that hovers over the story, describing a map of Vietnam posted on his wall depicting the country's French colonial-era territories, all of which have dissolved into history:

It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.

The signal here is clear: we’re heading into vaporous, shifting, and unknowable space. The Vietnam we’re familiar with from television news and magazine spreads, he suggests, the one that the media in what the grunts call ‘the World’ has imbued with currency, isn't the same Vietnam we'll encounter in Dispatches, which is a world turned upside down, filled with fantasies, lies, insanities, a constant sub-stream of absurdity, a world of delusions and darkness. Herr quickly shifts the reader to the battlefield where he encounters an American soldier hyped up on pills ‘like dead snakes kept too long a in a jar.’ Fellow soldiers describe the grunt as crazy, and, if Herr cares to look into his eyes, ‘that’s the whole fucking story right there.’

I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean.

In just a few pages, Herr manages to convey his key intentions: to defy the conventional view of the war; to establish its ‘unknowability’; to position himself as an innocent abroad, moving into the war’s darker corners with a blend of anxiety, curiosity and courage; and to attach his perspective, and his fate - unlike many correspondents in Vietnam - to the ground soldiers pursuing an elusive enemy and prosecuting an unwinnable war. Confessing that he always went to sleep stoned in Saigon, Herr also unsettles the professional expectations, and literary conventions, of ‘reliable’ war reporting.

This isn't a battlefield of confident commanders and patriotic, polished troops lined up in rows with visions of victory; in Herr’s eyes, and in his narrative, there will be no shiny medals or songs of men marching off to war. They’re replaced with disillusioned, hollow-eyed, drug-addled recruits and draftees flown on Pan American shuttles to Saigon, and their songs will be The Rolling Stones’ ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows’, Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, and The Animals' ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’. In earlier wars, correspondents packed whiskey; ‘We packed grass and tape.’ Yet, as Herr later acknowledged, some elements never change:

Young men are expected to go, to fight, to kill, to die. And with young men, it’s always fascinating, I mean it’s one of great clichés of war literature - the young man full of piss and vinegar and ready to get into combat to prove his gallantry and his courage, make his family proud and his community proud. And they go and they see what it is, and it’s too late.

Herr has no illusions about the men he’s mixing with, and whom he admires. For all their brutal honesty, they were also victims of Vietnam, of what the war was doing to them. ‘They were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be?’ The narrative is shadowed by an almost constant intertwining of twin anxieties: the soldiers’ quest for vaguely rational explanations of their mission, which never come, and Herr’s fascination with his equal failure to fully understand why he is there. (At one point he offers a trite explanation: ‘I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.’)

In his attempt to make it ‘less real’, Herr ironically imbued the Vietnam conflict with a degree of authenticity that other media representatives could not, or would not, replicate. In one of the book’s most cited lines he declares, ‘Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it…’ yet he also acknowledges the difficulties faced by correspondents reporting the war for daily outlets (and ‘the incredible demands put on them from offices thousands of miles away’) and by journalists for news magazines like Time, whose reportage is worked up into ‘uni-prose’; against this, Herr acknowledges his comparative freedom to write and file at a more leisurely pace (a piece he’s written for Esquire appears ‘like some lost dispatch from the Crimea.’). Yet, as he observed, mainstream journalists knew that no matter how honestly they reported the war, ‘their best work would somehow be lost in the wash of news, all the facts, all the Vietnam stories.’ Herr sites himself in the media pack even as he leans away from it, adopting in Dispatches the role of a lone operator, the existential observer/journalist who approaches his subject with a sense of moral engagement.

As his jagged narrative draws to a close, Herr is back in ‘the World’, reflecting on his Vietnam experience and the value of not having stayed too long: ‘We came to fear something more complicated than death, an annihilation less final but more complete, and we got out’, though not without scars, including dreams of dead Marines in his living room. Herr - like many - suffered trauma-induced depression, as he revealed in his interview with The Observer newspaper:

I did go crazy. The problem with Vietnam is that if your body came back, your mind came back too. Within 18 months of coming back, I was on the edge of a major breakdown. It hit in 1971 and it was very serious. Real despair for three or four years; deep paralysis. I split up with my wife for a year. I didn't see anybody because I didn't want anybody to see me. It's part of the attachment. You get attached to good things; you get attached to bad things. Then I decided to look the other way. Suddenly I had a child. I went back to my book.

Although Herr claimed it took ‘about six years’ to write the book, it reads as if penned in the heat of battle, with an often-frenetic sense of urgency carried to the page. Publishers asked him to write more about Vietnam, about war. 'I say: “Haven’t you read my fucking book? What the fuck would I want to go and do that for?” […] I’m not interested in Vietnam. It has passed clean through me.’ In 1978, he worked on the script for Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now, ‘But after that, that was it. No more Vietnam.’ When the American effort collapsed in 1975, he'd seen the coverage on TV news:

I watched the choppers I’d loved dropping into the South China Sea as their Vietnamese pilots jumped clear, and one last chopper revved it up, lifted off and flew out of my chest.

With this nod to the genre of magical realism then in vogue (Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude had appeared in English in 1970), Herr lays open the question of whether Dispatches is a work of non-fiction or something else: a reality-based novel, a fictionalised memoir, an amalgam of genres beyond any one? ‘Even if we read it as fiction’, asks Connie Schultz in The Columbia Journalism Review, ‘Dispatches is a work of enormous power, but would its sense of urgency and loss be diminished?’ She partly answers her own question: ‘Thirty years after reading the book for the first time, I still have the same gut response: at least I understand why I will never understand what happened to our boys in Vietnam.’

Herr remained evasive on the subject of whether Dispatches was a work fiction or not. Parts of it were, he admitted, what is labeled, in the context of television news, ‘produced reality’. In 1978, one year after its publication, Dispatches was recommended for the U.S. National Book Award in the non-fiction category; yet in a 1992 interview with Eric Schroeder, Herr referred to the book as a novel, adding, ‘I don’t think it’s any secret that there is talk in the book that’s invented.’

But it's invented out of that voice that I heard so often and that made such penetration into my head… I don’t really want to go into that no-man’s-land about what really happened and what didn’t happen and where you draw the line. Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn’t necessarily happen to me.

A decade later, in a filmed interview, he was again asked if Dispatches was fiction or non-fiction, and was again elusive:

I have no idea, I don’t know the difference. I’ve never known the difference. I have to tell you that I have no idea what that difference really consists of, between fact and fiction. […] I’m confused, I’m really confused. Like, you read a memoir, you read an autobiography, I have no idea what’s real and what’s invented and what’s wish fulfilment and what’s confession.

Where does creativity end and invention begin? In contemplating what he’d created, Herr’s response in 1992 offers an insight: ‘I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book. I think that all good books are about writing.’

His comments suggest an unwillingness to be linked to any particular literary frame, any more than he’d wished in Vietnam to be labelled a particular species of war observer. Yet his combat features filed in 1968-69 were received by his editors and published as journalism, in magazines that clearly delineated to their readers whether they were reading fiction or non-fiction, throwing into doubt the question of authenticity. In the same 1992 interview, Herr confessed ‘there are errors of fact in the book’, explaining:

When the Khe Sanh piece was published [as an essay before the book], I had a really beautiful letter from a colonel who had been stationed there; he corrected me on various points of fact. I lost the letter, and it didn’t turn up again until after the book was in print… I couldn’t bear to go in and make the revisions myself. I was tapped out. I was exhausted from the project. Including the year in the war, I had spent eight years working on it, and I just couldn’t do any more.

In subsequent editions of Dispatches, Herr did nothing to correct these apparent errors. Rather, he seemed to suggest that the fiction/non-fiction debate wasn't his problem, but a conundrum that had grown out of historical precedent. The ethos of the New Journalism argues that ‘fact-based’ journalism denies the possibility of alternative versions of ‘the truth’. Like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe before him, Herr had thrown himself into the ring of raw experience, a literary pugilist ready for a fight, with no hope of, or desire for, objectivity, to write as much from the heart as the head, a heart that he wore defiantly on his sleeve.

Herr redefined the war reporting memoir: what mattered to him was less about the accuracy of a quote or description, and more about how it was received by the reader, and perceived by the reader as being authentic or not. To achieve that objective, the difference between fact and fiction matters less than the outcome. While the issue is left unresolved, or at least unanswered in conventional literary terms, Herr’s work in Dispatches, marked by its freewheeling style and self-referential perspective, opened the way for more interpretative and personalised forms of war reporting, and war reporting memoirs. Its value in that regard alone is enormous and enduring.

As a literary artefact and legacy, it remains unique. As one observer noted,

Somehow, a young journalist whose previous experience consisted mostly of travel pieces and film criticism managed to transform himself into a wild new kind of war correspondent capable of comprehending a disturbing new kind of war.[1]

 

[1] Smith, Wendy, ‘War Weary’, The American Scholar, Spring 2007.

IN A TIMELESS LAND

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?

IMG_5700.jpg

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.

IMG_3960.jpg

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

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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     "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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     “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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     “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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     “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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}   “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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     “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.

    
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	mso-ansi-language:EN-US;}     " 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