Phil’s Diary

Phil’s Diary

Here Phil documents his journey as an author and academic, including his influences and thoughts as he wrote his academic papers, his history book on the ABC’s Radio Australia, his plays, and before that, his novel Someone Else’s War.

21.3.23 History and literature

This morning I received notification of a new Greek language book that has been released in Europe. The central theme of the book is this:

“Literature is not history, but we understand history better through literature”

This remark by Telemachos Kotsias hits on a topic I have been following ever since I started my PhD in 2017, but never has it been put more succinctly. The books that I’m reading at the moment, lay truth to this suggestion about the importance of literature to history. One is set in the First World War (I discussed this in my last entry). The second book is set in Crete in World War II. Both the books are fictionalised, but the events on which they are based are certainly true in the greater context (which is the wars themselves); and there are smaller elements that also have truths to them, such as attacks by the Germans on small villages, the killings of civilians, the names of British commanders who were on Crete at the time, and perhaps the occasional name of the eminent citizen in those villages. 

The purpose of a fictionalised telling of the story is pretty clear: it can take us into the minds of the people who were there, and through that take us to that place and that time.

There is of course one huge caveat to all this: imaginary stories are just that: imaginary. The two authors I have been reading weren’t at the battles in world wars one and two nor, given the passing of time since those events, was it likely that they met any of the people who were at those places. So like any historian, they had to base their writing on research and it is good to see so many novelists these days finishing their books by giving a list of references so that we if we wish to research the subject matter, have pointers to where they got their information. They still knitted a web of imaginary scenes and actions, but they were based perhaps on true events. Mary Renault did a series of fictionalised books about ancient Greece, and when she wrote them in the mid 20th century, she left no references, and so the reader was trusting that Mary Renault’s research was solid. I think many of us know that she did do good research, for she had very few clangers in her novels. 

And like Kotsias says in his quote at the top of this entry, do you have a better understanding of ancient Greece and its people because of an author’s work and her research.

And that can only be a good thing.

13.3.23 Miles Franklin in Salonika

Miles Franklin is one of my favourite Australian authors. She wrote her first book, My Brilliant Career, when just a young woman. It was about as sassy a book as it was possible to get in those quite stitched up early 20th century days.

Miles herself was an interesting woman who travelled the world when it was not fashionable to do so. She also injected a self into World War I working as a volunteer in northern Greece for the Allied effort.

Some people have written about her time there, but a new book by Gail Jones fictionalises Franklin’s experience, entwining it with the experience of three other people who went on to become well known. Two of them became respected British painters, and the fourth was a good friend and companion to Franklin.

Jones has written a superb piece of literature. Salonika Burning sets the four stories, singley, and enmeshed, in the context of the destruction of the city of Salonika (now called Thessaloniki). And in the tradition of all great literature delves into the minds of these for disparate artistically-minded people. And also, as a mark of literary competence, we are drawn into Miles Franklin’s head. We are given motives and backstory and emotion, just as if Franklin herself might have experienced it.

Of course this is invented. Jones may have relied on diaries or reports of friends to give us these insights, but there is no way she could know Franklin’s very thoughts and dreams.

I was minded to think of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where we the reader are drawn into the mind of the murder-protagonist. Of course, Dostoevsky was inventing all of this, but it seems so damned real and genuine, as if the author had himself been a murderer and understood all the emotions involved.

Yes, Jones has done something pretty amazing here and I just hope that Miles Franklin actually felt some of what was written in these pages.

6.3.23 The religion of the victors

Today, I found one of the parts of Tacitus’ History of Rome didn’t quite sit right.

Tacitus does claim to be a historian, so when writing about an era in the immediate post-Jesus time, Christ had to come into it at some point. When this historian did get to him, the whole concept of Christianity is dealt with in a most disparaging way.

Rather than just say: “religion was founded based on the activities of Jesus”, Tacitus uses descriptions such as: “a petulant, superstition hideous and abominable”, “evil”, “the filthy glut of inequity that never fails to find popular reverence”.

Now, some people today may see Christianity as no more than a sect, certainly. But it’s not the role of a historian to put his own views down like this. A few days ago, I said Tacitus was brave for his warts-and-all treatment of his former emperors. But this was one of the rare sessions in the book where he was personally disparaging of a minority group and just doesn’t sit right. It was an unfortunate treatment of people who worshipped differently to him.

I wonder what he would’ve thought of future Roman leader Constantine converting to Christianity in the years to come? This poses a dichotomy for Tacitus, and is a warning for historians who believe that their prejudice will be proved just in the future.

Very un-historian.

3.3.23 The good and the bad

Tacitus is proving an interesting writer

Although Roman, he seems to not be white washing all the inequities that happened during his people’s bad times. Much of what he discusses are the vagaries of the former Roman emperors. Tiberius doesn’t come out of it very well, neither does Claudius, but he reserves much of the implied criticism for Nero, the man who history tells us fiddled while Rome burned. Tacitus himself does not mention any particular fiddling during the great fire of Rome, but he does suggest that Nero did very little, and what he didn’t do was far too late.

I’ve just finished book 2 of the five volume 1770 set of Tacitus works, and the last half of this book was devoted to all the people Nero killed, including his mother,and just about every other close relation. Even his wife who he professed to adore, he kicked in the stomach while she was pregnant, leading to her death. No, Nero was certainly no ideal leader. In fact, he should’ve come nowhere near any role of responsibility. And as it is with so many bad leaders, it was not a wish to make his people better off, but rather a fear of being usurped became a major driver for their actions. When some senior Romans planned to kill Nero, Nero responded by killing not just them, but anyone who may have come across their path, including brave Centurians who fought against Rome’s enemies. Indeed, one man who was a hero from the campaign in Britain was executed by Nero because Nero was worried that he was such a strong fellow.

Tacitus is full of detail, as you would hope in any big history of a people. It must’ve been difficult to write this kind of history about your own kind in those days not that far removed from the people do you are discussing. The Tacitus showed some strength of spirit to make sure everything got down, good and bad.

1.3.23 History and victors

It’s a cliche to say that history is written by the victors. But it’s a true cliche.

I am just reading Tacitus, a Roman historian. It’s a lovely 1770 edition of his works that has survived 250 years very well. Of course it’s nowhere near a first edition: the text was written 2000 years ago, but it has antiquity about it and is a joy to hold and read. And some of the sentiments in the writing do have relevance today. As he describes the actions of Roman Emperors who were given almost unlimited power, we see people like Nero orchestrate the murder of his own mother and other emperors dispose of people who may be considered rivals.

But I’ve just got to a part where Tacitus talks about the invasion of Britain by the Romans. He describes Boudicea, the leader of the British forces, a heroine if ever, there was one, who marshalled her people to fight against the much bigger Roman force. While Tacitus does give some acknowledgement to her bravery, he also talks about how she was overconfident, even to the extent of having her young children in her caravan at the back of her army’s lines while the battle was taking place. Of course, it doesn’t end well and almost all the Brits in that battle were killed.

Now, the way Tacitus handles is telling of this story is close to being quite evenhanded, but in a few places he slips into almost a sycophancy towards the glorious Roman generals in this war. He speaks as if it is a just victory; one that was deserved by the Romans against a barbaric British resistance.

2000 years on, we can see, it was nothing of the sort. Rome wanted more land. It wanted to be an empire that controlled everything from Africa to Asia to the cold north. Anyone who stood in the way, was just a nuisance.

Britain and Boudicea were nuisances.

It just made me think that today history writing is different. There are still historians who will put their own taint on the telling of a story. There are writers who deny that the Nazis committed any kind of Holocaust, or that Australia was settled peacefully in 1788. But these people are not historians. They write their own form of history; a skewed story, which probably has little to do with truth. Tacitus skewed his stories, but one good thing about him was he gave us many facts that informed future historians. If we take away his perjorative intent, it leave us with what actually happened. And this is a great value. For if there was no Tacitus, overreaching or not, we would have very little knowledge of a certain time in Roman history.

27.2.23 What’s in a name?

I have been thinking about doing a revision of the play. In October, I will be giving a presentation about the play to the Athens Centre, with Jac reading parts of it.It should be a lot of fun. But it’s also got me thinking that after three years I need to revisit and see what I can perhaps improve or take out. I’m not talking about big things here. Maybe lines that I don’t think were written so well or perhaps the use of language. After all I have to keep it up to date. And playwriting changes almost by the minute.

I’ve always had an issue with the name of the play. Lady of Arrows is a pretty name. I know the director Gary Young really likes it but I don’t know. I see the names of plays all the time, and many of them get me instantly thinking because they are just so damned interesting. As I was thinking of changing the name, I looked at a magazine and I saw a line that simply said What’s Inside, of course referring to something inside the magazine this title kind of gram to me because it could refer to what’s inside Olga what’s inside her story what’s inside the package which is such an important part and mystery of this play.

What’s Inside.

I saw Gary for lunch today, and asked him about what he thought, and he instantly shook his head and said no. Lady of Arrows is a great title.

I think I’m coming to the realisation that I am perhaps too close to the story for me to be able to make a reasonable decision about this. I’ll have to think about it.

14.2.23 Into reprint

Yesterday I got a call from the publisher of my Radio Australia book Australia Calling telling me that, unofficially, he had been told to reprint the book.

If this is true, that’s a great outcome. I had heard that some outlets like Booktopia had run out of their reserve of the books.

Mind you the initial print run was quite small so a reprint isn’t really a cause for huge celebration. It’s never going to make the best seller list. But nevertheless it sounds nice to have a reprint and it also gives me an opportunity to correct any mistakes in the book. And there are always mistakes.

Soon after the book was released, an old friend of mine from my television days, John Lombard, told me he enjoyed the book, but I had messed up one of the names of a former communications minister. I had written Peter Duffy as Bob Hawke’s communication minister when it was Michael Duffy. I think I’ve written elsewhere in this diary that I must’ve been thinking of Peter Duffy, the reserve grade coach of the Balmain Tigers in 1975. Funny how things you had long forgotten come back to slap you in the face decades later.

Also, former Radio Australia staffer Desley Blanche told me I was wrong about one of the other presenters, Jocelyn Terry. In the book, I said she was the host of the Antarctica Calling program. Desley said Mary Adams the presenter of that show. I did some further research and found that Jocelyn was also the presenter of Australia Calling (which is a bit of a relief). The evidence is actually in the photograph of Jocelyn that I put in the book. Taken from an earlier biography of Radio Australia, it shows her in front of a map of Antarctica, complete with penguins, and Antarctic explorer, and a lot of ice.

It just shows that memories can be incomplete even if, like Desley, you were there at the time. I am garetful to Desley for this because she had, in trying to correct me, given me yet another woman Radio Australia presenter. Which just proves that Radio Australia was really ahead of its time when it came to giving women a voice. There was Desley, Maggie Woodbeck, Margaret Wood, Jocelyn Terry, and now Mary Adams.

So if the reprint does go ahead at least I’ll have the pleasure of correcting Michael Duffy’s name and, if it’s not to hard for the publisher, insert of Mary’s place in Radio Australia’s history.

8.2.23 A short memory-related detour

This morning Jac, Molly and I were in our favourite café, which is run by two Syrian refugees, Marcel and her son Sam. It’s one of those places where people talk to each other. Kind of a Greek café without the backgammon.

Another regular was there. I don’t know her name, but I know the name of her dog, Ginger. Dog people are like that: the dog’s name is more important than the human’s. I’ll call her Ginger’s mum.

We got talking (with Ginger’s mum, that is) about Dan Andrews’ victory in the Victorian state election a few months ago. The conversation started on the local rightish newspaper The Herald Sun, which ad been flaying Andrews for years.  We noted how the paper had been a little mute about state politics after the election. Before the election the paper had been gleefully predicting that Andrews was so hated by the community that he would be tossed from office by the electorate. That didn’t happen, hence the muting.

I said that in Andrews’ election victory speech he said: 

                       “Kindness always trumps hate.”

Ginger’s mum immediately insisted that Andrews didn’t say that. He said instead “hope trumps hate.”

I responded that this wasn’t right. He said kindness. I remembered, I said, how he said it. I said I could picture him saying it right there and then.

No, she insisted. He said hope:

“Hope always trumps hate”

I was so sure I was right that I looked up the speech on the web. And you know what?

Ginger’s mum was right. I was wrong.

It was the journalism of the time which proved me wrong. I was even prepared to think the journalist was wrong (so sure was I that I was right), but further references from other sources provided an avalanche of testimony that showed me to be wrong.  

I tell you this because it is further proof of the problem with relying on memory. Oral history is largely that. Unless we have documents, or write down the remembered experience at the time, we get contaminated, confused or just wrong.

I wonder how much of our memory is wrong., How wrongly we remember people we knew years ago, remembered through the years for that one act or one conversation, perhaps, that defined in our small memories the kinds of people they were. Jac remembers being in an early version of The Rocky Horror Show and how she was cruelly treated by some of the more experienced cast who were annoyed at this newcomer who walked straight into a principal role. Fifteen years later she met one of those bullies, and he couldn’t have been nicer, telling Jac how great it was to work with her and how they had a great time together. Who was wrong in their memories? Jac was sure about what she experienced at the time of the show. Perhaps time ballooned the unpleasantness; perhaps the other guy preferred to forget his bad behaviour; perhaps he even was just lying. I don’t think so. He was thrilled to see Jac again.

As Hoyt Axton might have written, exchanging memory for love:

                              Memory, hmm. It don’t last long.” 

4.2.23 Aeneas: myth upon myth

I was talking to my Italian hairdresser yesterday about the entwined histories of the Greeks of the Italians. Sicily and the south west coast of Italy were for many years in possession of the Greeks, and there has been many instances where the crossover has become blurred between the two cultures. Was Sicily Greek, or did Greeks invade what was Italian land?

Things are even more confused further north in Rome. There is a belief, propagated by the Roman writer Virgil, that Rome was founded by the descendants of Aeneas. Aeneas was the sole surviving prince of Troy’s royal family when the Trojan kingdom was destroyed by the Greeks 1500 or so years before Christ. The=at royal family was crushed in that ten year battle: Prince Hector was beaten in combat by Achilles, King Priam was murdered in that final raid, his daughter Cassandra taken by Agamemnon, and no-one is quite sure what happened to Prince Paris, the man who started the whole fuss by stealing Helen from Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus of Sparta.

The point is that Troy was destroyed and Aeneas supposedly made it out, and after many generations his descendants Remus and Romulus founded Rome.

That could mean that John my hairdresser could be the descendant of Troy, just as I may be a descendant of the Greek destroyers.

However. This may be nothing more that a convenient myth. As I say it was written by Virgil, a Roman, who had every reason to want to glamorise his people. We don’t know exactly where he got his facts from. Certainly more than a millenium had passed between the time of Aeneas and Virgil’s own time. If he was relying on oral history, that would be a very long line of storytelling. If he was relying on written material, we certainly don’t know what it is, especially as the world’s first credited historian, Herodotus put his version of pen to his version of paper more than 500 years after Troy (and he doesn’t tell us about the flight of Aeneas). The only real reference to Aeneas is in The Iliad which is really little more than a fable which may, at most, have some true roots.

So we have the Aeneas myth out of an epic myth, expounded upon in a further saga (Virgil’s The Aeneid) which has been taken by some to have truth to it.

Myth bearing a myth from another myth.

Hardly history eh?

1.2.23 The Convenient Forgetting.

In my last entry, I talked about Hughes’  1836 book, The History of England. As I get towards the end of its 2000 odd pages, I realise how perspective is everything. This book covers the period from before Captain Cook’s voyages to well after the landing of the first fleet. I say it covers that period, but it does not cover the events in any kind of detail. Captain Cook is mentioned once, in one sentence, where it says he is going to the Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus. While Hughes talks about the many Parliamentary debates about the trial of an Englishman who particularly roughly administered India, there is nothing about the discussion of the pros and cons of transportation or the decision to send prisoners to the other side of the world. There is plenty of discussion about Wilberforce and his many failed attempts to have slavery abolished, with the powerhouses of the British parliament in those days, Fox, Burke, and Pitt the Younger all arguing one way or another. So why is there not discussion about people convicted for minor crimes being abducted onto ships sent to the other side of the world in conditions where many of them did not survive, and those who did released onto land which belonged to indigenous people.

While the story of the transportation to Botany Bay was so important to Australians and remain so, it was clearly not in the sphere of care for historians like Hughes. His history is a very gentle one, which, as I’ve already mentioned, gives credit to the vanquished as much as to the victor. But there are sins of omission here. Captain Arthur Phillip and his first fleet simply does not exist in this big book. There is no justification given for transportation, true, but that is only because it is not deemed worthy of a place in the history of England at all.

So there again we have it. A partial history can be valid of course. After all PhDs are nothing but partial stories, focusing tightly on one element of study. But again, a PhD does not claim to be a history of a whole country Hughes’ work does.

29.1.23 History or miss-stery?

It has been said that history is written by the victors. I think this is absolutely true because not often in history books do the vanquished do the writing. One exception goes back to the ancient Greek days. The Trojans, as painted by Homer, are brave and noble, victims as much of the Greek gods’ whims as the powers of Greeks and Achilles. 

But in the 3000 years since that story, few histories show the same care to the lower. Few WWII histories the show any incidents of German kindness in that horrific war, or Japanese nobility in the Pacific theatre of the same conflict. We know the Nazis were atrocious, and that the Japanese inflicted terrible tortures on the prisoners, regarding them, as ignoble for allowing themselves to be captured.

I do question, however, how correct history has been particularly in the last hundred years. I am reading Hughes’ The History of England , which was written in 1836. And the thing that struck me was how often in the many theatres of war took place between 1760 and 1800 how Hughes often referred to England’s enemies as valiant or clever. These are terms you don’t often see in modern military or political history. The losers are losers, and there is often a taint that they lost because they were simply not very good. The truth, I would dare say, is that they were just, in that particular theatre of war, not good enough to win.

This was just a thought that occurred to me while reading Hugheses depiction of Napoleon Bonaparte. Hughes gives him much credit for the victories in the 1790s over half of Europe. In fact he reads as though he was a man with the organisational abilities of an Adolf Hitler without quite the level of monstrosity.

But then again, it couldn’t be that Hughes had gone over to the historian’s dark side, ignoring Bonaparte’s cutthroat side. And nobody wins that many wars in that short period of time without having an indecent side to them.

This all goes to say that when we write history, we need to know before we even begin that we are influenced by own prejudice and personal outlook. How many historians depict Ned Kelly as some kind of romantic hero. There was little romance at the time of his crimes. It was tragedy that led him on his path, and he built tragedy upon that tragedy. Nothing romantic in that. 

The line between fiction and what that we called truth is one hell of a hard act to maintain.

28.1.23 Hits out of nowhere

This morning I did an interview on Australia’s Radio National with Geraldine Doogue about the Radio Australia book.

Geraldine started the interview by telling me our last discussion, which was about my research into the Anglicisation of great names, had received a quarter of a million hits on her website.

250,000! That’s a new high for me. Obviously, this research pressed a few buttons for Australians.

After being in journalism for more than 30 years, I had thought I knew what would capture of the interest of a radio audience and, I have to admit, I did not think my Anglicisation research would grab that much interest. I knew the Greek Community might be interested and perhaps a few other ethnic groups, but never did I think it would garner so much attention. This research has been featured in Greek newspapers, the ABC online, and I have even had several radio stations have programs competing to talk to me about.

This takes me back to the interest shown in my research into my grandmother the spy. I would’ve thought that would be a far greater interest across the media. When my novel came out in 2011, I had a well respected publicist Alan Davidson send out info to the media. But even then he only manage to get half a dozen interviews for the novel.

I suppose the lesson here is, if people can personally relate to the story then they will be far more interested. Rather than stories of a historical nature, even if they are intriguing stories like that of my grandmother, issues of identity are the tings that really grab people.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we must always choose to research topics that might spike an interest. There are plenty of PhD topics around focusing on minor parts of history or social behaviour that are incredibly valid and will prove their worth in the centuries to come. But it is nice, once in a while, to touch a chord with the public.

Especially when the research topic was somewhat off-the-cuff, coming to me during a phone conversation with a magazine editor a year or so ago. From little things surprising trees can grow.

22.1.23 Fakery for art’s sake

The new TV series Stonehouse is the latest in a long line of British ship obsessions with two things: (one) spy stories, and, (two) fictionalised versions of stories of real human beings.

John Stonehouse was a British MP who in the 1970s became a spy for Czechoslovakia. He was paid for it, and somehow managed to mess up his new riches so comprehensively that he found himself committing fraud to keep financially afloat. As his life collapsed around him, and his political career went from shining star to potential prisoner, he decided to fake his own death, swimming out from a Miami Beach and using a series of forged passports, which he made using the identities of dead constituents, ended up near where I live in Melbourne Australia.

To do what he managed to do in this elaborate fakery was something quite amazing. But in the series, Matthew McFayden portrays Stonehouse as a buffoon; a comic character who messes up everything he puts his hand to. At one stage his Czechoslovakian contact even calls him the worst spy in the world.

I had heard of John Stonehouse as a child, and he seemed anything but a buffoon. Which brings us to a point I have raised several times before in this diary about how fictionalised stories can put a false tone on the truth, which makes it anything but the truth.

The producers of the series do open it with the rider that professes the dramatisation was inspired by true events, but some characters were invented. This seems to be the normal get-out cause these days.

But I wonder whether this is enough. As I noted in my PhD thesis, the great danger of telling true stories in a fictionalised form is that the public’s knowledge of those true events could be damaged. No doubt in the public psyche, especially amongst younger people who were not alive when Stonehouse did his scheming, Stonehouse would always be a foolish incompetent who was always going to get caught. But even the series shows that Stonehouse came close to getting away with everything he planned, but for a couple of small mistakes.

Doesn’t sound all that buffoonish to me.

20.1.23 The power of the ABC

Yesterday morning I was walking down the street when a neighbour shop passed in her car and asked me if I had seen the article on me on the ABC website.

No, I answered. I hadn’t written anything for the ABC since the article in December about my Radio Australia book. She said no, this one was about my research into the Anglicisation of Greek family names.

I was still a bit puzzled. I haven’t written anything on that for the ABC. I had simply been interviewed a few times. Half an hour later, I got a call from an ABC program in Sydney, asking if I would be willing to be interviewed about this research. They too had seen the article online and it sparked their interest. I went online and checked and yes the article was there in a very prominent place on the ABC website. Then I remembered I had ben called by an ABC producer a few weeks ago who asked me a few questions on the research. Here is a link to what he came out with:

The photo with the top of the story shows my mum and dad on their wedding day in 1941. My dad had at this stage still used his family name of Kafcaloudes but occasionally went by the shortened Anglicised version of Kaff for convenience.

I did the interview that afternoon on ABC radio and we took talkback callers.

Now, this was interesting. People called in talking about their Anglicised names, both family and given names. Many of them were from countries other than Greece, and the reasons they gave for the anglicisation’s fitted with my findings. The research found that there were three main reasons why people Anglicise their names. The first one was simple convenience. This was that immigrants didn’t want to make things hard for local people by having to spell a complicated foreign name. The second reason was acceptance. There was a belief among some immigrants that they would not get any chance of employment if they had a name like Papadopoulos. The third one was the most insidious: racism. They believed that the best thing to do was hide their ethnicity so that they would not be abused mistreated, or in extreme cases, physically hurt.

The what was really helpful to me was the fact that after the radio interview several people looked me up and emailed me to give me their personal stories. This has broadened the findings of my research and this week I’ll incorporate their stories into my paper which must be submitted in a couple of months to the Athens Institute. Then I will put it all into a 20 minute presentation that I will deliver to the conference in Athens in June.

I always knew that there would be so many stories that would not be uncovered by my research, I just had no way of reaching all the people in the community that have Anglicised their names.

So thanks to the ABC for helping me out on this. And I still know there are thousands more that I have not reached. But it is interesting that this particular story has touched such a chord in Australian people.

When I wrote the novel about my grandmother, the Australian spy, I thought that story would fascinate so many people, but it didn’t have the same impact of this Anglicisation research.

It reinforces the point I made after the interview I did with Jacinta Parsons: you can’t always tell what’s going to grab people.

9.1.23 Surprising what the media likes

This morning I was interviewed on a national ABC radio program about my Greek name research. Jacinta Parsons was a lovely presenter, extremely generous, and with an understanding of the nuances involved in such a delicate subject.

I must admit though that I am surprised by the level of interest in this subject. After all, you would think the reasons why Greek migrants Anglicise their name would be quite esoteric and limited in interest to people from within the Greek community. But Jacinta drove the interview in such a way is to make it broader: about the issues of identity and our place in a community. I found that quite profound, especially as identity is the angle for the paper on the subject that I will be delivering to the audience in Athens in June.

Identity. It’s probably not something we think about very much when it comes to something as off-the-cuff as our name. After all, we have no choice in the matter unless we make the decision to change it later in life. When I was in high school, my best friend, Jeff Davis changed his first name to Jef making the very small adjustment of dropping the second half, but to him it was a big thing and I have to admit to me it was quite revolutionary back in 1975. Making this change did not transcend any social barrier or cultural split, but it was enough for Jef to demonstrate a degree of rebellion. I met him again about 15 years ago, and I forgot to ask him whether he kept his new name or returned the second letter. Decisions we make when we are 15 years old are obviously products of where our head is in these early teen years, and as we get older, we may wish to rescind a testosterone-fuelled whim.

Apparently reaction to my interview this afternoon continued for some hours, which is really all a researcher  can ask for: to get people thinking about things that maybe they’ve never considered before, and where our name sits in our identity.

After the interview I also got an email from a listener who wanted to share the story of her Greek migrant parents. And this is somebody I probably never would’ve been in contact with if it wasn’t for that interview. Which just proves that little gifts can come from anything.

8.1.23 Prince Harry: In the interests of history

The reaction to Prince Harry’s memoir has been deafening. Many have seen it as an unnecessary and naive exercise that only damages an already fragile British monarchy; others say his admission about killing 25 Taliban serves no good purpose, and only endangers his estranged family. Then again, there are those who say his memoir shows him to be little more than a spoiled brat who sucks on the public teat while the moaning how unfair the world has been to him.

Those arguments are for the people that put them. I for one I’m glad of this memoir. For the first time in history, except for perhaps Jonathan Dimbleby’s biography of Prince Charles (which was written with Prince Charles’ assistance), we have a book that takes us inside the British royal family. I think this book is essential because we need to know more about this family. There have been many books written about this family, but none have been authorised (except of course for Dimbleby’s), and this has left a black hole of insight into this institution.

Yes, Harry may have  written from a viewpoint which was, depending on your view, therapeutic, narcissistic, self-pitying or vengeful, but that doesn’t necessarily do away with its historical value.

In 200 years’ time this book will be used as a reference when people research the British royal family.

There is one caveat though. If Prince Harry is delusional; if what he says is actually not true; then of course the value of this work is not only mute, it is worse than that. It would be deceptive and indeed damaging to our knowledge of history.

So I suppose we need to wait for the reaction, if there is any. Any research into history, into fact, needs more than just one reference. So maybe one day King Charles, King William or even King George will write an autobiography which will give a different side to the story. Then historians will have something to go on with.

And history will be all the better for it.

1.1.23 Ray Lawler’s cultural cringe

Ray Lawler has a special place in Australian theatrical lore. His first play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll examined sexual politics in 1950s Australia. Not only did the play speak only of Australian attitudes and expectations, it was a ripping entertainment, which reflected what could be happening at in any suburb in any city in Australia 

Interestingly, this Australian story touched a chord with international audiences, becoming successful in London, and leading to a very rare international film deal.

In 1961, his follow-up play, The Piccadilly Bushman, delved deeper into this international relationship. It tells the story of an Australian actor who went to England as a young man, became successful on the stage, and returned to Australia to do a film. This is where the cultural cringe comes into it. This character, portrayed, not very sympathetically by Lawler, is embarrassed by his Australian heritage, so much so that he claims he is British because so many of his forebears came from England. His three generations of antecedents in Australia don’t count for anything as far as he is concerned.

It’s a pretty extreme set of views that I doubt would’ve been quite so openly expressed either than or now, but it does have the message about sense of place. It is a message which was particularly valid in the late 50s, when so many Australian artists felt they had to move to England to be successful. Remember, this was a time when very few films were made in Australia and few local plays well produced. The likes of Barry Humphries, Peter Finch and Rod Taylor followed earlier expatriate Errol Flynn overseas in their search for success.

Thankfully, things have changed. There’s no shortage of plays being written in Australia and our country is a destination for major international filmmakers. The likes of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Geoffrey Rush and Guy Pearce still call Australia home even as they make big dollars from international film work.

This brings this back to the value of playwriting. Lawler’s works are not based on true stories, but they do depict true attitudes held by people from the eras in which they are set. So in a way, they are non-fiction. Maybe one day I should do some research into the meaning of fiction versus non-fiction. And boy, wouldn’t it be fun if I change that definition. Libraries all over the world would, perhaps, just perhaps, have to go re-ordering all their shelves.

Such fun.

22.12.22 Noel Coward’s brave foray

Noel Coward is remembered as one of the 20th century is most witty and acerbic writers.

Like many people of great mind, his talents crossed many genre. His songs, like Mad dogs and Englishmen have moved into the western psyche as standards. Also, his great wit made him a natural successor to the likes of Oscar Wilde and his contemporary Cole Porter.

I have been reading a play of his called Peace in Our Time. It was written at the end of the Second World War and was published in 1947. It is an early example of an alternative universe fiction. Very much like the two currently-produced TV series For All Mankind, and The Man in the High Castle, it visualises how life would’ve been if a single event had turned out differently. In the case of For All Mankind, that event was Russia getting to the moon before the Americans, and in the case of The Man in the High Castle, Hitler invading and conquering America.

Peace in Our Time follows a similar track. It is 1941, and the Germans have successfully invaded Britain. Coward has set the play in a pub, where the bartender, his wife and daughter continue to serve alcohol (which dwindles as the months go on). Apart from these three people, the characters are the drinkers who come into the pub. There are feisty women mourning the loss of the Britain they knew and loved; there are very shy, people, scared of saying or doing anything which could attract attention from the invaders; there are suspected collaborators; there are resistance fighters; and there are escapees seeking help from the pub’s owners. This is where Noel Coward has done brilliantly, by setting it in such a place that brings us the story through the action of these people. It is never about Hitler; it is never about Churchill. Like all great works (and I do class it is a great work), it takes us into the minds of the individuals affected by the events of the time.

It is also a reminder that ambitious writing does not necessarily involve elaborate set changes or scene constructions. To use a cliche, it is really just about a man comes into a bar and orders a drink.

Unlike most of Coward’s work, there’s not a lot of humour, although some of the women characters show great wit and the dialogue can be furiously intellectual.

Noel Coward really stepped out of his best known genre to write this piece and it is stimulating and scary. In the first production of the play, the bartender is played by Bernard Lee who James Bond fans would know as the man who played the original spymaster M. knowing that actors work, one can visualise him reading the lines, showing again that Coward had a facility for writing just the way people really spoke. 

Reading a play can sometimes be a little dull, but that could never be the case with Noel Coward. It is as engrossing as any novel, and I have had, in turn, feelings of trepidation pride, and anger.

And that’s about all any playwright could ever wish for. It’s also a great example of how thinking widely can give us a great gift as a reader or playgoer, taking us into places that never happened, but for the Grace of.

This is what great play writing is all about.

18.12.22 Its kinda overwhelming

This is really fascinating. I have two projects on the go at the moment. The first one is the Radio Australia book, of course. The second one is my work researching the Anglicisation of Greek surnames. 

Over the last couple of days I have received three requests to be interviewed on radio about one or the other.

It just proves that if you do work that is interesting, people will react. I think I’m just starting to understand that line in the film Field of Dreams where the Burt Lancaster character says “if you build it, they will come”.

Is that too esoteric? Maybe. All I know is it’s really nice to talk on the wireless again.

6.12.22 Competitions, competitions

Today I entered the Radio Australia book Australia Calling in its first prize competition, the Colin Roderick award for Australian book writing.

Entering the book was really is a difficult decision because it’s one thing to write a book that you’re very happy about, but it’s another thing to give that book to others to judge.

I’ve already written in this diary about the fact that I have been a judge in a book awards, and about how I think the role of a judge is extremely delicate. An author who doesn’t get shortlisted, let alone, win, will naturally come to doubt the value of their work. That is, unless of course they know exactly what awards are really all about. And here I’m talking about the prejudices of judges, which includes their preferred writing style. Just recently I was in a competition for a short story where the winner of that competition wrote nicely, but with what I considered personally to be unnecessary metaphors and too many adjectives. But the judges loved the work. Which is valid. We just need to be aware that these judges’ values are what decides whether something wins or not. It is certainly not about whether one work is better than the other. If I had been a judge on that panel, the eventual winner probably would not have fared very well. But I realise that this was only because the winner’s style of writing is not to my taste. It doesn’t mean it is a bad work.

The Colin Roderick award is a very very long shot because the one award is given to entries from a whole lot of fields: fiction, non-fiction, memoir. The only stipulation is it has to be about Australian life. This means even getting on the long list of finalists is a long shot.

Still, I enter. Perhaps the book will touch something in one of the judges who will go into bat for it. Or maybe there will be 100 other entries that touch the judges even more than mine.

So yes, I am back in the competition round, despite my misgivings. Perhaps it’s just that once in awhile it’s nice to get approval, even if it is from a subjective and therefore flawed judgement system.

5.12.22 The conference is on

I just heard today from the academic diasporas conference, which is due to be held in Greece in June next year. They have been terrific. They fully understand why I will need to do this presentation from Melbourne and they have agreed that I can work remotely.

This is fantastic because it continues to give me a focus for the research and will also allow me to submit the academic paper to be published in their journal in a few months time.

What this also means is now Jac can I can go to Greece around September next year where we can travel where ever we want knowing that we don’t have to rush back to Australia for Jackie’s work. The Platonic Academy’s Greece trip will also be around that time so maybe we’ll meet up.

There really is a kind of life affirming joy when puzzle bits fall into place.

4.12.22 Teaching history

A few minutes ago, I chaired the annual general meeting of the Platonic Academy of Melbourne. Now these kinds of meetings are not really my thing. I’m a sort of never-wear-a-tie guy, so meetings that require minutes to be taken and official apologies to be read has never been any kind of priority with me. I just don’t get it.

But there was a lovely moment today. It came when we talked about the future of the Academy.

The academy is going to do a study tour in Greece in September next year. And I suggested that maybe we should diversify our courses to teach not just about the philosphy of the great philosophers, but about the history of Greek philosophy. My argument was that we could teach this course before we do the overseas trip, and that would dovetail beautifully into the tour through Greece, where we would visit the places we just heard about in the course. 

I have to admit, I thought the suggestion would be howled down. But to the contrary, everybody thought it was brilliant. Most gratifying. I might even suggest I do the teaching. Now that would be fun.

3.12.22 Back on the ABC

It’s been a while, but this morning I was back on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. One of its leading lights Geraldine Doogue just interviewed me about my Anglicisation research.

This was great for a number of reasons. Firstly, it allowed me to solidify in my own mind what the biggest points about the research were. It also allowed me to elucidate about these points and put them into perspective.

As a very first attempt at discussing this research, it went very well. The ABC program was thrilled, as were the friends of ours who listened to the show and was surprised to hear me. (I didn’t tell anybody I was going on it). The second thing that was really good was the reaction I got from people I didn’t know who told me stories of their own Anglicisations. It affirmed to me that this was important research and that it touched people. Now, not all research needs to be emotionally affecting, but if it does, then it is more likely to have a lasting impact. There are plenty of papers that have been filed over the last 50 years that probably have never been read. I have a feeling that my paper when it is eventually published next year, will have some currency because it talks about identity and how our view of ourselves is tied up in what we are called. It probably shouldn’t be this way because after all a name is just a name. But when we touch on foreign sounding surnames, we are not only discussing a tag that our parents may have given us, but also where we come from, and who our forebears were.

29.11.22 No Greece for me

It’s been a bit agonising, but I have decided I will not be going to Greece to deliver my presentation on the Anglicisation of Greek names.

Jackie is needing my support because of her needing to do the play in June for the Melbourne Theatre Company. So I think the best thing is to stay in Melbourne with her. What I’ll do is contact the academic conference and see if I can deliver my paper online from our home in Melbourne. I hope they go along with it.

24.11.22 The stage enters our lives again

Jackie has just found out that she will be doing a musical for the Melbourne theatre company next year. Although she’s been in the business for quite a while, she has never worked for the esteemed MTC. She has done three workshops for this new play, which is been written by Australian comic writer Tom Gleisner, and she thinks it is a beautiful piece of work. She plays a resident of an aged care facility, (yes, many of the actors will have to age themselves up to make it believable) and is the love interest for actor Frankie J Holden. No, never in my life would I have imagined the Jackie and the guy who used to front the rock band Ol’ 55 would be smooching together on stage.

But that’s what acting is all about. Some people get a surprise offer of a job in a James Bond film, some will get to perform with superstars, and others will do musical tours across the world. I still remember Jac being surprised when she was offered the Asian tour of Phantom of the Opera. The offer came so quickly that she was on a plane to Shanghai within a week, then she toured to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore. That’s the magic mystery of being an actor. Some people will be out of work for years and and then they will shoot into an all to brief shining light.

But then again, that’s kind of what life is about isn’t it?

17.11.22 A lovely moment

This has nothing to do with writing or publishing or ancient Greece.

I am in the reading room Victorian State Library in Melbourne under the beautiful dome. I was working on my research piece about Greek family names. Suddenly, there was a big cheer in this usually dead-quiet room.

And there standing in the pulpit in the middle of the room were three people: two women and a man. The two women had very quietly and subtly gotten married under the Dome. They are still there with family members now crowded around them, congratulating them on their marriage. One of the women is brushing tears away and the celebrant was thrilled for the young couple. But what I really loved were the many students in this room, once they twigged onto was going on, standing, clapping and cheering for two people that most of them do not know.

What an unexpected joy in the middle of what, for many people, is the drudge of research.

I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place in the city to get married. Good luck to them.

15.11.22 To Cadmus or Not to Cadmus

Cadmus plays big in ancient Greek lore.

He is the man credited with bringing the Phoenician alphabet to Greece, the alphabet which was adapted by the Greeks into the ancient Greek language. Of courser ancient Greek is the basis of modern greek. So we have a lot to credit Cadmus for.

Unfortunately some believe that Cadmus never existed. In 1809 the somewhat crusty scholar Charles Elton stated he believed Cadmus was a myth, possibly because of the ancients tying him to Zeus who was, as we know, the mythical god of gods.

But someone brought the alphabet to Greece. If we tie the name Cadmus to this bringing of the written form, then that’s okay with me. The problem with Elton and his lot of cynics is that they really don’t know what happened three thousand years before their birth. They are supposing. Elton was a translator of ancient Greek works like Hesiod’s Theogony. He does a nice translation, and then spends almost as many pages on immersive notes which spend as much time as not on his critique of earlier translators. Reading this, you would think that anybody preceding Elton was a total fool. You had no idea about the gods, maths, or ancient Greek itself. There is so much criticism that it makes me doubt whether Elton was as good as he makes himself out to be.

Now my ancient Greek is extremely rudimentary, so I’m not in a position to say who was right here and who is wrong. But making pronouncements about characters who are central to ancient Greek mythology, does seem to me to be a step too far.

5.11.22 The Kunta Kinte effect

Those of you who were around in the 1970s might remember Kunta Kinte. He was a character in a novel called Roots, by Alex Haley. This character was the author’s ancestor who was stolen from Africa in the 1800s. When Haley visited Africa to try to find where this ancestor came from, he eventually found a wise man in a small village where he believed Kunta Kinte may have been born. Hid elder who knew the entire ancestral line of the people in that village. The hitch was that he had to tell the entire story from beginning to end. So Haley sat and listened for many many hours as the man told the story of who begat who through the centuries. Eventually, the old man reached Kunta Kinte, and described how he disappeared one day after going to do some work. This was the moment Kinte had been abducted, enchained, and taken across the waters to America, where he was enslaved.

I’m reading Hesiod who wrote the history of the Greek Gods called Theogony. It is, in a lot of ways, quite similar because he described every God who is born to every God and what happens to each of the of these gods. It is actually taken as a history by many, even though we are talking about celestial beings: Titans and Olympians.

Funnily enough, It’s very much like the Bible’s Old Testament with its many many begats. It’s also interesting to note that the old Testament and the theology were written at roughly the same time, eight centuries before the birth of Christ. 

On reflection, if the Titans and Olympians did not have celestial and all conquering power, I wonder if more people would believe the Greek version of the how the world came into being, rather than that portrayed in the Old Testament. They are both equally detailed, and they both have characters, be that gods or blessed humans, that show foibles that were at times faulty, vengeful, scared, brave, wilful and caring. In a word: human. 

It’s a thought.

20.10.22 The Crown returneth straight into the mire.

The British TV series The Crown has done it again. It has brought a real life family into the realm of fiction for a fifth season.

Last season it caused quite some controversy for its fictionalisation of the behaviour and characterisations of the British royal family, particularly Charles. I personally found Olivia Colman’s betrayal of the Queen to be very unlike my understanding of the persona of Queen Elizabeth. Colman painted her as a withdrawn person with little or zip sense of humour. And since the death of the Queen it is been revealed that she had a naughty sense of humour that she showed at even the most official of occasions.

Now The Crown is treading into even more dangerous territory by bringing the royal family up-to-date. 

You see fictionalisation can be very good when it helps bring insight to famous characters, filling in the gaps in what we know, and helping us to understand those people. Unfortunately the lives of the British royal family are well documented these days. Royals have done interviews which have allowed the public to see the kind of people they are, and every misstep is reported from all possible angles.

So I suppose it’s not a surprise that the producers of the TV show were trying to spice things up a little bit by inserting fascinating little vignettes into their series.

Former British Prime Minister John Major has already slammed the show for one of these vignettes, in which the writers have invented a scene where Prince Charles asked the Prime Minister to try to persuade Queen Elizabeth to abdicate. Major says this never happened and is pure invention. The danger of this kind of writing is that it gives the public the impression that Charles really coveted the role of King and was willing to undermine his mother to do so. He may privately have had those feelings but I’m sure the writers of The Crown could not possibly be certain of that.

That’s a fail and a dangerous one.

Now one of Britain’s most distinguish actors, someone who would know much about the value of fictionalisation, Dame Judi Dench, has spoken out about the series. And it’s not complimentary.

She says it presents an “inaccurate and hurtful account of history”.

Then she hits the target when she says: “the closer the drama comes to our present times, the more freely it seems willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism”.

And you might be right in thinking that the closer you come to the now, the more careful you ought to be because the truth is much more easily verifiable.

Dench says the show needs to put a rider at the start of each episode to say that this is a work of fiction. It’s a shame that people need to have a rider like this to understand this is not a documentary type series, but there it is.

Dench is right. Even I, who work in fictionalisation, came out of the third season thinking the Queen’s daughter Princess Anne was just about the coolest person on the planet. She may well be. But I would be wrong to come to this conclusion based on a screenwriters whim.

Yes, The Crown, do tell people this is just fiction.

13.10.22 Anglicisation thoughts

I am working through the data I have collected for my project on the anglicisation of Greek names. Although I’m only at the start of the evaluation, a couple of things have come through.

There is no evidence in the survey that migrants had planned to change their names from the outset of their diaspora journey. It seems that some of these decisions were made on the spot. My godfather Nick Manning only changed his name from Maniarizis after being given the advice to do so during a short consular visit. He was to keep this changed identity for the next sixty-five years. That Manning remained an Hellene was never in doubt. He loved his Greek heritage. He visited Greece for up to six months of every year and was also a leader of Sydney’s Greek cultural group AHEPA. The fact he kept that anglicised name in both business and in his personal life attests to him not being concerned by the loss of name identity. He was still a Greek.

There were many other Greek migrants who did not change their names back to the Greek original. They too maintained contact with the Greek community and celebrated their name days and religious events while keeping their anglicised names. The respondents to this survey were mostly the children of the original anglicising migrants. In almost all cases these offspring also retained this anglicisation. To the question about whether they would consider reverting to the original Greek family name, almost all answered in the negative, although there is no evidence to suggest that an anti-Greek attitude exists in Australia in the new millennium.

These findings, as I say, are not surprising. But they do give pause. Why not change back? Why maintain your parents’ new name? The answer could be as simple as just not being bothered. After all, with bank, tax, health and business names needing to match in this high security era, it might just be too hard.

10.10.22 Greece, here we come.

I have just found out that my paper on the anglicisation of Greek family names has been accepted for the conference on the Greek diaspora identities. This conference will be a hoot. It will be in Athens next June, with the formal academic paper to be submitted for publication a month or so before.

I have already spoken to the Athens Centre who are keen for Jac and me to make our presentation about my play. You might remember that we were going to do this in April 2020 until it was torpedoed by COVID. So now the trip will go ahead, three years on. If I can also schedule the delayed discussion with the National Theatre of Greece about staging the play, then all the stars will have aligned.

5.10.22 Ukraine: Greece relived.

The headlines today are talking about how Ukraine is managing to do the impossible yet again. Only days after Vladimir Putin promised to throw every resource into his war against Ukraine, Ukraine has managed to take back territory after territory from the invading Russians.

I first thought was how extraordinary this was. And then I realised that it wasn’t that extraordinary for a small besieged nation to push out invaders. You just need to look at the history of Greece to see that it’s been done many times before.

The most recent example was in World War II, when the Italians demanded the right to go through Greek territory. The Greek Prime Minister and one time coup leader Ioannis Metaxas famously said ‘no’ to the Italians’ ultimatum and in only a matter of hours the Italians invaded Greece across the Albanian border. The Greeks, who were not a well armed or well trained fighting machine, grabbed everything they had: pitchforks, knives, mattacks, and fought the Italians hard. So hard in fact that they pushed them back across the Albanian border and chased them two-thirds of the way across the country towards Italy. The unfortunate side-effect of this was that it embarrassed the Italian leader Mussolini and forced Hitler to try to save face for the Axis alliance by invading Greece himself from the north. What followed was three years of terrible privation for the Greeks including many murders human rights abuses, including a famine caused by the Nazis exporting greek food back to Germany. But it did delay Hitler’s plans for an invasion of Russia. That invasion was put off for a few months until winter. And we all know what happened then. It has been said that Greece took one for the world. The point is the Greece fought a much more polished army on the Albanian border and defeated it.

The same thing happened in the Persian Wars in antiquity. Herodotus tells of how in an eastern bay of Greece near Marathon a strong Persian army landed and was beaten by a much smaller Greek defence that used intelligence to outweigh sheer numbers. They did this by feigning a retreat in the middle of the battle, encouraging the Persians to chase the retreating Greeks. Meanwhile the Greeks flanks on both the left and the right then attacked the pursuing Persians and routed them.

Now it didn’t always go well for the Greeks against more powerful enemies. They were beaten several times but when you look at how they were beaten it was often by parts of the Greek defence (Thebans, Spartans) refusing to take part and ruining Greece’s chances. If these groups had held firm then there may have been more examples of the smaller beating the bigger, the David beating the Goliath.

Greek history has taught us that a people defending their own country will always have more motivation than people from another country trying to take ground. And that’s exactly what has happened in the Ukraine.

3.10.22 Revisiting Distomo

I was just looking back at some photos that we took on my research trip in Greece in 2017.

I came across a play that I found which was based on the events at Distomo in WWII. This was the village where the Germans virtually wiped out every inhabitant in retaliation for an attack the Greek resistance made on a German patrol. It worked out that the village had nothing to do with the attack, nor was it sheltering resistance members. But the Germans, in their ignorance, believed otherwise and exacted retribution which was truly a war crime. Women were hanged in the main Square, babies were murdered in their cots, pregnant women were stabbed through the stomach. There was hardly a survivor in  the village. Anyone who stayed in the village when the Germans arrived was killed. The lucky ones managed to escape as the Germans approached.

This is one of the annuls of the Second World War that still leaves a bad taste across Greece. It was a low point in warfare; a low point in humanity.

I have to admit that I knew nothing of this place until we stopped nearby on the research trip. It was Jackie who told me about a war memorial in Distomo, and suggested it might be a good place to do some research. But she had no idea what the town represented or what had happened there.

High on a hill close to the town there was a memorial to the people killed, listing the names and ages from infants to very old men.

The play I found had been tossed onto a table in the lounge where we were staying not far from Distomo. It was a very simple play and heart rending with a tragic Greek chorus of women lamenting the loss of their loves.

As a play it would probably never be a commercial success. Not because it was bad, that it certainly is not. But because it is a dirge, a wailing piece of work that draws into the emotions of that horrific event. The poetry is sublime, but it is a very hard read.

Which is the point of art. It takes you into another place more than any memorial can do.

I’m glad we stopped at Distomo. For me, a researcher visiting the events some 80 years later, it took the work of the resistance out of the realm of the romantic and into the necessary. 

23.9.22 The problem with the Monkees

There’s not a lot actually.

This was a band that was put together to entertain and entertain they did. From its very beginning in 1966 when the four actors were chosen from among hundreds to front the show, the Monkees went on to be far more than just a TV series. They produced many number one singles and albums, and went on to tour across the world many times.

Three of the Monkees have since died, all way too young, leaving just one, Micky Dolenz.

The problem with the Monkees has been a problem the Monkees had with themselves. Two of them were musicians and demanded right from the beginning that they be allowed to have their songs on the albums that went out in their name. They won and at least these two played on those albums. The problem was that the other two Monkees, David Jones and Dolenz, were not fussed about that. As actors they knew what the TV series was all about. It was simply a bit of entertainment.

The complication came with the accompanying albums that listed their real names as the musicians playing on those albums.

When the world found out that they did not in fact all play on those early records, they were derided as being the prefab four, which was a sarcastic take on the Monkees’ predecessors the Beatles. Because of this furore the band insisted that their third album feature them alone. Called Headquarters the album actually stands up pretty well. It does have some garageband elements to it but it is a reasonably classy product.

So then what were the Monkees? Were they a band? Were they just a TV show that got out of hand?

Micky Dolenz to this day put it this way: we were a TV show that went out on the road and played some music. We were entertainers. The most recent Monkee to die Mike Nesmith said the band was the equivalent of someone playing Pinocchio who actually became the little boy.

So was the Monkees a fiction? Well no. Once they got together and started playing their own instruments they were a real band, despite the fabricated origins. Although towards the end it was less of a band than an entertainment show where Micky Dolenz did not play the drums very much and more often than not Nesmith did not play guitar.

So in a way the Monkees were a fiction and a lot of the controversy about them would come down to the fact the producers used their real names (and birthplaces) on the albums, and on the back of their first album it claims each Monkee plays an instrument:

The rear cover of Meet the Monkees (Australian edition 1996) (c) RCA records

Except in a few cases, this was simply not true. But they gave a lot of pleasure in those very very funny and original TV episodes. They would often shoot for 10 hours a day and then at 10 o’clock at night head to a recording studio to lay down the vocal tracks for the singles that would go out in their name. Then they would make these personal appearances. That’s a heavy load of work. And left a great legacy. They were certainly an influence on me.

And Mike Nesmith, the country influenced guitarist wrote some tunes that were unlike anything that came before: illogical at times, but often funny poetic lyrics that took our heads into a different space, including the seven-year-old me listening to a Tapioca Tundra and Papa Genes Blues.

It may have had fictional , but there is no fiction about the effect that it had.

19.9.22 The problem with the years

William Mure was a British politician who liked to write. He also liked to travel, and in 1838 he did a tour of Greece, going to the places that Homer wrote about in The Odyssey including Ithaca (Odysseus’ island off the west coast of the Greek mainland).

He wrote about his travels in his book Journal of a tour in Greece and the Ionian islands. The book was published in 1842, which was barely twenty years after Greece won its independence from the Ottoman empire. Being so early into the new Greece, the maps in the book make for fascinating viewing. For example, the border between Greece and Turkey was very low down the Greek mainland, just a little above Delphi. This meant that at this time Mt Olympus, Thessaloniki ad Macedonia were all well in Ottoman territory.

But the thing that fascinated me most about this book is how Mure describes Ithaca itself. He talks about the narrow passage the passes from the south of the island to the north and how this passage was the very spot where Odysseus had his castle. Mure discusses the remnants of the castle and how there was still a link to the ancient world of 3000 years before. He even discusses walls stretching from the north west to the south east of this wall that formed what he called an irregular triangle the apex of which was an acropolis or castle that Odysseus had as the crown of his kingdom.

Now Mure’s book was written only 180 years ago, but a look on Google or Apple maps will show no such walls, no such crowns, no such remnants of any such kingdom. So although Mure was fascinated by how little there was left of the ancient kingdom, the truth is that in the last 180 years are relatively small time compared to the period from the ancients until now, and in this short period so much more has been lost. Also vastly changed has been the original town to the south east of the old castle, a town called Vathy. Even this name is now lost, having been superseded at some stage by the name Ithaca. Stone buildings are no more, replaced by the ever present terracotta roofed houses, hotels, swimming pools, and shops that you will find in any Greek town. Concrete has replaced the original stone and the natural waterways have been transformed into ducts that make them obviously more healthy and more accessible, but not like they were when Odysseus would’ve slaked his thirst there.

Of course these changes are so important for the health of the population, but I couldn’t help feeling just a bit of sadness to know that modernisation has taken precedence over history, a history that gave birth to the kind of civilisation that destroyed this town.

18.9.22 To Greece. Maybe.

 Little things lead to big things. The other day I was thinking about my study about the anglicisation of Greek names. It began as a proposal for a journal article for a Greek magazine. Which is fine. Getting published in a magazine is always nice, but that’s where all the publication for the work ends. So I started thinking about is whether there was an academic conference where I might be able to present my findings.

I found there was such a conference about diaspora identity in Greece next June. My study is right on this topic. It looks at how and why people will change their very basic identity to fit into the new country, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this diary.

I’ve put in an application to present at this conference. If accepted this means our first overseas trip in quite a few years.

We were, of course, due to go to Greece in April 2020 to give a talk about my play at the Athens Centre (with Jac playing out parts of it). It was so tightly organised that my greek publisher was also going to sell my novels there. Also exciting was the appointment in Athens to have discussions with the National Theatre of Greece about staging the play. Covid of course destroyed that trip. But if I can give that presentation at the academic conference I might also be able to take up where we left off with the Athens Centre and the National Theatre.

The Kastellorizo Association here in Victoria is also having a tour happening at the end of June so things may dovetail very nicely. I hope so.

15.9.22 Greekness

Identity has been in my mind a lot lately. My dad changed his name from Kafcaloudes to Kaff, and my two brothers have also lived with that shortened name. I also used it for the first 25 years of my life. It was a kind of peeling away from the Greek background, and I must admit as a child being Greek was not very cool. This is the era of the Beatles and James Bond and the Greek functions I went to as a young child with my mum (where the coolness factor was zero) only reinforced to me that to be Australian in name was where I would rather be.

Of course I started to understand my Greek heritage a lot more from my mid 20s and after a series of events I went back to using my full name permanently, including professionally on air in radio and television. And I have never regretted this reversion. And it also means that my identity has become tied to my name. Using a full Greek name has given me a sense of my heritage and it is helped my Greekness to be part of who I am. I love that.

The only other of my siblings to have ever shown any interest in being Greek was ironically my brother Terry, who took a few lessons in Greek about a decade ago. I say ironically because it was the same brother who told my mother as a child that he was not Greek, he was Australian. My other brother and sister have acknowledged their Greekness at various times such as when they travelled to Greece, but have not learnt the language or communicated with the Greek community. Which is fair enough. When they were younger being Greek was probably not considered an asset.

I remember a photograph of my brother Michael that sat on the TV for years when we were kids. In it he is wearing a Scottish kilt was made by our grandmother Olga. Actually it was made for our cousin Paul who was half Scottish. Olga also made Michael a traditional Greek outfit, but for some reason the cousins swapped clothes and Michael wore the kilt. I remember Ross, my best friend at primary school, seeing that picture of Michael and assuming because our name was Kaff we were a Scottish family. It was hilarious at the time but it also planted a seed in my mind that misunderstandings about ethnicity are so easy to happen.

It was also an easy mistake because none of us look particularly Greek. Certainly my dad, who was from Kastellorizo, did not look Greek, being blonde hair and blue eyed and he passed this on to his children. I remember my sister Sylvia telling me that when she was young she suffered discrimination because of her Greek name. This is why she found it easier just to let the background go and live the Australian life.

Yes our heritage is Greek but our Greekness comes from our own attitude.

13.9.22 Forgetting

I’ve just received a notification that a paper that I’ve been working on is about to be published. The paper is about liminality of postgraduate students: the changes facing people when they graduate from higher degrees. We examined their opportunities for work and how universities can help them.

This paper was written by our La Trobe University research group, Michael, Kunbzang, Adrienne, Andrew, Clement, Nicole and Atefeh. A great bunch of fellers.

The interesting thing about this paper is that I had entirely forgotten about it. This is probably normal for people delivering research papers. It can take up to 2 years from submission for the paper to be published. That’s because it needs to be peer reviewed by other academics and then edited, resubmitted and given the final approval for publication. Then it can take six months for the publication to be set and printed.

Nevertheless it makes me wonder about my own memory sometimes. We rush through our academic lives moving from one subject to another. For example right now I’m working on two academic papers. One is a write-up of the presentation I delivered in Darwin a few months ago; and the second is a new paper that I’m doing about the Anglicisation of Greek surnames in Australia.

With these new papers filling my head submissions like the liminality project seem oh so yesterday. Which is not really what it supposed to be about, is it? I think we should not just publish and be damned but we should publish and explore and talk about our findings. That would be the real value of publication.

Sure, people may read our papers, but that would be only a small percentage of academics. Getting out there and presenting face-to-face is probably just as worthwhile because it’s in this intellectual framework that we can come up with ideas for more papers or even breakout research which takes the original work further.

All that said, it’s still lovely to be published again.

9.9.22 The real Queen

Queen Elizabeth II died today.

I was driving in the car on this sad day and it gave me an opportunity to listen to the radio hear people talk about the Queen. Many people who knew her or even met her briefly said the same thing that she was warm, funny and in someways had a wicked sense of humour.

This took me back to the TV series The Queen where Olivia Colman played Elizabeth II in the 1960s.

Colman’s portrayal was a queen who was quite reserved, rarely laughed and was actually quite dull.

I’ve written before about how there was a great deal of fictionalisation in that TV series. But listening to what people have been saying today it struck me quite strongly that Colman probably got her characterisation very wrong. She hardly gave a smile and when she was challenged she seem to have no answer. From everything that I heard today this was not the Queen Elizabeth of real life; this was a Queen Elizabeth that was full of an actor’s choice, a choice which may well have been dramatically powerful, but it was not a portrayal full of truth.

Maybe one day someone will portray the Queen with humour. I think we need that. I think history needs that. If The Queen is shown on free-to-air television tonight it would be a bit of a travesty. There will probably be more value in watching the real queen.

Olivia Colman is obviously a great actor. That doesn’t mean all her decisions are the right ones. I wish she had got it right this time though.

3.9.22 Kazantzakis and fictionalisation

Nikos Kazantzakis is a great figure in Greek literary history. He was the author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation and many other stories which have highlighted events and eras not only in Greece but also across the Middle East. Every one of his stories touches on the personal and brings to life incidents, many of them true, in need of recognition.

I’m reading a collection of Kazantzakis’ plays and I have been interested in his treatment of the Corinthian king Periander in his Melissa. This king was not a very palatable person. He killed his father-in-law, allegedly by throwing him alive onto burning pile. And he was quite a despot towards his people.

Kazantzakis’ play however meddled with the truth. In the play the king stabbed his son Lycophon in the heart.

But the popular belief is that Lycophon did not die this way. He was murdered by a rabble.

This goes to the heart of my PhD thesis. If you saw this play you would think the Periander was the killer. And you would have every reason for this belief, because what is the point of doing a play based on true characters if the bones of the story are interfered with? I know Kazantzakis wanted to focus on the relationship between father and son, and you would think a writer of his stature would be able to knit in the tragedy of Lycophon’s death without the father having to be the physical killer. He could still have caused the death of his son by the rabble and the story would be equally tragic and still point to the father.

But then again perhaps it was popular belief at the time Kazantzakis wrote the play that Periander did kill his son, and Kazantzakis believed this to be true. After all writers work is a product of its time. 

25.8.22 Not such a problem after all

Today we had our judging panel meeting and I expressed my views about one of the books in the competition. I didn’t just say I didn’t like the book. I had plenty of examples of where I thought the author let themselves down.

When I had finished talking, I was expecting the other judges to disagree or to put the opposing view. To my surprise they agreed with everything I said. They talked about metaphor use in the same way that I did and in fact if anything they were a little tougher than I me.

I needn’t have been worried about being too tough. But that doesn’t mean I am right and the author was wrong just because other judges agreed with me. We may have been just be a really difficult (and unfair) panel.

So in one sweep I have gone from being a writer at the mercy of judges to being one of those judges.

And I must always remember that in every work in which we judge there is beauty. And in every single book in this competition, whether they got a second prize or are highly commended or nothing at all, there was beauty in there and there was good heart and somebody’s soul. People who put their books in for prizes will obviously have some belief in what they have produced. To not be shortlisted or to win a prize can be very hurtful I’m know. I’ve gone through that.

That’s the nature of competitions. If you win one it’s a great vote of confidence. If you come nowhere you get nothing.

I still don’t have the answers about competitions. But I am glad that I have been a judge because it has opened my mind. Just a little.

24.8.22 The problem with judgment

It’s all coming down entirely differently to how I expected. Judging a book prize was something that I thought would be some somewhat of a chore. But it hasn’t been like that at all.

One issue I did have was about being critical of another author. In some of the books I’ve had to judge they have been the kind of annoying little things that they have been annoying to me but may not be to anyone else.

I remember many years ago reading a Tim Winton novel which was hugely acclaimed. As much as I adore Winton’s work this particular one didn’t grab me. It wasn’t badly written (none of Winton’s novels are anything less than sublimely written) but the little zing factor was missing. For me at least.

What that taught me was that a creative writer’s work is never ever just good or bad, but subject to the state of mind of the people reading it. When my novel was being pushed around the publishers, my agent, who adored the book, kept on it trying to get a contract for more than two years. That’s two years of no pay and no reward for her.

In the end we had to part ways because although she couldn’t understand why, she was not getting any hooks.

So there we had two completely divergent views, one of my agent and one of publishers. I came to understand a little later that publishers are not just reading to see if a book is great, they are reading to see if it will sell to their market. And in the fraught activity of trying to sell an unknown author, publishers really do need to know they’re going to get their money back. Otherwise they go out of business.

So when I am reading as a judge in a literary competition I have this in my mind and I ask myself the question constantly: am I just annoyed today? Am I just picking on minor things that irk me? Is this book actually really good and I am failing to see it?

Tomorrow I have a meeting with the other judges about the merits of the books in the competition. I’ll be really interested to see whether they have the same view as me. I doubt it because, as I said, we all have our own take on everything. If I am the harshest critic in the room then I really don’t think this judging lark is for me.

10.8.22 Sartre and a playwright’s place in history

The French writer Jean Paul Sartre was also an adapter. One of his most famous adaptations was not book-to-play or play-to-film. Rather, he did play-to-play. He took Euripides’ ancient masterwork The Trojan Women, and adapted it into French for a modern audience.

In the preamble to the 1967 edition of his play, Sartre pondered how a future audience would react to his work. He says he was conscious that the audience for his adaptation was entirely different to Euripides’ audience. For a start, the BC days in Greece had religious beliefs very much in Zeus and Athena mould, and the play carried these beliefs. In the intervening 2000 years Christ was born, Mohammad forged Islam, and Buddha and Krishna founded their own sects.

Spinning this out further, Sartre looks to a translation of the original play by Bude, who kept many of the original’s religious beliefs: “rather that accept the fact they are no longer valid”. Validity is a loaded term of course. We may be surprised. Maybe there was a Zeus in some form.

Being a forward-thinking philosopher, Sartre goes on to ask what  people will think of his contemporary playwrights in a few centuries’ time.

It’s a good question. Christianity has certainly ebbed in the 55 years since Sartre penned those words. One of the biggest growing religions is agnosticism or atheism. In 1967 public schools in Australia had their students recite the Lord’s Prayer. Today this would be an exception.

So for someone adapting a play that accepted the Greek gods, we should keep in mind that we are not necessarily writing in a time of enlightenment, just in a time. The year 2200, if climate change and the nukes will allow the world to exist, we will have a world of new attitudes, a world where those of the future will look back at our  behaviour and our ideologies with the same critical eye that we give to the distant past. And it won’t always be favourable.

So should we write with an eye on the future? Should we try to be ahead of our time? I don’t think so. Plays and novels are valuable as historical artefacts; they speak of the time in which they are written. To try to second guess the future might be good for a science fiction work, but I think there is great value in reflecting the now. After all don’t good writers write from what they know?

8.8.22 The oldest written form

The next part of the literary competition is judging poetry. This is going to be the hardest part of all because not only do we have to judge six poets and their books, but we have completely different types of poets including a Greek classic and some young Australians.

So how do you compare bananas with apples? Good question. I certainly don’t know.

The Greek classic poet is from the World War II era and writes in short stanzas about his experience in times of terror and privation.

The modern Australian poets often are writing about their parents and their experiences on arrival in Australia. Two very different scenarios. Two very different styles.

You may wonder why the World War II poet is in a modern Greek poetry competition in Australia? Good question. The answer is that it’s a new translation which is being published within Australia. So that makes the divide even wider because in his case it’s not judging his poetry (which has been awarded many times before and come out smiling) but the translation itself.

Translation does bring its own special skills because it is never a literal word for word process. The translator needs to try to keep the original feeling of the poem while bringing in English words that are going to give the same idea the original poet wished.

Today I’ll start on the poetry and I’ll see how I go. As a writer my wish would be to support new poets. But again, it would also be good to support the very difficult job of the translator.

It’s not all beer and crackers this judging the thing.

1.8.23 Who judges the judge?

I’m a judge in the Greek Australian Cultural League’s literary awards. This means I have the joy of reading all the entries and come to some kind of decision on which merits a prize.. and which merits, effectively, nothing.

Which is one of the big dilemmas I have about prizes. I remember Tim Winton the great Australian novelist once telling me “you know how these things work“ which I’ve always taken to mean there’s more play in a prize competition then just the merit of the work. Publishers push their authors, and authors with a popular history might have a little more sway, especially if the judges liked their earlier work and their style. A new writer may have a chance but again other factors come into play including the background of the author and perhaps their personal and cultural backstory.

I have just read a book for the prize. It is a history book. It has good merits to it including the collection of stories from immigrant people around Melbourne. But there’s also some poor choices made in the book, like in the structure, the opening and the closing. So what do you do? Our judging panel will meet in a couple of days so we will have to look at all these issues.

But I know what it will come down to: who can argue the strongest in the panel. If somebody really loves a book and fights for it, then there will probably be acquiescence from the others.

Hence the luck of the draw. That’s maybe what Tim Winton was referring to.

25.7.22 Done and dusted (I hope)

Well that should be about it.

I hope.

I am absolutely assured by the ABC that the book has been approved and is now about to be printed. Of course I’ll believe it when I see it after a couple of false starts with the ABC is deciding to make a few changes here or there.

But if this really is the end of the journey it’s been a year long trip that was originally foreseen to only take six months. It was last May when Kel from the ABC called me when I was on the Gold Coast and asked me if I’d be interested in writing the history of the ABC Radio Australia. I instantly said yes, knowing that it would be a fair bit of work, and then negotiated for a six month period to get the thing done. I met all the deadlines, but the ABC, after approving the early versions, wanted some changes. Apparently there had been a change of idea about what they wanted from the book. So I re-wrote. And re-wrote. And re-wrote.

On the plus side I met some lovely new people from the ABC and it helped me to reconnect with the people that I shared my work life with for nine years, and on the overall balance sheet this is been a pretty fabulous project and brought me closer into the minutiae of publishing than I had done with my previous books.

So now at the end you don’t care about all the little niggles and frustrations but only the joyful outcome.

If we do have our launch in Canberra in September as planned, that will just be the icing on the proverbial (and cliched) cake.

24.7.22 The United Nations of research

Today I met the fellow members of my research group. This research group had been going for the last three years and we have published a few papers together talking about the PhD process. I’ve love these guys. They’ve been so generous, kind and supportive. I’ve written earlier in this diary about how we all met near Ballarat a few months ago to discuss our next project. Well today we all met at St Kilda beach had a lunch and a walk and then drove back to our home to do a zoom call with the two members of the group who couldn’t be there.

There came a magical moment in the afternoon when I looked around our dining room table and realised we had Andrew from the Philippines, Kunbzang from Tibet, Atefeh from Iran and Wenjing from Mongolia, all together. That was some magical moment. The magic just kept coming when people talked about their vulnerabilities while doing the PhD’s, all led by Nicole who bravely discussed her own personal issues. The floodgates then burst. It was a great afternoon; one of those very special things that you can only rejoice that it happened in your own home.

20.7.22 Leslie Charteris and The Saint

The other day I bought a first edition book from The Saint series by Leslie Charteris. The Saint was of course made famous by Roger Moore in his 1960s British TV series, but the saint was famous character well before that.

Charteris started writing in the 1920s and was quite an artist. As well as a writer he wrote the TV series’ The Saint theme.

The Saint is also responsible for an interesting discussion between Jac and me. She did not have a book to read so I suggested she read my first edition book of short stories The Saint Errant. She got through one short story and then said she really think she liked it that much, adding that she didn’t think he was that good of writer. I then started reading it and, you know, I actually disagreed with Jac. I think he writes pretty darn well (although he might put a few too many adjectives in front of his nouns). I’m actually enjoying a ripping read of this book and can appreciate what those tens of thousands of readers saw in his work back in the 1930s and 40s. His stories are page turners but they are also quite original and I would dare say superior to Ian from Fleming’s James Bond product. 

Mind you I’m saying all this having just read a few of his short stories but it’s a pretty good start so far.

17.7.22 Writing up the Darwin paper

It’s been more than a month since I presented my papers at the Darwin conference, and now Associate Professor George Frazis, the convenor of the conference, has asked me to put my presentation into the form of an academic paper that can be published in a journal (mind you the journal will not be out until 2024s so we looking a long way ahead).

I’m already finding that writing an academic paper is a totally different thing to presenting at a conference. Every assumption, every assertion, every fact needs to be referenced and checked. Documents that I put up on my PowerPoint presentation needed to have full attribution, which means in writing the paper I need to revisit those documents which I may have, in the heat of the preparation for the conference, not captioned fully. Academic papers also need to follow the method that the auditor requires, this includes a special choice that they have made on referencing styles, length and perhaps even voice. Also the storytelling methodology is different in an academic paper. Conference presentations are a performance, full of asides and light and shade in delivery. You can’t do any of this in an academic paper. So you need to approach the research I’ve already presented in a totally different way.

It’s a bit of a pain in the arse. But it’s a pain that needs to happen because there is little value in statements or documents that are not attributed properly.

This paper will be peer reviewed, which means other academics will look at it and find the holes. This is the wonderful thing about paper publication. Academics will find the areas need to be improved. In a presentation you can get on stage say a whole lot of things and wow an audience but nobody ever criticises your performance.

All that said, I’m enjoying the process.

But this means I now have three research projects underway. The Anglicisation of Greek names: the writing up of the Darwin paper; and the ABC book, which is about to go to the final stage of publicity and launches.

Wow. I never thought I’d be so busy. I’m just so glad I don’t have to teach at the same time.

11.7.22 The next project

The other day I was talking to the author of an international Greek magazine who asked me if I would be interested in contributing an article or two for next year’s edition. We discussed a whole range of topics. One of them that came into my head as I was talking was about the anglicisation of Greek names in Australia.

My godfather, whose surname was Maniarizis, changed his name to Manning on arrival in Australia in 1948. Apparently the wife of the Greek consul told him his Greek name would just not work in Australia and she actually invented the anglicised version of the name for him. It was a name that he used up to his death in 2017, and his children still use that name.

So I wondered (out aloud and to myself) whether it would be an interesting topic to look at why people made this change; why they took their own name, which presumably they had been proud of, and jettisoned it.

I’ve sent out a note to Greek societies all over Australia asking them to tell me a number of things including why they or their forebears felt they had to change their name. I would think the answer is obvious. They simply wanted to fit in better. But you never know there could be something unexpected, and that is the joy of research: there will be some stories to come out of this that will be surprising.

I can’t wait to see the results.

7.11.22 Giving it time

It’s a funny thing but I am loving researching more and more. Way back in my RMIT days, research was something that we had to do. It was part of the academic’s role, alongside teaching, community outreach and funding collection (which basically meant getting as much grant money as you possibly can). That sounds like a lot and it certainly is a lot. So or me research risked becoming a chore, something that I needed to do if I was to have any hope of advancement.

Now that’s not really the best way to get great research. There are plenty of examples of plagiarism and shortcuts in research when it’s carried out in this kind of pressure cooker situation.

Research really needs to be carefully curated with the researcher giving themselves plenty of time to reflect and consider the next stage.

Now having been out of university for three years I’m feeling the love for what research can offer. Just doing the two lectures at the Darwin conference last month felt fantastic because I could approach it at my own pace and there was no undue pressure for me. In truth if I wished I could’ve dropped out of the conference and there would be no great problem. If I was still at university the push would be for me to do the conference, present the paper, and then publish.

It’s funny that I’m doing this in parallel with writing the ABC book which required a lot of research and a lot of interviews. Again I had the grace in this book project of doing it at my own time with just a series of deadlines which I met with months to spare.

And I think that’s what’s made this ABC book so good. I was able to devote all my time to it. Or not. If I wished to I could stop and go and read a book for a little while or do a trip to the country. And it’s made me realise that it’s the time away from the research which is just as valuable as the research itself.

As they say timing is everything. 

3.7.22 Does the film match the book?

The other day I bought a collection of first edition Daphne du Maurier books. One of them was Jamaica Inn which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock soon after it was published. Jackie read the book and said she was surprised by how much was left out in the film version. Coincidentally, on the same day we were flicking through the streaming services and we saw the 1970s The Far Pavilions TV series. With her memories of Jamaica Inn fresh in her mind Jac was a little hesitant about this adaptation of a book that she has read many times. But the cast looked terrific so we started watching it.

Once again all I could hear tut-tuts coming from Jac as she said the serialised version of The Far Pavilions and left so much out it ruined the experience for her. And I had to admit I was a bit confused by the rapid pacing of the first episode. It wasn’t so much that the backstory was excised, rather, there were no back stories. The novel’s writer M.M. Kaye spent a lot of time setting up character. The needs of a limited time miniseries meant a lot of this had to go.

With my own novel I found I was writing backstory as important context. In fact the backstory became the gist of the novel: Olga’s infancy and the fact that she was a foundling, and her being raised in Egypt by something of a renaissance woman who encouraged her to do whatever she needed or wanted to do. Without this backstory the reader would be confused about why Olga did what she did: leaving her family, working in the resistance, fighting for her people.

I suppose this would be the problem if ever the novel was filmed. Every bit of the story could not make it into a film. But I guess that’s the challenge for a good screenwriter. It might mean that only part of the story would be told. Either Olga’s exploits, or the Australian family side of things, but possibly not both.

It also makes me wary ever of watching a film adaptation of any novel. If you know a book well then maybe that journey should just be enough. As I’ve said many times in writers festivals and launches a novel is 80% the reader and 20% the writer. Why would you want to mess with someone’s imagination, vision and interpretation of your words?

28.6.22 Messing around at the end

This morning I had lunch with Ilaria who is the ABC representative handling my book about the history of Radio Australia. We had decided to have the get together almost as a celebration of the finishing of the book. It had been approved by the ABC, it had been proof read, and it was approaching the printing stage.

In the lunch I mentioned something to her, a regret. I said I was being niggled a bit by some of the photos at the end of the book. I said there were several people who were relatively minor in the Radio Australia story but they had five or six photographs allotted to them. I said every time I got to the end of the book and I saw their photos I thought this was out of kilter. Ilaria agreed and suggested that perhaps we could contact the publisher and ask if we could replace some of those photos. So as soon as the lunch finished I contacted the publisher. He was very charming about it although it must’ve been something of a frustration to him. I went home found some other photos that would be more appropriate and we started the process of replacement.

I think it just goes to show in this case that it’s very hard to actually let go of something. When I scanned through the last chapter I found words in my narrative that were not very clear. I think if I kept going with every bit of doubt this book would never get to publication. That said I’m so glad we changed the photos.

17.6.22 How one woman can do it

Last night I saw what was probably the most wonderful piece of theatre I have seen in the last decade. It was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The picture of Dorian Gray. It was a one woman show where that woman plays a range of characters, in fact all the characters in Wilde’s book. I say it was a one woman show but the fact was she was surrounded by other people who were constantly videoing her, with those videos simultaneously projected her onto a series of large screens scattered around the stage. So these videographers were as much a part of the play as a central Dorian Gray character. It’s a fabulous compliment to the concept and the director that these other people never got in the way of the actor playing all the parts.

Eryn Jane Norvill played to herself on many occasions with pre-recorded videos of herself as these other characters coming on to the screens, making it so that she was effectively talking to herself. The great art in this was the fact that the audience was drawn in and belief was suspended to the point that you really believed she talking to other people. She even manages to kill another character in a way that is horrific but yet totally totally believable even though she was killing an image that was only on the screen but not the stage. 

Norvill succeeded so well that as Dorian Gray you at first root for her and then you are aghast at how she developed into a truly evil person.

Having written a play which is essentially a one woman play it was an eye-opener to see how the play medium for this kind of storytelling mode can be expanded with technology. It was also interesting that she changes the narration considerably by talking to other characters then looking to the camera and giving asides or acting as an external narrator. This is a technique we’ve seen in the last decade in British TV shows such as Miranda and Fleabag. And it worked a treat here. Three curtain calls is proof of that.

My plays have not used technology like this at all and at this point I can’t see how it would work for me but who knows? Perhaps for the sequels I might try expanding my way of doing things. My Olga does talk to the audience at times in mid scene, but the thought of acquiring a technology to allow her to put her face right into the audiences psyche is enchanting.

Time to cogitate.

15.6.22 Nearly there for the book

Authorship has milestones. First there’s the concept, then the contract, then the finalising of the research and writing. Then comes the edits and rewrites. But the most significant thing is when it’s done, when the publisher, the commissioner and the editor of all said it’ll do!

My book about the history of ABC Radio Australia has gone backwards and forwards over the last year with suggested changes (which is fine because it is a commissioned book and it needed to be done in a way that suited the commissioner, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

This book did go through many turmoils. But last everybody is happy with it. The ABC chairman Ita Buttrose has written a lovely preface in which she says the book entertaining (whew).

We are now at the end point. All the typos and suggested changes have been finalised, and the ABC today sent a text saying we’re done. Now we will be working out publicity and the big launch. I expect the launch will be in Sydney at some stage. It might even be held this month to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the ABC.

It’s great to see all the research come to fruition.

10.6.22 On being the child of immigrants

This morning I hosted a session at the Greek Writer’s Festival in Sydney. The subject of the festival was being a child of migrants. On the panel were seven first generation Greeks (including me) and each of us came from a different background: one was an academic in her early 30s; one was an academic in his 60s; one was a performance poet who was told by her mother that she should not waste time doing this stuff; there was an administrator who works in the arts and another was a sports journalist.

That’s a pretty broad shift of views. Each of them had some crossovers, with parents wanting them to be successful professionals. However there were many divergences (just like in the rest of the population). 

The most interesting part of the session was when people from the audience stood up and spoke about their experience being discriminated against and even here there was a variance. Some people said that they were shattered when as children they were called wogs but other stood up and said they loved being called the word wog and wore it as a badge of honour. So once again it’s proved the point that experiences not just about what happens to you but how you relate to it. Two of us on the panel had never learnt Greek as children; in fact we met doing a Greek course couple of years ago (both of us have since wound down our Greek study because other things of got in the way). This brought again the divided reaction from the audience with some believing we really should’ve stuck to learning Greek when we were children; others thought we had the right to make our own decisions even as children.

Recession broke up with all these convergent use flying around with a notable abundance of respect each other. It was great to be part of the kind of discussion which Socrates probably would have appreciated. 

9.6.22 Wearing my history

A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in a photo shoot wearing some traditional Greek costumes that have been collected in Sydney. This morning I came to the shoot and was fussed over by a group of women who planted on me all kinds of Greek attire, originally from the Greek islands. I put on black pants that was so baggy they could’ve been used for a parachute and then a black shirt that was very Robin Hoodish and pretty fabulous. Then came a vest then the wrapping of the wide wool belt. This involved me standing and then turning around and around as the belt encircled me over and over. A black cap put on me and some hanging ornaments.

I then moved to the set where I was photographed. I was given some directions on looking fierce, and a knife was handed to me.. a very heavy short dagger that I stuck in my belt. For the next 20 minutes I did plenty of growling and scowling as the photographer took her portraits.

Then it came to the unwinding the disrobing and handing back of all the ornaments, and before I knew it I was back out on the Randwick streets again.

I then realised this was the first time I had ever actually worn a Greek outfit. When I was a kid my brother Michael was photographed in a Greek skirt and this tiny 3″ x 4″ photo was placed permanently on the television. My sister just told me that that Greek skirt had been made by my grandmother Olga.

Wrongly or rightly, I’ve always felt like I was the member of my family generation who has most connected to my Greek heritage. In this photo shoot this morning I felt even more Greek. But then when learning that Michael had been the first to be dressed in traditional costume I also realised that my claiming of Greekness was something that I should be wary about. Greekness is in all our family. If they don’t openly manifest their Greekness that doesn’t make them any the less Greek. A good lesson.

5.6.22 In dark and sweaty room in ’69

Those are the first words in a song by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan. It was written for the band’s comeback album in 1984, and tells the story about how the then-unknowns gathered fifteen years before to rehearse for what would become their breakthrough album, Deep Purple in Rock.

It’s a song loaded with earworms and powerful organ and guitar interplay,  and has been resounding in my head for the best part of thirty years. But it was only this weekend that I realised what Gillan was trying to say. He was looking back on his 24 year-old self. He felt it was important to put down how it all began; to stop for a moment in this crazy comeback time and see what had gone before.

The other day Jackie said to me that I really had an obsession with Olga my grandmother. It gave me pause. My first reaction was “no of course I don’t. I’m just researching history”.

But it’s an interesting comment. Researchers are naturally obsessive. They need to be. If they can let go of a story, or not care, then the story dies. There’s something inside of every researcher which makes them go on. When I was researching the history of the Kafcaloudes building in Darwin I came upon so many roadblocks and I actually told myself to forget about it. This was followed by a feeling of disappointment. So I continued on and found the story. And I’m so glad I did.

As Gillan inferred, looking back is not only the subject for a song, but the first process in storytelling itself.

Does this make for obsessive-compulsive behaviour? Perhaps. But I tell you, it’s fun.

31.5.22 Finding my history

I’ve been doing some research on a building in Darwin called the Kafcaloudes building. It was built in Cavenagh St, Darwin’s main strip, and I was told it was later incorporated into the Don Hotel which has now become the Cavenagh Hotel.

Unfortunately there seemed to be no trace of the Kafcaloudes building in the current structure when I went there last week.

So I did some digging at the Territory archives (ironically just down the road from where the building as supposed to have stood). What I found was that the original Kafcaloudes building definitely was on the Cavenagh Hotel site.. from as closely as I can calculate it, it was where the current hotel’s swimming pool is at the moment. It was Lot 312 (see below) . Lot 312 was the third allotment from Bennett St. It’s marked on the town planning document Lot 312 as the Kafcaloudes Building, as you can see.

The same town plan diagram shows Lot 398 (on the corner of Cavenagh and Bennett Sts was the original Don Hotel. This was diagonally across from the Kafcaloudes building and the current Cavenagh Hotel.

This 1940s pic below shows that building with the Tree of Knowledge in the now-Civic centre in the background. The verandah of the Kafcaloudes building is on the left foreground.

This solves a lot of riddles, because I have an official War reparations image of the Kafcaloudes building in 1944, which was damaged by the Japanese bombing. According to a record I found, it was referred to as the SECOND Don Hotel, so there was a transfer of operations to the Kafcaloudes building after the war.. leading to the changed placement of the Don Hotel business.

A researcher from Charles Darwin Uni says there is still a stone wall in the Cavenagh Hotel from this old building. Next time I go to Darwin I will have to try to find it.

25.5.22 On the way to Darwin

In November 2020 I got a call from George Frazis, who is an Associate Professor at Charles Darwin Uni in Darwin. He wanted to know whether I would be interested in giving some lectures on the Greek diaspora. At the time I had just been awarded my PhD and I was at a loose end (I was also missing lecturing), so I agreed. The conference was supposed to be last May. Then it got delayed by COVID to November last year and finally this May. In-between delays I was commissioned to write the ABC book, so my life went off on a tangent. But the conference was always in the back of my mind.

At last, long last, the conference has rolled around, and I am at a very empty Melbourne airport on my way to Darwin. It’s a strange feeling being in an airport again. I was moved off my 6.10am flight to a direct flight which leaves at 1010.. which has left me four hours  in the middle of the food court (a food court amazing devoid of vegan food, sadly).

The four hours have given me plenty of time to adjust my lectures and do some extra research.

It’s been 17 years since I’ve been to the top end. This time I’ll explore the places where mum and dad lived. I want to see the remains of the Don Hotel (which dad’s family built) and the Greek church where mum and dad were married. If I get time I might contact some distant relatives.

Of course the biggest change for me on this trip will be the climate. Going from an 8 degree Melbourne morning to a 33 degree Darwin day will need some acclimatisation, I fear. But that’s the thing I love about Australia. In a few hours you can go from Somerset weather to the tropics… all without leaving the border.

17.5.22 The Alexandria influence

Alexandria in Egypt has a put a long ray of sunshine over my family. My grandmother Olga grew up in Alexandria in the early part of the last century at a time when that city was possibly the most cosmopolitan city on the world. As I wrote in my novel Someone Else’s War and the play Lady of Arrows, cultures met in Alexandria.  There were Greeks, French, Ottoman Turk, Germans, Brits. So Olga would have grown up with a palette of influences. She was a woman of the world, and there’s no stretch to say her worldliness came directly from this cosmopolitan upbringing.

I wonder how much of this has filtered down through our family. My mum lived with Olga in Greece for at least a year. Although my mum came back to Australia and rarely left Australia again, she did have a panache, and always felt her Greek heritage, and wished for me to embrace my own Greekness. As a kid I resisted. As a 20-something, I belatedly came to love the land of my ancestors.

One day I would like to go to Alexandria to visit the streets Olga walked. I wonder whether cell memory is a thing. I don’t know. I certainly always feel some warmth and comfort in any place I visit in the middle east.

Or maybe that’s just because the middle east is so damn wonderful.

10.5.22 Confluence

As the ABC book has shown me, things just can happen in life; things you don’t expect; things you can’t foresee.

I was asked to write the book in a phone call from nowhere. In May last year I was on the Gold Coast, having a vegan sandwich when Kelly from the ABC rang me and asked if I would be interested in being commissioned to write the history of Radio Australia. Although I had written three books, I had never been commissioned before. As the book gets to its final stages I realise a year has passed, and although the process hasn’t always been smooth, it’s been a great experience which has reconnected me with many of my old radio comrades. If it wasn’t for this book I probably would never have spoken with them ever again. Life just does that.

Much in the same way I was invited to meet an educator today who is setting up an education initiative in the Pacific. A mutual friend put us together this afternoon and we talked about how she has put together a year-long pilot program for a childrens’ radio program about the traditional life in Samoa, Nuie and Solomon Islands, and she’s already got international funding for the pilot program in those countries. She wanted to meet me because of my experience in radio in the Pacific region. When I told her that I had been studying diaspora movements, she almost feel off her chair (actually she was sitting on the floor at the time, but a good cliche is a good cliche, even if it’s not that good). She then offered me a position on the board of the group organising the education program. I was honoured by the offer and agreed to join the board.

It has made me realise that all the things that seem little to me is worthwhile. Programs like these tie together my experience in broadcasting, writing, studying diaspora and teaching. My trip may go off on tangents at times, but every little bit of experience counts for something.

5.2.22 The art of the index

Today I submitted the final bit of writing for the ABC book. It was a blurb to be put on the back cover.

The only things left to do for the book is to review the copyreader’s suggestions (when they come in) and then do the indexing.

Indexing, I am finding, is an interesting procedure. Although, I am told, there are plenty of AI-type automated indexing programs out there, the best method for constructing an index is to do it manually: go through the book, and put down all the names of people, places and groups into an alphabetical list.

Some books have sub-lists. For example:

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

      – Radio Australia

                                        – Beginnings 2-21

                                        – Cavalcade program 67, 69

                                        – Cook Islands 3, 5, 65, 78, 79, 81

                                                 – Radio Australia broadcasts to 3, 5, 79

So you can get the idea that sub-lists can feed on themselves and serve as repeat entries. For this book we decided against sub-lists. So for the example above this part of the index will go something like:

Cavalcade program 67, 69

Cook Islands 3, 5, 65, 78, 79, 81

Radio Australia

Three lines instead of six. It also makes the compiling of the index more bulletproof. With sub-lists you have to remember all the different places you have sub-listed that person, place or group. Without sub-lists there is just one reference to each and all the page numbers can be listed next to that name.

So all I have to do now is wait for our lovely publisher John to finish his pagination of the book and then I can go through the book and stick in the page numbers.

Then my work with the book is done… apart of the media engagements. And the launches. And the talks. And the award entries. Oh dear.

29.4.22 Welcome back to the drums

The other day I played in my first jazz band. My first teacher, back when I was 13, was a jazz drummer of great repute. Derek Fairbrass was not only a great live player, he was the premier Sydney session drummer of the 1970s. He persevered with me for a few years, but the truth was that as much as I loved the drums, I didn’t love the practice, and Derek’s drum teaching was of the fundamental kind: finger placement on the sticks, reading, tapping style, all taught with me bouncing the sticks off a rubber mat. It was hardly thrilling. Still, for the next decades I boasted I was taught by a jazz drummer, the musical equivalent of a new car driver claiming to have been instructed by Fangio.

For the last decade or so I have been studying on my drum kit at home, practicing along with the recordings of drummers with a great feel, drummers like John Bonham, Simon Kirke and Stewart Copeland. Along the way my technique tightened up to a standard that I think Derek would have liked. My errant fingers on my left hand gained control for the first time, to the extant that I can almost do a drum roll with one hand. Almost.

So doing a jam with a respected bass player this weekend was a nervous thrill for me. It would be a test if whether I had the chops. By the end of the session we were all happy. It was great fun, and that is what music, especially improvisation music, is all about.

After five years of teaching at university and, before that, 25 years of broadcasting, I have regained my thirteen year old self, and it feels damn great.

26.4.22 An honour

An honour through connection, that is.

Some years ago when I was in Sydney launching the Greek language version of novel, I met Kiki. Kiki is a bibliophile who loves Greek stories. She sat in the front row of the bookshop, a supportive book buyer. We have kept in touch sporadically ever since.

Then, the other day she asked if she could send a book to me. It was written by an acquaintance, and she thought it might be of interest to me. That acquaintance was a well-respected neural scientist, a Greek-Australian, who mapped more of the brain’s neural pathways than any one else. Pretty impressive. And like any good writer, his novel incorporated what he knew best, his science, into his fiction.

As these things tend to happen in the writing world, this author, George Paxinos, has asked me to launch his book in Melbourne next month. It’s an honour to be asked to do this. It’s also an honour to think that Kiki and George think I am worthy. 

This comes just after I heard that a COVID scare has forced the cancellation of my presentation tomorrow night. That was disappointing, but the talk will still go ahead in a couple of months, in an online format. It was disappointing because a cousin was flying down from Sydney for it, and it would have been the first time that parts of the play were to be presented in front of an audience. Ce la vie. COVID stopped the presentation in Athens in 2020, and now this. But George’s book launch will be a great way to channel that energy.

11.4.22 Just doing it it.

The other day I got a notification that a Greek short story competition was going to be on again.

My first reaction was to consider it as something I had already done. A few months ago I was awarded a ‘highly commended’ for my story about my dad’s dad travelling through the outback.

Then the thought came to me that of course these competitions are not just something you don’t once and leave forever but something that you can take as an inspiration (which is exactly what they are meant to be… encouraging writers to write).

Yesterday Jackie and I were in a place called Warburton just outside of Melbourne having a little bit of a break and recovering from a couple of colds. I was lying on a sofa in front of the log fire reading about the life of Percy Shelley. I got to a paragraph that said that at the age of 22 he just wrote lots of things simply because he had to. It was in his nature. Then came epiphany: I also loved to write. It was when I was at my happiest. So right there and then I started writing a story. It was about the other side of the family, imagining my grandfather Michael as a 16-year-old Kastellorizo boy in his boat.

And surprisingly the story came to me from beginning to end in one sitting. I’ve only done the first draft but I was pleased with where it went. It started with him feeling not very happy with his life. Even his boat seem to fight against him as he tried to get it to the Turkish coast so he could sell some fruit and vegetables. Then he remembered how tough things have been for him recently back on the island.

By the end of the story he had made a resolution to leave his home island and come to Australia.

Now almost certainly this was not how Michael resolved to leave, but then again maybe there was some parallels to what actually happened to him. We can only guess.

What was important for me was that I created something new. It may not be a work of genius like any of Shelley’s pieces, but it felt wonderful to write. It also made me realise how rare are the times when I actually sit down to write my fiction. 

And I really enjoyed it.

3.4.22 The Plaintive Symphony

Every author… actually every artist… will attest that one of the most difficult things of being a creative artist is overcoming the belief that you really are not good enough. In my case there’s been plenty of times when I have believed the work of mine was not very good but then when I read it over again I see, from a distance, that it wasn’t so bad.

I went through this after I wrote my first play Lady of Arrows. But now, preparing for a talk I’m giving to the Kastellorizian Association later this month I thought it would be a good idea to have Jac read some of the lines from the play. Those ‘few lines’ now turned into three monologues that will punctuate my whole presentation.

I had already selected a number of monologues a couple of years ago for the talk I was due to give in Athens about the play. You might remember that this talk had to be cancelled because of Covid. As I looked at those monologues it was if as if I was reading a different author, certainly not me. They brought a tear to my eye and I remembered the words of the three examiners for my PhD (the play was an appendix to the PhD). All three examiners said they really liked the play but of course I had  glossed over these kind words, not giving them any account. I can see now that I was under-playing what I’d written.

This is not to say I believe it is the greatest work in the world. It has not been shortlisted for any award, (and I had entered it in a couple).  So could you imagine if your work was actively denigrated by someone? That be a thunder blow.

I’m just reading the life of Percy Shelley, one of the great poets of the 19th century. He sent his work to a publisher who replied that they were only two lines in it that will worth anything. For a man of that young age (Shelley was only in his late teens) this must’ve been distressing. But we are so much better off because he would not take no for an answer. He had a belief in himself. The two lines that the publisher thought were adequate were:

It seemed as if an angels sigh

Had breathed the plaintive symphony

No, I don’t understand it either. But that’s out of context. This also suggests that the proceeding lines must’ve set up this little passage very well.

Shelley went on to produce some beautiful work. Perhaps he just didn’t have those demons in his ear telling him he wasn’t good enough. If he did have those demons that would make his journey all the more remarkable.

30.3.22 Giving the baby to the world

Finally. After many revisions, changes and insertions, tomorrow I will send off the final version of my Introduction to the Radio Australia history (now to be called Australia Calling).

Anyone who has worked with editors knows the process: endless suggestions and ideas for improvement at every version. Sometimes the editor will have a fundamental epiphany and want you to change the very nature of the work. Too many times these major amendments happen late in the piece, when the clocking is ticking towards the publication date. A kind of publisher’s panic, I suppose. If you are working to two editors, then the dynamic is more than doubled because there is the added layer of the dynamic between those two editors.

My editors have been terrific. Everything they have suggested has been interesting. This is not to say that hasn’t been some chopping and changing, or even changing and then reverting back to the original. This can be frustrating.. if you let it frustrate you. You really can’t. Everybody involved in the process wants the work to be as good as possible.

When I send off the introduction chapter tomorrow, that should be pretty much the end to my writing bar some typos and the compiling of the index. The baby will be in the postnatal ward for everyone to see.

27.3.22 The difficult art of writing history

I’m just reading the biography of Edward Gibbon, the author of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He was to the 18th century what Herodotus was to the ancient Greek world: an exemplar of historical research for his era.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t subject to criticism. Although Decline was (and is) considered a great historical text, many, including his 19th century biographer James Morison felt confident in criticisingthe minutiae of this grand work. In fact Morison gravitates between adulation and exasperation for Gibbon’s work. The exasperation was for a something that he believed Gibbon should have done, not for any great fault in the work. At one point he says Gibbon should have raised himself into a position of commanding survey. Now if he was simply saying this could’ve made it a more interesting viewpoint, then yes, a reasonable point perhaps. But I wonder whether Morison’s wishing for more was a little rich, given the scope of Gibbon’s work, and what it left to the world of historical research.

I suppose my point is no work of history will be perfect. My own history of Radio Australia is virtually complete now and I’m just tidying up a few revisions. I know that different readers will have different views, and like Morison they might well believe I should have kept a more disinterested viewpoint. Or didn’t go tough enough. I know it will be criticised. But not for the lack of trying. If some reviewer in a hundred years looks back on my work with steely eyes that really can’t bother me now. Nor should it.

22.3.22 Spreading the word

One of the paradoxes of writing is that writers put out work that they hope will be read widely, but at the same time many authors fear talking about their work in public. Luckily I have never had a fear of talking about my stories. Just as well. The Kastellorizian Association of Victoria has booked me to give a talk in April. It will be a big talk, covering both Olga Stambolis and my dad’s dad, who was a refugee from Greece in WWI. 

I may say that I have no fear about public speaking, but this talk will be in a hired venue and will have a sizeable fee. There’s something bout talking when there’s a cost to the audience. The pressure comes on when people have put their hard-earned to come to see you. I have delivered to writers’ festivals, memorial functions, academic conferences, competitions and my own launches, but this one has a level of (self-imposed) responsibility that is something higher than in the past.

The power of the buck, I suppose. I also suppose that this will mean I will be driven to make this something very special. If you are interested, the talk is on Wed, April 27, 2022 from 6.30pm at the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club in Toorak in Melbourne. If you can come, please speak to me afterwards. I’d love to hear your own stories of migration and family. The link to the gig is below.      

17.3.22 Revisionism in a good way

I have just been reading about that wonderful 18th century writer Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s output was not huge  but it changed writing forever. He was Oscar Wilde more than a century before Wilde was born. Johnson was a witty man. In fact at times, hearing his pithy comments, you could think he was Wilde himself. It has been said that Johnson’s personal repartee was as famous as his written works.

His biographers also make it clear that he was not an attractive man, physically or, at times personally. Although he had friends who would love him to their deaths, they were often the sufferers of his verbal attacks. If they would say something that Johnson didn’t like he was known to attack them with the wit and lambast that could be anything but friendly.

Recently, Johnson’s behaviour has been examined by psychologists, who believe he suffered from Tourette Syndrome, a condition which may cause verbal tics or, at worst, uncontrolled inappropriate verbalising. If true, that would explain much of Johnson’s behaviour.

You may wonder what his friends in the 1700s thought of Johnson’s outbursts. Obviously some believed he was a curmudgeon, a rude man who had a low tolerance to others. These people undoubtedly left his circle. But it’s interesting that many stayed, wearing the abuse. Did they understand that Johnson’s rants were part of something he could not help? I wonder if we were there in those days, centuries before Tourette Syndrome was understood, whether we would be so understanding. It’s thought.

The diagnosis at least tells us that this great writer lived his life carrying this difficulty and was still able to produce wonderful work. It’s just now that we can understand the extra difficulty he must have faced every day.

It makes his achievements all the more extraordinary.

27.2.22 The researcher’s Dark Night of the Soul

A few days ago I wrote about how easy it is to go off on the wrong track when doing historical research. That is part of the process of course. If you think you have found truth in everything that you find then you’re living a pipe dream.

This is something that comes back to haunt me especially with the book I’m writing about ABC Radio Australia. I have been using as my primary sources old newspaper cuttings. This was how I found the terrific story about Britain’s MI5 intervening in the planned closure of Radio Australia in the early 1950s.

There is a big but to this. The reference was a single one. Only one newspaper. And it was a leftist newspaper. Who is to say that the journalist wasn’t basing their story on rumour or secondhand information? And also you would think that a writer for a left-wing paper would be the last person who would have access to information passing between two Conservative governments.

I have included the MI5 story in the Radio Australia book simply because it is too good a story to pass up. I have referenced it to the original newspaper story and I hope I have put it in such terms that the reader can judge for themselves whether this has doubts about it. This also applies to many of the other stories in the book: a simple newspaper clipping here or there gave me much of the information about facts, dates, times, people, programs and even international polls about Radio Australia’s popularity.

I suppose I figure if I reference them properly then I’m doing my job. Still, the journalists ethos of triple checking everything was not always been possible especially when dealing with information 70 years old.

I wish I could be definitive about everything, but it just isn’t able to be so. That’s why history books written 100 years ago have been not always kindly reviewed today. Historians who thought they were doing a great job in 1885 are now having their work dissected and in this age of fake news having perhaps conspiracy theories or bias is applied to it. Just look at the case of the John Kennedy assassination. So many people still believe it was a conspiracy despite several commissions which found nothing of the kind. Writers over the last 60 years have attributed the extraneous pop in a motorcycle cop’s two-way radio as proof of a second shooter. And for some reason many people are willing to believe that conspiracy had to be behind that little bit of white noise.

Being a researcher certainly isn’t easy and you have to do your job without worrying about whether a revisionist in the year 2250 will tear your work apart.

21.2.22 Getting a wrong track corrected

I suppose it’s in the nature of research to hit a stone wall. It’s also in the nature of research to have your assumptions proved wrong.

In researching Soteres Kafcaloudes’ history I used my dad’s memoir as a source material. In this unpublished memoir he claimed his father had travelled from Western Australia to Darwin by horse and camel in 1915.

I have been in contact with a researcher from the Kastellorizian Association of Victoria and she said had some shipping records with her which all but destroyed the possibility of such a trek. The shipping record found Soteres Kafcaloudes’ name on a boat called SS Montoro which entered Darwin in 1915. If Soteres had arrived in Darwin by boat then he would not have done the camel trek.

I re-read my dad’s passage where he describes the camel trip from WA and there were a few things that did not add up. He said the camel trip was done in tropical conditions. If he had taken the camel trip from Perth to Darwin then it would only be tropical only for the very end. So armed with his new information about the boat I suggested that perhaps my dad misremembered what his father had told him. Perhaps the horse and camel trip was from Darwin to the rail line that he was to work on the rail line near Tennant Creek. It would also help explain how Soteres was able to save so much money in such a short space of time. The camel trek would’ve taken up a huge chunk of his time in Australia in 1915.

Considering the lack of information about horse and camel treks from the West Coast to Darwin this really does seem to tick the boxes. I would imagine if there were such long and arduous treks from the south-east to the top end that they would be plenty of information about them. But not so.

16.2.22 Re-visiting an old friend.

A few years ago my book about my dog Toby was serialised in a Melbourne weekly magazine.

I thought Toby was an interesting study because he was adorable and destructive. We adored him. He retiurned the love with love. He also returned it by destroying, damaging and upsetting many things, places and people. So much in fact that he made Marley from Marley and Me look like an angel. The serialised story told of him eating an entire bakery’s cakes, as well as our sofa, the car’s upholstery and guests’ international luggage. He also destroyed a dog training school of many years standing, and ingested my nephew’s anti-epileptic medication… a whole jar of it. When he had Cushing’s disease he ate a box… actually it was a bucket… of Maltesers. This was when the vet had warned us that any fatty food at all would kill him instantly. Three kg of Maltesers later and Toby looked fabulous with a brown chocolate moustache and no after effects.

Toby has long passed, but his deeds will linger forever. Friends remember Toby’s doings more than they remember the deeds of our other dogs before and since.

Today I was looking up a book about the Middle East that had been recommended to me and I saw the publisher was taking submissions for books. So I started to look at the Toby book once more to see if it could be whipped into the kind of shape needed to become a proper full book submission.

Now the ABC book is at its tail end this will be a project that I will do in parallel with my Greek research.

Toby my old friend, I look forward to reconnecting.

15.2.22 Halls Creek to Darwin. Fantasy or fact?

I have been trying to find some definitive research on the route Soteres Kafcaloudes may have taken on his overland trek from Fremantle to Darwin in 1915. It’s proving hard.

The only reference I have for the trip itself comes from his son Steve Kafcaloudes, who left tons of scribbled notes, with only a few passing references to the trek. In them he simply says Soteres was told in Fremantle he could get work as a rail ganger south of Darwin, so he took a horse and camel train from Fremantle to Darwin. Steve left no indicators of his father’s route (coastal or inland) or whether the horses and camels were together on the route or whether there was a change of teams (camels to horses or vice versa).

As a researcher I also had to ask whether Steve (who was still in his mother’s belly in Kastellorizo at the time) could have been wrong. But Steve was a boy of the outback. He arrived in Darwin as an 18 month old baby and worked there with his father continuously until WWII broke out and he became a soldier. Darwin was in his blood. He would be in the right position to know if a camel trek from WA was a flight of fancy.

I am writing this under the dome in Melbourne’s glorious Victorian reading room, a place that inspired me many times in the writing of my PhD. I rarely come here without having some inspiration whispering in my ear. A few minutes ago I came across  a reference to Hall’s Creek and the infamous Canning Stock Route. I have, like many Australians, heard of this route all my life without knowing exactly where it was. Looking at a map of the route (which is in the Kimberley), it is on the major road that passes between Broome on the west coast and Darwin in the east. The map also shows few other roads. In 1915, when Soteres was supposed to be crossing Australia south-west to north,  this main road would have been the only feasible one.

If this was the road Soteres’ camels or horses or both took, then it offers half an answer route-wise. The longest part of the trip, from Perth to Broome gives us a lot more options. Was it the coastal route through Carnarvon and Karratha? Or the inland route through Meekatharra? It might seem obvious that the shorter, more temperate coastal route would be the one, but I have to remember that in 1916, a time of some privation and emergency, Soteres may have had no option but to accept a ride on a trek that was servicing remote centres.

Hall’s Creek is a start. And it’s also interesting to see the lack of history on those early 20th century camel and horse trains. When I go to Darwin in May I might just find out a little bit more. 

12.2.22 Kassie with a K. Or with a C?

My family’s Greek island has quite some antiquity. Kastellorizo was inhabited at least a thousand years before Homer’s Troy was attacked. Only a couple of miles off the coast of Turkey the little island has been desired by many European superpowers. At times it has been possessed by Venice, France, Turkey (and its predecessor the Ottoman empire), Britain. Italy and of course, Greece. It has also been called many names including its official title, Megisti.

But the vast majority of people on the island and off know it was Kastellorizo, which is a derivation of the Venetian name Red Castle, so named after the castle the Venetians built on the harbour point. That may well be, but this brings me to an intriguing point: should it be Kastellorizo with a K or Castellorizo with a C? I grew up in NSW so I have always believed the island to be spelt with a C. I have great doubts now. You might think the answer would lie with the Kassie community. In Australia there is the Kastellorizian Association of Victoria, but in NSW there is the Castellorizian Association of NSW. Yes, it seems the Greeks can’t agree on C vs K.

Perhaps we need to go to our Greek language. In modern Greek there is no C, only a K, so it would appear that the K’s have it.

I reckon there is scope for research into this. How can two groups, both from the same island and fiercely proud of their heritage, differ on such a fundamental point such as the very name of their ancestral home?

8.2.22 Fictionalising Kashmir

In 1986 I spent a month in Kashmir, the beautiful roof of the world in the very north of India. In that month I walked with a small group over the Himalayas to Ladakh to the east, and on the way we met some of the world’s most gentle people. Our guides were a muslim team, and I could see them teaching our mob of Aussie coal miners, teachers and some cynical internationals the value of caring and love. Of course not all people in the group came out changed, but at least these people were given something to think about.

One night as we settled on our carved houseboat on Lake Dal in Srinagar, I heard some of the tour company’s Australian organisers talking about the danger of the region. Nothing to worry about, one of them said, when I asked him later about it. He said the conflict between Pakistan, India and some dubious militants over ownership of Kashmir has been going on since the Indian partition in 1947. But he added that things were getting a little testy.

After the month we all went back to our privileged jobs and took with us only good memories of a great trek, beautiful food and the world’s greatest scenery. I also took with me memories of my new muslim friends and a wonderful, unlikely romance on the houseboat. In the years following the trip we heard little about was the horrors that were inflicted in Kashmir as that testiness the tour operator had talked about became the kind of horror that often comes with a long-simmering land dispute.

Arundahti Roy wrote her second novel twenty years after winning the Booker Prize in 1997. This second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, tells the story of that conflict in those post-1986 years, revealing a fictionalised account of abuses that occurred in the very places I had swanned in 1986, even on one of the houseboats, one i might have stayed on. Of course, being a novel, the characters were invented, but there’s little doubt her events were based on real happenings, because we know the police abused the rights of locals and that torture, rape and disappearances happened every day.

But it took this novel, which was so eagerly read by people across the world, to bring his conflict to the minds of so many in a way that news articles are so often missed or disregarded as just another report on a far-way skirmish.

Once again an example of the power of fiction in the telling of history.

I just hope my guides, the houseboat owners and that lovely bank teller survived the turmoil.

30.1.22 Being unbiased

I have touched on how much a creative team in a play extends fictionalisation to an extreme level, and I have claimed there is always distortion of fact even in the most factual of works. There is point-of-view, there is choice about what to write (and ipso facto what not to write) and of course headlines. A few months ago the Herald Sun headlined “Hopeless” when referring to Dan Andrews. A much more subtle example is the Guardian in Australia which is obviously seen as not conservative simply by its story choice (while proclaiming it is unbiased). At the other end of the spectrum is Fox News is the US which openly bashes progressives while claiming the same neutrality.
It’s a tough gig being a journo. I have just been writing about an ABC journo Warwick Beutler who was expelled from Indonesia in 1980. His stories upset the Indonesian government. He had reported that 50 Indonesian generals and politicians had qualms about the then-president Suharto. His original story was apparently quite balanced, but after it hit the Radio Australia newsdesk it was changed and rebroadcast back into Indonesia on shortwave in a form that offended Indonesia. So Beutler was the victim of a sub-editor!

In my case I made sure the novel had “A Novel” on the front cover. I hope journalists will never need to preface their work with a “A News Story.”

4.1.22 Truth and fiction revisited

The other day I wrote about Charles Lever and his depictions of Jewish people. Despite the broad-brushing of his Jewish characters as mean, greedy and money-centric, it seems Lever did have a sense of the value of fiction writing in bringing more understanding to the world.

Lever’s The Daltons: Or Three Roads in Life tells the story of an Irish family living on the continent. Lever cleverly splits the family’s siblings into three stories, each sibling going a very different road. The son becomes a soldier who is profligate but shows bravery when his battalion is in trouble. His sister Kate enters high society and gets engaged to a Russian prince, becoming somewhat toffee-nosed (for a while at least). The third sibling, the talented, disabled Nelly stays at home, pining for her brother and sister and caring for her father.

What Lever does in this novel is to knit the times into the story of a single family. There is the obligatory love story, a murder mystery, several bankruptcies, and jealous intrigues. But the story of the time is told, albeit through the fortunes of the Dalton family. lever understands the dangers of this kind of fictionalisation. At the end of the first edition of the novel he writes:

“I and well aware that the interests of truth are seldom well served, when its claims are mixed up and confounded with the details of fiction… I know how difficult it must be to the reader so to guide his credulity, that while according his share of sympathy to the mere fiction, he should lend his trustful confidence to assertions apparently thrown out at random.”

Lever seemed to understand the dangers of fictionalisation of true events. His rider suggests that he didn’t want his readers to take his story as truth; he wanted them to understand that he was writing an entertainment, and if he could introduce some enlightenment into the book, all the better. As long as the reader took the events with a modicum of salt.    

1.1.22 Dickens, Lever and the problem with stereotyping

Charles Lever was an Irish contemporary of Charles Dickens who shared many things with his English friend. They both wrote stories of early-Victorian societies; they both highlighted some of the injustices of those societies; they were prolific, producing dozens of novels each in their lifetimes; they were both skilled at telling ripping yarns; they even used the same illustrator, Phiz.

They were also not afraid of going into the seediest part of their societies. Dickens’ Oliver Twist took us into the London underbelly of child exploitation. His Nicholas Nickelby took aim at higher society, and how moneylenders could destroy lives heartlessly. Lever’s The Daltons has a similar theme, taking us into the home of one lender who lived in the bow of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio.

When these stories introduce these wily financiers the stories take a dark, inhuman turn, for the money men are avaricious, ungenerous, deceitful and punishing. It’s also a sad indictment that these moneylenders are all, almost without exception in the works of both men, Jewish.

This was nothing new to the readers of the day because Jewish money men featured prominently in the works of Shakespeare, but Dickens and Lever’s works give us a snapshot of the attitudes by many towards Jews in the 19th century. One might even draw a bow and say the horrors of the 20th century pogroms and holocaust were able to happen because of these kinds of unsavoury.. and unfair.. attitudes. Drawing a longer, but perhaps not unreasonable bow, the prevalence of these kinds of depictions could only have entrenched these stereotypes and spread the view that Jewish people were, as a people, mean, ugly and unlikeable.

Perhaps Dickens and Lever meant these Jewish characters such as Fagin to be for entertainment purposes only, as caricatures, much in the way they drew lords and lairds as pompous sorts and their wives as ever-0fainting, ever-complaining shrews. Caricatures have a place. Where would Shakespeare’s plays be without their clowns. But this is something else. we rarely see these kinds of depictions today; publishers wouldn’t have it. Which proves  that even the most genius of writers (and Dickens was close to genius) sometimes go the lazy route. How much more eternal would his works be if he had left off this kind of broad-brushing. 

22.12.21 Finding Australia

This is the story I entered in the Greek Cultural Association’s short story competition. It’s about my dad’s dad, and the overland trek he had to make to get from Fremantle to Darwin in 1915. He had come to Australia from his home island of Castellorizo, trying to find a new home. He found heat, flies and Afghans and that new life:


They had been on the trail from Fremantle to Darwin for three weeks. Three weeks of hot days, cold nights, stinking horses and boredom. Soteres had fought the journey every day, angry at the tall Australian who was leading them from nowhere to nowhere where it was always dry and he was always thirsty. The Australian, Reg he was called, would begrudge him and the other paying riders a drink. It had to be conserved he warned as he watched them, daring them to spill a drop as they sipped.

It was true the man in the government office in Fremantle had warned him the trip would be difficult, but Soteres had seen tough days at the whim of the Turks on Kastellorizo, especially after the war started. The promise of work for him in Darwin at the end of the trek left him no choice as there was nothing for him in Fremantle, so he agreed to be indentured and his bags loaded onto the horse train leaving from the Fremantle cattle yard the next morning before dawn.

So now it was three weeks on a horse which seemed to begrudge him as much as Reg. Someone laughed and Soteres came to himself. The sun was well into the sky but Soteres hadn’t noticed the dawn come and go. He had been dreaming. His were not dreams of his children in Kastellorizo or his wife or even his ambitious future. It was a waking dream about being in a quiet pool of water, clear water, where everything was as it should be. In this dream he felt no fear, nor did he want for anything. The dream had a calmness he had never felt before, not in his father’s strict and sometimes brutal home, not in his father-in-law’s crazy φούρνος on Kastellorizo’s quay front where there was always a customer to be served or a bag of flour to be carried, nor in his crumbling dowry home where his babies were forever crying and his wife was too timid to try to stop them. For the first time perhaps, Soteres felt he had no power and could change nothing. He was in the hands of others in a dry, alien place somewhere in the West Australian desert. For a man who rarely knew fear, he felt it here.

After a few more days of the same, and he wasn’t sure how many, they reached Wyndham, an old gold town which had been built for the mines only thirty or so years before, though the group was too tired to care. The horsemen and the seven passengers circled next to the muddy river, ate and settled to an unsettled sleep.

The next morning the horseman guides and horses had gone, replaced by camels for the last leg to Darwin.

The new leader was a very dark man, an Arab, who wore sandals, a loose dress and a strange kind of ring on his head that had a white sheet twisted through it. Occasionally a man like this would come to Kastellorizo where they would buy or sell all manner of merchandise to the shop-owners. These strangers would never talk to locals except on business, and the Kastellorizians came to believe the strangers felt themselves too good for the islanders who in turn looked down on them.

This sheeted man was different to those visitors. He ran to show Soteres to his animal, almost seeking his approval. He pointed to himself and mouthed that his name was Kareem. Kareem Kareem. Soteres never worked out whether that was his surname, or whether he was just repeating himself. 

Kareem used a whistle and a switch and the giant animal went down on its forelegs. Soteres straddled the hump and after another switch, the camel raised, lifting him very high. He may have been higher than on the horse, but it felt safer sitting on a folded mat with a wooden peg in front and behind. The mat was a beautiful soft tapestry, so unlike the rough slippery leather the horsemen had made him use.

Kareem passed up a tiny cup of syrupy coffee, and waited for Soteres to drink it and pass the cup back. His other men were doing the same to the rest of the passengers. The coffee was perfect with a μέτριο sweetness, not quite as thick as a Greek or Turkish type, but good, refreshing. The cups were put into a sack on the side of one of a camel and Kareem signalled a start.

A small nude black boy watched them move. Soteres waved to him, but the boy did no more than to eye him with the blackest eyes he had ever seen. Soteres wondered what the boy might be thinking, but the boy gave no clue. The memory of this boy would stay with him for the rest of his life. It would be many years before Soteres would come to an understanding with the black people of this land. Too late in his life would he realise their way was different to his, and it was only at the end that he began to understand why.

The train of camels moved slowly, slower than the horses had been. Kareem only had three other men with him to look after the six passengers. One camel had most of their luggage as well as a basket with four live chickens in it. The birds looked around, as if interested in the landscape. Each second day though there would be one less chicken.

Kareem was a man who laughed easily, perhaps too easily for Soteres. This was a desert march and to laugh seemed to him to be challenging the gods; to dare them to strike. The leader of the horse team, that Reg man, had always looked to the sky and Soteres knew it was not just to see the weather. He was looking up as if to be acknowledging Ouranus and Zeus. Soteres was a Christian, but like all Greeks he knew the gods of the sky, earth and sea could turn in a moment. The gods were like children, and like children they could resent and react. Who would bring floods and plague if not the gods? This Kareem Kareem needed piety. He needed to respect god, and Kareem’s habit of stopping four times a day would not please them, he was sure. At these breaks all the Arabs would take a saddlecloth and go behind a rock or a hill, leaving the passengers to water the camels. The first time this happened Soteres feared they were being abandoned, but Kareem and the others would always return, happy and laughing, and the trek would resume. On the third morning of this, Soteres followed them. The land was flat here and the men had gone behind what was only a small dune. Soteres lay at the top and watched them.

The Arabs had all laid down a mat next to each other, facing in the same direction .They were barefoot and were bowing low on the mats, making a prayer of some kind. He had seen Turks start to do this in Kastellorizo, in a little square next to a café just back from the waterfront, but some young Greek men shooed them away. Ottoman rubbish, his father-in-law had said. Ottoman rubbish. 

Soteres went quietly back to his camel and waited. Ottoman rubbish. Kareem didn’t look Ottoman. What was he doing with that Ottoman stuff here, in a desert across the world.

Later that day Soteres jerked awake when his camel lost its footing and jerked. Kareem was next to him, steadying the camel and smiling widely. He signalled that he had seen Soteres looking over the dune. He laughed but didn’t move away, his body swaying in unison with Soteres as they rode. They seemed to be able to understand each other, although they knew not a word of each other’s language or even, it seemed, the name of the language that the other spoke. Kareem only left Soteres when it was time for camp. They had been riding together for an hour. They would share that final hour of the day’s ride every evening. Some days they would just be riding silently next to each other, but that hour would bond these two very different men. Kareem, by his easy laughter appeared to see life as a jolly adventure not of his own making; Soteres saw that everything was entirely of his own doing: his decision to leave the island; to come to Australia; to be riding a camel in a desert. Yet Soteres’ natural intolerance wore down every day. He even found he was accepting Kareem’s insistence of prayer at the same time of day, although Soteres himself rarely prayed. He would believe to the end of his life that God would appreciate someone who worked hard. That was all there was to it. 

One afternoon a group of black men came out of the sand and ran right up to them with spears and painted faces. Soteres looked to Kareem, who had seemed not to notice. The black men walked alongside for some miles, staring ahead. Soteres didn’t take his eyes off these people, who were darker than any African he had seen. Their walk was purposeful and they seemed not to worry about the heat. Or the line of foreign camels for that matter. They just walked. Then, at no particular point, they peeled away again and disappeared into the desert. Soteres didn’t know why, but these men gave him a settled feeling, an understanding of this place, of the way it was held by the people in it in a way that didn’t need boundaries. He realized then had not seen a boundary, fence; or orchard, no markers for property since a few days after Perth. 

The next day, after they had stopped for midday, Kareem came to Soteres, holding a chicken. He gestured for Soteres to come with him. Soteres followed Kareem to a small river, and sat next to the camel driver who fondled the chicken almost lovingly. Soteres didn’t know the blade had come out until it was against the chicken’s neck, nicking quickly. At the moment of the piercing, the chicken’s eyes opened quickly and settled back. She may or may not have known she was going to die, but it would be a death of dignity, with the man who killed her stroking her to the last.

Soteres watched this, wondering why the man would bother, why he even went to the waterway. All this could have been done in the tent in a moment. He may also have wondered why Kareem asked him to come, but he was glad he was there. Here at the stream he understood that the manner of this chicken’s death was to do with Kareem’s faith, and it seemed all right. 

There were times in this last leg when Soteres’ faith was tested. A dry waterhole, a sickened guide, a wish for family that dried Soteres’ already dry throat. But Kareem would seem to know when his passengers needed him. They would find his camel next to theirs, simply keeping company, with their camels moving in cadence. Loneliness was kept at bay, and this was most of the way to comfort. Watching Kareem, Soteres slowly came to understand the trip, its rhythm, its waves of pain, even its flies that he had stopped bothering to swat from his face.

When Darwin was announced, Soteres felt a strange disappointment. The time for dreaming and thinking of gods was ending. He must now be the Soteres of Kastellorizo, a father who would work day and night until he could buy a piece of this new country and bring his family to it.

As he got off the camel he saw Kareem for the last time. They gripped hands. Watching Kareem walk away, Soteres realised they had never exchanged a word.

18.12.21 A kindness

Writing for the arts is not something that is associated too often with kindness. Publishers can be difficult and reviewers can be terribly brutal.

So this is where my brush with kindness was a great surprise. When I entered a short story about my dad’s dad in a competition a few months ago I really did not expect anything to come from it.

But the other night I went to the awards ceremony and as each winner was announced I sat pleased for the winners as their names were announced. First prize went to a well-known Greek author. Then second prize went to a woman sitting in front of me. And third prize went to another writer who was not there that night. Although I approached the event with a good attitude, to be entirely honest I had that unfortunate feeling of disappointment. That feeling had to do with reinforcing the impostor syndrome.. a feeling that maybe as a writer I’m not really good enough. Then came the announcement that I was to be given a highly commended for my story. I was kindly asked to come up the front and accept the award and asked to make a speech which I did off the cuff.

Many years ago Australian author Tim Winton told me that prizes are not about giving the best work its reward. His quote was: “you know how things like this work…”. By this I intimated that he was suggesting that the award process  is not simply about the writing but the machine that is behind the writer and their work. Tim Winton has written some joyous works but occasionally I have felt a book of his has not quite smashed it. Yet his name guarantees that it will be a best seller. For someone as self-effacing is Tim Winton this must be a little sad (if being a best seller could ever be a sad thing…). The same thing applied to the Beatles. Towards the end of their time they put out an occasional track which would never make the charts if it had been released by an unknown band from Yugoslavia.

So here I am I an unknown author getting a little recognition from my little story. The Greek cultural committee showed great kindness in giving me this highly commended and the first thing I did afterwards was ask if I could give something back. If they needed help on the committee I love to be involved because my story shows that a little kindness to an artist can work wonders for that person’s confidence.

10.11.21 The Twilight Zone of revision

This Radio Australia book is my fourth tome and each time I’ve noticed a bizarre situation.

It starts with writing a bit that you think is actually pretty good. You might have come up with something that you think it’s original or simply something that ties together elements of what you’ve already written. You close the computer with a feeling of warmth, the kind of warmth that you get with the job well done. The bizarre thing comes when you return to that section days or weeks later and you find that it was nowhere near as good as you thought it was. It’s one of the disappointments, rare disappointments, in the actual writing process in a book.

I’ve often wondered why this self-delusional/congratulatory thing happens. It could be you had too much coffee that day and everything just looked so good to your eye. Or it could just be that you were thinking you were writing something that was better, with the benefit of hindsight, than it really was.

I just had that with some writing I did for the last section of the Radio Australia book. I put in something about the night Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister of Australia in 2007. I thought it made for a good little aside because it involved me holding up a plane in Cambodia as I tried to get the final results through on  the phone before we boarded. But going back to what I wrote it reads is totally irrelevant, a little self-indulgent, and unnecessary to the storyline.

That said, there’s also another strange unknown that comes into all this. I often find that little stories like this, while not really satisfactory to my revising eye, are just the things that touch people emotionally. Which brings us back to the whole thing about a book being 50% the writer and 50% the interpretation by the reader.

So I think I’ll keep it in the manuscript and see if the people who commissioned the book are happy for it to stay. 

29.10.21 The Great Australian novel

I have just been reading a book that has been called the great Australian novel. It is also the largest single volume novel in history… Running to 1462 pages in a single book. It is called Poor Fellow My Country and the sheer size of the tome led Barry Humphries to dub it Poor Fellow My Reader. A bit cruel perhaps but at times it felt a bit of a hard slog to read. The author Xavier Herbert tells a story of a quintessential Australian outback man (believe by many to be based on himself) who tries to preserve the way of life of indigenous people in the Northern Territory in the 1930s.

The book then becomes very expansive, bringing in relationships between Australians and Chinese, Australians and Japanese, indigenous Australians and bureaucratic white Australians, Catholics versus Protestants, right-wingers versus left-wingers, and even makes a comparison between Jewish refugees from Europe and people who believe Hitler was doing a service to the world. So many comparisons, so many thoughts.

One reviewer of the book said it needed a very good edit. For the first half of the novel I thought he was being very unkind. But the second half of the book led me to understand what he was talking about. There is a lot of fluff in the book including what are basically repetitions of scenes including a woman who is sexually assaulted three times in almost carbon copy fashion. The protagonist is beaten up several times and some of the bureaucrats and policeman depicted in the novel are definitely single dimensional. All of these things are very unfortunate because the novel could have been magnificent. One has the feeling that the proofreader gave up after page 1000 because it’s from that point onwards the typos are plentiful.

All of this goes to say that there may not be a great Australian novel yet written, just novels that wish very very hard to be just that without quite reaching the mark.

Xavier Herbert apparently was very precious about his book hence the publisher allowing its amazing size but that should be a lesson that a second eye cannot be a bad thing with any form of writing.

Herbert has written a ripping yarn that takes us through the prejudice of the 1930s through to the horror of the 1940s with the threat of invasion by the Japanese terrifying so many.

The book won the Miles Franklin award in 1975, probably out of sheer respect for what Herbert was trying to achieve and for the flashes of brilliance contained in the pages but the whole thing doesn’t quite settle into the greatness that wishes to be.

Writing is a risk and Herbert risks his reputation to do this book He lays all his opinions bare. He died only a few years after it was released. He obviously wanted to get it all down and to tell the world what he thought. As a man sympathetic to indigenous Australians, he was in many ways ahead of his time. He was also a man who harboured anger against Britain for Gallipoli and for its paternalism towards Australia.

As I say a lot of commentary here. I just wish it at all tied together a little bit better.

25.10.21 Ancient Greek

I have just started a course on Ancient Greek.

I admit I was a little daunted by it. I mean I can hardly speak modern Greek, and my Greek lessons have been on hiatus since I started writing the Radio Australia book. Many of the people doing this course are Greek and have spoken modern Greek all their lives. So when the class started tonight I thought I would look even more foolish than in the modern Greek classes.

Not so. It was the modern Greek speakers who seemed to be flummoxed. You see ancient Greek is not that different to the modern, but enough different to be confusing to people who have spoken modern Greek all their lives.

I’ll give an example: the second letter of the greek alphabet is beta. In modern Greek this is pronounced veeta. The same applies to delta. Modern Greek has it as thelta. But in ancient Greek beta is pronounced with a “b” and delta with a “d”. This aligns with the scientific use of the Greek alphabet, which was the way I was taught at school and when I studied pharmacy at university.

So while the modern Greek speakers in the class mess up their Bs with their Vs and their Ds with their THs, I skip along swimmingly.

So far.

I never knew those boring hours at Sydney Uni in a lecture theatre would, some forty years later be useful. Life can be surprising.

2.10.21 Shantaram

For years I have been bombarded with people telling me I need to read the Australian novel Shantaram.

My nephew David, sick of asking me if I had read it, gave it to me the other week with the order to read it. The 900-odd pages were a little daunting, but since he paid good money for it, I obeyed.

Shantaram tells the story of an Australian man who broke out of prison in the 1970s and ran away to India, where, in a nutshell, he found himself by doing good works. And some not-so-good works, working with the Indian Mafia on some unsavoury exploits involving trafficking contraband. His good works included setting up a medical clinic in a Bombay slum and saving the occasional life. 

It’s an often powerful book that is touching at times. We come to love slum characters, and in the process come to understand the laws of these places. Through the words of the novel these slums, despite the squalor, began to have a majesty about them. People look after each other; there is much happiness, there is generosity among people who have nothing. We become affected when characters.. only written characters mind you.. die.

The author Gregory David Roberts does a masterful job in grabbing our emotions in this way.

But what I’m most affected by is the fact that he is telling largely a true story. Yet he has told it as a novel. Now, for me writing my grandmother’s story, anyone can understand the need for fictionalisation. I had holes to fill, people to invent. Roberts had none of these issues. His story was one perfect for an autobiography. But he fictionalised.

Roberts, who for a time was the darling of the U.S. TV talkshows, explained his decision to fictionalise as one that gave him scope to be inventive. He could merge characters, or even wholly invent people.

I know what he’s getting at. To do an autobiography there is a need to be correct in every detail. Get one fact wrong and your credibility goes the  way of effluent. Inventing is also such fun. Roberts could compress time and place; he could write swathes of dialogue that need not be authentic. 

It’s a liberating thing writing in novel form.

15.9.20 Troving into History

The Radio Australia history has brought out lots of interesting yarns.. mostly courtesy of this wonderful resource initiated by the National Library of Australia.

It’s called Trove, and it is a project that has digitised heaps of newspapers from the first half of last century.

By placing in the search words “Radio Australia,” stories written by long dead journalists have come out of the yellowing stacks. Months of Trove searching uncovered many gems: the MI5 intervention that saved RA; the radio wave test that reached the moon and led to the communication system that would be used in the Moonshots; even reports of unusual listener feedback coming from Russia or South America. No earlier chronicler of RA was lucky enough to have access to this treasure of material, and it allowed me to reanimate stories that, until Trove, had been dead and fading in old newspaper stacks in a backroom somewhere. My journalism is, in great part, the journalism of these many long-gone reporters.

The thing that struck me was that, as a TV and radio journo myself, I never had an eye on the future. I never really thought beyond my story being played on the television or radio that night. Trove has made me realise that what I and all other journos do is to write for perpetuity. In 100 years some, yet-to-be-born researcher might use my 1995 NSW Police Royal Commission story as a reference, in the same way I have for this book.

It’s a hell of a realisation and makes all that hard work seem just a little more valuable. 

8.8.21 Norman Mailer and Hitler

Norman Mailer was an American man of letters. He was a loud voice on the page of his novels, and even more outspoken on the TV and speaking circuit. His famous TV clashes with fellow novelist Gore Vidal were entertaining and perplexing; entertaining because Mailer was witty, fast and funny; perplexing because sometimes it was hard to follow just what he was on about. He seemed to hate Vidal and admire him at the same time. The hate seems to have come from Vidal criticising some of Mailer’s works. No, Mailer didn’t take criticism well.

Mailer was criticised, as anyone who breaks new ground will always be. His two Pulitzer Prizes, one for fiction and one for non-fiction prove his ability to cross genre, and do them both well.

His last book, The Castle in the Forest (meant to be the first of a trilogy), looks at Adolf Hitler’s immediate forebears. In the novel the family engaged in incest, with Hitler’s mother Klara having conceived Adolf by her own father, Alois.

As I have written before, fiction can lead to mistaken beliefs about truth. People, for some reason, tend to believe that  novels are always based in fact. In Mailer’s Hitler story there’s plenty of truth: all the characters are real, and the doubt about Hitler’s parentage was real. Hitler’s mother may have been distantly related to his father. But as far as historical research is concerned, that’s about as far as it goes. Mailer has used the Hitler story to twist in his own penchant for sexual peccadillos in his novels.

Now, few people, apart from some right-wing denialists, have much time for Hitler, but this might be taking things a bit far.

If. The if is about the nature of the story. Mailer is playing with history. Late in the book he brings Satan into the story, and from that point we, as the reader, can see that this is a supernatural fairy story, often funny, sometimes sexy, frequently playful. From my research of Hitler’s family story, it was true they weren’t a bundle of laughs; they were certainly not sympathetic characters. What Mailer has done is use them to weave in a narrative about good and evil.

At least in that, the story parallels the life and deeds of Alois and Klara’s son.

20.7.20 Revisiting a new history

Revisiting Radio Australia has been a joyful experience. I have interviewed fifteen former comrades so far, and I have found that many of them felt the same way as me after they stopped working there.

My feelings after I walked out the door were to forget the place. I had given it everything for the nine years I hosted the breakfast program, and I loved it all while I was there (with the occasional pissant exception). But when I left in 2014, it was all over for me. I barely kept up with what happened after I left: the shortwave closure, the winding up of language services, the continued sackings. I suppose it’s like a Holden worker who left the factory when local manufacturing closed down in 2017. They wouldn’t want to look back. There’s no reason to. You have gone and there’s nothing you can do if you don’t like what you see.

As I said I am not alone in this. I have spoken to former chief executives, former journos, former presenters and most felty the same way as me. The most extreme case was our former marketing manager Mark Hemetsberger. He told me he not only didn’t look back, but he didn’t talk about his time at Radio Australia. He had given it everything and had fought to get us some traction in other countries, culminating in his famous Tuk Tuk ad campaign in Cambodia in 2006.

Phnom Penh Tuk tuk with Radio Australia marketing Courtesy: Jean Gabriel Manguy

After talking to me for ninety minutes he almost cried, saying this was the first time he had been able to verbalise his disappointment and hurt at what had happened to Radio Australia.

I was only a history writer, a documenter of the times, but for this brief moment, I also felt this book project was doing something else: helping people to find closure with a place that meant so much to them, and would never be the same again.

12.7.21 The dog and the writing

Last week we got a dog, Molly, a farm rescue Kelpie/Border Collie. No, this is not going to be one of those diary entries where I go all cutesy, although there’s plenty to go cutesy about. It has to do with the writing.

Writing is solitary. You are sitting somewhere, putting together words, constantly trying to make those words sound at least a little like you. This can make you very focussed. I often find that after I have finished a section of writing, three hours have passed. A neighbour said to me the other day that she admired my ability to just keep writing hour after hour. It’s not like that. I am not chained to a chair lashing myself to keep going. The time just flies, and when I have put down something good, it’s like Christmas. Yes, writing is its own reward. Every day.

But it is solitary. Yesterday I finished three hours and I saw Molly sitting on a chair I have behind me in the study. She had been behind me for those three hours, curled in a ball, quiet as sleep. She didn’t scratch, snore or jingle her little tag. More so even than Jac who periodically comes in to remind me we need to change the sheets or feed plants. Molly is a writing companion. She seems to like just being with me.

Being solitary has just become a little less solitary. 

2.7.21 All in

I don’t know. This writing lark takes up your whole life. Until I was contracted to write the history of Radio Australia my life had been pretty ordered. I was doing weekly philosophy classes (online of course in these times of COVID) and I have been learning Greek. Every Wednesday for two hours I would go through the embarrassment of showing an online group how bad my Greek is. Unlike most of the classmates, who are Greek and have always spoken some Greek, I spoke none as a kid. My mum would only use Greek when she didn’t want me to understand what she was saying. Or if she was swearing at me. Apparently swearing in English is uncouth, but doing it in a language people don’t understand is worldly. 

The Greek lessons have been going well. After eighteen months I can say I am taking the cat for a walk to the shops. Which is useful if I ever meet a Greek speaker when I am taking a cat to the shops.

But it requires a lot of homework. Hours. And the stress that goes with it. At the moment I just don’t have the headspace for this. My life is really about the Radio Australia history project right now. The thought of pulling away from it to focus on Greek seems.. like.. impossible. I think I’m going to have to drop the Greek classes for the time being. The book’s deadline is December. If my earlier books, and my PhD, are are anything to go by, I will be at a loose end after I submit. That’s when the Greek will fill the void.

19.6.21 I got a title

I’ve signed the contract for my Radio Australia book. It’s going to be submitted in four parts. Each part will need to be submitted at the end of each month. The first tranche is due at the end of July, only six weeks away. Better get to it. I’ve got lots of interviewing and lots of research to do. 

I’ve been trying to find a title for the work. I usually find if I go for a walk my brain comes up with the most extraordinary things. Today I went for that walk and I remembered something an ABC colleague said to me more than twenty years ago. I was filling-in doing the ABC’s national overnight program and I asked if I would be doing any publicity. She answered that there was no-one in the ABC that organised publicity. I asked her about the Publicity Department, thinking that this was an obvious retort. 

“What?” she said. “The secret service?”

It was a very funny line, one that had obviously been around the ABC for a long time. As I remembered this interchange I instantly applied it to my Radio Australia book. If ever there was a secret branch to the ABC, it was Radio Australia. Being an broadcaster that could only be heard off-shore, Australians never hear it unless they happen to get it online. If I told people I worked there, some would say they listen to it. They were confusing it with Radio National. No, they probably never have listened to Radio Australia.

The Secret Service. I like it.  It brings out all kinds of potential for an enticing cover too. The people who commissioned it liked it and agreed to use it as a working title.

I hope we stick with it. 

5.6.21 Riding in the desert with my grandad

Not literally of course. I am revising the story of how my dad’s dad rode from Fremantle to Darwin by horse and camel, and as a writer, you need to be on that trip. You need to experience the quiet, the dry, the heat, the smells. Not literally of course. I have never ridden in the West Australian outback, but I have ridden camels at Uluru and in the Sahara, so I have some idea of the feeling an inexperienced camel rider would have.

A short story also needs to have some kind of progression to make it work. This is what playwrights call character development. The greatest of scripts have the protagonist a more developed person at the end. The protagonist has learned something; has been changed by the experience of the story. I searched for a while to find what my protagonist Soteres might have learned on that arduous month-long trip.

I started by having him seduced by the land and its quietness and vastness, but that would be too trite. He might fall in love with the land, but would that change his essence? I doubt it. I then struck on the possibility of him forming a relationship with the cameleer, would would probably have been Afghan (as many were in those days.. in fact the north-south train in Australia is called The Ghan as a tribute to the Afghan cameleers).

I remembered being in far north India in 1986 with a group of tourists doing a trek over the Himalayas. The fellow tourists were largely Australian, with a couple of South Africans, an older German woman and a few Brits. After a week though I became more interested in the guides. They were Muslim, probably border Pakistanis. These were men who loved their life. They were always laughing, always solicitous. They were accompanied by the head guide’s father, Kareem, a man of 80 who was gentle and agile. He knew this land. He could point out every landmark, and every child we passed knew him too.

He and I formed a bond. I even slept in his tent next to him one night, falling asleep to the sounds of the other tourists carousing outside.

I remember most Kareem taking me to the river one morning. He had a chicken in the crook of his arm. We sat on the edge of the stream, and Kareem started rubbing the neck of the chicken, who was almost lulled to sleep. Then a knife appeared and Kareem nicked the chicken quickly and lightly in the neck. I still remember the chicken’s eye enlarge for a moment and then go back to a sleepy state because Kareem was still stroking her. He kept caressing her until she died gently.

By this stage I was a vegetarian, but the manner of this killing didn’t disturb me as much I might’ve thought. If Kareem had told me what he was going to do, I wouldn’t have gone. But I was there and I learned that killing an animal can be dignified. It was certainly far more dignified than the wholegroup killings of an abattoir. This chicken died in the hands of a man who was giving her both love and death. 

In my story I will transpose this story to Soteres and his cameleer. I think it makes for an act that can help Soteres understand Islam, and I’m betting that not many Greek islanders would have been big fans of the Ottomans and their muslim life. If Kareem could help me to understand Islam a bit, then it might be just the perfect story for Soteres and his character’s development.

I might even call the guide Kareem.

29.5.21 As if I didn’t have enough to do..

Yesterday I wrote about a new book project I’m being commissioned to write.

Well today I saw a new literary competition that is calling for a short story that has a theme on Greece.

Now normally I would leave this, especially as I have two projects on the run (the book and the play trilogy) but I remembered the story of my grandad Soteres Kafcaloudes and his trek across the desert from Fremantle to Darwin in 1915. He had arrived alone in Australia from the Greek island of Kastellorizo during WWI to try to find a safe place to bring up his family. He thought Western Australia might be it, but on arrival he was told the only work was in Darwin, thousands of kilometres away. So he took a horse and camel train north.

Now that is the only part of the story that I know, so in December last year I had started doing a fictionalised version of that journey, basing it on whatever information I could find. I went to the State Library, but could find little about the cameleers of WA at that time. Most of the books about that time were focussed on pioneer pastoralists. It seems Afghan camel runners weren’t considered worthy of much research back then. And their stories have probably disappeared forever. So I decided the story would have to be largely fictional. I wrote about 6000 words before I returned to the play trilogy. I do this. I leave a project and return to it later with fresh eyes.

And so I am. I thought this competition might be a great chance to put this story into something that might be read by people. I just need to get it down to 2000 words. That’s quite some cut.

27.5.21 A new gig

Last week my focus was on finishing the first draft of third play in the Olga trilogy.  My head was full of my dad’s dad, his time in Darwin as a builder and the effect his fathering had on his children. It’s been a fascinating exploration of how the faults of the father can be visited on the son.

Then yesterday I got a message from a former ABC comrade, asking whether I would be interested in writing the history of Radio Australia (the network I worked on for the last nine years of my time at the ABC). Like any actor or writer, I answered yes before any doubts could come into my head. The budget is reasonable and I would be given the freedom to write the book in the way I want. It can be personable, personal and written with my style. A text book it is not.

So now my head is being pulled from fictional writing to fact writing. The one thing these two projects have in common is the oral history aspect, because I will be interviewing plenty of Radio Australia staffers and listeners to get their memories down for the book.

As someone much smarter than me once wrote: bite off more than you can chew, and then chew like hell.

I suspect I will be chewing a hell of a lot in the months to come.

24.5.21 To Three or Not to Three

Yes, corny. But I’ve been thinking about the dilemma of the personnel.

The first two plays were written with a cast of three. My PhD supervisor, Chris Mackie, told me that in going from a one-actor play to a piece for three actors, I was following the movement of the ancient playwrights. I’ve written about that earlier in this diary, so I won’t repeat the story. But I will say that the trio of actors broadened the scope for my writing. I loved the process of writing for three so much that I kept the sequel and a three-hander.

It was this pretty logical (and consistent) to keep the third in the trilogy as a three-hander.

This takes us to the problem of concepts. The concept of a three-hander necessarily limits what you can do on stage. As I found in the workshop for the first play, entrances and exits become finicky: If an actor is to play two roles in a scene, you must write for demarcation between those two characters. The workshop revealed these problems and we were able to work around them. Having learned from the workshop and the director’s methods, I applied all this to the sequel.

Not that I have decided to have Nick as an ever-presence on stage with Steve, I have created a dilemma for myself. If two of the three actors are always on the stage, I have little opportunity to create conflict away from that little flat in Earlwood. The third actor might come on stage, but interaction must be left to Steve devolving into a fourth character, or himself as a young man. Nick, seated near him, can change into another character, but the change risks being clumsy (eg: him jumping out of his chair) or repetitive and predictable (the light going down on him allowing him to make an exit so he can enter as another character).

I’ve decided to break my own constraint and to have a fourth actor for this play. The more I think about it, the more I can do with the actors this way.  I can have more of a crowd scene; I can have three actors challenging one. I can have on-stage dialogue and have two others come on to offer new action.

Having another actor makes the play a little more complicated, but a director might approve the latitude. I hope so.

20.5.21 The sounding board

When I started writing the third play, Lesser Titans, I placed one actor on stage (in this case my dad Steve) remembering his family and its struggle as a Greek refugee family in Australia, just like I had done in the first two plays. Then I thought the memories could be much more powerful if they were part of a dialogue with another actor on the stage. I brought in another man, a guest who sits in Steve’s little flat and allows Steve to tell his story. I found straight away that this allows for all-important disagreement. Formulating this second character is essential to this dynamic working. This second person needed to be someone Steve was comfortable with, or at least had history with. Steve didn’t have many friends; certainly no confidants. I remembered my godfather Nick who in many ways was an opposite to Steve. He was a businessman who had frugally and ambitiously built a jewellery business and a personal fortune. He was a hard-working man who had vices, but none of Steve’s vices. Nick didn’t drink, smoke or gamble. Steve was a slave to all three. Ironically, they could seem to be similar men when they were young. Both were impossibly beautiful, healthy and charming. But where Steve was cruelly dominated by his own father, Nick knew little of his father who had spent many years as a political prisoner in Greece. So not entirely surprisingly, as they grew they diverged in personality as to be opposites. For example, Nick was ambitious for his children; Steve though showed little interest in the progression of his own kids. Other differences were more interesting. Steve was sympathetic to refugees; Nick believed they should be sent home. This discrepancy was fascinating considering both men had come to Australia as refugees, and Nick was the wealthier of the two, and could afford to be a little more benign towards those who were suffering.

I thought this contrast could be a great source of debate and revelation. How could two men be so different when coming from such similar roots. There is also scope for humour and interplay. I have started writing their exchanges, and I am remembering that Greek humour is a two-act. It’s a constant struggle between the funny guy and the fall guy. Greeks swap these roles continuously. Humour is meant to leave both sides feeling good. They may insult each other, but like in Greece, nobody wants to hate or be hated. It’s play, even when it’s politics. They may believe their view with all their heart and may never be diverted from this view, but in the personal situation the widest divergence rarely leads to resentment or ill-will. This kind of gracious debate is what I want to capture with Nick and Steve.

8.5.21 Arthur Miller and the philosophy of appropriation

This morning I was writing a scene for Lesser Titans (the third play in my family trilogy) and it was the scene setter that was needed for the early part of the first act. In it Soteres (my dad’s dad) is surrounded by his children including my dad Steve. Like many children of tough, uncompromising fathers they were trying to impress him. They shouted for his attention, trying to to drown out their siblings. 

As I was writing this scene, my mind kept going to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece Death of a Salesman. There is a similar scene when Willy Loman’s sons Biff and Happy are vying for Willy’s attention. It was an important scene because it showed how central to story were the relationships between Willy and his boys. One refrain in the scene was Happy telling his father that he had lost weight.

So as my Kafcaloudes horde struggled for their father’s attention I kept seeing this American salesman delighting in his children. It started to feel like appropriation.. that I was stealing from Miller.

This is probably part of the Imposter Syndrome that all writers possess to some degree, or as the great British actor once told me, the destructive question one must never ask oneself: Am I worthy?

When these things happen the best thing to do is to keep in your own story. In my case the purpose of the childrens’ interaction with their father had some great differences to that of Willy and his sons.  In my scene I wanted to show how the father had so dominated his children that they were scared of him and one way they developed to  get on his good side was to show their physical prowess. I also wanted to show the fault of the father. As one son tells Soteres that he can life six bricks, Soteres sniggers and say he can lift twelve. My scene develops as the son tries to lift twelve bricks. I have yet to complete this scene, but I’m thinking the son’s attempt will bring out of Soteres something of his worst side, perhaps a jealousy. Willy Loman had no jealousy of his sons. He adored them and wanted them to be the greatest men of their time. I doubt that my Soteres felt the same way.

So in the end my memory of the Miller play was just that: a memory. But it was good to remember Miller. As a writer, you are constantly thinking of the infinite roads each piece of dialogue can travel. To be aware of the writers who have gone before helps you not to repeat, but to also helps you do what I have just done: challenge the motivations and focus on what you want to achieve in the scene.

1.5.21 Synchronicity

Many years ago Sting wrote a wrote about the interconnection of life’s events (I think). In it he writes about his father’s struggle to provide a home for his family while dealing with self-doubt and repression. Sting called this song Synchronicity. For years I have had this song in mind when any unusual chain of events happen: Trump’s rise; Climate Change, even the world response to COVID.

But today I was struck by a more micro version of synchronicity. I was visiting my brother Terry on the NSW central coast, and he excitedly told me that one of his neighbours (Angela Kalaf) told him she was related to the Kafcaloudes family from Kastellorizo. Today we spent the afternoon with Angela and her husband Bob, scooting around the local bay in their cruiser boat. We stopped to eat at a restaurant on one of the points which was, as it turned out, managed by a cousin of mine. On the way back to the boat after the sumptuous lunch we passed two fishermen, and through some miracle of synchronicity they somehow revealed that their family came from Kastellorizo , and even more amazingly, they may be relatives of ours. Which means that in the space of one afternoon I went from having one set of relatives to four.

To say it’s a small world doesn’t even start to cover it.

19.4.21 Fictionalisation (Part 3)

In my PhD I gave lots of examples of writers fictionalising true stories. The nub of the thesis is that fictionalisation has the power to bring unknown stories to the world, stories that might have been lost otherwise. I wonder if anyone would know of Hamlet if Shakespeare not taken his pen to him. The downside of this is that people might also believe that the character was exactly as Shakespeare wrote him: a slightly mad, self-centred, murderous obsessive who believed in ghosts and conspiracy theories.

John Arden was a British playwright and essayist. In one of his last story collections, The Stealing Steps, Arden narrates a journalist who has been told an amazing story about an island in the Indian ocean where countries all over the world sent their worst prisoners. This high security island keeps these murderers and terrorists until they die. There is no chance of escape. All governments know about it and support it. It has a very high security classification, and the existence of this island prison is unknown outside of government circles. Arden’s journalist is told about it, but as you would expect, no British government body will confirm its existence. In fact, even asking about it brings the journalist to the notice of the security services. He is threatened with lawsuits, his apartment is trashed.

Then this journalist has a lightbulb moment: he will write the story as fiction. The names and location will not be true but the general story of the island prison for the world’s hardest people protected by a world conspiracy among governments will be the centre. 

In this way the journalist gets the story out, and he relies on the one flaw in fiction: that people will believe there is some truth to the story.

As I read the story I too fell into this well of doubt. I wondered whether Arden was the journalist he portrayed. I wondered whether there is such an island where murders and terrorists are living right now, a kind of a world-Guantanamo. Unless Arden writes an absolute disclaimer, I will continue to suspect there might be some truth to it. 

And this is a the problem with fiction. I have absolutely no proof that such a place exits. Nothing has been brought to light. The story has made-up names and characters, even the way the journalist finds out the story is unlikely. But the seed has been sown. When I wrote my grandmother’s story even my relatives thought she had done everything I had portrayed in the novel. I told them it was fiction, but they still believed. Just as I continue to have an unreasonable doubt that all of Arden’s story is fictional. Good read though.

15.4.21 The God-level

When writing a script your brain works on two levels. On one level you are in the play, speaking the dialogue, making the movements, weathering the emotions of what’s happening on your little mental stage. You are living your scenario along with your people (characters).

Then there’s the difficult level. This is you as the playwright. In a way you are an omnipresent god looking down on the play, watching the action without getting involved. It is this God-level that questions you as you write: is this character speaking in a way that is genuine for the place, time and situation?; are you just copying an idea you saw in a movie years ago?; are you skimming the surface?; are you writing a boring nothing that an audience will not care about?; are you being trite?

Now that’s a lot of fancy to be going through your head when you are creating. Sadly, you need this God-level with you. Without it you write he unexamined tripe that would be he equivalent of a Mills & Boon throwaway. The God-level is a kind of auto-correct that tells you that a line was auto-pilot, and to write it again, and this time making sure you give a connection to the other character.

The God-level though is more than a fixer; it can also be a spur. If you write something that has a touch of magic about it, the God-level will tell you. This can encourage you and force the juices to do more of the same. This is probably where the idea of being on a roll comes from. The God-level can even inspire. In the Spielberg film Always the central character is a ghost who whispers in the ears of the still-living, inspiring them to do things even as pedestrian as flying a plane or dancing. Since seeing that film I have wondered whether this is how things work on a artistic-spiritual level. I certainly have wondered whether my grandmother was on my shoulder as I wrote her story. Certainly I felt admonition when I invented certain things. It could have been my imagination, but I am coming to agree with Shakespeare that there are more things in heaven and earth etc. Or at least I hope so. Some of those voices were very strong and the God-level voice when I write is powerful. I suppose its part of the skill of a writer to know how to work with that voice constantly in your ear.

10.4.21 It all starts with Steve

I started the third play in the trilogy this morning. It doesn’t have a name yet, but I have an idea of where it’s going (see my last entry in this diary). 

When writing a play you start with the set-up. This is when you give some background to your characters and then the scene in which you are setting it. Some playwrights find this the most boring bit, but I love it. It allows me to put in some description about the characters, in this case my dad Steve who will be the central presence. The purpose of this description is to help the actor and the director formulate character. Of course what they come out with will not be perfectly aligned with what I have in my head, but the closest I can get to Steve in my succinct lines, the more likely the play will portray the man I knew. 

I have known Steve all my early life (he died in 1994) and his complex, even tortured, life has been with me for many years. He was a man of good heart, but unhappy in many ways. Marriage was probably not for him. He was tough on his kids, and at times seemed not even to be all that interested in them. He was certainly a strict man who demanded his children follow his ethic. However, he was changeable. He would laugh with us, but his laughter would change to rage if he perceived that we were laughing at him instead of with him. It was a tightrope for a child who didn’t have the skills to know where the line would be on that particular day. And on many days we were wrong. Things got better as we grew, but the wariness never left us, not completely. I remember my brother Terry, who is 15 years older than me, saying that no matter how bad things were for me, it was a lot worse for him as a child.

There were good times. Steve, when he was the centre of attention perhaps, could be gregarious and loving. It was a rough and tumble type of love, full of pinches and painful squeezes, but we all knew that this was Steve’s way.

He was a faulted man who at times drank too much, gambled, and forgot his duty as a breadwinner and husband. But when you connected with him, it was glorious. He was always welcoming to our friends. I remember the fabulous moment when he met Jackie for the first time. It was at a family occasion and Jac was dressed up and nervous. When she arrived she realised she was overdressed and she was upset that she had made a faux pas. She went to the bathroom to gather her emotions. As she came out Steve and I saw her in the corridor. I introduced them. Steve looked at her intently and told her to to do a 360 degree turn so he could examine her. She did the turn and Steve nodded. “You’ll do,” he said with fake seriousness. From that moment the night was joy for Jac. I will always love Steve for that moment of kindness, for the empathy and understanding. Steve could be that way and I will always love the memory of him for that.

Now, to put that in a couple of paragraphs in a script..

7.4.21 The Tampa revisited

I might have the angle for the play.

Instead of focussing on the love story, it could be the migration that would make this a story, especially the circumstances of the passage. The island of Kastellorizo had been controlled by the Turks for some time until the Young Turks took charge. They decreed that all men living in Turkish areas could be conscripted to fight for Turkey, even men of foreign heritage. The island’s Greeks rebelled and expelled the Turkish administrators. Then followed great instability. There was a French occupation which passed to the Italians. In WWI the tiny island was battered by bombardment from the Turkish coast only two kilometres away. Understandably, many Kastellorizians tried to leave the threatened island. Over only a few years the population halved to 4500, and still more wanted to leave.

This was great context, but it would not be the focus of the story. It was what followed.

The British and Australian governments intervened. They organised for ships to take Kastellorizians out of the harbour to other countries including Australia. It was on one such ship that Soteres Kafcaloudes, his baby son Steve and the rest of the family travelled.

This was significant in many ways. Here were people leaving the island of their forebears for a life halfway across the world, a land unimaginably huge with desert, indigenous tribes, western racism and new culture.

I could base this story on contrasts between two times. In 2001 a ship called the Tampa picked up the survivors from a stricken refugee boat off the West Australian coast. Australia’s Howard government, far from awarding the ship’s captain a maritime award, refused to allow him to dock in Australia. The government had the view that the asylum seekers now on the Tampa were attempting to enter Australia illegally. For weeks the impasse continued with the many Afghan asylum seekers in limbo.

I wonder whether an aged Steve Kafcaloudes could narrate this play as a series of memories, much in the way that my mother’s mum Olga rememnbered hers in Lady of Arrows. Perhaps the impetus for the story could be Tampa. Steve could read the story in a newspaper and be forced to remember his own family’s migration story when the Australian government, despite its White Australia attitude, showed a humanitarian outlook that contrasted so much with that of the government of 2001. As a counterpoint, he could be in conversation with someone who supported the Howard position. My own godfather, himself a post-WWII refugee from Greece, was ironically against refugees being allowed in. The dynamic of such a conversation could be powerful.

One block is that Steve died seven years before Tampa. I could adopt some dramatic licence, or I could choose another narrator, but this is Steve’s story, and I still think there is value in tying up the two sides of the family story as i discussed in yesterday’s diary.

I do think there is the bones of a great piece of drama there, drama that would be relevant to today, not just here but in what’s happening in Lesbos and the migration drama also, ironically, involving those two adversaries: Greece and Turkey.

6.4.21 An interconnection

I’ve been a bit blocked recently. Not about writing. I never really get writer’s block. What I’ve been blocked about is how to write the Kafcaloudes story. I started doing a fictional account of the life of my dad’s dad, Soteres Kafcaloudes. It’s been in the form of a long story, potentially a novel. But it seems every time I get into it, I discover new facts that change the basis of what I have written.

Last night I had an inspiration: instead of writing this as a standalone story, why not write it as a play. My first thought was that it would tell the Soteres story on Kastellorizo, and perhaps end with his life in Darwin, tying up at the end with the marriage of his son Steve (my dad) to Olga’s daughter Nellie. Thus the plays would interconnect because in my first play, Lady of Arrows, Nellie is a wife and mother at the end. To have her married would tie the whole saga together.

When I told Jac about this her first reaction was to ask where the drama would lie. The courtship of Steve and Nellie was hardly the stuff of Hollywood. She met Steve while she was working in her uncle’s café in Darwin. Steve was a good-looking, slightly spoiled man-about-town who fell for a shy, pretty daughter of a Sydney fish shop owner. They married, she got pregnant and lived a fairly uneventful, if for her unsatisfactory, life.

Jac was right. Nothing there to tug the heart. As I thought this through, I wondered whether the events on Kastellorizo would be the focus. Both sides of the family came from that little island. Steve had actually been born there before coming to Australia as a baby with his parents and siblings.

I’ll have to think on this.

5.4.21 The politics of famine and an old man

People still talk about the Greek famine of 1941.

In my novel Someone Else’s War and in its play adpatation I wrote about how my grandmother Olga, who worked for the resistance, was miraculously released from Averoff Prison in late 1941 only to find there was no miracle on the outside. For, after six months in what she considered a hell of fear, lack and deprivation, she found that the beautiful city of her birth was gripped by a disaster that few would, or could, have foreseen.

In my novel I write that Olga walked over starving people in the streets. One woman runs across her path cradling something precious. That something was a dead bird that would provide at least some nourishment for that woman’s children. Olga discovers a dead young woman on the road and calls for help but no-one answers; no-one even seems interested. Death is too common here. A man asks Olga if she has any food. He tells her he is the dead woman’s father. Olga gives him all she has, which is a piece of bread given to her by a guard on her release.

When I wrote this scene, I worried that I had exaggerated the situation; that my poetic licence that gone too far; that in telling this story the way I did I had dishonoured those who suffered in that famine. I had researched extensively, but the writings of the times were scarce. I did the best I could, but I still had my doubts.

A few months after the novel’s release I gave an Όχι Day presentation at the war memorial in Sydney. A semi-circle of Greek people watched me speak, most of them men, aged men. One in particular stared at me. He was small man probably in his 80s, bow-legged with a full shock of white hair. But it is his face I remember most strongly, so concentrated it was on me. He never reacted to what I said, he just stared, his eyes on mine all the time. Later when I sat to sign copies of the novel, this man joined the queue.  I could see him staring at me even as he stood in that line, even as I bantered with the people whose books I was signing. Eventually it was this man’s turn. I asked him if he wanted me to sign his book. I saw he had no book in his hand.

“No,” he said. “ I have read your book.”

This is the moment when a writer’s worst fears invade. I braced for an attack.

“That part when you described the famine, when your grandmother got out of jail. Remember that?”

I nodded.

“I was there,” he said. “In that street at that time.”

I nodded again.

“I was exactly as you wrote.”

For a few moments we looked at each other. Then he smiled and shook my hand. He left. IAs I watched him go I felt relief, gratification for his kindness, and a little bit of self-satisfaction that I had written this part well. Since then I have come to understand that the reader of a novel conjures their own images from your words. This small man was remembering his childhood horror as he read my scene. He was person who reconstructed that scene perfectly, not me. The most I had done was avoid clangers and wrong information. I had made a scenario into which his memories could slide.

And that told me plenty about this worst of famines. I knew already that the famine killed 300,000 Greeks; on some days up to 1000 people died. The Greek morgues and hospitals could not cope. Dead bodies were allowed to lie on the streets, bodies like that of my young woman.

What my small man brought to me was that my invention of the times struck a true chord. The times were such that that a mother could relish a rotting bird as food; a father could be so exasperated, so distraught that he could let his daughter lie dead on a road; that the norms of Greek life such as the wailing and grief would have to wait because the living had needs that were not being attended to.

Australia’s Booker Prize-winning author Tom Keneally once wrote that all famines are caused by politics. He points to Bengal in 1943, Ireland in the 1840s and Ethiopia in the 1970s as examples of how disenfranchisement (Ireland), government incompetence (Bengal) or political tyranny (Ethiopia) led to the deaths of millions through malnutrition. The popular belief that the potato famine was the cause of Ireland’s misery is just not true, according to Keneally. It was a factor, but not that prime cause.

To these we can add Greece in 1941-42, when an invader broke an economy, looted its food and exported it out of the country, leaving a proud people to die.

The Greeks recovered, but not until after several more years of occupation and then a civil war. We know now that the German people also suffered famine at the hands of the Hitler regime and its incompetencies. These things are never isolated, and it wasn’t in WWII: see the scorched Norway or the devastating winter in Russia. Eighty years on we should remember what can happen when politics and self-aggrandisement are not checked. Among the worst of these are that young women die alone on a street and proud fathers are reduced to begging.

4.4.21 Respect the writing

Sometimes things just work and sometimes they don’t.

Amazon has just released a new version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. It’s stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) as the husband who is being haunted by the ghost of his first wife. Just 10 minutes of this new production is enough to show that it just doesn’t have what is needed. It was at this point that we decided to have a look at the 1945 original starring Rex Harrison. And what we got was a version of the story that gelled beautifully. The acting was a fine mixture of understatement and the bizarre over the top, particularly Margaret Rutherford who plays the somewhat demented psychic responsible for bringing the wife’s spirit back to this mortal world.

Perhaps part of the reason why this original version works so well was the fact it was produced by the writer Noel Coward. Another reason may be that the original production was made in the time it was set. For all the hard work of Dan Stevens and Judy Dench, who plays the psychic, the new version feels like a parody of the times and is just simply not needed, because the story is a parody itself. And that, I think, is the biggest factor in the failure of the new production: the actors and director did not know what Coward was getting at. And it seemed as if they really didn’t want to bother trying to find out. Good comic writing does not need embellishment. The words of the piece should be enough and if the actors pay homage to the original intent of those words then those words should be enough. In this case it feels as if the production did not have faith that this early comedy would translate for a modern audience. If so, then they were wrong. The original is hilarious when viewed in 2021 and that alone is proof of its worth.

Respect the writer and it will all come together if, and this is a big if, the writing is good enough. And in this case it certainly is.

3.4.21 A man’s view of sexual assault

When I was writing the novel I put in a scene where my grandmother was raped on the day the Germans invaded Athens. It was a scene that my brother Terry found very hard to read. His quote to me was a very childlike “I didn’t like it”.

This was understandable considering we are talking about his own grandmother, a woman he knew well in his early life. The the sexual assault scene was not gratuitous. I was not being Hollywood. There were three reasons I put it in. One: women were being raped in that theatre of war (as in other theatres of war of course). Two: it was symbolic of what was happening to Greece on that day; and Three: I chose this as a motivation for Olga because she was no longer a Greek citizen but British. I wanted to make this a personal war for her.

Of course it is a confronting thing to portray in a novel. In fact, one of the examiners for my PhD made the comment that maybe this rape was not necessary. I believe it was for the reasons I have just given. I also know it was a risky thing for me to do as an author.

When I came to write the play, I left this scene out. A play is in some ways a more personal experience for the audience than a novel. The  experience of the actor can convey the sense of the personal just as affectively as my novel’s rape. In the workshop Jackie’s portrayal of Olga gave all the pathos and all the motivation to the character without needing that terrible scene.

I also need to be aware that I am writing about a woman’s experience from a man’s perspective. Gore Vidal wrote a novel called Kalki in which his central character is a woman. Several times in that novel he wrote make statements that showed it was a man trying to write as a woman. His character says things like I’m not particularly afraid of being raped. I found this very odd thing for any woman to say. In fact at one stage she is drugged and she wakes up feeling sore around the pelvis and she says I probably have been raped in a matter of fact way with no emotion attached. I think any writer, be it me or Gore Vidal needs to be aware of the sensitivities that may not be present in the minds of our readers. Can we be in the heads of a woman? Many people have told me that I have written in an authentic woman’s voice and that is very gratifying to me. But that sexual assault scene stays with me because I wrote it from my own perspective and the way it came across will not ring true for some people. I fear sexual assault victims will have a completely different experience to the one I wrote. I wrote it from the perspective of someone who has gone through some humiliation and physical violation when I was young and the taste of those incidents has stayed with me. I just hope that is enough to give my assault of Olga some truth.

21.3.21 Kalamata or Kalamaki 

Kastellorizo features high in my family’s history. It is a tiny, rocky island very close to the southern Turkish coast. On my mother’s side, my grandfather originally grew up there, before going to San Francisco and then finally, Australia in 1921. My dad’s dad also emigrated to Australia, but directly from Kastellorizo a bit earlier during WWI. 

Among my dad’s notes he said his father said that his father came originally to Kastellorizo from Kalamata, which he spelled as Kallamatta. This was fascinating. Kalamata is an important centre in the Peleponnese, south-west of Athens. The note led me to search for any trace of any of the variations of the family name in Kalamata at that pre-war time. Nothing.

I am in a Facebook group that is dedicated to the history of Australians in Kastellorizo. I asked the group if they had any knowledge of a Kafcaloudes there, and the responses were many and vague. But somewhere in this journey I was contacted by Nick Pappas who, it turns out, has studied the history of Australians in Kastellorizo. Amazingly, he even had a copy of Soteres Kafcaloudes’ dowry contract:

Part of Soteres Kafcaloudes’ dowry contract

When I told him about my dad’s Kalamata claim, he quickly responded by saying that my dad meant to write Kalamaki, not Kalamata. Kalamaki is a completely different type of place. It was Turkish for a start. Instead of being right across the other side of Greece, it was sited almost directly across from Kastellorizo. Nick’s research found that it was peopled by many Kastellorizians from the mid-1800s who were attracted by its abundant timber and other natural resources. It was also a tense place, because towards the end of that century Turkey was growing resentful of these Greeks living off its land. Nick said that in the early 20th century the Young Turks were starting to have a go at the Greeks in the area. It got to the stage that the men started shipping their women and children back to Kastellorizo for their safety. It seems likely that Soteres Kafcaloudes decided to make the move around the same time. Perhaps he was prescient; he saw no long future for a young Greek man in Turkey. If he had thought this way, he was to be proven right: fourteen years later the Great Catastrophe happened when the Turks forced out all Greeks, and Greece retaliated by expelling Turks. It was labelled a catastrophe because many of the Greeks and Turks had become in almost every way an embedded part of their adopted country, and moving them across the border to their foreparents’ lands were a disaster for them.

So Kalamaki was subsumed into Turkey. Graveyards and churches were destroyed, even name was changed to Kalkan. Remnants remain, such as a prominent Greek church. It is a mosque now, but the architecture is clearly is Greek Orthodox with its dome, although no longer sea blue but white. Many of the old houses look like Greek whitewashed cubes still. But it is a Turkish city that is important to the Turkish tourist trade.

I just wonder if any tourists walking through it know that these beautiful little waterside streets were once the byways of a groups of Greeks long long gone.

13.21 Word of thought

I know well the foibles of word-of-mouth. Oral histories necessarily mean that with each telling of a story facts can change.

As the Chinese whispers of our childhoods proved, by the time a story was passed from child to child to the last child in a school class, that story will have changed beyond recognition.

Add to this the exigencies of time, and the changes in that story are magnified. Memory is a frail thing; the decades makes it frailer.

I’ve been going through the notes my dad, Steve Kafcaloudes, left. In his last years I had begged him to write the story of his life. I think I did this because I had just started writing my grandmother’s story, and I was discovering the problems with memory, oral histories and word-of-mouth. Steve’s story was a good one, being a refugee baby from Greece in WWI. His dad founded a building business in Darwin that helped develop the town in the inter-war years. I knew little about his family, and when I asked him to write his story, I knew he would go further than the tired anecdotes he had given us all our lives. The process of writing gives you time to think and remember. I hoped that by writing what he knew of his father, he would reveal facts he had never told us over dinners or in front of the TV.

As the years passed I would ask Steve if he had written anything. He would always answer the same: yes, I will need to do that. He said that to me only a few weeks before he died. I had no reason to believe he had written a single word.

But he had. More than a few words. In his notes that were found in the days after his funeral there were many pages of family history scribbled in his usual heavy ballpoint, often in capitals, sometimes on the backs of leaflets or lottery tickets.

There was a reason in this writing and a satisfying lack of reason. His story would inevitably start with a small, too formal explanation of why he was writing: “As a man of 71 years of age wishing to reflect upon his life and remember the tales, great and small..”, then there would be varying accounts of his father’s marriage and trip to Australia. This story was told again and again. It was as if Steve felt he needed to start at the top every time. Sometimes this story would last half a page. It was rarely resumed. Perhaps it was interrupted by the need to sleep, go to the RSL, or to do a crossword. But when he did go back to the story, there was no resumption; we would be back to him being a man of 71 or 73 years of age wishing to remember his life.

It was the most extreme of order in storytelling. Just as a short story reader might feel the best way to resume a read was to start again, Steve felt the best way to remember was to take himself back to pre-WWI Castellorizo and begin at the beginning.

This repetition is just what any researcher craves, because each version brings in new memories, new facts, new perspectives. It was only in one of these versions that Steve tells us that the name Kafcaloudes was a given name, a kind of an insult given to his father because he was a braggart (Kafcaloudes in some Greek dialect means big head apparently).

The problem with Steve’s multiple versions is that sometimes they conflict. When he writes about the family’s immigration trip to Australia, two versions of the story say it took three weeks. Two other versions say three months. One version says there were 250 immigrants on that ship and that all survived; another suggests the number was 150; a third says it was 120 and that 5 people died en-route. Yet a simple fact like the name of that ship was never given, so checking the detail was difficult. I have tried to check, but there are no records of a Kafcaloudes arriving around that time. 

Even a simple fact like his family’s pre-Kafcaloudes name. Steve says it was Amollas. When I checked records, there were none in immigration records. Then I found an alternate spelling in Steve’s notes: Armollas. A search of this name globally brings up only Portuguese or Philippino people. A third spelling was Armolas but I knew before I started researching that this too would be found only in Asia. Steve then spelled it Mollas. I will search for this name. At least it sounds Greek.

Steve was 78 when he died. I presume he was writing his life up until he died. A lifetime of smoking and drinking did not addle him in the slightest from what I could see when we met in the latter days. He was sharp and fast with a quip. The inconsistencies of story, fact and name are mistakes I am sure. Some were simply from a lifetime of mishearing.

Streisand sang that art isn’t easy. Neither is research, but each fact, right or not, brings us something new, something to checked, even if it is discarded later. If the true Kafcaloudes story was presented to me tomorrow in some cousin’s biography, the voyage of discovery would not be so grand.

10.3.21 Remembering Steve

In November I am going to talk about my dad’s family, a refugee family who made good in Darwin, a family that looked like a working-class Greco-Antidopean version of the Kennedys: good looking children of a strong matriarch; intelligent and able, and for so many of the children, perhaps not quite fulfilled. It was a family that had its tragedies, including early deaths. Not one of them became prime minister or a millionaire. They could have been. Circumstances took them other places.

My dad Steve was the second-born son, a good-looking blue-eyed, fair haired southern Greek. He was muscular but slim. He had no problem with women, either before or after his marriage  because he had been a little spoilt as an adonis in a small Australian town. His father was strict, and at times vicious, but his mother would dote on him. Steve was still the second brother, the one that perhaps would never measure up to the eldest brother George who was always going to become the head of the family after their father retired in the 1940s. George was the boss-in-waiting and there could not be two bosses. The third brother, my favourite uncle Nick ,had no such first or second son problems. He grew to be a happy, contented man. Perhaps their father was by that time finished with moulding his sons. Nick was able to be the athlete and play team sports. Steve had been caught between a George and a Nick, and although he said he was a happy man, you could see he often wasn’t.

He could easily put you on edge, for his energy could be joyful or miserable. He often scared us as children because he could tease, and he was very good at it.  He had the knack of pretending to be angry. So good was he at it that if we misinterpreted his anger as play we would only intensify it. And he was a man who believed in a slap. A hard slap, and never just one. Even as I aged, I would have a few moments of trepidation before seeing Steve. Steve could put you off balance.

When my mother divorced him after 35 years of marriage and disappointments, Steve was alone for the first time in his life. For four years after the divorce he stayed in our house in the marital bedroom in the front. It was my mother who moved out to the smaller room across the hall. It wasn’t until my mum bought a new home on the other side of Sydney that Steve was really alone. He tried to come too. He begged my mum to take him even suggesting, so she told me, that he could sleep in our garage. My mum never considered this. Her new house would be hers alone. I was still with her; the last child in the family, so she would not also be alone for the first time in her life like Steve. She knew I would leave one day, but she wasn’t scared about it. She had been in charge of the family for so long by then that she knew all about hard decisions, be it to arrange a loan to get back a repossessed car; or take a second job to make up for the bill money Steve wasn’t giving her every Tuesday.

Steve, for the first time in his life was alone with his life and his memories. He would have to pay the bills and shop for his own food. He moved into a small apartment and found his way. It was in this time that Steve had hours for himself. In the years in that apartment or the flat after that he acknowledged his wrongs. He paid back money to good people who didn’t want it; his apology was enough. He sent letters to us all, never quite saying what things he regretted, but saying he regretted nonetheless. And that was good enough for us too. A few months before he died in 1994 he met the whole family at a Greek restaurant in Newtown for somebody’s birthday. I remember he came early. I remember he kissed me. I remember, more than that, that before the food was ordered he called me to his end of the table and asked me if I wanted a beer. It wasn’t politeness, it was a beckoning. He wanted to be next to me for a while. I don’t remember what we said, but that doesn’t matter. I remember to this minute the surprise and warmth I felt just then. For we had never had moments like that before.

When Steve died, he had been living alone for thirteen years by then. I went to the house on the day his body was found. My brother Terry had been called by the police and he then called me. We turned up to the little house in Earlwood only a few minutes apart. When I got out of the taxi I saw the young police officers outside. They were looking pale, so the signs were that Steve would not be in a good way.  They said Steve had been dead for three days. As a reporter I know what three days does to a dead body. He’s at the end of the hall, they said. You can see him from the door. I looked in briefly, but all I could see was his table with papers on it. The woman police officer said Terry was down the side lane talking to a neighbour who lived in an adjoining part of the house. I don’t remember if it was relief or an excuse, but I left that front door and went down the side lane to find Terry.

He was talking with the young woman who shared a wall with Steve, the same wall that Steve had died against. It was possible that she ate her meals with only a layer one brick deep from Steve’s body.

You gone in yet, I asked Terry.

No, he said.

Think we ought to?

Don’t know.

I was scared. I had never seen a body before. I had only seen Steve as a vibrant man with an edge. This was a body, death, perhaps a gruesome one, and I didn’t want to go in. But I knew I had to.

I walked down the hall lightly, as if to treading softly would not make me part of that scene. As I got closer to that table in the room at the end of the hall, I could make out his pyjamas, striped flannel just like he always worn. Then his feet in the soft leather slippers, and finally, his head down on his chest. He was on the floor, gently just like he had been placed there. He had placed himself there, as it turns out. On the table we later found a tiny note saying he was sorry, but just didn’t have the energy to clean up. He knew he was going to die. His last thought was for others. His final apology was probably his final act, apart from moving from his chair to the floor next to it.

There was no smell of decay. His tummy that had been distended for years by the hernia that probably poisoned him to death, was still pink. Steve could only have been dead for some hours. The Greek rice soup he had made for his dinner was still on the stove. Greek rice soup is made with lemon and egg. It curdles quickly. I lifted the lid and it smelled fresh. The young police officer had come in by this time. I asked him why he thought Steve had been dead so long. He said it was the crossword on the table. It was three days old. He couldn’t know that Steve often did his crosswords three days behind as an insurance against a printer’s strike or his newsagency running out.

Steve’s death was a good one. He died alone, but is there ever a fellow traveller in the final moments? It is the most solitary of things. Yet in those moments he thought of those who were to find him. That note was a worthy gesture of a man who faced his own death with dignity.

7.3.21 In praise of the café

In Robert Dessaix’s book Arabesques he talks about the importance of the café for not only the traveller but for the local. Cafés are the places where one can sit and meditate. Dessaix prefers them to the tourists sights. He considers sights as only places. Seashores are seashores and, unless man has changed the shore to allow for shipping or tourism or subsidence or whatever, they have been the same for millions of years. Unless climate change, war or developers intervene, these seashores will continue to exist for millions more. Souks, casbahs, plakas and plateias have turned from places for locals into places for tourists. The gaudy has replaced, in many cases, the necessary. Just see how the hand-scrawled signs of not long ago have become multi-lingual factory-made generics.

Even the tavernas have changed. In Greece many tavernas have moved with the tourist trade and offer foods that half a century ago would never have been served except on special days: lamb, lobster, pork. The largely vegetarian food that was once served out of necessity has been replaced in these tourist tavernas by everyday feasts that are served quickly with the expectation that people will eat too fast and make way for the next setting. These are not the tavernas of old where the food was only part of the hospitality; where the owner would talk to you, not because it was good front-of-house, but because he or she was interested. That is why Jac and I have developed the habit of eating even just a block back from the main strips. Alas, we have noticed that those backstreet Athenian tavernas have also become McDonalds in intention. They certainly weren’t when we first went to Greece more than thirty years ago. 

This leaves it to the café for authenticity. When we were in Papingo in north-western Greece a few years ago the taverna-café was a centre of life. We could go to the taverna-café in the morning and see older men gently and lovingly arguing about something with the TV behind showing a football match, and when we returned in the late afternoon we’d find the same men still arguing and the football still somehow going on. 

All the noise, the children, the yelling waiters, the plate clatter makes café meditation somehow easier. You are in the midst of lives here and it is comforting; it is womb-like maybe. This is the place where people come to share and take. Oddly, no-one looks at the stranger in these places; it’s not like the saloon on the wild west movies. It is as if you are expected; as if that table by the copper pan on the wall is waiting for you; that the μέτριο καφές has been brewing for you already. And that coffee is never poor. The people would not stand for that. A good coffee is all the people expect. 

I like that cafés allow you to be you. I like that the old men can argue and no-one cares. I like that the decor speaks of the lives of the owners; that there there is likely to be photos of grandchildren or winning football teams from a decade ago. I even like the stains on the walls in the café like in the opening scenes of the Zorba movie. I like that no-one objects to those stains.

I could say I could live in cafés. I wonder if this is genetic. Jac is not a café person. But then she comes from Wales. As I go to my local café I see plenty of people who are not Greek. Some have huge laptops on their tables in front of them. They might be escapees from their other life. I understand that. I have done that myself. Creating sometimes only happens with noise of life all around you. Jac can’t understand that either. Her attuned singer’s ears would hear everything while mine hear nothing. I hear nothing but the swirl of it all and it is comforting and it feels loving.

Is this because I am Greek?

I hope so.

4.3.21 Noddy and the cleansing of the history

Robert Dessaix is one of the great Australian writers. His travel books are masterpieces of warm snd inclusive observation. His Arabesques is, like in Pausanias’ works, a journey through places visited by earlier heroes. Not heroes I suppose, but perhaps giants like the literary giants Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide. These two writers visited Algeria in the 1890s, and it was there that Wilde apparently corrupted Gide into having sex with a young boy. The morals of underage sex are not canvassed by Dessaix. It is as if the prostitution of young boys was commonplace and harmless except for warnings by Gide’s relatives that Wilde was a dangerous man. In the 21st century incidents like these might be cause of a re-evaluation of what Wilde was, his great and imaginative writing aside. Perhaps. But would that be to judge another time and another place, especially from the perspective of an era that has another set of moral values?

This is a complicated issue. Yesterday it was announced that the latest Dr Seuss books were being withdrawn because of some possibly racist references. Some commentators have gone further to suggest that the value of the books from the 1950s onwards was lessened because of these passages. Again perhaps. And perhaps there is an argument that for the 2021 child the sentiments in the books might have power to instil a carelessness about racialism.

How far back should we go though? Dessaix himself has referred to another childrens’ writer, Enid Blyton, who has been revised a lot lately. Noddy and Big Ears were supposedly gay. Don’t know about that one, and even so, so what? While looking back can overly criticise, as society becomes more worldly, this revisionism can change too. To be gay is accepted much more now, but the Noddy gay story arose when gayness was a taboo. Modern sensitivities has brought it around. Noddy and Big Ears are okay now and they can be gay if they want. If they ever were.

In another case, one of Blyton’s young girl characters, George, wants to be a boy and this has been disparaged of late by commentators who suggest this is not a good role model for children. The argument is along the lines of: why should a girl aspire to be a boy? Is Blyton suggesting that boys are superior? My partner loved George as a child and wanted to be her. She insists she herself never wanted to be a boy, but she wanted to do what boys were able to do in the 1950s. Perhaps Blyton’s George was more a revelation of a barrier rather than a belittling of a sex.

If we are to cleanse thought from old text, then maybe we should go back to Homer, who wrote about rape as a natural right of the victor; or how gods and heroes had sex with their siblings and murdered their children. Vengeance was expressed in ways far beyond anything invented by Mario Puzo, with several gods even tricked into eating their sons. Yes, the ancient times were troubling and at times very weird. Such behaviour today would be an international scandal. Yet we haven’t expunged these horrible tales from the ancient texts. And neither should we. Rape happened and we need to know about it. We should be able to view it from the lens of the time we are in. In 100 years that lens will be different, but the facts of the history will be exactly the same, unless someone decides Homer needs editing.

I hope that never happens.

3.3.21 Sometimes even the greats..

Nadine Gordimer is on e of the great writers. She won the Booker prize and her novels are considered masterpieces of language and evocation.

I have just been reading a 1984 collection of 10 short stories called Something Out There. It is my first Gordimer book, and I took it with me on a 4 day bike trail trip in northern Victoria. I sat on country farms reading the stories early in the morning and to the setting sun, surrounded by horses. By the seventh story I was a fan. By the end of the ninth story I had decided Gordimer was now my favourite modern writer. Her expression seemed to paint pictures of her native South Africa that were as vivid as if I was actually there. I have worked in South Africa twice, but her writing did not just raise a nostalgic memory; it gave me a new vision of the country and its people. It took me somewhere I had never been. Each story was touching; her characters handled with deftness. By the end of each you felt you knew the people she described. That’s a special gift that few have.

Then I read the tenth story, the one that gave itself to the title of the book. It is a twin story. One tells of a group planning a terrorist attack on a Jo’burg power station; the other is about an escaped ape that has been terrorising neighbourhoods. Of course the latter is something of a metaphor of the first: the threat of the unknown that is liable to upend your life at any time. Gordimer may have meant it as a preview of the demise of the Afrikaans dominance, but I can’t be sure. In 1984 the blacks seemed miles away from equality, let alone any kind of political power. Weaved into the story are some glimpses into black/white relations across the SA society. That white farmers were still called baas; that a lone white woman could front against a single black man in a remote farm and still feel the social right to dominate him without fear. It was a snapshot that was, to a degree, overturned a decade later with the rise of the African National Congress and the rule of the black man.

But there was something else in this story that didn’t quite work. All the elements of the Gordimer style were there, but her exiquisitely complicated sentences at times were too complicated. At times I had to read and reread but occasionally I had to let it go without really understanding what she meant. The cleverness had distracted me and pulled me out of the story. Similarly, her juxtaposition of the two storylines (the ape and the terrorists) did not always gel in the Gordimer way: just when we get to a thrilling personal story, we are returned to an ape overturning a garbage can.

This was a relatively short story, so Gordimer would not have intended this to be a masterpiece, but she obviously put a lot of work into knitting an entwined story, perhaps a story that was close to her heart. But it seemed to me that she had made the story too complicated. The value of it lies in the people. These elements shine. In the end the ape story ends prosaically.. and probably metaphorically.. but I couldn’t really see the huge value in it. It was a shame. A simple break out, stand-alone story about the ape, delved deeper, could have been stronger, for both itself and for the terrorist story.

Which goes to prove, genius doesn’t always mean you get it perfect every time.

2.3.21 The thesis is up

After all the work, the back-and-forth, and the love and doubt, the last part of the PhD journey has been completed. My thesis has been posted on the research repository Opal for all to see.

It’s a funny thing, but it wasn’t until this final stage that I started to feel like I had actually done a PhD.

The tags and keywords for the thesis probably express how widespread this study was: history, fiction, creative writing, drama, theatre, Greece, oral histories.

The study took me to ancient Greece, modern New York theatre, the hills of Greece, WWII Australia, and all the places my cited authors portrayed.

It was a great ride and an honour.

The thesis link is:

23.2.21 The rights of a writer

As I wrote a couple of days ago John Arden was a playwright who tried new things. His big achievement was to put verse into modern kitchen sink dramas. It didn’t always succeed. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find more than a scanty mention of these plays in the media, even though some of them were dramatised by the BBC for television.

Arden was a man of some angst. Way before John Lennon was trying to save the world by doing his bed-ins, Arden and his actor wife Margaretta D’arcy protested against nuclear weapons, world imperialism and Irish republicanism.

He also was forthcoming about the rights of a playwright. In a compendium of his plays he complained about how when one of his realism plays, Wet Fish, was commissioned by the BBC he was frozen out of the creative process. He had written the play with few stage directions, expecting that it would be directed by the man who had directed an earlier play of his. But when that director became unavailable, a new man was chosen. Arden expected the new director to consult with him about the production, especially as it had few stage directions. But no. Arden says the new director never contacted him. When Arden suggested a meeting, the director refused to take him up on the offer. Arden was kept out of his own play, and he was bitter about it. This was in 1960, and by the time he wrote about it, seven years had passed. Arden had seethed for a long time. He had also by this time been a seasoned protestor, so he wasn’t of a mind to allow an outsider to show disrespect to the work or to him as the creator.

This said, the director had every right to apply his own interpretation to the words, particularly as the playwright had not provided many stage directions. To the director this would have been an open canvas.

More than fifty years have passed since this contretemps, so what motivated the director’s decision is probably lost forever. perhaps Arden had a reputation for strong views and the director wanted his freedom. But it would have been polite to at least talk with Arden. He might have gleaned some in sights into motivation, character and style, especially as Wet Fish was a strong but complicated teleplay and needed a lot of interpretation. 

Directors bring the words to the screen. Playwrights write those words. Most of the time the creative team finds a way for collaboration. I’m sure the productions are the better for it.

This episode should be a lesson. Don’t leave the writer behind. They don’t deserve this.

21.2.21 When it just doesn’t add up

I saw a new play last night. The theme of the play was not that different to my own. It was set in WWII and it involved Greece, with the heroes being outsiders trying to help the Hellenes against the invading Nazis.

This is a story that is rarely told. As I wrote in my PhD thesis, the Greek theatre of that war has been swamped with stories of the other events happening at the same time: Tobruk, Singapore, Rommel’s North Africa, the European concentration camps and the Holocaust, the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour, the scorched Norway, Mussolini’s Italy, the Thai-Burma railway. Any story of Greece is welcome because, as I found on my research trip to Greece, there are many Greek war tales that need to be told.

In this case the story is about Australian soldiers caught in Crete. Although she bases the story on real interviews with Australian soldiers, the author’s imagination here is profound. She bases her story on connections: the connection of an Australian soldier and his mother in Melbourne; a Greek family in Crete seeing their land, animals and other Greeks taken from them; and finally the connection between the Australians and the those same Greeks who come to Australia after the war. The ending is touching.

The play was not ready for a showing though. The acting was at times unprepared. The direction did not elevate the script, did not give space when it was needed. At other times there was too much space, so much that the play dragged to a halt and you almost thought that the actor had forgotten his words. And the script itself needed more emotion. Only a few times did the characters connect emotionally with each other. 

Usually a good workshop will pick up these things, but it was as if the play was in an open workshop. Only some of the acting was up to it. And that’s a terrible shame, but this is a good story, and with some rewriting and a bit more time, this story will be quite something. 

This play was a reaffirmation that a play is a process. If it was to be reviewed in the media, the playwright would be devastated. The process of readings and closed workshops finds the holes that must never get to the audience stage. That didn’t happen here. I hope the playwright keeps her energy and looks to what this play can be. She needs a new creative team and a rethink on what she is saying.

I really hope she does this.

20.2.21 Of verse in theatre

Some people write for the fame. Or the money. Others write because they need to. It makes them happy.

Still a third type writes to try new things. They play with the medium. They evolve their writing to move away from what has been done before. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t.

Of course this stretching leaves a mark on what is to follow.

John Arden was such a writer. His experiment with his craft was to bring in verse to drama and comedy. At a time in British theatre when Pinter was going the ‘kitchen sink’ with reality works that depicted real types of people speaking as real people doing unusual things, Arden was pulling away from that. Yes, his characters were ordinary people, but it was in their way of speaking to the audience that his characters were different to the norm. Often, not always, they spoke in verse, in rhythm, in cadence, in rhyme. To read his script it is, at times, as if you are reading a character reciting words of a song. But these characters are not singing; they are speaking in a heightened manner.

Of course the ancient Greeks wrote in this manner too. That’s where drama began, with the protagonist reciting as if reading poetry. The lines had a hexameter and a quasi-musical form of its own. Without the music of course. The difference with Arden was that he was writing these kitchen-sink dramas in this way, if only partially. 

It was not successful at first. A new style might to some seem to be an indulgence. Certainly some of his first plays in this style were not taken to very kindly. The reviews were poor. But he soon found a style that melded the characters with the style. These were characters that were larger-than-life or enigmatic. In them the words seem to flow with truth. The words added a mystery to the person, particularly (and this was Arden’s genius) when the other characters spoke in everyday parlance.

It was Arden who took us back to the Greeks and reminded us that while the ordinary life was spoken often in ordinary terms, it did not always need to be so. Magic elevates. And poetic verse is magic.

15.2.21 A sad inevitability

It’s a bit of a sad day today. I’ve been reading an analysis of the Greek playwright Sophocles’ version of the story of the Greek princess Antigone. She was the daughter of Oedipus (the King who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother). Antigone’s two brothers fought a battle for Thebes and were both killed. The new king of Thebes decided that one of her brothers should not be allowed a funeral, but should be left to rot on the field where he fell. Now for the ancient Greeks, this was a terrible indignity. It meant he would not be able to cross the River Styx and find the afterlife. Antigone would not allow this to happen. Against the king’s order, she buried her brother. The king ordered her to be put into a cave and die of starvation, which she does.

As an ancient story, it has all the elements of a classical tragedy: death before one’s time, a death that was not of one’s own making (she was morally compelled to try to save her brother’s soul) and it was a bad outcome for a good person.

The story had been written first by Aeschylus, but it was Sophocles who told it with a focus on Antigone’s point of view. It’s terribly sad, and that’s how Greek audiences wanted it in the millenium before Christ. After the earlier stories about Oedipus, Sophocles had tuned his theatre-going audience to expect to shed tears at his plays.

And as with all good playwriting, the story has deeper relevance. Antigone was alone in her bravery. Some have said that her sister tried to assist, but withdrew when the threat of death became real. Others have suggested Antigone’s sister never supported her actions. Either way, Antigone faced the end of her life alone. In Greek mythology many deeds are forced on the protagonists. Antigone’s father Oedipus killed his father because a it was prophesised he would do that. When his father received the prophesy, he ordered the baby Oedipus to be left to die on a field. He was saved by a worker, and he grew up not knowing what his father the king looked like. So when he had an argument on the road with an old man and killed him, he had no idea the man he killed had been his father, nor that the queen he was to marry was his mother.. If the king hadn’t sent him away, then that killing would never have happened. Such is prophesy. Antigone had no choice but to seek dignity for her brother. She perhaps was like the English boy who stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and was transported to Australia as a convict: it was a grave injustice, and a heavy punishment for something that was inevitable.

We like to think we have command over our lives, but the wonder of Sophocles was that he took an existing story and used it to tell us all that we are not as in control of our circumstances as we may like to think.

And that’s a whack on the head that we all need sometimes. 

13.2.21 You don’t need a degree..

In the 19th century books I’ve been reading about ancient Greece, most seem to have been written by authors who were either Oxford dons, or poets of some fame.

That they were almost all men is also significant, because it was a man’s world in those no-so-long ago days. So at once there was a class and privilege-based eye on history along with a sexual exclusion principle.

Thankfully a lot of this changed in the 20th century. Not only did conscientious amateurs start doing their own research, but a lot of women entered into this hitherto male terrain. In the mid-20th century there was the novel writer May Renault, who took many of the Greek myths and put them into a form for the mass audience. Before her was Edith Hamilton, who I have already mentioned in this diary.

I have just started reading Hamilton’s most famous book The Greek Way which was first published in 1930 and updated in 1942. This thoughtful book is like a sheath of collected theses. Hamilton examined the correlations between ancient Greek life and our own modern existence. She looks at, for example, Christianity and the Greek gods. She also discussed the way Greek poets wrote, compared to the writers of the 18th and 19th century. Hamilton goes into the detail of comparing the styles and concludes that the ancients were more terse. She cites the example of Pindar who, she says, could tell a story in one line, while the more modern poets might use a paragraph. Comparing these examples, you see what she means. The ancient lines leave plenty for the listener (or reader) to conjure up. The more modern writer tells you everything, seeming to desperately want to show you exactly what they were envisaging. I prefer the old way. Let the reader make of the words what they will.

This thoughtfulness of Hamilton won her many admirers. US President JFK was a fan. After his 1963 assassination Kennedy’s widow gave the president’s brother Robert a copy of The Greek Way, and apparently it was central to his recovery from the shock of the murder. Given that the Kennedys were Catholic, it might be seen as surprising that this treatise on the Greek gods was so effective. It shouldn’t really. The book is logical, intelligent and inspired.

Hamilon doesn’t have an arms-long list of credentials to her name. She just researched, pondered and postulated. She obviously wrote for the love of it, and in doing so she gave succour to a grieving senator. That this senator came close to being president himself says much about the healing power of thought. Hamilton could fit into any company of philosophers or analysts. Socrates himself, if he had been allowed to have female disciples, might well have found a favourite in her.

10.2.21 Long Story Short

Six months ago there were plenty of stories in the media predicting that COVID would destroy the Australian film industry.

If so then this premature death is taking a while to happen. This month saw the release of several new Australian films that have been critically applauded such The Dry. Joining them this week is Long Story Short which is one of the most artistically successful Australian romantic comedies since Death in Brunswick. Australian actor Josh Lawson pinned the script and directed, a combination that doesn’t always work but in this case the synergy between the script the deliveries of his very clever lines and the snappy editing make this movie a classic-to-be.

The film centres on the theme of time and the wastage of it. Teddy is a somewhat self-obsessed young man who is just starting out on his marital journey. But he wakes after only a few hours as a new husband to find that a year has passed. This is where the science fiction elements of the story really doesn’t stack up: apparently he has been doing everything with his wife and his job in that year but the Teddy who wakes remembers none of it and to him he’s only had a short nap. The story flies along because he only has a few minutes before he is again cast forward one year. This happens to him 10 times. For this scenario to make sense we have to ask what’s happened to the other Ted – the who one experienced all those 12 months. Has Teddy forgotten it all? has he developed an odd amnesia? No, that’s not the premise. It’s a bit of a hole, and a little distracting, but again The Walking Dead’s premise was preposterous, and that didn’t hurt the box office or the entertainment of it. And Long Story Short is a heap of fun, with this most unusual and original story giving Lawson plenty of scope to weave in a series of slightly tangential storylines including a touching one involving local comedian/actor Ronnie Chieng as Teddy’s best friend. Chieng’s presence adds another layer that is at times hilarious and poignant. But the central story is about Teddy, who sees the mess of the family the life that he has made with each passing year. He is unable to understand how the situation could change this way. It is a thoughtful script that always has a sense of the what-ifs about it. It is also thought-provoking in that it has you question your life over the past year. Is it better than it was? Have you done what you wanted? Have you wasted time? Have you hurt others? In a way this film is a good whack on the side of the head. 

Teddy is played by Rafe Spall (The Big Short, The Life of Pi) with superb comic timing. Spall’s interpretation of Lawson’s script follows in the style of Hugh Grant or his own father Timothy in moulding a fully formed characterisation which will live in the minds of cinema goers for a long time. His wife is played by VCA graduate Zahra Newman (Wentworth, Rush) whose synergy with Spall makes or breaks this film. It makes it. As does Noni Hazelhurst who is the catalyst for the storyline. Noni has been in a fair bit of work lately and this film shows she only gets better with each film. 

You get that sense right from the snappy 1950s-inspired titles through to the denouement that Long Story Short is a film that should take its place in the Australian movie history. It’s that good. 

1.2.21 A time for everything

Julian Barnes won the man Booker prize in 2011 for his book The Sense of an Ending. At that time I was interviewing a lot of authors including Booker Prize winners like John Banville Peter Carey and DBC Pierre. But I never got to interview Julian Barnes nor did I get to read his book.

I understand now why the gods wanted me to wait. If I had read it back then I would have missed important elements about the meaning of history. Now, having done my PhD and examined the issues of history and fictionalisation, the words in Barnes’s book have given me a fabulous insight into the nature of history, particularly these words:

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

This fabulous quote which was attributed to an earlier author says so much about the nature of what we, the writers of historical fiction, are all about. This is particularly true in my case where the story of my grandmother was given to me as oral histories and so indeed the imperfections of memory was central to the issues I had in writing her story. Added to this is the second part of that quote where the inadequacies of documentation gave an extra layer of uncertainty about the facts on which I was basing my stories.

Elsewhere in this novel there is a statement made that says that history was written by the victors. This is not a new of course, it’s an everyday bread-and-butter phrase which is trotted out by anybody who believes that the loser has been given a raw deal. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s always wrong.

That someone like Julian Barnes who was just writing a simple fictional piece of work could contribute to the philosophical discussion of the meaning of the word history is telling. His work is no thesis nor an academic paper. It is just a musings of a very inventive man put in the context of a made up story.

And that gives extra power to history of fictional writing.

30.1.21 Watching a reading

The Melbourne Theatre Company has rebooted after ten months of COVID-enforced closure. Last night the doors opened to a new, transitionary period of the company with a play that is itself in transition. It isn’t a full production, rather a reading of a stage adaptation of Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well. The Miles Franklin award-winning novel tells of Hester, a lonely woman who loves alone on a rural property. She takes in a teen girl, Katherine, becoming emotionally attached to her. It is a sad story of dependence and possession, because as Hester comes to want to possess Katherine, she ironically starts to lose her one form of security: her property. Like many of Jolley’s novels, there is ambiguity. We don’t know if there is a sexual element of this girl-crush. If indeed it is a girl-crush.

In an odd way, this small personal story is almost too complicated for the stage. There are nuances in the story that have every reader question the nature of this relationship and the motivations of each character. The novel’s ending is particularly beguiling. It seems like an ending that isn’t.

The MTC’s outgoing associate director Sarah Goodes understands these subtleties. Although this is just a reading, she spaces the four actors, (more spaced than the audience), and they never touch or invade each other’s space. This works for the isolation theme of the work. It also suits Louris van de Geer’s script, for the central character of Hester, played by Nadine Garner is the focus of this play. There are three other characters but they are all told from the mind of Hester, so Garner’s placement on stage left, slightly forward emphasises her loneliness, even when she is interacting with Katherine (Tamala Shelton).

Being a reading, there are limits placed on the actors. They stand behind lecterns and often read their lines. The rehearsal period for a reading is much shorter than for a full production and props are scant, limited to some water tubs and rags. Nevertheless, on the first night there were moments when the actors memorised sections, and it in in these moments that the performance flies, especially Garner and Shelton. Their interaction is central to this piece, so some rudimentary action, such as when Shelton slowly circles the stage.

This was obviously an experimental return for the MTC. The limited audience size may make costing a major production difficult. As it was, audiences at Southbank’s Sumner Theatre had to wear masks for the entire performance and seats were spaced one apart. It’s not 1.5 metres, barely half that, and other audience members are directly in front and behind. I did see some audience members pulling their masks down under their noses once the lights went down, which  circumvents the point somewhat, but it does get stuffy otherwise.

The Well is an ambitious adaptation, and it doesn’t always work. Like the source novel, the ending certainly leaves questions for the audience, perhaps even more so in van de Geer’s script. The whole production has an unfinished feeling to it, but the director would say that this is the nature of a reading. Its role is to find the problems; to tighten the script; to work out the possible staging.

The Well is being staged for the next few days. It would be interesting to see how it ends up by the final performance. For the MTC audience it’s a welcome back to the stage, and a rare chance to get an insight into an important part of the creative process.

28.1.21 When heroes aren’t heroes

Sometimes historians stumble on a concept that is ever so right. Edith Hamilton spent her life studying the Greek Roman and Norse gods. She love to tell those stories, coalescing the various versions of the stories into one that compasses elements of all the stories. This was a difficult task because so many of these versions conflicted. For example Homer’s stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey had elements that were expanded upon by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides who which added their own takes on stories or just invented wholesale facts. Nevertheless it sounded like a great idea to try and make some kind of cogency out of all these various stories which touched on a similar theme.

But it wasn’t Hamilton’s storytelling that attracted me the most about her. In her 1942 book Mythology Hamilton makes one little statement towards the end about the nature of heroes. She says that there was a big difference between the Greek gods and the Norse gods. And this goes to the very nature of what is a hero. Although Greek gods are sometimes called heroes Hamilton suggests this is not correct. She says the term is more rightly used for  half mortal offspring that I’ve called heroes people like Achilles or Odysseus.

But Hamilton makes a powerful distinction between the Greek gods and the Nordic ones. She points out that the Nordic gods were not immortal. They suffered, they lost eyes and limbs, and they could be killed. She says that when they choose to fight against the odds, they are being brave because they had everything to lose including their lives. In doing so they are being heroic. In contrast she says the Greek gods were immortal and unable to be hurt. They might fighting wars on the side of the Trojans or the Greeks but no harm can come to them so how can this be classified as heroic?

This is a powerful point and should lead us to consider the nature of heroism. If we save a child wandering in the middle of the road when there is no traffic around, are we being heroic or just doing a good deed? I think the latter. But if cars were bearing down on that child and a person risk their lives to save that child that is heroic.

The use of the word hero is too easily cast around right now. We just need to go back to the Nords and the Greeks to get a real sense of the word.

27.1.21 Rewriting history (Part 3)

Now that the Trump presidency is over, we can look at fact and history in a non-hysterical way.

Trump had a point when he said that sometimes facts were made up; that news was sometimes fake. Actually no, Trump suggested news was ALWAYS fake, which is not true, of course. Journalists make mistakes; historians might cut corners; plagiarism does happen. But there was and always will be wrong things printed in the name of news. Occasionally it is sinister, where a biased writer puts down wrong things, just like, ironically, Trump’s own media releases.

Humans write history, and as a smarter person than me noted, history is written by the victors. This implies that the winner will put their turn on events, and with the losers vanquished, the other side of the story might not get the prominence it should have. The telling of the losing side’s story, including their motivations and justifications is left to the whim and grace of the history writer, who is, as our clever writer says, comes from the other side.

I do wonder that the Nazi side of the WWII story will be understood. Undoubtedly the Nazis terrorised, murdered, tortured and stole. Hitler, in fact, ordered the execution of my grandfather, a particularly mean order considering the Nazis were heading for certain defeat, and instead of showing graciousness, Hitler was determined not to leave anything standing like his Norway scorched earth policy. In their Reich the Nazis caused a misery that was never equalled in humanity’s past.

It is perhaps because of this horror that people have just not wanted to put the Nazi’s side. But there is a story to tell. Books on Hitler have always seemed to me to be framed in the monster that he was to become, and filled with clues to where his Jew-hating behaviour might have come from.

Now, 75 years after the Nazis were destroyed, it might be time for us to revisit Germany in 1930. Perhaps Trump’s hold over a significant proportion of the US population might give a clue. Could it be as simple as a single leader offering succour and unrealistic hopes to people who are the suffering? I don’t know. Many of Trump’s Capitol gate-crashers were not of the suffering class; they had simply be trying to right Trump’s claimed wrong about a rigged election. Others undoubtedly were looking for an excuse to wield the kind of power they had never been able to wield outside of hunting parties. In 1930 the good young men of Germany, the well-educated first-world people who had been through a decade-long post-war depression, turned away from the values of their parents and words of Goethe and other German high-thinkers and became enthusiastic Lord of the Flies soldiers. Why?

We really need to know. Now, before the last of them pass.

26.1.21 Rewriting history (Part 2)

Today is Australia Day. It celebrates the say the First Fleet landed in Australia with its cargo of convicts, solders and free settlers intent on a rich new life.

It was a day for hope for some, and despair for others. The convicts who were transported (in many cases) for minor crimes had been torn from their loved ones, their home and their country in what today could be seen as a massive breach of human rights. As the Australian prime minister admitted this week, it was not a particularly flash day for them. Understatement megala.

We know it was also not a particularly flash day for the indigenous people who had beaten the British to this continent by about 70,000 years. While the aborigines did not consider themselves the owners of this land, they were part of it and free to be part of it. The First Fleet started a disruption that continues to this day, and it’s worth seeing how disruptive it has been. Obviously the indigenous freedom of movement was impeded. No longer could they walk freely anywhere the settler was. The indigenous food supply was changed; the whites hunted the same animals and brought some of their own, large hoofed animals that damaged land. The indigenous culture had developed a system where certain animals were preserved. This was done by a totem system. Each person had a totem of an animal, and that person was not allowed to eat that animal. Thus there could be no wholesale gorging on kangaroo or possum; just a proportion of the population could eat these things. As well, whereas many indigenous nations moved with the climate, the whites cut down food habitats to make the land provide a stationary year-round supply of food. The British way of stationary living had come down under and we know today that the land is not always accommodating.

This not-particularly-flash-day also brought with it simple diseases like colds and coughs, diseases that were uncomfortable in Britain, but fatal to the isolated people of the Antipodes.

The day also brought with it the British class system which had the view that the black man could be no more than in the lowest of orders. Remember, this was not an enlightened era in the west; it was many years before Britain led the world in abolishing slavery. The new white man did not see the indigenous culture’s hierarchies and its elders. The inevitable interference that started on that day 233 years ago is still here, and as successive governments from Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke have tried, the solutions have proved just as intrusive as the original problem. The heart was there, but the problems continue: jail rates, shorter life expectancy, Infant mortality, domestic abuse, despair.

No, the coming of the whites wasn’t a particularly flash day for our original inhabitants.

As our latest Australian of the Year has argued, it’s just a date. I say it’s more than that, it’s a date that hurts a proportion of our population. And for me, the Australian-born son of a war veteran, that’s enough to say it would be so much more wonderful to move it to a date when we as a nation made our own decisions. Maybe Federation (Jan 1); maybe Eureka; maybe our first parliament date. I don’t know. I do know that the date as it exists hurts some Australians, and that’s not what we are about as a people.

I have argued in this diary and in my PhD thesis that the passing of time muddles history; people remember wrongly; people invent things; people add to truth, and this addition confuses the reality. But sometimes time and reflection can be a good thing. Sometimes hindsight adds a maturity to our perception of that history. In 2021 we can look at 1788 with a broader viewpoint. In 1970 we primary school kids celebrated Captain Cook’s landing as a “discovery of Australia” (false); a welcome coming of the new world for the aborigines (false); and a joyful time for all (false). Since 1970 we have gone from being told that white and black have all lived together in joy, to a realisation that the British landing caused disruption that is still causing damage. It’s a late realisation, but at least it’s a realisation.

The Australia Day controversy highlights that sometimes history needs to be rewritten.

25.1.21 Rewriting history (Part 1)

Pindar was an early Greek poet who lived 500 years before Christ. His time was full of the Greek myths, and many of these myths were of horrible deeds. The myths tell of incest, rape, abduction, murder. And these are only the deeds of the Olympians; the gods like Zeus and his wife Hera.

One story tells of Pelops, who was killed by his father Tantalus and served to the gods as a meal. This story was so awful that later poets like Pindar refused to believe it and demanded it not be told. In a Trumpian piece of logic, Pindar decreed that it could simply not be true; therefore it was not true.

Pindar, effectively, wanted the bad things expunged from this oral history. 

Of course, these are myths, but I argue that myths are part of history. Whether or not they tell factual stories, they tell us of the time, of the beliefs of the ancient Greeks; of the things that they knew and were told, and finally, of the mind of Greek who invented them. Something inspired the notion of a man serving his son as a dinner, and the terrible tale points to whatever it was, and that something we may never know. Pindar was right to express his horror because that too is history and tell us of the mindset of his time.  The horror of the gods when they realised what they had eaten also tells us of the gods themselves as they were written by the ancients.

Let’s take all these things as pieces of the jigsaw, and each piece brings us closer to the Greek that once was. But expunge it? No. Never.

20.1.21 The PhD arrives

Yesterday the PhD degree arrived:

It’s an odd thing, but the PhD feels a long time ago. From the distance of only a few months, I have forgotten the work, the angst, the self-doubt, the imposter syndrome.

Which is probably a good thing, because a PhD is not about the grafting work. It’s about the journey, and the things you learn on the way. And I learned plenty. I learned the physical things, like the stories of my ancient ancestors; how to write for both academia and for theatre. But most importantly, I learned from the community; the people in academia who have the skill of sharing not just knowledge, but goodwill. It taught me compassion and care, and that I am part of something much bigger. Two of my examiners cared; they showed great support and love for what I was doing. As did my three supervisors, Chris, Nasya and Steinar, none of whom ever turned down their mouth at my writing, even the worst of it,. The universities (La Trobe and RMIT) cared for my work and helped me in any way they could, be it as an employer or as a place that had facilities I needed. Then there was the workshop director Gary, and the three glorious actors that put my words on stage, Jac, Stephen and Hannah. If they had qualms about those words, they never said so. They were kind, only ever helpful, and my play was the better for their ideas.

I suppose I’m saying that the PhD process is about kindness. And that’s all I got. Kindness. From beginning to end. And that’s something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.

17.1.21 Of myth and gods

I’m reading a classic book on mythology written by Edith Hamilton. It was published in 1942, at the same time my grandmother was working in the resistance in Athens.

Hamilton takes a deep look at the role of myth in Greek history and like the philosophy class I took late last year, examines the link between Greek myth (and the attitudes of the ancients) with the post-Christ view of diety. Hamilton suggests that the Greeks took the Egyptian concept of the gods and turned it around. While the Egyptian gods were non-human, aloof, dangerous and to be worshipped as such, the Greek gods had human form and were susceptible to human failings. She cites the classic rendition of Zeus as being a philanderer. His wife (and sister) Hera was a typically Greek wife, jealous of his infidelity, would plan horrors for his mistresses and give him a hard time in the marital home. Hamilton says this response by Hera was a thing of comedy for the ancient Greeks who laughed at his victimisation by his wife.

Hamilton says these stories of a not-that-holier-than-thou god contrasts with the post-Christ god, which has taken a human form in Christ and his father, but is not human, but perfect, forgiving but demanding. In fact, it seems that Christians and Hebrews have taken a hybrid from the Egyptians and the Greeks.. a human form (the Greeks) and a higher being (the Egyptians). Hamilton makes it clear that in her view that gods were invented by humans, which is an irony, because in the Greek folklore the gods bought humans into existence.

It’s food for thought that the Greek (and Egyptian) gods predated the bible’s gods by a millennium or more, and their form comes from these earlier myths, yet these earlier gods are now considered by a considerable percentage of the world’s population to be ‘pagan’ and false.

How the world turns..

16.1.21 Thinking vertically

John Galsworthy was one of those writers who could do it all.

He’s best known for his series of Forsyte Saga novels, which is an epic family story series, an early 20th century version of Hugh Walpole’s Rogue Herries perhaps.

He wrote at a time when novelists tried their hand at the stage medium as well, many of them successfully: Maugham, Wells, Steinbeck.

What I find most interesting about Galsworthy was that he did not just write a stage pot-boiler to cash in on the popularity of his novels; he tried new techniques. In The Roof which he wrote in 1929 towards the end of the most popular time of his career, Galsworthy gives us six scenes, played on stage one after the other, but which are supposed to be taking place at the same time across three floors of a Parisan hotel. The first scene is in a room in the servant’s level and then the successive scenes takes us to the hotel’s lounge, and then to the rooms on the second floor where the patrons are sleeping. Each of the first six scenes ends with the news that the hotel is on fire. So we get to see the reactions if different people caught in the hotel. The final scene is the only one that is not concurrent. It takes us to the roof where the people have fled the fire immediately after the previous scenes.

This concurrency of the first six scenes opens us to the minds of six groups of people and how they deal differently with life and finally, the impending disaster. Like all Galsworthy’s work there is humour. One British couple are in bed and the wife bothers her husband repeatedly from sleep, sniping, conjoling, demanding him from his rest. But there is poignancy too. This same couple show devotion when the risk of death happens on the roof, refusing to leave each other. It’s touching, as is the scene about a novelist who is dying of a heart condition at the start of the novel. Well before the fire, he talks about his fears of there being no afterlife, and his regrets that he had seen and written enough. It could well be Galsworthy uncharacteristically revealing himself.

The 1920s was an era of theatre when playwrights experimented. Remember this was a time before the greatest works of Shaw and Coward, and well before the dark works of Pinter, Arden and Williams. This makes Galsworthy remarkable, and it is all the more remarkable that his plays are not considered the minor classics that they are.

11.1.21 Defining truth

When writing true stories, you need to define what truth means.

Writing about my grandmother’s spy work in the war has brought me to question truth many times. In fact it was a central theme of my PhD thesis. For example, yes, it is true that she worked for the Greek underground. But is it true to say she was a hero? I don’t know. She worked with a lot of people who had a lot more at risk than her. My grandmother’s family was safely half way across the world in Australia, while her Greek comrades had parents, partners and children within the Nazis’ grasp. Thus to be a hero is subjective. What she did might be no more than the duty of any decent human being. To elevate her to this great hero might be to elevate her into a mythic status that she did not deserve. After all, if we are good people we would always fight against an obvious injustice, right?

My PhD supervisor once advised me not to get into the issue of truth in my thesis. He was intimating that it would take an entire thesis just to define truth, particularly when it comes to loose terms such as ‘hero’. He’s right. I reduced the thesis discussion to one about ‘fact’ which, as it turns out was still convoluted but somewhat easier and less philosophical and ethereal. It was convoluted because I was dealing with oral histories as my primary source, and oral histories are fraught with danger as a source of fact. In the end I drew the line at what I knew to be fact, and knowing that much of what I was presenting on stage woukd be imaginative, I had to admit that I was largely dealing in fiction.

As long as the audience understands this, then I think it’s okay.

3.1.21 More of the family

Ringo Starr once affirmed that drums loomed large in his legend. In my case it’s my family that has loomed the largest in any legend I might have. My novel Someone Else’s War was about my grandmother, grandfather and my mum and aunts. The plays have also been centred on my grandmother Olga and her work with the greek resistance in WWII.

So with my next project being to get the plays staged, my forebears just keep on being be a big part of my life. 

Even more so now. I just spoke with an academic from Darwin’s Charles Darwin University. He has been researching the stories of the Greek families who played a part in the development of Darwin.

He was most interested in my dad, Steve Kafcaloudes, who was the son of a builder who erected many of the early 20th century buildings in the town. His father Sotires had came to Australia from a little Greek island called Castellorizo just as WWI was ending. The rest of his family (including my 18 month old dad) was smuggled out from the island in a dangerous rescue mission jointly sponsored by the British and the Australian governments. Yes, folks, this was a humanitarian world away from the callous government attitude towards with Tampa in 2001, when a ship was refused landing rights in Australia by the Howard government because the ship’s captain had on board a large group of asylum seekers he had rescued after their boat had sunk in the Indian ocean. Instead of being given humanitarian awards by our government, the captain, along with his ship, crew and the asylum seekers were forced to drift at sea for weeks.

But eighty years before that mess, Steve’s family was treated more humanely and ended up in Darwin, where their industrious attitude fitted the needs of the place perfectly.

This academic has asked me to deliver a paper on Steve’s family at an academic conference in Darwin in November this year (COVID permitting). I also told him about my on-going work about my maternal grandmother, and he was also interested in her story. So it appears I will be presenting two papers at the conference: one on my dad’s side of the family, and one on my mother’s side.

As serendipity has it, I had stitched Steve’s memoirs together after his death in 1994. When he died he had left scraps of paper on which he had written stories with a ballpoint pen. Often these scraps were tiny bits of coloured paper, the backs of lottery tickets or small pamphlets he’d taken from his local RSL. The stories were not mutually exclusive: he often started the whole story again from the beginning, leaving me with 10 or 15 versions of the same birth story. These revisions of his made the story more complete because while each one covered the same period, each version had facts that were not on the others others. These hundreds of notes I distilled down to a fifty page book which I printed out for the family. It was a labour of love and taught me a lot about Steve, who was a hard and disappointed man who had been abused by his own father. It was a great joy to me that Steve softened a lot in his final years. We shared some good meals and he apologised for his past failings. 

I broached the issue of genealogy with this academic. You see, Steve was not my biological father, but he was the man who raised me. I still don’t know for sure that he was aware that he wasn’t my real father (my mum believed he didn’t), but I had my suspicions. When my siblings found out about my paternity only fifteen or so ago, some were surprised, one said he’d always suspected it, and one took it very hard. These things happen in families. In the interest of full disclosure I told my Charles Darwin academic that I was not writing about my biological father, but he said it didn’t matter at all. And when I think about, it shouldn’t matter at all. I am researching a family that is very close to me, and a man who brought me up, no matter what his shortcomings.

It seems I’ve got plenty to occupy this coming year.

1.1.21 Man proposes

Thirty years ago I went on a month long trip travelling from Kashmir to Ladakh in the Himalayas. One day our plans for along walk through a pass was stopped by a snow downfall. I remember a guide saying, with the shrug of his shoulders, “Man proposes, God Disposes”.

I had never heard this phrase before. The thirty years since has taught me the wisdom of this. Whether it refers to God, or the universe, or our spirt angels, I have understood that our wishes are no more than a starting points.

Last night is a good example. We are in Byron Bay, which is the easternmost point of Australia. We had come up here to have a few weeks in the sunshine with our closest friend who has a house up here. We were planning on returning south to Victoria tomorrow to resume life at home.

Then last night, at the death knell of the year, the Victorian government announced that because of new COVID outbreaks, all people wanting to return to Victoria had to do it by midnight tonight. If you are a minute late, you’d have to go into two weeks hotel quarantine. To avoid this horror lockdown in tiny room we would need to do a 2000 kilometre drive south in one day. It could be done, but it would be nuts. Not to mention all the other Victorians desperate to get home to restart work. Then when we get to the state border, the queue would be long. Maybe hours long. Already petrol stations near the border have queues kilometres long.

Luckily for us we don’t have to work again. I’m still in sabbatical. Jac’s next show is later in the year.

After a lot of discussion with our friend Joy, we have decided to stay in beautiful Byron for as long as we are locked out of Victoria.

If it does extend to months up here, we should be okay. My Greek and philosophy lessons are online courses, and my research group works remotely. In fact I have never met my co-researchers face-to-face, so that’s okay. I have also got a lead on a new research project that could have me exploring deeper into my family history. I’ll explore this today.

So in all it should be okay for us. The best beach in the world. Warmth and a plethora of good vegan eateries.

Yep. Should be fine.

31.12.20 Even Salman fiddled

In my plays and the novels I fiddled.

By that I don’t mean fiddled like in playing a fiddle to make music. I mean that I fiddled with time, space and deed. I put words in people’s mouths and fiddled my characters into puppets who did whatever I wanted them to do.

Mostly I did this fiddling to fill the gaps in my stories’ narratives. If the oral histories on which I based my stories were poor, faulty or uneven, I invented to make up for these problems. If I had a true fact though, I never changed it to suit my story. My story had to fit around what I knew to be true.

The more I read, the more I realise that not every writer had the same attitude toward existing facts. One such author is Salman Rushdie.

Salman is an immersive and hugely imaginative storyteller who loves inventing tangential stories and weaving these seemingly-disparate tangents together with grace and thrill.

Today however I came across a massaging of fact that had me question why he did it. 

It was in his 2005 novel called  Shalimar the Clown which tells about the assassination of a (fictional) former US ambassador to India.

It may be fictional, but it has a short passage saying that this man had been appointed ambassador by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, succeeding John Kenneth Galbraith. This kind of specific data had me questioning whether the central character was actually a real person

A bit of research showed hew was not real. But it also showed that Galbraith actually finished his tenure two years earlier, under the Kennedy administration.

Exactly why Salman made this change was explained later in the novel with a reference to the assassination of JFK and the framing of events of the post-JFK time such as the Vietnam war protests and Martin Luther King’s activities. However, it does appear to be a slightly clumsy shoehorning of events to suit the story. It did come across to me as a little messy, but I appreciated how deftly Salman used the events to further his story.

Still, it seems to me that it’s not quite right. Anyone who knows their American history might be confused, and might lead them to question the truth of the deeper and more important cultural and social issues that are the bedrock of this fine novel. And that would be a shame.

26.12.20 The origin of the species called God

Over the Christmas period I’ve been having a text chat with my brother Michael.

It started as a bit of playful back and forth about how fabulous the Greeks are, and then turned into something quite interesting when Michael said all the gods and idols originated from ancient Greece and its gods like Zeus, his wife Hera and their offspring.

In this time when millions are worshipping Jesus and the traditional Christian image of a bearded Angloish god-the-father. I remembered my Plato Christianity classes of earlier this year. To recap: they said that Socrates, through Plato, invented many of the themes that came to exist in the Christian New Testament. Even reincarnation may have been made up by Socrates many centuries before Mother Mary went to give birth in a stable. The image of Zeus as the forgiving/unforgiving father figure also straddles themes in the Old testament (perhaps the unforgiving and vengeful bits) and the New Testament (the parts that refer to adoring and supporting offspring even when they’re naughty).

The difference between the Greek gods and the Bible’s deities is that the Greeks were this huge family that were often at odds with each other. According to Homer, in the Trojan War there were some on the side of the Trojans (Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares and Artemis) and some including Athena, Hera and Poseidon were on the side of the Greeks. The Trojans were only defeated when the gods agreed, at Zeus’ insistence, to keep out of the last days of the Trojan war. Of course, the actions of these gods had already set up the defeat, such as when Apollo granted the Trojan princess Cassandra the gift of prophesy and then, when she refused his advances, spat in her mouth so that no-one would believe her prophesies. This meant she foresaw the effect of the Trojan Horse, but when she tried to warn her parents and siblings about it, she was not believed. In Homer’s story the gods come across as a bunch of feuding children, quick to love and quicker to resent.

Yes, these stories may be part of my (and Michael’s) family heritage, but it doesn’t mean it was all cool and loaded with superhero selflessness.

You could even excuse the gods’ odd behaviour by saying, perhaps, that they were only human.

22.12.20 Stephen Fry’s method

As well as being an actor, comedian and writer, Stephen Fry is a Cambridge classicist. He caught the Homer bug pretty early in life and over the last decade has made Greek folklore his schtick. He has written three books on the subject, his latest being Troy.

Now the story of Troy is central to Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, which tell of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans at the great city that was just below Gallipoli on the now-Turkish coast. The story is not just about the ten-year battle, but also about how the gods caused the whole mess by favouring one side or the another, but more importantly about how Zeus, the greatest god of all, put the Trojan prince Paris into an impossible position by forcing him to decide which of three goddesses was the fairest of them all. For Paris it was a hiding to nothing, because he had to choose between Aphrodite, Athena and Zeus’ own wife Hera. If Paris was smart he would’ve chosen Hera, of course, but he went to Aphrodite, because she promised him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. When Paris eventually took Helen, it caused a great consternation because she was married to the Spartan king Menelaus. And anyone who knows their Greek history (or has seen a Kirk Douglas film) knows that the Spartans were like the SAS of their day. Menelaus was also related to most of the other Greek kings, so Paris’ abduction of Helen was sure to lead to hell being rained on Troy.

Fry tells this story not as a classist, but as a humorist storyteller. Scattered throughout the book are lines such as “Are you still with me” and “Bear with me” which can pull you out of the story a bit. At times he makes references that are more gratuitously wry than witty, but his pronunciations and his constant reminders that of the confusions and contradictions in the original story are fascinating.

As Fry himself writes, there is at times no sense in what the Greeks have passed down through their oral history. For anyone who wants to construct a useful timeline for the events, he says it’s like going into a surrealist art exhibition and trying to straighten a painting, only to see all the others fall out of whack.

Yes, it’s to be expected that this Greek history, coming as it does from an oral tradition that was passed through centuries before being written down.

But for anyone who has not really explored Greek history and the gods and princes, the stories are fascinating, and if you go through the book slowly, you will see the genesis of of many of the stories that subsequently became part of modern folklore. And Stephen Fry is a good guide.

21.12.20 Cannibalising? Or just coincidence?

As a renderer of true stories in a fictional form, I have been interested in how the facts of a true story can be altered with repeated tellings. The Chinese whispers exercise we did in school proved that by the time the last student in a class of 30 was whispered a fact that had begun with the teacher whispering a simple sentence to the first student, a story can be changed entirely by transmission. The same thing applies with oral histories. Homer was given oral histories of the Trojan War which had been passed from person to person for 400 years before it reached him.

There is another issue with oral storytelling: cultural appropriation. I was in Wales some years ago when I went to the resting place of a dog called Gelert. This dog had come to the rescue of his master’s baby who was being menaced by a wolf. The dog attacked and killed the wolf. The master returned home to be greeted by a blood-soaked (and probably badly injured) Gelert. The master, Llywelyn a Welsh prince, rushed to find his son, and seeing blood-soaked sheets, drew his sword and slew Gelert. The story goes that the dog’s dying howl was greeted by the baby’s cries. The prince discovered his uninjured son and the dead wolf. Llywelyn realised the horror of his mistake. He buried Gelert with honours in the place that he called Beddgelert. It is also said that the prince never smiled again. 

More than a thousand years before this story, Pausanias wrote of a baby also attacked by an animal, but a snake wrapped himself around the cot and prevented the animal getting to the child. as in the Gelert story, the father returned home, and seeing the carnage, killed the hero snake.

These two stories had so much similarity that it is difficult not to believe that the Welsh story was influenced by the Greek one. But unlike the greek story there is some evidence: there is a Beddgelert and a monument to the dog.

Of course it could be fake, the idea of a proto-publicist who had a good knowledge of the Greek myths.

Or maybe it was a coincidence. Until someone digs up Gelert’s grave and sees if there is a dog with a sword wound, we’d never know for sure.

I’d rather we just left the poor dog alone.

19.12.20 Maybe following in Pausanias’ footsteps

I just had a wicked idea. In 1965 a photographer went on an ambitious jaunt around the Mediterranean. He took photos of all the possible places Odysseus may have visited as he tried to get home after the Trojan War. Of course Odysseus was a character that was either entirely fictional or who had most of his journeys invented by Homer. After all, the chances that he slept with a goddess, slew a giant one-eyed cannibalistic ogre or was enchanted by swirling Sirens is most otherworldly and unlikely. But The Odyssey does make for a ripping read. Finding places referred to by a blind poet was always going to be a big ask for this particular photographer nearly 3000 years down the track. That said, the photographer did a sterling job, and of course the photos of possible enchanted caves and devilish seas are marvellous.

Pausanias came about 900 years after Homer, and was much more grounded. Although he too talked about gods, prophets and oracles, the places he writes about he has actually been to. In his travels across Greece, he goes into details which are invaluable to historians. At times he gives distances and precise locations, even of places that were ruins even in his time (100 years after Christ). Of course since then Greece has been devastated by various occupations and wars, so many of the things Pausanias saw (and many of them only ruins at that time), have not survived.

Still, as I was about two-thirds of the way through his description of his travels, the thought came to me that maybe it would be an enlightening project to go back to these places and do what the photographer in 1965 had done: photograph the remains of what Pausanias had seen, putting in with the photos extracts from Pausanias’ writing.

The value of it would be that it would link the present with the past, bringing the relevance of Pausanias to life; perhaps even showing that the words of the great travel writer still have some relevance. It would also be great fun, especially when I find something that was just as Pausanias saw it 1900 years ago. There, of course, wouldn’t be that many left, but who knows?

A quick search has indicated that no-one has documented this kind of trip. Maybe an academic publisher would be interested in the project. 

This could be the start of something really cool.

17.12.20 My mum always said..

When I was five I wanted to be a doctor. 

Actually, as I remember it, it was my mum who told me I wanted to be a doctor. Whichever way it was, I took the suggestion on in a big way and from that moment medical school was my focus. I did pre-learning and by the age of 10 I could tell you the names of all the bones in the body (actually I didn’t know the little bones in the ear, but who, apart from an ear specialist does?) and started memorising the muscles, although that was much harder. My family bought me little plastic models of the human body for Xmas and I would amaze the aunties by demonstrating how to slot the 1/15th scale pancreas in under the plastic liver. My mum would tell people proudly that I was going to medical school. Each year I would get into the “A” class in Summer Hill primary school and for my mum (and me) these were expected signposts on the journey to a doctor’s surgery.

Except that when it came to the university entrance exams I didn’t get the score to get into medicine. I settled for pharmacy, and even that I found profoundly boring when I finally went on work experience in year 2 at uni. 

So after a lifetime of medical aspirations, I dropped out of uni for something that was more to my taste as a 22 year old: music. I played drums in bands and did a recording engineer’s course. The six months after I left university were bliss. I practised during the day, took my red setter Rose to the nearby Lane Cove River Park for a daily swim and played with the guys at night. I made not a cent, surviving by working at the markets as a barrow boy four days a week.

Life intervenes, as it does, and the engineering course would be the factor that would change my life. I did really well as an audio engineering student, coming first in my year, and the teacher organised for me to get a job with Sydney radio station 2KY, recording ads and doing the switching between the programs. From there one thing led to another and I started working as a producer and reporter, but that was a few years down the track.

Today the circle of my life has returned to where it started. I’ve just got a notification that I have been conferred as a Doctor of Philosophy, meaning I can now use the title of doctor. My mum may have passed away in 2011, but I know she’s up there telling all the other Greek mums: I told you my son was going to be a doctor!

12.12.20 The wisdom of Tim Winton

I interviewed the great Australian novelist Tim Winton a few times and always found him to be a man who has managed his ego well.

I mean, he must have one, but I could find it in the ponytailed surfie dude who turned up at my ABC studio.

At one point, off microphone I told him of my issues finding a publisher for my novel. He must’ve had hundreds of people say the same thing to him, but he was interested and gave me bits of advice that were useful over the next few years.

One thing I remember was when we were talking about prizes. He’s won quite a few, including the Miles Franklin award, which was given in the name of one of Australia’s greatest authors. I think I’d asked him something inane like “What do you have to do to win a Miles Franklin?” His answer was probably the most honest answer I had ever received. he just said:

“Oh, you know how the game works..”

Over my publishing journey I came to understand exactly what he meant. He meant that it was not necessarily just the writing that wins the prize. It’s a cocktail: good writing, a good name, a following, a good publisher who pushes the book, the timing for the publication, an eye on the competition, a sense of what the panel the is looking for, even the subject matter of the novel. These things all add up to one thing: the knack. For winning a competition requires a strategy. Some years Tim Winton would have less chance of prize success if it happened to be a year when the zeitgeist was more for women’s issues or ethnic stories.

My novel never got shortlisted for anything. It was a good novel but it didn’t have a push, let alone a strategy. It was just thrown in the mix and even at the time I understood that this was not enough.

Competitions have changed a little now. I have just entered the play Lady of Arrows into three national competitions. The playing field has been levelled somewhat from the uphill of the novel prize. The scripts need to sent in with no name on them, so the judges do not know if it is me or David Williamson. Of course they’ll know it’s not David Williamson’s style, but they can’t be influenced by pre-conceived notions of who the playwright is. The play has to do the talking. It’s less of a game, and I feel better playing it this way.

4.12.20 The face of trauma

Many years ago I did a Churchill Fellowship study on journalists and trauma. It looked at how reporters around the world were being trained to deal with traumatised people, and at how journalists are trained to deal with their own trauma. In those days (the early 2000s) there was still something of a cowboy attitude to trauma. The pub and a beer was seen as a legitimate method for reporters to debrief after witnessing horror. While talking things over with comrades has a lot of merit, it is unlikely to be the entire solution to something that could well be Post Traumatic Stress. I saw journalists who had returned from war coverage who were not quite the same as before they left. One journalist, a lovely bloke, seemed not to have been much changed, but with one difference: he kept talking about the war. Many of his stories would end up having some reference to Bosnia in it. It was almost obsessive. Another journo would tell us again and again about how he had to work thirty days straight covering the first Iraq War from Baghdad in a relentless torrent of TV yarns about terrible civilian deaths from the come-from-anywhere bombardments. It’s no surprise these horrifying jobs stayed with these reporters, but my later involvement with psychologists in my Churchill study made me realise that these were signs that these journalists may have brought home the psychological effects of the wars.

These examples showed me that you don’t always see the effects of the war on the faces of those affected. My dad was injured when a Japanese bomb exploded near him in one of the WWII bombings of Darwin. His back was badly damaged in that attack, but it was  the psychological scars that stayed with him for life. As a consequence we, his children, grew up with his paranoias instilled in us. we came to think the stranger was to be feared. Our dad had us on the lookout for danger. Trust was not to be trusted. People would let you down. Poverty could be just around the corner.

I’m happy to say that all four of us seem to have adjusted pretty well. We’re a happy troop of siblings, but the memories are there of dad’s haunted face, a face that we thought we had created by being too noisy, too expensive or just too much bother. Adulthood has taught us that we were none of these things. We were kids who did the wrong thing a few times too many, of course, just like every other kid. But that was okay. We were learning how to live. And in a way the negatives of a haunted father made us better. None of us have ever slapped our children. We all listen easily to each other. We love our partners, and would never dream of hurting them. I’m very proud of Sylvia, Terry and Michael. They’re good people and all their children are good people too.

The trauma of the father may visit on the son, but the son has choice. With love and good partners, the cycle of fear can be broken, even if at the time you think there is no way out.

I’ve been looking at the photos of Olga after she returned from the war. I see no haunting. In every shot she smiles easily. Even in the photo of her on Greek liberation day, after she had been jailed for six months by the Nazis, her eyes are bright. Perhaps resilience is on the genes.

1.12.20 The next one?

I feel a bit like a car maker.

Barely is one one new model brought to market than the design of the next one is finished, and the the design after that is well under way. One designer at Australia’s Holden is known to have said when a new model was released: “Oh, hasn’t that one come out already?”

How does that relate to me as a playwright? Well, I’m working for Lady of Arrows to be staged once the COVID madness is over. I’ll resume negotiations with theatre companies both in Australia and overseas as soon as I can. Meantime I’ve written a sequel (I have written here that Jac and I have read together and found it worked pretty well). This sequel, Athena Cries, is nowhere near ready for production, but it is there and could be useful for negotiations for staging Lady of Arrows.

Now I want to think about the next one. This is the dilemma: if I stick with the Olga story, where do I go? The second play filled in the gap between the war and Olga’s return to Australia in 1952. Both the plays dealt with the dramas of war (and cold war) and that should have a broad interest, both here and overseas (particularly in Greece). The rest of Olga’s life doesn’t have quite the same drama. After 1952 she reunited with her family and became the mother and grandmother her family had missed. It could make for a compelling social/psychological story. There would certainly be more facts available for me. My sister Sylvia was seven when Olga returned. My brother Terry was five. They would have some memories of Olga of the following eight years before her death (albeit the memories as children). Although, as this photo shows, Sylvia (r) did grow into a young woman with Olga in her life. Olga is on the left with my mum in the middle:

Doing this kind of story would change the nature of my writing. The first two plays relied a lot on invention because I didn’t have more than some basic facts. In this case I would be writing about a life well observed by people still living. Although, of course, there’s nothing to say I can’t delve into Olga’s private thoughts in this play as I have done in the first two.

This Christmas I might spend some time with my siblings and see what information they can give me. Sylvia has already  told me her memories of Olga are faint. I’ll just have to use my skills as a journalist to draw specifics from her. Then I’ll decide whether there is a story worth telling here. I think there is. The reconciliation had a profound effect on the family.

Discussing this could be a wonderful experience for an audience to witness.

28.11.20 The birth, life and probable death of Iphigenia

Iphigenia is a story that knits tightly into Greek mythology. Except that she probably existed as a human being.

She was a young woman whose fate allowed for the invasion of Troy; the death of the Mycenean king Agamemnon; and the murder of his wife by her own son. Yet the story of Iphigenia is a mystery. 

The story as told by Homer is that after the Trojan prince Paris made off with Helen – the wife of the Spartan King Menelaus – a band of Greek kings, including Ithaca’s Odysseus and Agamemnon assembled a fleet of ships intending to go across the Aegean and attack Troy, which was just south of what is now the strait below Gallipoli. 

But Agamemnon upset the goddess of the hunt, Artemis by killing a sacred deer. Artemis arranged, in her godly way, to make sure the winds would not blow the ships across the sea. So angry was she that she would only grant favourable winds if Agamemnon would sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon adored his daughter, which was probably why Artemis chose her to be the sacrifice, rather than, say the boy that cleaned his shoes.

After much agony, Agamemnon agreed, and the original tale suggested he sacrificed his daughter after luring her with the promise that she would be married to Achilles.

This sacrifice was not taken well by his wife (and Iphigenia’s mother) Clytemnestra, who killed Agamemnon when he returned victorious from the Trojan war ten years later. Clytemnestra is killed some years later by her own son Orestes. Some versions of the story say that her daughter Electra had a hand in it too.

Obviously to be in a Greek royal family was no guarantee of marital bliss and a long life even from your own parents, or your own children.

This bizarre story has been extended through the  the next 1000 years into the CE era. In 140CE Pausanias wrote his Greek travelogue, which included quite a bit of Greek history. He extended the Iphigenia story backwards, suggesting that she actually wasn’t the daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, but was the mythical daughter of the Greek king Theseus and Helen. Helen, who was the cause of the Trojan war and was supposedly the daughter of the great god Zeus. She then married Menelaus, and had ten years or more of married bliss and had his child Hermione before Paris swept her away. By this time her child Iphigenia was an adult and was made into a sacrifice. Then there was a ten year Trojan war. Then she returned, in her fifties to be again with Menelaus who apparently forgave and forgot. Even this is doubted. Pick an ancient Greek playwright and you have different versions of these stories. Even the historian Herodotus got involved with his own version of the story, but there’s nothing to suggest he knew any more about it than playwrights like Euripides. Several versions said that Iphigenia was not killed as a sacrifice but was spirited away (a concession perhaps to those who found the original story just too unpalatable). But this version came through much later, so it’s more likely Iphigenia was killed. 

Whatever the real events, the Iphigenia story tells us that these characters, like The Crown TV series I discussed a couple of weeks ago, were no more than fodder for writers’ imaginations. The timelines might not make sense, the events unlikely, and when the writers want to inject a little mysticism into the story they make a god into a husband or father. The story might not stand up to 21st century journalistic scrutiny, but they are ripping reads, sometimes salacious, but always entertaining.

Just don’t call them history.

27.11.20 The amendments are in

The PhD process is not straightforward. Especially in a practice-based PhD like mine.

A practice-based PhD differs form a traditional PhD in that it allows the student to produce a creative work as part of the process. You must  also do a thesis, called an exegesis, which accompanies the creative work. For example, a former academic comrade of mine did a practice-based PhD that involved him doing a series of interviews in Turkey about an element of Turkish society. His creative component was a series of podcasts he made from the those interviews. The exegesis examined the outcomes of the interviews and the major question they posed. Like in a traditional PhD he needed to do a Literature Review in the exegesis which examined the existing knowledge on the subject, and the substantive part of the exegesis then explained what he discovered in his interviews. Because the practice-based PhD has this creative component (his podcasts, or in my case, the play), the exegesis is allowed to be much shorter than a traditional thesis.

Which is just as well. There’s a lot of work that goes into making a series of podcasts. Or indeed a play.

It also makes for a double foible: you need to do a good exegesis and a good creative component. And a play is about as removed from an academic exegesis as it is possible to be. A play works to an audience seeking entertainment and accessible storytelling. A single academic word could sink it. An exegesis needs to be entirely academic; you can still tell the story as a ripping read, but it is an academic document.

Yesterday I finished the amended exegesis and lodged the amendment report which outlined my reactions and changes I made to the examiners’ comments. As I said  on the day I got the examiners’ comments, they all really liked the play, but the approval of the exegesis was only by majority (2 to 1).

It’s never nice to get criticism, but it can be a great thing. In going back through the exegesis I can see what the third examiner didn’t like it. In fact by the end, I thought the two positive examiners (one had even nominated it for an award) were perhaps a little too kind.

But again I tend to think that way about my own work. I get scared that my work is just not good enough. My recent experience with other post-grad students tells me I’m not the only one feeling this way. It’s part of the territory. If we didn’t challenge ourselves and seek for perfection, then we would be mediocre.

And the thought of mediocrity scares me even more.

26.11.20 When truth is more interesting than invention

There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in Australia and the UK. The new series of The Crown is being broadcast. This series looks at one of the more delicate times in recent royal history: the relationship between Charles and Diana. In one episode Charles and Diana come to Australia. This was an important trip because it was the trip where the young royals gained a great deal of approval from Aussies: they were young, in love (apparently) and charming.

The Crown is a largely beautifully written piece of historical fiction. It also makes a lot of stuff up. Some of this invention might be considered necessary, such as a letter that Lord Mountbatten writes to Prince Charles on the day Mountbatten is murdered. This was a brilliant bit of invention because Mountbatten urges Charles not to maintain his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles, but instead seek a young woman who has no history and would be a great queen. Coming as it did on the day of the assassination, it is poignant and it provides us with a plausible understanding of why Charles went against his heart.

However invention can have its limits, as the following kerfuffle shows. In 1983, just before the royal trip to Australia, the soon-to-be Australian PM Bob Hawke was interviewed on national television and was asked about the royals. His answers were charming, pragmatic and insightful. It was great TV. But apparently it was not great enough for the writers of The Crown. They embellished Hawke’s words to include a analogy which made the queen somewhat porcine: saying “You wouldn’t put a pig in charge of prime cattle”.

Courtesy the Guardian 26th November 2020

Hawke didn’t say this and did not even intimate it. This writing destroyed any of Hawke’s subtlety, and at least one commentator has argued that the original, true version was much better than the invented one.

I invented in my plays because I had no option. Here The Crown has invented gratuitously. The value of it? Some publicity and a misunderstanding of Australia. That can’t be good. 

22.11.20 Kennedy and fact

Today is the 57th anniversary of the death of JFK.

I grew up in the era after the assassination, in a period where there was a cry that the killer, Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in carrying out the assassination.

Over the years not only has the conspiracy theory become entrenched, it has involved so many groups: Russia, Cuba’s Castro, the Mafia, the CIA, the Republicans. Even Kennedy’s own Vice-President Johnson.

I remember Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek’s Mr Spock) voicing a documentary special in the 1970’s. This documentary purported to prove that Oswald’s shots were not the only ones fired that day. This doco said that the noises contained in a two-way radio carried by one of the police motorbikes in the escort proved that there were several shooters. It even went as far as to assert that there were shooters in the now-infamous grassy knoll (which was in front of the president’s car).

I remember in 1988 a photo of the face of dead president was released, which showed his face was intact. The conspiracy theorists said this was proof the fatal shot could not have come from behind (where Oswald was positioned). This stayed in my mind until 7 years ago, when I did a special on the 50th anniversary of the assassination. On my  international show on the ABC’s Radio Australia I had several journalists who had investigated the murder.

Their conclusion? There was no evidence to suggest anyone but Lee Oswald was involved. I put to one of them the photo of Kennedy’s face. His response was that he would never assume that bullets and ballistics is an exact science. In other words: there are too many variables. The bullet was coming from above and behind; Kennedy’s head was not straight; the bullet appeared to hit in a glancing blow. And although part of Kennedy’s brain went backwards, this was entirely possible in the circumstances, especially as the Zapruder film of the moment the fatal shot hit JFK’s head showed blood going in all directions.

So as a child I was convinced by Mr Spock and the almost-mysticism of the grassy knoll that there had been a conspiracy. The fact of the murder had been skewed by a script-writer’s supposition. It took many many years for the facts of the matter to make me realise that the conspiracy theory was really no more than that; a conspiracy theory. There may have been a conspiracy, but there just hasn’t been the proof for it to be fact.

21.11.20 The value of costumes

I have to admit I haven’t thought about costumes too much. As a playwright, it’s not really any of my business. But as a playwright who had written his play as part of a PhD, perhaps it really should be. I say this because the PhD has examined every element of the adaptation process taking the novel to the stage. Part of that is costume.

One of the academics who examined my exegesis suggested I take a deeper look at the issue of authenticity. This got me thinking about what I had meant when I referred to this word. I was initially thinking I was referring to Olga’s actions, dialogue and even movements being correct to the time and place in which she is depicted. But this then took me deeper into the other elements that must be correct, such as her clothing. Now, I have no wish to go off onto tangents in my exegesis, which has a limited word count, and tangents usually just confuse the purpose of the project, but in this case I came across an interesting comment on costuming. And yes, a tangent was in the making.

The comment came from a theatre academic, Barbieri, who said the following: “The costume worn by the actor is read in theatre scholarship as integrated into the essence of the construct that is the actor-on-stage”. This is quite a profound statement that could be taken to mean that simple clothing can be transportative for an audience. The audience could feel that they are actually observing a time and place, not just a woman dressed in an old frock. A dress as a time machine. Yes, I suppose it could be. In my amended exegesis I have written that costume can also serve as a pinpointer: Olga is remembering her life from 1960. By being dressed in 1960 clothing, the audience is always reminded of this 1960 anchor, even if the events go back fifty years. The audience could feel it is in 1960, not just watching 1960.

This has been a fascinating development which just proves that the academic examination is not just a rigorous intellectual process, but one that is, at times, amorphous and adventurous. I wonder where it will take me tomorrow.

19.11.20 Fact vs Fiction in the ancient days

As I write, we are in the last thrashing throes of the fake news era. Donald Trump is continuing to lose the US election and is claiming baselessly that election fraud is stealing the election from him. For many of us this kind of brazen myth-making is amazing.

But it.’s not new Yesterday I wrote about the Greek historian Pausanias who, in a kunta-kinte/old testament style, tells us about the births, deaths, marriages and deeds of the ancient Greeks, Macedonians, Egyptians and Persians.

Pausanias cites the story of Lysimachus who waged war against the Epireans and cites Hieronymus who claims Lysimachus meddled with the tombs of their kings, scattering their bones. Pausanias says he himself was surprised by this claim by Hieronymus, because it would be totally against Lysimachus’ character to do such a thing.

Like a good historian, Pausanias looks into the reasons why Hieronymus might make such an outlandish claim. One reason was that Lysimachus destroyed Cardia, a city dear to Heironymus’ heart. Thus human frailty may well have led to an adjustment of history. Perhaps personal bitterness caused a tale which, like with Trump, led to a widespread belief that was simply wrong.

Which is why academia is so strict these days. Every claim must be certified, every argument must be backed up. It’s a standard that is not always set by journalists: usually, but not always. This is shown by some US election commentators who believe Trump’s every pronouncement and tell it to the people. Disinformation in 2020 is the real danger. Disinformation based on personal interest.

Pausanias shows us that this has been happening for millenia. This is why I have been careful to label my novel and play as fictionalised histories.

Facts are facts. And fantasy doesn’t become fact because someone wishes it so.

18.11.20 In praise of Pausanias

There were two men called Pausanias. One was a Spartan general who came to a particularly bad end at the hands of his own people, despite being a highly successful general in Asia Minor. You could argue he was a victim of the enemy within, former comrades who took the opportunity to get the Spartan higher-ups to condemn Pausanias. He was unable to defend himself because he was on foreign business, keeping the conquested city of Byzantium (later to be Constantinople then Istanbul) under control. The white-anters succeeded. General Pausanias was recalled to Sparta and was blocked into a temple where he starved to death.

This was at 477 BCE. Six hundred years later his namesake, a Greek who lived under the Romans, was born. He was a very different character. Where Pausanias I was loud and somewhat rambuctious, Pausianias II was more bookish. Where they did cross over though was in their love of travel. PII was one of the first travel writers. His travels over Greece led to the publication of his book on Greece. And it was a good thing that it was it was published. It’s not scintillating writing, but the detail in the books is amazing. Like any great travel writer, he takes you right to the places he writes about. At times you feel that this is a modern writer. I find myself wanting to go to the Greek city where the statute of a silver goddess graces its entrance. Of course that statue is probably long gone, melted down to line the bank account of some Ottoman pasha.

But Pausanias has left us a record that we didn’t get from Homer. He gave us a journalism of the time and place. As a journalist myself I appreciate how he has left a resource that others will be using for many more millenia.

Finding this kind of work always makes me a little sad too. If only more people had done this. How many stories have there been in this world that have died because no-one write them down. I know my grandmother Olga’s story, but what about her Mother Hadjidaki. or Mother Hadjidaki’s mother?

Maybe their stories were boring or trite. Or maybe not.

We’ll never know.

14.11.20 Is journalism fact?

Now that Donald Trump has been rejected from office, we can now reflect on the nature of fact.

We know that Trump changed facts when facts did not suit him. One case was just before the election when he claimed he had beaten COVID. This was obviously wrong on so many counts, let alone the fact that the US had not beaten the virus (each day has seen a new record of COVID infections, and the death toll is close to a quarter of a million).

But Trump’s challenge to the media was worthwhile in one respect: we should always challenge the reportage of history. It is an old adage that history is written by the victors, and that the victor’s version of history is often skewed. I can add to this to say that the history of the loser is rarely written. Until recently, how much was written about the indigenous Australians, who were vanquished by the white man. Thankfully, there has been some correction of this , but the stories of the 19th century indigenous cultures across the country, cultures that in some cases were wiped out by the aggressive settler, have little historical record, apart perhaps from some minor sketches by locals, sketches that might not have academic rigour.

Yes, some news has been wrong, fake if you like. Some fact was written to aggrandise. Just check out biographies that are haliographies, or autobiography that is cleverly self-aggrandising (Richard Nixon’s memoirs).

The observation that some media representatives cheered when Donald Trump lost a state in the election should be enough to have you question whether reporters are always neutral. From my 35 years experience in journalism I know reporters are rarely neutral in their beliefs, but are usually are neutral in their reportage. And I can tell you as a journalist that it is often hard to be so neutral. I have interviewed politicians that I have considered unworthy of their position. Although I have never interviewed him, I considered Trump to be the worst type of person to have held democratic office. His bullying, his unaccountableness, his inciting of his electorate and his deceitfulness have no place in politics.

But to challenge the media must be an on-going activity. Because anyone, a reporter or anybody, can be skewed or wrong. The fact they carry a journalist’s card can not make them immune to scrutiny. Trump’s mistake is that he comes from an assumption that they are definitely wrong if they highlight one of his many faults. That’s not only not good enough, but dangerous and subversive.

Thankfully the US population didn’t buy it.

12.11.20 The Chinese Whispers that turn horses into unicorns

Chinese whispers are the historian’s enemy.

At school we used to play Chinese whispers in class. One student was told something in their ear so no-one else could hear it. That student then whispered that line to the next student, who whispered to the next. By the time the 30th student was whispered the line, it had changed from “I went for a walk down to the park” into “My dog likes to eat bananas”.

Mishearing, interpretation, paraphrasing all contribute to this changed message. This happened with my grandmother’s story. My mum and her two sisters all told me the same stories about their mother in the war, but their stories were never the same. No surprise really, because we were adding in the fourth Chinese Whisper variable: memory. These stories, by the time they were told to me, were more than forty years old. They had been contaminated by being re-told countless times to their friends.

Hence the historian relying on oral histories needs always to beware of the possibility that the story may no longer be true and authentic.

The Greek historian A. R. Burn gives a couple of examples of how interpretation upon interpretation can change something entirely. He writes of how a Syrian sculptor of a horse put the horse’s hair up in a bun or a quiff on the forehead. Later, another sculptor, a Greek, copied that horse, but he thought the original quiff was a meaningless knob. Later bronze sculptors interpreted that knob into a pike. Burn even wonders if that quiff-knob-spike was the origins of the fable of the unicorn.

A horse becomes a unicorn because of a Chinese Whisper misinterpretation.

Another example of mistaken interpretation comes from the ancient Kimmerian Dudamis who was later callked Lygdamis simply because Greeks had confused two letters: Λ (L in English) for the original Δ (delta). One small line at the bottom of a character completely changed the name for all time.

By mishearing, misinterpreting, misremembering, paraphrasing, contaminating or by just being sloppy, facts can change. Historians beware.

10.11.12 Hesiod, Jesus and Plato

Last night I started a Plato course that explores how the ancient Greeks influenced Christianity. The facilitator drew a timeline that showed how two thousand years ago, the philosophies, cultures and theologies of the Greeks, the Jews and the Romans all entwined. In essence he was saying that the roots of Christianity was laid down decades, perhaps centuries, before Paul of Tarsis decided to go for a walk to Damascus.

With all that in my head, this morning I opened a translation of Hesiod (an ancient Greek poet believed to be a contemporary of Homer some 800 BCE) and found this page:

Hesiod, translated by Elton, 1897, p. 56.

It looks quite a bit like the Jesus philosophy of loving your neighbour. In the same poem we have:

Hesiod, translated by Elton, 1897, p. 55.

Which has a bit of the Ten Commandments about it.

So stepping back from it for a moment, we have in these few pages a confluence of the ancient Greek religion (considered by some to be pagan) with the Christian and Jewish beliefs.

Hesiod probably didn’t have any idea that his words, written as poetry, might filter through the millenia to be part of a prescription for religions that would dominate the CE world.

Who says the sword is mightier than the pen?

5.11.20 The purpose of the PhD

I’m amending my PhD as I write, and it is difficult.

The hardest part if working out what to change.

You see, I had three examiners.

I was pleased that all three were very complimentary of the creative component (the play Lady of Arrows). However, when it came to the exegesis, the examiners fell into two quite markedly different camps, and this posed a dilemma for me at the outset. On one side was a reviewer who was critical of my thesis in general and my literature review in particular. In the other camp were the two other examiners who were complimentary of both, with one of them even suggesting it should be considered for an award.

My examiners having such opposing views led to a dilemma: if I followed the view of the negative side, would I be changing the exegesis away from what the other side had liked.

This is where attitude comes in. I’m nearly at the end of the PhD process. The Phd has nominally passed. If I accept the critical view as well as the positive ones, the exegesis itself can only benefit. Looking through all three reports, they each made some solid arguments. The negative one was, I think, unduly harsh at places, and was contradicted in some places directly by the others. What I’ve decided to do is to take each point she makes, evaluate it and see if a small change can elevate the exegesis even more.

I, like most people, don’t like dwelling on negativity, but I am lucky that I have so much positivity from the other two examiners.

I best jump right in then..

1.11.20 A read in the park

Writing is a solitary task. The words are yours, and yours alone. Once it goes to a director it becomes something else. In my PhD exegesis I discuss how a production’s creative team, including actors, director, light and sound designers and set builder will take your words and turn them into a collaborative effort that might take those words into a new realm. And that new realm might be quite different to what you, as the playwright, originally intended.

The collaboration begins with the first reading, and that’s what we did today. Jac and I took our MacBook and iPad and headed for St Kilda’s Blessington St Gardens. It has a beautiful rose garden with a rotunda in the middle. The roses are in bloom, and because the COVID restrictions are finally being lifted, people are flocking in groups to have picnics among the flowers.

No-one was in the rotunda, so we set up there and read the play. Rotundas must have their design origins from the Victorian-era bandstands because the acoustics are powerful. If you stand in just right place, your voice becomes a stage-like boom. As Jac, who read the part of my grandmother, read the script it had that sound of an empty theatre stage. My voice too returned in echo, sounded the drama of the words of all the other characters.

One of the things that had worried me about the play was the balance of humour and tragedy. The play was set in a terrible, tragic time. But there is humour to be found in life, and humour in a play, if it is delicately posed, can make the awful more palatable. I also wanted people to care about the characters. I wanted them to like Olga, to sympathise with her. At one point in the reading we stopped for a break and Jac and I discussed this. She thought the humour was good and balanced. At times in the read I heard her chuckle, and thankfully it didn’t come at the wrong time, when tension would be punctured. That was a good sign.

Another good sign was that Jac and I became engrossed in the script. Our voices got louder and we paid no attention to the nearby picnickers.

At the end of the read Jac said it was good. Really good. She said she couldn’t believe it was only a second draft. She said she thought it was ready to go to a workshop.

And that’s what I needed to know.

31.10.20 Time for a read

I finished the second draft of the sequel Athena Cries the other day. This play fills in the gap between the time Olga left Greece in 1943 to be smuggled out to France, and 1952, when she returned to Australia.

That nine-year period is a mystery. I know she worked for U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy in that time. From her documents I know what she did on several of the days. I know where she lived. But that’s about it.

I wanted to tell this part of the story because it was important in Greek history. It was the period of the Greek civil war. I was enticed by it because Olga and the other resistance fighters had risked everything to overcome the Nazis, only to have the communists and the royalists grapple for power in post-war Greece. It was emblematic of the greater world, because for some reason both Britain and the U.S. saw Greece as the final frontier against communism. They fought the Reds with gusto in Greece, churning up what was already a vicious and volatile situation. As I have already written in this diary, both the left and the right were guilty of murderous behaviour that in some cases went further than the Nazis dared to do.

So I set the sequel in the middle of this period, 1947, and have taken Olga on a story of intrigue within the American embassy, with a recount of what happened to her after she was smuggled out of Greece in 1943.

Tomorrow Jac and I will read the play out aloud, the first time the play will be seen by anyone else. Jac’s got a great eye and ear and her forty-odd years in theatre will be useful in telling me whether there is something in this story worth telling.

24.10.20 A way of telling history

A couple of days ago Jac and I were part of a cast for an online reading of Tessa Borg’s new play Jump!

In a lot of ways Tess’s work and mine share some themes. Like my plays, Jump! deals with some real characters. For Tess the protagonist is Egon Kisch, a Jewish man with leftist ideals who was persecuted by the rising Nazis in the 1930s (he was at one time sent to Spandau Prison). Tess frames his story in a controversial period when the Australian government banned him from entering Australia. Tess beautifully contrasts the fact that he was warning against the Nazis, with the Australian government’s fear of communism. It was this Red scare that made Kisch undesirable. Certainly, Kisch wanted to spread the Red message; he never denied that. And it was for this reason that the Australian government would not allow him in. Never mind that he had a strong message about the dangers of Hitler’s fascism. Never mind that he had been treated badly. Never mind that he had a valuable story to tell. Never mind that he was a respected man in Europe. All that mattered to Robert Menzies, the Attorney-General of the time, was that Kisch was of the left. Eventually Kisch did succeed in making landfall after a court win. His message to Australia: The Nazis were preparing.

Instead of fearing this single man in a bad suit, the Australian government would have been better to hear what this man in that bad suit had to say.

Tess brings in a lot of other issues in this play, including the white attitudes to black people; the paternalistic view of the Australia middle-upper classes; how Australia unfairly treated would-be migrants with the now-infamous Dictation Test; how sections of Australia rankled against being told they could be corrupted by the presence of someone with an original view.

That’s a lot to take in for a single play. But congratulations to Tess for doing this with a cadence and ethereal style that subsumes the observer into the time and place.

It also highlights the importance of telling these kinds of stories, and being willing to invent characters and events to helping in the storytelling. It’s what Herodotus did. It’s what Shakespeare did. It’s the basis of my PhD study, and I think it’s valid.

Onya Tess.

22.10.20 The PhD outcome

This morning I received an email from my Graduate Research School at La Trobe University:

Yes, after nearly four years of work, my PhD has passed. All that work discussing and comparing my storytelling methods with those of Homer and Herodotus; all those years writing and tightening Lady of Arrows (which got lovely compliments from the three examiners), and all those years of brilliant, intense and passionate discussion with my principal supervisor Professor Chris Mackie have came to fruition.

The exegesis (which is the academic paper that accompanied the play script) received mixed views from the examiners: one didn’t seem to like it much, which contrasted with the second examiner who though it was worthy of a prize. The third examiner liked it but suggested a few improvements.

What this means is that I have until the end of the year to take the suggested amendments into account and tighten up the exegesis. I have passed, but Chris Mackie tells me the pass is on the assumption that I will make these amendments. Which, of course, I will.

The three examiners spent a lot of time on my PhD. Chris believes that the examiner who was critical just didn’t get what we were doing. Chris said my work was experimental and experimental work is always a risk. It reminds me of the heartrending time when I was touting my novel around publishers. The reactions were equally as diverse as the one my exegesis received. I remember one publisher was awful, insulting and belittling. Most were benign. Several though were very complimentary. They held onto the novel for some time, but in the end could not convince their employers to take a risk on a newcomer. I think the process broke the heart of my agent, who had such high hopes for the novel. But the touting process taught me plenty, including that the unfortunate process of trying to get published is not in your control. You are dealing with others, and you needs a confluence of people all to be on your side for your untried work to get a yes. The fact that publishing is a business makes the likelihood of acceptance even harder. Some publishers will be willing to risk taking a financial hit with a novel they really like, but as readers become less willing to try new authors, the number of successful novels gets smaller. I have already written how the process led me to self-publish initially, before the novel was taken up by a publisher, leading to it selling out its first edition in Europe. After much heartache, I had some confirmation that my novel was good (meaning that it touched people).

Perhaps this is why amending my exegesis is not a heartbreak. La Trobe University has passed my PhD. I am grateful to the Graduate Research School, which has been so joyously supportive, even feeling more emotion than me about its success. The emails of congratulation from them have been plentiful. Really lovely people.

19.10.20 Women warriors

Women had a limited role in Athenian society. They were not invited to be part of the politics. They weren’t even able to be serious participants in political debate. It is true that women could.. occasionally.. be present at symposia such as those held by Socrates, but mostly women were what Plato called ‘flute players’ who entertained musically and then otherwise. Plato does say that some women from a certain social strata were allowed to enter into the discussion about life and philosophy, but you get the impression that this happened only once in a very blue moon.

However outside of Athens things were a little different. The Amazons was a race that was not only led by women, but apparently consisted almost completely of women. These women were warriors with lithe and agile physical abilities. They were supposed to be larger than the average woman, although there is some dispute about this. I should note that the male historians invariably say they were defeated in battle, and a few historians tell various versions of how their leader was abducted and made subservient by a Greek king. Of course.

In later writings though there are instances of women having a more heroic aspect. Virgil writes about Camilla, who led an army against the invading Aeneas (a Trojan refugee seeking to found a new dynasty in Italy).

Virgil’s Camilla is indeed a valorous warrior. She led her army bravely, with a shield and weapon on the one side as she rode her horse after the vanquished. When she is killed, it is by Aruns, a man who Virgil plainly states is a coward. Aruns doesn’t engage Camilla in battle. Instead he follows her and strikes when she is most vulnerable. Her vulnerability is through the side of her body that is not covered by her shield. This side is naked, exposing her ribs and breast. It is through this exposed breast that Aruns sends his spear before running away. Aruns gets his deserts, but Camilla is mortally wounded.

She stays on her horse, as her soldiers struggle to help her, but she faints and eventually the light of life passes from her eyes.

This is one of the first instances in our written history of a mortal woman being placed in the same status as an Achilles, Odysseus or Hector: brave, selfless and warrior-like. Of course Virgil still makes much of her feminity. She rides with an exposed breast. It is through injury to this breast that she dies. She doesn’t take a spear to the neck or the heel like male warriors. It had to be through this most female of organs.

Perhaps Virgil is making a statement here. Clearly he is insinuating that this woman warrior was brought down by a sneaky male who doesn’t dare to fight fair. Perhaps a metaphor for the plight of women?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. My mind is full of women in war. My stories have many women warriors who have been brought down by men who didn’t fight fair: WWII resistance leader Lela Karyiannis and her Nazi torturer; my grandmother and a Gestapo officer; 1820s Greek liberation fighter Bouboulina and an embittered man with a pistol.

History may be written by the victors, but with many of the ancient texts, it was also written by men who bring with them an attitude towards women which rarely places them in victorius battle. Virgil almost gets there. But not quite.

16.10.20 The nature of a hero

Olga Stambolis is the hero of my novel and the plays. The word ‘hero’ has enough connotations to fill a novel. The Marvel universe suggests that heroes are virtually faultless super-people whose motivations are not just for the greater good, but for the good of all. The recent Marvel and DC Comics movies have even moved away from the victors totally vanquishing the baddies. These days the bad guys end up not being directly killed by the good guys, but by their own delusional actions. It seems that the good guys are really really good and incapable of doing anything that people might think of as nasty. It might have started with Adam West’s Batman in the 1960s trying hard not to let one particular baddie drop to her death. In the 1980s Michael Keaton’s Batman tried to stop Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier (soon-to-be The Joker) slip into a vat of colourful chemicals. Jack Napier was a nasty piece of work, but it seems that as the millenium approached, it was just not the done thing to kill. Even Roger Moore’s James Bond didn’t like killing, with the actor refusing at one point to kill a pretty malicious adversary. It comes to something when a MI6 spy with a licence to kill baulks at doing what he comes to work to do.

The heroes of the 2000s then are good, strong, brave, supersmart, great looking and with a soft heart. In summary: the perfect person. The kind you’d bring home to meet mother.

These are not the heroes of Homer’s day. They are not even the heroes of as soon ago as 1962, when Sean Connery’s James Bond fired four bullets into a prone man lying at his feet.

Homer’s great heroes was Odysseus (also known as Ulysses). This was the man who in The Iliad came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, the wooden present that caused the downfall of Troy after a ten years’ war with the Greeks. Odysseus goes onto be the hero of The Iliad’s sequel The Odyssey, which charts Odysseus’ ten year journey to get himself home to Ithaca, where his wife Penelope had been waiting patiently for him (remember Odysseus has been away from home for the ten years of the war and then the ten years of his return travels). Eventually Odysseus makes it home just as Penelope is being monstered by suitors who want to marry her and thus claim Odysseus’ crown as the King of Ithaca.

Being the hero that he was, he slew all the suitors and regained his wife.

But his story is not all Christopher Reeve and Chris Hemsworth. Odysseus was no angel and certainly no perfect man. When Troy was beaten, he led the sacking of the city. Princesses were raped. Citizens were murdered simply because they were Trojan.

But Odysseus’ most unheroic deed happened in the tower of Troy here, according to Virgil, he threw Hector’s infant son Astyanax off the tower to his death.

These were brutal times and warriors lived in fear of revenge. The Greeks, like many of the time had a policy of not letting the children of vanquished royalty to survive. Even so, for Odysseus to be the one who threw his enemy’s child from a tower is hardly elegant. Even Homer, who told the original story, had Pyrrhus committing the act. Perhaps Homer could not quite bring his hero to do such a thing.

Heroes do not have to be perfect, Indeed they are more interesting if they are not. Robert Downey Jnr’s Iron Man is a tortured egomaniacal soul and that makes him all the more enticing. Likewise my grandmother was in no way perfect. She had left her children in Sydney before the war, and didn’t see them again for sixteen years. Her three daughters and her deaf son went though their teens and young adulthoods without her. When I was writing the novel and the plays I had to explain her actions. If a reader or an audience member didn’t like her, then there could be no connection, no sympathy. And I wanted this connectionb because Olga deserved it. She did save a lot of people, risking herself every day.

Humans can do amazing things, but it doesn’t mean they are perfect. The same goes for heroes. Just perhaps not superheroes.

15.10.20 The virtue of imitation

One may question whether imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. If the imitation is theft, such as in plagiarism, then there may be some flattery in there, but the overarching motivation is laziness.

However if the imitation has a lot of original thought in it, then I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong in it, provided due acknowledgement is given to the imitated work.

If we look through history we can see imitation in spades. Homer’s two masterworks: The Iliad and The Odyssey have formed the bases for many subsequent works. I presented a paper to the PopCaanz popular culture academic conference last year outlining many of the attempts over the last three thousand years to adapt, enhance and sequalise Homer’s stories.

Shakespeare did it in Troilus & Cressida. Kazantzakis did it in his The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. In the 1700s Francis Fenelon did it with his imagined adventures of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

Nothing wrong in those works. Nothing wrong either with the Romans who told stories of the ancient Greek world. Virgil was probably the most ambitious storyteller of the time, and has been compared to Homer himself.

Virgil’s Aeneid, written just a few decades before the birth of Christ is considered a masterpiece of epic storytelling. It retells some of Homer’s The Iliad, but then takes the story much further. While Homer’s Odysseus is battling the Cyclops and the Sirens while trying to get home to his wife Penelope in Ithaca, Virgil tells of Aeneid, who is a Trojan survivor. He gets a band of Trojans together and, very Odysseus-like, goes in search of a new home. The difference here is of course that while Odysseus has his existing home to go to, Aeneid has nothing. He and his people have to start from scratch. It is at once an exodus story, a refugee story and a survival story.

Aeneid visits various places around the Mediterranean, including north Africa, Sicily and Thessaly (building and losing some cities on the way) before finally getting to Italy. It is a Homeric odyssey, but the end of Aeneid’s odyssey is the start of something grand. For Aeneid becomes the founder of what eventually will become Rome.

In writing this story Virgil is telling a fable about his own people, connecting it to the oldest of the Greek epics, painting a through line of descent from the Trojans to the Caesars.

Yes, Virgil has taken much of Homer: his story, his characters, his gods, even some of his poetic meter style, and given us and, more importantly for the time, his own people a legend. In doing so he has dragged two old fables forward a thousand years. If he had not started with Homer then the work would still be great, but the fact that he was heavily influenced by Homer continues the great conversation and brings Homer’s stories just a bit closer to our own.

13.10.20 On having something to say

In my philosophy course we have been studying Plato and the theory of Platonic Love. There’s been plenty about how young, pretty men have fallen in love with other men (often, strangely, physically ugly much older men like Socrates), but there have also been many discussions on the nature of love and desire.

Today we have our last class and we are looking at the last passages of Plato’s Phaedrus in which Socrates talks about the value of the written word.

Plato paints his idol Socrates as a pretty outspoken gent, and I must admit at times I find Socrates’ arguments to be somewhat shaky. It could be the journalist in me, but there seems to be a lot of places in these Socratic dialogues where I really wanted his listeners to challenge him a little more. To my mind, there are too many times where we have his acolytes simply respond by saying “Yes, it is so” or “Probably, it is like that Socrates”.

But it is at this very last part of his dialogues where Socrates makes his arguments more watertight. He argues that writing is often for the sake of writing. He says it is not in the writing that a person’s thoughts lie; it is in the quality of the thought behind the writing. There must be truth in the writing or the writing doesn’t have soul, nor value to the world.

In my case, writing a story of one woman’s place in WWII, I have fictionalised aplenty. I have invented deeds, thoughts and motivations. I have created characters and built scenarios that didn’t happen. But I don’t think Socrates would mind. The value in the writing, I hope, comes from the universal themes of existence, themes of worth and redemption; themes of community and lack of community where people risked their lives for others while some betrayed loved ones for petty pennies.

We are a faulted animal, but we can do marvellous things. Perhaps that was what Socrates was hinting at: we are capable of greatness so long as we look outside of ourselves.

10.10.20 Is history writing depressive?

No, I don ‘t mean it’s depressing writing history. I mean is the writing of history necessarily predominantly about the bad?

In 1960, A. R. Burn wrote a history of ancient Greece arts called The Lyric Age of Greece. As you would expect he starts with the man who began the oral storytelling tradition that we now know: Homer. Burn says Homer was deeply pessimistic. Burn claims that Homer spent little time on the good sides of life (perhaps Odysseus’ spending a year being sexually mauled by a goddess-like woman is an example), but much more time on things like men wandering the earth, starving, alone, alienated and barely staving off Hades.

Well yes. But it’s in the nature of his stories. He writes about battles, about giant single-eyed cannibals, licentious women who seduce men to death, and soldiers who slay, slay more and get slain themselves. It’s hard to find a laugh in all this. But I do see what Burn means. Even the team that adapted The Iliad into a movie with Brad Pitt changed the epic tale to have Paris escape with his Helen at the end, even though this was nothing like what really happened in the original (in case you didn’t know, Homer’s Paris dies, his family is massacred, his home is burnt to the ground, his sister is taken as a slave by Agamemnon and Helen returns to Sparta with Menelaus to become his wife once again as if Paris had never been on the scene).

Yes, Homer’s stories are not rom-coms, but there is plenty of spirituality. Oracles are sought (and often proved correct), kings and princes fall in love, including, possibly Achilles with his best friend Patroclus. There is plenty of gore and matter-of-fact examples of soldiers being dashed to pieces, but there is balance. Zeus sends bad times in weather and pestilence, but this is offset by other deities who shower victories on their own favourites. Athena seemed to have a strong attachment to Odysseus at Troy and afterwards, a guardian angel type of attachment. It is this spiritual element that elevates the Homer epics above the mundane. Without it, the stories would be similar to the adventures of, say, a British soldier in north Africa in WWII who helped in a decisive battle and then gets lost in the Sahara. Interesting, but hardly scintillating.

Once, when I worked at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, we used to measure our bias by counting up the number of minutes we gave to each political side in an election campaign. If Labor got ten more more one day, then we’d make it up with more coverage of the Liberals the next day.

With Homer this kind of arithmetical approach of comparing the amount of joyous to the dark would mean nothing. No doubt Homer spent more time on the doom and gloom, but that only made the brighter side even brighter.

In my writing of WWII events, my balance is probably similar to Homer’s. The times were bad, but because of this the victories and good times were sweeter when they came.

I hope people who read or watch my stories will not be depressed. I hope they feel a life-affirming kind of joy. People will overcome. There may be losses and bad times on the way such as in Greece with the Nazis and then the terrible civil war in 1946-49, but life tells us the bad times are fleeting. Spend a little time in any of the places in Greece that saw horror and today you’ll see smiles and life.

Not forgetfulness. Just life.

6.10.20 Not having choice

That’s the thing about so many of the Greek legends. No choice. In Ovid, like Homer before him, Paris protests that he had no choice but to abduct Helen (the face that launched a thousand Greek ships). She had virtually been given to him by Aphrodite after Paris had declared Aphrodite to be the most beautiful of three goddesses. Godesses were obviously very generous. And vain.

Thus, according to these legends, there was no choice for Paris. Helen had to leave her Spartan King husband Menelaus. From there everything fell as a house of cards. A conglomerate of Greek kings and their armies besieged Troy (where Paris had taken Helen). After a ten year siege Troy was destroyed. This too, according to Ovid, was foreseen, for when Paris’ mother Hecuba was pregnant with him, an oracle said that her son would be cause of the destruction of Troy. Ovid says Hecuba’s husband Priam tried to have Paris taken to be left in a field to be eaten by wolves and the like. Obviously Priam, who believed in oracles, did not understand that it was irrelevant what he did to prevent it. The actions of Paris would destroy Troy. And they did.

Many years later Sophocles would write of Oedipus, who likewise was the victim of an oracle, which told that the baby Oedipus, when grown up, would kill his father and marry his mother. His horrified father tried to do much as Priam had done, removing the newborn Oedipus to die by, once again wolves in fields. Like with baby Paris, the good intentions of someone charged with the killing act meant it didn’t happen. Ironically, it was the actions of the father that facilitated the prophesy happening. Oedipus killed his father when they had a disagreement on a road because he didn’t know that he was his father. He married his mother because, again, he didn’t know she was his mother. The prophesies came true, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

No wonder the Greek, Macedonian and Persian generals checked oracles before going into battle. Many an animal was sacrificed with their entrails and ashes used to tell them who was going to win. There must have been shysters in among these seers, but as winners write the history, we’ll never know if false seers told the losers they were going to win.

This does bring up the philosophic notion of choice. These days we don’t check for prophecies before invading countries. In WWII Germany felt confident that they would conquer the world, and for some years they were unbeatable. There have been suggestions that Hitler was interested in the occult. It would be no surprise that he was told that there would be no end to his conquests. We know their confidence was terrifying to their opponents. But it all reversed for the Germans pretty quickly. A failed campaign in Russia, the entry of the U.S. into the war, the Spitfire, the Italian capitulation, Japanese failings, the British bulldog spirit, and finally the nuclear bomb. All these things combined to end the Third Reich and its narcissistic self-belief.

So this is the thing about oracles: If an oracle predicts success, then we need to ask: what is the point of fighting at all? In King Theseus’ day, if he was given a prediction that his Athenians would defeat the Amazons, then he might as well haver just fought with half his army. Or a quarter. He would win no matter how languidly he applies to the fight. He will win. But in the ancient writings, an oracle was a confidence booster. It made the predicted victor even more powerful, determined and certain.

I just don’t know whether that’s how human nature works.

1.10.20 No remembering the heroes

I have written how the Greek civil war that followed hard on the end WWII was a terrible time. I tell of how both the hard right Nationalists and the leftist remnants of the resistance both terrorised a Greek population that was still damaged after the cruelties of the Nazis.

One thing that is not widely told is that few heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance were honoured after the war. Some, like Lena Karyiannis, are remembered for her efforts to save stranded allied soldiers (I believe my grandmother worked in Lela’s operation). Many other heroes though were unrecognised. Not only that, if they worked alongside leftist fighters in the resistance groups EAM and ELAS, then come the end of the war, they were considered traitors. If they were women, then they faced jail (some of them were incarcerated up until the 1970s), torture and rape. And some of the torture was psychological. I just found an account given by one former resistance fighter to researcher Janet Hart. This former fighter said she was jailed in Averoff Prison in Athens, the same jail in which my grandmother spent six months during the war. The jailers would tell her that she was to be executed. She was given a date and she would prepare for the end. The other inmates would help in the preparation, combing her hair, straightening her cell. The hour of execution would come, and nothing would happen. She was not carted off. The terror of death had all been for nothing, except perhaps as a torture exercise. The woman even admitted to a kind of disappointment. She was ready to die. Then the exercise would happen again. One wonders how many times you can be prepared to die.

These post-war years were supposed to be the joyous years. They were joyous in England, Australia, America, where the people knew they had overcome a monster that had very nearly become their master. But in Greece this new monster replaced the Nazis, and many of the people who risked everything to oppose the Nazis found that their real war had not even started. Dumped forgotten in jails, they did not even have their resistance comrades to help them. And it must’ve been a terrible realisation that the enemy this time was not a foreign invader, but their own people, the people they had risked all to protect.

29.9.20 Hitchcock’s immortality

The purpose of art.

The other night we watched Foreign Correspondent, an early Alfred Hitchcock film that told of a fictional reporter who had been sent from the U.S. to cover the pre-WWII negotiations. It turns into an entirely made-up story of intrigue and kidnapping, told in that humorous, tense and speedy Hitchcockian style. Joel McCrae plays a pretty good facsimile of a real journalist, eager for a story and frustrated when no-one believes what he has seen. The story was shot just six months after Germany invaded Poland, so Hitchcock knew that he was writing into the the intensity of the times, even though in the film the war doesn’t actually break out until near the end.

For this alone Hitchcock had pasted himself into history. With this film he gives us, although unwittingly, a glimpse into what American filmmakers must have been thinking as the opposite hemisphere burned under Hitler. Certainly there is a bit of studio-enforced moralising at the end of the picture, but the value comes in the subtext provided by the storyline about traitors, assassins and cruelty. The film portrayed what the world was to see come to life in the next few years. Undoubtedly there were many in the world who did, at the time of the film, see Hitler as no terrorist, but rather a man justifiably returning to his people the dignity that the Versailles treaty had stripped from them. These same people will have ignored Kristallnacht, the eight years of brownshirt gang violence and the invasions. It would be some time before the truth of a mad regime would be revealed to all such doubters.

So then Hitchcock still tells us, eighty years on, truths that many did not believe or wish to believe at the time. And as time progresses even further and memory of the holocaust becomes more distant we will still have Hitchcock and all the artists who shared a small take on a big evil.

Hitchcock may have had hubris. He may have wanted to leave something of himself for future generations, but it is likely that in producing film after film, he had no time for these grand notions. He probably just wanted to tell stories, and in telling them he wrote himself and his co-writers into history as much as Herodotus did with his fictionalised tales of the Persian Wars some two and half thousand years before.

28.9.20 Going way way back

Today I received this book through the mail.

It’s a 1693 copy of Ovid’s writings on Homer’s Ulysses (or Odysseus as Homer called him). It’s now the oldest book I have, although it is in anything but a perfect condition.

This book though is further proof that my PhD journey has taken me to places that only a few years I didn’t know existed. My supervisor Professor Chris Mackie, through his love of the ancients, pulled me into the stories of Homer and the histories of Herodotus. And it seems that ever since, derivatives of these two writers have fallen in front of me. Francis Fenelon’s Tales of Telemachus was an extension of Homer and told the story of what Odysseus’ son Telemachus might have done on his journeys to North Africa while his father was fighting off Sirens and the like. Obviously then it was fiction upon fiction. When I found it, it was the oldest book in my collection, having been printed in 1740. Charles Lamb was another classicist and his The Letters of Elia also builds on the Ulysses legend. Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek was the most ambitious of all the followers of Homer. His The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel attempts to take Odysseus himself into the years after Homer finishes with him on Ithaca. It is a dense narrative that attempts to emulate the style of Homer. I found it much harder to read than the original, but it was a monumental effort.

But this latest book by Ovid takes us way back before Lamb, Kazantzakis or Fenelon, and was probably one of the books all these gentlemen read when formulating their own works.

As I said, my 1693 copy is in an understandably poor condition, and reading it will only make it suffer more. I put a query on Facebook, asking my friends what they thought I should do: leave the book as it is; or risk damaging it further by reading it. Almost universally they all said to read it. A couple, who had dealt with old books give some tips on how to avoid damaging it further. But they said that Ovid would want his words to be read, not to be made into an useless bookshelf ornament.

I think I knew I would read it no matter what the Facebook response. It was just lovely to know others had the same heart towards this treasure.

27.9.20 Remembering the gravitas

After I completed the first draft of Athena Cries, I started the revision.

I was surprised. The first draft had a lot of warmth and humour. I found myself smiling at places, and even reading Jackie parts that I thought would give her a smile.

Then I received a notification from an academic website about a research thesis by John Sakkas that he had conducted about the Greek civil war, the period in which the novel was set.

Although my first draft paid had some due to the horrors of that civil war, the Sakkas thesis made me remember that this was a war that was, in some ways, worse than the experience under the Nazis. Sakkas focussed on a little village in central Greece called Agia Triada. His research consisted of interviews with villagers. They told of how the Nationalists (the pro-royal right wingers) went through the village in 1947 summarily torturing and killing people it suspected of having links with the communists. Many of them, of course, had nothing to do with communism, but may have fought alongside some Reds during the resistance against the Nazis. These nationalists abducted people. Some of the suspects were summarily killed along with their sons. Daughters were raped. Then, in the same year, the Reds came seeking retribution. But this retribution was only partially against the Nationalists. It was, in that small village, against other inhabitants. Again people taken away, tortured and killed. If one side didn’t get you, the other side might have. It was a horror not of an invading army, but of their own people.

This little village was a place that had survived so much. The Ottomans, who ruled Greece for hundreds of years, had left it alone. Even the Germans did not leave a big mark on it. It was a semi-autonomous area that just got on with farming and raising livestock in a fertile mountainous area. Its people had became over the centuries what all people hope to be: happy. Sakkas tells of a café owner who was a jolly man; of a beekeeper who supplied the wax for the local church; of farmers who raised a young family who had lived the dream by becoming university-taught professionals.

There families were destroyed by the civil war, if not by one side, then the other.

As I read these accounts, I realised that my play, in wanting to be warm and approachable, may have gone too much away from the horrors of the time. After all, fictionalised storytelling is not just about entertainment, but also telling the audience about realities.

I will look at the play, and I might use Sakkas work as a basis of some of the kinds of stories that will set context for the audience. It will be a strong addition. The stronger the context, the stronger the motivation for Olga and her co-workers.

24.9.20 Touching greatness

Quite accidentally I touched greatness today.

I was reaching for one of John Steinbeck novels in my bookcase when I saw an old novel I must’ve read ten years ago. It was called The Myth is Murder. It was a mystery set in Greece. The author was Shane Martin. After a while I remember that Shane Martin was a pseudonym for the Australian author George Johnston, the author of My Brother Jack. Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift have been in the news quite a bit recently with the publication of a book and articles about their years on the Greek island Hydra.

They and their children Shane, Martin (hence the pseudonym) and Jason had become something of a star circle on that island. A very young Leonard Cohen had stayed with them and other artists of all kinds also came to stay. Affairs were had, the Johnston marriage strained and there was sickness and quite some mental anguish. Eventually what started as an idyllic adventure became a nightmare of dashed hopes, so much so that Charmian punctured the Greek island fantasy with a book ironically titled Peel Me a Lotus. The Johnstons returned to Australia in the early 1960s, Johnston to a literary success with his Jack trilogy, and Charmian with her own novels and her very successful newspaper columns. It ended sadly with Charmian suiciding and George dying of a pulmonary disease shortly afterwards.

But this copy of Johnston’s novel says nothing of that. When it was published in 1959 George and Charmian were hopeful and young enough to believe they and their children had a future of promise and joy. You can sense it from the dedication in my copy of the book, a dedication that is playful and carefree:

The bad times were yet to come, but this inscription lives on with the joy Johnston must’ve put into it more than sixty years ago.

23.9.20 First draft done

I just finished the first draft of the Olga Stambolis sequel, Athena Cries.

Like with all such work, this first draft will probably end up looking completely different by time I have gone through the countless rewrites. In fact, my method involves looking up extra research and seeing whether what I have done fits into the historical fact of the times. The reason I do it this way is because I write organically. I let the story come to me. I have put into the story a number of invented events that may not have been historically possible. If they are not historically possible, then they need to be revised.

Yes, I know this is fiction, but as I have written earlier in this diary, I believe historical fiction can only have value if it fits within the truth of the times. For example, in the play I write of a fictionalised meeting meeting Princess Marina and Olga in Athens. I conceived this idea when I saw that the princess had gone to Athens in 1947, at the time the play was set. The true event inspired my fiction. If I was to write that Hitler survived the bunker in 1945 and turned up in Athens and had dinner with Olga, then I argue this would not be historical fiction; this would be fantasy. At the least it would not fit into what I would be trying to do: tell a small vignette of the Greek civil war, just the same as playwrights, novelists and filmmakers have invented other small stories in the context of other conflicts.

But, as with the Princess Marina episode, my vignettes must be at least possible.

So now I will research the ambassadors of the time. I have already used one true American diplomat in the story. I know he was there, but only research will tell me whether he was the kind of man that I had developed into the story I have written. If not, I will re-invent this character too. As my climax happens in the US embassy in Athens, I also need to see whether this climax was feasible. I do know that Olga was in that embassy, but little else.

I just wish I knew more of her activities. But again, that gives me a clean slate for invention. And I love inventing.

22.9.20 The Purpose of fiction

It had been sitting on the mantle in my study for six years. I don’t even remember buying it. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won Richard Flanagan the Man Booker Prize in 2014. The copy I had was a signed commemorative edition produced just after the win. I had interviewed Flanagan, who was a hell of a nice man, but that must’ve been for one of his earlier novels, because this novel was brought out three months after I left the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Its origins may have been a mystery, but its contents were very familiar. It told the life story of a fictional character, Dorrigo Evans, a WWII POW on the Thai-Burma railway. It was a story of horrors inflicted by the Japanese, a story told with understanding and an attempt to explore why these horrors were inflicted on defenceless, ailing and dying Australian men. Like all good fiction, it attempts to understand, not just tell.

At the back of this limited edition is a copy of Flanagan’s Booker prize acceptance speech. He briefly extols the virtue of fictionalised storytelling. While it is slightly at odds with what I have just said, it has more in common:

They are (novels) one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions. As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expessions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they a mirror to life of an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels ARE life or they are nothing.

I believe he is especially right in this last line. I felt those sentiments as I wrote Someone Else’s War (the novel on which my plays are based). But I also believe Flanagan could be talking about any form of creative storytelling.

I believe that the play is as much life as a novel is life, and as much a supreme expression of story; as much a reading and showing of life. Yes, Richard, there is a mirror in there. True, fiction may not give us the answers, but it might show us where we might start our own personal search for them.

19.9.20 The climax found

The organic method I described yesterday has been leading me towards my story climax. For moist of the writing process I just didn’t know what it would be. Would it be a long-suppressed revelation, as in the first play Lady of Arrows? Would it end with something being done to Olga? Would it be an alls-well-that-ends-well finale when she just comes to terms with her situation?

As I was writing yesterday, it came to me. It is a climax that blends with the tension I wrote about yesterday: the tension between her involvement with the Greek communists, and her relationship with the American anti-communists.

We know that 1947 was a pretty rabid time for both sides. President Truman was determined to stop the expansion of communism, especially after he and Churchill had been quite liberal towards Stalin in the European carve-up after the defeat of the Nazis. The cold war was at its very genesis with the news that the USSR was developing its own nuclear weapons. So in countries such as Greece, Truman’s America was beginning to do things by stealth. Across the world leftists governments were being undermined and rightist governments were being quietly supported. This raft of quiet destabilsations would become much more powerful under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, but Greece’s civil war was at the very start, and America was dabbling in interference there, ditching the pre-war policy of neutrality probably forever.

That is the maelstrom in which I have painted Olga. The Americans are both popular and hated. The communist movement is ambitious and has strong backing from the leftist countries to the north. Most Greeks want a return to a normal life after three years of occupation and horror, but many are caught in a fight between the left and the right. Families are turning on families. Violence, arguably even ruder than during the Nazi years, is rife.

My idea for the climax puts Olga in the middle of this. She will have to make a decision, and that decision will come in the midst of an event that will be for her and the play watchers, a culmination of everything that has gone before.

I know what I’m going to do. Now I just have to put it together.

18.9.20 Organic writing

I take an organic approach to writing my plays. I do not subscribe to the method of planning out my story. I certainly do have an idea at the start of where the story begins and where it will end, but the journey develops along with my writing. What will happen to my protagonist is open to the developments that happen as I invent along the way. I do this for a few reasons.

One is because I think the story will be more cohesive if it flows from scene to scene. When one scene ends, the characters will be of a state of mind that will naturally lead to the next scene. Too many times we see in plays and film where a character has done something extraordinary, and in the next scene that character is pretty much the same as they were before they did this extraordinary thing. This often happens in the James Bond films after a Bond lover has been murdered: Bond appears affected by this for a moment only and is once again the swashbuckling spy who falls into the arms of yet another woman. For most people, even a hardened spy, seeing a lover killed would change us forever. Yet the Moore-era Bond is ready with another quip, martini and a bout at the casino. Effective characterisations must react and be changed. It’s called character development.

This organic method also allows me time. I can consider how to take the character forward as I write. Ideas come to a writer by the bucket. A character can change tack mid-conversation. Another character can do the unexpected. An accident might occur. A new type of personality or scenario might come into the story.

All these things can take the story in a new direction. Already Olga has gone to places I had not expected. As I head towards a story climax, she has already developed into a character that has revisited the monarchy and met again the Greek princess of her childhood acquaintance. She has also mixed with the Greek communist movement, while working with the other political side: the Americans. I have pushed her deeper into both sides, and organically I have created a tension in her characterisation. That tension comes in a few ways but most strongly in the question about which side she supports most strongly: the communists or the anti-communists. This is valuable, because with her being between the two sides, we are brought into the debate and the motivations of both those sides. The communists committed atrocities, assassinating innocent people who were perceived to be sympathetic to the non-communist side (an example of this was revealed in the book Eleni where Greek-American journalist Nicholas Gage told of his mother being shot by a local communist because her husband was in America). There is value in exploring why a Greek could do such a thing to another Greek. Greek communists were not just vicious self-satisfied killers. People from all walks, including now-adored writers, politicians and composers were among their ranks.

This exploration of both sides of the story is proving perhaps to be a real value in this play. This exploration is something which has developed over time. It developed because I used an organic method.

17.9.20 The Accidental Nietzsche

I intended to have a day off today. I had delivered a paper at an academic conference at the University of NSW yesterday (virtually of course in this time of COVID lockdown), so I was feeling I could take some time away from writing.

It only took a few hours though for me to feel at a loose end. I scanned through some Plato videos on YouTube which had been suggested by my philosophy teacher. After an hour of Leo McKern’s gruff Socrates, I started to nod off on the couch. The video ended, and there on the suggestion screen came a video about the German philosopher Nietzsche. It was titled something like, Ten Things Nietzsche Teaches Us.

Now, I had never really delved into Nietzsche. Maybe I had been put off by the thought that Hitler had taken on the “superman” attitude from Nietzsche (and yes I know, I had heard that Hitler misconstrued him). Yesterday however I pressed play and Nietzsche’s thoughts came on screen.

I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing like my preconceptions of what this philosopher was about. It was a collection of tropes about independence, self-respect and the encouragement of original though and action. And the “superman” idea was not at all about Aryan superiority, but about how ordinary mortals could reach for their higher selves by creating.. be it by music, writing, performance or any other form or the arts. The video went on to suggest that Nietzsche wanted people to create something every day.

Every day.

I was off the couch even before the video’s credits were finished, and resumed work on the play sequel. Amazingly, the scene flowed so well that when Jackie phoned me from her studio in the back garden (she had simultaneously been in there taking a virtual harp lesson) more than two hours had passed. I had written a draft of an entire scene which not only pulled the story along, but brought in an important element of motivation for the play: I had written Olga as a double agent working for both the Americans in Athens and the communists. The tension is the doubt about which side she was really on: the Left or the Right. In one session of writing I had found one of the most important elements of Athena Cries.

All due to a chance viewing of Nietzsche video. I don’t really believe in chance. I have been doing this writing gig for long enough to know that some things are just not serendipity. How, who and why, I don’t know. As George Harrison once wrote: The answer’s at the end.

14.9.20 Tension v entertainment v originality

I have just been writing a scene in the sequel play where Olga is in a police station in post-war Athens. She has been a witness to the killing of a communist.

As with so many other scenes, the words seem to come easily for this first draft. The police officer and Olga sit opposite each other, and I portray them as having a little game of mime. The officer says very little. He is almost ignoring her. She motions for one of his cigarettes and he passes his packet to her without looking up. She takes it and lights up, sitting back and relaxing. Not as word is said, but character is exposed a little.

We have all seen plenty of police interview scenes in movies and TV shows, and thus have seen many of the possible permutations of what happens next. As a playwright, I do not want to be cliché by just doing what the audience has seen before. I need to surprise, and by surprising the audience, engross them. It also needs to take the story further. Too many plays and screenplays have these kinds of scenes for no purpose. With a play of less than two hours duration, there just isn’t time to waste. And wasted space is a killing of the tension.

I think I’ve come to a resolution that satisfies all my criteria. By the end of the scene we have taken Olga one step further down her trip to the climax of the story.

I’ll have to see how it works when I re-read it after I’ve had some time to reflect.

13.9.20 In praise of strong women

Alfred Tennyson was a man tied to a strong woman, Queen Victoria. During her tenure he was England’s Poet Laureate, so his poems were widely read. When he produced The Princess in 1847 it caused a stir. It was a story about a princess who refused to marry the young prince to whom she had been betrothed since infancy. Instead of this royal marriage, the princess started her own female university, where women were taught to be independent of men. So serious was she about this that she decreed that any man who entered the university would be killed. Of course her fiancé, not willing to accept the rejection, broke into the university dressed as a woman. He is found out eventually, but not until the virtues of female emancipation were espoused.

To Victorian England, this brought about quite some controversy, so much so that Tennyson revised the original three years later, bemoaning that the critics did not understand what he had been trying to say.

As I say, this happened in the Victorian era, a period when the British empire (and it was an empire at that time) was ruled by a woman. She might not have been an all-powerful ruler like her Elizabethan forebear, but she still was the head of the western world. Tennyson’s writing may have been, to some extent, a nod to her position or, at the least, a contemplation on what it might have been like if men did not have all the power in the world (after all, Victoria was hostage to the decisions of her entirely male government, and it would be another century before women would be voted into government).

There are many themes about ancient Greece’s strong women throughout: Penelope, who outsmarted her suitors; the women Amazons who were the fiercest and most skilled of warriors; the Sirens who knew how to seduce and destroy.

Perhaps Tennyson was also inspired by that modern day Greek heroine Bouboulina who was one of the leaders who ended the Ottoman rule in Greece only a couple of decades before The Princess was written.

My character Olga came at a time after this, but not that long after. She was only one of many Greek women who fought the impossible war against a cashed up and well-drilled German adversary in WWII. She and her comrades niggled and interrupted the German occupation, stopping the invader’s supply lines to the Mediterranean. Women trained other andartes in the hills of Greece; they carried supplied over dangerous gorges; and people like Olga rescued soldiers and got them out of Greece.

Strong women have always been a part of the culture of Greece, and it was no wonder poets like Tennyson saw this as worthy of an epic piece of writing.

A man of the Classics, Tennyson knew his Homer.

10.9.20 When pride gets in the way

Researching my grandmother’s story was always fraught.

I relied on oral histories, which as any ancient Greek writer would tell you is a risky business. The oral histories might be tainted, or at worst, deliberately skewed by people trying to tell the history in a way that either reflects better on them, or badly on their enemies. My PhD thesis outlined the methods I used to battle these issues when collating Olga’s story.

You would think then that the easier part of the research came to Olga’s own documents. She left many official papers which also gave light to her activities. While some were unequivocal (her marriage certificate, her passport, her passes to travel), others were less definite. One example was her claim to the British government for reparation for the damage caused to her house by the Nazis while she was in jail in 1941. In the document she lists more than seventy types of items she claimed the Germans had taken or destroyed, including a car and 50,000 drachma. Some items were multiples (24 pairs of stockings).

I viewed this claim with some skepticism. It is so precise as to be dubious. There is no record that the British ever paid the requested amounts, so the British must have felt the same way.

Even in the documents that you might feel would be most reliable there were some problems. Here I refer to Olga’s age. Nobody, not even her daughters, knew when she was born. My mother thought she might have been born in 1904. This Greek travel document says otherwise:

(Stambolis collection)

On the left it says she was born in 1906.

This official document though was probably wrong. Her marriage certificate shows she was married in 1921. This would have made her an unlikely fifteen.

1921 marriage certificate Olga Hadjidaki and Michael Stambolis (Stambolis collection)

This marriage certificate also has her aged as 18, which wold mean she was born in either 1902 or 1903.

Her death certificate says she was 58 when she died in early 1960.

Olga Stambolis death certificate (Stambolis collection).

That might make Olga’s birth in either 1901 or 1902.

So even in this most minor of details I could not be sure. Because Olga was a foundling, I never found out exactly where she was born: Athens, Castellorizo or Egypt, so trying to find her birth record would be a huge effort, particularly as I could only rely on a best guess that she was born in 1902 (and it could have been up to four years later).

So this example shows when researching, even the seemingly simplest of tasks are often not what they appear, especially when a woman’s pride about her age gets in the way.

9.9.20 Princess Marina and the puppetry of playwriting

Last night I was doing some circular research. I was looking at images of Greece in the 1960s when a photo of Princess Marina came up. The princess was born in Athens in 1906, the daughter of the Greek king and his Russian wife, Olga. The whole family was exiled from Greece in 1918 when the anti-royalists came to power. Marina lived in England for the rest of her life. Her husband, the younger brother of King George, was killed in a wartime plane crash, but she carried on her duties, including trips to post-war Europe and the further members of the commonwealth. In fact I first heard of Princess Marina as a very young child when she opened Sydney’s Gladesville bridge in 1964. I remember when she died in 1967 my family was upset, and to a young child Princess Marina came to mind over the years as a sad tale of early death and the bridge.

As I read her story I realised that she was roughly my grandmother Olga’s age. In the novel and the play I write of how Olga used to play with the royal children in the pre-WWI years. Thus there was a very good chance that Olga played with an infant Marina.

The research also told me where the princess lived, which was Tatoi Palace, a short taxi ride from central Athens. I can’t be sure of course, but if Olga spent time with the royal children while her stepmother dressed the Queen, then it is likely that this fitting would have taken place at Tatoi, because the stepmother had no shop in Athens.

So in one piece of circular random research I may have not only found where Olga played as a child, but also her royal playmates. Certainly the timeline fitted, with the children being exiled when Olga was still a child.

My thoughts then ran to the possibility of incorporating Marina in the sequel. Even more so when I saw that Marina made a royal visit to Athens in 1947, the year the sequel is set. Perhaps I could have them meet, if only for a few moments. The prospect of the discussion is tantalising. It might touch on exile, something they had in common. Or it might allow for Olga reconciling with her past.

It would be making Princess Marina into something of a character puppet. Perhaps. But who is to say that it could not have happened? Two people who probably spent time together as children, and who both happen to be in the same city at the same time. It was a meeting that the confluence of events could have allowed.

That’s enough for me to start working on a scene, and imagine what conversation they might have had. As I said, tantalising.

7.9.20 Facing one hell of a reality

One of the storytelling methods I used in Lady of Arrows was a memory narrative. Olga tells her story fifteen years after the war when she has received her wartime diary through the post. It has been sent to her by the son of Stavros, her resistance comrade.

This diary forces her to remember the war and more. She must also remember the driving force behind her actions: the death of her baby.

In the play, Olga has refused to remember all this. For fifteen years she has survived, returned to Australia, reconciled with her children in Sydney. But the war and her baby, have been put away. Until the diary arrives.

Perhaps this refusal to confront the past is a good thing. When I was a teen, I worked at Sydney’s markets hiring tables and dress stands to stallholders. Many of these customers were Jewish. At the time I was amazed at how happy they were to be working at their stalls. I also remember being perplexed by how much they cared about how I was doing at university (so much so that when I decided to drop out of my pharmacy degree, I could not bear to tell them this. I lied and told them I had graduated, to their great joy).

Looking back I now realise that at least some of these people must have been in the holocaust. These people were among the survivors who found a new home and were still thrilled at being in a place where there was no real racist threat (at that time at least).

I would bet that many of these people put the Nazi horrors behind them and tried not to focus on what one small group of people inflicted on them, their families and their friends. You can never forget, but you can fill your life with other things.

My Uncle Jim was an Australian soldier who fought in the war. Yet it wasn’t until I was 32 that I learned he had been a soldier. He just didn’t talk about it. He suffered too, not of a murderous holocaust, but of the general horrors of war.

My Uncle Jim, my Jewish stallholders and the Olga of my plays all focussed on other things to help them survive what they had seen. Jim brought up his family with my Auntie Tina, my stallholders gave care to their little stalls and the studies of people they hardly knew, and Olga became a late grandmother.

No-one can dare criticise people wanting to forget the bad. Perhaps in my play, where I force Olga to remember, I do her a disservice. But then again, Olga is gone and it is just a play.

3.9.20 Richard III and me

My paper on Richard III has been accepted for a conference at the University of New South Wales later this month. I’ll be presenting about how Shakespeare, in his portrayal of the English king, concocted an image of Richard that was so greedy, nasty and murderous that to this day people believe that this is the true Richard III.

Now, I’m not saying Richard was not these things. He may have been. But Shakespeare was relying on one major source for his research (and it should be noted that Shakespeare was not an academic researcher. He read some accounts of his characters and wrote his play fables based on these). In the case of Richard III the source he used originated in the writing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton. Morton hated Richard because Richard opposed his money-making methods. It is suggested that Morton at one time (contrary to his position as the leader of his Church in England) conspired to murder Richard. To use, as the basis of your research, the account of an avowed and conspiratorial enemy of the your subject is a fraught business.

In England there is a Richard III society, which argues that Richard was not the bad man portrayed in Shakespeare. It argues he was actually a fairly good king in his two years as His Majesty. Of course, one must be wary of using this one source either. After all, the Chrysler Fan Club would hardly call the company’s cars lemons. But in the case of Richard III and his society, there at least seems to be an argument that Richard was not quite the evil guy we have been told.

So in my paper I will be using Richard’s story as an extension of my PhD: discussing how fictionalising a true story can, when things get extreme, skew a story so much that the public perception of a character or an event can be so altered as to give a widespread impression that might just be wrong.

31.8.20 A question of sex

We did a reading of the play last night, the first time it had been read since the workshop last year. It was also the first time that I had read parts of it, and this gave me a chance to live the lines the way they had existed originally in my head.

As a radio presenter I had became a voice actor. Writing my own daily radio program scripts for had improved my skill to be able to write the way I speak, and then speak the way I had intended the words to sound. So for me, last night’s reading was a combination of me listening for the intent of the words and me expressing those words. It was a fabulous exercise to be acting alongside three people who had all done a lot of work on stage and in film.

One of the actors, Tess, is a producer too. She and her partner Anton had produced a lot of childrens’ theatre (highly successful theatrical enterprise that was recently bought out by a large company). Tess has lately been involved in a local theatre company which has a focus on women’s stories. As the reading finished, Tess suggested the 2nd and 3rd actors could both be women.

At the moment I have Olga as the central character (obviously played by a woman) and two other characters: one male and one female. These two actors each play seventeen roles, roles that are both male and female. In some scenes they both play male roles (German soldiers, jail wardens, British officers) and female roles (my mother and her sister). So sex isn’t an issue as such.

Tess’s suggestion about making this an all-female cast is interesting. Perhaps it would make an underlying statement because of the fact that this is a play about strong women. There are men in it, of course, but the movers of the narrative are all women: Olga (my grandmother) through whose memory we are brought into the events; Lela, the true wartime hero who ran the rescue cell and who died after refusing to submit to torture; and Nikotsara, another true resistance fighter who was also caught and killed. Hence it is a play about strong women defining Greece’s defence against the invaders.

Given this focus on women, perhaps having all the actors women is apt. However I don’t know. I don’t see that the play would necessarily benefit by a rule that says male roles need to be played by women.

The thing about a play is that a director can make these choices. It’s not kosher to change the text without the playwright knowing, but the interpretation of that text and the design and casting is up to the production company. One day someone might make it all female. I’ll leave it until then.

27.8.20 Searching for a climax

The writing of the Olga sequel is going very smoothly. Scenes are coming easily. Dialogue is evolving, almost naturally.

It’s one thing to write an on-going story organically, but there’s the big picture here. One of the things that made both the novel and the adaptation Lady of Arrows work emotionally was the build-up to the climax. We had a question that dogged us throughout the play: why did Olga leave her children? There were hints throughout that it was to do with a deterioration in the marriage following a child’s death, but there was an ominous feeling that there was something much bigger in that story. The untold.

After peeling the onion, we came to the core in the climax: Olga’s guilt led her to consider harming her children.. and this guilt had its genesis in the way her baby had died. It was a double whammy that hit in the last few scenes. And then there was the balance of a payoff with Olga’s reconciliation with her oldest daughter Nellie.

In the sequel I don’t yet have the big secret, nor do I have the payoff. I have the action and the sequence of events for her actions, but I need to find THE event that will make this story of her life between 1943 and 1952 compelling.

I do have a few possibilities. I think it needs to tie in with the prequel in some way. Perhaps it can be a defining moment that finally encourages her to go back to Australia. Although the prequel has her returning to Australia, I do not say why, after 16 years, she makes this momentous decision. Of course, like so much of the two plays, I will need to invent here. I never knew Olga, and she never (to my knowledge) explained why she came back when she did. After all, her husband was still married to his second wife, and Nellie was still resentful of Olga’s decision to leave Sydney in 1936. Something must’ve happened. Then again, maybe she just decided it was time to see her children again.

It is a lead though. And I do need a climax and the build-up to that climax. And the pay-off.

Like people who may see the play, I am just as interested, in this stage of my writing, to see what comes next.

As I said, it’s organic.

25.8.20 Human frailty

Mark Antony had it all. He was a great tactician. He was brave. He spoke so well that he could make his enemies tear up. e was also apparently really good looking and had the ability to make the most unlikely women fall in love with him. Among his conquests were Caesar’s sister (who remained loyal to him even after he deserted her) and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. He was also ridiculously close to becoming the ruler of the Roman empire.

This man who had everything, lost everything. Some say it was Cleopatra who did it. Certainly Plutarch writes that in their battle against Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra made Antony trust their combined sea forces more than their huge land forces. Their ships were impressive, but they just didn’t have the staff to control them. It got to the point where shepherds and boys were forced to work the ships, even though they had never done anything like this before. But it was Cleopatra’s wish. Then in the heat of battle, Cleopatra took off. Antony, seeing this, did what no respectable commander would do. He chased after her, leaving his sailors to battle on and lose without him. He had deserted them.

According to Plutarch, so enamoured of Cleopatra was Antony that earlier, when they were building their forces, they went to the island of Samos and held many festivities. Then they went to Athens and again held days and days of festivities. Nothing wrong with that, except Antony’s enemy, Caesar, was in some turmoil in Rome, and if Antony had attacked Rome right then, he probably would have become emperor of Rome and leader of the world. He chose to party on instead.

As Shakespeare tells us fairly accurately, it all ended badly for Antony and Cleopatra. He tried to kill himself, but his stab to his stomach didn’t go deep enough and he died in agony. Cleopatra, possibly realising that she was cause of this misfortune, killed herself too.

All so unnecessary. It has been said that humans have huge personal resources in times of trial. Certainly Antony and Cleopatra showed this inner strength: they conquered and controlled huge amounts of the Mediterranean at times. But it was their personal frailties that brought them undone.

This is why Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is so compelling. Audiences don’t care about battles and victories. They want the human story. Sophocles knew this when he wrote about Oedipus. The ancient Greeks loved the story about the man who killed his father and married his mother. The personal makes for drama. Personal strengths and personal weaknesses.

This is a notion I had to learn early in writing about my grandmother. She may have been a spy, but an audience or readership would come to care more about her for her personal strength and weaknesses. She had quite a few of both. As I knit the story of her time in Greece in the civil war I remember this is a story of a woman, a lover, a mother, a foundling and a confused human as much as it is a story of a brave woman fighting for her country people.

24.8.20 The Casino Royale effect

It happens with every novel, every play and every screenplay.

It’s the point where you lose sight of where you are in the midst of the writing. You may be executing what you think is quite a good bit of action, when you start to question when exactly you are in the story.

I was probably overstating when I said it happens in every play. I know some writers plan out their stories to perfection. They have an outline of their plot. They know where they’re going at every turn, and their chapters and characters are ready to be written into the formwork. It’s a method that some writing schools suggest to help their students in going from point to point.

I’m not that kind of writer. I come from the school that believes that the characters are on our shoulders, almost dictating what they want us to write. It can also mean that the story flows well. It’s especially good if we are telling a linear story, and the story is progressive.

But in the case of non-linear stories, when we jump backwards and forwards through time and location, this can get messy.

If you are watching a movie that doesn’t seem to gel, you’ll see the problem I’m talking about. Take the James Bond film Casino Royale. No, not the great suspenseful flick with Daniel Craig, but the outrageous 1967 Peter Sellers/David Niven/Woody Allen version. The continuity department for that film appeared to have gone water skiing for the duration because all the storylines (and there were quite a few of them) didn’t make sense in themselves, let alone joining them together. In the end they do meet and it seems the writers and directors (and yes there were quite a few of them too) threw their hands in the air and said let’s put it all together by having a western shootout in a western bar. No sense, no respect for the audience. Sadly, several subsequent James bond films have done likewise (did anyone understand Octopussy? Thought not).

No-one, not one writer in the world wants to produce a piece of work with the Casino Royale effect. They want to take their readers, viewers, listeners on a journey. One of the best examples of entwining a lot of strands and making it work is J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Not only did she explain one of the most complicated of stories about horcruxes, evil lords, puberty, school, family, young love, murder, bureaucracy and magic, and kept her audiences along for the trip. The fact that her audiences were mostly children makes her work all the more remarkable.

I’m sure Joanne Rowling had many moments of being a little lost. I sure did today. I was writing Olga in Greece during the Greek civil war in 1947. She has just explained how she had been smuggled out of Greece in 1943, and spent a year in London, before returning to Greece  just as the Germans are kicked out. My moment of surrender came when I brought the story back to Greece in 1947. I had forgotten exactly where Olga was when she started telling the story of her exile to France and Britain. I went back to when she started telling the exile story so I could pick it up chronologically, but that was not enough. I needed to know where her head was. How was she feeling as she told the story, and also why she told the story. I resolved it by just writing on. In reviewing the earlier parts of the play I will make changes, and yes there’ll be plenty of those.

I just have to keep telling myself that I have plenty of time. I must remember the words of my PhD supervisor Professor Chris Mackie: just write.

Roger that. 

22.8.20 The mysterious photo

Among the things my grandmother left after her death was a photo of her standing in an Athens street holding a Greek flag. She is striding towards the camera with a smile on her face. Behin her is a crowd of Athenians, mostly women, celebrating. The photo was taken in October 1944 on the day the Germans left Athens after three years of occupation, murder and destruction. They were running out just as the British were entering.

The photo is a valuable artefact because it tells so much of Olga. It places her in a specific place on a specific date; it gives a sense of her condition both physical and financial (she looks healthy, if slim, and wears a coat, brooch and tidy shoes); and it shows how she lost her hair colour after her imprisonment.

Still, the photo has its mysteries. Who took the photo? It was unlikely to just be a random stranger, because she ended up with a copy of it. The back of the photo gave some clue:

This suggests that it was taken by a professional photographer: G. Rossonatos who had a studio on Stadiou St in Athens.

So was she a friend of the photographer? Or was it serendipity.. with the photographer catching her as an emblem of the happiest day in Athens for many a year?

We’ll never know. Rossonatos’ photograph studio no longer exists. The building was pulled down long ago, and I could not find Rossonatos listed as a photographer of note.

As I was working on the play this afternoon I was coming to the part where Olga, after being in self-exile for a year, returns to Greece just as the Germans are being forced out. I tried a few ways of approaching this, and waasn’t happy with any of them. Then the photo came to mind. At the risk of turning the photo into a maguffin (see yesterday’s diary entry for an explanation of ‘maguffin’), I decided to make the scene about how the photo came to be taken. I inject her fictional resistance ally Stavros into the scene. They bump into each other after so long apart. She has been watching the celebrations; he is taking photos, slipping back into the job he did before the war. They meet, remember and avoid getting too close after all they go through. They talk in an almost embarrassed way, each trying to find a point of convergence. They find it in the photo. Stavros talks her into posing and directs her movements for the shot. Through this they start to feel their old friendship.

I have spoken before of my doubts about injecting people into the story to make the story work, but in this case, it just seemed to work. Also, Stavros was not a real person, and all attempts at researching the photographer had failed. So I think it’s okay. It certainly makes for a human and emotional scene, one of the best I have written so far in this sequel to Lady of Arrows.

21.8.20 Plot devices v maguffins

It’s a great word that: maguffin.

It’s a word that came into screenplay writing pop culture through Alfred Hitchcock, and refers to a device that leads to action in the plot. For example in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only the plot revolves around a decoder called an ATAC. It ATAC itself doesn’t mean much. It plays only a small role in the actual action, but it is central to the story because both the British and the Russians want it. It is essential to story because it brings the protagonists together. No ATAC, no story.

I suppose the best and most succinct quote about the maguffin comes from Hitchcock when he says:

“The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”

I don’t believe in using maguffins in my stories. I want the reader or the audience to care about the motivation for the story. I don’t want to have elements in the story that are designed only to tell the audience what the protagonist cares about.

Hence if I have a device in my play… say an ATAC decoder.. then I would make the ATAC itself do something. Olga would use it to decode a message or else have its operation be central to the story.

In my play Lady of Arrows a plot device that was present throughout was Olga’s wartime diary. For part of the play it was a kind of maguffin. It sat on Olga’s desk as the motivation for her to remember her life in the Greek resistance. But to leave it as a desk-bound pile of papers, it would remain as… a pile of papers maguffin.

Instead of leaving it as such, I wanted the audience to wonder about it, and if they were going to wonder about it, then they needed to be satisfied at some point and told what was actually in it. When we get to that, it is in the climax of the story (set in 1960); it contains the information that Olga has forced herself to forget. We are told that information.

Now, as I write the sequel to the play, which is set in 1947after she has left the resistance (and many years before the diary’s contents are revealed in 1960), I am feeling that the diary needs to be included. We have been told what is in the diary in the first play (in 1960), I now have the opportunity to show how Olga was driven to write that passage in the first place.

Again it would be no maguffin, but a central plot device, a repository of the emotions that Olga feels at the death of her baby and the loss of her family in Sydney to another woman.

I just now have to work it into the seams of her story.

18.8.20 Plutarch, Father of Mistakes?

When writing my plays I have had to search for facts about my central character (my grandmother) where there simply are not any left.

It’s an issue that has dogged researchers and historians for thousands of years. And it’s so easy to be critical of these researchers.

Ancient writers had very little source material to use when putting together their histories. A lot of it was by word of mouth passed on through generations. In the case of Herodotus (called by Cicero “The father of history”), he had childhood recollections, some first-hand accounts and little else. Plutarch, who lived hundreds of years after Herodotus seems to have been so enraged by Herodotus’ invention that he changed Herodotus’ title to “The father of lies”. What upset Plutarch was not so much Herodotus’ errors (and there probably were quite a few given the dubious nature of some of his sources), but more Herodotus’ tendency towards invention. Herodotus did not just give facts and figures. He went inside the minds of the people he was depicting. He describes the dreams of his protagonists, he provided word-for-word conversations and he offered these characters’ personal motivations.

Now, you can understand why Plutarch was unhappy with Herodotus. Plutarch wrote about people in a manner of pre-journalism journalism with lots of who, what, when, where, why and how. He does this so assiduously that at times his biographies are heavily weighted with battles and routs, and the losers being ‘cut to pieces’. In fact in his Parallel Lives, parts of some of Plutarch’s stories sometimes seem to be copies of each other with changes moistly to just the names, places and battles. I’m not saying Plutarch does not try to give the personal stories (he does a powerful personal job on the Roman leader Cato, for example), but often it ends up being descriptive: his subjects are enraged, in tears, supplicating, avaricious. And for many of his stories that’s about the depth of it. I wonder whether, in his attempt to avoid being Herodotus, he has gone to the bland. He certainly provides lots of facts and figures (which has provided information for centuries’ worth of historians to start their researches, and even was a big source for Shakespeare). In doing so, Plutarch did the research world a big favour, like Herodotus and Homer before him.

There are some issues though for this man who was critical of Herodotus.

For a start, Plutarch refers to the power of dreams and oracles. In most of his stories where a protagonist has a dream, this dream is considered an omen. And that omen almost always seems to come true. Hardly scienfici, and not that far from the accusations he makes against Herodotus.

Second and most seriously, Plutarch makes his own share of mistakes. In reading the life of the Roman general Pompey, his English translators John and William Langhorne cite errors: twice Plutarch gets names wrong; four times he gets dates and times wrong including the order of events; he gets a location wrong at least once, and he makes mistakes about deeds, two of which were different to what Julius Caesar himself reported and were available to Plutarch.

So Plutarch was no perfection as a researcher. But he, as I say, did a lot of work and gave us a lot of history, so mistakes are to be expected.

But please Plutarch, before criticising your fellow historians like Herodotus, remember how hard history writing can be. Others may not have written history the way you would have, but no-one is immune to human errors. Even you.

15.8.20 Finding Mr Fraleigh

Writing the sequel to Lady of Arrows has led me back into researching my grandmother Olga. I have done this research journey twice so far: first for the novel, and then for the play. Now I need more information about her life in post-war Greece.

In my earlier research one name came up: William N. Fraleigh. His name was at the bottom of a document that was given to Olga in 1941. This document was from the Legation of the U.S. in Greece, and it explained the Olga was buying food for Fraleigh.

This single simple document revealed so much information for me. It told me that she worked with the Americans; it told me what she did (housekeeper) and where she did it (Kedron St, Athens) and when (May, 1941).

This date was even more interesting when I worked out that it was only ten days after the Germans entered Athens. Putting together date and the nature of the document, I worked out that the Germans were requiring citizens to have proof of what they were doing on the streets. It also showed that at that point the Americans were able to carry on their work, because the Pearl Harbor bombing was still six months away, so the Americans were still neutral.

Now there are still plenty of questions that the document doesn’t answer, such as whether Olga was doing any undercover work for Fraleigh. It was very possible because this was a time of great flux, and Olga was probably doing underground resistance work at this time because this was only shortly before she was arrested and jailed for six months.

I decided to check out this William Fraleigh to see what he did as Secretary of the Embassy, in case there were any clues. Was he an operative himself? Was he stationed in Greece for a specific purpose for intelligence gathering or recruiting?

Perhaps not. I found few references to Fraleigh. I did come across this biography which accompanied an analysis piece he wrote on the region eight years later:

It seems that in 1941 he was very young, and his training was strictly in accord with diplomatic affairs and economics. It could simply have been that he was a diplomat sent to hold the fort in a small Balkan country when there were so many other larger and (for America) dangerous theatres to be worried about. This becomes more probable when you consider that he was stationed in Athens before the war touched Greece. It was a neutral country until 1940 when Mussolini, in a rabid fit of ineptness, decided to show his ally Hitler that he was also a master soldier. He invaded Greece. Greece thrashed Mussolini’s Italian invaders and pushed them back halfway across Albania. This rout forced Hitler’s hand and led to the German attack from the north. Hitler had not planned to do this. He had been organising to invade Russia, but Mussolini’s ill-conceived show of strength forced Hitler to support his ally and put that Russian campaign off. Until winter. It has been said that Greece took a bullet for the world, because that winter Russia campaign was Hitler’s first major defeat.

For William N. Fraleigh, Mussolini’s act put him in the middle of the action, probably action neither he nor the U.S. considered he would ever have to deal with. This relatively junior diplomat was suddenly in the middle of the Axis-British fight for the Mediterranean (since the supply lines for the German fleet started coming through Greece).

Then again Fraleigh’s next posting was in Rome for a short while, and Rome was Mussolini’s centre of operations. It’s probably fair to assume that this posting was cut short by Japan’s Mussoliniesque attack on Pearl Harbor. Fraleigh then moved to safer ground in Turkey and finally London, where he saw out the war.

No, I still don’t know if Fraleigh was an intelligence operative, or just a reasonably junior diplomat caught in a whirlwind. That he crossed over with my grandmother and worked with her as she worked as a spy was fascinating though.

And it all came down to that one simple document that my grandmother kept with her for the next twenty years.

14.8.20 Olga on my shoulder

Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we need to do.

Over the last month I have been doing a lot of things: writing academic papers, putting together a conference submission and doing this diary. I have also been preparing for the reading of Lady of Arrows which is happening this weekend. Then there’s been the Plato course and my Greek lessons. All this has been fun of course. But it’s not the creative writing that I need to do.

A while ago I wrote in this diary that I had started on the sequel to Lady of Arrows which I have titled Athenas Cries. It is set in 1947, and when I left the writing some weeks ago, I had put Olga into a situation where she was in an Athens that was in turmoil yet again, with the communists fighting the royalists. The British had stationed snipers on the Acropolis to target the Reds (in an eerie presage of what the US forces did years later in the Middle East).

Yesterday I was at a loose end. The Greek lesson the night before had been particularly difficult, and the COVID lockdown and wet weather had restricted my exercise options. When I say ‘loose end’, I mean that I have this sense that I should be doing something of value. Even reading Plutarch, an educational enterprise in itself, was not enough. This loose end feeling can’t be ignored. Over the years I have realised that there is a voice in there somewhere, chastising me, urging me.

This voice has been around me since I first published a book way back in 1991. It was with me as I wrote the novel. I could have been anywhere in the world, and this loose end feeling would come upon me. It happened in New Zealand in 1997, when I supposed to be on holidays, supporting Jac when she was in the touring company of Phantom of the Opera. She had a principal role (Madame Giry), a stressful job. My holiday turned into a mixture of chauffeur, chef, shoulder and shopper. Still, the feeling came to me. I had to write. So one day when Jac had two shows, I took my little Macbook and headed to a cafe in Ponsonby Rd and started writing. That day I remember well, because I invented a story about my dad in Darwin as he prepared to marry my mum. The words flowed so easily, it was as if I was in a trance.

I have come to believe that at times like this Olga is on my shoulder, inspiring and exhorting. She even tells me if I have gone too far.

Yesterday was one of those days. I wrote a series of scenes that seemed to flow nicely and set up the story. As I went to bed the ideas kept coming, including a embryonic plan of where the first play and this sequel should entwine.

I can’t wait to see where Olga sends me today.

13.8.20 A Theatre for Dreamers

That is a great name for a novel, the smash hit novel for 2020.

The premise of the novel also offers plenty of depth for a writer. It is set in an artists’ colony that developed on the Greek island Hydra in 1960. This informal colony was based around two Australian writers, the husband and wife Charmian Clift (Peel Me a Lotus) and George Johnston (My Brother Jack) who had been living on the island for some time, trying to find some kind of nirvana. They were joined by European writers and artists, and also the then-unknown Leonard Cohen. Despite this meeting of artistic minds, all was not happy in the little group, with Charmian increasingly depressed, and reportedly reaching beyond her marriage to find solace. One account I read said that her flirting with with a young actor (who was on the island to shoot a film) so angered the young man’s director that the director warned her off by cruelly saying: “You should realise that you are no longer young and no longer beautiful”. Things were no happier for her husband George and although their three children appeared to be having a joyful time (a friend of mine once met them on an Hydra beach appearing to be relishing life), they did not grow into old age. Neither did their parents: Charmian suicided in Sydney only a few years later, and Johnston died soon after from a lung disease.

But in 1960 these artists mixed and gained succour from each other, as other artists did around the same time in Greenwich Village, Soho, Montmartre and Heidelberg in Melbourne.

Into this scenario author Polly Samson novelises Clift, Johnston and Cohen into a story involving a fictitious 18 year old girl, Erica, who comes to the island and interacts with the group. It is a fiction. The novelist has Clift and Johnston doing things they never did in aid of weaving a coming-of-age story that is also a social commentary about how the times were changing as younger people started to seek liberty from post-war austerities that were as much attitudinal as physical. Hydra presents a world where people were seeking freedom and joy after a joyless 1950s.

My question is (and this was a theme of my PhD), was this novelisation the right thing to do? Historical fiction generally places invented people into historical scenarios, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace. Others include real characters as side players, while some go invent the actions of major players (I would include here the TV series The Crown, which makes up the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip including inventing dialogue, arguments, emotions and motivations).

But in A Theatre for Dreamers it could be argued that Polly Samson has gone even further, turning Clift, Johnston and Cohen into her own literary puppets.

As I argue in my thesis, so long as the author makes it clear that this is a fiction.. a novel.. then this is probably just a matter of judgment for the reader.

If Samson was writing about my mother and father then I might find it a little weird. Then again, I wrote a novel about my grandmother, who was a spy in Greece in WWII. I also had her doing things that she probably didn’t do. My family didn’t object to me painting her as a Nazi killing saboteur who dated a German officer to get information.

However, like Samson I made it clear that my book was a novel, but that didn’t stop people at writers’ festivals asking me what was true in the novel. When an elderly man told me he was in the same street as my grandmother on the day she was released from prison, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had invented that scene. This man had believed the scene was true and put himself in it. That’s the risk of doing what I.. and Samson.. have done in our writing.

8.8.20 Something out of very little

A playwright’s inspiration can seem to come from thin air. In the playful movie , Steven Spielberg tells of one fantasy theory: that inspiration is actually the voice of long-dead people whispering into your ear. In Spielberg’s case, these are the voices of your spirit guide. Certainly there were times when I have felt my grandmother Olga whispering in my ear as I wrote the novel. To make this revelation even more Twilight Zone, I often could not remember writing these passages at all. I’d review the chapter, and not recollect having written a single line. Even the style did not feel like my own. I’ll leave that sitting there.

For the most part, inspiration just comes. I’ve never had writer’s block, as a playwright, a novelist, a journalist, or a presenter of a radio program. It always seem to come out of somewhere.

Sometimes this somewhere is something I see, watch. Or read. Today I was reading Plutarch’s life of Timoleon, a Corinthian soldier who made Sicily part of Greece. I certainly will not get into the merits or demerits of invading and conquering someone else’s island, but I will say that this invasion did bring forth a range of interesting characters, some of which were rulers of Sicilian Syracuse: Dionysius the elder, Dionysius the younger and Dion. Apart from this remarkable lack of name inventiveness, this group of Greeks were fascinating in their abilities to lose everything they had. They were either deposed or assassinated. The British author Mary Renault found them fascinating too. Renault was a novelist who prided herself on her research. She had studied the classics, and made it her life’s effort to tell the ancient Greek and Macedonian stories in a form accessible to the modern novel reader. Renault, citing Plutarch’s works, lifted the Syracuse tyrants and entwined then in her novel The Mask of Apollo which featured an actor who worked in Syracuse at the time (300+ years BC).

This actor, Niko, is the central character in Renault’s novel. I had always thought him to be a fiction, or at most a conglomerate of several people.

Today I found where Renault got her idea for him. It came in the last pages of Plutarch’s story of Timoleon, where Plutarch refers to a painter called Nicomachus:

“.. the paintings of Nicomachus and the verses of Homer, beside their other excellencies and graces, seem to have been struck off with readiness and ease”

That’s it. From 25 words, Renault took Nicomachus, the apparently quite good semi-anonymous painter, and turned him into Niko, a scenery-painting actor, making him the central focus of a major novel and giving him a voice.

As I said, inspiration can comes from anywhere, or the littlest of places. Or the oldest.

7.8.20 Alcibiades and the art of ungratefulness

Plutarch’s Lives is one of the few ancient sources that tells us about the lives of the greatest people of Greece and Rome. But in its thousands of pages, it does more than just tell the stories of these people. Plutarch juxtaposes the story of one Greek with that of one Roman, and after he has told the story of each, he gives us a short chapter which compares them.

Plutarch’s Lives is a ripping read indeed, but it is this commentary that brings us the depth of his writing. In the biographies he writes of the foibles and heights of the characters, but in that tiny chapter he gives us the all-important context. Of course this context is his own and, as he admits, much of this is supposition. The ancient Greeks and Romans lived hundreds of years before he ever started writing.

The supposition though is pretty good in some cases. Take for example his characterisation of the Greek general Alcibiades and the Roman Coriolanus. People who know their Shakespeare would know Coriolanus as the Roman warrior who saved Rome, but was then expelled after others conspired against him. He left Rome and joined the enemy (a traitorous but understandable reaction to the ungratefulness of his people), before returning to the side of Rome. It’s a tale that speaks plenty about how the most carefully structured society (Rome) can succumb the malice of a few individuals determined on bringing down a hero. No wonder Shakespeare saw this as a great basis for a great tragic historical drama. I remember my English teacher saying that the greatest of tragedies are about human faults. There were certainly lots of faults here.

Coriolanus’ sister story, that of Alcibiades, has so many parallels that it proves that people don’t learn from history. Alcibiades was a great warrior who won many battles for Athens, at a time when it was besieged on the west by the Spartans, and from the Persians on the east. Time and again Alcibiades would win against these formidable foes, not just by outfighting them, but by outsmarting them.. leading them into traps and surprising them.

You would think the Greeks would be ever grateful to Alcibiades. Well, they were. While the sun shone. But one time, off the coast of Persia, Alcibiades had to go on shore to find treasure so he could pay his soldiers. He left his second-in-command in charge, which strict orders not to engage the enemy. Plutarch suggests that by malice, this underling did start skirmishes, and was beaten.

Back in Athens, some malignant voices blamed Alcibiades for this rout, and spread false rumours to the Greek senate that he had gone ashore to have a good time. The other senators agreed, and Alcibiades was, in effect, turned instantly from hero to villain. Alcibiades did as Coriolanus had done fifty or more years earlier: he went to the enemy Iin this case the Persians) and was granted land and esteem.

There is of course more to this story. In the end Alcibiades gets back the esteem of the Greeks, after Athens falls in a heap without him. But this is story that tells us that it is easy to destroy a fine reputation by some disreputable words, even if the victim has proved themselves again and again by risking their life.

As a playwright, these human frailties make a story of sword and blood into something that crosses millenia, culture and country. It is an insight into how easy it is to destroy without having to lift a finger. It truly is the stuff worthy of Shakespeare, and a lesson in how every good personal play can only be the stronger for showing not only that the characters can do great things, but also that humans can be very flawed indeed.

3.8.20 It’s not Greece, but..

I was supposed to be in Greece a few months ago to meet with the National Theatre of Greece and to do a reading of the play at the Athens Centre.

Of course COVID killed that.

We did hope it would be only a short postponal, and that we could get there in September.

COVID killed that.

Now we’re aiming for next April… but the head of QANTAS has revealed that international travel probably won’t happen before July 2021.. so COVID’s probably killed that too.

It’s time to let my words and Olga breathe again.. in a way that COVID can have nothing to do with it.

I wrote last month that Jac and I have been doing some Zoom play readings with two actor friends of ours, Anton Berezin and Tessa Borg. We tackled Dylan Thomas’ fabulous and unmatched Under Milk Wood first, then yesterday we did the first act of the surreal play The Empire Builders. I have loved crossing into the acting side. There’s a great challenge to inventing and interpreting on the run.. working out when to pause, when to emphasise, when to let the other actors have the punchline.. all without the chance to pre-read.

Today in our COVID-lockdown-curfew-essential-activity-only bike ride, it dawned almost simultaneously on both Jackie and me that maybe we should offer my Lady of Arrows as the next reading.

It’s a pretty big ask for Anton, Tess and Jac. Jac, as Olga, is in every scene (because it is a memory play, and the memory is hers), but the two other actors are equally challenged. They both have 17 roles each. I really also would love to be reading some of my own words too, so I’ve suggested to Anton and Tess that I read the stage directions and take on a couple of the roles, such as when the female secondary actor is supposed to play a male character. This happens a few times, like when two British officers discuss Olga’s suitability as a spy, or when two German officers plan how they will interrogate her. In the workshop it worked remarkably well with Hannah Fredricksen playing one of the men. Great actors make you forget little things like gender.

Still, I would like to play at these people who came into my head, who I invented.

I wonder whether their words would come out of my mouth the way they sang in my mind.

Let’s hope they’re up for it.

31.7.20 Truth and Sensibility

Plutarch is a Roman era historian who wrote the very well regarded Plutarch‘s Lives. For nearly two millennia historians have used Plutarch as a source of fact for what happened in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Plutarch was pretty tough about the fact. He was the man who called the Greek historian Herodotus the Father of Lies. This was a witty take on Cicero earlier calling him the Father of History. As I wrote in my PhD exegesis, Plutarch’s problem with Herodotus was that he went further than just fact. Herodotus went inside the minds of his characters. He invented dialogue; he invented dreams; he invented motivations. he also, according to Plutarch, got some facts wrong. A bit unfair really, considering Herodotus was writing of places and events far away and far ago.

I was lucky enough to find a beautiful 1778 edition of Plutarch‘s Lives, and it really is a ripping read. He starts with the man credited as founding Athens: Theseus. He tells the story of how Theseus was the illegitimate son of the king of the Athens region, and tells of how almost mystically he becomes the king’s successor. I say mystically because it involves, in a very Arthurian way, moving an impossibly huge rock which has been placed over his family sword. The way the story is written is without embellishment so you can see where Plutarch gets his holier-than-thou strictly-the-facts attitude to history writing. Of course the gods get a mention a lot and how they begot humans. So much for historical fact, but he does try to tread the line between fact and fantasy at least.

Theseus is largely painted as a hero and this is the line that is taken by many later historians and fiction writers. However there is at least some lip service paid to the fact that he was had a pretty nasty side to him too. He is said to have committed rape on the girl that was to become Helen of Troy when she was nine years old. If this was true it might give you some understanding of how she ended up doing some of her sexual intrigues of later life including one which led to the Trojan war. But this raping by Theseus is played down. I suppose if Plutarch put it at the very beginning if then it would make for a very unappetising hero, but to give him his due Plutarch at least does mention this side of his character. Eventually.

Is it an historian’s role to avoid the nasties in aid of a good story? For a filmmaker or novels, perhaps. For a journalist, no.

For a historian, never. True historians are not there there to just praise Caesar.

28.7.20 Even Plato made stuff up

I’m doing a philosophy course. In this time of COVID it’s an online course, where we are set a passage of Plato to read, and then we discuss it on Zoom.

Being philosophy, it’s a little all over the place. Everybody’s comment is valid, and things do tend to easily go off track. I’m sure as we move along this will all come into clarity. I suspect the leader is just trying to get us to question everything. Which is what Socrates did.

Our understanding of Socrates largely comes from Plato, who wrote an account of Socrates’ last days, called Last Days of Socrates.

While I’m finding all this philosophical anarchy interesting (and I really am, by the way), it was the statement of the teacher in the first class that grabbed my attention. It seems that Plato’s book is not a verbatim account of Socrates in the days before his inevitable suicide. What Plato has done is essentially to turn Socrates last philosophical discussions in to a play. The book is written as dialogue, with Socrates holding forth on his arguments. These passages are broken up by Socrates’ acolytes speaking lines such as:

“Yes, you are quite right.”

“Yes, no doubt it does.”

“Yes, it is true.”

So what we have really is Socrates speaking to his devotees, who often go along with the great man’s logic.

Again, nothing wrong with that. Socrates WAS pretty clever. He knitted argument traps that Trump’s legal team would love to be able to do. But Plato putting this kind of detail in the writing brings me back to my thesis argument about the nature of what is fact and what is fiction. Clearly Plato is relying on his own memory of events some years before, and embellishing these memories so that it plays out in a way that helps readers to follow easily. He is, in essence, bring the reader into the discussion.

Which is cool. So long as two and half thousand years of Plato’s readers have not been deceived into thinking that these were the actual words spoken by Socrates in his last days. It is a fictional account, written as entertainment. And should be valued as such. It should also be valued as a philosophical statement.

Just maybe not as a history.

27.7.20 Haunted by a past life

No, it’s not as spooky as it sounds.

When getting involved in things like plays and PhDs, you do tend to forget the others things you have done in your life… like being the breakfast presenter on an international radio program. I did it for nine years, and for almost every minute of those nine years from 2005 to 2014, I lived and breathed the Asia-Pacific region, our audiences and who the hell I was going to interview tomorrow morning.

I really had forgotten about it until a couple of weeks ago when I got an email from a New Zealand-based academic who asked me to write a paper on radio audiences. After thinking about it for a bit, I decided to write about those nine years, and all the ways we tried to engage our audiences. Over the last two weeks I remembered a lot.. like when we broadcasted live from the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in 2007, 2008 and 2010. We also broadcasted from our partner’s studios in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore as a co-host, with one show in Kuala Lumpur going live from one of the world’s biggest ferris wheels. I also remembered our live outside broadcasts from Phnom Penh, Bali and Samoa, and going to China to present the ABC’s first English-language program from Guangzhou in China in 2007.

I also remembered the down times, like the day my program was cancelled along with a swathe of other shows. These cancellations were caused by government cutbacks to the ABC, which trickled down to my employer Radio Australia, who pared back to just two current affairs programs. Flow programs like mine were stopped and the full-time staff of these programs were made redundant.

I remembered earlier than that, back in 1988 when I worked for a Sydney radio station which was owned by the NSW Labor Council, which had a close affiliation to the Australian Labor Party. I remembered how in one election,  the station’s managing director told me not to give airtime to the Liberal Party Opposition Leader. Many years later I would tell this to my students and ask them to tell me what they would do. Some told me they would refuse to comply, while others said they would agree to whatever their boss told them. What I did at the time I remember very clearly. I agreed not to have the conservative voice on the station, but secretly would not play grabs of the Labor Premier denigrating the conservative leader. As I wrote in the article this morning, I still am not sure I did the right thing.

Yes, there were strange times in my broadcasting career, but I only remember them fondly. Which is kind of weird, you have to admit.

24.7.20 Shakespeare revisits Homer

Pericles is a Shakespeare play.. kinda. Some historians believe he only contributed one or two acts to the play and other parts were written by his contemporaries.

Having read all of his plays now, I can see the argument. The first half of Pericles certainly doesn’t have the wit and depth of his other works. From Act III (the part Shakespeare was supposed to have written) things pick up somewhat. The characters come to life and the storyline lifts as a result. An example is Marina, Pericles’ daughter. She was believed dead in a land far from Pericles’ home country of Tyre. But in that Shakespearean manner, she is not dead. She was saved by pirates, who sell her onto a brothel, where she is prized as a virgin. The brothel owners tout her as a treasure, and many men, including nobles, want to be the first to break her chastity.

This is where Shakespeare revisits Homer’s Penelope. Penelope was Odysseus’ queen, a woman who waited twenty years for her husband’s return from the Trojan war. While she waits, a big group of suitors break into her palace and demand she choose a husband from among them, a husband that will inherit Odysseus’ crown. Penelope is too smart for these ambitious men. She tells them that she is making a tapestry, and when she finishes the tapestry she will make a decision on who will be the new king. But unknown to these suitors, each night she unstitches the work she has done during the day, making this an ever-unfinished tapestry. The suitors are outsmarted and have no choice but to wait.

Similarly in Pericles, Marina manages to retain her virginity by outsmarting the men who visit her in the brothel. Again and again she talks them out of having sex with her, exasperating the brothel owners. She is a Greek woman who mirrors the smarts of Penelope.

Now, I am not saying that Shakespeare had Penelope in mind when he wrote this part of Pericles, but the parallels are strong, and he may have unwittingly pinched the story idea, especially given that Shakespeare often referred to Homer’s characters, and wrote a play, Troilus & Cressida, that was set right in the middle of the Trojan War.

Then again, maybe it was just a coincidence.

19.7.20 King John, Richard III and truth

My PhD examined how the fictionalisation of history can lead to a misunderstanding of fact. I’ve mentioned already in this diary how I used the fictionalisations of Homer and Herodotus as touching points in my discussions. Homer invented characters (perhaps even Hector the Trojan hero may not have really existed) and he did this invention to help in the storytelling. I argue in the PhD that this is okay as long as readers understand that what they are reading is not pure history. Odysseus, for example, probably really didn’t battle a giant one-eyed man who had eaten his Odysseus’ crew.

William Shakespeare and his rendering of such colourful characters as Richard III and King John falls into the same category. Shakespeare painted Richard as a brutal, deformed character, and it is this version that has entered into popular culture, but historians have questioned the truth of this depiction. On the other side of the scale, Shakespeare’s King John is a thoughtful man prone to guilt, but later authors turn him into a villain who kills at whim, taxes his people unfairly, and is basically an evil scoundrel.

It’s strange how these sorts of characterisations keeping being laid before me. I pick up a book nowadays, and it seems another example of fictionalisation is there in the first page.

Now that my PhD has been finished and submitted, I need to find another outlet to examine this evolving discussion about fact and fiction. I’ve decided to write a paper on this element of Shakespeare. I’m offering it to an academic conference. Of course in the current environment it will be an online conference, which is not so satisfying because you don’t get to mingle and chat, but I’ll apply anyway.

I wonder what fictional true character I’ll come across today..

5.7.20 Troilus, Cressida and Homer

My thesis was submitted a few months ago. In it I talk about how writer’s invent and embellish pre-existing stories. In the thesis I use the examples of how Homer’s works have been retold over the last three millenia.

On my Shakespearean journey, I have just read Troilus & Cressida, a tragedy that is told right in the middle of the Trojan War. When I say in the middle, it is right in the middle, seven years into the ten year war. The battle has been going nowhere; the Greek’s super-hero Achilles is sitting in his tent refusing to help the Greek side; and the Trojans are remaining safe inside their six-gated city-fortress with the Prince Hector in command of their forces, with his younger brother Paris enjoying his long honeymoon with Helen (the woman that caused all the fuss in the first place by eloping with Paris away from her Greek King husband Menelaus).

It’s certainly a complicated story, particularly when you add in that Paris and Helen really had no choice: their love was the result of an enchantment.

Anyway, into this messy situation, Shakespeare has inserted another love story, that of Troilus (Hector and Paris’s younger brother and fellow Trojan prince) and Cressida, a daughter of a Trojan gentleman who decides to defect to the Greeks. Troilus and Cressida have an eternal, life-blood love, the kind where the lovers pledge troth, life and honour. Then her father defects, and organises for Cressida to be used as a ransom of sorts: the Greeks have a Trojan captive, who is given back in exchange for.. Cressida. She goes to the Greeks, and her eternal love for Troilus mysteriously evaporates and she falls for a Greek, Diomedes. That’s about it. In the meantime the Homerian story goes on, Achilles gets furious over Hector’s slaying of his close friend and possible lover Patroclus, and as a reult Achilles kills Hector and the tragedy on tragedy continues.

In this context the Triolus and Cressida story is probably no more than an aside in this greater epic. Shakespeare attempts to attribute motivation to this love story, but in the end the real story is about Achilles and Hector. And the Shakespeare story does leave a huge question: If the Trojans are willing to give up a Trojan woman, why not give up Helen and end the whole war? After all, both these women are lovers of Trojan princes. The surrender of Cressida will resolve nothing, and will place her in mortal danger (which may be why she gave into the greek Diomedes as she probably had no choice). But if Helen had been surrendered instead, she would have returned to Mycenae as Menelaus’ queen, a position of safety. And the war would’ve ended.

Shakespeare clearly thought this side story (which had been told before) was worthy of a play, but this version tells us that no matter how beautiful the writing, sometimes even the greatest of playwrights just doesn’t hit the nail on the head.

29.6.20 Shylock and Homer

The Merchant of Venice is a fabulous play to see on stage. The action moves quickly, and the story threads come together more smoothly than in some of Shakespeare’s other comedies.

But in this era of Black Lives Matter there are parts of this play that may be disconcerting for some. Shylock the money lender is cast throughout the play as a lesser human, and the playwright is not shy in saying that part of this is because Shylock is Jewish. In the court scene towards the end Shylock promises redemption by agreeing to convert to Christianity.

When reading works of a different era, one has to remember that the playwrights are working within the mores of their time. Criticism from 400 years in the future can be problemmatic. For example, if the human race was to become vegan in 400 years, would every meat seller, salami-maker and dairy owner of 2020 be seen as brutes by the people of those future times? Perhaps, but it may not be fair.

Homer, when writing of the sack of Troy told of the Greek soldiers who, after winning the battle, not only destroyed the city of the conquered Trojans, but killed almost every woman and child, and sold the survivors into slavery. And not before raping the women. The heroes Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus do not look so good in this light. Indeed, the Greeks seem no different to any band who rapes and pillages, the difference being that in those times, this was normal practice. Alexander the Great did similar things to restive Thebes, annihilating the city before going to to take over Asia. This was after he killed his cousin and other potential throne claimants. Yet we look back at Alexander as being one of the greatest of leaders.

So as we look back it is probably best not to ask ‘how could they?‘, but better ‘why did they?

28.6.20 Writing the play: getting stuck in a scene

The first few days of writing the sequel to Lady of Arrows has been been pretty smooth. I start the play in the years after the war, when the civil war has brought street fighting between the royalists and the communists. It was a period of horror, arguably worse in some cases than what happened under the Nazis. There were betrayals from within families; innocents were summarily shot if suspected of being sympathetic for the other side; British snipers shot people from vantage points on the Acropolis.

Athena would have been ashamed.

I know Olga worked with the US ambassador during some of this period, although any operative work she may have done is a mystery. Indeed, she may have done none. But I chose this period for the play, and being a play set in these times, I needed to open it with context. The audience needs to understand the terror of the times.

I start it on an Athens street, with the people in that street fearful and hiding from snipers (I don’t say which snipers: royalist or communist). Olga is in that street and is pulled into a woman’s house where she is given shelter.

It’s a pretty strong opening, but it instantly presents a problem: Olga is stuck in a small room from which she can’t leave. This makes it a little hard to move the action across the stage. Perhaps I need to rethink the opening. Or maybe I can have Olga move out of the house and make this the impetus to further action. After all, Olga is niot the sort of person who would cower in a house.

That could work. I might try it.

26.6.20 Shakespeare and mechanics of rounding up plots

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a strange play. Before I read it today (it was play two of my Shakespearian odyssey) I knew little about it. I was surprised at how the storyline does not sit well with today’s sensibilities. A man tries to cheat a friend out of his lady and then attempts to rape her. Then in the last page all is forgiven, the would-be rapist is given another woman to be his wife, and all’s well that ends well.

Yeah. It’s done beautifully in that Shakespeare style, but it’s a pretty rushed ending for a story that is anything but simple. Shakespeare comedies seem to run faithfully to a set duration (after all he had the hoi polloi to satisfy, and it was a pretty tough hoi polloi circa-1600). he didn’t want them getting bored and burning down his Globe Theatre.

But Two Gentlemen of Verona shows to me that even a master has to bend to the needs and mechanics of theatre. Because the play was already close to time, the story needed to be wrapped in the next 2 pages after the attempted rape, and although this attack was the kind of behaviour that would have led to several scenes of repercussions in some of his other plays, in this one Shakespeare just had to wrap it up.

Or maybe I’m missing something. It is supposed to be a comedy. Perhaps this violence was only supposed to be less an attempted rape than a funny scene that captures a foolish man frustrated at every stage by a comedy of errors. Still, I wonder how many women in the 1600s laughed at seeing one of their kind so treated. I wonder even more about it for an audience of today.

It feels unfinished and a little unsatisfying. It proves (to me at least) that even the master playwrights are still captives of the mechanics of their craft.

22.6.20 Shakespeare

I don’t remember where I got it. It’s a three volume collection of Shakespeare’s works, dating back to 1847 with the author spelled “Shakspere” as was often done in the early industrial period. It’s a lovely set, barely, if at all read with strong bindings with 19th century illustrations for each work, done in a style not dissimilar to Dickens’ friend Phiz.

I have used the books as reference work. When a quote came up, or if I wanted to research an incident, I would go to a certain play and find what I wanted. But for some years in the back of my mind I had been wanting to start reading the plays. From first to last.

This week I started this odyssey, beginning with Volume One, which puts together his comedies. It starts with The Tempest. I had seen The Tempest on stage, but it was a fairly dreary serious retelling of a play that was never meant to be so po-faced. That stage production was a failure and an audience member would have had every right to feel they were diddled by a director who thought they knew better than Shakespeare.

This play is very funny. Farcical at times, with a gender-swapping character that was to become an oft-used Shakespeare device. The idea for the play came from news of a shipwreck. From this small kernel Shakespeare embroidered a love story involving romance and the power of sibling love amidst a tragedy. And somehow he made it a comedy.

I think I’ll learn a lot by reading his plays. Reading (as opposed to watching a stage performance) will give me time to dissect what is going on. I’m looking forward to the trip. A long trip. There are 39 plays. And the volumes include his poetry.

20.6.20 Serendipity

Today proved that sometimes things just come together.

We were at Melbourne’s Gasworks farmers market. Built on the site of an old gasworks, the site is now a community centre which stages plays and puts on art exhibitions. It also puts on a farmer’s market on the third Saturday of every month. And on the third Saturday of every month we ride our bikes there and stock up on our vegan essentials.. the cabbages, olives, carrots apples etc.

Last night it rained, and the Gasworks ground, which is sensitive anyway with its industrial past, was soggy. So the stalls had to be crammed into two small areas. Thus crammed, we did our shopping. At one point I was waiting with the bikes while Jac got some blueberries. Despite being pushed close together because of the rain, there were officials from Gasworks who were trying to encourage people to keep their COVID distance. I got talking to one of them, a young guy, and he told me he was involved in the art productions put on by Gasworks. After a while a woman came up to tell him something. Her face was familiar. Her name was Tracey, and she used to curate an artist’s space near our home. I had done some stories on her exhibitions when I was arts editor at ABC NewsRadio 15 years or so ago.

So after all this time we got talking about anything and everything, as if the 15 years had not intervened. She talked about the COVID resistance of women and this led onto the natural strength of women. This in turn led me to talk about Olga, her spy work and my play.

Now, remember how I said that Gasworks staged theatre productions? Tracey was excited about the idea of the play and gave me the contact for the theatre manager there. COVID has put off Gasworks’ 2020 season of course, so there was a postponing of their plays until next year, but there might be a space for Lady of Arrows. I’ll get in contact and see.

So thank you rain, thank you Tracey and thank you blueberries.

15.6.20 From playwright to actor

Last night we had a post-COVID get-together at our home. Our guests were five actors who had also directed plays and musicals and had won acclaim in their field. Of course with this kind of gathering, discussion turn to the great examples of theatre and writing.

It is difficult with a creative group to agree on anything. And so it was last night. A suggestion was made that one of the greatest of modern performance poems was that of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

This poem, written in the 1950s, was about the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (which is typical Dylanesh satire “bugger all” spelled backwards). Although the poem’s title might indicate that is some kind of medieval ode to fields of flowers and humming birds, it is nothing of the kind. Llareggub is a 20th century town and the racy, naughty poem tells of people to whom we can all relate: tidy wives; saucy girls who beget the town’s children and raise them alone; horny no-good boyos who desperately want to fornicate; bullying wives who make their husbands’ lives a misery; shopsellers who are secretly in love each other but are never brave enough to do anything about it; postmen who read the mail and gossip to the town; husbands to get drunk and in doing so only make their wives love them all the more; old couples who when abed resemble two old kippers in a box.

Yes, it is a world that is our world in that it tells of people who do the inexplicable, the wrong, the right, the unexpected and the normal.

The fact that the story is told in a hilarious way makes it the classic of mid-20th century writing.

For twenty years we have listened again and again to Richard Burton’s famous 1954 recording. The lines are so succinct and so memorable that we, in our little house of two, resurrect the lines in our everyday conversation.

So when it was suggested last night that our group of thespians do a reading of the poem, I wanted a role. They agreed. After all, presenting on radio for many years gives you an ability for read, to make words come alive, although this is never strictly considered acting as such.

So after the conversation moved onto other things, I found a copy of the Under Milk Wood script, and one of the guests, Anton Berezin (Miss Fisher‘s Murder Mysteries, Sunday in the Park with George etc) and I started reading the poem together out aloud, playing all the roles.

It was a glorious half hour. I knew thew characters, and had an inkling of the Welsh accent (having been married to a Welsh for quite a while). We laughed a lot, and the other others in the party, although ostensibly talking about other things, had half an ear on our recital, relishing the occasional Dylan Thomas gem.

So it is going to happen. In three weeks we are getting together to do a full read. Like in my play, everyone will have multiple roles, and Jac is going to direct it.

For me it is something special. As a playwright I will be on the other side of the creative barrier. I will do what I should have done years ago: play the role of the performer and interpreter. I have always admired actors.. their ability to remember, act with consistency, and to bring the words of others to life.

Now I will be among them.

13.6.20 The long reach of Homer

I have written in my thesis and my presentations about how Homer and his The Odyssey has affected so many later writers that they have used parts of the story as a template for their own works. From modernists such as James Joyce (Ulysses), to the filmmakers The Coen Brothers (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), to the modern Greek great Nikos Kazantzakis (The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel), there have either been many treatments of the story, or taking what Aeschylus called “slices of Homer” in their own works.

For me, once I started going down this track, I did go a little Homer-batty. As I was completing my thesis it seemed that every book, play or movie I engaged with had Homeric elements to it. In fact when I was doing research for a presentation to the PopCaanz popular culture academic conference last year, I had so many examples of Homer slices in other works that I had to cut them down to fit them into a one hour presentation.

This week I have been reading the 19th century ripping read Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley. I won’t try to condense 520 pages, but I will tell you that a group of Elizabethan-era British protestants decide to get together to chase down Rose, who is the most beautiful woman imaginable. This Rose has gone off with a Spanish Catholic to be his wife in the far off West Indies. The Spanish senör has eloped with Rose (Paris-like), taking her away from men who adored her. They follow Rose and the Don over the ocean in the self-belief of their right and correct behaviour to break up the newlyweds.

Every page brought a new parallel wit The Iliad. How many impossibly beautiful woman are there in the world, women of such beauty that most of the men who see her fall in love with her? Not many, I would say, except the Helens of novels and epic poems. How many sailors would fight adversity to travel to unknown lands to bring her back? Again not many except maybe Odysseus in The Iliad or Amyas and his crew in Westward Ho! In both stories many men die in this retrieval exercise. This self-sacrificing part of the story didn’t make sense when Homer wrote 3000 years ago, and it still makes no sense.

But when discussing parallels, there are many more. The only thing missing (so far that is.. I am not at the end yet) is the Trojan Horse. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

It is a compelling read, just like the original poem, which only fortifies the value of Homer’s original story. I just hope Kingsley comes up with an original conclusion.

9.6.20 Xenophobia

Today the media is reporting on a new survey which suggests that a majority of Australians have a bias against indigenous people. Published http://here in the Guardian it doesn’t go as far as to say these Australian admit to being racist.. just that they were shown to have negative connotations when shown photos, some of them very old, of black people.

One wonders where this attitude began. My dad, who came to Australia from the Greek island of Castellorizo as a baby, grew up in Darwin. He counted among his friends some of the local indigenous people. He worked with them, drank with them (when they were allowed) and played and kidded with them. But from my youngest days he told of how they were different to us. He said they would go off on ‘walkabout’, implying this was a laziness not a cultural need. He even said they smelled different to the rest of us. This he tempered by saying that to them we also smelled different.

My dad would be horrified if he thought people would call him a racist, but in at least some definitions of racism.. that’s what he was: he identified differences in races and asserted, to some degree, a superiority of his culture over theirs.

I think it’s worth looking at his own situation. He was A Greek in a white society. He had come to Australia as a refugee, snuck out of Castellorizo with his family during WWI by a joint UK-Australian rescue mission (a far cry from the small-mindedness of the 2001 Tampa saga). This rescue was amazing considering that Australian immigration was becoming whiter and whiter. The White Australia policy was aimed at keeping out non-Europeans and did that successfully up to the 1950s when the policy was loosened. But racism is racism, and that meant that non-WASP Europeans like Greeks and Italians were targeted, be it in the school playground, the government offices or in politics.

So it is probably no surprise that my dad and some of his brothers changed their name to “Kaff” (as I mentioned in last month’s post). He never changed it back, while all the time asserting that he was proud of his Greek heritage. It just seemed that he was prouder of his family’s time in Australia because he would talk endlessly about how his father and brothers built half of Darwin. His proudest moment came when a street in Palmerston was named “Kafcaloudes Crescent” in honour of his older brother George, who had stayed in Darwin and kept on the building business when his brothers and sisters had gone south looking for more interesting lives. Dad could speak Greek, but he never showed interest in going to Greek functions or Greek communions, leaving my mum to do this alone. He was pious on Greek Easters, and threw Greek words into his everyday speech, but probably not when he was at the club with his Aussie mates. I wanted to take him back to Greece to make some reconnection, but infirmity and a lack of will meant this was never to be. He died in 1994 as a 78 year old man who had never left Australia.

He was a man of his times, times when being anything other than a white European brought with it a feeling of inferiority in a land that had, in just over 100 years had gone from black to white.

It is no wonder he misunderstood his indigenous friends, and perhaps passed on some of his innate feelings of being in a hierarchy of which he would only ever be somewhere in the middle.

8.6.20 The anniversary

Today is our anniversary. Thirty-two years ago we were married on the Greek island of Santorini.

We had gone there in April 1988 expecting to just turn up and get married.

I still remember the bishop of the church on the island closing the doors on us. “Tourists!”, his eyes seemed to say.

This may have been a pretty tough punctuation to our romantic dream, but we didn’t give up. Through various interpreters, including the man who was to become our best man, Lefteris Roussos (a local hotel owner) we found out what documents we needed.

So we spent seven weeks swearing oaths, placing banns, getting papers, meeting priests and flying back and forth between the island and Athens.

Eventually (four days before we were due to return to Australia) we went back to the priest, slammed the pile of documents down in front of him. He didn’t even look at them. He just said “Endaxi” and gave his blessing. The whole thing had obviously been a kind of test for us. Foreigners just didn’t marry on Santorini.

We married in the little blue church that is on the poster in every travel agent in the world. The whole village had started rooting for us, and they came, filling the church. i think this gesture was one of the most powerful parts of the ceremony. We weren’t just two tourists alone in a church with a priest, but a part of a community celebrating the biggest day of our lives.

And afterwards we looked very happy.

It’s now been thirty-two years, and it seems only a minute ago.

We had to work for this marriage to happen in 1988, and every day we are glad for it.

23.5.20 On being Greek

I am Greek. Always have been, always will be. I may have been born in Sydney and grew up there; I may have fought against going to Greek school as a kid (I won the battle, breaking my mum’s heart); I may have used my dad’s shortening of his name to Kaff; I may have not mixed in all the circles of the Greek community as a kid; I may not have followed soccer; I may have been embarrassed using Greek words when my mum sent me up the shop for lentils.

But that’s all the usual behaviour of a child who just wanted to be like anyone else. Never mind that we were living in a post-war immigration area (Summer Hill in Sydney) where half the kids were Italian, Pole, Lebanese, Salvs, Arab, as children of parents fleeing the horrors of the most horrible of wars. Many of these kids were trying as hard as I was to be Aussie.

My mum was born in Sydney, but as I depict in the play, she spent some of her childhood in Greece with her mum. These formative years made her a Grecophile. She loved the language, the music, the food, and more than with any of her other children, she wanted me to be a little Greek boy. Maybe it was because I was the youngest and probably looked the Greekest (although I am still told I don’t look all that Greek). But as I say, I resisted her attempts.

When I turned 26 something happened to me. I became proud of what had passed before me. I started using the Kafcaloudes name, doing away forever with “Kaff”. My exploration of Greekness continued with my study of the story of my grandmother. And the six trips to Greece.

The Greek lessons are continuing, although they are stressful at times, with the teacher Alexandros conducting skype lessons with seven students every Wednesday night. He’s a pretty fast teacher who throws you into it, asking you to translate sentences without warning. But he’s kind and the other students all seem in the same boat.. except for two or three who speak fluently and have obviously used the language in their childhood home. It’s a challenge, but my Greek is getting better. Jac, although not an official student, is listening in on the other end of the table so we do the homework together, and that makes it much more fun.

And I don’t know how I would have survived this isolation without it.

19.5.20 Isolation and writing

In essence, there hasn’t been any.

During our time in the house I have painted, restored, fixed gutters and done all the things that our Victorian weatherboard house has been demanding for 20 years. We have occasionally stopped to think where we would have been on our Greek trip had COVID not shut it down. Italy, Greece, our presentation in Athens, the exploration of the Peloponnese, Ithaca. We hoped to be able to re-book to do it in the upcoming spring (now that Greece has opened itself) but that is out now according to the Australian government. After all, no-one wants to go to Greece just to sit in a hotel for two expensive weeks. Now we are hoping to go in April next year.

I did have a writing revelation a few weeks ago while I was painting the front of the house. I was thinking about the play, and I thought maybe I should start in writing a sequel. I could explore what happened to Olga in the years after the war… the years between the ending of her operative work in 1943 and her return to Australia in 1952. Neither the play nor the novel looked at this era.

All I know of this time was that she worked for the Americans, particularly the U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy. I have already written about this man, a tough and hard troubleshooter who was being considered as a possible future presidential candidate for some later election, perhaps after Eisenhower had finished his terms in 1960. Peurifoy was Democrat, and if this prophesy was to happen, he could have been the candidate instead of John F. Kennedy. But Peurifoy was killed in a mysterious car accident in Thailand in the early 1950s, so his trajectory to the White House never happened.

The problem with writing this part of the story is that I have virtually no information on what Olga was actually doing in this time. Perhaps I could make her an observer of the extraordinary events of that time, not so much a participant. She certainly knew the players at the embassy during this of civil war and reigns of terror.

Yes, every writer knows there comes a time when you need to write. I’m at that place right now.

16.5.20 On being a playwright

Last night we had a post-isolation dinner with Robert Hewett, the playwright who brought us Gulls and The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. All his plays have been successful and played in theatres all over Australia and subsequently all over the world.

Talking to Robert about his career, one thing has come through: it is a rare playwright who makes a living by the Australian stage. It is the international stage that presents an income stream that can make a writer’s life sustainable. In Robert’s case the staging of his plays in Berlin, Greece, Canada, Asia and the U.S. has not only brought his works to a wide audience, but it has presented an income stream.

Now, Australia is a small market so most artworks are unlikely to keep anyone in tofu and biscuits for long, but this is especially so in the case of playwrights, whose works run for a season, often with smaller theatre companies with even smaller audiences. Once a play has run its course there are no residuals unless the play is taught in schools or is borrowed in book form from a library (and even then the writer’s royalty is more likely to be no more than hundreds of dollars a year).

I wonder how many playwrights languish. Their works are adored for a shining moment in their premiere production and then become no more than a memory on a poster in the playwright’s study.

In a case like Robert, whose plays seem to be on somewhere at any one time, he would have an income of sorts. Which speaks a lot for Robert’s tenacity not only as a talented playwright, but as a person who knows how to get his work staged in cultures far different from his own. Not to mention how to write plays that are of interest to world audiences. You’ve got to admire that. I do.

4.5.20 Rabelais and heresay

I’m reading Rabelais out of curiosity. I have read so many references to the great Frenchman over the years. He’s been quoted, criticised, idolised and damned. I bought an old edition of his works just see why there was such a fuss.

It only took about five pages to see why. He is rude, bawdy and hilarious. For example, he tells of a lover scorned who gets his own back on the woman by sprinkling dog hormones in her holy water (yes, the scorned lover is a minister). The infused water brings all kinds of dogs into the church, each trying to mate with the scorner. The scene ends with a great dane urinating on the woman’s head.

Yes, he was the Mick Jagger of his day.

He also was scathing in his satire of the French leaders of the day. Even changing their names did not bring him any safety. In the end his final book, one of the most critical of all, was not able to be published until after his death.

So it was an enjoyable, although at times perplexing and unfathomable time, but it wasn’t until near the end of my Rabelaising that I came across a line that fitted right into my research about the value of oral histories in the telling of history. Rabelais seems to have little account for this form of passed knowledge, describing oral histories as ‘hearsay’. Now, today such a term might imply that Rebelais considered these word-of-mouth aas little more than gossip: you hear it; you say it.

I respectfully disagree. Oral histories can be a learned form of storytelling. If a person does something and tells someone about it, then it is an passing on of information, such as in an interview. But if the person being told the story then relates it to others, the story does not necessarily lose legitimacy, much in the way that the journalist, having done an interview, paraphrases the story and presents it to a newsreading audience. Yes, Rabelais, this is hearsay, but a form of hearsay that is relied upon by people all over the world every day when they watch, listen to or read the news.

Of course Rabelais was probably referring to stories being told and retold over centuries, with the inherent dangers of any Chinese whisper: amendment, mishearing, changing for self-aggrandisement, or just forgetfulness. And I had plenty of these issues arise in my research for the novel and the play. I say as long as we are aware of these shortcomings, and we do everything we can to avoid them, then oral histories.. or Rabelais’ hearsay.. can be perfectly legitimate as a research mode.

14.4.20 The thesis is in

Today is the day that anyone doing a PhD looks forward to. The day of submission.

La Trobe University’s Graduate Research School sent me the submission link today, and after three years and four months of toil, the exegesis and play were uploaded. All this means it is out of my hands. My two examiners (one in Sydney and one overseas) will now have the job of going through my 266 pages (including the play script), and deciding whether I have added to the total of the world’s knowledge.

It has been a great ride. I’ve loved working with my principal supervisor Professor Chris Mackie. In fact there have been a heaps of people who have helped me in my quest. To give you an idea, here is my Acknowledgments page from the thesis:

“I owe a huge debt to my primary supervisor Professor Chris Mackie for his great ability to know how to keep encouraging me. It is because of him that I enjoyed every moment of this PhD. His words at our first meeting stayed with me for the entire collaboration: “Just write. Get stuff down on paper.” Because of these wise words, at no point did I feel this PhD stagnated. Our regular meetings brought in new aspects, including reference to the works of Homer and Herodotus. My co-supervisor Dr Nasya Bahfen was a perfect fit, keeping my writing on the academic straight road while Chris and I delved into Greek dramatic history. Nasya was a latecomer to the process, replacing Dr Steinar Ellingsen, who had left La Trobe University. Steinar generously agreed to stay on as an external supervisor, offering his usual cheery support. Chris, Nasya and Steinar, thank you for proving that doing a PhD is not the drudge that so many claim it to be. Lawrie Zion kindly agreed to be the chair of my Research Progress Panel and was always supportive. The LTU Graduate Research School never failed to give me sound advice and were more than comfortable with me submitting this PhD ahead of schedule. Merran Hunt from the School of Humanities & Social Sciences was a great help with IRGS grants that allowed me to carry out research in Greece in 2017 and to pay for the January 2019 workshop. My employers at RMIT, Philip Dearman and Adrian Danks were quick to give me study leave for the Greece trip, which was above and beyond considering I was a new staff member who was doing the PhD with a rival university. Many thanks to David Beesley and Luke Raisbeck for making RMIT’s premier television studio available to stage the three-day workshop. Gary Young was a wonderful director of the workshop, his many years of theatre experience helping turn the play into something better. Your warmth, encouragement and tears were brilliant. A special thanks to the playwrights and screenwriters whose works offered inspiration for what Lady of Arrows finally became. I hope you didn’t object to have your fine works tested in this thesis. To Jac, who was always the inspiration for the character of Olga, thank you. I imagined you speaking my lines as I wrote them, and then in the readings and workshopping, you brought those words to life. And finally, my grandmother Olga, the real Lady of Arrows. Although I never knew you, you have been a lifelong inspiration. I just hope that my version of your story meets with your approval, and that you forgive my excesses.”

That’s a lot of people. I’ve also got to thank the people who were on the sidelines but were always coming up with ideas for the exegesis: Dr Helen Vatsikopoulos, Eleni Eleftheras, David Cunnington, Dr Josie Vine, Margie Gillett, Mark Civitella and so many more.

Folks, collectively we got there. Thank you.

16.3.20 There goes Greece

I can’t say we’re not surprised.

Greece is about to close its borders. The Mitsotakis government has decided to get ahead of the world by enforcing a 14 day quarantine on anyone entering the country. We had already heard that events like the one I was supposed to do in Athens were being stopped.

So our trip is off. Which is a bit of a relief. This epidemic is going to kill a lot of people before it’s done. With many families in mourning, this would not be the right time to be trying to sell my play. Also, being crammed on a plane for 17 hours is not the brightest idea at the moment.

So Jac and I will be in isolation in autumnal Melbourne for as long as our Chief Medical Officers deem it necessary. In fact I can’t see why our prime minister an the U.S. President are having such a hard time trying to decide what to do. They pay these medical specialists who know more about this disease than anyone else. These are the people who you just listen to (I could extend the argument to the Chief Scientists who are paid by the government to advise on climate change.. but are ignored or ridiculed. But that’s for another post).

So the house is going to get an overdue coat of paint.. and I have to say I’m glad I’m not teaching media this year. It would be a nightmare teaching TV when students are not allowed to go near a TV studio. As Lloyd Bridges might’ve said in the Flying High movie: “It seems like I chose a hell of year to give up academia..”

10.3.20 So much for Italy

Italy has just extended its lockdown to the entire country, which means our plans to travel to the ancient Greek theatre sites on Syracusa will have to be cancelled. The airline has been great about changing the flights. At this stage we will go directly to Athens and have a month in the Aegean before going to the Athens Centre for our presentation about the play. The Greek islands rather than the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. We aren’t crying too much..

Let’s just hope Greece doesn’t need to have a shutdown too.

8.3.20 Playwrights feeding in on themselves

Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but playwrights since antiquity have been taking the work of those before them and adding to and changing the original.

The case in point was what happened to Aeschylus’ tale about Clytemnestra. She was either a great mother who sought revenge for the killing of her daughter, or an ambitious nasty piece of work who wanted to steal control of her kingdom of Mycenae from her husband, Agamemnon. Agamemnon had just spent ten years battling at Troy trying to get Helen back for his brother Menelaus, who was her husband. Eventually, thanks to Odysseus’ unlikely but brilliant idea of a Trojan horse, the eternal city was overcome and sacked. Helen was given back to Menelaus, and Agamemnon came home, expecting a welcome fit for a successful warrior king. Instead, his wife stabbed him to death in his homecoming bath.

The reason for this killing was that, ten years before, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods so he could get good winds for his navy to sail to Troy to start the war. Agamemnon was reluctant to kill is daughter but gods need appeasing, and he had his brother Menelaus to consider. Family is family (although this wasn’t that much of a consideration when it comes to daughters, obviously).

So while Agamemnon fought across the Aegean, Clytemnestra built a resentment of the ages, got involved with a distant relative Aegisthus (who became her ruling consort in Mycenae) and plotted her husband’s demise. When he did return she put on a good show of a welcome then did the bloody deed.

If that was the end of the story then it would be a complete Greek tragedy, but the story continued with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s children, Orestes and Electra. They loved their father, and plotted revenge against their mother. And in the best Greek tragic tradition, they killed her and her consort Aegisthus.

Aeschylus was the first playwright to tell this story for the stage (adapting it from Homer’s original poem) in the plays Agamemnon and The Libation Pourers. The first tells of Agamemnon’s return and death, and the second deals with Orestes killing his mother.

Sophocles told the same story in his Electra. He changed the story though. These changes included having Electra believe that Orestes has been murdered, when of course it is all a ruse to fool his mother into a sense of security. The mother is fooled and then gets killed. Then there was a further adaptation with additions by Euripides who also called his play Electra but he has Electra married off and put into virtual exile from which she fools her mother into coming to visit her. Once again Clytemnestra dies, but in Electra’s rural property and at the hands of both Electra and her brother.

As I was reading Aeschylus today I pondered on the right of playwrights to take acclaimed works by earlier artists and changing them. But then I considered that the time span from Aeschylus to Sophocles was thirty years and Euripides came a further fifteen years later. When you consider the number of modern adaptations of the Three Musketeers, Batman, or Superman in film over the last 50 years, it’s probably reasonable that dramatists add new value to old stories. This may have been especially true in the ancient times when Greek audiences were demanding fresh works every year. And it must be said that each adaptation took the story further. One such version has Clytemnestra having had three children with her consort, and then Orestes, after he killed his mother, marrying his half-sister. Very ancient Greek, and for an audience of that time, it must’ve been a thrilling new development on what was probably a very well known story.

5.3.20 The Greek island called Sicily

I’m sure there are plenty of connected Italian families who would disagree with the sentiment in the title of this entry. but Sicily, which has been the property of Italians for a couple of millenia, was founded by foreigners. First it was the Phoenicians, then the Greeks who named it τρινακρια (Trinacria). The Greeks developed the south eastern city of Syracuse which became a centre of the Greek theatrical world. Actors and playwrights used to come to Syracuse as part of a theatrical circuit which included Athens and many of the kingdoms around the Greek world. Plato, who is best known these days for his philosophies was also a playwright and his works were staged in Syracuse. But Plato could not keep out of politics and he became a confidant and advisor to Dion who became the ruler (known as ‘tyrant’) of the island state.

Although it was a theatrical centre, it was far from a peaceful place. The city fought at times against Athens and the Carthaginians from north Africa. This led to the famous siege, where the Greeks were forced onto Syracusa’s small island of Ortygia, which was just a couple of metres off the shore of the city. The Greeks held out for a long time despite the Carthaginians imposing a blockade on ships supplying them with food.

Eventually the Romans made their push, forced another siege, defeated the Greeks, and Syracuse became part of the new empire. It was then taken by the Franks, the Spanish and for some centuries, the muslims, before returning to the Italians. Despite all this fractious behaviour (which included bombing in WWII), the evidence of the Greek theatres have survived, and Greek plays are staged in these theatres to this day.

In our trip we’ll be staying in Ortygia, within the walls of the old fortress, or what remains of them (a surprising amount does survive). We won’t be there for the theatre season.. we miss that by a month.. but it will be wonderful to walk the boards where the ancient actors used innovations such as cranes for flying actors, and stages that used a water system to raise and drop. I was telling director Gary Young about these ancient ideas and he was amazed that these things, which audiences are thrilled by today were the invention of theatrical engineers in the infancy of the craft.

I would love to have my work staged in Syracuse. Maybe it’s just a romantic notion. But, if it could happen, it would be, like, wow.

3.3.20 The could-have-been president

John Peurifoy is not a name that will be remembered in many circles outside of the inner sanctuaries of the U.S. State Department.

Peurifoy was the U.S. ambassador to Greece in the immediate aftermath of the Greek civil war that followed the expulsion of the Nazis in 1944. Peurifoy brought with him Truman’s burgeoning desire to control communism or perceived communism from other countries. Peurifoy did his job so well that apparently even to this day there is still resentment among some Greeks about his intrusion. I actually don’t know they can single out Peurifoy, because before his time the British stationed snipers on the Acropolis to shoot down communists in the Plaka. That’s intrusion.

Peurifoy’s strong hand was so respected back in the U.S. that he was considered a possible Democratic contender for the 1960 presidential election. Peurifoy never made it to contention for 1960. He was killed along with one of his sons in a car crash in Thailand in 1955. The election was therefore left open to John Kennedy to grab the nomination. One wonders if, had Peurifoy survived in Thailand and contested and won the election, what sort of president he would have been. Certainly he would’ve been a tough leader, just as he was a tough ambassador in Greece, Thailand, and Guatemala, where he helped orchestrate the overthrow of the that nation’s government.

As well as being a diplomat, he was also my grandmother’s employer during his years in Greece. Olga was a nanny to his two children who, like their father, never lived to see the 1960s.

Going through Olga’s documents, I came across this letter..

..which was written to Olga from Mrs Betty Peurifoy. It’s a poignant letter in so many ways. She writes that she and her son Clint remember Olga well and speak of her often (this was seven years after Olga left them in Greece). In the letter Betty says that Clint, who had cerebral palsy was doing well and was looking forward to going to school. This was no more than optimism from a hopeful mother, because Clint died within months of the letter being sent.

The letter was also touching because Betty wishes Olga well for the birth of her eleventh grandchild.

That grandchild was me.

1.3.20 Coronavirus and the house of cards

Just as we thought the trip to Athens was sorted with accommodation, cars, venue and flights, along comes one of those events that could crash everything. Coronavirus has killed a lot of people and is dropping sharemarkets. Governments are banning whole cities from tourism. The media is even showing plenty of images of panicked buyers emptying supermarket shelves. Considering the number of deaths from the flu every year, this really is a strong reaction. But, as I said, people are dying.

So it works that in a way that almost mirrors an order from an ancient Greek god, the very country I am planning to visit first for research, Italy, is the European hotspot for CV. Cancelling the trip only four weeks before the travel will be a costly thing. So we’ll wait until we know more. The good news is that many of the people infected across the world are recovering, so there is light at the end of a pretty dismal tunnel.

26.2.20 Aeschylus and history

With so much of my PhD becoming about telling true stories in a fictional context, my supervisor Dr Chris Mackie keeps on taking me back to the Greek classics. Like the time when I converted the play from a one-woman piece into a three-hander. Chris told me I was following in the paths of the ancient playwrights who, over the passage of fifty-odd years, made the same conversion.

I have started reading Aeschylus again. He was the first in a line of great Greek tragedians, born 525 years before Christ. He wrote plays that told of the great struggles the Hellenes faced (against the Persians), and also the great struggles that individual man faced (for example, Oedipus and his offspring) when dealing with his fates.

Today I started on a lovely 1889 translation of his works. The first play was The Persians which told of the attack on Athens by Xerxes and his soldiers. Initially successful, the Persians soon lost their gains and were routed.

It is a play with a Greek chorus wailing and lamenting, with Xerxes’ mother, the Queen of Persia being told by a messenger of the terrible loss.

This was art telling history, and telling it in a way that, like in my play, filled the gaps of history. Aeschylus, who could not have been present when the messenger delivered his sorry tale, imagined Queen Atossa’s reaction and lament and put it into a poet’s meter. Invention and supposition. Worthy and educative, but still invention and supposition.

The more of these ancients I read, the more I understand of the events of those times. Historians such as Xenophon followed. In his case he was in some of these Persian battles, so his stories have, perhaps, more credibility as a history. But then again, he could not have seen everything that he wrote about. 

Still, without Aeschylus, we would know little more of the Persian wars, and his plays have been used as sources by historians over the centuries. Despite his writing having a degree of invention, there is wisdom in his lines, and an understanding of the human nature of the combatants. It is glimpse into the humanity of the times. That may well be the greatest gift Aeschylus gave us: we can see into the mind and heart of Athenians and Persians. When we remember the great and entertaining plays he produced, we must also be thankful for these insights which have carried across two and a half millenia.

25.2.20 Meeting George in Athens

My grandmother Olga worked in a resistance cell in Greece in WWII. I know she rescued British, Australian and Kiwi flyers trapped behind the enemy lines as the germans moved from the north towards Athens. The operatives in this cell got the rescued airmen onto boats on the east coast and accompanied them to Cairo.

From my research, there was a cell that did just this. It operated from Athens (where Olga was working). at the same time that Olga was doing her operations. The leader of this cell was Lela Caryiannis, a descendent of a woman who was a leader of the resistance against the Ottomans in the 1820s.

Given these circumstances I thought it likely that this was the cell Olga worked with. I have contacted Lela’s grandson Dr George Pararas-Caryiannis to see if he had any documentation that might prove the link. It was the longest of long shots, but worth the asking. Documentation on resistance members is scant, although George does have a list of some of the cell’s operatives. Olga was not on this short list. The joy of this was that I was in contact with the grandson of the woman who Olga almost certainly knew, if not worked with closely.

Last night I received an email from George. He is coming to my talk at the Athens Centre in April. I had let him know about the talk, not really expecting him to be in Greece (I believe he lives in Hawaii now). So it was lovely to find out that he will be there in the audience when I am talking about Olga’s work.  I may even play a scene from the workshop where his grandmother tries to recruit Olga to her cell. The scene is of course fictionalised. I had imagined that if Olga was to work with Lela, they might have met like this, in a neutral place (a cafe) following an introduction by a mutual friend.

Whatever happens, this will be an emotional time for both of us, I’m sure.

19.2.20 Learning the language of the forebears

In preparation for the Greece research trip, Jac and I have started learning Greek. The Greek Community Centre in Melbourne offers classes starting from absolute beginners (called 1.1) up to advanced lvel. I decided to go into 1.1 because Jac has done no Greek at all, and also I wanted to go back to basics as I had been largely self-taught (and self-taught badly).

Jac and I turned up with our pencils and notebooks.

In the first class were a surprising number of young people of Greek heritage. Also surprising is that many of them knew how to speak Greek. This gave Jac the jitters, because if there’s one thing she hates, it’s that feeling of being the dumbest one in the class. Five minutes into the class that feeling came roaring alive. Every time she confused her Greek gammas with her ipsilons you could almost see the puff of steam coming out of her head. I made the mistake of trying to help her once, and got an elbow in the ribs.

We spent a good part of the week before the second class drilling the alphabet. The second class was much safer for my ribs.

Today’s class was a gem. Jac’s reading was much smoother, and a few times she nailed sentences that a couple of the other students.. the Greek speakers.. struggled with. 

The highlight came when I told the teacher, Akis, that Jac could count to twelve in Greek.

“She’s on fire” he exclaimed.

A lovely moment.

18.2.20 Re-enter my publisher

The Olga novel was published in Greek as Ο πολεμοσ τησ ‘Ολγασ (in English: Olga’s War) in 2012. The first printing sold well and it went into a second run after a couple of weeks.

Part of the Greek version cover (Psichogios Publications 2012)

Because all this happened during the time of the Greek austerity measures, any money leaving Greece was subject to a huge tax. So in lieu of royalties, I asked if the publisher could send me a box of the books. They arrived, and to this day I have never received a royalty cheque.

It was a surprise then when the publisher (Psichogios) said they’d like to come to the talk at the Athens Centre and sell my books. It will take me back to the time in 2012 when I went to the their offices in north Athens, a cathedral of books, and met Mr Psichogios. There was me, an Australian who couldn’t speak a lot of Greek, and Mr Psichogios who couldn’t speak a lot of English. It was a great moment when we looked at each other, gave up trying to speak each other’s language, and started using an interpreter. It was the start of a nine-year, if money-free relationship.

Maybe if they sell a few books I’ll get some royalties.


12.2.20 Bringing it all back home

It’s 6am and I have just returned from an hour on the ABC here in Melbourne. I was asked in to talk about journalism and the state of fact reporting in the age of Trump.


The talkback callers gave a bit of stick to reporters, saying things such as journalists don’t dig deep enough into stories, and that they are more concerned with scandal than important information.

As a journo of more than 30 years’ experience in all media, I could feel myself having that unpleasant sense that this was going to be a bash-fest. But then I listened to these people, and they all had a point. They were crying out for information on what was really going on in our society. They really wanted to know, and really believed they weren’t being told the truth. One caller even said we are not really being told about the Coronavirus which has just killed more than 1000 people. This caller wanted to know the threat to our society.

Yep. Good statement. As I scanned the news sites today I saw plenty of articles bashing Trump, plenty of stories about crime victims learning how to recover, stories about country pubs closing down, or yarns about failed restaurateurs. Easy stories that don’t require a lot of work.. just a bit of listening. Some sites had explainers about Corona. Most had more space devoted to an AFL star’s battle with an ankle injury. That poor millionaire ankle was deemed more worthy than an infection that could kill you or me. that said, I’m sure more people will read about that ankle than about the virus. That’s just what we are more interested in.

As a playwright and a journo, it’s my job to tell a story and to make it interesting enough that people will devote their precious time on that story. Make that story true and compelling and you’ll get them. That takes more than simply saying in a headline: “You really need to read this”. It’s a fine skill and not all journos are natural storytellers. 

That’s an important part of their craft. I hope we all get better at it.

5.2.20 Nearly submission time

I just met with my PhD supervisor Professor Chris Mackie at La Trobe University. We have edged even closer to submitting the PhD (and the play) for examination.

For a PhD, you need to choose a few senior academics (one domestic and one overseas) to examine the PhD. I have given Chris a few names of people I have met at various writing, culture and journalism conferences. It’s now his job to contact some of them and ask them to be examiners.

My trip to Greece starts at the end of March, and Chris says the PhD will be sent off well before that. After three fabulous years the PhD is closing and the accompanying play is just coming to life. This whole process has been wonderful.

29.1.20 More Greek developments

Two days ago I wrote that I heard from the Athens Centre. This morning I got an email from the prestigious National Theatre of Greece. They want to meet me while I am in Athens. 

This is like a political student going to Washington and being invited to have a chat with the President.

I also have confirmed with the Athens Centre that I will also be giving a talk about my play while I am there in late April. I did some quick thinking and asked Jac if she would be interested in reciting some lines from the play during my talk. It’s work for her to do this, but I’m sure it’ll be fun for both of us. Her ‘yes’ couldn’t come quick enough.

Even if the play does not get staged in Greece (and I’m sure it will at some stage), at least we ca say that the words were performed before an audience. This is Christmastime for a playwright.

Bring on April!

27.1.20 We’re going to Greece

Wow, that was quick. I’ve just heard from the Athens Centre in Greece. They would like to discuss the possibility of putting on my play, either later this year or next year. 

This is the tipping point for our world trip later this year. We have decided we will go to Athens. During this time I will meet with the Athens Centre people about a production. I’m pretty sure they would want a prepared production that is already costed. That might knock out a chance of staging it this year, since there is no production yet. If we were a touring company going to the Edinburgh Festival and staging the play in several cities on the journey, then yes, it could work.

Nevertheless, we will meet and chat about the play and see the space. It’ll be an honour to be a playwright in the land of my forebears.

24.1.20 Having a bit of front

Now that the PhD is coming to a close, it’s time to think about how to get the play staged. I’ve already written about how the Greek Festival in Sydney is interested in running it in 2021. But I would love to see it on the boards in Greece.

Now, any writer will tell you that the difference between staging a play and not staging a play comes down to having the front to put it out there.  You simply need to write to people and putting your work in front of them. I have found five Greek theatre companies, and yes, I have just written to them all.

My sell is a pretty good one: I have a play about an element of Greek history; it is a play that has elements that reach into the Greek diaspora; it is a play that has legitimacy because it is part of a university research project; it is a story of a strong woman working among strong women; it has been workshopped with an award-winning director and actors; the playwright (me) is Greek; and finally, the story itself is a ripper, being about a Greek-Australian spy working in WWII. It also doesn’t hurt that this story has never been told before.

I’ll let you know the results. Meantime, I’ll tap my Greek community contacts to see if they know theatre people in Greece. You never know.

20.1.20 Storytelling and memory

In the last post I told you how I was reading Mary Renault, a British author who wrote historical fiction about ancient Greece. Today I got to a powerful interlude in her The Praise Singer where the real-life protagonist Simonides got into an argument with his protege who was using a wax tablet to write down stories. At first I didn’t see the problem until I realised that Simonides and his ilk were strictly verbal storytellers. Part of their skill and art was their ability to remember the stories they told. Writing it down was a no-no.

This was a powerful moment for my process as an academic historian because much of what I have studied has to do with oral histories. This little interlude magnified the issue that not only were stories passed on by mouth to mouth, but they were required, as a point of honour, not to be written.

As we in modern storytelling, with our word processing, bytes and clouds, find difficulty with authenticity, fake news and embellishment, it is quite a contrast with the days of old when records were kept in the minds of the Praise Singers like Simonides, poets like Homer and embryonic historians such as Herodotus.

It is no surprise that there are so many versions of stories in Greek antiquity, evidenced by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all doing versions of stories such as Oedipus and coming up with different versions. There was no definitive version of these orally transmitted stories, and as such, we have no definitive version of the story today. No wonder.

17.1.20 Charles Lever and Mary Renault

Every time I travel to Tasmania I buy a book in a regional bookshop that changes my reading habit.

In 2016 which passing through Richmond (which we had only gone to to see the oldest bridge in Australia), I went into an antique shop bought a first edition book by 18th century novelist Charles Lever, who was a friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens. Lever wrote historical novels about his native Ireland. Like with my writing, many of his characters were true, but also like my writing, he invented protagonists and minor events. But it was always in the context of the larger events and social issues of the time. 

Over the next three years I bought many Lever books..

They not only look great on the book shelf, they are ripping reads, and I found myself making reference to the Lever style in my PhD. He gave breadth to the stories he told, and while they were largely fiction, the life of the Irish is brought to you through his beautiful depictions of the people in his stories.

Then a few weeks ago I was again in Tasmania. I was hoping to make another great literary discovery, but the little book shops had nothing that grabbed me. Then we stopped at a place on the east coast called St Marys. The bookshops there appeared to have nothing either, so we walked the main street and went into a secondhand shop. They had a shelf of books, mostly pulp fiction, and each book was one dollar.

I saw a book that I had seen before. In fact it must have been in almost every bookshop I had ever been to. It was a copy of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. I had always imagined this as a trash quickie, a bit of populist fiction. This time though I picked it out and read the inside cover, which told of how this was the story of Theseus, the king of Athens. With one dollar being no great loss, I took the book and that afternoon I started reading it.

It was revelatory. Not only was Renault telling a great story based on the heroic Greek myths she was a great writer. Now, only a month later, I am halfway through my third Renault, having lived with Theseus for two books, and now with the Praise Singer, Siminides. Like Lever, Renault has the capacity to take you to the places of which she writes, and like Simonides himself, she has the ability to entrance. She is writer who knew that great writing begins with great research. She knew her stuff and couched the material in a compelling way.

The proof of that is that I’ve just ordered two more Renault books.

13.1.20 Dotting the “I” and crossing the T

My PhD is still with my co-supervisor Nasya Bahfen who is correcting all my little typos and incomprehensibles. Once she has done that we can look at submitting it for examination.

I’m really in debt to Nasya for doing this. It’s a big effort to go through tens of thousands of words in a PhD. It’s not just a case of reading. You need to be meticulous. 

As a journalist teacher I tell my students that the only effective way of finding the mistakes in your copy is to read it out aloud. A word that is duplicated at the end of a line and at the start of the next line is easily scanned over by your eye and missed. It’s only by vocally verbalising the script that these errors are found.

Nasya has corrected small sections of my PhD over the last couple of years, and she has found things that I would never have seen, like double spaces between words, or a full stop in the wrong place next to a bracket. She’s also been really cool about the formality of academic formatting (and that can be a real pain, especially as different publications often have different rules, which can confuse a writer).

Last week Nasya said she hoped to get it back to me by last Friday. It didn’t come, but it will be with me soon. We students always imagine it’s all about us; that the supervisor lives to do our thesis alone. No. Supervisors juggle many PhD students at once, as well as doing their own research and teaching.

Patience, Kafcaloudes. Patience.

10.1.20 It’s on. Next year.

I’ve just found out that the play has been accepted for the Sydney Greek Festival.

I met with the festival organising committee while I was in Sydney a month ago. They asked for a budget and a formal proposal. After some discussion with play director Gary Young, I put together a budget that would cover paying three actors, Gary and me, as well as two weeks of rehearsal in Melbourne, flights to Sydney, living allowances and the staging of the play for two performances, possibly as early as April this year (the festival runs until the end of April).

Now, this was always going to be a close thing. The festival is going to start soon, and you would expect that the final program would have been worked out way before now.. not to mention final budgets for expensive items such as a live performance featuring an interstate group.

In the end it was too close for this year. But they have told me they would love to have Lady of Arrows performed for the festival in 2020.

I hope to get this play staged elsewhere before that, including possibly in Greece, but again the same issues will arise. I have also been in contact with my friends at the Melbourne Antipodes Festival, and I would love to see the play staged in my home town, so maybe that is a chance, but Antipodes is also a festival that runs early in the year, so I might be in the same position. Plays like this need to a long lead time, so it could be that the Sydney Festival may still be staging the world premiere next year. We’ll see.

To stage it in Sydney would be great, because that is the city in which part of the play is set. Ultimo is where Olga’s family grew up, and Olga narrates the story from her little room in the back of her daughter’s house in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Also, my family is in Sydney, hundreds of them, so the play would have a huge guaranteed audience wanting to see their own family history.

And that would be something.

8.1.20 A Pilgrim’s Progress

I collect books. This expensive hobby began when I first started interviewing guests on radio back in the 1990s. I have plenty of Peter Carey, Tom Keneally, DBC Pierre, Ben Elton, Isabel Allende, Jeffrey Archer, even Roger Moore books, all signed by their authors. I then started looking backwards, collecting 19th century early or first editions; my hinger driven after finding a 1st ed. of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss  in an old bookshop in Oxford. It only cost a couple of dollars. Since then I have found early printings of Dickens, Lever and other Eliots.

I read them all, no matter their condition. Invariably their condition is worse by time I have finished, but they were written to be read, and in those yellowing pages you can feel the life of the readers who have passed before. An occasional fossilised crumb of 18th century bread, or if you are lucky, a flattened, long-expired mite will surprise you.

I tell you this because I am reading a very early edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It was written while he was in jail under persecution because of his religious beliefs. It tells the story of a pilgrim called Christian (no subtlety there) who finds his way through a whole set of trevails to heaven. In the second half of the book, his wife, called Christiana and her four kids follow in his path. This second half of the book is the more interesting, because by this time Bunyan’s preachiness has given way to a story full of characters and humanity. The children get married along the journey, and they are accompanied by a young woman called Mercy, who is intent on selfless deeds like making clothes for the poor.

As I was reading the book this morning, the parallels with the Odyssey came to mind. The book is a story of obstacles, and of cause and effect. Just as Odysseus was the cause of his own misery, so too were the characters in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Of course in the latter the effects could be seen early on. If a man amassed lots of money and let his tenants starve, then you knew it was not going to end well. In The Odyssey it was not always so clear why Odysseus found himself beset by sea snakes or giants with one eye. It was invariably because he had annoyed a god. These were not Bunyan’s god, but a slew of male and female gods that had, at various times, married their sisters or mothers, eaten their children or sought revenge for petty slights. Hardly the message of wholesomeness that permeates The Pilgrim’s Progress. The gods of Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides were way more fun. But the parallels of the long and winding journey are strong.

One has to expect that Bunyan, a man of reading, would have thought of Odysseus’ journey as he lay in that prison two thousand years later, preparing to write his own odyssey.

5.1.20 A New Start

Well I’ve done it. I have started the workless chapter in my life. It’s not actually workless, but it is a chapter where I will not be receiving a weekly wage for the first time since I was 22.

Leaving a reasonably well paid job as an academic is sure to be scary at times. I wonder if I’ll have dark nights of the soul, waking at 3am feeling as though I will never work again. I admit there have been moments, not in the night, but in the day time, when driving or walking or reading when I find myself thinking that I have missed an opportunity.

Then the Greek gods come in, saying that I have bigger fish to fry (a bad cliche for a vegan, I know). I have a play that needs to be seen. I have a PhD that needs submitting, and as Jac tells me, I have a house to paint.

I am also using these days to read some of the Greek classics. My PhD supervisor Chris Mackie kept pulling me back towards Homer and Herodotus, and I have loved the stories of my forebears. As I read Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides I see parallels with  the best and worst of human behaviour, such as Euripides’ King who allowed his wife to die so that he would be granted a double length of his own life. This king sobbed like a child as his wife faded away, making protestations, but never once demanding that the life-lengthening deal be retracted. She dies, and through the work of Heracles she is brought back to life, but no thanks to her cowardly husband. In this era of weasel words and manufactured talkshow host anger, this fable has relevance. It’s just strange that after 2500 years, the lesson of the fable has not been learned.

I look forward to the other lessons my Greek reading will offer up.

6.12.19 Metaxas, Bainimarama and my grandfather

While I was planning meetings about staging the play, I also had to work on my presentation to the journalism academic conference (JERAA), which was held at Sydney University.

My presentation was a parallel study between the regime of Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama, the man who staged a coup in Fiji a decade ago, and the Greek dictator who bullied his way into power in Greece between the wars, John Metaxas.

I got a laugh from the audience when I quoted a line from Deep Purple song:

“The warriors of the flat earth can become the tyrants of the globe.”

That certainly was the experience with both Bainimarama and Metaxas. Both had been soldiers; both earlier staged failed coups; once in power both curbed the media; both jailed opponents; both promised that they were patriots who would save their country.

I also told the audience that Metaxas’ desire for media cleansing led to my grandfather, Christos Maniarizis being jailed, and eventually killed as one of the Haidari 200 on Hitler’s orders. My grandfather was no criminal. He was a leftist journalist who refused to sign a paper pledging allegiance to Metaxas’ government.

This warrior Metaxas had indeed become a tyrant.

When I finished my presentation, Dr Kayt Davies from Edith Cowan University pulled me aside and thanked me for opening up about my grandfather . She was obviously touched by the story. Kayt is a battler for journalism and journalism rights. This story about a man who stood up against a tyrant had touched her. Journalists are killed every day, but it’s the personal stories like that of Nikos that make the connection between mind and heart. It was a lovely moment after giving what will be my last presentation as an academic before I head off onto my sabbatical.

2.12.20 My first negotiation

I just spoke with the people from the Greek Festival in Sydney. It was a bit of a schlep to Lakemba, which used to be Sydney’s Greek central. Nowadays the inevitable social shifts means it is now more of a Muslim/Indian centre, but it is still a warm community place where the shopkeepers know their customers and treat them like old friends. In the cafe where I found some vegan middle-eastern food, groups of men still crammed around plastic tables, smoking endlessly and solving world problems. They could’ve been Indian, Lebanese or Syrian, but their emphatic passion was just the same as what I used to see among the old Greeks when I was a kid in Marrickville. Certainly the haze of tobacco was the same.

Then going into the Greek club I was introduced to a table of festival committee members who also had the same Greekness as greek committee members the world over. Direct questions, the same pride in Greece, the same criticism of politicians, and most importantly, the same appreciation and warmth towards a fellow Greek who they feel has done good. It was lovely.

I gave them a copy of the novel and told them Olga’s story. They said they might have a theatre that could stage the play. I said I could possibly find a grant to help stage the play, but this kind of financial help didn’t seem to be on their radar. The head of the committee asked me to put together a budgeted proposal, and we were done. Now I need to work out how much a monolith like a full interstate play company will cost., and we’ll take it from there.

27.11.19 Surprises

Now I have decided to take a year off from teaching at university and its insane workload, I have had to consider what I will actually be doing.

This week I presented a paper at an academic writer’s conference at the University of technology in Sydney (UTS). These conferences are great because you meet other people who share your interests and have great things to say. It’s the closest thing to donning a white sheet and sandals and walking around like Socrates.

At this conference I met up with Helen Vatsikopoulos, the UTS academic who facilitated one of the launches of my novel in 2011. I told her about the play, and she said that the Greek Festival in Sydney is looking for plays to present during their festival season.

She, the wonderful person that she is, rang the head of the festival then and there, and within an hour I was talking to her myself. It was one of the serendipitous things that the festival board is meeting next Tuesday. Nia asked me to come along to discuss staging the play.

Just like that.

Of course staging as play is not like giving a presentation. It will involve three actors, a director, a theatre and an audience. But wow, what a great chance to give Lady of Arrows life.

I’ll let you know how I go.

30.10.19 The Final Steps.. or one of them

I just gave my pre-submission presentation for the PhD.

This involved getting up at a research conference at La Trobe Uni, reveal my research, talk about my findings, then when the STOP card is shown, sit down and watching other people go through the same process.

I love doing these things, partially because Olga’s story is so interesting, partially because I get off on telling stories to an audience, and partially because my supervisor Chris Mackie is constantly making me see the wider scope of my research. Where I started this as a ripping spy story, Chris had me bringing in parallels with Herodotus, Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides. This PhD had me tripping back 3000 years, realising that the play writer’s journey is not a solo one. By that I don’t mean the actors and director, I mean that mine was a journey that was taken by so many of my forebears. Effectively, Chris connected me to my ancient heritage.

Although I’ll get a doctorate and a play at the end of this process, the real value of the last three years has been that connection to those who came before.

16.10.19 Leaving university

Universities can drive you nuts with their nothing-is-ever-enough attitudes. You teach, but you’re got to do research too, and you need to publish research papers and deliver presentations at conferences. You also have to forge industry partnerships. Then you are expected to bring in money to the university as well. Too too much for most mortals who wish to keep their sanity, especially mortals who consider their students to be their number one priority.

It gets worse the higher you go up the promotion ladder, because there gets to be an expectation that you will publish a certain number of papers each year.. and you are also expected to supervise PhD students.

Not that I mind doing any of these things. I actually find them all fun. I do think that after a time it becomes too too much, especially if, like me, you want to do each of them well. Your students need your time. Your research is also a faceless mistress with a whip. 

I think it’s just that this kind of pressure has a use-by date. I know of too many academics who are in counselling or have gone bonkers. The great department heads understand this and try not to make the burden even more burdensome. My former boss at La Trobe University, Steinar Ellingsen understood this. He gave space.

When I was trying to decide whether to stay at RMIT, I vacillated. But the fact is that each time I made up my mind to leave, I felt the weight off the world lift. I smiled. Then when someone would suggest a way of making it possible for me to stay, that old weight came back. In the end I had to grow a pair and make the announcement I was not going to accept RMIT’s offer of a permanent job.

The Dean of the school has been great. She keeps asking to reconsider. I really appreciate that. But I’m going at the end of the year.

And I’m still smiling.

11.9.19 A great honour

I just found out that I have been given the inaugural JERAA teaching award.

It was for my work putting together the national election program in May, a program that involved 20+ universities and more than 150 people. It was broadcast in three capital cities and on community radio stations across the country.

JERAA [the Journalism Education & Research Association] decided to starting giving a teaching award only this year. So I’m the first.

I know how awards generally work. The Australian author Tim Winton once intimated to me that they are less about worthiness than about a whole cocktail of extraneous factors, perhaps lobbying, favouritism, luck. Possibly, but I see it as a kindness from a group of people who wish to support and bestow a thank you.

So thanks right back to Peter English, Andrew Dodd, Kayt Davies and all at JERAA for your kindness.

4.7.19 The Siren Call of Ulysses

Pretty snappy title, huh?

That was the name of the paper I delivered to PopCaanz yesterday. The point of it was that Homer’s Odysseus [see the entry of 2.7.19 for the etymology of the name] has so fascinated writers that The Odyssey has been adapted into a lot of formats, and parts of the story have been taken for use by many others, beginning with Aeschylus, who took King Agamemnon and turned him into the hero of one ion his most famous works.

Let’s have a look at how the bones of Odysseus have been reanimated over the millennia: 

Virgil took one of the characters from the Iliad, the Trojan Aeneas, and wrote a sequel around this fictional character in his epic poem Aeneid. This work was itself the inspiration for another sequel The Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid by 15thcentury Italian writer Decembrio, effectively making this a sequel upon a sequel of a fictional character. Francois Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus (1740) invents the travels of Odysseus’ son Telemachus across north Africa, Crete and Rhodes. Fenelon’s work takes some of Homer’s philosophy and expands it further into a morality play on leadership and friendship. This sequel spawned a sequel itself: Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses (1841), which focusses on Odysseus’ state of mind as he overcomes his adversities. Another sequel is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel(1956), which begins moments after Homer’s original finishes. It takes the premise that although Odysseus has returned safely to Ithaca, he remains unfulfilled and soon leaves once more to find the meaning of his life. As of getting his kingdom, wife and home back just wasn’t quite enough..

The proliferation of such writings raises the question: Why does Homer’s The Odyssey continue to influence authors, playwrights and filmmakers to this day?

I can take a guess:

It’s about fighting for survival

It’s about finding your home

It’s about the struggle to achieve

It’s about good vs bad

It’s about protecting your family

It‘s a ripping adventure

What’s not to like?

2.7.19 PopCaanz and Ulysses

Or is it Odysseus? 

Same guy.

I grew up thinking the warrior who outsmarted the Cyclops was Kirk Douglas’ Ulysses (pronounced with an accent on the “y”). Then came James Joyce with his Ulysses with an accent on the “U”.

So confusing.

That’s what happens when Hollywood meshes with the classics. Ulysses should probably be spoken with Joyce’s accent. Or maybe not, because Ulysses is latin for Odysseus, so if we are going to be purist here, we’d stick with the Greek version: Odysseus.

The Odyssey.. Odysseus. Get the it? The Romans may have taken over from the Greeks as far as empires and senates go, but please Mr Douglas and Mr De Laurtentiis, Greek is Greek, and Odysseus is Odysseus.

Still, it says something that this 3000 year old story is still being copied and remodelled to this day. Tomorrow I’m delivering a paper to the academic Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand about the world’s fascination with The Odyssey.

The more I researched for it, the more I found about sequels and treatments of the original story. Even the spaceship super-computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey gets a look in. 

HAL as the Cyclops? Who would’ve thought?

29.6.19 Thank God for Florence

After my talk the other night I wrote that some Greek stories will have to die because the keepers of these stories will die without passing them on.

Florence is trying to stop this. Florence is a Kastellorizan woman who told me on the night of the talk at the Greek Community Centre two days ago that she is trying to get Kazzie women to tell their stories. She’s setting up a website where people can feel safe to contribute their stories safe from criticism from pissant historians.

She’s asked me to wrote down my mother’s story (Olga wasn’t a Kazzie herself). Florence thought Nellie was a wonderful story.

I never thought of that: putting her story into print… well.. beyond her presence in my novel and the play.

On reflection, Florence is right. Mum deserves her own story. She travelled with Olga to Greece in the late 1920s and suffered the privations of the time. She had a front seat to the deterioration of her parents’ marriage. Then she married too young, bore a baby while still in her teems, and nearly starved to make sure my sister Sylvia had enough food. The definition of a Greek mother. She could also be a little selfish, manipulative, and had an amazing capacity to play dumb. But she was the most loving person I have ever known.

Florence wants me to put my mother’s story into 5000 words. That’s a lot of words, but the more I think it, nowhere near enough.

I’ll see what I can do.

27.6.19 A Return to the Greeks

Tonight I delivered a paper to the Greek Community academic forum in Lonsdale St here in Melbourne. It was a night of surprises on a few levels. My supervisor, Chris Mackie came (and met Jac for the first time). It was quite something to be talking about Homer and Herodotus when the foremost expert in the field of ancient writers is in your audience. He laughed in all the right places, so I suppose I couldn’t have messed it up too much.

The other surprises came from the audience of Greeks. Mostly older people, some even old enough to remember the war. I will never tire of people queuing to speak to me after a talk. They all have their own stories about their experiences, or the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Secret histories that only stay alive as long as these people are alive. As with Olga, who could’ve died when my mum’s memory failed, these people carry the oral history of a time and place. I wish I could write all their stories.

But that’s impossible. Some stories will just have to die.

7.3.19 The Allure of Odysseus

This is the time of the year when academics and post-grad students are being courted by conference organisers around the world to present papers on their latest research.

Last June I went to Auckland and gave a paper to the academic Popular Culture Association of Australia & New Zealand (PopCaanz) conference about my journey writing Olga’s story. In the paper I talked about the issue of writing a true story when you don’t have a lot of certified facts. This brought in the methods of the Greek storyteller Homer and the Greek historian Herodotus, who both used oral history and (to a degree) folklore as the bases of their stories.

I have put in for the same conference this year, which is being held here at RMIT. I thought if I could go all the way to Auckland to deliver a paper for them last June, then I should at least walk 5 metres to do the same thing this year.

The question was, what should I talk about? Because of my new love affair with Homer, I thought I’d talk about the allure of The Odyssey.

Think about it. Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad have led to a proliferation of works across the three millennia since they were written. There’s been a huge range of variants and sequels to Homer’s work. Virgil’s Aeneid was an early sequel, which itself was the inspiration for another sequel The Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid by 15th century Italian writer Decembrio. Later writers also produced sequels to Homer’s work, such as Francois Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus (1740), and this led to Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses (1841). A 20th century sequel is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1956), which begins moments after Homer’s original finishes.

The presentation would go through these varied sequels, adaptations and reworkings and asks the question: Why does Homer’s work continue to influence authors, playwrights and filmmakers to this day. What is it about this story that is so seminal in modern creative thought?

I may not give all the answers, but I might come up with a few.

25.2.19 The Convergence

Next week the teaching begins. Two courses. Both double subjects. One of them a new one that needs a lot of invention. 

The PhD is also coming to a conclusion. The play has been workshopped and recorded and I’ve written the chapters of the accompanying exegesis (which is a thesis that explains the writing and researching process). 

Last week I met with my supervisors Chris Mackie and Nasya Bahfen. It was a fruitful meeting, our first for a few months, and the first since the workshop. Chris had a few comments about my conclusion. He said that because this was such a personal process, I didn’t need to be too formal in the conclusion. He asked me how I felt about the workshop; what did I get out of it. I told him that it showed me that the play was not a disaster of hubris. I told him about the moments when we would finish a scene and there was silence from everyone: the director, the actors. This was a silence that could’ve been awful. People go quiet because they have no words, and in my experience they have no words for one of two reasons: they hate what has just happened; or they are emotionally affected. In those ten seconds I sat waiting for the verdict, then looked at the director Gary Young’s eyes and saw redness. The same with the actors. They were touched. My words had touched them.

So I told Chris that this emotional bridge was my biggest take-out. There were scripting flaws that we uncovered; stage directions that were impossible; time changes that were not explained properly, or the racial reference that I talked about in yesterday’s diary. These were relatively small things.. the mistakes that are fixed in workshops and rehearsals. But the emotion. That’s what we aim for.

So on there weekend I put that into my exegesis conclusion. I’ve made it less of a formal recap, and more of a reflection. I meet Chris on Thursday. I hope he likes it. 

So now we’re getting to the convergence. The teaching, the PhD pre-submission process, the federal election TV show that I’m producing; the start tomorrow of my third year students doing their Aussie Rules TV program (The Rushed Behind) on Melbourne’s Channel 31 (Thursdays at 6pm is case you’re around).

If I don’t go crazy, this will be a pretty fabulous four months.

24.2.19 Is it Racism?

There came a moment in the workshop that I had completely forgotten about until I saw a story about Senator David Leyonhjelm. He was the guy who made allusions about the sexual looseness of a Greens senator. He claims he was not being sexist.

The memory it brought back was a moment in the workshop where Jac (playing Olga) questioned a line I had put in. Olga was explaining why she agreed to marry my grandfather in 1921 and leave the thriving, cosmopolitan Alexandria in Egypt.

One of the reasons was that she could get away from the “orientals, Sikhs and Ottomans”.

Jac said she wanted to talk about that line. The director, Gary Young, said he also flinched at that line. 

I would like to say I put that in as a reflection of the times, and it was to give breadth to the character. But this wouldn’t be true. I did it because I thought it rang true. Alexandria was a place where east met west met north met cultural clashes. Australia was a contrast: it was white and was refusing to become anything else. The Olga that I wrote wanted to be away from all that Egyptian maelstrom.

Gary never said the line was racism (which it clearly was), but he did say it would give pause. It might even have audience members react to Olga negatively. It could distract, and thus destroy the import of the passage.

I agreed to take it out not with any heavy heart. I didn’t wanted a throwaway line to disrupt the flow for the audience.

On reflection, I don’t know whether I was wrong to take it out. Certainly a throwaway line can cause damage and alienate (as Leyonhjelm has found). It also reminded me of the time I met the great Australian WWII resistance fighter Nancy Wake. She was a woman who fought with the French resistance and was awarded and feted for her work. In fact a play about her is being staged in Melbourne this year. But when I think of Wake, I don’t remember so much of her heroism but something she said to me back in 1985.

I had organised her to come into out radio studio to be interviewed by Ita Buttrose. I got her address for the cab  and realised that she lived in Lane Cove, the same suburb as me.

I mentioned this and she said: “Yes, it’s a lovely place, but there are too many bloody Chinese living there now.”

This horrified me at the time, and the fact that this throwaway line has stayed with me for more than 30 years speaks to the power of a line. She was a hero, but she in that moment became a flawed hero to me.

So maybe there’s something in what Jac and Gary said.


20.2.19 Putting it into Perspective

It’s been a while since I have written in this diary. The workshop finished three weeks ago and I have been working with graphics editor Dan Mavric to assemble the five camera shoot into a single video of the play. Doing all this takes one away from the play itself. You get focussed on the detail of the recording and the choice of camera angle. You may even get to the point where you don’t want to hear the words you have written anymore. I got to that stage.

This morning I started preparing for my PhD meeting tomorrow with my supervisors at La Trobe Uni. I thought it might be a good time to review the central chapter of the thesis: the one that deals with the actual writing of the play. That chapter had plenty of discussions about the workshop, but it needed life.

I went through some of the videos and photos I took of the workshop on my iPhone, and there was plenty that would fit in with the thesis. There was plenty of illustrative stuff such as when Gary Young directed scenes or made suggestions about changes to the script that brought my characters from page to life.

For the last four hours I have been splicing these illuminating moments into the thesis, and it’s given me a chance to re-evaluate the play.

I like this play. I love the interpretation given to it by the actors and by Gary’s direction. Barely a scene leaves me with dry eyes. Sometimes I’d look over my shoulder and see Jac watching the scene with me. Sometimes her eyes are as wet as mine.

These are the great moments for a writer. 

27.1.19 Two Acts or Not Two Acts

I’m coming to understand the many dilemmas of playwrights. One of them is that decisions are rarely final.

In the exegesis which explains the adaptation of my novel into a play, I give a long explanation of my decision to make this a two act piece. I investigate a range of plays and musicals, examining their lengths, number of intervals, even whether, like the new Harry Potter play, it could feasibly be staged over consecutive nights. I found the shortest play in the world which runs something like 24 seconds, and the longest which has a duration of 24 hours. That’s some variation.

In the end I decided just to write the play. The length would be secondary. Once I had a story, I would then decide whether to have an interval.

As it turned out I had a natural place for an interval and it came roughly half way through the script: it was when Olga is arrested by the Gestapo. She has just received a letter from her family telling her that her daughter Nellie has moved to Darwin. Olga laments that her husband has sent Nellie to place so close to the Japanese who are in Singapore and New Guinea. Olga tells the audience that being far away in Greece she never realised her girl would be so close to danger. Then she says she didn’t realise that she herself was so close to danger. At this moment a German officer calls out that Olga is under arrest. Then comes the interval, and after the break Olga is in her cell explaining what happened to her. The story has taken a right turn.

On the last day of the workshop we recorded the first act right through, and we came to this arrest moment. We were about to start blocking (staging) the second act when the director, Gary, gave one of his umms, and when Gary gives an umm, you know something of consequence will follow.

“Phil, I’m just wondering whether we need an interval here.”

I said I thought it was the perfect place for the interval, and explained the reasoning about the right turn and the tension moment.

“No. I mean I don’t know if we need an interval at all.”

Gary went on to say that tension had built nicely to this point, and he wondered whether it would be a mistake to let the audience off the hook.

The first act had timed to 47 minutes. Gary said in the playing of the piece it was bound to be faster, maybe around 44 minutes. He said he was worried that was too short. He said that if the whole play ran under 100 minutes, then it was feasible to do it as a single act.

We agreed to leave it in two acts as this stage, but I admit it has been on my mind. I was proud of the crafting of the interval. I’m leaving it in, but we’ll see what happens when it is next revisited, be it by Gary or another theatre company.

26.1.19 Olga Plays a Game of Cards

I write this at a school market on Australia Day 2019. It’s a pretty apt day for my morning’s writing.

On the last day of the workshop on Thursday we looked at the Cairo scene. This was where Olga is in a British military base, having just accompanied the latest group of British and Australian soldiers out of occupied Greece to safety.

In the way I had written the scene, Olga was simply talking with an Australian soldier. For her, the flush of excitement at the rescue has passed and she reveals that she feels worthless. She has lost sight of the value of her work, and can just see it as an avoidance of what she believes she should really be doing: being a mother to her children. The soldier tries to persuade her of the value of her work. He does this by calling out that this is Olga and other soldiers gather around her, reminding her of how she saved them. This leads to the “Girls of my dreams” line that I mentioned in yesterday’s diary entry.

We ran though this scene and Gary Young asked me what Olga and her soldier are doing as they speak. Well I admit I had not really thought about that. I just imagined they weren’t actually doing anything.  I pictured them standing among other soldiers, talking. 

Obviously this wasn’t possible. This is a three-hander play. There was only one actor left to form the crowd. Gary suggested Olga and the soldier do something as they talk. What would soldiers do in a military base as they wait to be transferred? 

Cricket, I suggested.

Gary laughed. Yes of course. We have three actors. That didn’t leave a lot of actors to play bowler and batsman.

I don’t remember who suggested a game of cards. It could’ve been Jac or Hannah, but it was brilliant. It was simple to stage, needed no more than two people and it was a most Australian of pastimes (apart from maybe two-up, but that is usually played as a big group, so that was out).

Cards it was, and we talked about what game it should be. Someone suggested 500, but in my mind it was already going to be poker, a simple five card version played between Olga and her soldier, the game we played at school on Melbourne Cup day. It helped that I knew the game. I had already written in the stage direction for it.

Gary suggested it be more than just stage directions. He thought I could go even further and write in some dialogue of card playing, interspersed with the heart-to-heart conversation.

This was an intriguing idea. A dual conversation within a conversation. This morning I wrote this in. Here’s an example:


 Oh, yes. It was all planned. That’s why I came here. She was supposed to follow me. The contact went to her house to get her. But she told them she didn’t want to leave. She said Greece was her home, and she was going to stay there until the Germans were thrown out. You going to bet or are you going to sit there admiring your cards all day?


 (Throws a brown coin in the middle.)

Tuppence. She sounds like a hell of a woman.


You see why I need to be with her. Meet you and raise you another.


She is a woman who knows her home. And I raise you.


(Pauses. Looks at his cards.) 

Why don’t you go home? Sydney, isn’t it?

Jac and I read it together and she  could see how this would work. It leaves plenty of interpretation for the actors, with plenty of room for physical acting and for change of tone within the single passage. I wrote it as a naturalistic passage that mirrors how many conversations actually run. 

I must admit it was great fun to write this dialogue. I won’t get to see how it lifts off the page until the next time I get the piece into a room with a group of actors, but I hope they’ll have as much fun with it as I had writing it.

25.1.19 The Workshop ends. A New Beginning.

Last night I said goodbye to two people who have shared my grandmother’s story intensely. Actors Hannah Fredericksen and Stephen Mahy brought my characters alive: everyone from the fictional resistance fighter Stavros to the real life underground leader Lela Caryiannis became more than words on a page. With Jackie Rees as my grandmother Olga, and director Gary Young we all gave these people a soul, motivating them, emoting them, physicalising them. The Australian soldier who is reunited with Olga in a Cairo military base screams out “Girl of my dreams!” and makes Olga flush at the memory of their innocent flirtation in Pireaus. It was probably innocent. I don’t know. I invented the character and the incident. I will leave that decision to the audience. Or more rightly to the individual audience member. As the audience yesterday, I believed that this soldier and Olga shared a war experience together and shared a closeness that only this kind trial can bring. It was beautiful to see in front of me.

As we come to the close of the workshop, it looked as though we were gaining to do the impossible: record on our five TV cameras a run of the entire play after only two and a half days of planning, staging and blocking. We got to 5.40pm, twenty minutes from the end, and we had only four pages to go, with most of these pages being simple with only one or two actors on stage.

Then Gary called a stop. He wanted to go back four pages. For a moment I wanted to cry out a ‘no!’ Of course I didn’t. Gary had been niggled by something. He wasn’t going to let that niggle go.

We were at a point where it was coming to the climax of the play. Olga had suppressed her memory of what destroyed her marriage, the same memory to forced her out of Australia and over to Greece. In the build up to this climax I had put in a lighter scene. It was only small, five or six lines, but Hannah and Jac played it for its full potential. All of us: Gary, Stephen and me were hysterical with laughter at how beautifully they did it.

Then Gary asked the question that had stopped our recording: Is this scene appropriate?

In that story we are about to learn of one of the great tragedies that could affect a woman. And we are having a laugh? I said that I had written it with buffers on each side, passages that take us back into the lead up to the tragedy. I was sure it was all right.

Gary pressed on. He wasn’t so sure. The build to a climax is a delicate thing. Tension is a powerful thing. Releasing tension in a play is often good, but only in the ebb and flow of a play. The build to the climax is something on its own. You don’t mess with it. You don’t give the audience a break.

It still wasn’t convinced. Then I remembered that the climax this memory play followed Olga starting to remember the awful truth, and this truth was in her wartime diary. She had suppressed it. I had her scrabbling through her diary to find that memory, and the build up was her telling the story as she found it in her diary.

Yes, Gary was right. This was not the time for a funny aside. This was a woman facing a mother’s torment. A mother would be telling us in the manner of a confession: the more she tells, the more power there must be in her story. 

That aside, there were been plenty of other developments that have been really useful for the play, many of them written into the script as we went along.

One thing that this experienced director said half way through the day was that he felt this could work better as a single act play. Take out the interval and make it a 90 minute single-sitting story. He said the story built gently and increased tension. He it would be shame to waste that with an interval. I will look at this.

With all this development, the play is something stronger and something that can staged. Gary has made it so it can be staged, and the forty (or so) characters and their quick changes can be managed by three actors on a simple set.

For three days my grandmother Olga lived. I never knew her, but this week I came as close as I ever have to having her in the same room with me. What a privilege.

24.1.19 How an Actor can Save a Script

I had one of those dreadful moments in the workshop yesterday. I actually had my head in my hands.

The moment came about ten minutes into the staging of the script. We were at the place where the young Olga is acting in her first play. I had written her as an extremely shy, stuttery and nervous girl. She flubs her line again and again, and I had written this as a stutter where she just can’t get the words out. On the page it looked okay. On the floor it looked forced.

This is where the experience of the players and director kicked in. Gary asked Jac to do it again, this time having Hannah and Stephen acting as the play’s slave girl and guard. It was smoother. Jac asked if she could drop one of the stutters. Fine by me. Even smoother. They played it with the stutter becoming more of a forgotten line. Hannah had her slave girl acting as the prompter, then a frustrated prompter, slapping her forehead as Olga kept fluffing the line. This little vignette, which was only ever intended to show Olga as a nervous girl out of her depth, became a hysterically funny scene, ending with Olga running off stage and the actors playing the slave girl and the guard miming whispered complaints about this young failed would-be actress.

As I looked at my script later that night I realised Gary, Hannah, Jac and Stephen hadn’t changed a single word or added a single word. They had taken my script and interpreted it.

In my exegesis to the play I explain how the interpretative collaborative process was central to the play’s development. It wasn’t until yesterday that I saw just how much this meant.

23.1.19 The First Day’s Michelangelo Effect

Eight hours in a black room with three actors and a director. Doesn’t sound too enticing.

It was however the fastest eight hours of my life. We read the play, had a discussion, then the director Gary Young took us through the first act in detail.

There were gratifying moments, like just after the last words at the end of the play were spoken. The room was still. Not a word.

Gary, Hannah and Stephen were all looking down at their scripts. Was it a failure? Jac and I were in tears, touched by the final rapprochement of Nellie to her mother. But Jac and I knew Nellie, and have lived with this story. Whether there would be tears in the eyes of others was the question.

Yes indeed. It was a silence, but a good silence. The ending did it for them all.

Gary went on to say he thought the monologues (my biggest concern) worked. He also thought the writing of the other parts was effective.

He had a concern about whether the audience would follow the changing timelines though. I have Olga set in 1960, remembering the events of her life. In one scene she jumps back to 1915, then 1929, then to the war. Now to my mind this is logical. But will be audience understand this jump, particularly when her long-dead husband suddenly appears?

So we read again, always asking whether the time movement was comprehensible. I never want exposition, or the rough shoehorning of dates. For example when a character says: “We are in the middle of the Great Depression and you want to buy a new coat..”


Gary’s experience was invaluable here. He was able to make small suggestions that clarified timelines. Sometimes a line would be moved around. Sometimes the movement between dates was deleted, and a character from the past just turned up as a ghost figure on Olga’s shoulder, a memory in 1960.

There was just one passage, five lines, that was largely excised. It was when Olga’s sister talks to her. As I wrote it, it posed too many questions: what year is this? Why is she here? I was fond of this passage as it was written. But Gary was right. I kept the essential lines but put the pencil through most of it. And like Michelangelo chipping away at his block of stone to reveal the statue that he always knew was there, the words fell together as if they were always meant to fall that way.

The workshop is proving to be everything I had hoped.

22.1.19 The Workshop Begins

Today Lady of Arrows goes to workshop.

It’s the first real time to test out the script and see whether it holds together as a theatre piece. We have already had two readings, but it’s not the same as having three actors and a director in charge of the proceedings. I will be an observer for  lot of this as director Gary Young sits with the four of us in RMIT TV Studio A.

We will sit around a table, and at times the actors will get up and play out the parts. Pencils and sharpeners will be in keen use, I think.

For young actors Hannah Fredericksen and Stephen Mahy it’s a big ask. They have to play seventeen roles each. The biggest role is Jac’s. She plays Olga. I have already written how she has been working on her characterisation. Just yesterday she borrowed two books about the Greek goddess Artemis from the Port Phillip library (Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, is the spiritual impetus for the character of Olga, and the inspiration or the play’s name).

A couple of days ago she came in from her studio in tears. Usually when she cries like this it’s because she’s trodden on a worm or something. This time she cried because of the play’s ending. As any playwright will tell you, these kinds of moments are the great ones.

The game begins.

18.1.19 The Nub of the Issue

Last night I was reading Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband, the Australian playwright David Williamson. I got that biography in 2009 when I was working at the ABC. I interviewed Kristin, which I remember was a fairly frank discussion about her husband. It was frank because in the book she outlines the travails of their marriage including infidelities on both sides (which is a shame because, frankly, who cares whether David got his jollies one night in 1973 with a friend in a London hotel room). But apart from these trouserless escapades there was plenty to discuss, chief among them the man’s writing.

Kristin’s great achievement with this book is an appraisal of the playwright’s journey, and this appraisal she doesn’t do alone. David and Kristin have many thespian friends, and they were willing to discuss his work. This was great for me.

So I was in the bath doing my decade-delayed read and I came, pretty early in the book, to a quote that hit the nail about the difference between writing for reading and writing for performance.

Kristin quotes actor Max Gillies (the man who brought us so many piss-takes of Bob Hawke and Sir John Kerr), who tells of how David Williamson has a singular rhythm to the words in his scripts, and this can be difficult to follow when reading the words on the page:

“ A lot of his words don’t fall naturally. His sentences are ungrammatical and repetitive, his syntax is confusing, he can be long winded.. you spend a good deal of time struggling with it.”

Gillies goes on to say that when these words are acted on stage..

“.. it becomes so totally natural and convincing that it seems there’s no other way of saying something.”

Yes. There is no requirement for the script to be able to be read like a novel, quietly in bed late at night. A play is a performance work, and the test of the writing lies in whether it succeeds as storytelling when read out aloud, acted and presented on stage. 

The workshop is next week. We shall see whether I have made this transition.

10.1.19 Artemis and the death wish

Okay. So Artemis is playing a bigger and bigger role in this play. Jac’s research into this Greek Goddess of the Hunt uncovered more and more about her (see entry for 9.1.19).

Last year I wrote in a reference to Artemis early in the play. The quote was from The Odyssey and seemed to fit right in with the moment for Olga when the past has just caught up with her with the arrival of her wartime diary. It is 1960. In my fiction, her comrade, Stavros has just died. His son found Olga’s diary in his father’s boatshed. While his mother wants all trace of Olga destroyed, the son secretes the diary out and sends it to Olga. This act clears the Greek family of Olga, but it brings the war back to her: 

“Was it a long sickness, or did Artemis of the arrows come upon you with her painless shafts..” (The Odyssey VI, 172) 

In this play Artemis is not just the hunter of the enemies of Greece. Here Artemis fires arrows that pierce a heart, enliven memories, force a reckoning of deeds long past.

Having played such a central role in the movement of this story, I decided that Artemis needed to return at the climax to finish what she started. This had to come at the climax of the story, when wartime Olga discovers that her family has been lost to her; that they believe her dead, that her husband has remarried and has had more children with someone else.

In a matter of moments, Olga’s hopes are no more. She crashes.

I just found a reference that fits this scenario perfectly:

“That was a strange thing, that soft sleep that shrouded me. How I wish chaste Artemis would give me a death so soft, and now.” (The Odyssey XIII, 201)

This quote will be read by one of the actors. My idea is to have it as a voice from offstage, but this will be a matter for the director. We’ll see what happens in the workshop.

As for Olga, she will go on serving the resistance, but at this point in my telling of her story her attitude has changed. She takes risks. She challenges German officers. Never stupidly of course. But she says things and acts in the way of a woman who knows no fear. It may be remarkable that she is not killed during this time. Perhaps having a death wish is what keeps her alive if she acts in a way contrary to the enemy’s expectations.

Perhaps. She made it out of the war when so many didn’t.

9.1.19 The Need to Know More

Ever since I called the play Lady of Arrows the links to Greek mythology have been almost falling into my lap.

This week Jac started reading the play in prep for the workshop which is only two weeks away. Early in the piece I have a quote from The Odyssey about Artemis, who I have mentioned was the inspiration behind the name of the play. Now, Jac is a back story kind of actor, She needs to know more. For example, when she played Madame Giry, the ballet mistress in Phantom of the Opera, she needed to know what kind of woman Giry was. She read the original book, and finding little in that, she invented her best guess as to what motivated this character. Every decision she made informed her portrayal. While many other actors had Giry as a taut, somewhat bitter woman, Jac played her just as severely, but with a sympathetic heart. This gave Jac space to give contrast to the character. It must’ve worked because she was called back to do three years of Asian tours and two Australian tours of the production.

So when Jac saw the quote from The Odyssey she thought perhaps the legend of Artemis might offer her an insight into Olga. Jac found research by Jean Bakula which went into the character of Artemis. It read:

“She had good archery skills and a great love of wildlife, so was continually surrounded by a group of hunting dogs and assorted animals. The Greeks felt that although Artemis hunted, she never did so with cruelty. She hunted for food to sustain life, especially the difficult one she chose to live in the wilderness. Artemis hunted down those who tried to kill pregnant animals, because that would interfere with Earth’s replenishment. Animals are also associated with Artemis as her symbols or familiars. Although she did much to protect them, the deer and the bear were very dear to her. Since the bear is known to be the fiercest mother, this animal seems a good symbol for a goddess who protected women so well.”

There were references in there to elements which crop up in the play.. cruelty, protection, revenge, living in the wilderness, motherhood, fighting.

I had chosen Artemis because she was the Goddess of the Hunt. But serendipity struck with Jac’s research, a serendipity which might just give us a deeper look into our characterisation of my grandmother.

Olga may be Jac’s Artemis. Almost without realising it, Artemis may always have been my Olga.

22.12.18 A month to the workshop

In one month Lady of Arrows will face its next test: a workshop in Melbourne’s RMIT TV studio with actors Jackie Rees (playing Olga), Hannah Fredricksen and Stephen Mahy.

While Jac will be in every scene, Stephen and Hannah will have some heavy lifting too. They’ll each be playing 17 parts, sometimes with very quick turnarounds. Seventeen sounds a hell of a lot, and it is a hell of a lot for an actor. Even though some characters will only have one or two lines, there’s the physicality to consider. They’ll both be shifting between sexes, perhaps from a German interrogator to a Greek woman; or from a British pilot to the woman who heads the Greek rescue service.

At this moment Hannah and Stephen have their scripts, and are probably pining for the days when a character was just that: one character.

Still, I’ve written this play with a lot of fun in it. I hope it turns out that way in the workshop. Three intense days culminating in a visual recording of a reading of the play, all helmed by director Gary Young.

This is a great time as a writer.

13.12.18 A new name.. thanks to Homer

“It’s funny how the least little thing amuses him.”

This was one of Roger Moore’s more successful lines as James Bond. In the film Live and Let Die, henchman Tee Tee has taken Moore’s gun and, using a hook-hand, has impossibly twisted the Walther PPK into a scrunched mess. Moore delivers the line with raised eyebrow as he delivers the mangled gun into a bin.

Today I take this line and twist it into: “Funny how the least little thing can cause apprehension.”

I’m talking about the name for the play. Unbroken was only ever going to be placeholder.. a working title. But coming up with a more permanent name was proving harder than any other element in the playwriting process.

After some weeks of thinking about a title, the only thing that seemed to resonate was: The Diary. It was a pleasant enough title, but to someone who didn’t know the Stambolis story, it would mean as much as calling it The Play. 

So I did what I always do when flummoxed. I went for a walk. Sans headphones.

Somewhere between my street and Marwin’s cafe in Balaclava, a voice came to me saying, “Go to Homer.”

So I went to Homer. The Odyssey had provided so much inspiration over the years, and once again Homer came to help. Short phrases in the saga cropped up all over the place:

A Time for Sleeping (Odyssey Book XI, 379)

The Queens of the Past (Odyssey Book XI, 220)

Of Mortals and Gods (Odyssey Book I, 28)

Honey mixed with Milk (Odyssey Book X, 519)

Souls of the Perished (Odyssey Book X, 530)

The Brazen Spears (Odyssey Book XI, 40)

The Soul of my Companion (Odyssey Book XI, 50)

Beneath the Fog and the Darkness (Odyssey Book XI, 57)

The Edge of the Roof (Odyssey Book XI, 64)

The Sweet Homecoming (Odyssey Book XI, 100)

The Shaker’s Grudge (Odyssey Book XI, 102)

The Oar in the Ground (Odyssey Book XI, 129)

The Arrows of Artemis (Odyssey Book XI, 172)

The Lady of Arrows (Odyssey Book XI, 198)

All the Heroes Round (Odyssey Book XI, 288)

Bound by Hard Destiny (Odyssey Book XI, 292)

Some of these could be adapted to suit the story, such as A Time for Sleeping, which could become A Time for Waking, since the play is about Olga remembering her wartime activities after 15 years of memory slumber. I liked this title, but it still sound generic to me, and I was wary of being generic ever since I titled the original novel Someone Else’s War. I really should have been more inventive than that.

Souls of the Perished fitted so perfectly, since Olga was remembering so many people who had died. They were coming back to her in her memories, perhaps hauntings. But it’s a downer of a title. You’d hardly take your new best friend on a date to see something with a title like this.

I don’t like too do this much, but I asked Jac and the director Gary what they thought of the alternatives. Jac wasn’t a huge fan of A Time for Waking. She thought it would mean nothing to a prospective audience.

Gary liked it, but his favourite was The Lady of Arrows, which he suggested be simply Lady of Arrows. Thinking about it, this title has much to commend it. Olga was in her way an Artemis (Goddess of the Hunt). The arrows of the past have been fired at her through her wartime diary that has so suddenly turned up in the mail. Gary even brought up a Shakespearean allusion: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..”

That’ll do me nicely, I think.

7.12.18 The Way to Live a Life

In the post the other day I got my first edition of Arthur Miller’s play A View from the Bridge. The edition was published in 1955 around the time the play was first produced in New York. The thing I love about Miller’s books is not just the fabulous playwriting, but the reflections he offers as a forward in the book . In the treatise for this play Miller writes:

“Especially for the Greek, a dramas created for public performance had to be ‘social’. A play to him was by definition a dramatic consideration of the way men ought to live.”

The way men ought to live.

This line spoke to me. While Someone Else’s War was a story about Olga the spy and the reasons why she got there, it was also the story of the times. It was immediate. When something happened, we were told, either in first person through Olga’s diaries, or in third person with the other characters who were out of Olga’s eyesight.

The play Unbroken is different. It is set fifteen years after the war. Olga is in Sydney, having been in denial of the war for a long time. She is forced to remember her wartime adventures by the arrival of her diary, sent to her from Athens by the son of a wartime comrade.

This remembering becomes a reflection on her life and how she lived it. With the space of so many years, and the vacuum of the elapsed years, she tells the audience more than just facts; she judges herself. The subtext of her thinking is: have I lived the life I ought to have lived?

In the first scene she says:

“But there is one question that I can’t answer. Won’t answer. The one they don’t really want to know the answer to: ‘Why did you leave us? Why did you go to Greece when we needed you the most?’ Everyone asks. Even if they don’t ask, they ask with their eyes. They even ask in the way they turn their eyes away.”

I am writing no Ancient Greek drama. I am certainly not writing a Milleresque play. But Miller’s words instruct. Plays that can consider the way people ought to live can offer resonance. In the case of Unbroken, it can do what Miller says the oldest dramas did: take the Olga character and give it context, give it assessment. It gives Olga her own chance to do that. Was her life lived well? As an author I can only surmise, but it is this surmising that gives a value to the adaptation. It is not just a retelling for stage. It is a critical self-analysis. The audience can leave knowing something of Olga’s long-distance view of herself. Then, from that perspective, they too can make their judgements.

1.12.18 The eNovel is back, with Julie

Yesterday I wrote that the publisher of the ebook version of Someone Else’s War had collapsed. Because of this, the book was taken off iTunes.

I spent the last little while reworking the manuscript into a second edition, correcting a few factual and typographical errors.

I also fixed something that has been niggling me since it was first put on iTunes seven years ago: the cover.

My good friend, graphic artist Julie Ramsden designed a beautiful cover for the novel back in 2011.

Unfortunately I got some advice from within the industry that the cover could be improved with some changes. At the time I took this advice and had an artist from a small firm play with it.

Stupid me. The power of the original cover was lost. The beautiful sepia tones of the Ramsden original were diminished. The strength of my grandmother’s face was lost.

Now that I have put the new edition of the eBook back on iTunes, I reverted to the original cover.

The book is now up on iTunes again. And Julie gets the credit that she deserves.

At last.

30.11.18 The loss of a great publisher

Some months ago my publisher, Dennis Jones went out of business.

Dennis is a lovely bloke with a lovely idea. His idea was to subvert a dying publishing industry by supporting emerging writers. He knew that there were many good books out there that were not getting contracts because publishers were finding it hard to make a profit. Authors were being driven to vanity publishers.. paying huge sums to have a small, sometimes disreputable company print and distribute the book. Dennis gave these authors a lifeline. He was much more open to distribute the work of less established authors. And it seemed to be working. He published the works of many authors who went on to do greater things, like the much-loved Jackie French.

He was with me right though the critical phase getting Someone Else’s War into the bookshops. It was only because of Dennis and his extensive distribution team that I could walk into a Crows nest bookshop and see my novel there on the front shelf. He also, though his Port Campbell Press, put out an ebook version of the novel on iTunes.

Unfortunately, the pressures of this tumultuous industry and his willingness to support books that didn’t sell finally claimed Dennis’ company.

I hope that Dennis can now get some breathing time. He’s given so much to the industry and to authors. I still remember his words as I told him my book was getting notice in commercial media and the mainstream press, driving it to a second printing:

“Keep on fighting the good fight.”

Words of a man focussed on others.

Thank you Dennis.

28.11.18 La Trobe grants some help

Putting on the workshop in January is going to be quite a task. Three days of readings, direction, learning for the three actors. Three days of planning and designing by the director Gary Young.

Too many times these days, actors and directors are expected to provide their services free of charge. The producer simply offers that if the production goes ahead commercially they will be strongly considered to offered the roles they took in the workshop.

The truth is that this is a promise that may not come true. Circumstances change. A new director may be appointed by the theatre company producing the play. This new director might have other ideas about who they want acting in the play. Or the play may never be produced.

All this means that the actors who have slaved (and it is slaving) to do a good workshop may be donating their time and never see a financial benefit. This is wrong.

For my workshop the actors and the director will be paid. It will only be equity minimum, but it will be paid. They deserve it, and they deserve more.

Today I found out that the university through which I am doing my PhD, La Trobe in Melbourne, has just agreed to a small grant to help pay the actors and director.

This fantastic news means that the financial burden is off my back, and now I can focus on producing the best possible workshop. It also means if there are other expenses, I will be in a much better position to pay them.

Thank you to Merran Hunt and the Internal Research Grant Scheme at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe for this gift. Lovely people.

18.11.18 The student gives back

Jac has been struggling with Olga.

Not with the character. Not with the writing.

It’s the voice. Jac’s playing Olga in the readings and the workshop, and being the kind of character actor that she is, she wants to make everything about Olga authentic. This means the little things that add up to big things. Posture. Gestures. Cadence of speech. The way her lines are spoken.

You see we all have verbal habits. It’s in the way we emphasise, and it’s in the way we throw away words. My mum used to throw away words like a maestro. She could even show disdain in the way in which she said ‘hello’ to someone she didn’t like. It was more than subtle. People would never know whether this was actually dismissiveness or not. The art was in the indefiniteness of the dismissal (my mum would never outwardly hurt someone).

Jac watched my mum for twenty-five years. She put a bit of what she saw in her Madame Giry in Phantom of the Opera, possibly without knowing it. And again in her Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Strong characters that needed a definite manner. My mum’s manner, I thought.

In a way watching my mum was good for Jac as she prepared to play Olga, because it was mum who was the closest to Olga. Mum was her eldest daughter, and knew her longer than anyone else. Some mannerisms had to trickle down.

But there is more to being Olga than a turn of phrase or the way she stands erect, and this is Jac’s problem. Olga was born in Athens, and brought up in Alexandria in Egypt. As a child she played with the Greek royal princess. As a young mother she lived in Ultimo in Sydney, serving fish and chips to wharfies and the men from the sugar plant down the road.

So the question, with all these influences, what would her accent have been like?

In the first couple of readings of the play, Jac’s accent searched for an anchor, at times sounding a little like a Jewish dowager from Prussia; at times there was a return to Phantom’s French Madame Giry. Impressive, powerful accents, but probably hardly what Olga would have sounded like. My mum had no Greek accent. She could speak Greek, but being born in Sydney, her Australian voice sounded about as Greek as a girl descended from the First Fleet. So there was no help there.

Then we went to the opening night of the Greek Film Festival. Jac met one of my students, a Greek woman named Christina, who was there to interview me for community radio as one of her assignments (I was launching the opening night film).

Somehow Jac and Christina started talking about the character of Olga, and Jac saw something in Christina’s accent. It wasn’t an Aussie Greek accent. It was European, strong and definite, a mix of influences.

Christina has recorded her voice reading the opening monologues of the play. Jac is having a weeks’ break in Byron Bay, and has taken the recording with her to see what kind of accent she can make of it, perhaps mixing it in with mum’s wrangling of phrases.

What comes out of it may not be Olga’s accent, but we’re betting it is something that tells of a woman who has travelled; a woman who would brook nothing from anyone.

That’s got to be a great place to start.

12.11.18 Finding Olga’s voice

The first job of a playwright, once the story is plotted, is to find a voice.

For my play, I wanted the voice to be Olga’s. But which Olga? Olga the wartime spy? Olga the young mother? I chose to have Olga tell this story retrospectively, from the place of an older woman, remembering her life as her life comes towards its end.

Olga died suddenly in 1960. She was either 56 (her official age) or 54 (her ego age). I decided to set the play a few months before her death. Her voice therefore is one of an older woman, fifteen years removed from war, who has had fifteen years to contemplate the death, betrayal and loss of the war. She is a woman who has found her family again, and to a degree, her self-acceptance.

This is an Olga who I never knew, but from what I have been told of her, this was a woman who was in-your-face, funny, strong and striking. I wanted these elements to come through in every word. For example, below is a monologue taken from the first scene where she talks about how she has reversed roles with her daughter Freda, who has provided her with a home:

She’s always asking me questions though.. and always at the wrong time. ‘Is it true you blew a man’s head off with a shotgun’, ‘Did you really stab a German and he bled to death all over you?’ Where do you think she asks me? At the dinner table. We’re eating our meatballs. So what do I do? I tell them. Then everyone turns green. Little George even vomited into his soup once. Okay, maybe I go into too much detail. They asked. But there is one question that I can’t answer. Won’t answer. The one they don’t really want to know the answer to: ‘Why did you leave us? Why did you go to Greece when we needed you the most?’ Everyone asks. Even if they don’t ask, they ask with their eyes. They even ask in the way they turn their eyes away.

As the play moves through the scenes to the Act II climax, Olga will develop. She will face demons and be forced to remember the things she tried to forget. Her voice will also change as she remembers.

It’s a pretty fabulous going on this trip with her.

8.11.18 Odysseus, Homer and Kazantzakis 

As I finalise my play for the next reading, I remember the words of my PhD supervisor  Chris Mackie from way back in the early days. He told me that Olga’s story had so many parallels with those of Odysseus in The Odyssey.

Like Odysseus, Olga was away from home for a long time during and after the war, struggling to return, but never quite getting there. In Odysseus’ case, it was a matter of Cyclops and Sirens holding up his return to Ithaca. For Olga, it was the Nazis and the marriage of her husband to another woman back in Australia. In a way it was as if the gods had decreed that she would never get home. But that was where the many parallels end, because Odysseus did make it home, slay his wife’s many powerful suitors, and take back the throne. Olga too did get back to her family, but in one of the most poignant facets of the Olga story, she never was to get back to her husband. He died while she was on the boat home from Greece in 1952.

Odysseus may have rejoined his Penelope, but from my reading of the last books of the story, he was never quite content. Nearly three millennia after Homer, Nikos Kazantzakis went on to write a sequel to The Odyssey, where Odysseus resumes his travels, eventually dying in a foreign land an old, unfulfilled man. There was no happy ending.

Likewise Olga lived another few years, living in a little room at the back of her daughter Freda’s home in eastern Sydney. No-one seems too know if she was fulfilled in these last years. I am told she was confident and powerful, but did she have the end-of-life that she wanted?

It makes you realise that you may know facts about someone, but what lies in their heart is something else again. In the cases of the mighty warrior Odysseus and the clever actor spy Olga, we will see only they choose to let us see. We can only guess what lies within.

30.10.18 Thanks to the Beatles

Today I presented a paper on the progress of the PhD. My supervisors, some former colleagues and a senior researcher came to hear me talk about my PhD, which included a backgrounding of Olga’s story and the issue of telling true stories in a fictional context. This was one of the milestones in my PhD progress.

As I said, there were researchers present, but there was also a well known author. Garry Disher is the author of fifty books, both adult crime and books for young people. After I finished my spiel, there was time for questions. There were plenty of incisive queries about my process and the plan for the PhD. Then Garry asked me: in converting a story from a novel to a play, how do you decide what to keep and what to discard.

This question made me realise just what kind of journey I had been on with this adaptation. It was originally just going to be a conversion from book to stage, but it didn’t work out that way. Pretty early in the writing process I realised that the point-of-view needed to change from that of the novel. The audience needed to have someone on stage to lead them through the story; they needed a point of reference. This narrator, I decided, would be Olga herself. I also chose to tell the story in retrospect. It would open in 1960 (many years after the novel had concluded) and she would remember the events of her life and the war.

At times when you’re on a twisted journey as an adapting playwright, you forget about the day-to-day decisions you have made; about the little things that collectively re-route the direction and style of your work.

It took Garry’s simple question to make me realise that 6 months away from my final PhD submission, I have had a huge convoluted trip to get this far. No doubt with the further readings and workshops, my little bus is still on its Magical Mystery Tour.

19.10.18 Prepping for the workshop

The great news is that we might have a studio where we can run our three day workshop of the play. I have been investigating whether we can use one of the big TV studios at RMIT in Melbourne. Luke, who manages the studios, says it is possible that our state-of-the-art Studio A is free of bookings for January (which is not a great surprise considering that university staff and students are mostly in Acapulco or Disneyland during the year’s break).

Having the TV studio would be wonderful because it would mean we could be able to record the final day’s reading of the play, giving us a record of the play which I’d be able to submit with the exegesis for my PhD.

Now I’ve just got to sort funding for the actors. But overall, things are skipping along!

13.10.18 The First Director’s read

At last the play has had its first read with director Gary Young.

Jac played Olga and Gary read the stage directions, while both Gary and I read the two subsidiary roles.

Gary had comments and suggestions, but these were mainly about how each new character is introduced.

At this stage the play has a lot of movement. In the first act the time moves between 1960 in Sydney (the baseline for the play), then back to 1942, 1913 and 1936.

I went through a moment when I thought he was saying that I had not been clear about changes, or structure, but as it worked out, he was not. He just wanted stage notes in the script so the actors could understand more about the characters they were playing. Gary wanted them to know whether the characters are ghosts in the mind of the 1960 Olga (and thus bring with them the taint of unreality that a memory might bring), or whether they were actually depicting a true event.

So it was about stage notes. Surprisingly little of the script was changed.

And at the end of the read there was silence. From all three of us. Every time I reach the end of this script I cry. It depicts a gentle moment between my mother and her mother, a moment of rapprochement after an estranged sixteen years.

Jac was teary. I think I even saw a twinkle in Gary’s eye.

I hope I wasn’t imagining it.

15.8.18  You are not alone

Support is a wonderful thing.

A few weeks ago I gave the second draft of the play to director Gary Young. Gary is an award-winning writer and director. Here in Australia he won the inaugural Richard Pratt prize for a new Australian musical, and his treatment of the Jekyll & Hyde story won an Andrew Lloyd Webber competition in the U.K. for funding to stage the production some years back.

Gary has been a supporter of the Olga story from the earliest drafts of the novel, but for a playwright it is always a brave thing to pass one’s work onto someone for comment.

I saw Gary the other night, and his reaction was more than I could’ve hoped. He said he loved the work and said there was some beautiful writing in the script. I didn’t discuss specifics with him (it wasn’t the time or place), but as a writer, the joys of such moments stay with you, probably for the rest of your life.

21.5.18 Timing it out

It’s time for me to time the play. You can count words. You can look at the number of pages in a play. But until you actually have a reading of the thing, you really don’t know how long it will go. I have had nightmares where the play has run four hours. That would be a nightmare in itself. For the actors, director and the theatre.

So last night Jac and I did our first ‘out aloud’ reading. She read the character of Olga. I read all the other parts.

Along the way, a few little typos and errors came up, which I could mark or fix on the run. There were also a parts where it seemed to drag.. usually sections where Olga spoke to the audience. I found two places where the scenes would work better acted out. The first was when she was arrested and taken to jail. The second was when  a flyer she rescued came to the Stambolis shop in Ultimo and told the family that Olga was alive. I have been working on converting these from speech to action, and already they are looking so much stronger.

Of course the main aim of the reading was to time it out. I was surprised. Pleasantly.

The first act came out at forty-two minutes, and the second was forty-seven. The play will be amended more, especially with the full readings and workshops, but at a starting point, these are good, workable durations.

11.5.18 To the play

The hard thing about doing an exegesis PhD is the fact that you are doing two disparate types of writing at the same time. One part is the thesis itself. It is an argument, an academic explanation of the process of the producing the artwork. This needs to be done in a style that a PhD marker will require. The second type of writing is different, especially in my  case, because the style of a play is the opposite to that of an exegesis. In a play you need to tell a story through the voice of your characters. They can be informal. They can be loose. They need not justify what they say. They can, in fact, be unreasonable. There may not be words at all. You will see the story as much as hear it.

Yesterday my PhD supervisors Chris and Nasya told me they were happy with the exegesis part of the PhD. It was now time to focus on the play.

What a blessing. I admit it’s been hard to switch between the two. If I had been writing the exegesis argument, and then go to the play, suddenly Olga’s voice becomes more formal (because that’s where my writing style had been). If I do the reverse and go from play to exegesis, the exegesis takes on a chatty tone, which markers hate.

Now I can live Olga’s voice exclusively for a while. I’m looking forward to it.

30.4.18 Aristotle’s complexity

Here’s yet another parallel with the ancients. These just keep coming up.

My PhD supervisor Chris Mackie lent me his very worn and yellowed copy of Aristotle’s On the Art of Poetry. This is a ripping read, especially for someone engaging in the writing of a performance piece. Aristotle talks about the nature of theatre, drama and comedy. One quote I picked out of it was the following:

                     ” ..the structure of tragedy at its best should be complex, not simple.”

Aristotle even goes as far as to say some critics of his day considered that a “double thread of plot” the best way of presenting a story.

My grandmother’s tale is, as Aristotle might have approved, a complex story. It is a story with several strands: the war story; the Australian home story; the story of Stambolis’ childhood.

My source novel, Someone Else’s War, told the story with multiple threads. It is a broad book that covers two continents (Europe and Australia) with a variety of settings in each. In Australia the scenes are in three cities: Sydney, Darwin, the country town of Moree. There are also several scenes in side locations, such as a little shop in Ultimo in Sydney The Greek Club, the Markets, Nellie’s rental house in Mosman, the Deaf Institute, the Greek debutante’s ball, and Pyrmont Bridge. In Europe the action moves between Athens, Thessaloniki, Florence, Alexandria and country Greece. There are certainly multiple threads. My question is how does a necessarily complex plot stay on the right side of being confusing for an audience, which will only hear and see the story once in a theatre.

I have, in the second draft, tried to make the play more linear than the novel. have I succeeded? I guess I won’t know until the first reading of the play, which is not that far away.

19.4.18 Really Going the Way of the Ancients

I’ve just had another freak out moment with my supervisor Chris Mackie.

After telling him that I have been converting the play from a one-hander into a three-hander, he said this was an extraordinary parallel with the ancients. He told me that originally, Greek drama had no lead actors. There was just a Greek chorus who told the story. Then one actor.. the original protagonist.. stepped out front to tell the story with the help of the chorus. So far, this mirrored my original vision for the play.

Then comes the Twilight Zone bit.

As Greek theatre developed, other members of the Greek chorus stepped out too. How many? Two more. Greek plays went from being one-handers to three-handers. Just the way I have developed the play.

It was a great moment, matching the one in our very first meeting, when Chris asked me why I wrote the Odyssey through my grandmother’s story. As I have written earlier in this diary, this was a certainly not an aim of the novel. It just happened. Like this three-hander transformation.

Maybe my forebears are up there somewhere, occasionally leaning on my shoulder.

Chris has set me some more ancient texts to study how this change developed in the pre-Jesus days.

Yes, it seems the title of my PhD thesis couldn’t have been more perfect, because knowingly or not, I really am Going the Way of the Ancients.

16.4.18 Loading it on the actors

Having just gone through the roles in Unbroken, I’ve just calculated that while the actor playing Olga will have one character to play, the other two actors, one female and one male, will have, on the current draft, 23 and 18 roles respectively. Some of these roles are quick. Several only have one line. One character actually has no lines (she’s a body on stage).  In some cases the female actor will play men, and the male actor will play a woman (for example as a female inmate in Averoff women’s prison).

For a director, this means some quick changes, but for the actors, this means a lot of character work. As the play progresses, I will need to see if this is feasible for the actors. If they are stressed with ever changing lines and characters, perhaps the flow of the play and story-telling with be affected. I must keep an eye on this.

This all impacts the length of the piece too. With so many characters all needing to have this kind of space, the piece may slow, and the duration may blow out. As a playwright, you can make assessments about the durations, but until the actors have the roles in their hands, you can’t know. This is a play that demands space. Some will play it slow. Some scenes may be done with speed, depending on the action and the motivation.

Of course there’s every probability the script will be changed in these readings and workshops. It might need to be reduced, or whole scenes removed. But there’s an equal chance that new scenes will need to be added to fill holes in the story. We won’t know until the first readings.

15.4.18 How much to show

Olga was a fighter. She fought against the German occupation of Greece.

While so much of my novel Someone Else’s War was about her as a person, and about what in her background motivated her to take upon this fight, there was plenty about what she actually did in the war.. the training, the rescues, the spying, the killings.

Looking through the current draft of the play adaptation, I realised that I have not put in very much about what she actually did in the resistance. Like the novel, there’s plenty about her story and what made her the kind of woman who would fight. I was struck that the action is much less.

In several places I refer to what she did. In the first scene, her daughter brings up some of her killings. In the script I choose not to have this acted out. A director may choose to do so, however. There is another early scene where she is crawling through a field with an Allied soldier, chased by Germans. There is a later scene where she barters with a German officer, and another scene where she has to decide whether to kill a collaborator. But I find that I have left the actual heroism out of the book. Except maybe one scene, where she is in Cairo. Service personnel  crowd around her, cheering her for saving them. They tell of what they did together. Olga doesn’t remember many of them, and they tell the audience the story for her.

Then again, the play is told through her memories, and a part of the storytelling here is about revelation, to both her and the audience. She has put the horrors of war out of her mind for fifteen years, and the memories come back across the course of the play. In this process of recollection, perhaps the emotional memories are strongest for her. Hence the reaction of the British and Australian soldiers in Cairo will be a marker in her mind. Killing a despised collaborator will probably not be.

So as I look through this draft I need to question whether I need to be more explicit. Do I need to show more of her killing, rescuing, sabotaging, spying? Or would this be overstatement? Ultimately, this is story of a woman. I need to keep in the mind that this is about her mind.

I will look through the draft again with an eye on the action. Perhaps I won’t know if I have the right balance of action until we have a reading, or even a workshop.

12.4.18 Cadence

I find I am going back to the Odyssey more than more. And Kazantzakis. There’s no doubt that Kazantzakis’ Odyssey sequel does not read as easily as the original. That’s no slight open the great Nikos, but it does mean that you need to be in the story every second. Even his translator felt he had to write a preciś of the chapters, presumably in case you got lost. Maybe it was that the original had an easier flow of words; poetry that pulled you along. It demanded you stay with it, as all great writing does. Homer did this through a range of techniques, the most important of which is a respect for cadence. Lines, words and phrases roll at a tempo that makes your eyes trot with them, and with each step, the story moves too. Cyclists talk about the importance of the leg rotation cadence, keeping the legs moving at the same speed. Go up a hill and you gear down so your legs go up and down at the same speed as they did on the flat. Homer does that with his words.

In the my revision of a passage today, I realised that I was letting words, unnecessary words, get in the way of a good cadence. An actor would find that a tough sell. I am writing the play script on a page, but she would have to bring these words into her own choice of cadence, and therefore into the cadence she is projecting to the audience. Her reading of my words may offer a different interpretation, a different cadence to what I intended. She may pause between lines that I wanted to be a couplet.

But that’s okay. Right now if I can take out words that interfere with a smooth rhythm for the audience, then that’s a good day’s work.

9.4.18 Finding a Motivation

The thing about writing a novel is that motivation needs to be explicit. You don’t need to spell everything out, but the reader needs to understand where the protagonist is coming from. The reasons for their actions need to be understandable and comprehensible. If the character does something in chapter two, and that affects her actions in chapter ten, the reader needs to know this connection.

I am finding that in a play, the playing of the character can draw this link for you. If the character is a selfish bitch, then this can be played in every nuance. The audience can see it. A novel reader may not be able to see this. In a play, so much of the attitude of the character can be left to the actor and director. Of course you have to write the words, but the meaning of those words depend on the way they are played. This morning I was working on a scene where Olga changes her mind about staying in Greece, and decides to return to Australia. She is in Cairo and has met some soldiers she had rescued weeks before. She realises that he has done enough.

In the novel I might’ve had to spell out her change of heart. As I tried to write this for the play, I realised I was overwriting her. An actor could show this change, possibly without any words at all. The audience would understand what was happening to her. It’s another example of that old stage credo: “Don’t tell me, show me”. As I do more revisions of the play, I will look for over-explanation, and look for areas that can be left to the actor and director.

4.4.18 More Characters

Having made the decision to have two other actors on stage with the main protagonist (Olga), I am finding myself expanding the number of characters. Of course most of these are minor characters who appear in only one scene. This morning I was looking at the early draft of a scene which is set towards the end of the play, where Olga’s baby appears to have gone missing. In the first draft, she describes this to the audience directly, as a mother telling a friend something exclusive and personal. With the new liberty of having other actors on stage, I have started changing this scene. Olga starts telling the story, then the actor who plays her mother comes on and Olga plays out the scene with her.

This was developing into a powerful scene, but it seemed to require a new character to help bounce the tension of the moment. Sometimes two people can create the most intimate passage, and you would think that this would be that kind of scene. But yet it needed more. On the spot I invented a man, the mother’s son (and ipso facto Olga’s brother). He developed in a few lines from an observer into a conniving bully (like his mother) who forces the action to move on. Olga changes with this development. Where originally she is worried, guilty and fretting, she now explodes into an anger we have not seen of her. The pressures of everything that crashing around her manifest into her attacking her own brother. She shows herself to be a fighter for her children.

It’s a development that changes Olga and the tone of the play as it moves towards its denouement.

3.4.18 Homer and his Successor

A few weeks ago I  decided to use some quotes from Homer’s Odyssey as markers in the play to highlight an emotional climax. I still haven’t decided how they will be used.. whether they will be read by a narrator, our projected onto a screen at the back. In the end it will be up to the director. Tonight I was once again reading the book that inspired me to include Homeric references, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and came across a passage that would work as a marker for the moment that Olga reads a letter telling her that her husband in Australia has had her declared dead, and remarried:

For a lightning moment she wanted to cry out

To scream and wake her husband, the archons, the guards, the slaves.

Her soul cried out for help, but her heart felt ashamed.

The words are powerful. In Kazantzakis’ book they refer to Helen, who is enamoured with Odysseus, and seduced by him. It is a life-changing moment for her, as is the letter for Olga.

1.4.18 Catharsis. A Greek Word?

Yesterday’s session was really something. But there was still an element missing. It’s a cheap writer’s trick to have a protagonist be convinced in a passage of dialogue to change her life’s position. I needed to make the cathartic change more.. cathartic. In life, people rarely have a road to Damascus moment through a discussion. Even Paul of Tarsis needed a heavenly vision.

For this dilemma, I decided to return to the original story source: my novel. In it I have a scene where Olga is in a cave beneath the Acropolis where rescued flyers are staying until they can be given passage through to Egypt. They recognise Olga and make a fuss of her. Olga doesn’t remember the individual faces. She has had to deal with too many people over the years. So in the play I transfer this fictional scene to Egypt, where Olga has just escorted some flyers to safety. As a British Officer tells Olga that she has done her bit and that she should return to her family in Australia, some flyers recognise her and fete her. Again she doesn’t remember individuals, but this helps her realise that she has saved so many people that she can’t remember them all.

This is Olga’s road to Damascus catharsis. She understands that she has done her bit. This, combines with the kind words and urging of the British officer, resolves her. She will complete this mission, then try to get back to Australia.

31.3.18: A Dramatic Twist

This morning I had a writing session. It was one of those sessions where you feel you are plodding. The dialogue seems trite, the movement slow. I was doing it in Marwin’s cafe Monk Bodhi Dharma in Balaclava. It was pretty quiet for a Saturday. Maybe because it was Easter Saturday. I was trying too fill a hole before the scene where Olga finds out that her husband has had her declared dead, remarried and had two children by his second wife. After an hour of plodding writing, an idea struck. Why not have Olga resolve to return back to Australia? She could be in Cairo after rescuing a group of Allied Servicemen. She gets talking to a British flyer who wants to go back to Athens, despite the danger. He tells Olga he wants to go back because he has a woman there who is refusing to leave her country.

After this conversation, Olga’s resolves to go home to Australia, to her children. She comes to feel that she has done her bit. In a way she believes she has redeemed herself.

That this scene is followed by the letter from her husband, telling her that there is no life in Sydney for her anymore, makes it a powerful switch in action and motivation. She, like Odysseus more than two millennia before her, finds that the actions of others have once again stopped her finding home.

30.3.18: Encouragement

It’s Good Friday and we have a few friends over for afternoon tea. At one point I was sitting at the end of the table next to our good friend Gary Young (author of Jekyll and Sideshow Alley, and director of the Australian production of Mamma Mia). We talked quietly about the role of director in a play like mine. Gary said one of the things that playwrights do that frustrate directors is to over-direct in the script.

He said the playwright must always leave space for the director to do their job. Don’t give stage directions. No “Enter Stage left”, no “gazed wistfully” (not that I would ever write such a bad line anyway..) Just write the story, he said, and the production team will lift it off the page.

As I looked back at my early scripts, I can see that I had done this a bit. It was part of the need, in my mind, to get my vision into the script. I also saw that I didn’t need to do this. The dialogue itself was enough. I will go through the script and simplify the directions. Thanks Gaz. It takes a load off.

25.3.18: A great quote

The other night I opened a book on Australians who fought in Greece and Crete in World War 2. One of the first things I came across was a quote by Lieutenant John Learmonth, 2/3rd Field Regiment. Australian Infantry Forces describing the islands as he came up the west coast of Greece:

A number of pretty little islands have been visible on our starboard quarter since daylight this morning. I have forgotten what little ancient history I have ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed these seas. I wonder did the sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. (Reid, 8) 

I immediately thought how this could be incorporated into the play, perhaps by having the male actor read it out as Olga sailed into Greece with Nellie and Christopher. I thought it was a good fit, given that Olga was also travelling to Greece for the first time in many years and she would find herself bound, like Odysseus by her own Cyclops and Sirens and unable to come back to Australia for many years. But when I look at incorporating this into that scene, it seems difficult.

I’ll try again tomorrow. At the moment I have incorporated it into when she is taking trapped flyers by boat to Egypt.

24.3.18: Adding the extra characters

I started on the revision of the play this morning, transforming voices into physical characters. I found pretty quickly that in a few cases there is real value in keeping some of the voices as offstage presences. The phrase that came to me was “Voice of God”. This came as I was writing the section where the British officers are deciding about whether to trust Olga.. in effect deciding her future. The effect having two disembodied characters gives them a godlike effect. The interspersing of voice also makes for staging variation, breaking up the visual of several characters dialoguing. I have converted the scene where Olga is playing with the princess into a two hander. I am in two minds. It could have remained as a single-hander, because nothing is added to the story-telling by having the second actor on stage. In the original, the princess says nothing, but Olga reacts as if the words had been spoken. I thought this underplaying was strong, especially as this is a memory for Olga. This are the kinds of decisions I will need to make for every secondary character in this piece.

22.3.18: Expanding the number of actors

Just had a PhD meeting, the first with both Nasya and Chris together. They are going to look at the exegesis Chapter 4: From Novel to the Play. While they are doing this over the next three weeks, I’ll be getting the chance to work on the play. The first thing I’ll do is convert the off-stage voices into presences on stage. This will mean a lot of considerations, including decisions on basic stage directions, and the mechanics of staging this so that a character can move off the stage and the next one move on without it being clunky or too stressful for the actors, especially as only two subsidiary actors are playing all the non-Olga roles.

14.3.18: Dr George, grandson of Lela Caryiannis

I have just heard from Lela Caryannis’ grandson George Pararas-Carayannis who has promised to search through his documents about the Bouboulina network to search for references to Olga. This would be fantastic. He wrote to me about being a witness to mass executions in Greece as a child. He wrote:

EMAIL 1 13.3.18 FROM Dr George: Good to hear from you and to learn about the important role your grandmother Olga played in  the Greek resistance. It is very possible that both your grandmother and mine knew each other or even were jailed at the same time at the Averoff prisons. My grandmother, my father Byron my uncle Nelson and my aunts Ioanna and Electra were jailed at Haidari and severely tortured, first at the Merlin street headquarters of  Gestapo, then subsequently at the concentration camp. My uncle George was able to escape wounded  from the Merlin Street headquarters and continued his resistance work in the mountains. My father Byron, Nelson and my two aunts were scheduled for execution in September 1944, but managed to escape. Grandmother Lela was executed along with 72 other patriots on 8 Septmeber 1944 – month before final departure of the Nazis from Greece. I was left at a park in Haidari while my mother looked for Lela’s tortured body at Xaidari and found it. She had been highly tortured and was only recognizable by the dress she was wearing at the time of her execution. I remember all these as a bad dream including the executions I witnessed as a young boy at an empty lot across my aunt’s house. Anyway, I will look through whatever records I have to see if I can find any reference to the names your grandmother used.  The executions I witnessed through a crack of the window at my aunt’s house were at an empty lot across on Bouboulina Street, next to the National Museum. The Greeks were collected at random by the Germans from the streets, ordered to open a trench in the open lot and then they were  lined up, machined-gunned and their bodies were covered up with soil. Days later, I witnessed relatives uncovering the trench and the bodies lined around the perimeter for recognition. In spite of the bad smell of ptomaine, I was playing soccer among the blackened bodies with a ball made of rugs. Strangely I thought that this was how life would be forever – as I knew of nothing else.

Lela Caryiannis sculpture (courtesy Thessaloniki War Museum)

12.3.18: Good Muslim Boy

 Last night I saw Good Muslim Boy  at the Malthouse Theatre. It offered an insight into the possibilities of having other actors on stage with Olga. Seeing how the three actors operated provided a sense of communal storytelling on stage, not just leaving it up to one voice. Here’s what I put into the Conscious Response chapter this morning:

This is an autobiographical play for three actors which tells the story of Sami’s attempt to bring to Australia the body of his father. Sami and his father were Iraqis who had travelled to Iran, then came to Australia as refugees. They return to Iran for a trip, but Sami’s father dies. Much of the play is concerned with the bureaucracy involved in getting permits for his father’s body to be allowed on the return flight to Australia. In the stage production Sami plays himself, and the two other actors play all the other characters.  It is a comedy which was adapted from Sami’s memoir. The memoir won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award.

Although there are many parallels between Sami’s story and Olga’s story (the Homeric prevention of a return home due to factors beyond the protagonist’s control (Iran bureaucracy, the necessity for bribes), the most interesting fscet for the staging of Unbroken comes from the use of the actors. The central character (Sami) is a constant. It is through him that we take our journey. There are two other actors on stage, one male and one female. These actors play all the other characters in the play, from Australians waiting for a tram, to Iranian officials, to beggars, to family members on the phone (during which they are always seen, although off stage in the semi-dark), to soldiers with semi-automatic weapons. These actors give Sami someone to work with and against. The audience on the night I saw the play were just as reactive to these secondary characters as they were to Sami. Also, the rapid changing of characters adds to both the tension and the comedy. Having seen this play, I have decided that the secondary characters in Unbroken should be seen on stage and not just heard. The secondary actors play characters of both sexes. This is an interesting device, as having a woman play a masculine soldier, for example, can break the barriers of the typical male-female divide. This may be a useful device in the production of Unbroken where there are depictions of resistance women working as operatives in the underground, giving orders to kill, and killing. In the war scenario of Unbroken the gender lines have been broken and men and women carry out the same tasks. Women have been celebrated for it, as outlined above in 5.2.3. (a). I have considered having the actors share these cross-sex roles, but ultimately this will be a decision for the director of the play.

5.3.18: Bringing Homer into it

 I ran by Chris the possibility of having quotes from Homer on the wall between scenes. Chris agrees and has offered to find some quotes if I give him context for the scenes. I have found some quotes and sent them to him.

1.3.18: Some parallels that are no so ancient

 I was reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel and was struck by the word play and similar feeling to the original work. I then remembered my supervisor Chris Mackie’s first words: Why did you decided to tell the Odyssey through your grandmother’s s story? Of course I hadn’t. But with Chris’s guidance I noted these parallels. Now, more than a year later, I suddenly see scope for the play to be linked with Homer’s piece.

16.12.17: The trip ends

As we move back to Athens, I can say that this research trip has given me so much more than I expected.

I have identified that the uniform my grandmother Olga was photographed in was not British, but Greek, and in fact Greek naval.

Stambolis Family collection

This could mean many things. It could be that she was at some stage on a Greek naval vessel. That would fit with the information I gained about Lele Caryiannis, who did similar work to Olga in the same place at the same time. Lela used to rescue allied flyers and soldiers caught behind German lines. Lela used to travel with the rescued soldiers by boat to Egypt. Perhaps this uniform demonstrates that Olga did the same.

I also saw where the Germans committed savage acts. These weren’t just acts of war, but war crimes, such as the 1944 massacre of hundreds of civilians at Distomo in central Greece:

Distomo memorial (the ages of the victims are on the right) (c) Phil Kafcaloudes

I also saw where the resistance fought back, exasperating the Germans, such as the blowing of the Gorgopotomos bridge near Lamia:

Gorgopotomos Bridge (c) Phil Kafcaloudes

I saw the frigid passes the resistance and the British Special Ops had to walk in the middle of winter:

Katara Pass 2017. Broken and bypassed. (taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Then there were the Greek women. The fighters, the helpers, the rescuers. They were revered within the resistance, and are revered to this day:

(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Rendina)

And Sofia Vembo, the woman who sang the Greeks into fighting back:

(Photo: Courtesy the War Museum of Thessaloniki)

So as I end this journey, I remember all these people.

The next stage is the updated draft of Unbroken, my one woman play adaptation of my novel Someone Else’s War. It may have some Vembo music. It may incorporate Lela. It will certainly have an authenticity of place, time and events that it would not have had before this trip.

Thank you to my supervisors Chris Mackie and Steinar Ellingsen for supporting this journey, and to Lawrie Zion who suggested this blog. And thank you to all the people I have met and continue to meet on this trip. It’s been wonderful.

15.12.17: When a buck means a buck

As my research trip comes to a close over the next day or so, I have to get all the things I have discovered into perspective.

For example, today I saw stories about how the unemployment rate in Australia is 5.4%, which economists say is still above  the acceptable level. In Greece unemployment is at 21% (a big improvement on 28% two years ago, but still, 21% is no economic oil painting).

Australian inflation is low and has been for some time. In Greece it is also low at 1.1%. This means prices are kept manageable, but growth is still not where the government would like it to be.

But let’s compare this to what happened to Greece in WW2. According the CNBC, German occupation pushed the value of the drachma through the floor. It did this by forcing Greece to loan Germany the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars (which many argue was never paid back), and at the same time trade with other countries was disallowed by the Germans, so there was no way Greece could right its economy.

To give you an idea of how the currency sank, in 1940 this 1000 drachma note would buy one gold sovereign:

But immediately after the Nazis took over Greece, you needed one of these for that sovereign:

Yes, an invasion can make your currency go to a fifth of its value. Overnight.

But, for the Greeks things were to get much much worse. Inflation over the years got to ridiculous levels. In one month in 1944, price rose by 14,000%. Not 14%. 14,000%. In a month.

As you’d expect, you need to start printing more notes, or add a few zeroes.

This is the kind of note you’d need:

It looks a lot. A five million drachma note. One of these before the war, and you could’ve bought a house or two or ten.

But soon even these notes meant nothing. The government started issuing notes worth 100 trillion drachma.

The other day I stopped in an antique shop in Metsovo in central Greece and found this:

Piles and piles of 5 million drachma notes. Monopoly money. How many businesses, shops and traders lost it all, we can never know. We do know it was a long road back. A road that some might say Greece is still walking 70-plus years on.

Yes, it’s another tragedy of war that the delicate balance of an economy is the first thing to be destroyed when another country decides to make an empire of its neighbours.

14.12.17: A myth set in stone

Greece is full of myths: Zeus sat on Mt Olympus; Oedipus married his mum; Odysseus was seduced by a goddess.

They’re everywhere. But here’s a modern tale that is so extraordinary that some believe it had to be a fable. Many though, believe it is true.

It goes back to the times when the Ottomans (today’s Turks) ruled most of Greece (up until 1821 or so). The muslim Ottomans had little time for the teachings, philosophies and religious belief of the Greeks. Education in Greek history was banned.

Greek educators and priests became terrified that this edict would mean that their culture would die.

So the story goes that in the areas where the Ottomans did not have control, such as the hard-to-access Pelion Peninsula on the very east coast of Greece (think across the Aegean from Gallipoli), at least one priest set up a secret school to educate men in the ways of the Greek. Greeks reportedly came from all over Ottoman-controlled Greece to be educated in the ways of their forebears.

Of course the priest had to be careful, so he set the school in a almost unaccessible place in the side of the cliff in Tsangarada. Even today the path is almost impossible.

But myth or not, there is a cave set into the side of the cliff, which has plenty of signs of ancient habitation:

Hidden School, Tsangarada (c) Phil Kafcaloudes

And if you look closely, you can see what might just be a classroom laid out in stones inside the cave.

Now I’m not saying this was the fabled secret school, but the locals in Tsangarada all seem to know the story, (and their families have lived for as long as the story has existed). They all have opinions on whether the cave school was real. Some are in two minds and will recite the arguments for and against whether it is nothing more than a fable.

This argument has been going to more than a century. In the 1880s, the painter Nikolaos Gyzis depicted the scene of a secret school, which looked a little more flash than our cave in a cliff.

What remains of this story, be it fable or not, is tale of resistance from oppression, a desperation to keep one’s culture alive, bravery and ingenuity.

I really hope this story is true; that there were these ancestors of the WW2 andartes, who resisted not with guns but with knowledge, and in doing so kept alive the tie between modern and Ancient Greek.

13.12.17: The voice that sang a nation

In  writing the play of my grandmother’s story I had to consider a lot of things in making the transition from novel (Someone Else’s War) to stage (Unbroken).

Writing for the stage is as different from writing for the eye, as painting is from sculpture.

The stage play must create a mood, a sense of the times. It’s as much about showing the emotion of events as telling the facts of what’s happening. That’s because an audience will remember what they felt long after the facts are forgotten.

To give this sense of the times, I decided  early that music must be an important part of the play. It won’t be a musical or anything like that, but it will have the central character (my grandmother Olga) making musical references, singing snatches, maybe playing some music on a wireless.

I just needed to incorporate a kind of music that would work for the play. Perhaps a singer who spoke of the times. Someone who was as sassy as Olga, and sang of the period in a way that would help Olga tell the story.

I initially thought of rembetika, northern cafe music.

From a mural in Ioannina (c) Phil Kafcaloudes

That was indeed sassy, a kind of blues, but it didn’t speak to me of the times. Rembetika was more Salonica than Athens, and more 30s than 40s.

In driving to war hotspots around Greece, there was just one voice that represented all this, a woman who spoke to Greeks in 1940-5 and, as a bonus, was a motivator for Greeks under stress. Because her stirring songs spurred Greece onto defeating Italy in 1940, she became known as The Songstress of Victory This woman, a simple singer/songwriter was considered so dangerous by the occupying Germans, that she was banned from singing political songs, and had to flee to Cairo.

Her name was Sofia Vembo.

Her most famous song was “Children of Greece”, a motivating song for Greece after the Italians invaded Greece. Some historians credit that song with having a lot to do with the Greeks pushing Italy back across the Albanian borderland most of the way back to Italy too.

Such is the power of the right music for the right time.

She also used that most powerful of verbal weapons: satire. She speaks of the “Master Macaroni’ Mussolini, how he’s going to lose to the Greeks and lose Rome as well. She was certainly edgy, which is why there is a shrine to her in just about every war museum in the country.

Yes, sassy, taunting, rude and in-your-face. Just the kind of music for my Olga.

12.12.17: A 74 year old Memory

Litochoro is a village on the east coast of Greece. It is in the foot of a massive pass next to Mount Olympus, the most majestic mountain in Greece, an Everest in stature to Greeks and greater than it in mythology, for this was where Zeus sat as the god of gods. Its shards and many vertical snowy peaks certainly suggest this is not a place to be easily reckoned with.

But plenty of people do reckon with it. Mostly hikers or ambitious tourists trying out their new climbing shoes. But in the war, recreational climbing wasn’t really on the agenda. The country was occupied by the Germans, Bulgarians and Italians; starvation was everywhere and the Greek andantes were using mountains like these as places to launch raids on the invaders.

And the invaders fought back, as you’d expect.

I had been told about the old Monastery of St Dionysus. It lies 13 kilometres up towards the Mt Olympus peak, and has lay there since 1542. It’s been pillaged at times, but always survived. Until, I was told, the Germans thought it was being used as a base for resistance operatives.

They sent in the bombers in 1943.

Climbing through the mountain pass today, the first glimpse of St Dionysus’ was one of majesty befitting the monastery of Mt Olympus.

(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But getting closer, you can see it resembles part of the decaying Roman Coliseum:

(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Until finally you can see where attempts have been made to make new buildings behind the old:

(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

But the truth is that much of this graceful old monastery is the same as the day it was bombed. There is a new Monastery of St Dionysus a few kilometres down the road. Services can no longer be conducted here. There are danger signs everywhere. yet the walls stand as they have done for nearly 500 years.

The people who made the decision to bomb this sanctuary have long passed. It is probable the pilots and the men who pressed the button that dropped the bombs have too died.

The broken walls of St Dionysus prove who stands the longest and proudest.

They will stand for a long time yet, continuing to make sure we never forget.

11.12.17: The Cap. One riddle solved. Another opens

My grandmother didn’t have many photos of her time in Greece during the war. In fact there were only two. One was of her waving the Greek flag on the day of liberation from the Germans:

Olga Stambolis 1944

A couple of weeks ago I asked if anyone could identify the cap she was wearing in this photo:

Olga Stambolis circa 1943

I got a few guesses but no cigar yet.

Over the week I visited a couple of military museums in western and northern Greece, and spoke to some Greek army personnel, but no-one could identify it.

Then yesterday we were walking through the flea market area of Thessaloniki and we passed a shop that sold military stuff.. German helmets, dented WW2 water bottles, moth-holed old jackets with buttons missing. You know the kind.

Jac suggested asking the owner. There’s no-one like a military buff/nerd for this kind of trivia.

He knew straight away. He identified her cap as Greek from the badge in the centre, and the white top meant it was naval, probably from lower rank. Her shirt was also Greek and could have been summer dress come from several of the services.

He even pointed to a cap that has similar origins although with a badge of a different era:

(Photo: Courtesy Ioannes Tzelepithes, Thessaloniki)

So there you are. Or ‘oriste’ as they say in Greece when serving you your dolmades.

The question now is: why was she wearing that outfit?

We know she rescued British flyers and got them out of the country. So was she on a ship escorting them to Cairo? Or was that a uniform she was given when being trained?

Or was the photo just a bit of play. A bit of dress-up during one of the less intense times? Could it even have been taken after the war perhaps?

I suspect we’ll never know. On the back of the photo my mum wrote that this was Olga in British uniform. Obviously this was conjecture. Wrong conjecture.

Olga never told her, or probably anyone, about the nature of the photo.

I guess we’ll just have to take the photo for what it is, a display of sassiness from a woman who could wear an umbrella and make it look good.

10.12.17: A Possible Breakthrough

My grandmother Olga Stambolis worked in the resistance in Greece, rescuing trapped British, Australian and New Zealand flyers, and like all andartes (resistance fighters), killing when she needed to.

Information about her has been scant. She died when I was a couple of months old, so I could never talk to her. Finding anything in Greece that mentions her name (apart from pass applications and money documents) has been fruitless. You see, resistance groups hardly kept records. They’d be pretty poor underground operations to do that.

So for half my life I have been searching for anything that might pinpoint she she did and who she worked with.

Today I found the story of a Greek woman, whose parallels with the story of my grandmother was extraordinary. It was almost as if it was my grandmother’s story with the names and a few other details changed:

(Photo: Bust of Lela in the War Museum of Thessaloniki. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Before the war Lela Carayannis (in Greek: Eleni Karayanni) was an Athens housewife. In the early occupation days she formed a resistance group (called Bouboulina). For a person untrained in organisational operations, she did a freakish job of putting it into sub-groups for rescue, sabotage, espionage and other operations.

The similarities between Lela and Olga were amazing. They both were involved in rescue of British, Australian and New Zealand flyers. They both were based in Athens at the same time. And like Olga, Lela was captured by the Germans, even staying in jail for the same amount of time: six months, in the same year (1941). Like Olga, when she was released, which in itself was a miracle, she returned to resistance work.

Here there story differs. While Olga’s children were safely out of there reach of the Nazis in Australia, Lela’s children were much closer. In fact six of them (three boys and three girls) worked as operatives with her. And where Olga was lucky enough to stay alive for the rest of the occupation, Lela, her children and her close associates were caught after a mistake by a person in her organisation. Lela was interrogated and tortured for three days by a notorious German inquisitor. Then she was executed. Her children, who were kept in a different part of the Haidari prison, were given help by an anti-Nazi German and were able to escape.

The more I read this story, the stronger the possibility became that my grandmother worked with Lela’s group.

Lela’s grandson found a list of the names of some of the people in Bouboulina. There were 100 people on this list. This morning I took it to an English speaking Greek I know here in Thessaloniki to see if Olga’s name, or any of her possible aliases were on it:

Courtesy of Dr George Carayannis

Olga wasn’t on it. The chances that Olga will be on it were always slim.

But this is the closest I have come to finding my grandmother’s group.

The search continues.

9.12.17 The Little Carpark of Horrors

This research was a never going to focus on the treatment for Jews in Greece in WW2, but the more one looks at life under the Nazis, the Jewish decimation comes up everywhere.

Nowhere more so than in Thessaloniki. This was the city that was so Jewish that it was known as The Mother of Israel. Half the population of Thessaloniki were Jewish. They had been here for 1000 years and were central to life in the city. As in the nearby city of Veria, Jew, Musilm and Christian lived peacefully. It was an example the world could look at today.

Like in Veria, like in Ioannina, Nazis called the men of the place into a square, and after being belittled, bullied and treated like slaves, were shipped out of the country. To a place called Auschwitz.

Let’s look at that square. On the day all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 were called there, it was called, ironically, Liberty Square.

Some men, the elders in the community, some business people, people of high esteem, were mocked, and forced to do pretend calisthenics. Not for their health. To belittle them:

(Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki)

Today Liberty Square is far different to that important square of the pre-war years. It has become a car park.

The only thing that speaks of its terrible history is a beautiful and celebrated sculpture in one corner that honours the Jews that died in that war:

I don’t know why a square, usually a place in Greek cities that honours victory over oppressors, has been allowed to become a place to leave the car while going shopping.

Maybe it is that the Greeks of Thessaloniki did not have the heart to keep this place and its memories alive. Maybe that day 9000 innocent men and their families lost everything is too much to remember.

Or maybe they just needed a car park.

8.12.17 A 2000 Year old Tale

In the northern Greece city of Veria, there was a vibrant Jewish community that had existed in there since BC became AD. It is mentioned in the bible. The apostle Paul even tried his hand at trying to convert Veria’s Jews to Christianity.

Writer Mike Arkus puts the result of these Paulian preachings this way:

“The Book of Acts says they were quite receptive to his preachings that Jesus was the Messiah until the larger Jewish community in Salonika, who had already kicked him out because they were ‘jealous,’ got wind of it and had him booted out of Veria too.”

So despite the efforts of Paul and his like, the Jewish faith remained intact here for 2000 years. Veria has the oldest synagogue in northern Greece. Not down the block or in the next street, but right there in the centre, on the doorstep of just about every house.

1500 years later more Jews were invited here by the Ottomans to help build the city. The Ottomans admired their fine skills in weapon-making and other arts.

Veria’s Jewish quarter has a lot of Ottoman (now Turkish) architecture. It is a beautiful little village where Jewish people were integrated in the wider Greek community.. the kind of integration that comes through centuries of co-existence and co-respect.

Then came WW2 and the Nazis.

Like in Ioannina (see blog of 1.12), these members of the community were rounded up on the 1st of May, 1943 and sent out of Greece, to places no-one should ever go.

Before the invasion there were 600 Jews here. 150 lived to return after the war.

Then, in 1948, and the establishment of Israel, many of these people went to their new homeland.

A few return to Veria for visits because their family homes are still there. Some places have been restored to things of beauty.

And some lie neglected because there is no-one to claim it, even after all these years.

I know they are only houses, but you can feel the hole left by the pogrom. These places where babies were conceived, feasts were eaten, stories told and children raised. All this to stop so cruelly, so swiftly.

The old synagogue rarely opens now. Many houses accommodate tourists or are used by the government departments. It really is a Jewish quarter in name only. The Nazis succeeded where evangelists could not.

Tomorrow I go to Thessaloniki, the Greek capital of the north. The Nazi treatment of the Jews and the Greek people generally is still a hot topic there. I look forward to seeing what I find.

7.12.17: The Battle for the Pass

When my grandmother was trained by the British in WW2, she would’ve learned many skills, including self-defence, how to kill, and perhaps how to sabotage.

Sabotage played a big role in the war in Greece.

I have already written about the Gorgopotomos Bridge in eastern Greece, which was destroyed to disrupt the German supply route to the south.

Not all sabotage was for such a direct reason. The British and Greeks blew up the Katara Pass, north of Metsovo in central Greece simply for a diversion. A red herring.

The Brits were trying to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies were going to invade Greece from the west coast. But there never was such a plan. Instead, the Allies were planning on invading Sicily, and wanted to distract the Axis into thinking Greece was the target.

To make this deception work, the Brits and the Greek resistance blew up the main road west to east over the mountains: The Katara Pass. The Germans would then think (and did think) that the Allies were trying to stop the Germans having any way to go west to meet these mythical forces invading Greece.

The Katara Pass was a difficult path even in 1940. It’s been closed for years, and visiting it in the snowy conditions today, I could see where the road has fallen away.

I found some of what was probably the original road that followed the telegraph lines, and it frankly looks like Siberia.

And pity the poor donkey that had to walk on this in 1943, especially with the ice making it impossible to walk without slipping.

So it was hard to cross in 1943. Blowing it up made it impossible.

British Brigadier Eddie Myers afterwards described how his team blew up bridges culverts and even blew out the cliff faces and mined embankments.

It succeeded… for a while.

Eventually, as different factions in the resistance started fighting each other, the Germans were able to get through to the west and they took over this very pretty village of Metsovo.

The West was lost.

6.12.17 SIDENOTE: The Self Preservation Society

This has been a pretty intense research trip: driving from Athens across the country to the central mountains, through tiny villages perched in folds of hills (inaccessible by car in WW2), then to the far west, and up cliffside dirt tracks.

Today we began the next stage, which is cross country towards the northern capital of Thessaloniki.

Are we’re doing it all in Mini Cooper:

I grew up in a Mini Cooper S. My brother Terry Kaff was a groovy 1960s dude. He was a singer in Sydney, a regular on TV and a member of Channel 9’s Bandstand team alongside Little Pattie and Col Joye. He was on stage with the Easybeats, and the Atlantics and the Delltones used to come around to our house all the time. It was enough to turn a little kid’s head. And it did.

It followed that this flash singer drove a flash little car. And there was no flashier car in 1970 than a Cooper S.

It was tiny. Terry would drive all over Sydney, me crammed in the back seat, trying my best not to throw up. I often failed. Many a time we would be on the side of the road, the little back bench seat pulled out to dry after my lunch was hosed off.

Go forward 47 years and Terry drives a Mercedes, Mini is made by BMW, my stomach is settled, and here I am driving around sheer mountains in a.. Mini.

And thank God. It may be bigger than the original, but when you’re meeting a bus on a three metre dirt road that has mountain on one side and 100 metre drop on the other side, you are glad your car is as thin as a piece of toast. It helps that it handles like it’s on rails.

Then there’s the risk of landslides. There’s no ‘if’ about it. It happens all the time. Guess who has to clear the road.

Back to the Mini. My favourite childhood movie was the original The Italian Job, where three Minis traversed stairs, buildings and sewers to get Italian bullion out of Milan after an audacious heist:

The movie ends with the Minis being repayed for their efforts by being thrown off the Italian alps.

As we climb these mountains everyday (I’m writing this in Mikro Papigo which is a town that is at the end of a McCartneyish long and winding road), I remember the scene as the Minis are flung into the abyss. We sing the song that accompanies that travesty: “We Are the Self Preservation Society” and just hope we are not going to be joining them.

We won’t be. Our Mini is looking after us just fine.

5.12.17 When one word says it all

There are war memorials everywhere in Greece. Almost every village has one. Quite often it’s a small marble obelisk.

Not at Kalpaki in western Greece, the place the Greeks made the frontier in the battle against the Italian invasion in 1940.

This one, on the hill over the town, is huge. It would rival the Colossus of Rhodes:

 (Photo: Kalpaki, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

This statue commemorates the soldiers who stood on this hill and watched westwards for the Italian Air Force planes coming from Albania.

Just as I was leaving, I looked the hill opposite, the hill in the direction where the watchers would have been staring.

There was something tiny written on the hill. In rocks, I thought. Out came the telephoto and I saw what it was.

It read “OXI”

That’s the Greek “No”.

It commemorates the famous refusal by Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas to the demands of the Axis powers.

I depict this famous refusal in my novel, Someone Else’s War. It happened like this:

The Italian ambassador Count Grazzi knocked on the door of the Metaxas residence at 3am on the 28th of October 1940. He demanded that Italy be given full access to Greek lands. In effect an occupation.

Metaxas, a former military man who knew his country was not prepared for war, made one of the biggest gambles any politician had made in WW2.

He said no.

He reportedly said it in French. Then in Greek.

Grazzi then told Metaxas that in three hours, the Italians would invade across the Albanian border.

Greece was at war.

I wrote yesterday about how Greece fought hard with old equipment, and won that part of the war.

Up until then, Metaxas was not a loved man in Greece. He was a fascist who took power illegitimately, jailed  his political opponents and shackled the press, jailing left-wing journalists.

But that one word, that “no” is celebrated to this day on the 28th of October every year.

Greece was to be ravaged by the Germans the following year, and then torn apart by a terrible civil war after that, but people remember the day that one small word was uttered.

It was the day that a small country stood up for itself.

4.12.17 Now this is the Thing About the War in Greece..

In the 1940’s there wasn’t one. There were three, each following on straight after the other:

The Italian War of 1940, when the Italians invaded through Albania.

Then, when the Greeks pushed the Italians two-thirds of the way back through Albania..

The German invasion. Then, after the Germans were routed in 1944..

The Greek Civil War which ran from 1945 through until 1949 and killed more Greeks than the Germans had done (and the occupying Nazis weren’t squeamish about blood).

But as I say, it started in 1940 with the Italian invasion. It came quickly, with only three hours notice (more on that tomorrow), but it was carried out by an army that, on paper, was formidable. Today a young Greek soldier in a war museum in Kalpaki told me just how superior were the Italian numbers.

Mussolini’s forces had 4000 planes. 400 of these were devoted to western Greece. Greece had 150. And most of those were not military. Many were crop dusters. Seriously.

Italy had battalions of tanks. Greece had none.

Italy even had smart technology. Its soldiers didn’t have to rely on horses and mules. They had bicycles that were light and built for all terrains. More importantly, they were foldable, so soldiers could sling them over their shoulder when the going got rough.

And when we talk about guns, the contrast was amazing.

The Greeks didn’t have a lot of machine guns. The ones they did have were from WW1 like this one:

They looked powerful, but the technology was from the very beginning of automatic weaponry. They could fire 20 rounds or so, then the barrel would be so hot that the gunners would have to wait 30 minutes for it to cool down before it could be used again. 30 minutes is several lifetimes in a battle. Gunners would shove snow in the barrel to speed up the process. That was how desperate they were.

In contrast the Italians had the latest in machine gunnery, such as this model made by Fiat (yes, the car maker) which had been ordered to convert its automotive ingenuity into weapons manufacture.

When the barrels of those machine guns got too hot, the Fiat engineers designed them so that they could be detached and replaced with a cooler one. Hence the Italians could keep firing, while the Greeks were cooling off.

The Italians got some pretty sophisticated automatic rifles too. Germany had supplied them with automatics. Just pull the trigger and dozens of bullets would fly:

(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)

Meanwhile the Greeks made do with some rifles barely out of the Victorian era. Single shot. Well worn. Well used.

These weapons the Greeks supplemented with axes, scythes, pitchforks, and knives. Hardly encouraging.

But the Italians had a number of enemies in this war, only one of which was the Greek people. The biggest enemy was their own lack of desire. This was not a great war of expansion. It was a vanity project by Mussolini.. an attempt to show Hitler that he too was a great warrior. His soldier’s must have known this. Why else would Italy be invading its Ionian Sea cousin? They had no beef. Their hearts and souls had not been won. they were sent into atrocious conditions at the beginning of winter. More than a few might’ve questioned the tactics and the need.

Italy’s second enemy was Greek local know how. Bringing tanks into wet Greece in November was not horses for courses. One smart Greek general baited the Italians to cross a river near Kalpaki. The general, who was disobeying orders in carrying out this strategy, had banked on the November rains flooding the river. The Greek rain gods complied. It poured, and the Italian tanks were bogged. As the Greek soldier told me, the Greeks commandeered the tanks after the Italians abandoned them. But the Greeks had never seen a tank before, so they took some photos of themselves draped on the tanks, and then left them to go chasing the Italians on foot.

Which all goes to prove my mother’s old saying (which she may have got from her mother who would’ve known about these things), you might have all the weapons in the world, but its not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

3.12.17: How Comes Greece Looks Like New England?

I’m doing this Greek trip as part of an PhD. I’m writing a play about my grandmother the Greek spy in WW2, and the PhD is being done on the process of creating the play.

So I’m in Greece to see the places she might’ve been trained by the British, and the places she might’ve worked rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were trapped behind lioness the Nazis moved south through to Athens in April 1941.

Part of what I am looking at is the terrain. What would she have encountered? What was the landscape like? I’m here as the weather is turning into wintery conditions (so it’s not your ideal holiday). Yesterday we had flash flooding, ironically on the same day we had flash floods home in Melbourne. This Greek flash flooding was a different beast to the antipodes though. When it rains here, it keeps raining. Little village lanes became rivers; roads became lakes; mountainside dripways become waterfalls. And it never seemed to end. This was only the start of winter. The snows will be here soon, and much of the andante work in WW2 was done in the snow. It is easier to escape when you know what lies beneath the white blanket.

What surprised me though was the foliage of western Greece. Here there are a lot of deciduous trees some of them very brown/golden of an oak variety:

Plane trees are also common, and have been for many years, like this one that has survived in this little flood and snow prone plateia (square) in Difolo for 400 years:

(Photo: Difolo, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

This interspersed with the many fir and olive trees in the hills gives a mottled landscape that is very dense. The mix of colours and foliage would provide camouflage.

And there is a contrast where the wooded hills stand against snowcapped Alps. A mix of terrain that must have made pursuit difficult. Notice how it’s hard to know where alp ends and cloud begins.

All this is that its highest in late autumn when the leaves are green and the mountains are getting their first snow. This could be the time when I set the central Greece action in the play.

The paths in central Greece in many cases are rough where rocks have fallen off the hillside. Many are hard and sharp, especially the shale or marble mixed in with the other rocks on the ground, and the tendency for the mountains to landslide. But often there is no other way around.

These paths can be difficult to negotiate, which is what the andartes wanted. Germans carrying heavy backpacks would’ve found this very hard especially as the paths are steep leading down from the mountains or up the next hill.

I’m not sure how I will incorporate these factors into the play, but they set a context for me. I have walked in the paths of the andartes (resistance fighters) and seen what they must’ve seen. My mind’s eye is closer now to my grandmother’s. And that is something important for a playwright.

2.12.17: The Smart Kid Who Kept His Head

In times of terror some good things can happen.

Take in 1940 in western Greece. Hitler’s ally, the somewhat limited Benito Mussolini decided to invade Greece. He didn’t do it for any particular reason. He just did it. Actually he did have a reason of sorts. As the Nazis were swathing through Europe, he wanted to impress Hitler that he too was a warrior.

He invaded through Albania only three hours after the Greek prime minister Ioannes Mexatas had refused Mussolini’s demand that Italy occupy Greece.

What Mussolini isn’t know was Greeks, especially the mountain Greeks of the west, don’t take kindly to someone trying to take them over. So, as I write in my novel, they fought against the Italian halftracks and machine guns with aged rifles, pick-axes and scythes, and forced the Italians back over the border.

It was an embarrassing defeat for the Italians and led to Hitler invading Greece.. ruining his plans for an autumn invasion of Russia. He had to push it back to winter.. leading to his first big defeat.

But in that initial Italian invasion, Mussolini sent over bombers to help his ground troops. As they attacked the western town of Perama, the locals raced to find shelter.

In the rush, an 11 year old boy discovered that air was rushing through a hole in the side of the rocky cliff that abuts the town’s main road:

(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Some residents dug it out and found a massive internal cave full of the most beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations.

The locals used this cave to hide during the bombings, and later, in 1944, when the occupying Germans started rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps, the Perama Cave once again became a place of refuge.

The Perama Cave is now a tourist attraction:

(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)

Travellers come from around the world to see the massive tite-mite formations, and the site inside where the remains of an ancient bear were discovered after the war. The speculation is that the bear must’ve been fallen in and been trapped all those thousands of years ago and sadly starved to death.

But for me, the fact that this place saved so many people makes it much more than your usual tourist attraction.

And all this is owed to a little boy who kept his head in a time of terror.

1.12.17: A Terrible Secret in Paradise

In Someone Else’s War I wrote a chapter where my grandmother goes to Thessaloniki on a reconnaissance mission to find out whether the stories of the mistreatment of Jews there were true. In the novel she gets there too late. She witnesses Jewish families being loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps in the countries to the north.

Although I have no indication that my grandmother was actually sent on a mission like this, I put this into the novel because the horror of the Jewish pogrom in Greece was such a big part of the occupation that no story of the war in Greece could be complete without it. I wanted, through the eyes of my characterisation of Olga, to bring this terrible event to readers. I also intend, with the play Unbroken to again refer to this.

In a week’s time I’ll be in Thessaloniki to see where that exile occurred. But the pogrom did not just just happen in Salonica. Today I was in the beautiful acropolis above Ioannina, which is the main city in western Greece, a magical city on a lake with a fortress wall that surrounds an old city known as the Kastro.

This acropolis contains Byzantine buildings which were added to by various Ottoman leaders. It is a quiet, gentle place, even on a rainy day when the clouds come across to this high-lying city. With its old buildings and the tomb of the brutal Ali Pasha (in the cage on the right), this is a place a photographer can spend whole days.

At the end of the acropolis is a Byzantine museum and across from that is a silver museum. Yes, this is a place for tourists and those interested in crafts, as well as the remnants of millennia past.

The place chilled me out. Then I saw the plaque on the wall of the Byzantine Museum which tells a story at odds with what is there today.

I share this story here:

In short, the plaque says that in the spot where I stood, the Jews of Ioannina were forced to present themselves on the 25th of March, 1944. From there they were put onto trucks and sent across the north of Greece and taken to the same concentration camps as those unfortunate people of Salonica. The only Jews who survived were the ones who managed to escape the city when the edict came from them to come to acropolis. Others were hidden by Christian families, who risked their own safety to help them.

On this day, as I looked over the grass towards the museum, the poignancy of this place changed with that one plaque. It became so much more than the untended and patchy grass that greeted me. Lest we Forget.

30.11.17: SIDENOTE: Loving the Dogs of Greece

It was once said that you can tell a country’s humanity from the way they treat their dogs. Actually, I might just have made that up. But I think it’s true.

In Australia we fawn over our dogs, make sure they get the very best food at regular times, pick up their poo on their scheduled walks, and stand around in the dog park talking to other proud dog-parents watching our little ones play with the other furry little-ins.

It doesn’t quite work that way in Greece.

Some people have dogs. They are collared, controlled and named. But there are many many more that are not owned. They wander the streets of the small villages, walking from house to house little a mobile guard service. And they do their job well. Anyone unusual walking  down the road causes a barking frenzy. Not an angry frenzy like you see from chained and yarded Australian dogs. Just a few barks to let everyone know that (1) A stranger is around, and (2) That this  dog is doing its job.

Most of the time however, the dog will come to you, maybe a little wary (you may not be a dog person, and be a little too willing to show them your sole), but easily losing that wariness once you give them a warm hello (in either Greek or English. It doesn’t matter. They know.)

Take these characters for instance. Today in the archeological site of Dodona, just south of Ioannina. We had just got out of our car when two dogs joined us. Not for food. They just wanted to say hello.

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

That’s how it’s been this whole trip. When we arrived at Montenema in the Karditsa region a week ago, we were met at the front gates by a large wolfish dog who smiled at us, pushed against our legs and almost directed us to reception. They next day we started a hike to a 16th century church, St George’s, three kilometres up and down the forest. We were only 200 metres into the walk when a white sight came up the track behind us. It was the same dog. He stayed with us all the way up to the abandoned church. When we went inside, the dog walked around the grounds. We stayed for about an hour, taking pictures of the decaying frescos and icons inside. The dog waited for us. Then she stayed with us for the long return walk. Back at the hotel the manager told us that this is what “Bou Bou” did. She made sure every walker got there safely, and got home safely. She wasn’t trained to do it. She just did it, and always had.

Now I know we think we know what goes on in our dogs’ heads. Maybe we think they are after food; that they get jealous; that they are simply protectors of their territory.

Nah. Shakespeare wrote that there were more things in heaven and earth. Creatures like Bou Bou are proof that he wasn’t talking through is hat.

29.11.17: Vourgareli: A bombing remembered

We are in the western Greek town of Vourgareli which is a place that really is on the ceiling of the world.

I mentioned yesterday that Vourgareli that was bombed by the Germans in WW2. They were after the British Operatives like Brigadier Eddie Myers who were working from nearby Theodoriana.

That’s only 74 years ago, so you’d have to think that such a momentous event would stay in the DNA of this small town. As we walked through the place we saw many shells of buildings that no-one bothered to rebuild, even after all this time.

The church St Georges on the plateia (town square) shows two dud German bombs out the front, scrawled roughly with the date of the bombing raid, beneath a monument to those who perished.

Yes, it would be hard in Vougareli to forget that war and that bombing.

Costas and Irene have not forgotten. Irene runs a restaurant (not a taverna, she insists this is a restaurant) on the road into the village. It’s a sparse place with half a dozen tables, a blaring TV in the corner, an upright wood heater near the TV and surprisingly, a dusty jukebox. There’s also a wood fireplace burning on the opposite corner, but Irene and her husband Costas use the upright for their warmth, and when we walked in they encouraged us to share the upright with them because they insisted the fancy open wood fire wasn’t warm enough.

Costas and Irene

I say they ‘insisted’. They insisted by gesture because they couldn’t speak a word of English. It followed that they could not understand vegetarianism, let along veganism. When I explained it was no meat, horice tiri (“without cheese”) and horice avgo (“without egg”), Irene slapped her head in disbelief, as if to say ‘how could people live like this?’ She had lived with meat for her 69 years.

She then supplied us a feast of Greek chips, salad, pasta, thick bread, kokkino (red) wine and olives. We may have been weird vegans, but she made sure we were fed well.

Across the room, Costas ate and watched the Greek parliament on TV. It’s his routine now. At 82, it’s what he does.

Through my mottled Greek we learned that Irene was a grandmother of 3 girls and two boys, and that the children were becoming masters of the iPhone, do things she could not understand. When I needed to use google translate for a word, she thought the fact that the word came in the screen in Greek was hilarious. We laughed together a lot.

She brought us some gratis preserved fruit for dessert and she wrote down our translation that the fruit was called quince in English. Then she went off to tidy up, although I should say the little eatery was pretty clean as it was. No dust would survive under Irene’s watch.

Irene told us of this quiet town’s place in war history. It was the scene of a revolution against the Turks in 1821 where the priest was shot in the head. They demonstrate the bullet going in the forehead as if they had seen it themselves. I write down the date 1943 on a piece of paper for her and they animate. Yes, the Germans destroyed everything. Costas was 8 years old. Irene, who wasn’t even born when it happened, is annoyed that there have not been reparations. But she says, this year it might happen.

Irene and Costas have the war in their blood. Their parents lived through it. Although far from the German epicentre in Athens, the bombings brought the horror to this place here on the top of the world. And the horror of it goes on still.

28.11.17: Betrayal in Theodoriana

My grandmother was given up to the Germans in 1941.

She believed she was given up by the one person she thought she could trust.

I’ll explain via the story of Theodoriana. This was the mountain village that British Special Ops leader Brigadier Eddie Myers chose for his base in 1942 in planning operations against the Germans. He and his team walked and donkeyed it from the east, through snow and rain. He describes the village as beautiful, and waxed about the colour of the trees and the peaks that surrounded it.

Myers and his team had a joyful time in Theodoriana. He writes of waking to see the sun highlight the tops of the mountains, then the almond-coloured trees, then the white buildings of the little town. It was a village of hospitable people who were grateful that Britain supported the Greek people. The village was also special because its doctor was a man of vision who organised for the village to have electricity.. an amazing feat considering so much of Greece in those days had no electricity, and this village was so far from any large town, and was only accessible from small passes at each end of the village. The people lived in their own bit of paradise.

This peace wasn’t to last. Myers tells that the Germans found out their location. He suspects it was when a local trader brought three women into the village for the services of the British men. The Brits refused those services. Just as well. One of the women was a spy. The locals put her on trial, and had her shot. Right there in paradise. The other two were handed to the andartes and disappeared. Myers hoped they were jailed, but he couldn’t be sure.

Either way, the Germans knew the Brits were in Theodoriana, and conducted two air raids on the village, blowing up houses. The Germans than attacked the closest town, Vougareli, killing many people.

How did the people of Theodoriana react to these Brits who had brought so much misery?

With acceptance, support and continuous hospitality.

My grandmother met and worked with people who were just as brave and caring as the Theodorians. Then again, she had to battle the constant possibility that maybe some of those nearest to her were not on her side. It would only take one whisper for her to be undone.

It happened. She was given up to the Germans. She never knew for sure, but she believed she was betrayed by her own sister.

I met that sister when I was a child. Of course I knew nothing of the betrayal allegation. I just knew this pleasant little woman and her giant of a husband who had moved to Australia in the 1950s. They were quite exotic to the younger ones of us in the family because they lived in Melbourne (the rest of us were in Sydney).

When I first heard the allegation against this smiling woman, I couldn’t relate her to such an act of treachery.

But this was war. And this is the thing about war: it forces people into action. They act with the greatest of intention or with the greatest of fear. The Germans’ greatest tool was the constant threat. If your friend, cousin.. or even sister.. was in the resistance, then the tool of the occupiers was to make you just as liable. It is this kind of implied threat that forced people to betray those they love.

This may have happened to my grandmother. It may have happened to Eddie Myers.

The thing is though, that for every person that committed betrayal in WW2 Greece, there were many more who risked their lives to protect new friends.

War does that. As I wrote in the novel, it turns life upside down.

27.11.17: Olga’s cap

This trip is a magical mystery tour. Every day I’m finding new things about the war and the Greek people. Like a couple of days ago I learned how much women were essential to the resistance effort. They weren’t just members of teams, but they were in charge of units, trained other andartes, and had reputations as being really tough. Considering the horrors that were happening across Greece at the time, it’s no wonder they were this way.

I know that my grandmother Olga also killed people. In my novel I write a scene that was almost verbatim as it was told to me: she was standing with another resistance worker in a queue at a shop, when she saw a collaborator several places ahead in the line. At that moment the man looked back and saw Olga and the other woman together. He twigged that because they were together these two must’ve been working in the resistance. He left the shop. Without stopping to think or hesitate, Olga and the other woman broke out of the line and followed the collaborator. They needed to stop him before he could get to a police station or German headquarters. As he came to a lane, they grabbed him from behind, pulled him into the lane and stabbed him to death. They then walked on like two friends on a day out.

You did what you had to do. If they had been caught, the Germans would’ve extracted everything from them.. names, places, safe houses, hideaways, plans.. and then killed them.

As I say, they did what they had to do. And what they did was replicated hundreds of times in this war.

Being in the resistance meant there were no records kept. Very little was committed to paper, even by the British. It would’ve been dangerous to everyone, providing just the kind of evidence the Germans would need to reprisals against families and acquaintances.

So it was unusual that a photo survived of Olga in uniform. On the back of the photo it says she was in British uniform:

But I can’t be sure. Looking up some shots of other caps, the closest British one was a naval cap that bears some similarity. It’s worn here by someone whose face I know, but..

This is a Greek WW2 hat. Wrong colour but it matches in other ways:

And to make matters just a bit more confusing, women andartes wore a range of caps, but none seemed like the one Olga wore.

Alas, just another mystery in the long journey to find out more about my grandmother. I wonder what tomorrow will hold.

27.11.17: A Greek Family

I saw a lovely thing this morning. It wasn’t momentous. It was just a little window into a relationship and a jogging of the memory.

We were sitting breakfast in our little mountain taverna. At the next table was a young Greek family: mother, father and daughter who could not not have been more than 15.. the surly age. She sat away from her parents and scowled every suggestion they made. Nothing unusual in that for that age. Then another family came to share the table, so daughter had to sit next to her mother. The surliness continued. The girl didn’t look at her parents and barely acknowledged them.

Neither her mother nor father took any notice. They knew it was just the nature of a teenager and was probably nothing different to what they themselves had gone through.

The extraordinary moment was, in its way extraordinary in its ordinariness. It was when the mother leant over and dipped her bread into her daughter’s egg yolk and mopped it up as the girl was eating her eggs. The daughter didn’t react; she just kept eating. In many places this would’ve been the crossing of a line; an invasion into personal space, but even for this surly girl, this was fine. That was what her family did. It was okay. Then the father made a joke of something and the mother and daughter burst out laughing. That’s family life for Greeks. Hormones might affect you, but in the end you adore those in your gene pool, and they adore you. What happened at that table wasn’t momentous. It was just a nice moment and a memory of a childhood long past.

26.11.17: Montenema’s Hiker

One of the challenges in organising this trip was working out how to visit the villages where so much of the action happened in WW2. In those days many of the villages were inaccessible by car. That’s why the resistance and the British Special Ops organisers chose them. The Germans would find it too difficult to get troops to these places, and would only be able to do it by traversing paths that would leave them exposed to the andartes.

The man who led the British operations was Brigadier Eddie Myers. He used to walk from one part of central Greece to another. Occasionally he was lucky enough to have a grateful villager who would lend him a donkey for the trip. But mostly it was all on foot.

Today, may of these villages are easier to access. Some homeowners rent them out to tourists for the ski season, so there needs to be a relatively safe road.

I wanted to visit a couple of these villages in the Karditsa region, but being so isolated it presented problems for accommodation. Or so I thought.

Five years ago a hiker walked into the mountains and when he stepped into a clearing what opened up before him was a beautiful vista between two mountainsides. He decided there and then that this would make a great spot for an eco-village. So in a time of economic meltdown in Greece, he got funding, made plans and built what he called a “handmade village” complete with restaurant, cafe, animal farm, crops and accommodation, which consisted of individual homes.

Standing on the cafe balcony you can stand on there spot where he must’ve stood when coming out of the forest.

So Montenema has offered us a place of peace and sanctuary after hours of winding up and down roads. It is also a great spot to recoup before the movement further into the mountains.

We went for a walk this morning and what we saw was history.  In the hills are the ruins of homes that are hundreds of years old. These are homes that go back to the days when the Turks ran this land, before the Greek revolution of 200 years ago. These homes were probably occupied when the andartes controlled these hills, and planned the assaults on the invaders. But now they are empty, not much more than piles of rock. There are still goat farmers in these hills. St Georges church survives in the folds of the mountains, its roof caving but its icons still watching and its candles still burning. There is celebration in Montenema because news has just come through that the national government is going too pay to have it restored.

But no such luck for the old homes. Economic times and tourism have done that war and oppression couldn’t: move out the old to make way for tourism and the visions of enterprising hikers.

25.11.17: Rendina and the Power of Women

I’ve had two inspirations for this research trip. One was my grandmother Olga Stambolis, who was a spy in Greece in WW2, and whose major role was rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were caught behind enemy lines. She was trained in the arts of the resistance fighter by the British. I don’t know where and when, but it was likely it was in the mountains in central Greece, in the hills where the andartes (resistance fighters) felt safest.

My other inspiration was my godfather, Nick Manning, who was a teenager in the war.  He was, like so many others, caught up in the action, and started to follow the communist leader Aris, a tough man who had little time for people who disagreed with his ideology. Nick the teen was told that his training would be in central Greece, so he did what so many other andantes did. He walked there. From Athens. That’s hundreds of kilometres, many of them through the mountains. Unfortunately for Nick, when he got to Rendina, the trainers had moved onto Karpenisi (see post of 2 days ago). So he walked to Karpenisi.

Today we drove this Rendina road. It seemed interminable with its twists and turns, and back in the day it would’ve been even more twisty. We pulled over and saw part of the old track, perhaps the very track Nick would’ve walked:

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

It’s pretty spectacular, and would’ve been in 1943, if you weren’t looking over your shoulder for Germans.

Once we reached Rendina, we found, like with so many other villages, that the war still hangs heavy. There are memorials. In this case, like Koryschades, the memories are of the atrocities of war, but also of the achievements and bravery of the locals. There was a war museum here too. We had to bother the local cafe owner to open it for us, but his semi-reluctance lifted when I showed him a photo of my grandmother in uniform.

It was then that I noticed that of the hundreds of photos of andartes in the museum, many featured women, some fierce looking, some looking seriously dangerous with rifles, and others were like this shot, where a woman andante was teaching men about dismantling and cleaning their weapon:

(Photo: Courtesy Rendina War Museum)

I still search for anything that might reveal news of where Olga worked, but I’m not hopeful. This was war in a country under occupation. The war was followed by a civil war that took many lives. There wasn’t much time for the keeping of lists of personnel, especially in a secretive underground movement. What I’m hoping for is anything of her. A photo like the above with Olga in the background somewhere. What a joy that would be.

24.11.17: Our Marriage in Greece

This research trip is my sixth trip to Greece. The first time was in 1988, and it was pretty frantic. We had wanted to get married, and thought it would just be a case of turning up to the church. Not to be. Just like the scene in Blues Brothers where the Mother Superior’s doors were slammed on Jake and Elwood, the priest in Santorini shut the church doors in our faces. After much translation and negotiation involving a local hotel owner, we were given a list of tasks to complete. Do these things, they said, and the priest might marry us. So we traipsed to Athens, made promises to the archbishop, posted banns in newspapers we couldn’t understand, paid monies to more people than we needed to, translated documents into English and back to Greek, and donated to churches. After seven weeks, just as our time to return to Australia loomed, we finished the to-do list and returned to Santorini. The priest took our package of evidence and didn’t even look at it. He knew what we had been through. Yes, he said, he’d marry us. Our hotel owner, Lefteris (of the Hotel Galini) agreed with tears to be our best man (it is a great honour in Greek culture), and we planned the wedding for the Wednesday, June the 8th. When the day came, the whole village of Firostefani turned out. They had been watching our fight to be married and over the weeks they had come to cheer for us. Lefteris and Lambrini lent us their home to get ready. Jac somehow came up a million dollars:

(Photo: Lambrini Roussos 1988)

Gorgos and Christina were fascinated by these aliens who took over their bedrooms. They are now two beautiful people probably with kids of their own. We seen them occasionally on Santorini. They are family you see. A best man becomes a brother, and if we had children Lefteris and Lambrini would have been their godparents. So we have a family on the other side of the world. A lovely culmination to an adventure, an adventure that continues..

23.11.17: The Koryschades Conference. So much Promise. So Much Unfulfilled.

This stop: Karpenisi. This is a central Greek town that I first heard about from my godfather Nick Manning. As a young wannabe resistance fighter in 1942-3, he walked from Athens to here to be trained. More on that in a couple of days. Karpenisi bore a lot of action in WW2. First it was controlled by the Italian invaders, then the Greek leftist ELAS group took over the town. The term ‘scorched earth’ really applies here because Karpenisi was flattened in all the fighting. The nearby village of Koryschades was saved, simply because it was surrounded by mountains and thus was inaccessible to German bombers. In 1944 Koryschades hosted a convention attended by the left and rightist resistance members and the British to try to work out a future post-war government structure (remember that before the war Greece was in a dictatorship).

This conference happened in this former schoolhouse:

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Unfortunately, the detente didn’t hold. The leftists wiped out the rightist andarte group EDES when the Nazis were driven out, infuriating the British. Images exist of British snipers on the acropolis picking out communist fighters in downtown Athens. Everywhere there were reprisal killings. Family members were against family members. Nicholas Gage’s book Eleni tells how his mother was murdered by the leftists in a small village simply because her husband and son had fled to imperialist America. There were many of these kinds of cases in 4 years of civil war that killed more Greeks than the Germans had done in their brutal occupation.

All the hopes generated in this little building in the Greek countryside came to nothing.

22.11.17: Gorgopotomos. The Resistance Strikes Back.

Pilgrimages are odd. You go to see something you have only imagined maybe for your whole life, and when you reach the destination, it is often something so different to what you expected. Smaller maybe. Less grand.  Today, the Gorgopotomos bridge in central Greece was not at all like that. I had been wanting to see this valley and the huge rail viaduct since I first read about in many years ago. The viaduct spans the valley and carries the major rail line that runs from north Greece to the south. In WW2 it was more than just a rail line. The Germans relied on it to supply their troops, carrying food, fuel and ammo down to their forces in the Mediterranean, including those in North Africa. No surprise then that Churchill wanted it destroyed. He dropped a group of Special Operations soldiers into the area, headed by Brigadier Eddie Myers. Their job was to blow the bridge and cut off supplies to German soldiers. But this mission was never going to be simple. Myers had to negotiate for help from the Greek resistance, which had by this time split into the communist ELAS and the more right wing EDES. These two groups were so opposed that ELAS spent as much energy trying to wipe out EDES as it did in attacking the Nazi invaders. Somehow Myers talked them into co-operating for this job and the bridge was blown in November 1942:


Of course it’s been rebuilt, and is a majestic wonder. It took me a while to find the bridge today, but there was the glorious moment when I walked through bramble to almost stumble onto the tracks at the top. Luckily when no trains were nearby:

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

But it was from down below that the power of this bridge, and the magnitude of the sabotage work was apparent.

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Despite a bit of Greece being destroyed on that day in November 1942, the locals celebrated, and still celebrate the destruction to this day. In a local taverna there are pictures on the wall of Brigadier Myers that were taken when he revisited Greece 15 years later. I suppose any spit in a Nazi eye was worth a thousand bridges.

21.11.17: Delphi and the Nature of Truth

On this trip we are going to visit some of the places where the Greek resistance plagued the Germans during the war. They did it all over the country, even though in many cases the reprisals were terrible (see my entry for 20.11). It seems that almost every village we have passed through saw some horror at the hands of the invaders. Just today our guesthouse owner told us of a mass killing of 25 civilians by the Nazis at the nearby village of Kalami. Strangely though, the invaders did seem to have some respect for Greek antiquity. They posed on the acropolis like conquering heroes, and they visited the ancient site of Delphi, so close to the sites of their most brutal activities. Delphi has a history that goes back to the earliest days of written stories. Herodotus and Homer wrote of it hundreds of years before Christ. Herodotus in particular talked of the Kastalian Spring which is on the road near Delphi. It was a luxurious bathing house in the BC days. Now it is really a hole in the ground:

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

Yes, it would have been something special when Herodotus wrote of it. Herodotus features heavily in my PhD study because, like me, he wrote history but in a non-fiction way. This fictionalising was controversial in his day. While he was known as the Father of History for his Histories, he was also dubbed The Father of Lies by Plutarch for using a flourishing style. As I write the play of my grandmother’s story, I need to tread the same path as Herodotus (hence the name of my PhD: Going the Way of the Ancients). I need to constantly question how far I should go when turning fact into fiction. Does the narrative need of a stage performance justify changing a story? If I don’t have facts, do I have the artistic licence to add in parts? For my novel Someone Else’s War (which is the primary source for the play) I took this licence, making it clear on the cover that this was a novel, not a non-fiction piece. Even so, at writer’s festivals, launches and even book club events, the first question I was asked was about which parts of the novel are absolutely true. Few people asked about my grandmother’s spying, her killing, her sabotage or her rescuing of trapped allied fighters. I suppose that’s what led to part of this PhD including a discussion of the nature of truth in art. It’s an honour to think I am a tackling the same questions that dogged Herodotus, the man who could fairly be said to have founded the recording of history.

20.11.17: The Horror of Distomo

This trip is only three days old, and we’ve found an extraordinary story of the second world war, almost by accident. It was the kind of story that makes it easy to understand why my grandmother Olga Stambolis decided to risk her life to undermine the Nazi invaders. This photo was taken at the top of a little village called Distomo which is close to Lord Byron’s favourite place, Delphi in central Greece. On the 10th of June 1944, only four months before they were expelled by the Allied forces, the Germans went through the homes of the people from Distomo and killed 218 of them.  The youngest was a one year old baby. The oldest was 84 years old. This artwork at the memorial captures the anguish of the village’s women:

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

And no wonder. The memorial has a wall of the names of the 200 killed. 32 of them have the same surname. If they were from the same family (and in a small village, it’s a good chance they were) then this family lost infants aged 2, 4 and 7, as well as the family matriarch, an 80 year old woman. The Germans must’ve known the end was near, and just like their Norwegian ‘scorched earth’ retreat, this was an act of of bitterness and spite. Many of the children they killed that day were girls. (See below: 3 year old Maria and 5 year old Katina). Reports were that a baby was shot in her mother’s arms; children were bayoneted in their cots, pregnant women were stabbed. All because the SS wrongly suspected the townspeople of abetting an attack on Germans troops. This kind of loss must stay in the village DNA.

When we reached the outskirts of the village, we were met by a committee led by the elderly priest. He was an old fashioned patriarch, with a long, wavy, white beard. Next to him the guerilla captain, fully armed. The priest spoke first and thanked us on behalf of everybody for the food supplies. Then he added: “We are all starving here, both us and the German prisoners. Now, though we are famished, we are at least in our land. The Germans have not just lost the war; they are also far from their country. Give them the food you have with you, they have a long way ahead.”

Forgiveness. With people like this Greek priest, Greece was able to find a way back.

My godfather’s father was a victim of a massacre. He was one of 200 prisoners executed on Hitler’s orders on the 1st of May 1944 in Kaisariani, Athens. It was in reprisal for the resistance killing a German general.. I doubt my godfather ever was so forgiving as this priest.

19.11.17: A scene from my Novel

(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)

These two Athenian churches featured in my novel Someone Else’s War as the site where the resistance started building an tunnel to get supplies and people out of Athens under the noses of the German occupiers in WW2. In the novel the tunnel was sanctioned by the local priest. However, this action was a fiction. I wrote it into the novel to demonstrate the ways the Greeks were thumbing their noses at the Nazis, even when it was a great risk to do so. The clergy often secretly supported action against the occupiers. There were also collaborators who co-operated with the Germans, but there were so many who risked everything. For my grandmother Olga, she risked her life everyday as a spy for the resistance and the British, but the risk was hers only. If the local Greeks who worked with her were caught, not only they would die, but their families. The Nazis didn’t see families; they saw groups of human hostages. They didn’t see villages; but opportunities for reprisal shootings.

18.11.17: Coming to one of my homes

There’s something special that happens to me when we land in Athens. If my Greek roots go back thousands of years, then touching Athenian concrete probably has some kind of osmotic cosmic effect. After all, a lineage of 500+ forebears must leave some electricity in the ground. Three hours ago that electricity shot through me as our Airbus something-or-other banged on the tarmac. It was drizzly, the plane’s windows were foggy and it looked quite miserable outside. But it could’ve been Christmas for how I felt. Just 20 hours before that moment we were in St Kilda. Now I was in my second favourite place on earth. I’ll take the tube into Athens tomorrow morning. The last time I was in Athens the mood was as miserable as today’s weather. Let’s see. I’ll let you know this time tomorrow. Tonight it’s a taverna next to where we’re staying in Peania, just S-W of the city. There’s Retsina to be had and whatever kind of vegan they can manage. The adventure begins.

17.11.17: The start of the adventure

I’m sitting in a plane waiting to take off from Melbourne. I am beginning a month-long research trip for my exegesis PhD. It’s about the production of a performance piece based on the activities of my maternal grandmother, who was a spy in Greece during world war two. She was a resistance fighter, rescuing Australian, British and New Zealand airmen caught behind enemy lines in central, western and northern Greece. While I have conducted research from Athens and London on many trips over the years, this will be the first time I’m visiting the sites of the resistance work in central and northern Greece.

This will be a driving trip, starting with Athens, and following the routes of my grandmother’s rescue routes, visiting each town where she would have worked.

This trip also involves going to the sites of the resistance fighting during WW2, and includes the sites of other resistance centres such as Rendina and Karpenisi where the resistance cells were based (even though my grandmother did not work there). I will also visit the site of a turning point for the resistance (the blowing up of the Gorgopotomos Bridge). In Greek Macedonia I will go the sites of the Jewish deportations. These will provide essential background for the thesis, especially for the factual background for the writing of the performance piece, and also for the staging of the scenes, some of which will be set in the areas to be visited.

The drive will start to the east of Athens, move north across Thebes to Lamia (where the Gorgopotomos Bridge was blown in as British operation, then west to the resistance strongholds in the Pindhos Ranges towards Ioannina. Then north again to where the greek resistance factions (the left wing ELAS and the royalist EDES) fought for control. Then we go eastwards towards Salonika (Thessaloniki). We then move south through the Aliakmon Line, through the Pinios Gorge, following one of the routes of the April 1941 German advance.

Can’t wait. But I guess I’ll have to. This plane trip will be a long one. Not as long as my forebears who took months to get to and from Australia by boat back in the day. I suppose I can’t complain really..

6.11.17: From Teacher to Student

I returned to La Trobe Uni today for my Research Progress Panel. This is a meeting where we look at the progress of my PhD and to see if there any problems. It was odd. One of my supervisor is a former teaching comrade, Steinar Ellingsen, and the chair of the panel is my former boss, Lawrie Zion. There was a moment before we started when I felt about six years old. Would my work be good enough. Have I been too lazy? Have I been too scattered? Would I get the ruler? Nothing like that of course, but it was a great proverbial whack on the head, a reminder that the lot of a student is one of constant self-doubt, challenge and correction.

I have always loved my students, but I might come back to semester 1 next year even kinder now.

29.10.17: Teaching and PhDing

At last I have finished my marking for my students at RMIT in Melbourne. It’s one of the prestige journalism teaching institutions, and it’s got some fabulous facilities (just a few weeks ago I met Prince Andrew on the first operating day for our new TV studio).

But it’s the students that make this place special. No matter what we throw at them, they take it all (there are occasional tears, but hey, they’re 19 years old!) and produce some great stuff. I haven’t had the chance to work with them from first year, leading them through TV and radio, but they picked up so much in this semester. So to Lou, Josh, Meg, Elena, Hayley, Thea, Eliza and all the rest of my new friends, it’s been great being with you for this part of your journey. You’re going to be so fine.

Now that the teaching and the marking is over, I can focus on the PhD. For a little while at least.

24.10.17: Planning the big PhD trip

Next month we are off to central and northern Greece to see the places where the Greek andartes (resistance fighters) operated in the second world war.

Yes, the Greek mountains in winter. Madness. But being an academic doesn’t give you much room. The June break is too short, and I really need to do this trip for my PhD which I hope to have finished by next June anyway.

My godfather Nick Manning (originally Maniarizis) was one of the resistance fighters, and he wrote about walking from Athens to the training centre in Rendina. When he got there, the trainers had moved on to Karpenisi to the south. So he walked there too. No chance of a cab, not that he could afford it anyway in those days of Nazi-imposed austerity.

At the same time my maternal grandmother was spying under the British Special Ops (the SOE), possibly in the same area. They met, but nit until both were safely in Australia many years after the war.

Nick Manning died a few months ago. He was a lovely gentle man. I hope he’ll be with us as we explore his roads and his villages. With minus degree temps and possible snow, we’ll need every angel looking over us.

18.10.17: It’s not about royalties

I was contacted on LinkedIn by a most amazing woman the other day. Maribel Steel’s eyesight has been getting worse since she was 15. She now, 40-odd years later, has very little sight left, but she still works, publishing books, giving inspirational talks, and generally helping others who have far less to complain about than her.

Maribel has suggested that the book be made into a audiobook for the vision-impaired, which would give it a whole new audience, an audience that I would love to have read it. It’s not about royalties. I really couldn’t care whether 100 people read the book because they bought it full price from a book store, or whether they borrowed it from a library. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job which allows us to feed the dog, eat out every so often, and download the latest Rolling Stones record.

I know there are plenty of authors who rely on their royalties, but I am sure all of them would rather the library readers have their book than none at all. We write because we want to share our art. If we can make a living out of it like Tim Winton or Peter Carey, then wonderful. But for me, to have one Maribel say they were touched by the story would mean far more than the two dollars in royalties for that sale

Thanks Maribel. I hope you’ll be able to hear the book soon.

12.9.17: Anthony. And good old Kevin

The novel has done it again. I have written earlier in this blog about how the book has brought me back in contact with family members I had not seen in many years. Well in the past 12 months I have had two people contact me.

One is my cousin Anthony, grandson of my Auntie Freda. Anthony and I had probably never spoken. We were a generation an half a country apart. But Anthony has found a cache of photos and documents that belonged to Freda, and the joyful lad has been sending them to me. In them is plenty of information which shines even more of a light on Freda and her father (my grandfather Michael). When you’ve been writing a story like mine, you start to see your characters in your sleep. Anthony’s information and photos has given me a new perspective.

Also contacting me has been Kevin Plumb, a lad I had almost forgotten about from my teen years. In 1976 Kevin and I were in a student acting group that toured to the Adelaide Festival. We became good friends, and indeed I became more than good friends with a girlfriend of his. Kevin and I lost touch, as you do when school and geography intervenes. Recently Kevin got in contact through Facebook, thirty-something years on. I am just mailing hi ma copy of the novel.

I’m sure that back in those amateur acting days in 1976 I never would’ve dreamt that he would be reading a novel of mine. Life really has twists, and some of them are magical.

21.5.17: Surrounded by Greek Women

This novel is about women. My grandmother Olga, the war hero spy Nikotsara, my step-grandmother Jean, my mum Nellie and aunties Tina and Freda.

I could never have known that this book would lead me into a web of Greek women. In the past few months women have been the ones who have pushed me along on my journey. Greek societies in Sydney and Melbourne have organised launches for the Greek version of the book. A fabulous Greek bookshop in Sydney (The Greek Bilingual Bookshop) has hosted two events for me. It is a shop run at a bare profit by two wonderful women, Eleni and Christina. They are examples of people who do what they do because it will make the community stronger. There can be no greater motivation. While so many of us count our pennies, they are counting the number of books they can offer to the people. Their shop is in fact more of a library. This is a coffee shop where customers can flock through the books for sale.

When I was a kid I was surrounded by women, my aunts, my mum and Jean. It is now so many years later, and I again am surrounded by Greek women. It’s just wonderful.

Here’s a lovely photo of Eleni and Christina and I after the launch. Our faces say it all.

21.2.17: The Joy of being Greek

Every Friday I receive a slab of tweets on my twitter account @philkafcaloudes from a bunch of people in the USA. I have never met these people, and have only every personally communicated with one of them, Maria Karamitsos, who is a journalist with a huge love of books and authors. She reviewed Someone Else’s War some time ago.

By meeting Maria I was drawn into a wonderful web of Greek people who don’t expect anything from you. They are want to support you and to be a friend. Every Friday, their greetings and wishes for a good weekend are a lovely part of my end-of-week routine now. I don’t always get the time to reciprocate, but I think they probably know.

Thank you my friends.

21.12.12: The Book is now in Greek!

Some time ago I went to Athens to sign a contract for Someone Else’s War to be translated into Greek for the european market. At first they said the book would be coming out in April 2013, but then I got an email from the publishers (Psichogios Publications) telling me that the date had changed. I expected this bit of news. After all, Greece was in a time of terrible financial turmoil. In the back of my mind there was an expectation that the book would be out off until next August, then the following year, then infinity.

But no. They told me that the publication date was being brought forward to December 2012!  In the world of publishing, this is a fast turnaround. It meant only 5 months from contract signing to publication. Granted, the book was already written, but they had to translate it, give it a new cover that would appeal to the Greek market, and go through the manuscript and check any slight factual errors that wold be picked up by Athenian residents (and yes, there were a couple).

So yes, the book is now available in Olga’s homeland, and across the world as an ebook on iTunes. The good people at Psichogios publications have changed the name of their Greek version to “Olga’s War” (it translates much more smoothly in Greek than “Someone Else’s War“). I love the cover too. It is a different species of artwork to Julie Ramsden’s original concept, but they are both terrific. I hope you like it.

10.9.12: To my Uncle Johnny

About a year ago I blogged about my Uncle Johnny. I wrote about how he waited in the queue to get his copy of Someone Else’s War signed.

I wrote about how I felt an odd wrongness at seeing him standing there, slightly hunched, with the book under his arm.

I wrote how I felt I should be the one waiting in a queue for him, since he was the last son of my grandfather Michael. He lived as part of the family of the book.

This morning I found out that Johnny died today.

So many things go through your mind when something like this happens. You think you should’ve spent more time with him, you think you should’ve talked to him more. You realise that there is not one person left in the family of that generation. That the genes of your grandfather exist now only in the diluted form of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Johnny and his brother Jimmy, who died some years ago, were born of my grandfather and his second wife, Jean. Michael had married Jean during the war, when he and Australian officials believed Olga had been killed in Greece. As we know, Olga was still alive, working with the resistance, and this marriage to Jean was, I suppose you could say, a polygamy. But it was an accident of the times, and a victim of the fact that the British were unable to pass the news of Olga’s survival to Australian authorities because she was working too deeply in the resistance, and it would have been a risk to her safety to pass on this information.

The beauty of this confusion was the marriage to Jean, which was a marriage of love and devotion, and the births of my half-uncles Jimmy and Johnny.

Johnny was a beautiful man, probably the only true Greek-looking man in our family. Think of an even more perfectly chiselled version of Victor Mature, but with more animation, a passion for life, quick to hug, easy to indulge, always wanting to play. I remember the family days at Bondi Beach when Johnny would creep up behind me and toss me into the surf. I think I once got angry about it, but a look at Johnny’s playful face, and the anger was replaced by a need for him to do it again.

I hadn’t seen Johnny for about fifteen years until the book launch last year, and then I saw him again at my mother’s funeral only two months later, when he posed with the rest of the family for photos. Typical of Johnny, he was at the front, sitting on a chair, making himself the centre of attention.

He was a man who loved the good times, who loved his family, and always kept some of the child with him.

He lives on through his beautiful children, John, Anthony and Michelle.

I will miss him.

30.8.12: Thank goodness for good friends

Being an author is an up and down thing.

There are the journalists you never hear from, not even acknowledging that book you sent them.

There are the book awards you enter, always hoping for a little candle of approbation, one that rarely comes.

There are the dark nights of the soul when you worry that no-one likes your book.

This might be enough for any observer to wonder why we do it.

The answer I might’ve given you two years ago is that we do it because writing is worth every doubt, every dark night, every rejection from every publisher, award panel, or forgetful reporter. In writing this novel I have come to the belief that writing, or any act of art is probably the closest we come to God, whatever your God is. Writing is a spiritual soaring.

Now, after a year of publication, a reprint, a translation, and two Writers Festivals, I have to add that there’s something else that makes it worthwhile/ I’m talking about the people who travel the publishing journey with you.

I came to realise this when I was doing some homework for a Reiki Master level course I was doing some months back. One assignment involved me choosing something important to my life, and then listing all the people who have been supporting me. I chose to be thankful for the people who gave support to me and my book. The exercise was supposed to take ten minutes. My list took me forty minutes. Friends, family, publishers who believed in my writing, the agent who stayed with me for most of the journey, the prominent people who launched it, the people who came to the launches, the people who bought it, the people who sought me out to tell me they loved it, the book clubs, the radio people who interviewed me, the Greek community who took ownership of the book. So many people. So much love.

Thank you all, and thank you to my story for bringing these people into my life.

1.6.12: I met the loveliest of men the other day

He is the founder of a Greek publishing house, who offered to translate the book into Greek for the European market. He also happens to be the publisher for the Greek versions of the Harry Potter books, Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie.

As I walked through the foyer of his office in northern Athens, the books of these great writers lined the walls. Clearly this is a publishing house proud of its authors, in love with its authors.

As I went upstairs and met Mr Psichogios, I was struck at how this man, at the forefront of the Greek book trade for thirty years could be so much like everyman’s Uncle Leo, a gentle and warm man who seemed as thrilled to be in my company as I was to be in his.

The Greek financial woes are pretty bad. Greece is currently got a yearly debt that is 130% times its yearly national production. In other words it will never be able to pay its current debt.

It’s people like Mr Psichogios who may be affected by all this. As things get more difficult, people will cut luxuries, and sadly when it is a choice between petroleum and books, books are the luxury.

I thought of this as I sat there in that office, signing the book contract, my name adjacent to that of Mr Psichogios, the man who refuses to let years of Greek government ineptitude close him down and stop him wanting to get Greek stories out to the world.

I now understand the artists who dedicate their work to their producer, director or editor. There is something in realising that there is someone in this with you, someone who has said they want to be with you for the journey.

My regret, my only regret, was that I forgot to get a photo of me with Mr Psichogios as we signed our names together.

Still, it wasn’t a day for regrets. It was a day of sunshine in Athens that afternoon when I was back on the footpath.

A good, sunny day.

16.4.12: My Auntie Freda died today

If you have read the novel, you would know Freda as my mum’s very lively and passionate sister, the one to whom attention needed to be paid; the tough-minded and acerbic one; the one who was quick to anger and quick to cry.

Freda played a big part in my childhood. My mum worked for Freda and her husband Leo Bayss in the Bayss’ restaurant in Chalmers Street near Sydney’s Central Station. Mum would take me, the too-curious three-year old to the shop with her. This was in the days when to take a toddler to work with you wasn’t a workplace faux pas. Freda and Leo loved having me there. Uncle Leo would make me a little hamburger for lunch, and Freda would then take me up to her bedroom so we could have an afternoon nap together.

It was a time of kisses and hugs, passionate squeezes. Freda was always so much more public than mum. Her pace was fast, her annoyances more obvious, her jokes and laugh so much louder.

I drew a lot on these memories for the Freda in Someone Else’s War, because I believe a character is a character. We may pull our head in a little as we learn the lessons of life, but we are who we are.

It was actually pretty easy to take the character of Freda back into childhood; she had so many of the traits of an unaffected child. If you stripped away a few years, and some of the disappointments that life must have brought, it was easy to see the young Freda in this woman and mother of my young life. After Olga, Feda was the most interesting character to draw.

Freda had not been herself for some years. A stroke took that away. Over the last five years, Freda moved between remembering our times together, and not knowing me at all. Such are the ways of age.

But Freda was a big part of my life, a character that was large in our family of large characters.

You will be missed and always remembered Freda.

4.4.12: The Ups and Downs of the Book Festival Circuit

It is mostly ups.

Getting to meet people who love books, and who want to grill you about your work. The questions are endless and intuitive. It takes you out of the mechanics and grind of the book-selling business. You are elevated to the spiritual level, the kind that you experienced when you were writing in the first place. The story is the thing, the inspiration, the character motivations.

And the what-ifs. What-if the character made a different decision; what-if an antagonist was slightly different. The audiences want to know what would have happened to the central character, Olga. What-if.

As the author who has completed the book, a what-if might seem irrelevant, but it surely is relevant. These sorts of questions prove that the reader has become subsumed; their mind has wondered. There is nothing more that you can hope for in an author-reader exchange.

Yes, I love writers festivals.

But it can be a roller coaster. Last week I received a note from the Ubud Writers festival in Bali, letting me know that they think my book is brilliant (which is a lovely thing to say), but that it would not be invited to be on the program this year.

I admit I felt slightly downcast. Call me spoiled. I probably am. I felt guilty at feeling I had a right to be invited to a writers’ festival.

Then, on the same day, came the invitation to appear at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

As Ian Gillan of Deep Purple once wrote in one of his lyrics, “Heaven wouldn’t be so high I know, if the times gone by hadn’t been so low.”

He’s right. The Ubud email made the Brisbane invitation all the sweeter. My publisher was thrilled. Certainly the prospect of book sales is greater in Brisbane, and the likelihood that the attendees will have read my book will be higher, and so the discussions are bound to be fabulous.

And as I said at the beginning, I just love that.

23.1.12: Going into Reprint!

Yes, after only five months on the shelves, my publisher tells me that we have sold out our first run of Someone Else’s War.

When this happens, you need to get more printed. It is not just a case of getting a few more run off. In the publishing industry, when the first run is sold out, you reprint.

This means you have  chance to correct any factual errors (and there was one in the first edition: somehow the great Greek Gorgopotomos bridge went to print as the Gotopotomos bridge. Obviously that clanger had to be corrected (if you are looking for a first edition, that is a giveaway clue). There were also a few typographical errors that were found.

The result is that I have been working over the past week or so to get these corrections to the printer in time for the reprint to be set.

I also was unhappy with a couple of details on the cover. Only small things, like the comment from the Booker Prize winning author Tom Keneally (who won the prize for his masterpiece Schindler’s List). His comment was a lovely endorsement, but in the first printing, it could barely be read. It was dark and faded into the background. If you’re going to have a Booker Prize winner cheer on your work, you want people to be able to read it. We fixed that, and a few other small things you’d need a microscope to see.

The printer, as he sat with me at the proofing table, casually said that it was unusual for a novel outside of a New York Times selection, to need a reprint so soon.

As I wrote in an earlier blog, writing a novel can be full of surprises. Here was another one.

12.1.12: The Surprise of Dreams Unanticipated

When you write a novel, your head can’t help but be full of dreams.

You dream that people will buy it, that they will like it, that they will tell their friends.

You dream that the media will bother to read it, that they too will like it, and that they will tell their readers or listeners what a great read it is.

You might also dream that people involved in motion pictures will read some of these reviews and clamour to get you book’s rights for a film.

I must admit that some of these standards dreams popped into my head too, just as thy took the mind of generations of writers before me.

But the cliche ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ became true for me; with a slight amendment. It should have read ‘ truth is more wonderful than fiction, because what has happened to me is the following, all things I didn’t anticipate:

People have cried at my writing

Novelists I love have told me they love my writing.

A man who was in Greece in the war told me I got the times and feeling of the place perfect.

I have had my relatives, some of whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two decades, come to support me for the launches of the book.

I had a cousin cry because she recognised a family characteristic revealed in the book, and came to believe, after 60-odd years, that she really did share a commonality with the rest of us.

My mother, who no longer was capable of understanding photos, reacted to the book’s cover with a lucidity and recognition. This happened the last time I saw her conscious, just weeks before she died.

All these things were all surprises. They were undreamt-for. They just happened.

For these alone, the hours, days, weeks, and years of writing were worth it.

8.12.11: The Death of a Gentle woman

My mum died today.

If you have read the novel you would’ve picked up that Nellie was, like her mother, a pretty powerful woman. She almost single-handedly brought up her family, kept them together, and somehow stopped them from turning into police-botherers.

But there was another side to Nellie Stambolis-Kafcaloudes. She could also be a nervous woman, forever wringing her hands at family get-togethers, worried that everything was going to fall in a heap. She was a mother who, when you told her you were going on holidays, would immediately fret that you would be fired while you were away.

This kind of thinking obviously goes back in part to her own mother Olga, who disappeared one night from the little family shop in Ultimo in 1936. We know now that Olga was working as a spy in Greece and was doing good work for the Allies against the Nazis, but can you imagine what must have gone through the mind of the 13 year old Nellie? Basic psychology tells us that the fears of an adult are often built on the terrors of the child. The young Nellie could possibly have believed her mother dead or abducted. Just as any parent of a disappeared child will say it is the not-knowing that is the hardest part for them, the same thing must apply for the child who has lost a parent. Or worse, for children have the power of imagining things without the limits of reason that adults learn.

If there is anything good to be said about dementia, it is that with Nellie in her last years her dementia removed all these fears from her mind. She was incapacitated to a degree, but the brain damage did not affect her capacity to love. We have just spent a day farewelling the nursing home staff, who had been coming to us one by one, telling us how Nellie would raise her arms to them for a cuddle, and kiss them repeatedly on the sides of their faces. As a very aged woman, she had again become a child.

I feel honoured that I had the chance to see that part of mum before her journey on this planet was over. My brothers Terry and Michael, and sister Sylvia have all said the same thing.

You were gorgeous mum. Just gorgeous.

3.12.11: Tom Keneally and the Art of Surprises

Booker prize winner Tom Keneally played an important role in this book. He was an early supporter and encourager of me and my story, because years ago he told me to keep up with it, and not to get discouraged by the vagaries of the book trade. Art isn’t easy, he told me in on not so many words, even going as far as to say that if he had begun writing today, he would not have been published, such is the state of the publishing industry today.

These were words that helped me in the darker hours of the publishing process. So now, let’s go forward to this year. I dared to send a message to Tom to ask him if he’d be kind enough to read some of the novel and perhaps give me a quote that I could use on the cover. He fired back an email saying he would be honoured to write something for me. I remember the moment well. Jackie and I were sitting at Manira’s lovely veggie cafe in Prahran market in Melbourne, having just done a pilates session. The email from Tom came through, and I wept at the kindness of it, that this man who must have so many demands on his life, took the time to send such good thoughts across the ether, and to also promise to spend more time reading a work of a first time novelist. It was a moment in life was is glorious. I still remember the feeling. I doubt I ever felt such a humility before. Thanks to Tom I am one of those who can add it to my packet of emotional memories.

Tom was as good as his promise. It didn’t take him long to reply with a quote that sits proudly on the front of the book.

This week I spoke again with Tom, about his latest work, a non-fiction examination of the history of the Australian peoples from the Eureka Stockade to the end of the first world war.

As I greeted him outside the studio, Tom’s first words to me were, believe it or not, an apology. He said he was sorry that he had not written more for me, or done more to help me.

Just when I thought there was no more a human could do for another, Tom surprised me by doing even more. A lovely human being.

28.11.11: The Joy of Book Clubs

Book clubs are always an interesting experience for an author. The other night I gave a talk to a club run by a great friend of mine, Margie Gillett. She is the young-un in her book club, she’s only been with it for a few years. Some of them have been talking books together for decades, so it was surprising to learn that I was their first author, the first to appear in their book club. I turned up on time to find half a dozen women in a circle in Margie’s lounge-room, all with copies of my novel, leaning over canapes and wine, ready to fire questions that had undoubtedly been brewing for the last month.

The questions were very broad, from my Greekness and the impact of researching Olga on my attitude towards my heritage, to the difficulty in researching such a story. I have written elsewhere here about how hard it was to find details about Olga, given that she was fighting in an occupied country, one of many many people in a strung out and semi-autonomous resistance.

What surprised me, and probably should not have, was how one person in particular kept bringing up detail in the books, the things that Olga did and had happen to her, and wanting to know if that bit was true. At first I answered whether it was true or not, but after a while it was, I fear, getting into dangerous territory. After all, this is a novel. It is based on Olga’s story, and every true fact about Olga is in the book. If I ever had a choice between writing a truth or a slightly more exciting fiction, I stuck with the truth. But clearly it is set in fictional settings. At functions I say to my readers that I really don’t know what Olga was doing on September the 18th 1942. I had an idea of what she was doing around that time, but if I couldn’t be time specific and exact in her deeds, then I was never going to claim that everything in the book was absolutely true. Hence the sub-title “A Novel” on the cover.

To that night though. In the end, when yet another truth or fiction was asked by the woman with the dog-erared copy of my book, I had to laugh out loud and say: “It’s a novel! Let’s not destroy the mystique. Enjoy the ride.” And she was quick to say that she really did enjoy the ride, it as just that her curiosity was diving her mad.

I’m sure Tom Keneally got the same treatment about Schindler’s Ark, which told of Oskar Schindler in a novel form. Fictionalising is probably the most rewarding way for an author to tell a story. It brings the reader into the mind of the characters. I just read Frank Moorhouse’s fabulous new concluding novel in his Edith trilogy. In it he tells of 1950s Australia, the communist witch-hunts and the struggle of Australian women for recognition. His Edith is fake, a concocted character, but Moorhouse has done his work and the book oozes authenticity. Through it we learn a little of the society that preceded, and informed, ours. Like any good novel, it taught me something about where I am and perhaps a little about why I think the way I do.

That’s a pretty neat accomplishment. I love being a novelist.

15.11.11: The Surprising Listener

Sydney has been so very welcoming to me and the novel. There have been invitations to cocktail parties, requests to speak to book clubs, offered opportunities for signings.

One of the more memorable nights was at the War Memorial in Hyde Park. I had been asked to give a keynote speech to mark the eve of Oxi Day. The word ‘Oxi’ is an English approximation of the Greek word for ‘no’. It was on the 28th of October 1940 that the Greek dictator and strongman John Metaxas was given an ultimatum by the Italian ambassador Grazzi. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allow Italian forces occupy whatever parts of Greece they wanted. Metaxas took little time to say ‘no’, and thus put his country at war with its much more militant and military-capable neighbour.

Because all this happened when my grandmother was in Greece, I tell this story in the novel, central as it is to the demise of Greece in those years. Except this was no demise. The Italians did invade only hours after Metaxas’ famous ‘no’, and the Greeks fought them with a fire the Italians could not have expected. So powerful were the Greeks with their farm tools as weapons, that they pushed the Italians out of Greece and way back into Albania where they had come from.

At War Memorial on this night I told this story, which the audience must have already known and heard every Oxi Day since they were children, but they listened, intent.

There was one man though who listened more closely than most. He was a stooped man who once had been very handsome and still was to an extent, but even now in his eighties he had those Greek shining eyes that seemed both intent and far away. He clapped loudly at the end of my speech, and afterwards waited patiently as others came to speak to me of their own mothers, fathers and grandparents. When he did eventually get to me, he shook my hand and congratulated me.

I have blogged elsewhere that I often feel a little undeserving of congratulation. I simply tell stories. The reward is in the writing and telling, and I am rewarded well by this.

I thanked him for his good wishes and said I talk for a living, so this is not so hard.

No, he said. Congratulations on getting the book right.

You see, he was a child in Athens during the time of the invasion. He walked the streets during the famine. Every day he saw the Nazis and the Italians. He may well have been present at the executions.

I thanked him again and said that I try to get the facts as right.

No, he said again. Not just the facts. More important. You got the feeling right. You painted Greece as it felt back in those days. You took me back to my youth.

I was very touched, I cried a little, and maybe so did he.

It was a lovely gift, him telling me this, and I realised that those shiny eyes of his as I told the story that night were indeed faraway eyes. He was remembering a life long past, and who knows what things were back in his eye.

Sometimes being a writer is just glorious.

25.9.11: The First Time

A couple of minutes ago I went into a bookstore and for the first time I saw Someone Else’s War on a bookshelf. Now I have been published twice before, and I have had countless articles of mine, or about me, appear in magazines and newspapers, but that moment of seeing your work out there on the market is really something.

My God, I almost became a teenager again. It felt like I had seen a girl I had a crush on walking towards me alone on a street. It felt like Christmas, and it was also strangely frightening. Back then I didn’t know what to do: to speak or not to speak, to pour out my feelings or stay cool.

So many years on, in that bookstore just now, I had that same feeling. Would I look a fool if I told the shop assistant that this book was mine? Should I take a photo of the book on the shelf and risk looking a dork, or at worst a piracy operative?

In the end a moment of inspiration came. I would go to the shop assistant and tell them I was the author, and ask them whether they would they like me to sign the copies.

They weren’t aghast. Or suspicious. Yes, please, they answered. They’d put a little ‘signed by the author’ sticker on them. In fact they went out the back to find their entire stock for me to sign.

So if you’re passing by the Constant Reader bookshop in Crows Nest in Sydney, who knows, you might be able to pick up a little bit of that gem of a moment.

18.9.11: Of Premiers and Greeks

I’ve just come across the blog that former NSW premier Bob Carr wrote about the book. He launched it at Dymocks in Sydney a few weeks ago and, as I’ve written in an earlier entry, he was gracious and caring.

His blog shows just the same type of humanity. I might have already written that my brother and sister, who have never been known as Labor supporters, came away from the launch Carr fans.

Bob spoke of the terrible war in Greece, and of how so many Australians started life in that war before migrating to Australia. My own neighbours in Melbourne, Peter and Arreghti, lived through that war, as did the lady down the street. They came to this country, somehow managing to live with the nightmares of those times, building new families, helping build a new Australia, and showing a generosity of spirit that must’ve infected St Kilda East. For like so many areas where immigrants have settled, there is a feeling of hope in our town; the sort of feeling that can come from people who have seen the worst of life, and know that the petty woes of our times are often overblown. Compared to Greece in 1941 they certainly must seem so.

For Bob to pay tribute to Arreghti’s generation, the forgotten generation from a forgotten war, was just so right. He expands on this in his blog.

Bob’s blog is at:

Check out the photo. The reason Bob is beaming is because I had just given a special thank you present: A signed copy of a book written by Senator Joe McCarthy (yes, the anti-communist guy). Bob was thrilled, but no more than me after his gracious speech.

15.9.11: Old Home Week

I’m in beautiful Byron Bay, trying to make a publicity tour into some kind of holiday. I’ve succeeded, to a degree.

Mornings I take Bella (our kelpie cross) for a long walk into town for a Chai then to the most fabulous doggie beach I have ever seen. It goes for miles with nothing but dunes to one side and the ocean to the other. This is the eastern-most point of Australia, so all we have to the north, south and east is ocean. It’s clean, remarkably cool and fresh early in the day. The only noise is the ocean, except when my publicist, Alan Davidson, sends me an SMS to say there’s another interview scheduled, so can I send the program/newspaper a high resolution photo of Olga as soon as possible.

Holiday evaporates with the ocean spray.

Yesterday I had a bunch of interviews in Brisbane. The first was what we in the business call a ‘tardis’. This is when we go into a studio in the station so we can speak, studio quality, with a radio show in another state. The studios are called ‘tardis’ because, like Dr Who’s police box, they appear small to anyone outside, but they are deceptively big inside, and can, at a pinch, accommodate whole bands of musicians. Just.

Yesterday my tardis interview was with The Guestroom, an hour-long program that comes out of radio 105.7 in Darwin. Yes, an hour. What a joy it was to be able to speak about Olga and my mum for all this time. The host, Kate O’Toole, was terrific. Unlike most interviewers, she had read most of the book, so she had plenty to ask. Since my dad’s side of the family started in Darwin, and my mum met dad in the town, there was an extra dimension to the talk.

The Brisbane visit also gave me a chance to catch-up with old comrades from ABC NewsRadio. When I worked at NewsRadio, it was a truly nationally-produced station. I was the Melbourne bureau; Sydney produced the mornings and afternoons, and the evenings came from Brisbane. Staff were encouraged to do their segments when interstate, so on one morning we had sport from Perth, international news from Adelaide, me in Melbourne, and the anchor in Sydney.

It’s not so national anymore, but it was great to speak again, after all these years to Terri Begley, and my old weekend co-host Graham Cairns. Love those guys.

Again a case of the book giving me a chance to break out of the rapid-fire life. That’s got to be a good thing.

2.9.11: Mixing it with the Best

Today I was on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

The other guest writer on the panel was Stephen Daisley, who wrote the highly acclaimed first novel, Traitor. It’s the fictional story of a kiwi soldier in World War One who forms a friendship with a Turkish prisoner, and eventually helps that prisoner to escape. It is a story of great heart that takes you into the mind of the young New Zealander.

The session we shared was called Handling the Truth, and we were put together because in our own way, we were covering some similar themes: love and loss; the need for friendship in war; the ease with which people turn good and bad; the regrets.

Stephen is just like his novel. Sensitive, quiet, measured, benign. In the first moment of meeting, I told him how much I loved his novel, and that it made me cry. Like the self-effacing man I expected he would be, he rushed in to tell me he loved MY novel.

Later, as we started our session, he told me he was anxious about doing these kinds of events. You wouldn’t think it to watch his performance before the crowd. He spoke eloquently about the way people think in wartime. He showed a deep understanding of people, probably a deeper understanding than most of the psychologists I have known.

The chair for the session, Rebecca Starford from Affirm Press was the perfect host. She had not only read both our books, but drawn the parallels between them.  She was also an incisive questioner. If she ever wants a gig in radio, she’d be great.

The audience was lovely too. Every time I spoke I saw faces eager and smiling. Book lovers are people who don’t just want a diversion; they want to understand a little more about life. They come to these events to to find out more of what was going on in our heads as we wrote, to understand us and our works a little better.

It was a good day, a day when I too learned just a little bit more.

29.8.11: Friends to the Rescue

The value of friends cannot be priced.

At the Melbourne launch of the novel, my friend Jon Faine, who also happens to host the sometimes top-rating morning talk show in Melbourne, was due to do me the honour of being the master of ceremonies.

The best laid plans of rodents and humans do come unstuck, and so it was with Mr Faine. Early on the day of the launch we spoke, and he said that because of a family problem he might not be able to do the gig after all. Being a man of honour he said he would do his best to be there, but he wanted to warn me that he might be needed elsewhere. And of course, ten minutes before the doors opened for the perfectly-planned launch, I got the phone call from him to say that he couldn’t get there.

I needn’t have worried, because I have found that during this whole publishing process, friends come from everywhere to help. My mate Bob Sessions, the former head of Penguin books, was to be seen walking up the aisle of Readings bookstore towards us, expecting to have a drink and snack and give polite applause in exchange.

My wife Jackie, who has never been one to let a chance go by, grabbed him and asked if he would be willing to help out with the speechly duties.

He hesitated not a moment. Of course, he said. He has seen hundreds of authors launch novels, but he was enthusiastic, and bear in mind that I was not from his own stable of writers.

On stage, Bob was terrific, and as I looked over the faces gathered for the launch, faces from the writing world, from the ABC, from our circle of friends and professional associates, I saw nothing but love and encouragement. My producers Babs, Sabrina and Artan, my music programmer Kim, Julie who designer most of the cover, Dan who gave us the layout, Margie who has been pushing me to give book club talks, my publicist Alan Davidson taking photos, Jill Morgan and Claudia Escobar of Multicultural Arts Victoria, who were there just to support me, our closest friends Gary Young, John O’May, Robyn Arthur and many many more.

Yes there was love in that room, so much love that they queued for the best part of an hour as I signed their books. On a Friday night when bistros and bars awaited.

And of course Uncle Bob Sessions was standing by me, with the kind of support and mateship that will keep the book publishing industry alive.

Thank you all, and thank you Bob.

28.8.11: Mixed Emotions

It was Uncle John’s day, yet there was a sorrow.

As the writing of this novel got underway, it morphed from something that was a ripping yarn about my grandmother into something far bigger. It became a story about humanity, good, bad, spiritual, indecent, loving, hating, caring and indifferent. You see these contrasts every day on the train or bus, but they are never so obvious as in war time. In Greece in WW2, family members were at war with each other, often because of political differences, but tragically, it also happened because of ridiculous petty jealousies.

My grandmother knew of these things; she may have been a victim of it. But in that terrible war, for every bad deed done, the good ones were many and more powerful. Olga and her underground comrades knew how to love. They staked their lives on that love. Every time they went on a mission, up to a dozen people risked death to save one trapped and frightened airman caught in a barn somewhere. Day after day these rescuers took the same risks. It had to be for love tinged perhaps, as my grandmother says in the novel, with the opportunity to spit in the eye of the German invaders.

Yesterday the book was officially launched in Sydney by the former NSW premier Bob Carr. Seated in front of us were family members I hadn’t seen for up to two decades, all there with a shared love of our grandmother, but also they were there for me. My cousins Jodie, Jenny, Michelle and Tennielle, as well as my brother and sister and nephews and nieces. Uncle Johnny was there too. He doesn’t get out much these days, but he came to this launch.

Bob Carr strode to the rostrum in that confident manner that he showed when he was NSW premier and when I was a humble member of the media gallery, working for ABC TV news. What he said yesterday was wonderful. He spoke with warmth of the Greek diaspora, and of the Greeks in his former electorate. He read excerpts from the novel in a way that could not but bring tears to the eyes of the audience. And to me.

Later, as I spoke from the rostrum of the grandmother I never knew, I saw those tears were still there. This is what this novel is about, the humanity, the story of life that is being played out today in so many countries around the world. Today in Libya as the rebels are poised to evict a tyrant; in Syria where thousands continue to defy another, facing down their own mortal peril. These are stories of people, not numbers and death tolls.

The tears that I couldn’t break away from as I spoke were those of my Uncle Johnny. I was telling the story of his mother and father, his brothers and sisters. And later when he stood in the queue waiting with everyone else for me to sign his copy, I felt a strange shame.

No, Uncle Johnny should not have been standing in a queue for me. This was his story. This was his moment as the last of the generation. He should not have been standing in any queue.

Maybe this explains why the sorrow I felt at that moment. I really don’t know. That sorrow is with me today. Like I said at the beginning, the writing process didn’t start this way. I suppose these things just take on their own spirit, and you just have to live with it.

Thank you Uncle Johnny.

19.8.11: The Lovely Circus Begins

I have my first two interviews for the book tomorrow. One is for the Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos, and the other for my colleague Geraldine Coutts at Radio Australia. It’ll be funny being on the other side of the microphone. I am interviewed as a guest on ABC News Breakfast TV regularly, doing their newspaper wrap, so I suppose that qualifies as being interviewed. But tomorrow will be different. I will be asked about my family, my grandmother, my feelings, my writing. And despite what every journalist tells you, there is a little bit of acting involved in being a presenter. You keep your emotions to yourself, especially on a public broadcaster like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You are always secondary to the story. This makes it easier when a guest attacks you, because you haven’t laid your personal self open to attack.

Being an author lays you open. You are susceptible to criticism, to the enquiring mind, and to that ballistic missile that finds the flaw in your reasoning.

I was interviewed for my last book, which was a collection of short stories. The book, The Chequered Lady (Federation Press), was a bit of fun, and was never going to be in line for the Booker Prize, but the questions were penetrating still.

I wonder what’s in store for me tomorrow. Be kind, comrades.

12.8.11: In My Hands

Last night when I got home there were some boxes on the front verandah. The books. Just days out from the Sydney and Melbourne launches, the books were printed and elsewhere across the country, other copies of Someone Else’s War were on their way to the bookstores. Was this how the book industry usually worked, I asked the ever-helpful Christine Gordon from Readings in Carlton (which is hosting the August 26 Melbourne launch). Yes, she said. Razor’s edge, she said. Closer than any other business deal you could image, she said. Books often arrive the day before a launch. Palpitations are apparently a normal and expected part of the book game. I don’t like palpitations. I host an international radio program on Radio Australia every week day. I often go to air still with our major interview yet confirmed. They almost always come through (I have some very good producers), but I never get palpitations in the radio biz. To get such heart murmurs over the publication of a book, which has so much longer a lead-in time, just doesn’t make sense. In radio we have two hours planning time every morning for our major interview (which is based on the news of the day). So it’s a case of two hours in radio versus six months for a book.

But the books are here. They will be at the bookstores for the launches, and my faithful publicist, Alan Davidson, and distributor Dennis Jones are ensuring that there will be plenty in stores as I tour Australia next month to do interviews.

First stop though are the launches. If you are around, feel free to drop in and say hello. The first is at Dymocks in George St in Sydney on Tuesday August 23 at 10am. Former NSW premier Bob Carr will be hosting. Three days later comes the Melbourne launch: Friday August 26 at 6pm at Readings bookstore in Lygon St, Carlton.

It’s been a long journey folks, for Olga, for me, and for my family. The launches will be more than a chance to tell the story of Olga. They will be celebrations.

26.7.11: Bringing Us Together

One of the joys of a project like this how it brings people together. Over the last few weeks I have been emailing with long-lost cousins. Actually they were never ‘lost’. Rather, we just fell out of contact. It happens with big families. As kids, I used to spend every Christmas, Boxing Day, Easter and New Year with the families of my aunties and uncle. Back then there were the usual jealousies and trouble-making (or as much trouble as seven-year olds can make). While our mothers sat around a table watching, talking and scolding, we would explore the yard, dragging out old pieces of wood or corrugated iron, making what we considered to be a shelter, chased every moment by whichever dog was around. Gorgeous times they were, but times that passed as we grew and started devoting time to our own friends and partners. Then the time came when our beloved mums and dads passed on. That seemed to be it. We who were so close as kids, would go from year to year without seeing each other. From decade to decade perhaps. So it has been a beauty of my life that through Someone Else’s War, cousins have again come together. Many are coming to the August launches, and an event in September hosted by the Greek community. I can’t wait to see them all again.

13.6.11: Revisiting the Kiwis

I am in negotiations to do an author tour in New Zealand in September. I have been the Australian correspondent for Radio New Zealand for almost half my life. At one point I was asked to host RNZ’s flagship Morning Report current affairs program, but I couldn’t bear to tear myself away from Australia on a permanent basis. Still the Kiwis were very welcoming and I did the program for a few weeks alongside long-term co-presenter Geoff Robinson. Over the years I have been invited across the Tasman to do the odd art gallery opening or comedy debate (including one for the Auckland Comedy Festival, with the inimitable Bill Bailey as referee, and with Aussie comics Greg Fleet and Denise Scott on my team). My wife has performed 2 extended seasons in Phantom of the Opera in Auckland, so it really is one of our homes. I’ll look forward to the media circuit.

22.5.11: Making the List!

I just found out I will be involved in two sessions at the Melbourne Writers festival in August-Sept. On the second weekend I will be part of a forum featuring Someone Else’s War, but also on the first weekend (August 27)  I will be chairing a session to do with multicultural writing. Love that chairing stuff. Hope you can get along.

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