Friday, September 15, 2017

The orphan's Tale- a book review





The Orphan's TaleThe Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a good story, sometimes as dark and disturbing as life under the influence of the Third Reich would have been and it was enriched by the convergence of several personal recoveries from hurt and tragedy.

We read the book alternating two first person voices and this device was the cause of some frustration for me. I found the dialogue a bit clunky, mixed as it was with personal thoughts and feelings and I fear that there was insufficient contrast between the two voices to allow me to identify with each narrator as we changed chapters.

For me the strongest prose and the most convincing revelation of character was in the epilogue. In this a single voice ties the whole story together from the recollection of a much older person. This final chapter helped overcome some of my negative feelings.


View all my reviews


The blurb on Goodreads:

A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival.


Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep. When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another - or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Wonder: a book review

The WonderThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has a slow fuse and the plot sizzles very quietly and seems muffled through the early parts of the book. There is a point though, where everything changes and things suddenly seem to have many possible paths on the way to some sort of resolution. The slow fuse works well as an important device in the narrative, if you stick with the author.

I found the story socially interesting and in the end very satisfying, although Irish people may find themselves bristling under their collars from time to time-either in denial or embarrassment. The story represents very much a superior British kind of attitude, quite typical of the time, but challenging nonetheless. I can't help wondering how the story would feel if an Irish nurse faced a similar situation at a similar time in the back streets of inner London, but that would deny us the necessary remoteness of the influence of Florence Nightingale, and the particularly Roman Catholic excesses of the time which do make for a robust plot. Either way, it doesn't matter in judging a good read, and this is one.


View all my reviews


The intro blurb on Goodreads says:

In the latest masterpiece by Emma Donoghue, bestselling author of Room, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

in praise of drawing while thinking and learning


These sketches weren't drawn for anyone else, they were a personal 'external hard drive'  bound in a cardboard cover- the black book that pre-dates the black box. They were a part of my own visual journey to learn some new skills. They are rough and quick, but in giving emphasis to them with wobbly drawn frames and accented edges they became memories in themselves and the process of doing this reinforced little discoveries and helped me figure out priorities.



My visual diary or journal from learning to make instruments is pretty similar to the books I kept through art school and beyond. I think one of the reasons they became important to me was that learning something new or making a difficult thing really excited me, so the doing could be re-lived in the drawing, and this had the advantage of reinforcing creative experiences and helping me remember stuff- giving me reminders to come back to. Of course sometimes the drawings happen before the doing, and this enables visual testing of several solutions to little problems before taking up the tools. 'Several solutions' implies lateral thinking and that is a wonderful problem solving skill to adopt. There is always  a multitude of ways to do anything and the art is in finding the most elegant and the most fit for purpose.

Ideas in the head get out more easily if they can be tested through drawing. Making bad drawings is cheaper than making bad objects and failure at some level is what creation is all about. Over and over, we can always do better by simply doing more -thoughtfully.


This sort of drawing is not about pretty pictures, it is visual communication of a more technical and maybe personal kind. I'm so grateful for the training I had all those years ago in life drawing and technical drawing- the opportunity to spend repeated sessions over four years just connecting my mind with my hands through exploratory lines. These things became a habit and a joy.


I suppose something similar happens now to the penless generations with CAD and all the Apps, but I'm suspicious that something very direct between hand and eye will be lost if hands can no longer draw communicative or exploratory lines (or even ordinary ones) that make some sort of sense. But I guess that only applies to the small group of people who make things...








Saturday, August 26, 2017

at last, a story of inclusion



Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling, people standing
The following is a post from 'Humans in Geelong" concerning a project to build St Ayles  Skiffs, but the build of these two boats is by some Syriac people from Iraq who find themselves here in search of peace and safety. It may only be two boats and a smallish group, but this is a monumental piece of community building through education and creative effort. Stories of inclusion and empathy and shared skills are so rare but never more important than now with so many voices in the West actively trying to instil irrational fear in our populations, trying to build intolerance and prejudice from insecurity. 

A light emanates from the workshop in Deakin University Waterfront Campus. The sun is setting and most people are dispersing to the car parks at the end of a long day of lectures and studying. After a while, only a dozen people remain, working away on a project that intends to span years. The dream: a Pako Festa on water, with a dozen hand-built wooden boats bringing together a multicultural community for exercise, festivities and fun on the city waterfront. 
For many of these builders, however, they have never seen a boat before. The Syriacpeople of Iraqi who are working on the boat alongside Geelong Iranian Society - G.I.Shave escaped devastating conditions under ISIS and travelled to Australia seeking refuge from their war-torn country. 
The youngest of these is just 16 years old. For the Iraqi refugees, their ancient hometown of Bakhdida (modern-day Quaragosh) is just south of Mosel. It was occupied by ISIS and reduced to rubble in the ongoing conflict. But, Peter Doyle from the Royal Geelong Yacht Club tells me, the refugees don’t let these tragedies define them: they are focused on and enthusiastic about their future in Australia. He adds that most of their conversations focus on mundane topics such as football, and I notice small buzzing conversations across the workroom in between the buzzing of tools.
The project, launched in May this year, has a goal of building 10-12 boats. Based on Scottish coastal rowing boats of early last century, the St Ayles Skiffs were designed by Australian boat builder Iain Oughtred who now lives in Scotland. Built entirely from Australian timbers, they are delivered as flat packs and assembled with epoxy with not a screw or a nail in sight. What I really enjoyed from learning about this project was the sheer joy, enthusiasm and welcoming environment that I found myself in. It was with great enjoyment that I watched Peter rifle through his photo album of these skifs from all over the world. “Isn’t this one gorgeous!” he tells me, pointing at the photographs of handcrafted wooden skiffs in his folder. 
As for Peter himself, he is retired and is now dedicated to his passion for boats, bringing these boats and their builders down to the Waterfront for the Wooden Boat Festival Geelong in March. In an incredible feat, one of these skiffs was towed across the Nullarbor from Perth to attend last year’s festival. With many smiles and an increased knowledge of boats, I left that evening to allow the group to continue to work with the warm light of the studio emanating through the approaching night and the clangs and whirrs of the tools the only sound that remains.
I returned on a sunny Saturday morning with our photographer Phil Hines in tow and was pleased to observe the workshop in full action. Since my last visit, the very first boat created by the group had been named: Bride of Bakhdida. On the whiteboard in the workshop, the name of the boat is written in the Syriac script. That name will be written in both English and Syriac on the boat upon its completion, signifying the unity between the Geelong and Syriac communities and reflecting Australia’s multicultural nature. Further demonstrating this fusion, on the whiteboard is also a list of boat-related terminology in English, Syriac and Persian (the language of Iran). ‘Hello’ is shlama lekow in Syriac and salam in Persian. 
I spoke with Arash and Shiva about the decision for the Iranian community to collaborate with the Royal Geelong Yacht Club in building these boats but I was swiftly corrected: “It was all Peter’s idea,” Arash insisted. The glowing praise for Peter’s work and commitment to bringing Geelong’s ethnic communities together to build and use these beautiful boats was extraordinary. My final question was what they were the most excited for in the near future for the project. “Seeing the first boat on the water,” Arash replied. “That will make all the difference.”
Written by Stephanie Downing. Photo: Phil Hines Photography


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A book about Matthew Flinders at sea

The following is the introductory blurb on Goodreads...I haven't reviewed this book yet. I enjoyed it and gave it four stars.


Flinders: The Man who Mapped Australia

 4.09  ·   Rating details ·  87 Ratings  ·  11 Reviews
The exciting story of Matthew Flinders the man who named Australia and the first to chart its coastline.

Matthew Flinders is a towering figure in Australian history; the first to chart our coastline and the leading champion for naming the country Australia. In 1801 he was made commander of the expedition of his life, the first close circumnavigation of Terra Australis.

Famous for his meticulous charts and superb navigational skills, Flinders was a very fine sailor. He battled treacherous conditions in a boat hardly seaworthy, faced the loss of a number of his crewmen and, following a shipwreck on a reef off the Queensland coast, navigated the ship's cutter over 1000 kilometres back to Sydney to get help.

Rob Mundle brings Matthew Flinders fascinating story to life from the heroism and drama of shipwreck, imprisonment and long voyages in appalling conditions, to the heartbreak of being separated from his beloved wife for most of their married life.

This is a gripping adventure biography, in the style of BLIGH: MASTER MARINER.
 

Monday, August 14, 2017

touchstone in a box


Back in the early 1980's I was very busy at work and it seemed like ages since I had made anything, so despite not having an adequate workspace to put things (or work) in, I built a bench and then this box. My Art Department was clearing out old storage and discarded some shelving but seeing that it was all Kauri Pine from pre-war times I lathered at the mouth a bit, and then saved the boards from a miserable, wasteful fate.

 It is several boxes within a box really, and nothing special in design or construction- but it has lasted a number of bumpy moves, and dark months in storage sheds covered in dust. I should have fitted handles but never got around to it. There is a box in there for my oil stone, but now that I use water stones it is there 'just in case'. The tray holding the old screw drivers can lift out or slide across. Those old drivers were my maternal grandmother's. She was the handy one in that household and her tools are over 100 years old now. I used to have quite a few of her old carving tools, but some were stolen when I set up shop as a violin maker, before they were even unpacked. The square in the lid belonged to my father. He was not very handy, but loved to potter and he did encourage me. He arranged for Santa to give me my first hammer when I was four and the coping saw in the lid of this box was a gift from him when I was in Grade Four at school. I still have the original box of blades that he gave me with it. Parts of the dovetails on various joints in these boxes were done using that coping saw.


When people brought me old family violins, wanting me to buy them I always tried to talk them out of it because inheriting an instrument or a tool that has been loved and used is to hold the possibility of creating something that furthers their memory I think. I generally bought the violin if they persisted but it was important to me to make the point anyway.



The bottom drawer lock has a lever which locks the lid too. What with the tools that I seem to have accumulated for different jobs over the years, this box has become a 'touchstone' for me, representing a time when I wanted to make things and to collect some treasures in one place. I still go to it, but the things I use most are now on the walls...and shelves...and drawers...and cupboards.


And finally, a few thoughts on boxes I shared for a group getting together to make some stuff with wood (from the Metung Violin Maker's Workshop Facebook Group).

For the people coming to our meet and greet who have limited experience with wood, may I suggest that you spend some moments thinking of a box that may be useful to you as a project to get started. It might be a tool box, a wooden tray for jewellery, an implement tote or caddy, a box for your boat, a box for rigging tools...etc. It might be rectangular, open, lidded, handled or plain. I'm thinking finger-jointed corners for machine experience or maybe hand cut dovetails for more experienced grafters with a determination to be patient. Boxes can be precious, utilitarian, humble or extraordinary. Maybe honest, vernacular and basic of pine, and machine made (but nicely), hand finished. Maybe delicate and decorated and hand cut from an exotic piece of wood that has a meaning for you..Putting meaning into simple things can be done through memory association, recycling old bits of a something that no longer works, maybe a shape that reminds you of a better time, or a special person, or maybe a function that reminds you of those things.
I'm just saying that in a group of more than four it may be that some need to consider an achievable goal that gets you into a 'groove' that makes getting ambitious and motivated more likely. We might then have secondary aims that are more ambitious and then I'll have time to prepare ideas, designs and materials. A beautiful piece of wood does not need to have a complex structure to invite people to touch, hold or admire it. I also recommend drawing ideas in a little sketch book if you can. Ideas in the head get out more easily if they can be tested through drawing. Making bad drawings is cheaper than making bad objects and failure at some level is what creation is all about. Over and over, we can always do better by simply doing more -thoughtfully.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nuts for an Acorn, Heft in my Hands



I had just ridden home from playing down at Gardiner's Creek, and there in the gutter was a bluish-brown crumpled bit of thick paper. It was five quid. A fiver. No-one that I knew ever had a fiver. Except grown-ups, but they didn't count.

When I was nine, five quid (Five Australian Pounds before decimal currency here) was a heck of a lot of money.

Nine year olds back then might be tempted to look at a sum like that in terms of the number of liquorice blocks you could buy (4 a'penny, that's 48 per shilling- that's 360 per Pound. That's 1800 liquorice blocks or 50 chock-wedge ice creams). Unthinkable wealth.



But in those days people had this old-fashioned thing called honesty...it used to be quite normal. So my mother took me to the Police Station and I handed the money into them to be claimed by the poor sod who lost it.

It wasn't altogether easy, but I did it. I had a powerful force for good behind me, so I can't claim much of the credit. My Mum wasn't a saint, but she would have given plenty of them a good run for their money. Even I knew she was more about goodness than grandness.

Ten days later (the legal time period) a nice person at the Police Station called us and said that since the money hadn't been claimed, would we please come down and collect it for ourselves. I can still remember that glorious day, rocking up to the Constabulary in our Austin A60 (licence plate HHS878), Mother at the wheel, me wriggling and fidgeting with anticipation, and the trip home with the prodigal five pound note planted firmly in my pocket.

The thing was, I was overcome by the importance of it and the liquorice block thing had lost it's magic because if you suck and chew long enough they are all gone. I wanted a serious tool for working some wood.

1949-50 McPhersons catalogue

I already had a few good tools (another story), but a plane would make real wood conversion possible, or it would in my young imagination, because a wood plane looks like serious kit. It has cast bits and knobs and is terribly adjustable, so if you set it to cut deep you can take great swathes of wood off and make very thick pieces quite thin. 

It had a blade.

But, (you see) Mr Wenbourne down at the hardware store was hard work. Grey coat and cynical eyes, he was an anal-retentive storeman who would be deliriously happy counting inventory, but absolutely terrifying with young customers, and I was always making something and wanting a dozen of this and a packet of that, and he would tease out the process into details that I had difficulty imagining. A bag of Plaster of Paris. Glue size, Whiting, balsa wood strips for arrows and aeroplanes. I was an endless headache for the man.

Hello Mr Wenbourne may I please have a shilling of nails? Flat or bullet head, he wants to know. Flat. Galvanised or bright he asks tersely. Bright I say. How long? he demands. An inch and a half I offer. What gauge? You would't have a clue...All right he says, shuffling off to the big drum with his galvanised shovel thingy, tipping nails into a brown paper bag until the weight is right. The brown paper bag was the only part of the transaction I ever enjoyed (until I got home) because if you squeezed it you could feel the nails inside, and it made special brown paper bag noises.

desirable things and modern marketing

 I used to buy pine wood one  foot at a time to make skateboards for local friends. They'd supply the old roller-skate wheels and I'd shape the board and fit them, and we'd all fall off together. But  buying the right wood was a bit of a process at our shops and I thought, without having the words for it, that the transformative power of a plane would allow me to make whatever he had into the shape I wanted. But I knew not to ask him for a plane. McPherson's somehow entered my imagination. How it did is one of the few things I have no memory of. The problem was, I understood that McPherson's was in the city and I was only little.

Somehow, I was allowed to go by myself, on the train to the city. While I have no memory of the trip, I do recall quite vividly being at the counter and learning that I could not afford a Stanley Bailey plane, or a Record, but there was a number four made by Stanley and marketed as an 'Acorn' that would fit my budget, and it had the advantage of having red paint on the inside of the castings and a lovely transfer sticker on the top of the rear handle. Golden Beech handles under glossy varnish and a very purposeful brass knob, all packaged in a grey cardboard box with a label at one end. I had my tool. Even Dad didn't have one of these. The box had heft. For the thirty-five minutes on the train this little slip of a boy had heft. I'm still a slip, and I still love a bit of heft.





At some point about 15 years ago I finally threw out the cardboard box- and I have regretted it ever since, but I still have my Acorn Number Four. The first in a life-long love affair with planes, cardboard boxes, brown paper bags and heft.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

death after a thousand cuts



It's a sad day when a really useful tool gives up the ghost. This little Ryobi saw was one of the very first of the interchangeable battery models from that maker here in Oz, and over the years it cut the curved planks for two boat builds and two re-fits, innumerable cuts in house renovations, built-in furniture, decks and cladding. It was just getting to know it's second blade when I pushed it a little too hard. A little smoke delivered the bad news. I was to blame really because I had used it to cross cut 35mm hardwood boards for some bookcase tops in Julia's study and these small saws don't really appreciate thick hardwood especially late in life...

The thin kerf of this saw allows us to cut gentle (quite fair) curves in plywood with ease- so much more cleanly and steadily than a bandsaw or jig saw. Navigator Annie's planking needed very little edge clean-up between saw and paint; just a bit of time with a plane to level some irregularities.


I was worried that the replacement saw seemed bigger and bulkier, but the new design just feels more refined somehow and even better balanced with the battery on the side rather than behind the blade. The dust extraction port is also a great addition.


And I just include this picture of Ziggy looking philosophical because I find it comforting that even greyhounds struggle with the big existential questions.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Asking the question behind the question






It seems that readers are inclined to take interest in bite sized chunks of a book to read online -if it seems relevant to them- when they might feel daunted by 400 odd pages of small print on the bedside table. My last post on Fascism and Philosophy was included here for my own personal reasons, but it has surprised me by getting very regular attention since. 

Back in 2007 when the book was written, it seemed to me that the big story behind the Pacific War was in fact the catastrophic humiliation and later re-birth of  China and the coming of age of Asia. Even then in 2007, China was only beginning to strut it's stuff, and the West was still universally dominant. The ten years since have made me feel these things more strongly- especially since Western people and their governments have failed to adjust their behaviour  significantly or recognise the seismic shift that began in the 1920's and is playing out very quickly now. 

So here is the introduction to the same book, in which I try to argue a case for spending some small amount of time reading about the context of the Pacific War to help come to terms with some of the international aggression with which we are living now.

What caused the war with Japan and is it relevant now anyway?






Context

UNDER ME, ONE HUNDRED
CAPTAINS BEAT THEIR CHESTS...BROKEN 
GROUND THEIR MEMORY 1








Rabaul, New Britain. January 23 1942.

As it had done throughout China, Indochina, and the Pacific, the 
Imperial Japanese war machine made real the ideas elaborated by the militarists at home on the islands of Japan. The abstraction of a ‘Greater Asia’ was being smudged across the atlas where nineteenth-century European concepts of dominion had remained unchallenged for generations.

The awesome steel expression of this idea rumbled along the coast of New Britain in the form of an armada manned by battle-hardened men whose confidence was matched by the pride of its achievements. Their path had been prepared by waves of air strikes toppling the guns at Praed Point and killing the first of over 1000 Australians who would die as a consequence of the defense of this peripheral outpost of Australian Administration. More than 3000 Japanese soldiers died in the subsequent battle to secure the beaches of this beautiful volcanic island adjacent to New Guinea, north of Australia.

What were they doing there? Why had the 1,400 Australian soldiers of the 2/22 Battalion faced an invasion force numbering over 15,000? Why were Australian allies from World War I invading Australian Mandated Territory? What had unleashed this brutality, at such human cost, over the vast area of the Pacific? Why had the world retreated once again into carnage?
page7image12768


This book began as a personal search for particular answers to these questions and those implied in the title, but with the search came the astonishing realization that these issues are hardly discussed in Australia, nor are they a significant part of the Australian public awareness.

It is probably fair to say that many Australians think of Europe when they think of the war, even though their own family experience may have been of war in Southeast Asia or northern Australia. Australians had traditionally seen themselves as shadows of the real world (an island off the coast of France), but as society changed in the years since the War, Australia’s real position in relation to Asia has become more obvious and significant.
The garrison forces stationed in a precarious, sacrificial arc to the north of Australia, from Singapore, Ambon, and Timor to New Guinea and New Britain, consisted mostly of men who enlisted in the belief that they would be fighting alongside the British forces in the European War.

The bulk of Australian Infantry was already serving in the northern hemisphere. We can explain this sense of the ‘real’ war being in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in the predominant attitude of the time, that Australia was a British nation, separated only by geography.




The British Empire was a global phenomenon; in fact, it was widely regarded as a positive, creative one in Australia. Nevertheless, Australia’s real war was a separate, very local one, which began in China during the 1930s, and through which America gained enormous influence and power throughout the vast area of the Pacific Ocean.

With the passing of many of those who survived World War II, a new interest has been kindled amongst subsequent generations in the events of the war. There is a real need amongst descendents of these generations to re- examine the wartime challenges through new eyes, their parents and grandparents having passed away.

Some of us need to ‘connect the dots’ concerning the family experience simply because painful events and memories were never openly spoken about. Others of us sense that the very empathy we have for the experience makes a more objective understanding of the war very difficult, or even impossible.

We’ve grown up with the comfort of some home truths about the war. We’ve put the lid on our family tragedies and come to terms with them. The fact that family members may have been killed, wounded, or damaged makes us very sensitive to any analysis of the events that may challenge the conventional view of the war, but it is very important that we open ourselves to a deeper understanding of these things, particularly in the way that they relate to current issues. World events continue to throw at us the same old challenges to freedom, responsibility, and tolerance, and a new level of difficulty has also arisen in the government and self-determination of parts of the post-colonial world.

The pace and uncertainty of modern materialism make us receptive to stories that help define us or give our culture some sense of meaning. Stories of courage and sacrifice are worth telling, and some of those emerging now have been suppressed for decades by the silent suffering of grieving families.

Every year we see the solemn rekindling of respect for the actions of our soldiers from a growing number of young people who make pilgrimages to Gallipoli and Kokoda. Despite the passing of time, these places have grown in significance, becoming powerful symbols in the Australian national story. There is a poignant beauty in this, but there are also dangers in nurturing romantic and triumphal feelings about these places and events, especially if we allow them to feed into a tendency or need to see the wars in simple terms of good winning over evil.


War stories highlight the inspiration and heroism in the struggles of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. The facts, the actions, and battles tell us about the horrors as well as the capacities of people to become better, or worse, under awful pressure. However, these are not the only lessons to be learned from war.

The context and the causes of these struggles are often passed over superficially in the media, and there is a danger that our search for meaning and value can become self-congratulatory, blinding us to an uncomfortable possibility: Our people may have offered their lives for causes that were much more complex than they had been portrayed. They fought the good fight, but was it a ‘good’ war?

This is an incredibly challenging question. It is especially so for people whose remembrance of the war is still charged with emotion. It goes to the very heart of the meaning that we have attached to our family losses. It is only possible to address this question if a clear separation can be made in our minds between the causes of the war and the conduct of it.

One of the aims of this book is to compare the orthodox view of some of these events with various ‘positional’ views by historians. Inevitably, in one book this will be somewhat superficial, but it is very interesting to explore the difference between versions of events.
Most information is disseminated to advance the case for a particular point of view. That is arguing ‘from a position,’ and it will represent the worldview or bias of the writer or the people represented by the writer. An ‘orthodox view’ is often representative of those in control. For instance, the orthodox view of Apartheid in South Africa was that it was designed to allow for ‘separate development.’ Mandella’s view would have emphasized oppression more than separateness.

Even in an extreme case, a differing view may be a difference of emphasis more than of fact. Marxist historians often adopted a position that examined events through a theory of economics, and these often portrayed events as inevitable economic stages in the evolution of history.

The passing of the 20th Century and the end of the Cold War has led to the discrediting of many of these analyses, but it is important to see that one doesn’t need to be a Marxist to find insight or value in a Marxist historical point of view, if only because it provides another perspective, or makes sense of a sequence of events.

Sometimes, after considering all the available information, we may need to adopt a position on an event, but this is quite different from beginning with a position and finding the facts that demonstrate the truth of it. Much of the information that we have been exposed to since the war with Japan has its roots in the rhetoric of the time. This information needs to be seen for what is was.

In the 1950s, the simple answer to the schoolboy question: “What caused the war with Japan?” was, “It was caused by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” This is disturbingly simplistic, and it is worrying that many Australians and Americans have never been challenged to look beyond it.

The question becomes very murky when the issues are examined. The more we peel back the layers for a deeper understanding, the more gray the issues become and the more it seems that the West was involved in setting the scene and providing some motivating forces for the conflict.


The research for this book began with an attempt to understand the reasons underlying the Japanese attack on America, but ended exploring the factors that led the US and Japan to go to war with each other, involving others as well. You can see that the first question contains some assumptions. Those were relics of the author’s childhood and education.

Post-war generations in Australia were led to believe that a peaceful, morally good West was invaded by a militarist, morally corrupt Japan, and many people will always want to see it that way. But it just wasn’t that simple. This realization needn’t be threatening. We don’t have to excuse or put aside the horrors and atrocities of the Pacific War to admit that its causes were more complex than we were led to believe.

This process can be a very healing experience. Finding the truth about the forces at work in the creation of war allows us to build an empathy with individuals who were former enemies. They responded to the environment around them, the information available to them, and the call of their country just as our people did.


Only by personalizing the issues can we go beyond the blame and the rhetoric of wartime politics. Reading the names of individuals who grappled with the problems in Japanese society allows us to identify with them in our common struggle to live decent lives: To live them with viable governments, in the hope that they can protect us from the baser human instincts, but still allowing us the hope of achieving our potential.

The events of the 1930s clearly illustrate conditions under which nations, for all sorts of complicated reasons, sometimes cause other nations to behave badly.

We are dealing with more than a simple chronology of events. There are issues arising out of the Japanese emergence into the modern world, factors within America and within China, issues concerning European colonization of Asia, the future of the British Empire, as well as issues of nationhood and the rights of self-determination for peoples. And the most difficult issue of all, race.

The book begins with a brief outline of the sequence of events and issues that affected Japan’s emergence from almost total isolation, into the ‘modern’ 19th Century. While this commences well before the period of the war, the Japanese experience is so unique and so poorly understood in the West that it was felt that to omit this background would make the pre-war events more difficult to understand. This is particularly so because the difficulties faced by Japanese negotiators and diplomats trying to represent the foreign policy of their nation during the 1930s had their roots in the very structures upon which the modern Japanese state was based. There was also a cumulative effect in the Japanese relationship with the West, which provides the historical context for the 1941 negotiations.

Internal issues and themes that can add to our understanding of Japanese society as it developed are given particular attention. These take the form of essays within the narrative roughly in sequence, but because themes evolve over time, there is some overlap and out-of-sequence elaboration.

The final chapters examine the international situation, its issues, and the negotiations that ultimately converged into war.

Like many Australians, my family was deeply affected by the war, and current tensions across the world lead me to think that the issues of racism and colonialism, which I believe were inherent in the causes of World War II, are unraveling further. The West appears to have learned little, if the subsequent sixty years are any guide. As a moral or political force, Western governments will not be taken seriously in the Third World unless the implications of their colonial adventures are recognized, confronted, and addressed.

Western technological leadership became quite exploitative, and the maintenance of its dominance has inevitably created a great deal of resentment. It did not seem necessary to occupy the moral ‘high ground’ while the power balance was so disproportionately in the West’s favor. Western leaders should be asking on behalf of their people, how would we like to be treated in a world in which the power may, and probably will, be arranged differently?
What were the legacies of the ‘white man’ in Asia? And since the Japanese were the first to challenge this between 1905 and 1945, what lessons can be learned from the Japanese experience before the war? Their experience has never been more relevant to the world than it is now.

This book attempts to answer the questions associated with the beginnings, roots, and meanings of the war with Japan, partly from an Australian perspective.
America has provided the majority of post-war film and media images and stories of the war, and the point of view seems unerringly Western. Even the best popular, blockbuster views are often as dehumanizing as the worst propaganda.

All violence is failure at some level. World violence is world failure. One of the chief factors in this failure is the popular ignorance that allows even quite ‘liberal’ governments to harness a fear of ‘the other’ in motivating people for the purposes of aggression and power or internal repression.

A paradox in my hesitant view of the world is that in it, two cornerstones of conflict are by nature almost opposite. Certainty and ignorance are two of the corner stones, and in order to be possessed of the former, one needs to be under the influence of the latter. The other two cornerstones are greed and control. This book will illustrate that the industrial and economic agendas on both sides of the Pacific Ocean created the governments that were necessary for the pursuit of the imperialistic goals that caused the war.

We will see that the three major protagonists went to war for economic control of people, resources, and land that were external to their own territory. Japan was not alone in this.
In the battles for regional control Australia was a small player, of no great account to Britain, America, or Japan, but important in the sense that, in enemy hands, it could create significant difficulties of supply. Australia was therefore of some strategic value. It was also useful and potentially useful for the supply of food, soldiers, and a range of essential raw materials, but none of the major players needed to own or occupy Australia to control the use of these.

Many Australians have always assumed that the Japanese were invading them, but the attacks that occurred cannot be fully understood in such simple terms. There were certainly groups within Japan who had such plans, but Japanese intentions during the first four and a half decades of the Twentieth Century can never be represented simply, for reasons that become obvious in the text of this book.

Australia had a brief moment on the world stage at the 1919 Peace Conference, when its Prime Minister used the opportunity to give voice to Australia’s insecurity concerning its hold on a territory adjacent to Asia, by almost single-handedly defeating a Japanese proposal for the racial equality of nations. This caused a massive loss of face for the moderates in Japan.

In this, Australia was a contributor to the escalations that followed. Of course, there were powerful elements of fanatical racism in Japan at the time, but Western arrogance only added strength to their cause in the hatred of what they saw as ‘white Barbarians.’
The point is that hypocrisy does not make an effective weapon against irrationality, and Australia missed its small opportunity to be part of a meaningful change in world politics. The Australian Prime minister was not the only leader representing an insecure and fearful electorate, and it is difficult to know how judgmental to be in observing these events.
Australians need to feel that their dead were given for a worthwhile reason and that they had a value. In this, they are no different from those of the other combatant nations. Australia had no territorial or strategic goals beyond defensive and somewhat idealistic, supportive ones and a more robust truth about these things should be helpful in healing those of us who still harbor darkness.

Many Australian men enlisted willingly to defend the British Empire, but while Britain was preoccupied with Germany and the balance of power in Europe, the old Empire was strategically indefensible against the Japanese. This allowed America’s challenge to become its prize. Australia had no choice but to defend the old order. There was a desperate fear that a very angry enemy would consume Australia, but when the new order came, it was neither Japanese nor British.

Japan and Australia had enjoyed a mutually advantageous trading relationship right up to the declaration of war, and on various diplomatic and commercial levels, the two nations were in accord.

The Pacific War had its roots in a power struggle rehearsed since the 1920s by Japan and America, and was part of the inevitable emergence of the Asian peoples from their domination by Western Imperial powers. That emergence need not have occurred violently.

Amidst the pessimism and gloom of the dark days of 1942, Australia felt very alone and very vulnerable. America seemed to provide the only sources of additional equipment, know-how, manpower, and hope, as the euphoric Imperial Japanese war machine spun out cyclonically from the Asian mainland through the arc of colonial islands.

The United States delivered help in so many ways that Britain no longer could. Any old Digger will tell you that, without America, Australia would have ‘been sunk.’ That assertion rings true emotionally, but it is not as straightforward as it sounds.
The question arising from it is whether we would have had a Pacific war at all, if the American Administration had acted differently between 1931 and 1941.

If China was the anvil upon which the Japanese sword was forged, America in particular was the stone against which it was sharpened.




Remembrance poem, R. Ditterich, 2006.