4000 Bowls of Rice: A Prisoner Comes Home

About The Author

Linda Goetz Holmes is a Historian appointed to the U.S. Government Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, tasked with locating and declassifying material about World War II war crimes.

Summary

The author’s central figure, Australian Staff Sergeant Cecil Dickson, had been a reporter for a Melbourne paper. Already a veteran of fighting in the Middle East, he was returning home with his battalion in January 1942 when it was diverted to Java. Eventually, the battalion joined masses of American, British, Australian and Dutch prisoners working under brutal conditions on the Singapore-Burma railway.

Between stories of suffering and sadistic cruelty the author focusses on the months after Japan’s surrender and Dickson’s return to Australia utilising the letters he had written to his wife.

Personal Take

I enjoyed the different perspective with the protagonist focussing on wars end and getting home to his wife , Binks. It wasn’t until October 1945 that Dickson finally left Asia for Australia and between the lines we get that he could have departed earlier except that as a journalist he was interested in writing the POW experience for the Australian public.

Dickson was pipped at the post by Rohan Rivett, a fellow POW, who wrote the POW Bible, Behind Bamboo, released in 1946, which was the Go To book when I was a student.

One particularly tragic tale refers to the POW who survived years of incarceration only to ring his wife in Perth, Western Australia, on his journey home to learn that she had formed a liaison with another man. He quietly slipped over the side of the ship never to be seen again.

Dickson also relates that as he disembarked off the ship in Melbourne a “ charming woman came up and chatted to him”. It didn’t click that it was his wife of 19 years, Binks.

We have absolutely no idea, do we ?

Khaki Town by Judy Nunn

Khaki Town by Australian author Judy Nunn had an interesting byline that had me throw caution to the wind and spend $1 at a charity store. Bargain! It said:

“ inspired by a true wartime story that has remained a well-kept secret for over seventy years”. 

Historical fiction I read this in a single sitting under the comfort of ceiling fans and followed up with a little research.  This is what I discovered:

TRUE STORY:

Back in 2012 an Australian historian, Ray Holyoak, from James Cook University, was researching why US congressman Lyndon B Johnson visited Townsville for three days back in 1942. 

During World War II, Townsville was a crucial base for campaigns into the Pacific, including the Battle of the Coral Sea. To this day it remains a garrison town.

About 600 African-American troops were brought to the city to help build airfields and bridges. These troops, from the 96th Battalion, US Army Corps of Engineers, were stationed at a base on the city’s western outskirts. Two white USA officers handed out serial abuse in the form of racial taunts and violence which resulted in a large-scale siege lasting eight hours.

Holyoak uncovered several documents hidden in the archives of the Queensland Police and Townsville Brigade from the night of 22nd May, 1942, confirming that the soldiers took to machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons and fired into tents where their white counterparts were drinking. More than 700 rounds were fired.

At least one person was killed and dozens severely injured, and Australian troops were called in to roadblock the rioters. ( I suspect alcohol may have played a part which would account for so many lousy shots).

Mr Holyoak also discovered a report written by Robert Sherrod, a US journalist who was embedded with the troops which never made it to the press, but was handed to Lyndon B Johnson at a Townsville hotel and eventually filed away into the National Archives and Records Administration.

For political reasons this incident was hushed up.

Khaki Town is based on these events though very much embellished and personalised with stories about the troops and their interaction with the citizens of Townsville, as well as the relationships between white Australians and aboriginals.

The author also includes a tale of coffins containing the bodies of African Americans on a train from Mt Isa, west of Townsville, which I confirmed here:

https://www.ozatwar.com/usarmy/africanamerican.htm

Sister Eileen Richardson recalls the Americans arrived in Mount Isa and took over Hilton Hall which was owned by Mount Isa Mines, which became the 17th Station Hospital. She remembers a tragic incident where 73 Negro soldiers died after drinking a home brew which was made in disused cyanide drums, which were probably surplus from the mines. The cyanide would have seeped into the inside seams of the drums. The 73 coffins were loaded on a train and sent to Townsville possibly to the US Military Cemetery in Townsville.”

Khaki Town also covers the anti American sentiment by the Aussie soldiers who declared the yanks to be “ over paid, over sexed, and over here”.  Apparently, American troops were also known as paw paws – “green on the outside and yellow on the inside” – which I had never previously heard

The racism in this novel is ugly and Australia is hardly as pure as the driven snow with its White Australia Policy. Regardless, a good read that opened my eyes to an interesting facet of our history. I look forward to reading Holyoaks further research.

The Strand, Townsville, looking over to Magnetic Island

PERSONAL NOTE:

LBJ visited Australia during his presidency in 1966. My ex, a Townsville lad, to this day argues that the biggest thing ever to happen in FNQ was the visit for a day to Townsville by the President, beaten only in popularity by a visit from Elvis Presley’s car. It’s that kind of town.

Jackie French and The Matilda Saga Series

 Jackie French is an Australian author who has written over 140 books and has won more than 60 national and international awards. She is considered one of Australia’s most popular and awarded children’s authors, writing across a number of children’s genres including picture books, history, fantasy and history fiction. French is also an author of numerous books on ecology, gardening, pest control, wildlife and hens. It was her regular appearance on Burke’s Backyards on the television twenty years ago that encouraged my own foray into keeping chooks in the back garden.

She was awarded the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year. In 2016 French was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to literature as an author of children’s books, and as an advocate for improved youth literacy. In 2016 she received the Australian Book Industry Awards Pixie O’Harris award.

French has studied the behavior and ecology of wombats for 40 years and is the director of The Wombat Foundation, which raises funds for research into the preservation of wombats. Not surprisingly her 2002 picture book, Diary Of A Wombat, illustrated by Bruce Whatley, became an international best seller.

I’ve just stumbled across The Matilda Saga Series containing nine books commencing with A Waltz For Matilda, with twelve year old Matilda fleeing the city to be with her father, a swaggie wanted by the troopers, as in Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda, and including information about the Great Shearers Strike.

Book 2 is The Girl From Snowy River again encompassing Paterson’s poetry and covers the period of World War 1. The Road To Gundagai covers the Depression years and includes insights into the travelling circus’ of that time. This is followed by To Love A Sunburnt Country, a nod to poet, Dorothea Mackellar, covering the experience of women from the previous books and their ordeals as Prisoners Of War in Malaya during World War 2.

Book 5 is where I stepped in with The Ghost By The Billabong, continuing the generational story with references to Vietnam, the landing on the moon, and hippie culture. If Blood Should Stain The Wattle, from a poem by Henry Lawson, is Book 6 and covers cults and their impact on society as well as Gough Whitlam and the heady days of the Australian Labor Party (when equal pay came into play as well as free education and no fault divorce. And connection of the suburbs to sewerage – Go Gough!).

I’ve just ordered Books 7, 8 and 9 on Kindle. Facing The Flame covers drought and fire in the bush and the love of the land regardless of harsh times, just as we are currently witnessing. The Last Dingo Summer includes the arrival of Boat people  and their assimilation into Australian culture and Clancy Of The Overflow – thank you once again Banjo Paterson – links the generations and their interconnectedness.

French describes this series as “ a love song to our land, told by the strong women who forged a nation”.

I’ve been decidedly unsociable this week thanks to the Matilda Saga Series. This YA Historic Fiction is interesting, littered with era-appropriate snippets such as the resurgence of the Australian film industry and environmental issues, combined with good, old fashioned storytelling.

Unsociable? Haven’t cooked tea once this week 🙂 Why cook when I can read?

Last Christmas (2019)

In an effort to escape the heat, smoke, and continual images of destruction by bushfire plaguing the TV I went to the flicks to see Last Christmas currently being promoted as the “christmas movie of the decade”.

Admittedly I am not, and never have been, a fan of George Michael and his music. Not much chop with the RomCom genre either.

In my mind Emilia Clarke will forever be Daenerys from Game Of Thrones and I will never forget that Jon Snow, over whom I wept tears of both joy and blood for seven long seasons, lost the plot over this blond bimbo with boobs. You dipstick Snow.

So Daenerys, oops Kate, is having a tough time of it: couch surfing, one night stands, too much booze, narcissistic and lazy. She’s been unwell you see. I blame the tattoos on her knuckles.

She meets Tom, played by tall, dark and altogether too perfect Henry Golding who provides her with another view of life and helps her to find herself. Their repartee tries so hard to be slick like that in a John Green novel but fails due to Kate’s schoolgirl giggle.

You just know there is going to be a twist. Fifteen minutes before the end Kate does have an attitude readjustment though she’s stuck with the tats, poor love. For all but those last 900 seconds this was a pretty depressing rom-com. 

A crazy Asian actress, Michelle Yeoh, gets her 15 minutes of fame and her love interest is even loopier.

And it doesn’t matter how many times the song “Last Christmas” plays in the background there is just no emotional connection whatsoever. Where’s Michael Bauble when you need him. ( * There’s a spoiler in the words of the song.)

Actress Emma Thompson and her husband are the architects of the story and she earned her dough playing Kate’s mother with a East European accent laid on as thick as jam and cream at a Devonshire Tea.

I’ve been reliably informed Clarke makes a “hot as” elf. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s another Millennial / Boomer thing.

For a little Christmas lovin’ my advice is to avoid elves and stick with Die Hard. Or When You Were Sleeping.

Rating: Not one tissue required and sent sub-conscience memo to Jon Snow: matey, your sword work needs to improve.

Presumed Guilty by Margaret Dakin

Margaret Dakin is a lass from Brisbane’s Redlands district, neighbouring the beautiful Moreton Bay, whose writing career only started once she retired at 65 years of age. Not only did she have success winning numerous awards with her short stories Margaret took to becoming a playwright which included song writing. She utilises her love of history to share stories of an early Australia which I have mentioned previously – see A Bonnet For Eliza.

Margaret continues to research and write and her most recent play, performed at some of the local museums in South East Queensland, has now been published in book format.

Presumed Guilty is loosely based on the trial of Ellen Thomson and John Harrison and the event which led up to it – the shooting of Ellen’s husband, William Thomson in October 1886.

More importantly, the particularly ugly death by hanging of Thomson, with the rope severing her jugular vein, began the social push to end hangings. “Blood trickling down her body and patterning in large drops on the hard cement floor. It increases in quantity and (soon) the whole floor is covered with a woman’s blood,” the newspaper reported.

By 1899, a powerful community mood had grown to abolish capital punishment and by 1922 Queensland became the first place in the British Commonwealth to end the practice.

Even in its written format Presumed Guilty is an interesting read which I believe would be an invaluable teaching tool for middle year school students. It covers pioneer life in the goldfields, the influx of Chinese miners, racism, sexism and class distinctions. The arrogant and pompous judge marks Ellen Thomson as a troublemaker having placarded for schools for the children of north Queensland.

Was she innocent or guilty in the death of her drunken and violent husband? We really don’t know………..

Never one for learning history from dates written on a chalkboard my fondest memories of Primary School days are the musicians and theatrical troupes who would visit the little school in the midst of bushland in Sydney. Surrounded by Eucalypts, Wattle and wildflowers history came alive in song, dance and movement. Alex Hood, folk singer, writer, actor, educator and folklorist immediately comes to mind even some fifty years later.

Well done, Margaret. Can’t wait to see what you come up with for your 85th birthday!

• available on kindle or paperback from Amazon

Note:

Thomson and Harrison were executed at Boggo Road Gaol in Brisbane. The remaining prison building has been Heritage Listed and is currently open for tours and selected movie nights. I watched Brubaker with Robert Redford surrounded by high fences topped with razor wire and was totally freaked.

The gaol was Australia’s most notorious prison and was the site of numerous hunger strikes and rooftop protests until the 1980’s. I was horrified to discover that the cells had no toilet facilities right up until closure.

Developers have targeted the city fringe property for fine dining, wine bars and night clubs. Not on your life – the joint reeks of other worldly presences……….

Ride Like A Girl

Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious horse race. As she came off the course in Flemington, Victoria, she told waiting media: “I want to say to everyone else, get stuffed, because women can do anything and we can beat the world.” Go girlfriend!

Ride Like A Girl hit the cinemas last week telling the story of Michelle’s big win in 2015. 

I had expectations that this would be just another feel-good film about a young girl who managed to overcome the odds in a male-dominated industry to win horseracing’s biggest prize. Just another National Velvet.

It was more than that in that it is so totally Australian. It’s not particularly clever, it’s charm is that it is simply Dinky Di to its bootstraps. Sam Neil plays patriarch, Paddy, a horse trainer and the father of ten children, eight of whom become jockeys. Michelle’s mother died in a car accident whilst she was still in nappies, her sister Brigette died in a race fall, and Michelle herself nearly died after a fall in 2001.

Teresa Palmer ( Hacksaw Ridge) plays Michelle and despite being of fragile appearance is determined and headstrong. She had dreamed of winning a Melbourne Cup since childhood.

Michelle’s horse on the day, Prince of Penzance, was 100-1 prior to the race, and of course we all love a story of the underdog getting up. Michelle’s brother, Stevie, played himself in the movie and he was the strapper on the day in real life. A Downs Syndrome kiddie it is the Michelle-Stevie relationship which really works and to this day they own a farm where they train horses together.

There were two things that disappointed me about Ride Like A Girl: firstly, actress Magda Szubanski. There have to be other middle aged character actresses in the country chasing work, and it’s not like customers are queuing up for a five minute performance from Magda. Magda playing Magda has been done like a dinner. 

And honestly, would this movie have worked if it wasn’t so close to the first Tuesday in November and new frocks, eyebrow shaping and lunches weren’t in full swing?

I’ve never been to a Melbourne Cup. I nearly went on a 5 day cruise from Sydney to Melbourne for the event with a young man when I was 17 but my father spat chips ( as well as a lot of other things) so that never eventuated.

Over my working life I’ve only attended one Melbourne Cup Luncheon. Now cop this : work commitments meant I never even watched or listened to the race live for all those years. How UnAustralian is this? And you wonder why I retired early……

My youngest (currently in New Delhi) will be peeved that I’ve already seen the movie as she was at Flemington for the Cup when Payne rode the winner. That’s what happens when you don’t invite your mother along…..

I’ve just ordered the autobiography, Life As I Know It, from the Library.

Next week : Last Blood-Rambo 5. * Hanging head in shame……….

Note: Ride Like A Girl has been getting attention from both sides of the Horse Racing Industry – both negative and positive.



Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko : Book Review

Published in 2018 by University of Queensland Press.

A few years ago I was a regular attendee at a local Bookclub. Lovely women though lots of Jane Austen and Alice Walker novels and strictly no consumption of food or alcohol. Not even a coffee. These old dears took their reading very seriously…….

When it was my turn to nominate a book I suggested something recent and by an Australian author : Melissa Lucashenko, an Indigenous Australian writer of adult literary fiction and non-fiction, and novels for teenagers.  Can’t get more Dinky-Di than that, can you?

I thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby as it was familiar in both location and context as well as being contemporary. It did not go down well with the old dears who were appalled by the language and the sex scenes. 

That marked the end of my Bookclub period.

Lucashenko’s latest book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, awarded to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

This is one confrontational novel with an uncomfortable depiction of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I’m even more uncomfortable in that as a non- Indigenous person I would be made a pariah if I even suggested some of the things which are in the book.

Protagonist Kerry returns to her hometown of Durrongo, just over the Qld border, on a stolen Harley to bid farewell to her dying grandfather. A fugitive with warrants out for her arrest, she intends to stay in town for the funeral only. However she soon becomes embroiled in dramas with regards to her family, her local family history, and the overdevelopment of the local community, and unexpectedly finds love with a white fella despite previously being a proud lesbian.

All of the characters are flawed and totally devoid of charm. There’s domestic violence, fraud, alcoholism, welfare, pedophilia and child neglect issues. There’s White colonisation, aboriginal massacres and the Stolen Generation issues to boot. Yet within all this ugliness and brutality entwined are beautiful things such as Dreamtime stories, connection to country, communication with animals (totems) and ancestors.

In the Afterword Lucashenko writes that while Too Much Lip is a work of fiction “lest any readers assume this portrayal of Aboriginal lives is exaggerated, I would add that virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once. The (very) few exceptions are drawn either from the historical record or from Aboriginal oral history”.

Gulp!

Compelling reading.

Warning : I must be getting old. The language is more contemporary than contemporary. But not too old – if my daughters spoke like this they’d still cop a hiding.