Tag Archives: Australia

Flanagan’s Booker win a breath of fresh air

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Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan

There was something particularly heartening about Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win for his novel “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. Here is a writer at the top of his game, receiving one of the most coveted literary awards in the English speaking language, admitting that on completing the book he almost gave up writing to work in the mines of northern Australia so he could support his family.

Although I’ve never met Richard Flanagan, I’ve followed his career, not without a touch of envy, for a number of years. I first came across his work when I was in Tasmania back in the 1990s working on an early draft of a novel I was writing. I was out on some wilderness tracks in the far western part of the state bushwalking with my cousin and some friends, some of whom knew Flanagan from when they had worked together as river guides. We were discussing his novel “Death of a River Guide”, which had recently appeared, and my newfound friends were chuckling at Richard’s acerbic depictions of the gormless tourists who stumbled up the Gordon River in search of authentic wilderness, and the cynical guides who took their money in return for protecting them from the consequences of their ignorance.

Flanagan has always been known for his honesty, and this can make him an uncomfortable and sometimes abrasive companion, both in print and at smart literary events. It’s entirely in keeping with this character trait that he would break British protocol and embrace the Duchess of Cornwall when she handed him a cheque for fifty big ones. It’s an honesty I admire, even though I have to admit I have on occasions struggled with his style, especially when he has veered towards magical realism, a genre I have always viewed as the prog rock of literature.

His acceptance speech, and the press interviews that followed, highlighted the struggle writers face to make a living from their craft. Of course no one made us take up the pen, and most of our community have  ignored multiple warnings from well-intentioned family and friends, urging us to apply our way with words to more secure ends such as the law or teaching. However, it is nice for the setbacks, rejections and humiliations we face on a day to day basis to be acknowledged, and to be reminded that even the best and most lauded amongst us have had their days when they felt overwhelmed by it all and on the verge of jacking it in.

So thank you, Richard Flanagan, for once again speaking the truth as you see it, and inspiring me to pick up the pen for another day. In the meantime, I look forward to getting stuck into “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”.

My own novel Francesca, which is also a tale of love and war, though set in East Timor in the 1970s, can be purchased here.

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Francesca reaches Tasmania

Francesca reaches Tasmania

The first copy of Francesca to reach Tasmania (unless you know different!)

The other day I received a photo purporting to be the first copy of Francesca to arrive in Tasmania. It reminded me what a rapidly moving and global business book distribution has become, how ideas can travel across continents and oceans at the click of a mouse.

It was rather different in the era when Francesca was set, the mid 1970s.  Long before the days of the internet, mobile phones and social media, it was far easier to keep people in the dark. Tyrants and dictators used this to their advantage. Hiding their shameful acts often required little more than muzzling the press, censoring the mail, closing the borders and keeping foreign journalists out of the country.

Now the problem is too much information – so much is accessible but how do you know what to look for amidst all the noise? The danger now isn’t so much something will be hidden from view, more that it will be overlooked amongst decreasing attention spans and the tsunami of information overload.

So far I’ve been blessed to have heard from readers as far afield as the United States, Canada, Asia and Australia, as well as the United Kingdom, where I am currently based. In the same way, I see from the stats pages that this blog is read in dozens of different countries around the world. When I look at the figures I am overawed at the power technology has to connect billions of people from all over the world.

There’s another reason I was particularly gratified to see a copy of Francesca reach the shores of Tasmania. I have a particular affection for Australia’s island state, for its rugged beauty, for the friendliness of its people, for its environment, much of which remains unspoilt. Some years ago I spent several months there, writing the first draft of a novel that will be published later this year. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

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Sea cliffs along Tasmania’s spectacular coastline. Photo by John McLaine

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Francesca, wherever you are. Please continue to pass it on to your friends; I have found that word of mouth is still the most effective means of communication, even if it comes via twitter, Facebook or any of the other burgeoning social media out there. And if you have read it, please post a review, either here in the comments section or on Amazon.

You can order your copy of Francesca here 

Invading East Timor. What was Suharto thinking?

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century's resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

East Timor Grunge Flag, powerful symbol of a quarter of a century’s resistance. Image courtesy of domdean/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There is no doubt that when Indonesian troops invaded East Timor in December 1975, it was a deliberate decision taken at the highest levels of the Indonesian government and personally approved by President Suharto. The question remains, why did he do it?

Suharto was notoriously inscrutable, capable of hiding his true thoughts from all around him. He was also highly skilled at playing different factions off against each other. Aloof and impenetrable, his true motives were never easy to discern. However, it is possible to isolate a number of reasons why Indonesia might have chosen to annexe East Timor. Here are the main ones:

1. Oil. Indonesia was blessed with massive reserves of oil, and there was good reason within the geological community to suppose similar reserves lay under the Timor Sea. Incorporating East Timor into Mother Indonesia would give the country control of these potential reserves and access to the wealth they promised.

Having said that, Indonesia had never made any territorial claims on East Timor, and certainly not while Portugal was in control. Whilst Suharto was a tough dictator, he was no Saddam Hussein, and didn’t have a history of aggressive expansionism. He was also sensitive to his reputation in the West and was scrupulous about ensuring he would not upset the United States before embarking upon any foreign policy adventure. Besides, he had enough on his hands controlling the 3,000 or so islands that made up Indonesia without taking on additional troublesome commitments. Indonesia was already mineral rich, Suharto’s problems lay elsewhere.

2. Fear of Communism. Suharto loathed communism, and presided over the 1965 bloodbath that effectively extinguished communism as a political force in the country. The idea of a socialist state setting itself up on his doorstep would have been anathema to him; taking decisive action to crush it would have been a fairly easy sell to the Americans, still reeling from defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia.

3. Opportunism. The collapse of the Salazar regime in Lisbon created a power vacuum in East Timor, and although the socialist leaning Fretilin attempted to fill it, they were no match for the economic or military might of Indonesia. Neither was Portugal, despite their protests, in a position to do anything. With the covert blessing of the United States and the reluctance of Australia to stand up to Indonesia, Suharto could be excused for seeing East Timor as a gift handed to him on a plate. All he had to do was turn up and march in.

No doubt each of these factors played a part in Indonesia’s decision to go ahead and take East Timor for themselves. What is harder to ascertain is the relative importance each factor had in the equation. To do that one would have to get an insight into the workings of Suharto’s mind, something few, if any, individuals ever came close to achieving.