The other (Monday) morning, I was footling around, post-domestic tasks and pre a medical appointment – anything to avoid a blank page and/or unfinished writing business – when the phone rang. I’ve been receiving nuisance calls lately, so I haven’t been answering. But this time I did. ‘Hello,’ came my polite, formal voice. It might well have been a nuisance call because the man on the other end of the line said, ‘Hello, darling, how’ve you been?’ ‘Who is this, please?’ Definitely formal, possibly school-marmish, my finger hovering over the red ‘End’ button….
It turned out to be one of the veterans I’d interviewed during the research for Long Tan, my 2017 play about the major Australian battle of the Vietnam War. There were other, bigger battles but this one, in August 1966 was of exceptional intensity. Despite the fact that I’d kept all my contacts informed about research, production and performance I hadn’t heard from this particular man since 2016. But now, in something of a re-set, he was sorting his communications and had decided to give me a call.
The brief moment of re-connection surprised and saddened me, though both surprise and sadness also felt contradictorily predictable. I’ve become perhaps over-sensitive to the impact of trauma in people’s lives, having spent the last three and a half years researching and writing about Polish-Australian trauma post World War II, before that three years on Long Tan and abutting and a bit before that a similar amount of time on the leavings of World War I. I don’t know why I’ve been so obsessed with suffering in terms of memory, but I have. Possibly it’s because trauma in human life is so ubiquitous that to avoid such a confrontation seems to be to fudge a core truth.
Like many of my interviewees, the veteran of that morning’s call has been gripped fast in the claws of his youthful experience since the day of the battle now over 50 years ago. Even in this belated call to me he went over and over the events of that day as he saw them. Others saw them differently, of course, which he finds painful. Recently a commercial film has been released which tells yet another version of what to him is ‘his’ narrative. This version, because of film’s ubiquity and simplicity will probably be the one that survives in our cultural (though not military) history. Easy history ignores trauma in favour of the embedded tropes of heroism. I don’t think it does even the heroes much service, and certainly not the rest of us.
What has this to do with the writing life, you ask? Simply that a new piece will start from a moment of discomfort like this one, an intuition that there is a question that the writer needs to answer to themselves. This impulse comes with the baggage of another contradiction, namely that writers answer their questions to themselves by crafting a collective answer, which is probably greedy but there you go. Bit by bit, small events or realisations coalesce around this core discomfort. You think you’re done with some issue or even mere thought, that at last you’ve moved on, but then something happens that confirms that the original irrational empathy is still hanging in there, messing with your mind. The man that Monday morning was one of many who just broke my heart and made me want to write about the tragedy that malformed their subsequent lives. (Not all of them – some possess a rare resilience, but they tend to be the exception to a general rule). The arbitrary cruelty of fate. Our whole world is in the grip of another cruelty of fate at the moment. It’s barely begun and it won’t be played out in my lifetime. But it needs to be written about, I think, so this blog may partly follow the period when I am doing that.
On an industry note, I’d like to draw attention to recent articles about the state of play for playwrights in Australia, which is at its lowest ebb for a generation. See Alison Croggan’s article in The Monthly and Robert Reid’s from the Witness site for two impressive articulations of the problems artists face as people attempting to work within a culture unsympathetic to the canaries within its cage.