Monthly Archives: August 2018

‘Captured Lives: Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps’ by Peter Monteath


2018  239 p & notes

Six faces stare out at us from the front of Peter Monteath’s Captured Lives. For me, the most striking is the young woman at centre bottom, her curled hair caught up into a scarf, smiling as she holds up a hand-written sign reading ‘163’. She was Maria Vagarini, the wife of an Italian fresco painter who had been arrested and interned in Palestine before being sent, along with her husband, to Australia during WW2. Up in the top left hand corner is Anton Gueth, a German Buddhist monk, interned in Ceylon and sent to Australia during WWI.  On the top right hand side, in suit and tie, looking like an earnest bank teller is Karl Moeller, the captain of a German ship captured during WWI. Below him on the bottom right is Hajime Toyoshima of Japan, still bearing the facial injuries he sustained when his aircraft was shot down over Darwin on 19 February 1942.

The variety of these photos, from both world wars, of combatants, naval officers, pilots and internees, reflects the diversity of those who ended up in Australia’s wartime internment camps. In this book Monteath explores the range of people who were deemed to be threats to Australia’s security:  those who were born in Australia to ‘foreign’ parents or who held suspect political views, others captured as part of military activity (e.g. the naval officers and seamen on the Emden in WWI and the Kormoran in WW2) and others who were part of the circuit of POWs being shifted from one country to another among the Allies as the war-front changed.

The book is divided into four parts: WWI, the two aspects of WW2 captivity (i.e. ‘enemy aliens’ and Prisoners of War) and the final release after WW2.  The text is broken up with vignettes of individuals, which keeps the emphasis on the fact that internment happened to real people with prior histories, who went on usually to live out their lives with these years of internment just one part of their longer life story.

In both WWI and WW2, the act of internment was facilitated through legislation. During WWI it was the War Precautions Act of 1914 which was introduced in the early months of the war, and in WW2 the National Security Act of 1939. During WWI, everyone was called a ‘prisoner of war’, even though many in the camps were naturalized citizens who the minister of defence had reason to believe were “disaffected or disloyal” (p.12). Some men submitted themselves for internment because, if their families could make a compelling case of financial adversity, their families could claim a meagre allowance. Most were German, Austro-Hungarian or Bulgarian, with a few Turks. They were not required to work, but they often chose to do so. At first there were internment camps in each of the states, but over time these were consolidated mainly in New South Wales.

Between the two wars, the Geneva Convention had spelled out the distinction between internees and prisoners of war, and as a signatory Australia respected this policy during WW2 and arranged access for  Official Visitors (often judges), the Red Cross and YMCA. During WW2, internees were provided with food and accommodation which from 1940 onwards was provided through large purpose-built camps, usually in rural areas, in each state. For German and Japanese nationals, their  governments made provision for ‘pocket money’, which involved the swearing of allegiance to the German or Japanese government, a practice which surprised me. It did not extend to Australian internees whose German, Italian or Japanese origin had brought them under surveillance.  Internees were not allowed to work, and many found the boredom onerous. However, ‘enemy aliens’ who were not interned could be required to work, and in labour-hungry rural Australia, Italians  in particular were in demand for agricultural work. They were channelled into the Civil Alien Corps and although not behind wire, they were subject to a strict regime as they were viewed as a flight risk.

Prisoners of war were sent to Australia from Allied theatres, and indeed there were more prisoners of war than internees.  They could be used for labour, as long as it was not on war-related activities and on condition that they were paid, fed, accommodated and treated the same as civilians. They might be prisoners of war, but class still counted, and officers were accommodated separately. The  German naval survivors of the Kormoran, which sank the Sydney with such a huge loss of Australian life, were accommodated in Dhurringile mansion, in Victoria (now a minimum security prison). Japanese prisoners, however, were always treated with distrust, and were rarely allowed outside their camps.

For POWs of all nationalities (Australian as well), escape was “the legitimate act of a man imprisoned”  and the punishment for attempted escape was relatively mild (p. 202). However, Japanese attitudes to the shame of capture and imprisonment were quite different to those of Italians and Germans, as evidenced by the huge loss of 234 lives when Japanese prisoners broke out of Cowra POW camp.

After the war, it took some time to clear the camps. They were not allowed to stay in Australia, even if they wanted to, but had to return home and could then re-apply to come to Australia.  Quite a few did; others picked up their lives at ‘home’, whether it be in Australia or overseas.

This book is not about the present-day internment of refugees on Manus Island, but their shadows are everywhere: in the discussion of international conventions, and in the descriptions of boredom and lost, listless years of indeterminate imprisonment.  This book describes policies and provision, but its focus is just as much on people – something that current refugee policy tries its best to obscure.  We see these wartime internees through their life histories, through the photographs that, surprisingly, they were allowed to take within the camp, and through their sketches and paintings – all of which are distributed generously throughout the book. We see these WWI and WW2 internees far more clearly than we see Manus Island internees today, despite the ubiquity of social media and mobile phone cameras.   The final paragraph of Monteath’s book in particular evokes present-day events, and stands as a warning:

This absurdity of the detention of men like these, of condemning otherwise productive lives to unknown months and years of isolation and desolation, echoes through the history of Australia’s home front in the two world wars. More than that, it speaks to the twenty-first century and to the ever-present danger of allowing unfounded fears to stain the lives of prisoners and their captors alike (p.239)

Other reviews:  See Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers:

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Review copy from NLA Publishing through Quikmark Media

‘Our Man Elsewhere’ by Thornton McCamish


2016. 336 p & notes

One of the marketing points of Thornton McCamish’s biography of Alan Moorehead is that Moorehead is a forgotten writer, and that he has been re-discovered through this biography.  Not for me: I’d actually read an Alan Moorehead book within the last 15 years, and I knew who he was. Back in 2002 I had just finished reading Sarah Murgatroyd’s book ‘Dig’, then I noticed that I had a lurid-tinted old paperback copy Cooper’s Creek on my bookshelves.


I started reading it, and was impressed by its evocation of landscape and explorations of personal loyalties. The book was from a different time, and its language was dated, but it certainly gave Murgatroyd’s book a good run for its money. I’d started reading it, thinking of Moorehead as an also-ran, but by the end of the book I found myself reviewing my opinion.


Biographer Thornton McCamish came to Alan Moorehead in his late twenties, through Moorehead’s autobiography A Late Education,which was assembled by his wife from three separate manuscripts. From that, he went on to read Moorehead’s eighteen other books

It was the germ that led, slowly at first, then with a feverish rush, to something like an obsession…I couldn’t get enough. Moorehead seemed to speak out of the past with a voice that felt astonishingly contemporary: alert, curious about everything, companionable.  It was like getting letters from a rather brilliant friend…Long letters that you didn’t want to end, letters steaming with atmosphere, thick with vivid detail that raced from thought to thought with just one intention: to make you see how amazingly interesting it all is. (p. 12)

There’s another reason that I read this biography. I’d recently read Hotel Florida, about war correspondents in the Spanish Civil War, and Moorehead was mentioned in passing. I hadn’t realized that Moorehead even was a war correspondent, and I certainly didn’t realize that he’d gone to Spain.

In fact, Moorehead left his native Australia in 1936 and he spent almost all his career overseas.  From Spain, he then became a war correspondent in WWII, most particularly in the Middle East.  Cutting most of his social (although not familial) ties with Australia, he became the British Daily Express‘s “Our Man in Spain; Our Man in Cairo” etc.  As far as Australia was concerned, he was “Our Man Elsewhere”, constantly on the move and afraid of the constrictions that marriage, family and home ownership bring.  He was hailed internationally as the pre-eminent war correspondent.

As a war correspondent, he experienced the duality of a war correspondent’s behind-the-lines and front line experience. Behind the lines, he enjoyed a social life among other correspondents that intersected with writers, politicians and public figures. On the front line he observed death, deprivation and actual physical danger. McCamish notes that Moorehead was disgusted by war, but at the same time, he was attracted to the soldier’s almost mystical ennoblement that emerged from facing death directly, again and again.

But what does a war correspondent do when the war ends? McCamish doesn’t bail out once the exciting bits dry up, but instead stays with Moorehead as he tries, with only mediocre success, to move into fiction writing. He becomes a magazine travel writer- another form of ‘elsewhereness’ – which while lucrative, was not particularly career-enhancing.

Moorehead would have been a difficult husband. His wife Lucy, who was the women’s fashion editor at the Daily Express, tended to be ‘elsewhere’ from him, trailing along occasionally but mainly bringing up their three children while he travelled and engaged in various affairs.

Moorehead’s career took off again when he turned to popular history. He wrote about Gallipoli and Africa, and then turned to his native Australia – and this is where my lurid copy of Coopers Creek comes in. His books were best-sellers, even though they were treated rather condescendingly by some- but not all- in the academy.

Although he was Melbourne born and bred, he joined the ex-Sydney expatriate group in England that included Clive James, Robert Hughes and  fellow-Melburnian Sidney Nolan and others. After so many years away, he was looking forward to returning to Australia in 1967 to take up a placement with the history department at Monash University, when he suffered a debilitating stroke. He could not write; he could not talk. He lingered for years, surviving a car crash that killed his wife Lucy.  This was no tragic, untimely, ‘young’ death: instead it was a slow, silent disappearance.

The author, Thornton McCamish, is present in this book, right from the opening pages. In the places where Moorehead’s career seems to bog down, as it did for years, it is McCamish’s enthusiasm and faith in Moorehead that draws you along as a reader.  It’s an honest literary biography that admits that not all writing is spun gold.  I don’t think that you need to have read any of Moorehead’s work to enjoy this book. McCamish gives you enough of the flavour of Moorehead’s writing for you to see what he is so excited about.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 8/10

The Statement from the Heart

The Garma festival, held each year in Arnhem Land, took place last week. In its own words,

Garma attracts an exclusive gathering of 2,500 political and business leaders from across the globe. YYF is committed to improving the state of Indigenous disadvantage by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.

This year the theme was “Truth Telling”.  A number of speakers made reference to the ‘Uluru Statement’, a beautifully written, important report from the Referendum Council, which had been appointed by the government and comprising indigenous and non-indigenous representatives. You can read the Final Report of the Referendum Council here. Even if you don’t read the whole report, read the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

It was delivered to government in May 2018 and almost immediately quashed.  The speed and apparent finality of its dismissal by the government was damning. The Great Australian Silence descends again.

But there’s talk. Noel Pearson  spoke. And Richard Flanagan wrote.  Read it.


‘Hotel Florida’ by Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill.jpg

2014, 464 p.

I read this book solely because I was going to Spain. Beyond what I’d read in Ghosts of Spain, I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War beyond Guernica, the idea of it being a dress-rehearsal for WWII and the participation of writers and intellectuals who went there to fight. So I have no opinion either way about the completeness of Vaill’s account, her felicity to the sources and the robustness of her argument.  I leave all that to historians of the Spanish Civil War. I read it just “because”.

In her author’s note, she notes “Hotel Florida is a narrative, not an academic analysis”. However, as the lengthy notes at the end of the book show, this is a heavily researched book, steeped in the sources. The linchpin of her narrative is the once-deluxe Hotel Florida, a hotel in Madrid, frequented by government figures and journalists.  The six main ‘characters’ of her book all stay there at one time or another: writer Ernest Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn, war photographer Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (you can see some of their photographs here) , and press officers/censors/propagandists Arturo Barea and Isla Kulscar. These three couples are all real-life people (even though I confess only to being familiar with Hemingway and Gellhorn). She draws on diaries, letters and the published works of her characters, and you sense her picking the gems from other people’s words.

The book proceeds chronologically, from the first uprisings of Franco and his troops against the republican government, and traces through the departure of the republican government to Valencia, and the eventual overrun of Franco’s forces.  It moves its focus from one character to the other, as they shift between Spain and Europe and America. There’s a shifting cast of other writers and celebrities, drawn to Spain as well, including Eric Blair (George Orwell), Dorothy Parker, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, – why, even ‘our’ Errol Flynn turns up.

I don’t think that at any time I ever lost an awareness that this was a non-fiction book. She is not just relating facts: she shapes an argument as well. She emphasizes the Soviet influence on the republican government, she is suspicious of the veracity of Gellhorn’s reportage and she doesn’t have much time for Hemingway. Her sympathies are overwhelmingly with the loyalist republicans. She looks at the relationships between the couples as well.  Hemingway dangles Gellhorn as his ‘bit on the side’, relishing the scandal but afraid of his wife; the Capa/Taro story is probably the most affecting of the whole book; while Barea and Kulscar are buffetted by the political winds that make commitment to any side dangerous.  Although she focuses on these three couples, who to a certain extent sweep across the fighting as observers rather than participants, Vaill does not let the reader forget that this is an actual war with bombings and many, many deaths.

I don’t know whether this book is ‘good’ history or not. A review in the Guardian by Paul Preston criticizes its Cold War tone and reliance on suspect sources.  While ‘narrative’ in tone, it is not novelistic as such, but more a group biography told through a kaleidoscopic lens. I feel that I came away with a much better understanding of the Spanish Civil War- at least, from the republican side. As for whether her analysis of the Soviet influence is correct or not- I leave that to others. I just read it “because”.

Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7.5

Friday essay: the ‘great Australian silence’ 50 years on by Anna Clark

An excellent essay in The Conversation by historian Anna Clark reflecting on WEH Stanner’s 1968 Boyer Lectures where he coined the term ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe the occlusion of indigenous people from narratives of Australian history. Her essay comes fifty years after those essays, but also in the contemporary context of the political response to the Uluru statement and  Lyndall Ryan and others’ work on the massacre map.

I encourage you to read it.