Portrait of a loner
Nearly 40 years ago, Peter Kocan tried to kill ALP leader Arthur Calwell. He failed and paid the price. Since then, writing has been his saviour
FIVE collections of poetry, four novels, commonwealth and state literary awards, international publication and critical acclaim later, Peter Kocan is still inexorably media-tagged as ‘‘failed assassin''. As, inevitably, now. Although that label may exasperate him, given that other writers' adolescent histories tend not to be revisited at every public appearance, few other writers have cut as deeply into the Australian psyche.
That's because 38 years ago, as a traumatised 19-year-old, Kocan fired a sawn-off .22 rifle at ALP leader Arthur Calwell. The then Opposition leader had been railing against conscription for the Vietnam War, famously telling his suburban Sydney audience: ‘‘You can't defeat an ideal with a bullet.'' Soon after, as Calwell readied to drive away, Kocan leapt forward and shot at him. The bullet shattered the car door's window, which cut Calwell's jaw but saved his life.
The assassination attempt had political repercussions but was not politically motivated. Rather, it was the result of the distorted reasoning of a mind alienated, socially isolated and hypersensitively suggestible.
‘‘The shooting logic was in the air at the time,'' says Kocan quietly -- in the three years before his June 1966 attempt, South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem, US president John Kennedy, South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd and black US radical MalcolmX had been murdered.
‘‘Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what's around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different.'' As might his fate. ‘‘Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting,'' he admits, ‘‘I assumed I'd be cut down in a hail of bullets.'' Instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment and confined to the notorious Morrisset mental hospital south of Newcastle, NSW, for 10 years in, as he has written, ‘‘the company of convicts and psychiatric inmates who were profoundly stigmatised and socially marginal by any yardstick''. Ironically, perhaps, it was here that he found his redemption after a psychiatrist at Long Bay jail suggested he might try poetry.
‘‘Writing became my guiding preoccupation,'' he says, ‘‘my source for recognising the beauty and preciousness of life. It sounds twee, but after the shooting I was this passive field of ashes ... and when I started to write, it was like shoots of green grass coming up through the ashes.'' After his release on licence in 1977, he moved to NSW's central coast where he rented a cabin on the edge of Tuggerah Lake and, with the aid of several writing grants, stayed for 20 years. He wrote solidly for more than a decade and later studied literature at university. He's now enrolled as a PhD candidate and is resurrecting his writing life.
Kocan and I meet over two days at a city high-rise hotel because he is leery about exposing his private space. He has been burned before by what he calls tabloidisation, where amateur psychologist reporters massage the myth while ignoring the message. Now 57 and Brisbane-based, he's an idiosyncratic figure in the hotel lobby, complete with floppy white beach hat, battered briefcase and furled umbrella -- the latter less a weather-wary precaution as a defence against aggressive dogs.
In many mannerisms, he resembles his good friend Les Murray, and once his protective shyness goes he reveals himself as widely read and philosophic, with forceful opinions on topics ranging from Stuart England to the nature of faith, our culture wars and more.
If his laconically powerful second-person novella The Treatment (1980) and its 1983 NSW Premier's Literary Award-winning sequel The Cure dealt in fictional terms with his experiences post-shooting, then his latest book, Fresh Fields, is loosely based on his experiences leading up to the shooting. It's a terse yet artfully moving novel of inner journeying, via a psychology that veers from the emotionally autistic to the analytically astute.
‘‘I wanted to find a voice that melded being inside my character's mind and being an objective narrator,'' he says, ‘‘the two subordinate controls alternating and interweaving its tone. Most people's minds work in similar ways -- few are entirely rational or distanced, nor are many entirely subjective.'' The character, a 14-year-old boy adrift in an unsympathetic environment, is a curious amalgam of the naive and the sophisticated, driven to live largely in his imagination and finding support from invented familiars, including the brave King Harold, a ruthlessly driven German soldier named Diestl and a Grace Kelly epitome-of-beauty love interest.
‘‘He is in some ways much younger than his years,'' agrees Kocan. ‘‘He hasn't had the everyday casual interactions with people that help develop general maturity. In other ways he is older than his age because he has spent endless hours thinking and brooding ... he's also very alone and friendless, so that moving from one side of the mind to the other, I assume from my own experience, gets more dominant if you are in some sort of distress. That's why someone like that is in great danger of ending up crazy, because the process has no compensating force coming in and saying, `Calm down'.''
Kocan himself ‘‘left home'' at 14 to work on a Bathurst sheep station. His mother had married his Slovak stepfather, whose name he carries, when he was seven. ‘‘My own father died before I was born, an English ship's engineer who was killed in a car crash -- at least that's the story always given to me. My stepfather used to go off for long periods to work and then suddenly reappear. And then the fights would start. At the time I saw him as the absolute villain but now I suspect it wasn't as one-sided as it seemed. But the marriage went downhill fairly rapidly and in 1960 my mother packed up one afternoon and took my younger half-brother and myself from Melbourne to Sydney on a train to escape.''
He should have still been at school, he says, ‘‘but by then I had been wagging it for several months, spending my days wandering around in the museum. I think I just fell through some bureaucratic crack ... I was partly living in my imagination, and partly just totally untaught in the practical matters of life.
‘‘C.S. Lewis says something about life in general being old birds teaching young birds to fly -- none of the old birds ever took the time to show me anything. It was a level of practical unworldliness difficult to understand today [but] mine was like the disengagement of some farm boy of 1912 who had hit the big smoke.'' After a year at Bathurst, he drifted back to Sydney, living in doss houses, then took another rural placement.
‘‘But the jobs got shorter and shorter because I was increasingly unable to cope with the loneliness and degradations. In some ways, then, life in the bush for hired hands was like medieval serfdom -- you were a teenager sent to live in dilapidated tin sheds in a sea of mud.''
Critically missing from his life was ‘‘any feed in from other people ... the really alienated don't need profound advice but rather that daily, almost meaningless input of chat and jokes ... those become the ties that bind you to reality. Otherwise the interactions you do have, you tend to put too much weight on. Madness has a lot to do with proportion -- something not particularly disturbing if it's a small package is much more so if it's a container-load.''
By 17, he was city-based and basically dysfunctional. A similar process happens with the youth in the novel. Such a person, he says, is most likely to be rescued from this mind-set ‘‘if something simply happens to break the cycle. But if the impetus builds up unchecked, it just accelerates.'' Kocan's cycle-breaker was the shooting.
‘‘As [poet] Czeslaw Milosz says: `In a room where people maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.' In my case it was a literal shot ... it's not that you wake up, it's that the whole several-years-long process has finally happened -- there's only empty space around you. You become totally passive, you've literally shot your bolt.''
What he didn't want to write, he says emphatically, was a book about victimhood: ‘‘Our society is already drowning under a plethora of victim-mongering crap. My character is more someone trying to make sense of what is happening to him, trying to find both an honourable way to live and models of resistance to his perceived expendability ... Les Murray says it reminds him of Taxi Driver, and that's because the film is also about a deeply disturbed person desperately searching for his honour.
‘‘People might think that a mad equation to draw about a homicidal killer, and because I have the background I do, if I start talking about such concepts, many may well judge me mad as well. You become reluctant to use some words because you can almost see the headline, `Mad assassin says such and such'.''
Not here -- Kocan's book deserves praise more than glib asides. For, as he says, ‘‘Lives today are increasingly warped and dominated by all kinds of extremism. Nobody knows exactly what normality is, but you do start to know it very clearly when it's not there.''
Fresh Fields By Peter Kocan, Fourth Estate, 373pp, $27.95
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian, 3 July 2004. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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