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 An interview with RAY PARKIN

"I ONLY WROTE A BOOK, I DIDN'T SAVE THE WORLD YOU KNOW." Ten days after Ray Parkin's trip to Sydney to pick up both the NSW Premier's non-fiction and Book of the Year awards (and the accompanying $22,000 sweetener), and after the ensuing glare of newspaper, radio and TV spotlighting, he's feeling "embarrassed by all the excitement - it's been pretty disruptive, put me out of my routine."

Nevertheless, his stories have excited a frequently blasé population. There's the one he compiled and illustrated in a dozen years of after-work, weekend and holiday stints burrowing in British Museum archives and chasing up rare texts and documents. And there's the  subsequent 17-year narrative of publisher rejection  of his work as "uncommercial" before the boutique publication  of The H.M. Bark Endeavour by the bequest-financed  Miegunyah Press led to its triumph from a record 607  contenders.

 And then there's the Boy's Own history of the man himself -  a lad in love with ships who joined the navy, an artist who  recorded their beauties, a family man sunk in the war who  suffered three-and-a-half years of deprivation on the Burma  railway and Nagasaki coal mines. Who returned to work as a wharf tally clerk and write three biographies drawn from his dangerously recorded camp sketches and notes, using language honed by devouring "an etymological dictionary in the prison camp as if it were a novel". Such unassuming achievement is inherently enticing to our self-image.

At 88, Parkin's more than happy to be back from the brouhaha in the home he built after the war in Melbourne's suburban Ivanhoe, where he's lived since "I was 9 in 1919". By coincidence, his accumulated PoW pay was the exact amount needed to buy the riverside block. By further coincidence, the house - family HQ for 50 years - overlooks the river bend where he first encountered his wife. He and another kid were in a boat and splashed her and her friend with their oars. The girls responding by throwing mud. "True love even then," he chuckles.

Our chat has been twice delayed, first because this is "weekly shopping morning" and then because "I've got to have my lunch". When we eventually make a post-prandial connection, he's happy to "prattle on for as long as you'll listen". His son drove him to Sydney on the day of the ceremony, back next day. He's still bemused at the reception his plain-talking received there. Which verged on the rapturous. Three publicists claim to have a crush on you, I mention. He snorts, then chortles. "If I was the hit, it was unintended. I don't remember what I said exactly - I had no notes and knew we had a three-minute limit, but I knew what I wanted to say and hoped to get some of it out before they made me sit down. The crowd amazed me, and I thought to myself, well I can say anything here and they'll still go on clapping and laughing. I kept muttering to (the chair and festival head) Geraldine Doogue, I'm trying to be serious and they keep laughing. It was funny, though, this doddering old bloke who used to work on the wharves - what did I have in common with the intellectual literary crowd?"

His prime intention was to tell younger people "of the vicissitudes of getting a book published, of how you have to believe in what you're doing, and persevere. I told them: 'You have to remember, a book is reading you as you write it, and the things you learn from that is what becomes most useful to you.' "

So what did you learn?

"From the speech? That you can con anybody sometimes …"

And from the book?

"Tremendous respect for the people of the 18th century. We think we're so sophisticated and scientific today but they could play us off a break for common sense. You've just got to see the skill in The Endeavour's construction to realise that. But I was interested in all aspects of the subject, it was no hardship doing the research. Too many cliches have been put around about the 'ignorance' of those sailors. Reading their logs and studying the technical books on sailing made it seem like a conversation I was having with them. It was as if these fellows were in a limbo because their story hadn't been told properly. They raised the questions, I found the answers and now they can rest in peace. But all my life I've been looking for answers, in a philosophic sense."

Found any?

"Some, mainly that there are always more questions. If anything, I've learnt most from my own experiences. There were 683 men on my ship and in one hour, 2 in every 3 were killed. Surviving that makes you stop and think, but it takes years to distil."

Such experiences put him in touch with the practical "and the … fundamental. And the answer is simple: in any human argument there's always an opposite view, in nature there's not. Human ideas are based on assumptions, but how do you judge what is valid or invalid? That's what causes chaos and dissent. The only objective adjudicator is nature. Nature acts on one principle, which I call natural necessity - everything from a single cell up responds to what is conveyed by instinct. But we have rejected that, we want to live by 'intellect'. And that instinct-intellect clash causes all our problems."

The key was in Genesis, "that tacked-on addition to the committee-written tribal history we call the Bible. They borrowed the Garden of Eden theme from nature-worshipping cultures, of a world in perfect balance. But Adam wanted more: intellect/conscious reasoning became the serpent which introduced discontent and from discontent desire was born. Humans have been at war with themselves ever since because of conflicting desires."

Content is such a lovely word he says, caressing it. "When you are contented, you're at the highest state any organism can attain. But desire is never satiated. We've forgotten there's an adequacy in what nature allows you to know. That's why the Aborigines were so culturally superior to us - they lived with nature, and had a greater richness in their lives than we've ever had. All we need to do is look for contentment, to recognise and enjoy what we are."

Are you content?

"With myself, yes, not with the world. Human history is of the multitude being controlled by a minority, whose philosophy is to dominate and exploit. That's the thinking behind economic rationalism, for instance … but if you start preaching ideas like this, you're quickly knocked off. The Taoists say: To know you are ignorant is best. For us, it seems more apt to spell ignorance as ignore-ance."

A philosophical light bulb lit up for him in the wet season jungle when he was working on the Burma railway. "Four of us had to carry a barrow of cement a few miles up a narrow hilly track. We had it slung on bamboo poles over our shoulders and were trudging through this treacherous terrain when a colossal storm hit. It was a real end of the world feeling, the trees were threshing around and being uprooted, the rain on the canopied leaves was like hail on tin. As we squatted seeking shelter, I looked up and saw this mosquito. The flimsiest thing in the world and there it was, happily going up and down, bone dry and unconcerned under a sheltering leaf. And I resolved to myself that when I got out of that joint, I was going to find my own leaf."

And he did. Over the years he's written essays exploring life and philosophy. He's toying with putting them into coherent order but "I'm getting a bit senior now, I'll be 89 in November, and at my age you can't bank on anything. Still, they are about things I needed to get off my chest, and I'd like to have them there for my grandchildren and great grandchildren [he has 7 and 8 respectively]. The satisfaction in writing comes from finding someone is listening - I was trying to write experiences to be had, not books to be read. But discovering that people have responded has been more reward than I wanted. It means you've exchanged ideas, established points of agreement with some of them. What more could you want?"

Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999

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