Winter 2018 Soiree | Jennifer Bryce

Elwood Writers recently held its Winter 2018 Soiree at St Kilda Library in Melbourne. Over four blog posts, each of the writers will tell us more about the work they presented at the event. We begin with Jennifer Bryce.

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Elwood Writers soiree, St Kilda Library.

It’s daunting to get up in front of 30 or so people – even when they are friends – to read your own work. Daunting because what you’ve written is something of your own creation; you are vulnerable – you can see the response of the audience – it’s more immediate than receiving a critique (or a rejection notice) for something you’ve written.

But the experience of reading in a public setting is extremely valuable. We usually read work out aloud in our writing group meetings because we find that hearing our words brings out different aspects of a piece. You might have read a piece to yourself several times – but things jump out when you hear the words rather than just look at them. And when you know that it’s to be a public reading, you go through the work with a fine tooth comb.

Earlier this year I started work on my second novel. It is connected to the first (which is at present doing the rounds of publishers), but not necessarily a sequel. Publishers would classify it as historical fiction. For our Soirée I chose to read the very beginning of this new book. One reason for choosing the very beginning is that it should make sense to listeners without requiring any explanation.

I love to immerse myself in early 20th Century history – I’m intrigued to understand the world that existed just before I was born. In my new book a young woman travels to London in the 1930s to take up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. So much happened at this time: World War II was brewing, Edward VIII was about to abdicate in order to marry a divorced woman (he also had Nazi sympathies), radio had developed and people liked to ‘listen in’ to news broadcasts and concerts.

My protagonist has completed a diploma at the conservatorium in Melbourne, but she is naïve to the extent that the trip to London on board the Strathnaver is indeed a rite of passage. She isn’t modelled on any particular person of that time although a few years earlier pianist Eileen Joyce had left Australia ultimately to become a celebrity known in films and on gramophone recordings as well as on the concert platform. Other young women, such as composer Miriam Hyde, also ventured overseas at that time because Australia was seen as a backwater and you had to study overseas to ‘make it’.

For the Soirée I divided the first chapter into two parts. In the first part, the ocean liner leaves Melbourne. The young musician is alone and she watches the coastline as the ship steams up Port Phillip Bay and through the heads. I have never travelled by ship, so I had to read memoirs and talk to people who had had the experience of a liner pitching in rough seas, sea-sickness, the layout of a large steamer. I found useful photographs on the Internet. In the second part, my protagonist has met one of her cabin mates (she is travelling tourist class and has to share a cabin with strangers) and they have dinner in the tourist class dining room. This part was assisted by an old menu I had from the time when my mother was taken overseas by her parents in 1939. Compared to today’s menus, the food was stodgy and plain – Brown Windsor Soup, roasts, caramel pudding.

I know, from experience, that this chapter will change a lot before I consider the piece to be ‘finished’ – indeed, is a piece of writing ever finished? But the challenge of reading at our Soirée meant that I gave the all-important opening chapter special attention.

My first novel took several years to write. I hope that the process will be a little shorter for my second. One thing I’m sure of is that in a year’s time the piece I read at our Soirée will be different. I hope that in a year’s time I will have finished a complete first draft of the novel. Even though I have a plan, it will change.

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Duo con Brio, St Kilda Library.

At the Soirée I enjoyed the opportunity to play some music. Playing the oboe is an important part of my life and I’m in a chamber group: Trio con Brio. Our flautist has been unwell, so we were Duo con Brio: oboe and cello. We have found that some of Bach’s Two Part Inventions for keyboard work very well for this combination because Bach gives an interesting line to both treble and bass – it’s not a case of the cello plodding away and the oboe having all of the fun. We enjoyed playing some of these pieces in between literary items.


For more on Jennifer’s work, visit her website Little Smackerel.

All images HarrietClaire Photography

We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we tell our stories, and pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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A FINAL WORD FROM ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK 2018

All too soon the week that had stretched before us shrank to the last day; there were final dusty gatherings by the water tap and at our sanctuary – a little café we discovered on the banks of the Torrens. There would be no more shuffling around of green plastic chairs, trying to work out which way the sun would move, and no more casual chats, sharing opinions about the latest books.

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Thornton McCamish has written a book about the Australian writer Alan Moorehead – a writer I remember well from my late childhood and adolescence – I received The White Nile as a school prize. Thornton’s book, Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead is described as a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Australian literary history. I’m sure I never met Alan Moorehead, or heard him speak, but it sounds as though he was one of those mid 20th Century Australian gentlemen who believed you had to sound plummy English. He was first known as a war correspondent (World War II). Thornton describes him as ‘an eye level writer’. Moorehead went to Europe in 1936 (those days when to make anything of yourself it was believed you must ‘go abroad’) and of course it was an ideal time for  a journalist to be there: the British abdication, the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War. When World War II started, Moorehead was there. He wrote in a morale-raising kind of way, leaving out the blood and gore (as one did in those days).

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Thornton said he finds fascinating ‘the time machine of the prose’ – it gives a lived experience of the past. To give the right effect, Moorehead wasn’t always firm with the facts, for example, he described tulips at a battle in Holland during a season when there couldn’t have possibly been tulips there. Thornton sums him up as a great travel writer. There was too much of him in his books for him to be a great fiction writer, but he was one of the first Australians to draw attention to the importance of conservation.

‘Homegrown’ was a session about the radicalisationof young Muslims. The session started with discussion about citizenship – how you can be summed up by how you look. Kamila Shamsie described how at her citizenship ceremony in London, holding the union jack, she felt ‘both the betrayer and the betrayed’. She had seen photographs of the union jack representing ‘empire’ in her birth country Pakistan, when it was still part of India and still part of the British Empire. She wanted British citizenship mainly so that she could travel with ease. She suggested that maybe ‘identity’ is what other people see you as being.

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Kamila made the interesting suggestion that if you have grown up with a faith you may be more likely to reject ISIS, which appeals to young people who need something to follow – you are more easily brainwashed, she said, if you have grown up without religion. She said that when some young ISIS joiners were arrested, they were carrying copies of Islam for Dummies.

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Laleh Khadivi reminded us that the young women who are radicalised have an even more difficult time than the young men, yet they are often making a ‘teenage mistake’ that they will never be able to turn away from.

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Robert Wainwright has written a biography of Miss Muriel Matters, an Adelaide woman born in 1877, who became a famous suffragist. Her life was incredibly full: goat lady, elocutionist, educator and a leader of the suffragist movement in London.  She travelled around in a caravan pulled by a horse called Asquith – after the prime minister –  and later, used a dirigible to drop leaflets on the day the king opened parliament, at a time when most people hadn’t ever seen an aeroplane.

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Kate Cole-Adams has written a fascinating book on anaesthesia – she spent 14 years working on it (although wrote other books during that time). Anaesthesia is described as an ‘unexplored story’ – and certainly it is unusual for a non-scientist to write about this subject. Kate cited researchers who say that anaesthesia is ‘more an art than science’. It is ‘getting rid of consciousness’ and consciousness is subjective. It seems that hypnosis can be beneficial – describing what we know of how anaesthesia works, Kate outlined three stages of conventional anaesthesia used today: 1. Hypnotic (you can learn things when under anaesthesia) 2. A strong pain killer 3. Muscle relaxants that paralyse (so even if you ‘wake up’, there’s no way you can do anything or communicate).

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One point stressed by Kate is that anaesthesia is different for everyone.

To her amazement, when working on this book, Kate discovered that her grandfather had worked on a book: Mechanics of Consciousness from 1942 – 1950. He died before he could finish it.

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Understanding birds is a better way of understanding ourselves – this seems very likely after hearing Jim Robbins discuss his book The Wonder of Birds. Once again, Jim is not a scientist, indeed he suggested that science might be a barrier to understanding the ‘mystical language’ of birds. However, scientists can learn a lot from studying the brains of birds.(The derogatory term ‘bird brain’ is clearly inaccurate!) For example, canaries can grow new neurons to a far greater degree than humans are known to. If we studied this more, we might find a cure for Parkinson’s. I wasn’t so surprised to find that there is Machiavellian politics in the society of Ravens. Apparently crows hold funerals: do they have a soul? It is also interesting that birds may be able to see magnetic lines. Throughout the talk I thought about how humans have always wanted to fly – we often fly in our dreams – we create entities such as angels and fairies. It is an area of great fascination.

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The final session I attended was inspirational. I have written about it elsewhere: Eddie Ayres, discussing his latest book, Danger Music.   https://jenniferbryce.net/2018/03/09/eddie-ayres-danger-music/

 

 

 

FURTHER TASTES FROM ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK

I had heard of English novelist Alan Hollinghurst. His novel The Swimming Pool Library was openly gay at a time when such writing was still emerging from a murky, clandestine time and it was the height of the ‘AIDS Crisis’. In 2004 Alan won the Man Booker prize with his novel The Line of Beauty.

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He was in Adelaide to discuss his latest book, The Sparsholt Affair, which, in five parts spanning the time of World War II to the 1990s, tells the story of three generations of Sparsholts and hinges on an affair that takes place in 1966. What a great name, I thought, it sounds a bit sinister.

The book starts in Oxford in October 1940, when the war had been going for just over a year. Alan pointed out that Oxford was both convenient to London and a safe distance from it. The MI5 had a base there. He read the section where we are introduced to David Sparsholt, seen through a window, lit up at dusk, doing his exercises. Young students watching from an opposite window admire his body without making overtly gay remarks. The story is never told from David Sparsholt’s point of view, he comes over as a young man without an inner life. Alan described him as ‘locked into a muscular carapace’.

We see Johnny, David Sparsholt’s son, who is a young man in 1970s London. Alan read out a wonderful description of the ‘bright pulsing square’ of the dance floor of a gay nightclub of that time; brilliant.  It made me determined to read the book.

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There was an interesting discussion on writing about the past. Alan says that he tries to do this without giving a sense of what is to come – he aims to convey what it’s like to be alive at that moment. Asked about the extent to which he draws on his own life or the lives of his friends, he said that he never consciously uses a friend as the model for a character but, on the other hand, memory is a novelist’s main resource.

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As a writer of memoir I was interested in a session entitled ‘The Self in Story’. Participants were Sarah Krasnostein (The Trauma Cleaner), Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (The Fact of a Body) and Ashleigh Young (Can You Tolerate This?). Each writer was asked what was the starting-point for their books. Sarah had attended a conference. Ashleigh had asked herself the question: why do I feel so awkward in the world?, and Alexandria had been wanting to fight the death penalty in the US since childhood, and this motivated her to study Law.

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There was a lot of discussion about whether and when to show a manuscript to family or people directly involved in the story. All writers had waited until they were close to publication and then some expressed surprise at how little change was sought. It was agreed that even though you, the writer, may be in the book, you still need to craft a kind of persona for yourself.

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Ashleigh Young

Robert Drewe is a popular Australian writer and I went to a discussion of his latest book, Whipbird.

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‘Whipbird’ is the name of a vineyard where a family gathers for a large celebration hosted by Hugh Cleary. The family has been in Australia for 160 years (they missed out on celebrating 150 years, and 200 years is too far away!). Having a large family gather in a remote place provides a tantalising setting for drama and some unusual characters such as the ‘grimly worthy’ unmarried sister Thea (rhymes with diarrhoea). She is a doctor and announces to the family that they all have a condition where there is too much iron in the blood. Another interesting character called Sly (distinguished by being written in the 1st person) has a condition where he believes he is dead (a state of befuddlement originating from his participation in the 1980s and 1990s rock culture). Through this strange condition, Sly perceives the ancestor who started the Australian branch of the family.

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Drewe said he was inspired to write this from his own family history: a great grandfather who sired 15 children, his last when he was 70. But Drewe said that, while family is very important to him, he has never been to a large family gathering. Asked, what does your book say about modern Australia – looking at Australia as a family?Drewe considered that the family is safe, but elements can be very dangerous.

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A session entitled ‘Berlin Stories’ attracted me. Catherine Chidgey’s book gives a perspective of Hitler’s Germany from the point of view of young children living there at the time. David Foenkinos tells the story of an almost forgotten German Jewish artist who was killed at Auschwitz.

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Catherine lived in a farm in Germany when she was 16. Her host father had fought on the Eastern front and, although he hadn’t talked about it to his family, he told Catherine of some of his experiences. He described killing men and ‘carrying their ghosts’. Catherine went to school while in Germany and found that German history after 1933 was glossed over. When, much later, as a young adult Catherine returned to Germany, her partner dug up in their back yard tin soldiers in Nazi uniforms – as a result Catherine tried to imagine what it was like to be a child just before and during the war. She believed that although there are a lot of World War II stories, there was still a need to ‘breathe life’ into a story that had been forgotten.

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David had just arrived from France and it is his first time in Australia. When asked to read a passage from his novel (translated into English) he said it was the first time he had ever read out aloud in English. He did a good job.

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Why didn’t the Jewish ‘pillars of society’ see what was coming in the 1930s? David said that these families saw themselves first as German, secondly as Jewish. Would their own country kill them? Impossible! The pessimistic left and ended up in Hollywood. The optimistic ended up in Auschwitz. David’s novel is written in a form where each sentence begins on a new line. His book isn’t generally about the war at all, but a tribute to the artist Charlotte Salomon – he seems to have become quite obsessed with telling the world about this young woman who died in the gas chambers when pregnant at 26. He says it is not an historical book. David’s obsession with Charlotte started at an art exhibition in Paris in 2006. Charlotte knew she was in danger and gave her paintings to her doctor, saying ‘This is my life’. Hence her paintings survived.

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Charlotte Salomon

As David said, this is a novel, because you can’t really know Charlotte – you can’t know what is in her thoughts or her heart.

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Free Speech and Democracy: A Further Taste of Adelaide Writers’ Week

I go to Writers’ Week for a number of reasons. One is to identify as a writer and to get ideas about writing. Another is to give myself time to think, particularly about the world around me. Two sessions were inspirational for this latter purpose.

Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion: Chinese Influence in Australia received publicity recently because a number of publishing houses were not game to publish it. Just over a week ago the book came out, thanks to publisher Hardie Grant. In this book Clive Hamilton examines the influence of the Chinese government in Australia. At the talk, he paid tribute to his researcher, Alex Joske.

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Most of us are aware of the consequences of some of the more blatant instances of politicians/ political parties accepting money from China. Clive Hamilton was convinced of the need to write this book at the time when (then) Senator Sam Dastyari became embroiled with such events. In the preface, Hamilton says: ‘China and Australian democracy had collided again. Something big is going on, I thought. I decided to investigate and write a book so that Australians could understand what has been happening to our country.’

Most of us are aware of the cases that have made news headlines, such as that of Dastyari, and the selling of the Port of Darwin. But in this book Hamilton reveals some of the more insidious happenings: Chinese students in Australia being prevented from protesting, CCP agents observing Chinese at their church services in Australia, the role of the CCP and the Chinese military in funding (and therefore having control over) some research in Australian universities. He also draws our attention to instances of Australia supporting the Chinese military, for example by building aircraft components.

Hamilton implied that Australia should see itself as a bigger player in international politics. He drew our attention to the fact that the GDP of Russia is the same as that of Australia, yet, he said, we think of Russia as a bear and Australia as a koala!

It was encouraging to see that there was a huge audience at this talk and there was a sense of mutual support and agreement that the criticism and anxiety raised by Hamilton writing this book sends a stark message about freedom of speech in Australia.

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In another session, English philosopher A.C. Grayling and Australian journalist and political commentator George Megalogenis met to discuss Democracy and Populism. The introductory statement was that this is the 12th consecutive year that democracy has been in retreat around the world. How might this situation be reversed?

A.C. Grayling suggested that we must stop politics from being a career. As a ‘career’, the participants are more interested in keeping their jobs and their ratings than in thinking intelligently about the problems facing the country/ the world. He also suggested later that the role of a politician these days is not attractive to highly intelligent people, who can make more mark in the world and earn more money working in Silicon Valley.

What if the world just wants security and not the freedom of democracy? Grayling reminded us of the quote of Benjamin Franklin : Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Grayling reminded us that it is essential for people to feel that their vote counts.

George Megalogenis stressed the need for transparency in democracy, yet politicians now avoid ‘difficult’ journalists – they prefer to be seen doing the right things – it is easier to walk around a work site wearing high vis protection gear. Yet Megalogenis is hopeful that there is a new breed of younger politicians who can relate to younger people (under 45) because these politicians have grown up in the world that younger people understand.

Grayling finds encouragement in the young people in US currently campaigning for gun control.

A TASTE OF ADELAIDE WRITERS’ WEEK: DAY 1

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I’ve been coming to Adelaide Writers’ week with colleagues from Elwood Writers for the past three years now and it’s by far the best writers’ festival I’ve been to. Here I am again for Writers’ Week 2018. There are 14 sessions every day – one has to pick and choose, so here I will mention just a few that interested me.

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Bernice Chauly, Michelle de Kretser and Vivek Shanbhag spoke in a session entitled ‘Lost Things’. Bernice’s book, Once We Were There focuses on the Reformasi movement in Kuala Lumpur. Her book, she said, was triggered by the jailing of Anwar for sodomy – it’s not talked about. She implied that by writing in English she could say things that others might not dare to put in print. She admits that it is a bleak book. Malaysia, she said, is a fractured country.

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In Michelle de Kretser’s new book The Life to Come, narrative is linked by a recurring character, Pippa, a writer. Five stories unfold: a tale of youthful ambition, a tale of young love, a story about an émigré Australian in Paris who questions her life’s meaning and the commitment of her married female lover, there is a tale of motherhood and betrayal, and finally a tale of the awfulness of dementia.

Vivek Shanbhag’s book Ghachar Ghochar has been translated into English. While this has given him a much wider audience, he mentioned some of the difficulties, most interestingly, I thought, the need to translate into English what is not said. The book is a family drama set in Bangalore. He read a beautiful passage about the pervasiveness of ants.

Various themes were covered in this session. Families: Michelle found writing about families alluring from when, as an undergraduate, she studied kinship lines in Anthropology. Vivek described how, in India, every decision a person makes must be considered through the family, although, he admits, this is starting to change. Violence was another theme. Michelle mentioned that there are not many books about friendships between ‘grown-up’ women – maybe this is why the Eleanor Ferrente novels were so popular. Food was another theme. Bernice saw food as a salve, ‘it’s what binds us together’.

I then went to a session entitled ‘Invented Histories’, where Catherine McKinnon spoke about her novel Storyland, and Jane Rawson spoke about From the Wreck. The structure of Catherine’s book is interesting, with five narrators talking from different times in history (including the future and the far future) bound together by the one environment, Lake Illawarra.  Catherine said that her writing was triggered by asking: What does it mean to be Australian today?

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Jane Rawson’s book is her second novel. She said that she’s preoccupied by thoughts of ecological disaster and how humans relate to nature. The ‘historical’ character in this story is based on Jane’s great-great grandfather. The character George Hills, survives the sinking of the steamship Admella off the South Australian coast in 1859. He is haunted by memories of the disappearance of a fellow survivor, and his life becomes intertwined with that of a woman from another dimension, who seeks refuge on Earth. Jane said she wasn’t comfortable writing purely in a historical mode, so the woman is an alien: a fascinating mixture of the genres of historical and speculative fiction. Jane said she’s fascinated by our inability to think outside the time in which we are living.

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The Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature were announced, with the premier present to give the Premier’s Award to Eva Hornung.  http://arts.sa.gov.au/2018-adelaide-festival-awards-literatureOther winners were, Justine Larbalestier, Pam Brown, Tim Winton (who donated his prize money to research into preservation of the Great Barrier Reef), Emily Steel, Annette Marner, Jude Aquilina, Danielle Clode and Edoardo Crismani.

Finally I went to a session entitled ‘War and Peace’, which featured journalist John Lyons and American writer Sarah Sentilles. John has written a memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, in which he chronicles 6 years of living in Israel and gives a scathing account of the treatment of Palestinians.

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In her book, Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles explores her responses to photographs of Abu Ghraib, she particularly spoke of the responses of a guard there, who ended up ‘befriending’ prisoners and teaching them to play chess among other things.

The discussion focused on: Is it possible for human beings to live at peace? Both writers started with readings from their books where they described humans observing fighting in war as though it were a spectator sport. John said that people sit in cafes in Israel and when they get a ‘code red’ app on their phones they go to watch the trouble. Sarah spoke of an American conscientious objector to fighting in World War II – and, although a pacifist, she questioned whether, given the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, it is acceptable to opt out of fighting. There was reference to Hannah Arendt’s observations of the Nazi trials and the claim, ‘It wasn’t me who did that. I was carrying out someone else’s orders’. The question of whether we inherit trauma was discussed. Sarah referred to an experiment carried out with mice, where one generation was made to hate the smell of cherry blossoms and this hate was passed on through several generations. Another area of discussion was: can we become more empathetic? Sarah suggested that rather than empathy we need to learn how to respect ‘otherness’ – to build on an ethical system that deals with dis-ease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spoken Words in Woodend | Chamber Poets #53

Elwood Writer Helen will be reading two of her poems – “Twilight” and “Loss” – tomorrow afternoon at Chamber Poets in Woodend (Saturday 9th December 2017).

Venue: Woodend Neighbourhood House, 47 Forest St, Woodend, Victoria 3442
Hosted by Myron Lysenko

Featured Poet: Alan Wearne
Open Section
John Flaus Reluctant Poet Segment
Black Forest Smoke

Entry by donation, raffle for book prizes. BYO alcohol. Tea & coffee facilities available, or visit nearby cafes for a cup.

2 p.m. for a 2.30 start

Hashtag poetry!

Margaret’s Impressions of Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the World War II books of Paul Brickhill dotted the bookshelves of our den – The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky and The Great Escape most notably. The sparseness of the books’ spines stood in contrast to the more embossed books on our shelves, suggesting that the former belonged to my father, a veteran of that war.

In Adelaide this year, I was curious to hear Paul Brickhill’s biographer, Stephen Dando-Collins, announce that Brickhill was not only Australian, but had been a prisoner of war (POW) of the Germans, as had been my father and uncle. No wonder they forced us kids to watch every late night TV re-run of Reach for the Sky, the film about the indomitable British fighter pilot and real life POW Douglas Bader.

As a prisoner of Stalag Luft 3 himself, Brickhill was fascinated by heroes, underdogs ‘struggling against impossible odds’. He determined that his first novel, The Great Escape, would be based on the events of the break out from his own prison camp, wherein fifty escapees were shot dead. Brickhill knew that his novel needed a hero to focus the story. He chose real life escapee Roger Bushell, or Big X as he was known. Steve McQueen played the lead role in a later movie, somewhat sensationalising the actual escape but cementing Brickhill’s career as a successful author.

Stephen Dando-Collins believes that Brickhill hit upon the need for heroes in a post-war Britain that was reeling from a broken economy and cities in ruin. There was little evidence to the British in the 1950s that they had actually won the war. Brickhill kept his Australian identity quiet so as not to jeopardise his authenticity as a storyteller. The objectivity of his ‘outsider’ status may have helped him shape Britain’s post-war view of itself by creating heroes for posterity.

Dando-Collins says that Brickhill was drawn to other hard-drinking, chain-smoking, driven men like himself. These days he would be described as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In those days he was just part of the norm. But this is a subject for another time.

The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill
Stephen Dando-Collins (Vintage)