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)
If you weren’t lucky enough to be in Adelaide for the recent Writers’ Week, you can experience it all through the podcasts of every session, now available here on Soundcloud:
Just close your eyes and imagine a warm, breezy day by the banks of the River Torrens and let the words wash over you…
The festival experience in Adelaide becomes richer with each visit. This year, I felt an initial restlessness during the events. I wanted to be away from the authors talking about their work, and to get in front of my own writing. To put my hands inside my manuscript and pull the guts out of it. To lay it all out, examine it closely, and put it back together again. This reaction, far from a complaint, is rather desirable. I’m travelling to Ubud next week to work on my manuscript, and I can be confident the trip will be one of industry and production.
A highlight of Writers’ Week: The Crow on Wednesday morning at the west stage. Max Porter, author of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, converses with Jonathan Bate about the life and work of Ted Hughes. In the soothing dapples of soft early sunlight we listen, rapt, to the disembodied voice of Hughes reading his work aloud in Adelaide forty years ago. Eerie and beautiful, this presence of the poet. Afterwards, I decide that I want this to be the taste that stays with me, and so leave the garden setting for the final time this year.
A similarly affecting experience on Thursday at the Art Gallery. A series of photographic images by William Yang chronicles his friend Allan’s demise from AIDS between 1988 and 1990. Each image is accompanied by Yang’s handwritten narrative. An unexpected punch arrives with the final photograph, of Allan in 1980. His vibrant and healthful face stares out. Ten years later, he’d be dead. Grateful to be alone, I search the image for a long time, looking for some communication between it and the fate of its subject.
The poignancy of Yang’s work is sharpened by the shade of an incident a few days’ earlier in the dorm at the youth hostel. Vivid anti-gay sentiments were a valuable reminder that we can’t be complacent; that, despite whatever ultimately happens with marriage equality in Australia, fear translates into hate in some minds. The hostel interaction is, however, a timely gift, prompting me to consider my short-story collection in a stark and vigorous light. Now on to Indonesia. There’s work to do.
Elwood Writers will be visiting Adelaide for Writers’ Week, held in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden near the banks of the Torrens River. Part of the Adelaide Festival Of Arts, there will be sessions with international and local writers on topics as varied as Kerry O’Brien’s biography of Paul Keating, and Robert Dessaix talking about how Enid Blyton changed his life.
This will be the second occasion the group has visited this event together. We meet each morning for breakfast to mull over the program and spend some time workshopping our own writing. The event is a good opportunity to mix with other writers, readers and artists in a stimulating and creative environment.
Look out for more posts about our impressions of this event in the weeks to come.