Modern Crusades

Again, not sure where that time went but while it disappeared the world went mad. It now seems most members of the Australian parliament are ineligible to be there, thanks to the arcane wording of Section 44 in the Australian constitution created over a century ago. There is now a crusade against “otherness” at a time when “the other” actually dominates Australian life.

“Across the ditch”, as we say in this part of the world, a complex voting system sees New Zealand’s prime Minister coming from the second-only largest party in parliament, aided and abetted by a self-serving narcissist whose party lost support in the election along with the Greens whose vote halved. Kiwis, though, have shrugged it off whereas in Canberra the hysteria has risen rather than subsided.

Further afield, Harvey Weinstein’s outing as a predator has produced an avalanche of similar revelations, with Kevin Spacey decrowned as a great on-screen “bad” guy and installed as a real life one. Meanwhile America lurches continuously from reality show to farce and counter-farce with the Muppets apparently having taken over international relations. Crusades abound here.

Oh, and it looks like Rupert “the dirty digger” Murdoch might just have been done over by a toxic mix involving FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and the Saudi royal family’s internal coup d’état.

You could not make this up, really, so I could plausibly claim to having been off air deliberately. Sadly, it was just bad organisation and a bigger than normal range of things to do that have had me shuttling between Queenstown and Sydney for a few months in connection with a non-writing project.

Amidst all that, though, I finished writing a true crime biography about Etienne Jean Brocher, a troubled French kid who, aged seventeen in 1874, ran away to New Zealand and was promptly jailed for theft. Then he married the daughter of a French settler, became a photographer, racked up debts and family problems so ran away again, back to France. Entering the army he was jailed, then sent to Algeria to be jailed again and dishonourably discharged from one of the world’s worst military units, a spectacular achievement. Banned from France now, he went back to New Zealand, married again without first divorcing, then was found guilty of a double murder he might not have done. Brocher was executed by a drunk who was New Zealand’s hangman for forty years.

Brocher’s defence lawyer bred the 1916 Melbourne Cup winner – Rekindling won it this past week 101 years later. For New Zealanders, winning the Cup is almost as big a crusade as the All Blacks winning in perpetuity.

Now the Brocher book is finding a publishing home. One highlight during this “silent” period was a couple of days spent in Auckland at the Michael King Centre’s Writers Weekend with a gaggle of other people who spend their lives putting words on paper.   It was great listening to New Zealand luminaries like C.K. Stead who admitted to years of being nervous when lecturing to students at Auckland University, a reminder that no one was taught how to teach at university back then and in some cases even now. One magic session was with Jef Kay who demonstrated how writers might better use Facebook. Yes, FANG struck there, too, a timely reminder of how the world is changing.

As we all know, that change extends into publishing as well.   There are more and more writers but fewer and fewer traditional outlets, hence the rise of self-publishing and derivatives thereof. Several publishers spoke revealingly about all this, so we all went away reminded that if you want to write and appear in the bookstores, then you’d better be damned good. That means endless tinkering with books like mine on Brocher, the endless efforts to make it right.

Somewhere in there I also found time to do a screen writing course at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts here in Sydney) that has led to a new friend, Marc Rosenberg who ran the course and is also a great fan of Dodgers baseball. When they lost the recent World Series to the Astros, Marc and I mixed baseball tragic with screenplay principles. After all, searching for that first pennant since 1989 is a crusade, too.

That screenplay approach is entering the broader prose writing world to good effect and is a useful thing to know about – though I do have ideas for a film and a play as well.   Now where will that time come from?

And there has been time to read. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being re-read.   It was held up last year as a marker to how Trump won and Clinton lost all those traditionally democratic states. They were each on a crusade. I’m not sure the book is that great a guide there, but it is a fabulous read about America in change as well as an analysis of a significant subculture. And the guy can write, too, a great point of difference.

The Whites

It does not always work, though, it seems. One of the best novels/crime fiction I have read in the past few years is The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It is about cops righting wrongs, as they see it, and Price just gets it all right: characters, plot, story line, setting, context. Yet it won very few if any prizes while other, in my view, lesser books did. Who knows how it all works?

Mind you, there have also been some great winners. Jane Harper’s The Dry has won justifiably just about everything going including a Ned Kelly Award in Australia and the Gold Dagger in the UK. Adrian McKinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly has been similarly successful as has Mick Herron’s Spook Street. There is some great stuff out there.

And I have been reading plays, too. Several years ago I saw one of the best stage plays ever, Hugh Whitemore’s A Letter of Resignation set around Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair. Reading it is a joy: the prose/dialogue is marvellous and so is the spare capturing of characters. His A Great Year For Plums is similarly terrific on the Suez Crisis, mixing political and personal lives.

This mix of crusade and writing led me to a book on the man who indirectly helped me become an historian. Way back then I arrived at history as a choice after being disillusioned by geography and English in their university shapes. And I was none too enthralled by history, either, until I happened to do a course on the Crusades taught by J.J. Saunders, a legendary teacher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. At the heart of that course was a three volume work imaginatively titled A History of the Crusades that had appeared about a decade earlier.

Inevitably, when looked at now, it was written from the viewpoint of the “Crusaders” themselves, those Westerners gone out to what we now call the “Middle East” (an early twentieth century term coined by journalist Sir Valentine Chirol) to overthrow the Muslim states that had emerged there following the rise of the Prophet. It would be 1978 before Edward Said’s Orientalism turned the telescope around and inspired works like Amin Malouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Runciman Crusades

Sir Steven Runciman wrote that three volume work that switched me into history. He told a story based around people and personality, captured moment and detail while maintaining narrative sweep and direction. Above all, he made it exotic and meaningful. Years later, I remembered all that as I scrambled through Kraak des Chevaliers in Syria, Karak in Jordan and all those other castles that were part of the Crusades. Because of Runciman, when I did that I felt like Salah-ad-Din (Saladin in the West) and Richard the Lionheart were right there with me. History lived, because of Runciman.

So when I spotted Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: the Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman in Sydney’s Abbey Bookshop, I grabbed it enthusiastically.


It is massive, and probably should have been edited back. Being Minshaw’s first book, he put into it just about every scrap of information possible and elaborated on all of them so that the storyline sometimes disappears for a few pages. That is not unusual, and was not what made me come away disappointed.

That came from Runciman himself, or at least the way he emerges from the book. Born into a wealthy and influential family he was also bright, ferociously so, and took to languages as easily as he did to writing and researching (even if he was not an “archive rat” as the modern profession demands, he was a secondary sources man predominantly). Because of the wealth and the family networks, he was at the heart of the Establishment with that link contoured further by his being gay.

Had he lived into these Weinsteinian and Spaceyrian times he might well have been described as a privileged predator who ran personal vendettas, won coveted positions for reasons other than professional, was arrogant, opinionated and snobbish while being self-obsessed to the utmost. For me, he emerged as an unsympathetic character, an exploiter of people, positions and power.

That goes immediately to a question for our times. In Australia, for example, the artist Donald Friend was a celebrated figure until his private diaries, lodged in the National Library of Australia, revealed him as having been a serial pederast, especially on the island of Bali where he lived for several years. Now his works are displayed rarely, and their value has declined. These days we have somehow to separate Spacey from the work: House of Cards is a major achievement (I prefer the earlier English version but this new one is brilliant and started the Netflix revolution), as was much of his work on the London stage. How do we regard that?

Before the Fall

The Runciman story comes in two parts for me. I still regard his Crusades trilogy as a marvellous, pre-Saidian achievement that did get me into history. The second is a reminder that no work is clinically detached from its writer, good or bad. That I remembered when happening upon a review of my A House in Damascus: before the Fall. The reviewer thought me “a very leftwing liberal who blames the West for branding Syria a terrorist country incorrectly”. Where would I begin unpacking that? The point, though, is that whatever I right has an angle, and whoever reads whatever I write brings to it another.

For that we should be grateful because it means we can struggle towards resolving contested problems like all those that headed this piece. And it also means I can still remember Runciman as the man who helped steer me towards history and writing. For that I am extremely grateful.