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Uplifting tale of gifted survivor

24 November 2012 1,466 views No Comment

ON March 1, 1942, Ray Parkin survived the sinking of HMAS Perth off the coast of Java. For the remainder of World War II he was a prisoner of the Japanese, first in Bandung and then briefly in Changi. After this he worked on the construction of the Thai-Burma railway and then in a Japanese coalmine, labouring under unspeakable conditions.

Remarkably, during Christmas 1942 he received from his beloved wife, Thelma, in Melbourne a telegram that had been simply addressed to “Ray Parkin, Prisoner of War, Java”. This lifted his spirits enormously.

It was during his time as a PoW that Parkin, a gifted self-taught artist and writer, formed unbreakable friendships with South African writer and philosopher, and associate of the Bloomsbury group, Lieutenant-Colonel Laurens van der Post, and with the great Australian military surgeon and leader, Edward “Weary” Dunlop.

These years of trial and tribulation also provided the raw material for three interconnected books that Parkin wrote after the war: ‘Out of the Smoke’ (the story of HMAS Perth’s disastrous Java campaign); ‘Into the Smother’ (a journal of the Burma-Thai railway); and ‘The Sword and the Blossom’ (a partly fictionalised account of his captivity in Japan in the last year of the war). All three books were published in London in the 1960s by Leonard Woolf’s prestigious Hogarth Press.

Whenever materials were available, Parkin had sketched and painted the local flora and fauna and and collected stories of and about his fellow PoWs. He kept detailed diaries, on which he was able to draw after arriving back home in October 1945.

In his last wartime diary, Parkin was sensitive enough to register the kindness of an enemy. His final PoW camp commander, an elderly ex-schoolteacher, ordered Parkin be brought to his office. After dismissing the guard, “without a word, the old man slid a small child’s watercolour set across his desk”. After briefly wondering whether to accept the gift, Parkin pocketed it and bowed.

Parkin recounts that he often puzzled how he managed to get so many artworks out of that small tin, which he kept for the rest of his life, and, perhaps more important, how did the old schoolmaster-commandant know of his abiding interest in painting.

After the war, Parkin spent his spare time writing. In 1997, the Miegunyah Press published ‘HM Bark Endeavour’, his painstakingly constructed history of Captain Cook’s ship, including a detailed account of her construction, crew and equipment, plus a narrative of the voyage along the east coast of New Holland in 1770. Despite a cover price of $150, by 1999 it had run to three editions.

Writing in ‘The Age’, Geoffrey Blainey highlighted Parkin’s ability to bring a ship and its people to life: “In this book of 467 large pages, we can walk, with a stoop, through the narrow passageways of the ship. We can glimpse her square stern occupied by the great cabin or workroom with its five windows running the breadth of the stern. The stern at night must have been almost like the cosy parlour of a small pub.”

For an autodidact such as Parkin, it must have been gratifying to have such a positive review from Australia’s premier historian. But perhaps even more remarkable was that his three books for the Hogarth Press were praised by English writers as distinguished as novelist and ex-sailor William Golding and poet Cecil Day-Lewis. To cap things off, in 2000 Parkin was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to literature and in 2001 the University of Melbourne awarded him an honorary doctor of letters. Then, in the year of his death, 2005, MUP released Parkin’s last book, ‘A PoW’s Survival’.

For a man who left school at 15 and who endured such terrible wartime experiences, Parkin’s is a remarkable, and remarkably uplifting, story.

All in all, Pattie Wright’s ‘Ray Parkin’s Odyssey’ is a fascinating and superbly illustrated book, even though her writing style – so unlike Parkin’s – is often a bit overblown and breathless.

‘Ray Parkin’s Odyssey: Sailor, Artist, Writer, Prisoner of War’
By Pattie Wright
Pan Macmillan Australia, 654pp, $49.99 (HB)

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 35 books.

The Weekend Australian November 24 -25, 2012, Review, BOOKS, pp 24-25

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