In this exceptional interview, James Cumes talks about his novel Haverleigh, about growing up in Queensland, fighting on the Kokoda Trail in WW2, his next books, and his special project VOW.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Compulsive Reader: Is this your own story? Are you a combination of Laszlo and Peter?
James Cumes: Haverleigh is NOT my autobiography. However, the story is based largely on my own experiences in war, career and personal relationships. You are very perceptive in asking whether I am a combination of Laszlo and Peter. Peter “represents” me in the transition from teenage student and soldier to maturity in Europe and as a “professional.” However, Peter becomes a lawyer with much international travel, whereas I became a professional diplomat, serving in several posts as Ambassador/High Commissioner. Laszlo enables me to present attitudes and ideas at a later period of Australian history and in a later generation. He is also the son of Tibor, whom I knew in Paris in circumstances similar to those described in the book. Tibor is one of those “Reffos,” displaced persons, “Balts” who were seen to be of indifferent quality but who, as migrants, so strengthened and enriched the Australian society in a variety of ways. Their grandchildren
continue that enrichment. It is something to bear in mind when we turn away migrants who are disadvantaged and might seem unworthy of the Australia that those postwar migrants helped so splendidly to build. Having said all that, I am neither Peter nor Laszlo. Those two are characters in their own right with their own identity whose purpose is to “represent” the youngsters and, later, the adults of their time.
Compulsive Reader: Were you tempted to write a memoir rather than a novel?
James Cumes: No. My wife said, “You’re not old enough to write a memoir. Your best years are yet to come.”
I agree and I wrote a novel, based on what I’d experienced and what, consequently, I thought I knew. Secretly, I have been slowly building a
memoir but that deals mostly with other matters – my work in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the issues that confronted Australia when I was a junior diplomat and later when I was Ambassador and High Commissioner. In many
ways, The Hedonists (see below) deals with these issues more directly and at greater length than Haverleigh. (However, The Hedonists deals with them with a cheerful irresponsibility that would probably not fit the popular model of
Compulsive Reader: Tell me about Haverleigh. Is it based on a real place?
James Cumes: Haverleigh is a fairly typical, small Australian country town. Those towns
could often be mean and gossipy, they could be prudish and hypocritical, for example, in sexual matters. Despite their many shortcomings, however, they gave many fine young men to fight for Australia and, when the battles were over, to build a strong postwar society. David Strang calls Australia “a dunnekin country” but we should attend less to what he says and more to what
he does and what his actions tell us about his heart. Yes, Haverleigh is a real place. I actually lived there once. My parents were there throughout my years at King’s College and while I was in New Guinea. Then a little town halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, it had an independent personality and relatively few commuters (I was one for a while). Its real name was and is Beenleigh, famous for its rum distillery. In the sixty years since the war, Beenleigh has become almost a dormitory
suburb of Brisbane and its character has changed. However, if you wander through the town now, you can still recognise many of the features identified in Haverleigh. In one respect, I have deliberately changed Beenleigh’s character. Originally, it was settled by German migrants. Although still something of a German pioneering society as late as the Second World War, it was, in all essential respects, a typical Australian country town and I have so
Compulsive Reader: Do you maintain a strong affection for Queensland?
James Cumes: Queensland must have been one of the most agreeable places ever in which to grow up in the years before World War Two. True, it was the time of the Great Depression. We were all dirt poor but remember what Edna Waters says, “Funny, you know, we never had much and yet, looking back, we had it all – everything that really mattered.” Yes, we were unsophisticated, prudish. The Southerners were said to look down on us. We were short on culture, except sport, the “pitchers” and the beach. We knew we had to work hard to get anywhere but we laboured as little as that imperative required. It was a simple, friendly, unpretentious society – although it could sometimes be vicious. (Remember how the town – including the Christians in Michael Brent’s church – reacted to the birth of Cathy Lester’s bastard son.) For a child, it was a wonderfully free, open, healthy life. (I still have a photo of myself, aged about 6. I am well dressed on top, hat and all, but I am wearing no shoes. Yes, we were heading deep into the Great Depression, but that wasn’t why I wasn’t wearing shoes. It wasn’t that we were too poor. It was because I liked the freedom, the naturalness of the barefoot mode and I loved to get the good earth between my toes.) I was born in Rosewood, a little town between Ipswich and Toowoomba. After Rosewood, I spent most of my pre-school years at a delightful spot right above Kirra Beach in Coolangatta and all my school years in Brisbane. I went to Wooloowin State Primary and then Brisbane Grammar where I matriculated to the University of Queensland. As a teenager, my life at King’s College – then a cluster of mostly poor quality weatherboard buildings set high above the river at Kangaroo Point – was happy, productive and satisfying in a way I now find hard adequately to explain. It was just a wonderful time with good friends and it was also a maturing experience. I still feel deeply appreciative of the years at King’s
before, with so many others, we all went off to war. Just before I left, incidentally, I was editing the University’s student newspaper, Semper Floreat, an indication perhaps of the writing I was
destined to do later. My last editorial, called – what else!! – “Pro Patria,” ended with the lines –
For words are things,
And a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought,
Produces that which makes thousands,
Perhaps millions, think.
I was introduced to King’s by a young man a few years my senior who fought with the Seventh Division in the Middle East, including the Syrian campaign, and then came back to fight – and die of his wounds – in New Guinea. In Haverleigh, you will recognise King’s College. In the book, my friend dies in Syria but, despite many changes in his location and background, you will identify him too. He was a fine man.
Compulsive Reader: The characters are fairly critical of Macarthur in the book. Do you feel that, to a certain extent, the critical contribution of the Australian diggersin WW2 has been overlooked or undervalued, especially outside of Australia?
James Cumes: Macarthur was a fine general, perhaps the most brilliant at least of the last century and a half – in any country. He fought the Pacific War
imaginatively and, despite some contrary references in Haverleigh, showed more care about casualties in his tactical and strategic designs than any other general, certainly in the First World War and even in the Second. Later, his Inchon Landing in the Korean War, though not entirely original, was one of the most brilliant operations, in conception and execution, in
military history. However, he was very sensitive about his reputation – his place in history – and he seemed to trust Americans only. He scorned Blamey – as many others did, for that matter – but his contempt for other Australians was
unjustified. Clowes fought well at Milne Bay, under difficult circumstances – some of them attributable to Macarthur himself. So did Allen in the Owen Stanleys. Macarthur sacked them both. A new book just out alleges that he sacked – or
took out of the front line – another senior Australian who also performed efficiently and valiantly. The Americans fought a good war. We were glad – and proud – to have them with us. We never could have turned the Japanese back alone. At sea, Midway was decisive. Alone, we never could have beaten the Japanese in the naval approaches to Australia. However, the Australian performance has been largely undervalued. We fought the Coral Sea (Naval) Battle alongside the Americans. We could not have won or even halted the Japanese Navy alone but it may be that even the Americans
could not have stopped them, in May 1942, without us. As it was – and unlike Midway – Coral Sea was a draw rather than an unqualified victory. On land, we won the first two victories ever against the Japanese at Milne Bay and in the Owen Stanleys. We did it virtually alone. At the time, Field-Marshal Sir William Slim, then Commander in Burma, said that this first victory, won by the Australians at Milne Bay, had lifted the spirits of the Allied armies everywhere.
Few others outside Australia, then or since, have given the Australians the credit they deserve.
(I’m an “ugly Australian,” aren’t I? An ultra-nationalist. In this age of globalisation, an anachronistic patriot. We must be careful to avoid this criticism. I’ve tried to handle the facts – as we know them – as moderately and objectively as I can whether in Haverleigh or elsewhere.) The main point is that, although we will always feel grateful to Macarthur and the Americans, we played our part as partners. We could always hold our heads high. We were not “saved” by the Americans to the extent that so many European and Pacific countries were saved from German Nazism and Japanese
militarism. The United States got most of the credit for victory in the Pacific as they did in Europe. Up to a point, that’s fair enough. I’d just like to see the Australian kids who first turned back the Japs get a little more recognition – a little more of the glory – than they’ve had so far. I hope that Haverleigh will help to give a better balance to the historical record.
Compulsive Reader: Jonny Lavers is an interesting character, and he certainly does well in the book. Is he a good guy?
“He’s a good man, Jonny Lavers,” Cathy Lester says. That sums him up. He’s a pretty typical Australian. Far from perfect. Down to earth.
Energetic and capable. He derives from a real person I knew in Haverleigh. That man did not become a “tycoon” like Jonny but he had many of his qualities and much of his background – including a start as a delivery boy. Jonny has a good mind and a warm heart. He knows he has to work to get anywhere and that’s what he does. He knows what he owes his mother – and his
dead father for that matter – and he loves them every bit as much as they love him. His record with Jenny and Maureen is not so noble but, even there, he tries to do the right thing most of the time. He is always kind to Cathy Lester, partly because of Sandy Morgan and their son, but we feel he would have been generous to her anyway, without ever looking for sexual or other favours in return. His way of helping her, without ever admitting he is doing it, has a distinctive Australian flavour.
Compulsive Reader: After the War, one of the Japanese fighters, Tsunekichi Sakama, becomes a friend of his captor and saviour Jimmy Griffin. Many diggers, particularly those who were captured, remain angry with the way in which the Japanese treated their prisoners of war. Do you feel that we need to move beyond this anger?
Most of us – now including even the RSL – have moved way beyond anger. In January 1942, a Japanese division overwhelmed a small, poorly armed garrison in Rabaul. The Japanese cold-bloodedly bound the survivors and bayonetted them to death – or left them to die. Some miraculously survived and made their way eventually to Moresby. (Incidentally, the RAAF Squadron at Rabaul courageously went up in their
Wirraways – a basic Australian trainer – to fight the Japanese in their Zeros which were then perhaps the finest fighter aircraft in the world. They went to their certain deaths.) When the Japanese landed at Gona and Buna in July 1942, they met a group of missionaries, including nuns. They bayonetted them to death. There are many other stories. We hated, despised and feared the Japanese. But the hatred and other negative feelings gradually diminished afterwards. Many Japanese soldiers, like Sakama and even “that cold fish” Kanemitsu, were, we realised, as human
and as buffeted by the war as we were. Haverleigh tries to make the point. Perhaps the hatreds lasted longer with the people back home. We seldom acknowledge sufficiently the persistent anguish of families when their men
are at war. Mothers probably suffer more even than wives. (Most of those with me during the war were too young to have wives; most still had almost a child’s affection for and dependence on their mothers. Remember the seventeen-year-old at Oivi who wanted the Japanese to come quickly or “I’ll be yelling for Mum.”) My mother lived to a great age but she never forgave the Japanese. They killed and wounded many young men she knew and, for two long years, she feared they were going to kill her son. Nothing could ever make her love them after that.
Compulsive Reader: Were you worried when you wrote the book that the amount of Australian slang/lingo might limit your audience to an Australian one?
James Cumes: Most of the language can, I hope, be interpreted sufficiently by non-Australians. The Americans and Europeans who have read the book have had no difficulty. Anyway, the slang and sometimes crude language have to be
there to give a valid picture. Of course, there are differences in the language used by various
Australians. Strang’s “dunnekin” language is very different from that of Brent, the parson’s son. Jimmy Griffin doesn’t swear much but he doesn’t
talk much anyway. Jonny Lavers has such personal confidence that he doesn’t need to use either very bad language or very good language to give himself identity or draw attention to himself.
Compulsive Reader: The book has been out for over 7 years now. Have you been pleased with the response to it?
The brief answer is “Yes.” Haverleigh was originally published under a pseudonym and had no publicity of any kind. Even so, reviews have ranged from excellent to extraordinarily good.
Strangely, perhaps, they have been best overseas. (Perhaps Texans like to read about Australia just as Australians like to read about Texas.) An Austrian Ambassador who spent three years in Australia, said it gave the best picture of Australians and Australian life that he has ever come across. One American reviewer compared it favourably to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Another was “mesmerised by the characters, the surroundings, the historical
accuracy.” An English reviewer called it “absolutely brilliant.”
Compulsive Reader: Tell me about your upcoming book: The Hedonists.
The Hedonists is about just that – the pleasure-seekers. The sub-title might be sex and diplomacy. The novel tells the story of one man’s obsession with a beautiful she-devil and another man’s compliance in a pattern of devious and fundamentally corrupt diplomacy. Perhaps in a way, The Hedonists demonstrates how far we have come from the innocence and disciplines of the Haverleigh period to the corruptions,
inelegancies and sexual abandon of our own time.
In our personal lives, we may have lost the balance between love and sexual indulgence. In diplomacy, we may have lost the balance between obsession with self and enlightenment.
We know that, in our present attitudes to sex and diplomacy, we are self-indulgent to excess. We know it’s empty. We know it’s damaging. But
we’re too addicted to desist. I think people will find The Hedonists seductive whether they read it simply as a good, racy story or whether they delve more deeply into issues of human frailty and fallibility that the story identifies with such irrepressible – and irresponsible – good cheer.
Compulsive Reader: In a recent interview you mention that you are currently working on a large politico-economic work called The Multiple Abyss. Tell me more about that.
James Cumes: My principal professional training is as an economist. (I am a Doctor of Philosophy (Economics) from the London School of Economics and Political Science of the University of London.) I have written several books on
economics, going back more than thirty years.
Those thirty years have been unstable compared with the quarter century immediately after World War Two. The Multiple Abyss suggests that we are standing on the brink of a political, social, economic, environmental and nuclear abyss and that we need to take urgent and visionary action to avoid catastrophe. September the Eleventh and the war against terrorism have confirmed the validity of the book’s thesis. People are now more aware of widespread
anarchy and deep ethnic, racial and religious hatreds. They are more conscious too of the incapacity of governments and international agencies to deal with the range of risks threatening not just one country or region but
the whole of humanity. The same considerations as those that led me to write The Multiple Abyss
prompted me to launch “A Democrative Initiative for Victory Over Want (VOW)” just three months ago, in January 2002. I have tried to answer your question about VOW below.
Compulsive Reader: Tell me about the Victory over Want project in which you are involved. Do you really believe that we can secure freedom from want and fear? Do we
not seem to be moving in the opposite direction in the world?
The purpose of VOW, stated briefly, is –
VOW is a project for Victory Over Want through direct national and international public investment, coordinated broadly in the way of the
Marshall Plan and OEEC. VOW proposes convening a range of Commissions leading to a World Conference which will establish a continuing program through the Agency for Victory Over Want at all Levels (AVOWAL). VOW aims to reach the goal of Freedom from Want “everywhere in the world” set by
President Roosevelt in 1941. I should add that , although VOW will be a huge step in itself, it will,
even so, be – desirably – only a first step towards further and deeper cooperation on a worldwide basis. That cooperation would lead gradually
towards a pragmatic form of world government or some kind of de facto world federation.
Yes, we can secure freedom from want. Of that I have no doubt. We have the resources. We have the technology. We have the management capacities if we choose to put them to this purpose. What we lack is the political will to
free the world from want. Within what time scale? In the early 1960s, President Kennedy undertook to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth within the decade. The
goal seemed impossible. But in July 1969, men did in fact land on the moon and were brought back safely to earth. The impossible was achieved. If we had the same will to free the world from want in this present decade, it would be much easier than landing a man on the moon – even now. In the United States – the richest and most powerful country on earth – there are right at this moment millions of people living in poverty, homeless, sick and without medical insurance – 40 million of them – millions not educated to their potential, people living each day without clean water. Why is this? Is it because the United States lacks the resources, the skills, the funds? Not at all. It is because the political will isn’t there. What we need is another President Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John Fitzgerald Kennedy and, by 2010, we could banish want from the face of the earth. At the same time, we could banish many of the hatreds, much of the envy, a good deal of the suffering that leads to conflict, including terrorism. That conflict could cause humanity to follow the dinosaurs into extinction and perhaps end all life on earth. Failing such leadership, it is for us to pursue a democratic initiative which will provide the will and vision that governments and international agencies lack. We hope that then they will say to us, carrying the banner of direct democracy, “We are their leaders. We must follow them.” (Incidentally, I have a novel coming out soon, probably in June, called
“Uncle Rupert: The Man Who Threw Money Over Back Fences.” It tells the story of a man who is disillusioned with the performance of our “governors” and who launches his own initiative for people to apply their own energies and goodwill to improve the lives of many of their fellows.)
Compulsive Reader: Haverleigh is full of action, and very visual. Have there been any expressions of interest from the film industry?
From its first appearance, people have spoken of its potential as a film and especially have said that it would “make a great mini-series.” We need only the right man – or woman! – with the right money, and Haverleigh will be a film of one kind or another. This year? Next year? There’s a lively film industry in Australia and even right there in Haverleigh territory, in southern Queensland. So it could happen at any time.