August 2005



By John Clarke
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ray Parkin told stories, real stories, non-fiction, and he didn’t tell them to amuse or to entertain. He told them to record. Ray wanted you to understand, to know how it was. This was interesting to me because I knew nothing about the Japanese war, or the navy. I was at his place with my daughter one day when a bird tried to fight another bird. She drew his attention to this and Ray said: “You should have seen it this morning. That big one came flying out of that tree straight at the honeyeater and he got her athwartships.” I was learning these stories and I was also learning the way they were told. I was learning a new language, a new terminology.

Laurens van der Post wrote in his foreword to Out of the Smoke, the first of Ray’s three books about being a prisoner of the Japanese, that he had read much of the story years before. This was true. Ray was sitting down drawing in Bandoeng camp in Indonesia one day when van der Post, a fellow POW, introduced himself. He asked Ray who he was and how he came to be there. Ray told him the story: he’d been at the wheel of the HMAS Perth, it was sunk in battle, he and some others got to shore, rigged up a lifeboat, headed for Australia, hit a typhoon and were blown down to Tjilatjap, on the coast of Java, some 11 hours later.

“That’s a great maritime war story,” said van der Post. “That should become a book.”

“It is a book,” said Ray.

“How can it be a book? We’ve only been here a week.”

“I’ve written it all down.”

“I mean it should be bound.”

“It is bound,” said Ray.

“What do you mean it’s bound?”

“I met a bloke who was a bookbinder and he bound it.”

It was written in pencil on small individual sheets of shiny toilet paper. When Ray was moved from camp to camp it fitted in his shoe, down behind his heel. Van der Post explained that he had published books, and he undertook to introduce Ray to his publisher once the war was over. Years later Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, rang Ray in Melbourne. Ray went to England and Hogarth Press printed his book. Cecil Day Lewis was his editor.

“Wasn’t he the poet laureate?” I asked, impressed.

“Yes he was,” said Ray. “But he didn’t change anything in the book.”

I learnt that Ray had been through a great ordeal. And I learnt he was not a racist. He did not hate the Japanese. “That was one of the causes of the war,” he said. “It cannot be the result.” Ray, like Weary Dunlop, was influenced by the East, by the place and the ideas. I sometimes saw Ray asked about his experiences by others, and his responses were seldom what they expected.

“The Burma–Thailand Railway, The Speedo, Hellfire Pass – what was that like?” they’d ask.

“The flowers in that area are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen,” Ray would reply. “We were lucky to be there at that particular time of the year.”

I asked Ray questions too. I learnt more things. I learnt the reason Australians survived better than others in the camps was not that they helped each other and were mates. Ray said the best thing you can do for anyone else in a situation like that is to be completely self-reliant. A few years ago he fell in the garden; it turned out he had a neurological virus with a French name. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t write. He went to a convalescence place. Then one day he told me he thought he might come home next week.

I said: “Do you want to come home next week?”

He said: “I’d want to know I could walk four kilometres, up to Ivanhoe shops and back, so I can do for myself.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Well, I can do three and a half.”

“How do you know?”

“I measured it out around the hospital and I’ve been doing it for a fortnight.” Very self-reliant.

Ray wrote and did drawings all the time he was in captivity. The penalty if you got caught was death. Dunlop, a surgeon, hid a lot of this material inside his operating table and gave it back after the war. One thing I asked Ray about was a series of little drawings of merchant ships. “Oh,” said Ray, “there was an English bloke in one of the camps. He’d been in the merchant navy before the war. After lights out we’d lie there and I’d get him to remember ships he’d seen. Sometimes I’d seen them myself, before the war. Sometimes they were ships I had never seen. I’d ask him to describe the details. Where was the funnel? What colour was it? And then I’d draw it. And then I’d show him the drawing and he’d look at the drawing and he’d say: ‘Yep. That’s it.’”

The drawings were beautiful. The war finished. The camp was liberated. The authorities came around and asked the men to fill out forms naming the commandants and guards who had done these terrible things. Ray called it “name your war criminal”. Anyone listed in the forms was going to be charged with war crimes. “We won’t be here,” thought Ray. “These people will be charged and we’ll be back in Australia. They’ll have no defence. They can’t cross-examine us.”

Ray thought the commandant of this last camp had shown them kindness. Instead of marching them down the beach before they went into the coalmine, he let them walk. Ray was able to pick up flowers and leaves and butterflies. One day the commandant summoned Ray to his office, sent the guard out of the room and gave him a small tin of children’s watercolours. This meant he knew about Ray’s drawings – a summary offence. Maybe it was a trap. But Ray trusted him and took the paints. The commandant called the guard back in and dismissed Prisoner Parkin. Later this same commandant had the prisoners dig a big pit in the yard, but he didn’t shoot them. Each day he’d get them to re-dig it, or to dig an extension on, or something. But he didn’t shoot them.

So when they were liberated, Ray didn’t fill out his form. He drew a picture of the camp and gave it to this man, and he wrote: “To commandant X, with thanks for his kindness, Parkin.” The commandant was later charged with war crimes. Unlike a lot of the others, he wasn’t executed. He had one piece of evidence to present in his defence.

Another thing Ray told me about was Captain James Cook. Ray was a great admirer of Cook’s seamanship and gifts as a navigator. Ray’s neighbour Max Crawford, a history professor at Melbourne University, had asked him various questions about the ship and Ray knew so much about Cook and his voyage that Crawford encouraged him to write it down. He did, recording everything in big foolscap books, each day of the voyage: Cook’s log, Cook’s diary, what Banks wrote, what Parkinson wrote. Then Ray wrote what the ordinary person on board would have experienced that day. Then there were all the exquisite drawings of sails and ropes and equipment, all the charts, all done by Ray.

I said: “This should be published.”

“If you can get it published, good for you,” Ray replied.

H.M. Bark Endeavour was eventually published by The Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Press. In 1999 it won the New South Wales Premier’s Book of the Year award. Ray, who was 88 by this time, enjoyed his success.

After that Ray began to write about his philosophy of life. He saw the world as a whole thing. One day he told me he felt particularly close to Thelma, his late wife, in a couple of places in the garden. I asked him where he met Thelma. “Do you see the way the river comes around that corner there?” he said. “And that bump there, and that tree? Thelma was sitting under that tree when I first saw her.”

“Is that why you bought this piece of land and built the house here?”

“Of course it is.”

Ray searched for a way of understanding the world and the things he’d seen and experienced. He arrived at a Taoist philosophy and a deep respect for nature. The way a tree knows. Where the sun is. Where water is. He remembered being in the small park over the road from the house where he grew up, in Vere Street, Collingwood, and seeing a dragonfly under a leaf, hiding from a bird. They have knowledge, he said. “We have knowledge too, in each cell. We should listen to that knowledge. Not be fooled by desire for things we don’t need.” Scattered among the things he wrote are ideas from the books he read: the Bible, Plato, Freud, Jung, Spinoza, Kant, novels, political works, philosophy. I once asked him what he needed. He said he needed good food twice a day and it was good if he could sleep dry.

A couple of other things gave Ray satisfaction. When he led the Anzac Day parade in Melbourne a few years ago they asked if he wanted a jeep to ride in. “It’s a march,” he replied. “I’ll march.” But he wanted a navy uniform; he didn’t want anyone thinking he was army.

“They won’t give you a uniform,” his son John told him.

“Why not?”

“They gave you one in 1928 and you lost it.” He got one in the end, and marched all the way.

Another satisfying moment came in 1967 when they found HMAS Perth in the Sunda Strait. People had been looking for it for years. They consulted Ray. It was where he said it would be.

“Is there anything you’d like from the ship?” asked Dave Burchell, the diver.

“Yes,” said Ray, and he asked for the save-all from the wheelhouse, where he had been standing during the battle. The save-all is a little scallop-shaped metal holder in which a bosun’s whistle or keys might be put for safekeeping. Burchell did the dive, found the save-all, brought it back and it sat on the wall of Ray’s study. A place for everything. And everything in its place.

Ray Parkin 1910–2005

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