J.R. Lonie is otherwise known as John Lonie, a screenwriter, playwright and script editor whose credits include some of Australia’s top TV dramas and films. He was head of screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School for seven years, during which he also co-wrote the feature film Kokoda. He is one of the writers on the popular television series, A Place to Call Home. He is presently working on his next novel. He lives in Brisbane.
Words // J.R. Lonie
‘The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a story,’ said John Le Carré. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.’
So, let’s say you, the would-be author, pitch an idea to a publisher. ‘The boy and girl fell in love,’ you say confidently. The publisher would surely reply, ‘So?’ Most likely they’d throw you out for wasting their time. Just before you’re out the door, you might cry, ‘But he’s rich and she’s poor.’ Frankly, I don’t think that would stop your destination. Then, once you’re in the gutter outside, you remember and you call up to the publisher’s [sealed]window, ‘But he’s Australian and she’s Japanese and it’s the 8th December 1941.’
Now you’re talking but alas, too late. You’re in the gutter and it isn’t the stars you’re looking up at. Why didn’t you say that in the first place?
You can see where this is going. The crucial addition to the love part is the timing, 8th December, 1941, the day the Japanese attack. The Pacific war begins.
The reason war is so potent an addition to love is that Eros and Thanatos, the erotic and death, dance macabrely around each other. If you might be killed tomorrow in your Kittyhawk fighter over Wewak or from a Japanese bombing raid on your hospital, the two of you aren’t going to waste any time over the niceties of courtship or that you are Catholic and he’s a Baptist, are you? And war didn’t stop German Jewish men and women and Aryan Germans, even Nazis, falling for each other.
I take this as a starting approach but then go off at a slight tangent.
During the wild nineteen-seventies, a friend of mine was canoodling with his boyfriend on the roof of a King’s Cross block of flats when the aged janitor came upon them. ‘It’s like the bloody war,’ he raged as he chased the miscreants away.
You can get an idea of what love [and sex] were like in wartime by what governments and police did after peace was declared. They immediately declared war on women by shuffling them out of the workforce and back into the bedrooms and they declared war on what they called vice, which covered a host of sins but mostly prostitution and homosexuality.
Now, Eleanor in The Woman from Saint Germain, is no Rosie the Riveter, the WW2 working class cultural icon. She’s upper middle class, an independent woman at a time when this was rare, a mistress no less, not so much a scandal in Paris, but back home in Providence, a huge one. Rather than freeing her from social constraint, however, the German invasion of France initially imprisons her along with the rest of the French. Her lover is killed. Her muse deserts her. She’s in a deep rut. Only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour breaks the evil spell. She’s a patriot and must get home to the US.
But she’s still wealthy, she’s still a Christian, she has an American passport, and she has that can-do attitude, bred into her by her upbringing and education. Going home should be no problem, even if it’s illegal. Yet a single encounter turns her physical journey deadly and most of her props are stripped away. Yet here comes her liberation. Only now can she, the great romantic novelist who is supposed to be an expert, discover real love for the first time and real compassion and feel more alive than she ever has.
Thus the awful paradox. Yes, war is terrible, but if you can survive, war is also exciting, and war is liberating. It’s why so many of that great generation believe the war years were their best. No wonder that we, who live in peace and prosperity because of their sacrifice, are drawn to their stories. You live life to the fullest when you are in imminent danger of losing it.