Review in the Canberra Times

The following review appeared in the Canberra Times, 01 December 2012:

Beauty drawn from harsh places

He was best known for his tales of life as a sailor, but Ray Parkin the visual artist also left behind an important body of work, David Ellery writes.

John Clarke, the satirist, author and filmmaker famous for The Games, Clarke and Dawe and ‘‘farnarkling’’, met Ray Parkin during one of Australian television’s golden ages in the 1990s. Following an introduction by The Age’s Martin Flanagan, he had been working with ‘‘Weary’’ Dunlop on a proposed mini-series that would have brought to life the legendary prison camp doctor’s WWII experiences on the Thailand-Burma railway. ‘‘I remember asking ‘Weary, what was it [the camp life] like for the ordinary man?’ ’’ Clarke says. ‘‘Weary thought for a moment and said ‘I’m going to have to introduce you to Ray Parkin.’ ’’

The meeting happened over a memorable Melbourne lunch and the two men quickly established a rapport that blossomed into a decade-long friendship that defied the difference in their ages, experiences and expectations.

Parkin was then best known for a remarkable three-part autobiography Out of the Smoke, Into the Smother and The Sword and the Blossom that described his experiences as a sailor aboard the HMAS Perth in the Mediterranean and Pacific and as a Japanese prisoner of war from 1942 to 1945.

‘‘When you form close friendships with people who are the same generation as your parents, it gets interesting,’’ Clarke says. When Parkin died in 2005, at the age of 94, Clarke delivered one of the eulogies at his funeral. Parkin, while not necessarily a father figure, tremendously impressed the younger man with his strength of character, diversity of intellectual interests and talents, artistic gifts, ability to accept and celebrate the world as he found it and his Taoist philosophy and deep respect for nature.

The ability to find beauty in the most unlikely circumstances is a recurrent feature of many of the former RAN petty officer’s prison camp drawings and positive proof art can provide solace and escape during even the darkest days.

‘‘Ray didn’t have a university education but his bookshelves were full of the works of Plato, Freud, Jung, Spinoza and others,’’ Clarke says. ‘‘He was a very deep thinker.’’

Clarke believes that despite the unimpeachable value of Parkin’s written and visual record of his wartime experiences, they do not represent his greatest contribution to Australian culture. That place is reserved for the remarkable, but little known, book that nearly never saw the light of day – Parkin’s H.M Bark Endeavour which was published by Miegunyah Press in 1997. The work traces Cook’s voyage up the east coast of Australia and brings together log entries and journal notes penned by Cook, Banks and other members of the crew. Its crowning glory is a remarkable collection of drawings and plans that bring the Endeavour alive.

Parkin, like the designers of the Endeavour II, Britain’s Bicentennial gift to Australia, cross referenced the original Admiralty plans with the drawings of the vessel made by drawings of the vessel made by the ship’s artist, Sydney Parkinson, during its remarkable voyage. The ship Cook commanded deviated, in many details, from the original plans. In the 18th century shipbuilding was as much an art as a science and shipwrights had considerable licence.

While Parkin’s interest in the Endeavour was prompted by a desire in 1967 to draw an accurate picture of the ship for a Christmas card, the ultimate Cook book owes its genesis to Melbourne academic Max Crawford. Professor Crawford, a near neighbour, knew of the artist’s fascination with the great navigator and drew heavily on his expertise for his own research. Fearing the knowledge acquired over 13 years of research would be lost when Parkin died, he told the already highly regarded author to ‘‘write it down’’. The project then stalled for more than a decade with nobody willing to take a punt on such a complex, esoteric and apparently academic work.

When, thanks to Clarke’s intervention, Endeavour was picked up by Miegunyah Press, the original 1997 print run was restricted to 1000 copies and aimed at the collectors’ market. It was a quiet sensation. It walked off the shelves at $150 a copy and in 1998 the retired Melbourne docks tally clerk won the NSW Premier’s non-fiction prize for literature two years shy of his 90th birthday. A single volume edition was published in hardcover in 2003 and a paperback single volume edition followed in 2006.

Clarke is not alone in the value he places on Endeavour. Nat Williams, the director of exhibitions at The National Library of Australia, says Parkin’s attention to detail was remarkable and that the institution’s three copies of the first edition sit well with its highly regarded Captain Cook collection that includes the great navigator’s journal from his first voyage.

Williams is confident the work will still be relevant to students of Cook’s voyages 1000 years from now presuming it, and the library, survive that long. ‘‘I was going through the drawings (in Parkin’s work) last night and they are just incredible; even down to counting the number of strands in a hemp rope,’’ he said. ‘‘If anything the Endeavour drawings are a more significant legacy than the PoW drawings. There are other drawings from the prison camps but the scholarship in Endeavour is unique.’’

While Parkin modestly regarded his Endeavour pictures as the work of a draughtsman, both Clarke and Williams are adamant they are art. ‘‘There is personality; and what an eye for detail,’’ Williams says. ‘‘The pictures qualify as an eye for detail,’’ Williams says. ‘‘The pictures qualify as artistic renderings even though the purpose is documentary. This was an extraordinary project.’’

These views are not intended to belittle the magnitude of Parkin’s achievements as a sailor and a survivor, however. The difference is that those experiences were shared with others; the Endeavour achievement is Parkin’s and Parkin’s alone.

Pattie Wright’s Ray Parkin’s Odyssey, the biography released last month, pays full homage to this rich, varied collection of experience, which began with his birth, on November 6, 1910. Parkin, who joined the Royal Australian Navy days after he turned 18 in 1928, had married in 1934 and, on the eve of the war in July 1939, became a member of the commissioning crew of HMAS Perth at Portsmouth in England. She was one of Australia’s three state-of-the-art Leander class six-inch cruisers that were to prove tireless workhorses during WWII. Of the three only HMAS Hobart survived the war. The Sydney was sunk by the German raider, the Kormoran.

On June 7, 1940, HMAS Perth became for a short time the flagship of Canberra’s Rear Admiral Crace and the Australian Squadron.

Less than a year later she was in the Mediterranean and, on May 30, 1941, was hit by a 250-kilogram armour piercing bomb while evacuating 1188 men from Crete.

Captain ‘‘Fighting Hec’’ Waller assumed command in October while the damaged vessel was undergoing a refit in Sydney. Less than five months later she was sunk on March 1, 1942, in the Battle of Sunda Strait. Waller went down with his ship and Parkin, the helmsman, was one of the last crew members to leave.

He surrendered to the Japanese, along with other survivors who attempted unsuccessfully to sail to freedom, on March 16 and went on to endure 31⁄2 years of hell at Changi, on the railway and in Japan. On August 9, 1945, he was an eyewitness to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; fortunately from a distance of 100 kilometres.

On Australia Day 2000 Parkin was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to Australian literature through his autobiographical works and H.M Bark Endeavour. He died on June 19, 2005. His last words: ‘‘I’ve had enough, I want to go’’.