Thursday, 16 August 2018

WILLIAM NAGLE The Odd Angry Shot (1975)

Angus & Robertson Publishers first Australian edition, 1975

'Lost his left leg and hip,' answers the medic closest to me.
  'And his balls,' says the other medic not taking his eyes off the huge burn dressings he is using to try and stem the blood flow.
  'Will he make it?' asks the captain.  I notice that two watery lines are drawn on his dusty face.
  'Not if Jesus came down and held the saline bottle himself,' mumbles the other medic from behind clenched teeth.
  The dying face; tears pouring, nose running, blood spitting. Remember when you thought, what if he does make it, what if they give him a nice new tin leg and get him on his feet again, how do you tell some randy typist that you're sorry you can't screw her because you lost your manhood on a dirty road in a place called grid reference one-eighty-three-one-nine-six?  She'll look sorry in her sweet suburban way and she'll be busy the next time you ask her out:
  'Sorry I have to wash my hair,' or 'I'm having dinner with my girlfriends'… Excuses, excuses.
  Half a man.  And so much more of a man than the smug bastards safe at home who stand in the streets and scream to stop the war.  Ask him if he'd like to stop the war, smug bastards.  At least he came.  No fair weather protests for him.  And you knew that every dust-covered, sweaty one of you on that road that day felt the same way…
  'We've lost him,' says one of the medics, standing up and wiping the blood from his hands in a piece of burn dressing.  Remember, you almost felt glad for him.  In fact you did.

The Novel:  Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, the United States did not fight the Vietnam War singlehandedly.  The US was one of nine countries belonging to the South East Asia Treaty Organisation –– the others being Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia –– all of which sent troops and advisors to battle the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese Army and its clandestine guerrilla offshoot the Viet Cong.  Australia and New Zealand were America's largest western allies, with Australia sending a total of 7672 troops to assist US/South Vietnamese ground forces, beginning in 1962 with the deployment of 30 specialized military advisors and ending in 1970 with Australia's withdrawal from the conflict, a process not fully completed until 1973.  A total of 521 Australian troops were killed in the war, with more than 3000 having been wounded in action –– small numbers compared with the more than 58,000 American service personnel estimated to have lost their lives, but a significant number to the men themselves and, of course, to their heartbroken friends and families.

As it did in the United States, the war polarized Australia's civilian population, many of whom believed the country should not have been supporting a US-backed war of political aggression to begin with.  The introduction of conscription by Prime Minister Robert Menzies in 1965 –– Menzies was a longtime puppet of the US Government who had been obeying its orders more or less without question since World War Two –– saw the outbreak of widespread public protests across the nation, often on its university campuses as had been the case on politically charged American campuses like Kent State University in Ohio and the University of California in Berkeley.  Like their US counterparts, returning Australian servicemen were often treated with contempt by their countrymen, many of whom accused them of 'complicity' for having 'agreed' to fight in an unpopular and ultimately futile war.  It was not until October 1987 that these veterans were honoured with their own 'Welcome Home' parade.  Only in 1992 was their sacrifice officially recognised with the construction of the Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra.

Film Poster, 1979
Now that you've (hopefully) read this background information, please take a moment to go back and re-read the passage which opens this post and marvel, as I do, at how brilliantly William Nagle was able to capture the physical and psychological reality of the Australian experience in Vietnam.  He gives you the horror of war without overdoing it, juxtaposing its immediate impact with its long-term medical and social ramifications, presented as a memory being experienced in the field by his unnamed narrator.  What makes this even more remarkable as a piece of imaginative writing is that The Odd Angry Shot was published in 1975, a scant two years after Australia's final withdrawal from the conflict when most Australians, civilians as well as military personnel, were rushing to put the raw and still very painful memory of it as far behind them as possible.

Nagle handles the flow of time just as skilfully, showing us how expectations and attitudes change as his narrator's tour of duty progresses and the idea of professionalism –– these men are career soldiers, not conscripts whose naivete they occasionally deride –– gives way to the desire for survival at any cost.  The language is minimal, even terse at times, but it's as though Nagle is asking us to read between the lines, to imagine fears and horrors which can only be endured by adopting a flippant attitude to the fragility of life and the ever-present prospect of death.  There's none of the bravado or drug-tinged weirdness which so often characterizes Hollywood's efforts to come to grips with the US serviceman's experience of the war.  These are normal scared men who have to trust each other because trusting each other is the only insurance they have against catastrophe, good mates who have a job to do and go about it with a mixture of humour, larrikinism, pragmatism and sometimes brutal honesty.  No one wants to be a hero.  No one is trying to win a medal.  They simply want to do their job and end the war so they can go back to the pubs and the girls and a life where tinea isn't the constant bane of their existence and the chance to be ambushed by the 'nogs' while they're out on patrol in the jungle will no longer be an ongoing daily threat.  

What soldier anywhere, it could reasonably be argued, wants anything else?  Soldiers fight because governments (or would-be governments in the case of rogue organisations like Islamic State) expect them to unquestioningly obey orders and refuse to tolerate even the slightest hint of dissent.  But wars are not won by politicians any more than they're won by opinion polls.  That job is always left to the enlisted men and to officers who, if the troops they command are lucky, are smart enough not to get them slaughtered.

The Odd Angry Shot is both a moving depiction of Australia's all too quickly forgotten past and a timely reminder that, for many Australian personnel still serving in the Middle East, war remains a grim everyday occurrence while the rest of us go about the mundane business of paying our bills, complaining about our jobs and barracking for our favourite football teams.  It's a short, impressionistic novel that cries out to be rediscovered not just by Australians but by a world all too eager to let bullets, bombs and mortar shells replace common sense and the increasingly threatened diplomatic arts of negotiation and mutually beneficial compromise. 

The Writer:  William Lawrence Nagle was born in the Victorian town of Bacchus Marsh on 4 June 1947 and later attended Geelong Grammar School, which he left in August 1964 to enlist in the Australian army.  Following basic training, he attended the Army Basic Cooking Course from which he graduated as a field cook in 1965.  In June 1966, having passed courses in parachuting and navigating, he was sent to Vietnam as a member of the elite Special Air Service regiment.

In Vietnam, Nagle was disciplined by his superiors for the ludicrous charge of refusing to prepare an egg custard when requested to do so by one of them.  This earned him a 14 day sentence in the guardhouse along with an accompanying forfeiture of pay.  He returned to Australia in March 1967 and requested a transfer from the Catering Corps to the Royal Australian Infantry, in which he served as a signaller until his request for a permanent discharge was granted on 12 September 1968.

Following his discharge, Nagle worked in television and as a member of the Melbourne Theatre Company, which he continued to do until the publication of his only novel, The Odd Angry Shot, in 1975.  The book, which received positive reviews and went on to win the 1975 National Book Council Award, was written in just six days, Nagle going without sleep and regular meals to get it down on paper before his memories of the war faded along with the desire to write of what he'd experienced.

Although he never wrote another novel, Nagle was the author of the screenplays Death of a Soldier (1986) and co-author, with Tony Johnston, of The Siege of Firebase Gloria (1989), both of which also deal with the Vietnam War.  He died in Los Angeles, California on 5 March 2002, having moved there some years previously in order to work in the US film and television industries. 

The Odd Angry Shot (1975) was re-published by Text Classics Australia in 2013.  Click HERE to purchase a copy of the book in print and digital formats.

The Text Publishing Company Australia, 2013

The cinematic adaptation of The Odd Angry Shot, directed by TOM JEFFREY and starring GRAHAM KENNEDY, JOHN JARRATT, JOHN HARGRAVES, BRYAN BROWN, GRAEME BLUNDELL, IAN GILMOUR and RICHARD MOIR, was released by Village Roadshow on 1 March 1979.  The film was last released on DVD in 2013 in both Region 1 (US) and Region 4 (Australia) formats and can be purchased by clicking HERE and HERE.

Reel DVD Australia, 2013

You can also click HERE to read a post about the film, illustrated with many of its production stills, on the excellent Australian film website OzMovies

You might also enjoy: 
DAVID IRELAND The Glass Canoe (1976) 
CHARMIAN CLIFT Peel Me A Lotus (1959)
JAMES JONES To The End of the War (2011)

Thursday, 9 August 2018


The Victorians had the courage to be dull, and through this dullness they achieved effects that are impossible for our contemporaries.  The modern novel, whatever it may not be, is a live and moving thing; so live and moving that it does not satisfy.  It is a series of fireworks that dazzle and bewilder and exhaust.

On Doing What One Likes (1926)

Click HERE to read the full essay On Doing What One Likes (1926) by ALEC WAUGH (brother of fellow British novelist EVELYN WAUGH) posted on the excellent and always informative Neglected Books website.

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WRITERS ON WRITING #101: Kingsley Amis
WRITERS ON WRITNG #72: Badryah Al-Bishr 
WRITERS ON WRITING #51: Marianne Moore 

Thursday, 2 August 2018

GRANT SNIDER The Writer's Retreat (2014)

Reposted from the blog INCIDENTAL COMICS
© 2014 Grant Snider
Click HERE to visit INCIDENTAL COMICS, the wonderful blog of US cartoonist GRANT SNIDER.  You can also click HERE to read a July 2017 GRANT SNIDER interview by JEFFREY KINDLEY on the website of The Los Angeles Review of Books and HERE to order a copy of his book The Shape of Ideas: An Illustrated Exploration of Creativity (published by Abrams ComicArts in April 2017).

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GRANT SNIDER How To Make Write (2013)
GRANT SNIDER The Many Faces of the Novel (2014)

Thursday, 26 July 2018

THINK ABOUT IT #39: Áine Ní Laoghaire

There is rarely any discussion of the minutiae of daily life as an artist, dancer or writer.  About the empty blank page, or the first line in a script to be read out loud.  The tiny, terrifying steps it takes to begin, reshape and then present any type of creation to a casually dismissive world.  But each of those tiny steps is where the joy lives –– the strangely challenging joy that convinces us to search for the next change in pitch, to sit for hours waiting for the right word to arrive, to repeat a page of lines out loud over and over until something about it clicks and then flows.  It’s that moment that gives you the momentum to push forward, further into discovery… Some days it comes more easily, some days it doesn’t come at all. Those days are where the famed torture lurks.  But the decision to keep searching, not the suffering, is what makes an artist.  It’s not as seductive as a concept, the artist as hard worker, but it’s more approachable, more do-able, than the artist as inspired genius.

Interview in The Irish Times [17 July 2015]

Click HERE to read the full 2015 article by actor and performer ÁINE Ní LAOGHAIRE in the online version of The Irish Times.

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THINK ABOUT IT #34: Ethel Barrymore
THINK ABOUT IT #33: Anonymous  
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Thursday, 19 July 2018

WRITERS ON WRITING #110: Anthony Burgess

There is more waste and frustration in the professional writer’s life than the mere reading public can know about.  Commissions are sometimes accepted and then found impossible of fulfilment.  I have known writers who have worked hard on the documentation of a life of Lloyd George or Marie Antoinette and even completed several hundred pages of a first draft, only to find that the machine will no longer go –– a lack of temperamental fuel, an inability to steer, a sudden shocking boredom with the whole journey.  One is not paid for work wasted, though one’s literary agent may be.  It is right to return an advance to the commissioning publisher, but it is dangerous to accept the advance in the first place.  It feels like money earned because time and energy have been expended.  But work is not necessarily a work.  Appalled at waste, a writer will sometimes push on hopelessly to complete a book that he needs no reviewer to tell him is abysmally bad.  The need to earn generates guilt, and guilt is partially dissolved in alcohol:  that is where a good deal of the unearned advance tends to go.

You've Had Your Time (1990)

Click HERE to visit the website of THE INTERNATIONAL ANTHONY BURGESS FOUNDATION, an English-based organization which 'encourages and supports public and scholarly interest in all aspects of the life and work of Anthony Burgess.'  It also operates a museum/performance space in his home town of Manchester.

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POET OF THE MONTH #33: Anthony Burgess
WRITERS ON WRITING #32: Anthony Burgess
WRITERS ON WRITING #90: Ford Madox Ford