A remarkable man

RAY PARKIN TOLD stories. He wasn’t exactly the Ancient Mariner, but there was an insistence and a very steady eye about the way he did it. It was Ray’s way of passing on what he knew and what he wanted you to understand. Some of the stories described things he’d known since childhood, and were based on observations about nature; others were lessons he’d learned from later experience. Many of them were about the Second World War. Ray would argue that his stories and the images that illustrated them were non-fiction – they were simply a record of what happened. This wasn’t entirely convincing; a significant aspect of the stories was what they told us about the storyteller.

Ray entered the navy in 1928 and joined the light cruiser HMAS Perth when it was commissioned in 1936. During the war, the ship saw active service in the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans. After the terrible battles of Greece and Crete, the ship’s captain, who was English, was promoted to a higher command. Ray heard him ruminating on the bridge about his respect for the Australian crew.

‘I’ve never known such men,’ he said. ‘What I’d really like to do is invite all of them to dinner on the captain’s deck. But there’s not enough room for the whole crew and I’d want them all there.’ The Australians respected this man; his fine judgment and seamanship had zigzagged and smoke-screened them through the blistering German sea and air attacks, which had sunk many of the other Allied ships during the evacuations.

‘Can I make a suggestion, sir?’ asked Ray.

‘Yes,’ replied the captain.

‘Have you thought of asking the men if you can come to their deck for dinner?’

After the Battle of Java in 1942, HMAS Perth and USS Houston were the only large Allied ships to have survived, and had put into the Indonesian port of Tanjung Priok for supplies. When they returned to the open sea they encountered a number of Japanese ships, and after another fierce battle they were disabled and sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait. HMAS Perth’s new captain, Hector Waller, and two thirds of the ship’s crew were killed in the action. Ray and some other survivors made it to shore, where they rigged up a lifeboat and headed out to sea again in an attempt to reach Australia. They were hit by a typhoon and blown east. After eleven hours at sea they came ashore at Tjilatjap, on the coast of Java, where they walked straight into Japanese captivity.

Ray spent the rest of the war in prison camps in Bandoeng (now Bandung) in Indonesia, at Changi in Singapore, on the Thai–Burma Railway, and in Japan. Throughout these years he kept a diary and made drawings in secret. Were he to have been discovered, the penalty was summary execution.

When Ray talked about this remarkable experience, I listened. I knew very little about the war in the Pacific, or about the navy. My father was in the army, his service split between the North African desert and Italy. Ray regarded the navy as the senior service and the army as a commendable, but relatively recent, development.

I was at his house in Ivanhoe with my daughter one day, when a wattlebird flew into a bush and attacked a honeyeater. She pointed it out to Ray, who said, ‘Yes, 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.’ Listening to Ray’s stories involved learning a new way of using language, injecting it with naval terminology.

RAY WROTE THREE books about the sinking of the HMAS Perth and being a prisoner of the Japanese. The first of them, Out of the Smoke (Hogarth Press, 1960), has a foreword by Laurens van der Post in which he recalls having met Ray in 1942, when they were both prisoners. Ray was sitting and doing some drawings in Bandoeng camp when van der Post introduced himself, admired the drawings and asked Ray how he came to be there. Ray told him the story of the Battle of Sunda Strait, the survival in the burning sea, the regrouping ashore, the attempt to reach Australia in a small boat and the storm that delivered them into enemy hands.

‘That’s a great maritime war story,’ said van der Post. ‘You should write that down.’

‘Yes I’ve done that,’ said Ray. ‘It’s written down.’

‘I mean it should become a book,’ said van der Post.

‘Yes. It is a book,’ Ray replied.

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

‘I met a bloke in the camp here, who was a bookbinder, and he bound it for me.’

‘Can I see it?’

Ray showed his careful project to van der Post. It was written in pencil on small individual sheets of shiny toilet paper, sewn together at the spine. When Ray was moved from camp to camp it fitted in his shoe, down behind his heel. Van der Post explained that he had written books, and he took it upon himself to introduce Ray to his publisher once the war was over. Years later, when Ray was a tally clerk on the Melbourne waterfront, he received a phone call from Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia. Woolf was Laurens van der Post’s publisher and had been told about the book. Ray went to England, where Out of the Smoke, Into the Smother (1963) and The Sword and The Blossom (1968) were published by Hogarth Press, with Cecil Day-Lewis as his editor.

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

‘Yes he was,’ said Ray. ‘But he didn’t change anything in the books.’

Like his friend Weary Dunlop, Ray had been through a great ordeal and, like Weary, he harboured no racial prejudice. He did not hate the Japanese.

‘That was one of the causes of the war,’ he said. ‘It cannot be the result.’ Both men were influenced by the East – by the place and the ideas they were exposed to there. I sometimes witnessed others ask Ray about his experiences, and his responses were seldom what they expected.

‘You worked on the Burma–Thailand Railway didn’t you?’ they asked.

‘That’s right,’ said Ray

‘You were there for the whole time, including during the Speedo, in Hellfire Pass, where so many men died.’


‘What was that like?’ they’d ask.

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

Ray said that the reason Australians survived better than others in the camps was not that they helped each other and were mates; in fact, he said the best thing you can do for anyone else in a situation like that is be completely self-reliant. A few years ago he fell over in his garden and could hardly move. It turned out he had a neurological virus with a French name. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t write. After a period in intensive care, he went to a convalescence centre. Then one day, he told me he thought he might come home next week.

‘Do you want to come home next week?’ I asked.

‘I’d want to know I could walk four kilometres, up to the Ivanhoe shops and back, so I can do for myself,’ he replied.

‘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.’

This was a very self-reliant man.

WHEN RAY WAS taken further north by the Japanese, to work as forced labour in a coal mine under the inland sea in Japan, Weary Dunlop took a lot of Ray’s prison diaries and artwork and hid them inside a false base in his operating table. Ray didn’t see them again until he returned to Australia after the war. Among them was a series of little drawings of merchant ships.

‘Oh yes,’ 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 provide a beautiful record of these conversations.

When the war finished and the camp was liberated, the authorities came around and asked the men to fill out forms describing the appalling treatment they’d endured and naming the commandants and guards who had done these terrible things. Ray called it ‘Name Your War Criminal’. He realised that 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 each morning, he let them walk at leisure and 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, having written on it: ‘To Commandant X, with thanks for his kindness, Prisoner 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 neighbor, Max Crawford, was a history professor at Melbourne University and had asked him various questions about the ship. Ray knew so much about Cook and his voyage that Crawford encouraged him to write it down, which he did. He recorded the whole voyage in big foolscap books, covering each day of it – Cook’s log, Cook’s diary, what Banks wrote, what Parkinson wrote. He also wrote about what the average person on board would have experienced in the course of each day. There were also the exquisite drawings he made of sails and ropes and equipment, and all of the charts – all done by Ray.

‘This should be published,’ I said to him.

‘If you can get it published, good for you,’ Ray replied.

H.M. Bark Endeavour: Her Place in Australian History (1997) 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 eighty-eight by this time, thoroughly enjoyed its success.

After that, Ray began writing about his philosophy of life. It was not always clear to me whether the world had a kind of order for Ray, or his philosophy was imposing one on it. One day, he told me that he felt particularly close to Thelma, his late wife, in a couple of places in the garden. I asked him where he met Thelma and he pointed down to the Yarra River at the bottom of the property.

‘Do you see the way the river comes around that corner there, and that bump there, and that tree?’ he asked. ‘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 had arrived at a Taoist position that expressed a deep respect for nature. He spoke about the way a tree has knowledge: it knows where the sun is and 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 it was that he needed.

‘Yes’, he replied, ‘I found that out in the camps. I need good food twice a day and it’s better if I sleep dry’.

A handful of other moments 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.

‘No thanks’ he replied. ‘It’s a march. 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 event came in 1967, when they found HMAS Perth in the Sunda Strait. People had been looking for it for years and someone eventually consulted Ray. It was where he said it would be.

‘Is there anything you’d like from the ship?’ asked Dave Burchell, the diver who was to explore the wreckage.

‘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 small, 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 and brought it back to Ray, who sat it on the wall of his study. A place for everything. And everything in its place.


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