Anne Deveson was a highly regarded journalist, film-maker and human rights activist who died late last year. Her last book was a memoir titled Waging Peace and was published in 2013. Anne Deveson was a groundbreaker in many ways. She helped Australian society grapple with serious issues that people experienced silently such as mental illness, poverty and abuse. As I expected this book caused me to think.
Deveson was born into a family of the British Empire. Her father lived in the colony of Malaya as a rubber planter while Deveson spent her early childhood in England. Her comfortable life was upturned when World War II was declared. She was nine years old.
France fell to the Nazis in the middle of 1940. England was alone and bombs rained down on the cities and towns throughout the country. Deveson’s father was working in Malaya, far away from the hostilities. It was prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the British still thought the sun would not set on their empire. Deveson’s father urged his family to flee to the safety of Malaya so Deveson, her brother and mother left England on a passenger ship. Their ship was part of a convoy that sailed through dangerous waters hoping to escape the German U-boats circling the British Isles. They arrived safely in Malaya but a few months later they had to evacuate again, this time to Australia.
The first part of Waging Peace was intensely personal for me. The Deveson family were very similar to my family. Just three months after the Deveson’s sailed away from England my grandmother, fourteen-year-old aunt and my father, who was a toddler, also fled England by ship.
I generally read memoirs to learn about people very different from me, but after reading Waging Peace I now realise that another reason to read memoirs is to read about people like us who explore shared difficult experiences we do not talk about. My father had no memory of the journey to Australia and did not understand the anxieties of his mother and sister were as they settled in a seaside suburb of Sydney. They were living there when the Japanese submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. They also had to deal with deaths in the family they left behind in England. Their trauma and disruption was not spoken about but its effects reverberated throughout their lives.
I gulped down the first part of Waging Peace. Deveson’s book felt like a substitute for that conversation I never had with my aunt about her wartime experiences. But as much as Deveson’s family was like my own, each person brings their own unique qualities to similar situations and responds differently. Waging Peace is about how Anne Deveson drew on her experiences of war to question our acceptance of the role of war in our world.
After ‘Encountering War’ the reader meets Deveson’s adult life in ‘Seeking Peace’, the second part of her book. For someone who was a teenager during the later period of the peace movement and who in her adolescent eyes dismissed the ‘peace please’ sentiment and nuclear-free zones of older people as unrealistic, the arguments of the second part of the book made me reconsider my younger, dismissive attitude.
The simple slogans of the peace campaigners hid complex experiences and thoughts. Deveson seemed to be aware of this perception. While she writes simply and engagingly, she embeds profound ideas:
A peaceful world can exist only if we recognise the interdependent nature of humankind. As with all relationships, our future lies in collaboration and understanding rather than coercion and exploitation. This, I believe, is realism rather than unachievable idealism.
Waging Peace is a parting message from an older generation to the next. Deveson came from a generation who saw wars too often. “Peace is not just the ending of war nor the space between wars” argues Deveson, “it lies in the joy of ordinary living …”. Deveson is not prescriptive but asks us to consider her arguments.
Anne Deveson and other peace campaigners of her generation trod that difficult path of walking the talk. Deveson risked disapproval by raising issues in public that needed to be addressed such as homelessness, mental illness and domestic violence. She exposed herself to danger and discomfort by reporting from war zones. She was a prominent woman and while she does not dwell on it, would have had many difficulties as a trailblazer.
What is most striking is Anne Deveson’s optimism about the world at the end of her life. She saw significant progress in addressing deep-seated problems and a change in consciousness about many issues. Every day we become absorbed in the minutiae of deeply depressing, destructive behaviour which traumatises too many. We become lost in it. Deveson saw and experienced much trauma but she maintained perspective. Her positive view of the world in 2013 should make us pause and reconsider our despair now. A longer-term view affords better insight than that given by the 24-hour news cycle.
Waging Peace is not a regular memoir. As I read I wondered how I should describe it. Deveson wrote about her life, but not with the level of introspection we commonly associate with memoirs. A seven-year relationship which did not succeed is given a couple of sentences. She does not write about the whys and wherefores of her stellar career. Her partners are acknowledged but we don’t learn about them.
I have belatedly realised that the memoir is a wide-ranging genre. Historian, Janine Rizzetti categorised memoirs by subject matter in her roundup of histories, memoirs and biographies reviewed in April for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. But Waging Peace does not fit into those categories. Recently on her blog at Whispering Gums, Sue reviewed Jill Roe’s last book, Our Fathers Cleared the Bush. In an interesting review which explored the style and the form of the book, Sue described it as “an amalgam of memoir/family history, regional history and historiography”.
The publisher, Allen & Unwin, describes Waging Peace as a “memoir of experiences and ideas”. I think of Waging Peace as a ‘thematic memoir’. It has a greater purpose than simply telling the story of the author’s life. Anne Deveson shares her life only as much as is needed to explore her thoughts about her theme, peace. “One person’s lifetime is a useful frame in which to explore change”, Deveson wrote. The subtitle explains it well. This book truly is “reflections on peace and war from an unconventional woman”.
Deveson was a skilled writer. The narrative, especially in the first part, is fast-paced. I did not agree with all that Anne Deveson said in this book, but that is not the point. This book succeeded because it made me think. It shows that it is possible to promote deep thought even when the writing style is easy to read.
Anne Deveson discusses Waging Peace in an interview on YouTube – it is well worth watching!