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Australian Writers No One Reads: Peter Kocan

cartoon by Chris Grosz

The first in a series of guest posts by James Morrison on Australian writers. James blogs as Caustic Cover Critic and publishes fine forgotten books under his Whisky Priest imprint.

No one outside Australia reads Peter Kocan, and even in Australia his past often overshadows his literary achievements. In 1966, when Kocan was a 19-year-old factory worker, his history of mental illness came to a head with a determination to be remembered for murdering someone important. He chose Arthur Calwell, leader of Labor, the more left-leaning of Australia’s two main political parties, who was campaigning in the run-up to a federal election.

Calwell had just finished addressing a Sydney rally against conscription for the war in Vietnam, and was leaving in his car. When Kocan approached him Calwell began to wind down his window, assuming the young man was a well-wisher. Instead, Kocan produced a gun and pulled the trigger.

newspaper photograph

Australian politics and crime novelist Shane Maloney writes:

The bullet, fired from a sawn-off rifle, shatters the window of [Calwell’s] car, spattering him with broken glass and bullet fragments. His would-be assassin drops the gun and runs away. He is chased, caught and overpowered without further incident. […] The Opposition leader, in shock and bleeding from the face, has narrowly escaped death. Deflected on impact with the window, the bullet has lodged in the lapel of his coat. The gunman is declared criminally insane, sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. His victim sends him a letter of forgiveness and returns to the election campaign, in which national security is a major issue. When Labor is thrashed at the polls, he is compelled to cede the leadership to his younger, charismatic deputy. […]In the asylum, a fellow inmate introduced [Kocan] to the works of Rupert Brooke. He began to study literature, philosophy and history, and to write poetry. Two of his collections were published while he was still locked up, and his subsequent work draws on his experience of psychosis and imprisonment. [via]

"The shooting logic was in the air at the time," Kocan has explained, referring to the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, Hendrik Verwoerd and Malcolm X. "Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what’s around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different. Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting,I assumed I’d be cut down in a hail of bullets."

Released in 1976, Kocan continued to write poetry, and also began writing a fictionalised version of his life in the brilliant novellas The Treatment (1980), The Cure (1983) and the novel Fresh Fields (2004). These books have earned him numerous awards, including two from the News South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and one from the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards—all premiers who belonged to Calwell’s Labor Party.


The Social Workers (a poem by Peter Kocan)

Hyenas will encourage a stampede

To see which ailing zebra falls behind.

They’re nature’s social workers, and inclined

To feel most altruistic when they feed.


Top image: Chris Grosz cartoon
Newspaper photograph from CC Mosman Library, New South Wales
Photo of Peter Kocan by Vincent Long

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    Riffle has its own list of Australian mustreads. You should click HERE to check it out!
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