Dunedin-based Christopher Worth was a partner with the chartered accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, later PricewaterhouseCoopers, for 18 years. During that time Chris and his family transferred to Moscow where he spent seven years as a Senior Audit Partner with the firm. After his return he became a contract practice reviewer for the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants and undertook contract assignments for several accounting practices.
The Second World War has always held a powerful fascination for Chris, dating back to his early school days.
“The war’s aftermath shaped the world I grew up in, as it still does,” he says. “Very few of those who went remain with us. I would like to think that in this book the reader might recognise something of their own father or grandfather.
“I wanted to write a book that would keep the history of the ANZACs alive for future generations.”
ABOUT CHRIS – interview
What was it about growing up in NZ that got you interested in the Second World War?
My parents sent both their sons to John McGlashan College in Dunedin. We were not a wealthy family, my mother did not have a paid job until I was at high school, so the fees were a real sacrifice. That was the thing about that generation, at least as I experienced it, they were prepared to sacrifice all to achieve a better life for their children.
McGlashan wasn’t an old school, but it had some traditions. School Anzac services often included Kipling’s poem “Recessional” sung to the tune of “For those in peril on the sea”. The poem gave rise to our modern expression of remembrance “Lest we forget” and the line “On dune and headland sinks the fire,” sung in the chapel by the whole school, with every boy singing “sings” instead of “sinks,” sent shivers down the spine of an impressionable small boy.
The 1960s was still a time of patriotism and, yes, jingoism. We all joined organisations like the Boys’ Brigade or Boy Scouts, both rooted in British Empire virtues of God, King and Country. We read “War Picture Library” and “Battle” comics, which came out every month, I think. Many of these were stories of real events, illustrated in best lurid black and white comic book style. And the goodies always won.
The Second World War has always held a powerful fascination for me. Books like Eric Williams’ slightly fictionalised story of his own escape from POW camp “The Wooden Horse” and Alistair McLean’s novel “The Guns of Navarone” were being published in the late forties or fifties and turned into movies in the early sixties. They were very popular and widely read.
I won a school prize one year and was allowed to choose the book: “Barry and the Hurricane Squadron” by Stephen Mogridge. My brother Geoff chose a book called “The Shetland Bus” by David Howarth another year, which was doubly meaningful for us as my mother’s maternal family all came from the Shetlands.
The nation’s memories were still raw during that time, especially the early ones. Anzac Day was very solemn. Many people were still affected by the memory of those who did not come home from a war which had finished less than 20 years before. Very few of those who went remain with us. I would like to think that in this book the reader might recognise something of their own father or grandfather.
Add to all of that, the war’s aftermath shaped the world we grew up in, as it still does. When we were boys it was still only possible to do your “OE” by getting on a ship for six weeks and travelling to the other side of the world. Even in 1982, on our honeymoon trip from London before we came back to New Zealand, Vienna was as far east as you could easily travel. What lay beyond the “Iron Curtain” was a mystery inhabited by spies like James Bond.
What made you interested in this particular story? Why did you write it?
When I did my own OE in the early 1980s I had read a lot about the war. Naturally, I wanted to see some of the places for myself. One of them was Crete, because at least the basic outlines of what happened there was pretty well known at home. Having not really done any research, though, I went to the wrong end of the island from New Zealand’s perspective, to Heraklion.
I stayed a few days in a room in a lady’s house. My most vivid memory of that entire trip was her face when I gave her my passport: she looked at me as if I were God, and said “Aah, Niazelandi.” I have never forgotten her, nor the bottle of orange juice she left in my room every day.
Later in life, we were fortunate to visit Crete as a family when we were living in Moscow. We spent a sublime fortnight in a little family-run resort a stone’s throw from Maleme Airfield, overlooked by the huge German war cemetery on top of the hill above. Later still, Niki and I had a fabulous holiday in Greece itself, staying for a week at both Marathon and Patra. We did a lot of exploring and many of the places that appear in the Rabbit Hunter came from that holiday.
My children knew nothing of the events that happened in these places, and the links to our own country. I had long harboured an ambition to write a book. I tried to give them some idea of their own historical heritage. They were far too young to be interested, but the idea began to take shape.
When we came back to New Zealand in 2002 I did not have as job. I decided to take the idea of writing a book a bit further and enrolled in a creative writing course run by Diane Brown the following year. The class were introduced to a very formative version of Neil Rankin and some of the other characters.
Why a novel? Why not a history?
Good question. The idea of a novel either came from the writing exercises in the fiction writing course or was the reason I did the course. I don’t really remember which.
However, there aren’t many veterans left. I think the historical novel is the ideal way for fictional characters to stand in as proxies for the actual people who went. And while the sequence and place of events is largely accurate, fictional characters are able to do things and go places out of sequence or that happened somewhere else to someone else.
If I have done the job right, then my hope is that the reader is able to recognise the voices as being of people they know or knew, perhaps members of their own family, and imagine them in the circumstances and places faced by the characters in the book. So, the fictional story becomes personal to the reader. In this way, I hope that the history becomes more accessible.
The novel is written entirely from the point of view of Neil Rankin. The reader can only know what he knows. There may be a number of loose ends as a result, things that he cannot know. Some of these may be known to the reader, because of subsequent events. One thing about war I have discovered is that events don’t always happen as you might imagine, and people don’t always behave the way you would think.
The story of New Zealand’s involvement in the Battle of Greece is not well known, I think because it was a military failure and totally overshadowed by the events that followed. But there are real war cemeteries, with real New Zealanders’ graves, and many others spent the rest of the war in a POW camp as a result. For these soldiers, their active war finished with the first engagement.
Historically it was the first time in the war that the New Zealand Division was deployed as a complete unit, and for most of the men there, it was their first experience of on-the-ground combat with the enemy.