A self-made history man looks at war

January 22, 2016

A History Man's Past & Other People's Stories: A Shared Memoir. Part One: Other People's Wars
By John Tognolini
2015, 160 pages
pb $24, ebook $5
Order the book

John Tognolini's fourth book, A History Man's Past & Other People's Stories: A Shared Memoir, Part One: Other People's Wars, is not a brief title. Had the book come via a mainstream publisher and gone through the hands of a marketing person, rather than the ebook self-publishing manner in which Tognolini publishes, it would no doubt have had a less cumbersome heading.

But Tognolini does not operate this way, and if I was asked to name a favourite Australian radical/commentator/author, I would probably bypass the famous and the well-known and nominate “John Tognolini”.

The “history man” of the title is Tognolini. He has a passion for history from a leftist perspective. He is a secondary school history teacher in rural New South Wales. This book is a collection of his writings and interviews he has conducted on the theme of war and militarisation. It explores why Australia has been at war for much of its time as a nation as the junior partner of either Britain or the United States.

As the reader soon learns, war is part of Tognolini's family. Four of his uncles went to World War I, the youngest, his namesake “John/Jack”, on the Western Front aged 16 or 17, a boy-soldier who lied about his age to enlist. Another relative, Gallipoli veteran Andrew Tognolini, died shortly after the war.

For Tognolini, war is nothing to glorify, no height of nobility as evangelised by Australian war propagandists bankrolled by government and corporate money. Rather, Tognolini's take on war is it is a human tragedy. This tragedy is not only about carnage and slaughter, but also the hardships and traumas for those on the home front — and those who return home and struggle to live in the “peace”.

Constantly in Tognolini's work are the shadows of the geopolitics of war and the politicians who engineer war — mostly unblooded martial enthusiasts.

A History Man's Past is a welcome contribution to Australian anti-war writing, a corpus overwhelmed by the tsunami of pro-war literature that flows from the presses of mainstream publishers, helping fuel Australia's ongoing participation in other people's wars and legitimising higher military spending.

However, this does not explain my liking for Tognolini as a radical dissident. His latest book is only part of the answer. The full reason lies in the way Tognolini operates; in a self-directed way.

He makes his own spaces for dissident interventions and comment, demonstrating a media savvy no doubt helped by his academic studies; he has a First Class Honours degree in Communications from the University of Technology, Sydney.

,a herf="http://togsplace.blogspot.com.au/">Tog's Place.Com is a platform for his own writings and commentaries, and also an alternative leftist news, information and cultural site. The site takes its name from the Cobb and Co way station run by his Italian grandfather and his Australia-born grandmother near Castlemaine, Victoria, during the 19th century.

Tognolini has also been involved in community radio since 1987, and with the socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly since 1990. He has produced radio documentaries for the ABC's Radio National.

Tognolini's independence as a communicator is rooted in his background. Before becoming a school teacher in 2000, he variously worked as a labourer, scaffolder, rigger, dogman, railway fettler and painter and docker — always a trade unionist.

This long and varied employment background means that the language of Tognolini is not from the world of public communication or from school-to-academia niche worlds. His long and deep immersion in the labouring workforce also means he developed strong self-respect and individuality that have helped him escape any cap-in-hand-defer-to-intellectual-power-elites mode of conduct that tends to come with professional writer training and academia.

Involvement in militant unionism led Tognolini to make two documentaries worth chasing down: a 1992 documentary on the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation in Victoria and another, with Frances Kelly on the three-month occupation in 1989 by militant trade unions of Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney, in which he was involved. Both are available on Youtube.

Tognolini does not need peer-reviewing or permission to speak, nor does he need the approbation of pecking orders to comment and create his brand of opposition and dissidence. He does not agonise as to where to act, where to “say”. He simply goes out and does and says it. He makes his own spaces. It is a valuable example.

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