Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the cliches that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every one of us isn't brave enough – we're all just lazy sods. Then again, we're also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, not get too close to the people who rock the boat. At all costs, we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.
Then there's historian Peter Stanley, who seems not to care about any of this. He just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.
Surely if there's anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it's Professor Stanley. For 27 years, he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial and, after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia, he now works out of the University of NSW's Australian Defence Force Academy campus.
He is the author of more than 25 non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for history in 2011. He is also president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the myth-making that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it's in the hands of politicians.
If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation's most prominent military historians, it is Stanley, but is he a towering, intimidating force? Not in the slightest.
We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn't seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well. He looks as if he's no more significant than a suburban tax accountant, although on television, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.
After asking the dogs to behave (they do), he leads me through to the kitchen, where he makes tea with biscuits. We take our places in the small, unassuming lounge with a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that's so peaceful it's hard to imagine there are any problems in the world.
We are here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, Stanley's first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson's Donkey, a memorable yarn that tells the Anzac story from the animal's perspective.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain's Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjab for a conspiracy among the company's European soldiers. There's a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.
Why the move to long-form fiction?
"It was always going to be a novel," says Stanley, after taking a good sip of tea. "The prologue came first. It started with the image of a man arriving in a horse-drawn gharry [a small cart] and I had no idea where it would go from there. I discovered character and plot and dialogue as I went." His eyes light up, as if he's about to share the greatest secret. "I wrote the prologue on my very first home computer, a second-hand Apple in 1998, and once I'd worked out how to type into it, this is what I wrote."
He goes on to declare that he has always wanted to understand and express history through imagination. "I think all historians do this," he says, "but they're not bold enough to write it down. What I tend to do is to not invent but embroider, and to imagine the circumstances. I really do think all historians do that, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to write it convincingly as non-fiction.
"You see, the sources on British India are scarce and opaque. There's so much you don't know. So I started to imagine – to fill in – the gaps. It wasn't about coming up with a cracking good yarn set in the Punjab. It was to say something about the real historical experience through an imaginative device."
But does fiction really do a better job with the truth than historical inquiry?
"Absolutely," says Stanley, who doesn't call himself a professional novelist. "The post-modernists would say that the truth is only in the imagination. I don't go that far, because I'm a determined empiricist, but empiricism can't exist without imagination. There is so much you just can't know, because the sources don't tell you. The mundane is never recorded. Historians and novelists are searching to explore and express human truth. Novelists are lucky because they have endless materials to work with, while historians are limited by the sources, but I think we need to be bold enough to go beyond the sources and embrace the imaginative."
How about his relationship to source material? Did it change through the writing of this novel?
"Good question." He has a think and pats the dogs, who have curled up beside him on the couch. "Writing a novel sensitises you to what you're not getting – what sources you haven't got or can't get. At one point in The Cunning Man, a character burns all the original documents. We have a fragment of the total caucus of evidence that's ever existed. So, ironically, making it up sensitises you to what you will never get as a historical writer. It pushes you to ask more questions.
"At university they say, 'Listen to the silences', which is easy to say, but not so easy to do, because your attention is drawn again and again to what's in front of you. If you haven't got it, you have to ask questions about what you haven't got, and why you haven't you got it, and what might it have said, and whose views might it have represented."
After taking another sip of his tea, he says all this comes out of his fundamental approach: a fascination with the unknown people in history, the little people whose lives weren't documented, so you have to try all the harder to uncover their realities.
"Very few historians become novelists," he says. "I think it's because it's a risk. You risk reputation and ego, but it's great fun and satisfying, even if it doesn't come off. I'm not really an academic historian. I'm at UNSW Canberra, but I spent 30-odd years as a museum historian and often as a popular public historian, so perhaps I don't have as much dignity as some people."
He laughs freely. It's not hard to imagine him as a very enjoyable and entertaining dinner-party guest. His piercing intellect is underpinned by a terrific sense of humour.
We move on to one of the most appealing elements of The Cunning Man, which is the richness of detail in how the soldiers' lives are portrayed. Was this a conscious decision to construct the story in this way?
Stanley says yes, it was conscious, because men spent years – decades – in India, unless they died of cholera or dysentery. He felt it important to ground the writing in a visceral or actual reality.
"It wasn't just about ideas or dialogue or character. It was based in a place, and the place is full of people, and I wanted to understand the lived experience."
What did he learn from writing The Cunning Man about history as a way of thinking?
"This novel expresses my understanding as derived from being a historian. So the thing I try to do as a historical writer is to understand the human condition in the past, our relationship to it, the way people respond to it – in the case of war, the extreme challenge – and the relationships that underpin those responses. They're all things that I've written about in non-fiction. The Cunning Man articulates those concerns in a different form.
"I do think you can understand a historical episode intuitively as well as explicitly from the sources. One of the reasons I chose this era is because I do have sympathy for those people in that setting, partly because I've been to India and have experienced it, but I also have sympathy for it because of my immersion in the sources."
For many people, war is great theatre, it's a farce. When reading The Cunning Man, it's quite obvious that Stanley was having a lot of fun writing the book. "War is deeply tragic and horrific," he tells me after reaching enthusiastically for a biscuit, "but it's also intensely human, so it has elements of deep emotion and humour, the whole drama of comradeship and spectacle, especially in this period. I mean the armies looked gorgeous – lots of red and blue and, in the case of the Sikhs, lots of oranges and yellow.
"The Cunning Man is not an anti-war novel in the sense that it says war is stupid, war is hell. It says war is a bizarre human phenomenon and here are some of the dimensions of it."
It's difficult to not wonder how someone who is as friendly, hospitable and genuinely engaging as Stanley ended up pursuing military history as a career. He believes it all goes back to childhood. He says he was a child of the "Airfix generation" and from the age of nine to 18 collected model soldiers. He played war games and found that he was interested in military history. As he grew, his understanding of what that meant deepened and developed.
"So the 17-year-old kid who war-gamed the American Revolution had a different understanding of what war means from the 58-year-old historian who writes about the experience of war."
Stanley takes another moment to pat the dogs.
"I've never been in the defence force," he says. "I wouldn't have been good at it. I don't like taking orders from anyone. But extreme experience and the human response to stress have been constants throughout my working life."
It is fascinating to think that a highly regarded career as a military historian came from gluing bits of plastic together. "Indeed, but what are you doing when you're gluing bits of plastic together? It's all about imagination and putting yourself in the cockpit." And thinking outside the square.
The Cunning Man is published by Bobby Graham Publishers.
Nigel Featherstone is the author of The Beach Volcano.