Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 12, 2023

Sensational Snippets: Cellnight, a Verse Novel (2023), by John Kinsella

I wonder if the catalyst for poet John Kinsella’s latest book was the 50th anniversary of the voyage of the sailing ship ‘Fri’…

Though these days nobody seems bothered by the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines for Australia, people my age remember the courage and determination of the crew of the ‘Fri’, the New Zealand yacht which led a ‘David and Goliath’ flotilla of yachts in an international protest against French nuclear bomb tests at Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific in 1973.  My mother had to be talked out of joining the crew, but my American-born neighbour Gloreea was on board.  She was a young woman in her 20s when she  left her family, her home, her job, and her friends in the US to take part in trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This was Big News back then in 1973.

Wikipedia is dismissive, describing these heroic protestors as a group of hippie consumer escapees, in search of adventure and an alternative lifestyle down-under.  That characterisation is an insult to the courage of the crew.  The ‘Fri’ was in danger not only from radioactivity or worse, but (as the shocked world found out later) also from unscrupulous French agents. In 1985 French terrorists blew up the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in New Zealand, killing a photographer on the sinking ship.

Those of us who cared about this did what we could in our own ways.  We campaigned with a barrage of letters and protests; we boycotted French products.  We let our politicians know about our fury.  Despite generally cordial relations with France, our Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was opposed to nuclear testing in the Pacific.  The International Court of Justice was on our side too, but still, all efforts failed.  The French ignored the ruling. 

Cellnight reflects our despair, and demands that we remember, amongst other things of crucial importance, the peace campaigns of the 20th century and what they tried to achieve.  From a prison cell, Kinsella asks who will remember?

Who will
the ambient

the destroyers,
the frigates,
nor denying
nuclear weapons,
the reactor
of the aircraft
off Gage Roads?
Who will remember

the walks
from many
to get there.
to converge
to arrive
as one
to protest.
And who will
the white

And who will
the arrested
who belonged
to no group,
had no affiliation?
Why belong
to no group,
have no affiliation?
But that’s
only part
of the picture,

isn’t it?
There were
friends, fellow
anarchists, fellow
And so many
protestors.  NDP
and Marxists,
citizen protestors,
the curious,
and the far right

the foot
of the woman
next to you
with a stomp
of the boot.   (pp. 11-13)

The NDP (Nuclear Disarmament Party) bailed the woman, but not the ‘stirrer, Trot’ which he was not.  And people went about their business, fishermen worrying about their fish, for their sake,/ not for the fishes’ sakeDiplomacy went about its business too, while weapons brooded in reactors amid this attempt/ to change/ what quiet people/ tell you/ is inevitable. And the attempt to speak out in the magistrate’s court is suppressed with a threat of gaol time.

Many people will read this verse novel for its passionate tribute to the natural environment; for the celebration of the spirit of sacred Noongar country in southern Western Australia; and for the truths it tells about colonisation.  But I read it for its denunciation of escalating militarism and taxes/ directed/ towards/ the military/ rather than health/ and learning,/ housing/ and environment. 

 Peace is a universal necessity (p.112)

Cellnight is an elegy for a time when there was passionate activism.

Image credit:

Author: John Kinsella
Title: Cellnight, a Verse Novel
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2023, due for release 1/4/23
ISBN: 9780648414094, pbk.,  207 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. I do like a verse novel, and this sounds good. My mother would never have joined a crew, but she was an active political boycotter and to her dying day she would refuse to drink French wine (for example) when we dined out. She could only drink sparkling and if French sparkling was all they could offer by the glass she went alcohol-free.

    That description re hippie escapees looks like it comes from the cited sources – the one of the three I read anyhow – but it could probably have been expressed a little more clearly to include some sense of political aspiration as well I think


    • Well, my source is the lady herself, one of the 18 crew members. I look at her now, pottering around in her garden, and it’s hard to imagine her sailing into what was about to be a radioactive zone… yet she is one of the most sincere, truthful and bravest people I know. There is no way she would have been on board if she hadn’t thought it was really important.
      I think the Wikipedia article is written by someone perpetuating the narrative that everything nuclear is just fine, we don’t need to worry about it, and that people who tried to stop the development of nuclear weapons that the West “needs” to threaten Russia and China were just frivolous people looking for some fun. I find it extraordinary that people aren’t out on the streets demanding diplomacy instead of cheerleading for a conflict that could destroy the planet.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this.
    “Cellnight reflects our despair, and demands that we remember, amongst other things of crucial importance, the peace campaigns of the 20th century and what they tried to achieve. From a prison cell, Kinsella asks who will remember?”


    “Say not the struggle nought availeth,”

    Thank-you. Onwards.


    • Thank you, Josie, you are right, of course. But so is Kinsella. Hashtags have killed real activism, IMO.

      Liked by 1 person

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