Digital family history and the centenary of the armistice

It’s because of the advent of digitised records – birth, death, marriage and war service records – and family tree web sites, particularly Ancestry, that I know now what I didn’t know a short time ago. I’d heard about my father’s time in Egypt as a WW2 soldier and I’d heard about his own father’s time in France as a WW1 soldier.

But I’d never heard of the family members who were killed in action.

My grandmother had two cousins, the Burley brothers, James and Frederick, who were killed in Northern France.

Can you imagine losing two sons who voluntarily went to war?

Now imagine losing three sons.

My grandfather had three cousins, the Shaw brothers, George, D’arcey and Frank, who were also killed in Northern France.

D’arcey, Frank and George Shaw (W.R.N. Shaw should be D.R.N. Shaw)

But because their cousin, my grandfather Ernest Bruce, survived gassing and a concrete wall falling on top of him, he returned to Australia to produce my father, who in turn produced me.

I’ve discovered most of this information through online records and family history websites. Many many family historians are using these resources now. This means that the great numbers of people commemorating the centenary of the armistice today, 11th November 2018, have learnt, like me, that they are the descendants of the ones who returned.

I have three sons. I feel absolute anguish for the parents who lost two or three of their children in war.

And I now have a greater appreciation of the struggles of Australians trying to build our nation a hundred years ago when the total population was 5 million, and 62,000 of their young people had been killed, and 156,000 were wounded, and many like my grandfather were unable to work again.

This building in the photo below, the Australian War Memorial, is ten minutes from my home. I’ve visited it countless times, and in the past few weeks as the crocheted and knitted poppies were displayed, and as I’ve read and heard so many stories from descendants of soldiers like me, I realise how fortunate I am that I have a comfortable home, enough food to keep me healthy, and a family that is gainfully employed. And I realise that WW1 was not the war to end all wars, there have been many wars since then, and I must not take my fortune for granted.

This new knowledge is greatly due to the digitisation of historical records, a technology I’m very grateful for.

Special open evening at the Australian War Memorial last night (10th November) for the centenary of the armistice

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Poppies and Poetry

The 11th of the 11th is not far off. The Australian War Memorial here in Canberra is demonstrating the community’s sorrow over all those who died in World War 1, the war to end all wars. Not. Crocheted and knitted poppies have been planted in the lawn, 62,000 of them, one for each of the dead, forming a sea of red spilling out in front of our beautiful war memorial building.

Poppy posts and photos are appearing all around the country. I’ve read that 62,000 poppies was the goal for the project, but the women (mostly women) contributed many many more. The extras have been used in a display in Parliament House and in towns around Australia. I made 12, and I taught my Japanese student to crochet and then she made 12. Our 24 poppies are there in the crowd somewhere.

All this talk about the centenary of the armistice reminded me of a poem I read in my father’s poetry book that he brought back from World War 2. He recorded poems he wanted to remember, and re-reading this one leaves me wondering what it meant to him, especially the final verse. The poet was Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy who allowed it to be circulated among the soldiers. It speaks of a death by gassing and may have comforted some of those who had lost mates to this horrific weapon. My father’s father was gassed in 1916, but survived. Perhaps Dad had him in mind when he recorded this poem in 1942. Here’s his first page:

‘Thy Will Be Done’ by WW1 poet G.A. Studdert Kennedy, in my father’s poetry collection from WW2

Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was a volunteer British chaplain to the army on the western front, and was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying. He was a great anti-war poet.

Here’s the whole poem written in 1917 in soldier-dialect :

Thy Will Be Done
A Sermon in a Hospital

by Rev. G. A. Studdert Kennedy, from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, 1918

I WERE puzzled about this prayin’ stunt,
And all as the parsons say,
For they kep’ on sayin’, and sayin’,
And yet it weren’t plain no way.
For they told us never to worry,
But simply to trust in the Lord,
“Ask and ye shall receive,” they said,
And it sounds orlright, but, Gawd!
It’s a mighty puzzling business,
For it don’t allus work that way,
Ye may ask like mad, and ye don’t receive.
As I found out t’other day.
I were sittin’ me down on my ‘unkers,
And ‘avin’ a pull at my pipe,
And larfin’ like fun at a blind old ‘Un,
What were ‘avin’ a try to snipe.
For ‘e couldn’t shoot for monkey nuts,
The blinkin’ blear-eyed ass,
So I sits, and I spits, and I ‘ums a tune;
And I never thought o’ the gas.
Then all of a suddint I jumps to my feet,
For I ‘eard the strombos sound,
And I pops up my ‘ead a bit over the bags
To ‘ave a good look all round.
And there I seed it, comin’ across,
Like a girt big yaller cloud,
Then I ‘olds my breath, i’ the fear o’ death,
Till I bust, then I prayed aloud.

 

I prayed to the Lord Almighty above,
For to shift that blinkin’ wind,
But it kep’ on blowin’ the same old way,
And the chap next me, ‘e grinned.
“It’s no use prayin’,” ‘e said, “let’s run,”
And we fairly took to our ‘eels,
But the gas ran faster nor we could run,
And, Gawd, you know ‘ow it feels
Like a thousand rats and a million chats,
All tearin’ away at your chest,
And your legs won’t run, and you’re fairly done,
And you’ve got to give up and rest.
Then the darkness comes, and ye knows no more
Till ye wakes in an ‘orspital bed.
And some never knows nothin’ more at all,
Like my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
Now, ‘ow was it ‘E didn’t shift that wind,
When I axed in the name o’ the Lord?
With the ‘orror of death in every breath,
Still I prayed every breath I drawed.
That beat me clean, and I thought and I thought
Till I came near bustin’ my ‘ead.
It weren’t for me I were grieved, ye see,
It were my pal Bill–‘e’s dead.
For me, I’m a single man, but Bill
‘As kiddies at ‘ome and a wife.
And why ever the Lord didn’t shift that wind
I just couldn’t see for my life.
But I’ve just bin readin’ a story ‘ere,
Of the night afore Jesus died,
And of ‘ow ‘E prayed in Gethsemane,
‘Ow ‘E fell on ‘Is face and cried.
Cried to the Lord Almighty above
Till ‘E broke in a bloody sweat,
And ‘E were the Son of the Lord, ‘E were,
And ‘E prayed to ‘Im ‘ard; and yet,

 

And yet ‘E ‘ad to go through wiv it, boys,
Just same as pore Bill what died.
‘E prayed to the Lord, and ‘E sweated blood,
And yet ‘E were crucified.
But ‘Is prayer were answered, I sees it now,
For though ‘E were sorely tried,
Still ‘E went wiv ‘Is trust in the Lord unbroke,
And ‘Is soul it were satisfied.
For ‘E felt ‘E were doin’ God’s Will, ye see,
What ‘E came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers ‘E prayed
Were ‘Is power to see it through;
To see it through to the bitter end,
And to die like a Gawd at the last,
In a glory of light that were dawning bright
Wi’ the sorrow of death all past.
And the Christ who was ‘ung on the Cross is Gawd,
True Gawd for me and you,
For the only Gawd that a true man trusts
Is the Gawd what sees it through.
And Bill, ‘e were doin’ ‘is duty, boys,
What ‘e came on the earth to do,
And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed
Were ‘is power to see it through;
To see it through to the very end,
And to die as my old pal died,
Wi’ a thought for ‘is pal and a prayer for ‘is gal,
And ‘is brave ‘eart satisfied.

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Spring offspring

Just as there are brand new leaves appearing on bare branches, and even tiny fruit emerging on my fig and plum trees, new little beings have come into the animal kingdom now that spring has sprung. I’ve seen a number of baby animals in past weeks, little beauties who stay close to their parents, reminding me how intimate a relationship it is. Seeing a brand new duck or cow is such a feel-good moment. Or a possum joey’s claws poking out of its mother’s pouch. Or a tiny kangaroo joey’s head on its mother’s belly.

E16 and her baby, P42, at Hahndorf, South Australia, 11th September
Duck family in the afternoon sun beside the River Torrens, Adelaide, 13th September
Possum with baby in her pouch, climbing a hakea tree right in front of me at  home as I worked at my computer, 17th September
Kangaroo family, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra, 13th October 2018

And high up in trees or in other secret nesting places, countless birds have been breeding. I don’t have photos but I’ve seen the chicks and their parents every day since September when there was a sudden explosion in the bird population in my garden. There are all sorts here in Canberra that I never knew existed when I lived in Brisbane, from Gang-gang Cockatoos to tiny Eastern Spinebills, often right outside my window, in the same hakea tree where I saw the mother possum and her joey. This hakea grew naturally amid some introduced species like maples and ash and white may, and I didn’t even notice it until it was taller than its competitors. Now I have all these animal visitors because of this tree.

It’s a blessing to be presented with new life in the animal world, and even more of a blessing that they pose for me while I take their photo, for they all patiently sat and waited while I got my photography act together!

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Photo challenge – bridge

Leanne Cole, the Photographer’s Mentor, is challenging her mentees to take photos of a bridge. I’m in Adelaide where there’s this awesome footbridge over the narrow River Torrens. It’s more photogenic from underneath than from above.

Torrens footbridge
Garden reflections, Torrens footbridge

In fact, walking across it isn’t half as exciting as walking under it. There are other vehicle bridges and footbridges but this is my favourite (today), possibly affected by the abundance of orange clivias and green ferns and their surprising reflections.

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Life Sentence and The Blue Cross

Today I was thrilled to receive ten copies of a small bilingual book of two short stories, Life Sentence and The Blue Cross, my translations of Condamné à perpétuité and La Croix bleue by the New Caledonian author, Claudine Jacques.

Life Sentence was published last year in Southerly Journal (Sydney University), and now it’s available in this little edition from Volkeno Books, Vanuatu. This is the second bilingual book published by Volkeno that includes Jacques’ original and my translation. The first was Le Masque / The Mask Both The Mask and the new book are available to purchase from Les Éditions noir au blanc.

Life Sentence is concerned with leprosy, once an incurable disease among poorer New Caledonians. The Blue Cross tells the story of a wife dealing with an alcoholic husband. Both stories end with hope.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 43

It was a pleasure to burn.

First line, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1954

I’ve been reading it for the past few days, and just finished.

In case you’re wondering about the title, Bradbury offers an explanatory epigraph:

FAHRENHEIT 451: the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns

As for the first line of the first chapter, it took me aback. As I read on, I started to lose interest, not being into dystopian societies, but when it came to the pages about a book-burning by ‘firemen’ I couldn’t put it down.

My favourite lines are not the first ones, but a short paragraph that comes almost midway through this three-part novel. The protagonist’s wife has been sucked into the ways of their commercialised bookless world. But though he is a book-burner by profession, he keeps a secret stash of books and when he establishes friendship with a girl with a ‘tireless curiosity’, a quality he has rarely seen, he quotes what seems to come from one of his books:

We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over, so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

These two sentences were a compensation for the violence of the story against literature and its readers.

Ray Bradbury’s opening line was so catching it was used again as the title of a collection of 16 of his short stories, A Pleasure to Burn, about book-lovers and book-burners.

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Today, for me, was a day of fiery fiction cooled by fluffy snow as I visited Corin Forest, not far from Canberra, and walked through a snowfall just because it was so novel… (I haven’t seen snow for a decade or so.)

Fire and ice: reading Fahrenheit 451 this afternoon in a wintry Corin Forest

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46 Great Opening Lines: 40

It’s pre-dawn, all dark. Breeding season.

First words of ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus, in Overland, Spring 2017

I’ve been buying literary journals for a couple of years now, reading short stories to see how writers write in the 21st century. My translations are mostly of 19th-century stories, so I need to prompt myself to read today’s writing. It’s never good to get stuck in the past.

Overland is one of the Australian journals I’ve been reading. Not every piece is to my taste, but there’s usually one in each issue that I read and re-read. ‘Breeding Season’ was such a story, drawing me in with the very word breeding, not in the title but in the first line. And then, later, the mention of an antechinus.

I once caught sight of an antechinus in a sawn tree trunk in Wangaratta. I’d heard about them, how they resemble mice and rats, how we can confuse them all, but this one was prettier than any rat and I suspected that the crevices of the old trunk were more suited to a native marsupial than an introduced species. He stood still long enough for me to snap his photo. I wrote about the antechinus and my trip to Wangaratta in an earlier blog post.

Antechinus, North Beaches Reserve, Wangaratta (river beaches not ocean beaches…)

To return to the great opening line: my interest was triggered by the word breeding, evidence that the first words of a story can click somewhere in the reader’s experience, or in their hopes and fears. I wasn’t disappointed, for within ‘Breeding Season’, Amanda Niehaus writes about the jelly-bean sized babies of the antechinus and a woman’s own baby growing inside her.

I read this prize-winning story in my copy of Overland but it’s also available online.

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46 Great Opening Lines: 37

1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.

Opening line, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847

A dark novel with not one happy moment. At least not for me. I’ve read it twice without pleasure. Still, the opening line is worth studying for its invitation to read on, to find out what kind of trouble the neighbour will cause.

Emily was 29 when her only novel was published. She died the next year.

I have a little black Penguin book (no. 63), “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, containing 30 of Emily Brontë’s poems. Many of them suggest she knew her life would be short and death was not far off. She also writes of others who are already dead and buried, as though thoughts of them, and knowing she would soon go to be with them, were constantly turning in her mind. Take, for example, the first stanza of Remembrance:

Cold in the earth – and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far, removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?

Or take the last stanza of The Old Stoic:

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

Charlotte Brontë, in her ‘biographical notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’ ( pseudonyms of Emily and Agnes Brontë), described her sister Emily as “stronger than a man, simpler than a child”. “Under an unsophisticated culture”, she wrote, “lay a secret power and fire”; “Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.”

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Today as I was waiting for some singers to sing in Sydney, I read Emily’s poems. Many are grim, yet in their truthfulness are more satisfying than the novel. I would put this small Penguin book on a recommended reading list. I wonder what Emily would have thought if she were looking into a crystal ball in the 1840s, seeing a woman on the other side of the world reading her poetry while drinking coffee with a heart painted in its froth…

Coffee with Emily Brontë at Bellaccino, Hornsby

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46 Great Opening Lines: 36

My brother Jack does not come into the story straight away.

Opening line, My Brother Jack, George Johnston, 1964

A great first line that lets the reader know he’ll have to read on for a while before encountering the man of the title, Jack.

It’s a story about an Australian bloke who is a likeable larrikin, tough and uneducated, but it’s also about the effect of war-damaged parents on their children. The father is a sapper and the mother an army nurse who have had roles in World War 1, on the Front, and who have now returned to suburban life. On Anzac Day this week I thought of my own father and grandfather, veterans of the two world wars, who also returned to the dullness of suburbia, bringing with them troubled minds as shell-shocked soldiers.

The soldiers marching this week in the Anzac parade in Yass looked clean and smart, untroubled.

Army waiting to march, Anzac Day, Yass NSW 2018

I liked seeing the odd ones in this group, a New Zealander with a red-banded flat-brimmed hat, and a Fijian in a beret and three-quarter trousers, his muscly arms almost too big for his sleeves, catching sight of me catching sight of him as he adjusted his belt. I was also amused by the Australian soldier to his left, looking at something under his arm that was not quite right…

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46 Great Opening Lines: 35

The rabbits came many grandparents ago.

First line, The Rabbits, John Marsden, 1998

The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.

The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people.  John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.

This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:

Are they serious?

Rabbits near Lake Burley Griffin shoreline
Rabbits near the underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra
Rabbits near underpass of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, Canberra

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