In Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, which adorns numerous war memorials around Australia, there is a verse that every Australian knows:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…
Opening line of the Author’s Note, Desert Boys, Peter Rees, 2012
I’ve heard the line ‘They shall grow not old…’ every year of my life, yet it still catches me out. Wars need poets.
When I look at the photo above from my father’s World War Two album, taken during his time in North Africa in 1941/42, I wonder whether these soldiers fell or grew old. Unfortunately the photo is uncaptioned and I have no names for them. They seem to be posing, demonstrating a lesson in warfare.
I’m struck by its similarity to the image on the cover of Desert Boys by Peter Rees, a book about Australian soldiers who fought in the desert in both world wars. In each photo there are five young Australian men in helmets, focusing on something to their left. Perhaps these cover men are also posing. In any case, their photos remind us that they went to the desert to fight, and may not have returned to grow old.
The sun burns hotly thro’ the gums
As down the road old Rogan comes —
The hatter from the lonely hut
Beside the track to Woollybutt.
He likes to spend his Christmas with us here.
First lines, A Bush Christmas, C. J. Dennis, 1931
Clearly, if you’re reading a poem entitled A Bush Christmas and the first line says ‘The sun burns hotly…’ you can be sure you’re not in northern Europe.
My Christmases have always been hot. Where I grew up in Queensland, the morning temperature in the kitchen would have been, say, 25 degrees celsius, but Mum would never hesitate to turn on the oven and roast the chicken, a luxury. (No turkeys for us.) After a couple of hours of cooking, it would have easily been 35 degrees in that room. I’d keep out of the way and splash around in my small canvas pool while the grown-ups of my family would sit chatting in the shade of the yard. Dad in his long sleeves and trousers, which he wore in all weathers, would be chain smoking on his bench. We’d all wait for Mum to finish roasting the vegetables or making gravy, and then she’d call us to the table. The sweat dripped from her face as she served the food.
“It ain’t a day for working hard,” says the father in A Bush Christmas, and of course, as he speaks, the mother is roasting and boiling and baking in the soaring temperature of the bush kitchen. She’s hot, but guess what the poetic father says…
“Your fault,” says Dad, “you know it is.
Plum puddin’! on a day like this,
And roasted turkeys! Spare me days,
I can’t get over women’s ways.
Traditions from the old country, the wintry Christmases of England, Scotland and Ireland, are dying hard in Australia, even now. For those from the old country who sought a better life in Canada or the northern parts of the USA, Christmas temperatures were just like home. But those who came to Australia kept up the traditions despite the upside down climate.
A few hours after our Queensland Christmas dinner was over, it was invariably followed by sharp cracking thunder, lightning flashes and a cooling torrential downpour.
But old Rogan of the poem is celebrating Christmas out in the bush, far from any city, where there might not have even been the relief that comes with a storm. Instead, Rogan passes the afternoon telling the kids “his yarns of Christmas tide ‘mid English barns”, “of whitened fields and winter snows, and yuletide logs and mistletoes”.
The children listen, mouths agape,
And see a land with no escape
For biting cold and snow and frost —
A land to all earth’s brightness lost,
A strange and freakish Christmas land to them…
Old Rogan was the lonely neighbour invited for “a bite of tucker and a beer”. They offered him company and a meal, and in return he offered them that valuable form of nourishment for children’s minds, a good yarn.
…The sun slants redly thro’ the gums
As quietly the evening comes,
And Rogan gets his old grey mare,
That matches well his own grey hair,
And rides away into the setting sun…
In the end, the father relaxes with a full belly, and his wife washes up.
“Ah, well,” says Dad. “I got to say
I never spent a lazier day.
This is how it was in my childhood. I’m glad to say some things have changed.
After the US election, Ailsa at Where’s my backpack wrote Great, a poem. I read it out loud (no one was listening) and heard myself almost rapping… It’s a two-part verse, beginning in darkness, ending in light.
Encouraging bloggers to add some goodness to the dish on the other side of the scale, she has challenged us to do something GREAT:
Create something beautiful and share it with the world. Write something true from the depths of your humanity and share it with the world. Do something kind for someone in need. Embrace a different culture. Volunteer. Plant a tree. Tell someone how much they mean to you. Reach out to someone in your community you’ve never even noticed before. Try to understand someone else’s point of view. Learn something new. Teach your kids something new. Stand up to bullies. Protect those being victimized. Be brave. Be gentle. Be vulnerable. Nurture. Encourage. Forgive. Love. Shine.
The word Volunteer leapt out at me with its capital V. It’s what I do. I’ve done voluntary English tutoring for years, but previously only once a week. This year, it has been five days a week, a few hours each day. The rewards for the students are free language instruction and friendship, but for me the rewards are many and varied. They buy me flowers, plants, perfume from France, skin products from New Zealand, clothes from China (!), crockery and meals. But mostly, it’s coffee.
We meet in local cafés, where the owners have come to know me and my students. They even know what we’ll order, each student ordering the same thing every week.
This week I combined the great thing that is Ailsa’s poem with my volunteering: I used her poem in a lesson. I asked my student to read it out loud, tell me what poetic devices were used, and tell me what it all meant. Here she is expressing her feelings about the negative half, words about words that are ‘meant to shock, intimidate, demean and mock’, followed by the positive half, words about words that ‘serve to heal, unite, encourage and appeal’.Now, I doubt that any great act on my part will counteract the new US president’s policies, but one day at a time, one person at a time, is a policy that’s working to make life better for me and my students in this part of the world.
Friday was grim, grey, an on and off drizzly day. My latest translation had been rejected. My weekly gathering of friends had been cancelled and no one told me. I was more than half-way through The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and had to escape from that dark story.
So, grabbing my umbrella, the one made by Pep’s in Paris when I was a brief neighbour of the small business, I walked out into the great outdoors. I’ve rarely used my Parisian umbrella in this city of more sun than rain. But this winter, it’s wet.
I looked up and saw this spidery mesh of branches.
It didn’t make me feel better. But I kept walking, my gloom burning off with each step. As I turned down a bush track, I looked up again and saw this Sulphur-crested cockatoo flying up to the branch above my head. I felt a little love for the world. Even gratefulness for the rain.
Back home, I had to prepare a lesson for a student for the next morning. It was to be poetry, something not too deep, not too obscure, something which might have meaning for her. I selected The World by William Brighty Rands, a poem I’d never read, by a poet I’d never heard of. After Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde had earlier dragged me down, I was pleasantly relieved to read about The World according to Rands. His poem lifted me, and things began to look up.
Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,
With the wonderful water round you curled,
And the wonderful grass upon your breast –
World, you are beautifully drest.
The wonderful air is over me,
And the wonderful wind is shaking the tree,
It walks on the water, and whirls the mills,
And talks to itself on the tops of the hills.
You friendly Earth, how far do you go,
With the wheatfields that nod and the rivers that flow,
With cities and gardens, and cliffs, and isles,
And people upon you for thousands of miles?
Ah, you are so great, and I am so small,
I tremble to think of you, World, at all;
And yet, when I said my prayers today,
A whisper inside me seemed to say,
“You are more than the Earth, though you are such a dot:
You can love and think, and the Earth cannot.”
The siege of Tobruk began 75 years ago on 10th April, 1941, and yesterday in Canberra the anniversary was marked at the ‘Rats of Tobruk’ memorial on Anzac Avenue.
Tobruk is a small town on the Libyan coast with a deep water harbour, which Australian, British and Indian troops were charged with protecting in 1941 to prevent Rommel and his German forces from accessing the port and advancing into Egypt. The men of the Tobruk garrison withstood attacks for eight months, never retreating or surrendering. The Nazi propagandist ‘Lord Haw Haw’ said they were like ‘rats in a trap’, and from then the Australian troops proudly called themselves the ‘Rats of Tobruk’.
My father arrived in North Africa in September and worked in the hospital where he saw numbers of wounded men from Tobruk. Other soldiers gave him some photos of the harbour and town of Tobruk in various states of ruin, which he brought back in an album when he returned to Australia. A couple of photos are enough to give an idea of the bay in 1941.
The monument on Anzac Avenue is modelled after another one which you can see in the black and white photo, constructed in the cemetery at Tobruk but destroyed a few months after. Beside it is the present monument in Canberra in a photo I took today. On the front of the new one is a bronze eternal flame that faces the avenue, below which were laid wreaths for the 75th anniversary of the siege:
The Tobruk siege is significant for two firsts. It was the first defeat of Hitler’s troops on land. And Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, who died from wounds and is buried in Tobruk cemetery (and whose grave photo is also in my father’s album) was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the war (awarded posthumously).
Finally, a poem. Here are the first two stanzas of Wounded from Tobruk, recorded by my father in his poetry book, but written by James Andrew “Tip” Kelaher and published in The Bulletin on 29 October 1941. Sadly, Tip Kelaher was killed the following year at El Alamein in Libya. Here’s the page in my father’s writing, followed by my transcription with corrections:
You come limping down the gangplank
Or you’re carried down instead,
Covered by a dusty blanket
With a boot beneath your head,
And you all look lean and hungry
Underneath that Aussie grin,
Sick of bully beef and biscuits,
But the sort that won’t give in.
Perhaps you’re smiled at by a bearer,
Who is muscular and big,
Fishing fags out of his pocket
With a “Better have one, Dig”.
And you take it as he lights it,
And return the wry old grin,
Making little of your troubles,
But there’s no one taken in.
Poets, photographers, artists, sculptors, and a corporal who saved a man but sacrificed his own life. We must write about them lest we forget.
The Daily Post writing prompt for 11th September was Handwritten: When was the last time you wrote something by hand?
I write by hand many times a day, and indeed was handwriting something for another blog post only moments before I began typing these words. But writing for this blog is something I do infrequently, unfortunately. Translating literature is what I do every day, writing the translation by hand before keying it into my computer. Usually I write with a cheap ballpoint pen or pencil on cheap note paper. However, a German friend recently sent me a calligraphy pen and coloured inks, and a French friend sent me a Clairefontaine notebook with its silky smooth papier velouté. To test them both out, I wrote the fourth verse from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
The last lines are particularly meaningful to me, for I love the sea and its rocks, not to mention stability… Just this morning, in the small bay of Lilli Pilli Beach, I was snapping waves as they crashed against rock projections:
I once heard that when you’re focused on a subject or scene to photograph it, you can’t feel depressed. Your brain is too busy getting the shot right. Similarly, when you’re writing out your thoughts by hand, your disappointments and confusions flow out of your head, through the pen and onto the paper. But no one needed to tell me that.
When the Australian government, among others, announced this week they’re sending troops off to Iraq to fight (if only in the skies for now), I thought Here we go again. As I rode past this bin today, the sign “General Waste” reminded me of the futility of war. It might seem an obscure connection, but when you see the page from my father’s anthology of war poetry compiled in about 1942, you’ll think what I thought. First, the bin:
Second, a poem entitled “General Waste”, originally written in World War One by Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who volunteered as a British chaplain to the army on the western front. He was also known as Woodbine Willie for the Woodbines he smoked and handed out to the wounded and dying. But he had a threefold reputation, for he was also a great anti-war poet.
In Dad’s poetry book, I’ve often read “General Waste” and felt the hollowness of war. Studdert Kennedy wrote it in about 1917, but his poems were recalled by soldiers fighting again in World War Two. Dad has called it “General Waste”, though searches online suggest it was called simply “Waste”. There are a few spelling errors in his script, so I’ve transcribed it:
Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain.
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth.
Waste of blood, waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years.
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, Waste of God.
John Milton, I’ve read, completed his Masters degree at Cambridge in 1632 at 24 years of age and then moved back home with his parents for five years, where he worked on some of his best-loved writing. But it wasn’t until 1645 that any of his poetry was published; the book was called Poems of Mr. John Milton, both English and Latin, compos’d at several times.
His poetry was not published again until 1667 at the age of 59 when he had been totally blind for 13 years and had been married 3 times, and after he had worked on the piece for at least 9 years. He was paid £5 for a print run of 1500 copies of his masterpiece, Paradise Lost.
Here’s an excerpt:
Now came still evening on, and twilight grey
Had in her sober livery all things clad;
Silence accompany’d; for beast and bird,
They to their grassy couch, these to their nests,
Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale;
She all night long her amorous descant sung;
Silence was pleas’d. Now glow’d the firmament
With living sapphires; Hesperus, that led
The starry host, rode brightest, till the moon,
Rising in clouded majesty, at length
Apparent queen unveil’d her peerless light,
And o’er the dark her silver mantle threw.
Last night I found this excerpt from Paradise Lost in my old school poetry anthology. When I read the line ‘Now glow’d the firmament With living sapphires’, I remembered a 12th-century church ceiling that I recently saw in Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines in the Pyrénées-Orientales, France. During the day the skylight produces a simulated moon shining in a starry midnight blue sky, and the patches no longer covered in paint resemble night clouds or constellations. Even in this interior, the moon has thrown ‘o’er the dark her silver mantle’. The photo, left sitting on my computer screen and viewed from across a room, has fooled me more than once.
Click twice on the photo to enlarge it.
It does me good to read that a Cambridge Masters graduate worked on his writing for 35 years before producing a masterpiece.