And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
Luke 2:1, King James Version
While ‘all the world’ that Caesar Augustus had in mind was all the Roman world, this story is about the birth of a child, Jesus, who would change all the expansive Western world, and indirectly much of the rest of the world.
Back in 1611 when the King James Version of the Bible was published, ‘all the world’ was bigger than the Roman world, but not as big as ours. Today’s translators qualify the extent of Caesar’s decree:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (New International Version).
They’ve defined the ‘world’ as Roman, and the decree as a census, a population registration, through which Caesar would be able to tax everyone. The records would also be used for military service, though Jews were exempt.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder back in 1566 made it easy for us to imagine Mary and Joseph trudging through the December snow to register their names in Bethlehem (though he painted a Flemish village…). His painting of the census is amazingly detailed. A high-resolution version on a large screen is the best way to see all the activities. There’s Mary on a donkey with Joseph heading towards the tax office where a group is already waiting to register and pay, women are preparing food, people are carrying heavy loads over a frozen lake, there are children playing and people bent and laboring, and even some castle ruins. An image I’d like to see on a Christmas card.
And now it’s Christmas Eve, and time for bed. Tomorrow my family and I will celebrate the birth of Jesus with feasting and gifts and pleasure. And freedom.
Canberra, December. Last week, schools finished for the year, and children began six weeks of summer holidays. In anticipation of Christmas, they’re enjoying the city’s decorations and festivities. In past years the local government has put up a huge FAKE Christmas tree in the centre of the city, which, in my humble opinion, has always been disappointing. But this year they’ve made an effort. We have a forest of trees within a forest of trees.
Children are invited to pick up a bag of decorations and dress the trees. The December sunlight filtering through the tall trees and small trees makes a pretty carpet. And the innocence of children taking pleasure in choosing their own decoration and their own tree was a perfect subject for me with my camera. Two toddlers, however, were reprimanded by their mothers for pinching a coloured ball and carrying it off… The innocence was relative, after all.
My Christmas wish for my blog readers: May you not be caught filching baubles.
Merry Christmas to all of you wonderful bloggers out there.
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.
There were 700 or 800 of them at least. Of medium height, but strong, agile, supple, framed to make prodigious bounds, they gambolled in the last rays of the sun, now setting over the mountains which formed serried ridges westward of the roadstead.
Opening lines of Gil Braltar by Jules Verne, 1889, translated by I.O. Evans, 1965
Can you guess what they are, these gambollers? Perhaps if you’ve been to Gibraltar you’ll know they are monkeys. The title of this fantastical tale, ‘Gil Braltar’, is also the name of the main character, an ugly Spaniard who resembles the macaque monkeys that possess the great Rock. To convince them to follow him as their leader, Gil dons a monkey skin, fur side out. He tries to recapture Gibraltar from the British, but fails, defeated by an Englishman, General MacKackmale, a pun on the French words macaque mâle.
When Verne’s science fiction/fantasies were first published in French, they were quickly followed by English translations. But not this one, which wasn’t translated until 1965. Hmmm. Clearly, Verne’s satire on the British claim to the Rock didn’t impress British publishers. But like many things that at first feel unpleasant, we find a few decades later that perhaps there are interesting elements, after all.
In my previous post I wrote about Dr Trifulgas. This and Gil Braltar were both written by Jules Verne in his house in Amiens, France, which I visited earlier this year. While the ground floor is elegant and nothing out of the ordinary for a 19th-century French house, a climb up the spiral staircase takes you to Verne’s writing world, where at the top of the stairs there is an improvised ship’s deck, a larger space filled with exhibits, and a compact study-cum-bedroom where Monsieur Verne wrote many of his famous stories. There’s even a list in English of stories written in this house – if you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see Dr Trifulgas (Frritt Flacc in French) and Gil Braltar.
It’s funny that I’ve read so many stories by Jules Verne recently; I once had no time at all for science fiction. After visiting his house and seeing the upstairs space filled with books and maps and puppets and posters, not forgetting the ship’s deck, I had a whole new appreciation for the work that goes into producing an imaginative piece of literature. As a translator, I had not thought long about it until then.
This story in French is called ‘Frritt-Flacc’, the sound of the hurricane and the torrential rain it brings. Dr Trifulgas is a rich old doctor who demands exorbitant fees from his patients, or else they get no service. In the end, his greed brings him down when he least expects it. It’s a short horror story, but not scary enough to stop me reading it. (I scare easily.)
The opening lines invited me to keep reading, contradicting the advice that a writer should never start with the weather.
And by coincidence, as I write this, torrential rain that has threatened all afternoon has finally begun to fall. I’m not making this up. Fortunately I don’t have to go out with my dog, his lantern, and Dr Trifulgas.
A reader of this blog, a maritime archaeologist writing a PhD, expressed an interest in some of the photos I’ve posted here over the past five years, especially images of the Nile and its boats. So this post is about the Nile River, Egypt, in a particular period, 1941/42. The photos are from my father’s album, from a time he was stationed there for seven months with the army (not counting the couple of months to get there and back). He took photos and swapped photos with his mates, stuck them in an album and left them for his family to do what they wanted with them. Many of these photos have been on this blog before, with a couple of exceptions. Where there were captions beneath the photos in the album, I’ll repeat them. Where there was none, I’ll write what I know, if I know anything. The photographers of these photos are unknown. Some were taken by my father, some were not. I don’t know which is which.
I love all my black and white 1940s photos, but I totally love the feluccas and never tire of looking photos of them. Thanks, my reader, for asking me to take another glimpse into 1940s Nile history.
I confess that writing this blog post right now is distracting me from an otherwise engrossing translation project. But I can’t sit writing at the kitchen table all my life. Sometimes I have to get out and get down to the seaside to refuel. And there I’m distracted by small things on the sand.
Strolling along a beach, heading for a rocky outcrop, I’m easily sidetracked by what lies in the drift-line. Mostly it’s broken shells, seaweed, stones, twigs and branches washed up by the high tide. But occasionally something catches my eye from a distance and I leave the water’s edge and head over to take a closer look.
It could be a lost thing. Like a coloured water-ski rope. Somewhere in the Pacific, a water-skier is asking “where did that rope go?” Well, if you’re looking for it, it’s on the beach at Guerilla Bay.
It could be two lost things. Like shoes. Somewhere along the south-east coast of New South Wales, a young girl is asking “where are my new runners?” Well, they’re on the mud flats of the Clyde River in Batemans Bay. Did they wash off the side of a boat? It could be a heart. Did someone lose their heart on the beach at Guerilla Bay? Because, well, I found one. Is it yours?The WordPress people have asked this week for photos of our distractions.
But enough of this blogging distraction. Back to the project.
August in Canberra is a little warmer than July when dawn was a few degrees below zero. Now we’re slowly moving back towards the sun and the wattle trees are coming out in bloom, producing bursts of bright yellow in the bushland. Today I went up Black Mountain to our telecommunication tower known as Telstra Tower, where I saw the interesting combination of our iconic wattle and the tower, a structure that can be seen from far outside Canberra, a landmark that tells travellers they’re almost here.
If we are enjoying delightful afternoons, warm enough to sit in the sun to catch ten or twenty minutes of Vitamin D infused rays, our nights are still freezing and frosty, and the further you go above sea level the frostier it is. On Black Mountain there’s a warning sign for those driving or riding or even walking up and especially down the slope in the early hours of the morning: Ice on road. When I took photos this afternoon it was a lovely 14 degrees and this cyclist was haring down the mountain, around its curves. His wheels made a loud whirring sound as he passed me.
Here’s some evidence of August’s two weathers. Yes it’s a good afternoon for riding downhill at speed, but after the night’s frost a cyclist could be sliding not riding.
Cardinal Guzman had the idea of posting a photo of changing seasons each month. Thanks Cardinal.
I have often thought that many a youngster when he was hit out there on the Passchendaele heights … and he knew that the end had come – must have thought to himself: “well at least they’ll remember me in Australia”. C.E.W. Bean
We all have ancestors but not all of us study their lives. I do, but I don’t know whether I’d recommend it. Many of my ancestors died young, which means I’m a descendant of the few survivors. And every young loss has a tragic story behind his or her death.
Two brothers who enlisted in the army together, numbers 5046 and 5047, James and Frederick Burley, were my great-grandmother’s cousins. Both of their lives ended in France in 1917. Frederick was never found.
But James was wounded in one of the horrific battles in Passchendaele near Ypres in Belgium, died in hospital in Rouen, France, and is buried there. This week, news articles are appearing about the commemorations of the hundred years that have passed since the Ypres battles. By coincidence, James Burley had his name projected onto the Australian War Memorial last night. I was there to see it for the 30 seconds it was shining on the facade of the building.
Like many Australians, I have descended from a convict ancestor, Joseph Burley, who was transported to New South Wales for trying to sell a stolen watch. Seven years he got. Pretty harsh penalty for a pretty petty crime.
Frederick and James Burley were his grandsons.
James was wounded on 20th October when his battalion was fighting near Zonnebeke in the region of Ypres, where 30 mm of rain had fallen two weeks earlier. Not only was the ground wet from heavy rain, but parts of the battlefield were swamp or reclaimed swamp, and digging and shelling only produced more water.
Note from War diary for James’ 47th battalion, 12th October 1917: Country almost impassable being very boggy and shell holes full of water… Weather very bad, cold, raining… Men’s feet very sore owing to continually standing in shell holes full of water…
James died seven days after he was wounded. He was 32 and had got married the year before.
This is the last of my relatives’ names to be projected onto the War Memorial. Five in all.
My translation of Claudine Jacques’ short story Le Masque has just been published by Volkeno Books, Vanuatu, in a bilingual edition. Hold the book one way to read the original French story, then flip it over to the back to read it in English.
The setting is a fare ofe, a bamboo house in New Caledonian bushland. The protagonist sees it as exotic and inspirational, just the impetus she needs to begin her writing career. She talks to a tribal mask left behind by a previous tenant, and it responds…
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