Archive for April, 2013

Kitty’s War

April 24, 2013 - 9:05 am No Comments
Kitty’s War

Janet Butler

UQP; Nonfiction/History; $32.95

Officers of the Great War believed that nurses were a nuisance on the battlefield, fearing  sexual liaisons between them and the men would undermine discipline. Refusing to acknowledge the enormous contributions to the war effort these women made, some ignored their presence, addressing any orders or comments to the (male) orderlies, which of course created discipline problems for the more highly qualified nursing staff. This happened in the early years of the war when nurses were considered “honorary officers”— not given actual rank. By 1916, the AIF, following the Canadian model, gave their nurses rank and allowed them to wear the insignia denoting it on their uniforms—though it never paid the women as much as any male of the same military status.

Janet Butler uncovers a fascinating history in Kitty’s War in which she is particularly preoccupied with society’s expectations for the “ministering angels” of WWI, and the nurses’ changing perceptions of their own roles, as observed in the diaries they kept. Kit McNaughton, from rural Victoria, was one of  very few women allowed to go to war on the SS Orsova in 1915. She cared for the Gallipoli wounded on Lemnos Island, then was sent to France for the casualties of the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, completing her service as Australia’s first plastic surgery nurse. Like those of many other Australian nurses, Kit’s story is one of heart-breaking sacrifice, discrimination, petty officialdom, and broken personal  health.

Some readers may find Butler’s  academic approach, with references to other researchers, irritating. However I did not find this too intrusive, and, unlike some works that evolve from universities, the writing style is accessible to all and the subject matter so engrossing, this book should have a wide readership. It would be a timely read for or around ANZAC day.

Minjerribah Magic

April 12, 2013 - 3:50 pm 5 Comments

On Wednesday, April 10, 2013, three Brighton Writers—Ruby Reid, Adele Moy and myself— drove to Cleveland  to take the Red Cat ferry to Minjerribah, also known as North Stradbroke Island. What followed was a delightful trip across Moreton Bay and very reasonably priced, seeing we were seated in great comfort on the viewing deck with its transparent walls which protected us from the rain while we enjoyed our elevenses—whatever they are—early lunch or late morning tea.

Arrived at Goompie, also known as Dunwich, we saw a queue of motor vehicles waiting to be transported by the Red Cat, and a black and white dog that seemed to be sussing the people in the cars moving off the ferry. It was a sweet little beast, came up and said hello to us and then went back to her job of checking the drivers and passengers in the cars that had just landed.

We followed the gentle curve of the hill from the ferry dock past a couple of shops and some residences of Goompie, into Rouse Street and then into Welsby looking for the museum, all the while marvelling at the lush green landscape and the serenity of the place.

The Museum is a low-set wooden building with a wide verandah in the front—rather like an impeccably-maintained old-fashioned Primary school. It has a thick carpet of lawn wrapped around it, a little shop where you can pick up various souvenirs, and the display rooms containing histories, artefacts and photographic evidence of the past. My kind of place. I was immediately arrested by the larger-than-life photographic portrait of Oodgeroo Noonuccal, that I remember seeing on the cover of one of her books. Oodgeroo is a woman many of us remember with great love and admiration. Perhaps it was Oodgeroo who had invited us to the island, this time, too.

Between 1990 and 1992, I was extremely privileged to be the President of the Queensland branch of the Society of Women Writers, a remarkable group of women who staged the Writers’ Weekend in 1992, at the Shorncliffe State School. It was the first Writers’ Weekend in Queensland and it was a huge success, apparently becoming the template for other Writers’ weekends to come, in Brisbane. Oodgeroo Noonuccal was our guest speaker and clearly our drawcard. We had something like 500 people turn up for our “Poetry in the Pub” session to hear her read her work and speak.

Twenty-one years later we are planning another Writers’ festival for August 31 in Sandgate and Shorncliffe, and who is auspicing and supporting us every step of the way? None other than our friends the Women Writers. So we’ve moved full circle. At the museum the first person I saw was a very beautiful young lady who told me her name was Elizabeth Engelbrecht (which, translated from the German, means ‘Bright Angel’) who happens to be Oodgeroo’s great-granddaughter.

Elizabeth invited us into a room which houses the Oodgeroo collection and offered us tea or coffee. I opted for water and was rewarded with the best-tasting H2O I think I’ve ever had. The conversation sparkled; about Straddie, about the museum, about writing festivals—among other things. Then we were joined by the curator of the museum, another Elizabeth—Elizabeth Gondwes—whose surname, from Zimbabwe, references the crocodile.

What passionate discussion flowed from this meeting! Elizabeth Gondwes spoke about her vision for her museum, about how it is a repository of story and ideas—ephemera—which is why music and dance and theatre and storytelling play an integral part. Which brings us back to the Writers’ festival. Writers are the sacred guardians of story, but what is a festival without music and dance? So far we are set to invite some extraordinary writers for our Indigenous panel on the afternoon of the 31st August, so why not a didjeridoo player and an Aboriginal Dance troupe from Minjerribah as well?

On the way home we had 45 minutes to wait for the next water taxi, so we ordered pumpkin cheese cake—which was delicious—and coffee at a cafe-cum-fruitshop and relaxed, enjoying the charms of the island. The water taxi was almost filled with workers from Sibelco, the sand-mining company, who had parked their cars on the mainland, but we were back on almost-dry land in a matter of 25 minutes. It was close to a perfect day.

Good Friday

April 1, 2013 - 6:58 pm 2 Comments

As a school kid I always anticipated that the classroom writing exercise when we started a new term or semester would be “What I Did During the School Holidays.” And it usually was. ThoughI found the topic boring because practically every Primary or English teacher set it, I usually found something fresh to say because I liked to write—even if my holiday had been a dreary stretch of imprisonment at home that interrupted the far more pleasant time I spent at school. Most of the other students, however, greeted the task with groans of horror and despair. Subsequently, when I became a teacher myself, I made sure that I did not ask my students to recount their holiday activities, unless they volunteered to do so. However, something a member of my family has said about my writing personal essays,  has prompted this description of my Good Friday.

Because it was Easter I started the day listening to some liturgical music—Bach’s Mass in B Minor and his St Matthew Passion are always winners—while I made some curtains for a storage room under my house that I want to reclaim as a living space, maybe even an office. Then I picked some Bird’s Eye chillies growing in my garden, did some weeding, and planted pumpkin seeds—even though I am not sure if this is the season to do that. There is obviously some symbolism here, burying pumpkin seeds on Good Friday in the hope of a resurrection of the lush yellow fruit encased in its obdurately tough skin, and I am a sucker for symbolism, hence the liturgical music. After this I showered, dressed in some going-out clothes, and drove for lunch to Bardon, where my elder daughter has been living for about the last four years.

Now forgive me if I seem to brag, but Rachel is a very talented wordsmith. She has won the Queensland Young Writer Award not once, but twice, and was one of four finalists in the Queensland Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer a couple of years ago. Lately she has been creating art books—not just writing and illustrating them, but printing, formatting and physically producing them herself. She presented me with a copy of her latest, Long Yellow, which, no doubt you will see in the fullness of time yourselves, a symbolist tale which is both charming and haunting. Then she produced lunch, a Scandinavian feast of Gravlax. This dish, Gravlax, was a complete surprise to me, even though I can claim Danish ancestry from my maternal grandmother. It is raw salmon, marinated for three days,  coated with a thick green sauce made of dill, mustard, white wine vinegar and honey, laid on dark rye bread. The bright orange of the salmon with the rich green sauce  against the grainy brown background,  looked as good as it tasted.

My daughter explained that the Danes would catch their salmon and bury it in the sand above the high tide mark for three days before they ate it. What an impeccable Easter dish, I thought. Here is the symbolism of the exquisite corpse, buried for three days, and then religiously eaten.  “On the third day He rose from the dead. . .” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the taking of the eucharist the  Christians’ symbolic act of eating their god?

After lunch our hostess introduced her housemate Richard and I to a wordplay she had discovered in The Surrealists’ Book of Games. Three or five people can play this game—ideally five—but we managed by doubling up two of the roles. The first player has to write on the top of a page the Definite or an Indefinite article (“The,” “A,” or “An”) plus an adjective (a word which describes a noun.) This word is then hidden in a fold of the page so that the other players cannot see it. The next player writes a noun (or naming word) and then also folds it under a paper pleat to conceal it. The third player produces a verb ( a “doing”, “being,” or “having” word) and hides it, the fourth, another article and an adjective, and the fifth, another noun. The next player unfolds the paper and reads all  the words.

Some strange—even surreal—sentences emerge, sometimes funny, sometimes so lyrical as to be considered as the starting—or ending—point of a poem. It is an exercise we could try at our next Writers’ meeting on April 9. I’m sure it will inspire us to produce something engaging.

Sitting on the front verandah overlooking Richard’s manicured lawn which was framed by his unpruned tangle of a garden, put me in mind of enchanted woodlands as dusk began its tenuous embrace of everything, and houses up the gully somnolently blinked on their lights. It was time for me to go home to Brighton, and, feeling more than the  little melancholy  one often experiences at the end of a magical Autumn day in Brisbane, I took my leave from my lovely daughter and her gentle friend, Richard.

On Ashgrove Avenue there was a road block. Police were stopping the traffic and breathalising drivers. Slowing to a stop, I was reluctant to turn down my radio because a particularly fine tenor was singing  songs set to A.E. Housman’s poems, but I did reduce the volume enough to hear the policeman’s instructions as he handed me the plastic tube I was to breathe into. He seemed a very young man who looked  tired and rather wary, prompting me to wonder at his treatment at the hands of my fellow drivers. Do motorists give such boys and girls in blue a hard time for carrying out this important service to the community?

I asked the young copper how his Easter was panning out and he rewarded me with a very nice smile. It was another Easter gift I can count as treasure this Good Friday, with the delightfully allusive game played with a couple of my favourite people—at least one of whom loves the English language as much as I do—and the sumptuous, symbolist feast.