The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly in what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

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Put to shame, and other postscripts

It’s amazing what can come up in conversation. When I visited good friends in Athens a month ago, we were talking about what we take with us when we travel. Do we travel light? Or do we take an outfit for every possible contingency? Naturally, I brought up my packing list, the one I’d so lavishly praised in a blog post just before I left for Greece. I praised its virtues exuberantly.

My friend said that he, too, had developed a packing list that the whole family uses when travelling, and brought it out for me to see.

What can I say? It was a long, comprehensive, laminated list that could be used multiple times: things that weren’t relevant could be crossed out; things to be packed could be ticked off. There were even blank lines for miscellaneous things only relevant to each specific trip to be added. Then you can wipe the whole lot clean and start again.

I was floored. “Oh my God” I stammered. “I’m so impressed. That is so impressive…”

I had been put to shame.

Later, over dinner, the conversation turned to food and I mentioned my favourite meal was a traditional Greek casserole of green beans and potatoes (known as φασολάκια με πατάτες – fasolakia me patates). My friends’ teenage daughters can’t stand this dish, I was told.

I turned to one daughter and said, “Aaah, that’s because you haven’t tried my fasolakia me patates!”

“Yeah”, she replied, “That’s what you said about your list, too.”

Gotta admit, she had a point.


When I wrote about the difficulties in conversing with my friends and family in Greece, little did I realise I had a secret weapon in my possession that would help me out.

This is the first time I’ve travelled to Greece with a smartphone, you see – not because I haven’t been to Greece in a long time (I was just there in 2013), but because I was a late adopter as far as smartphones are concerned.

In any case, I very quickly realised that, thanks to my iPhone, I could reach into my pocket and pull out my own instant translation service. Google Translate became my new best friend.

iPhone screen shot from Google Translate

Not only was it useful when I desperately needed help expressing myself, I also used it when reading about the political situation in Greece – in fact, I’m still using it for this purpose. I am able to copy words straight from news websites or from Twitter and paste them into Google Translate. Within seconds out spits a translation.

It has been incredibly helpful. I’m now pretty fluent in the language of the current political landscape in Greece. Unsurprisingly, given the timing of my visit to Greece, the first word I looked up was διαπραγματεύσης – diapragmatevsis. It was in every news report on TV and all the articles I read online.

It means ‘negotiation’.


Another word I learnt when in Greece was δημοψήφισμα – demopsifisma: ‘referendum’. In the last post I wrote, I said I was hoping for Greeks to vote ΟΧΙ – ‘NO’ – in the Greek referendum of 5 July 2015. Author Christos Tsiolkas recently wrote an article about the aftermath of the referendum for The Monthly (Greek Tragedy). In it he writes about experiencing “political hope” and “political optimism” in the immediate wake of the referendum. These were feelings that swept up an entire nation (or at least the 61.3 per cent that voted ‘NO’). Feelings that I experienced, too, when I was in Greece in the week preceding the referendum, as well as immediately after.

The tragedy of what followed and what continues to be played out is that the Greek prime minister’s tactic of using the referendum result as a means of strengthening his negotiation position spectacularly backfired. Greece’s people may have rejected austerity but Greece’s lenders had not.

Meanwhile, the flower of political optimism and hope that had begun to grow in the hearts of the Greek people was not only weeded out; the garden it grew in was completely concreted over.

On my last day in Athens I visited the Acropolis, which I hadn’t been to in over twenty years. It was a glorious day and the marble of the Parthenon and the other buildings glimmered in the sun. The Greek flag fluttered against the backdrop of the city and the blue sky.

Greek flag - fluttering in wind

Over more than two millennia, the Acropolis has withstood countless attacks by Greece’s enemies, including being bombed in World War II. It’s still there though, and, while it is obviously damaged and worn, it’s still breathtaking in its magnificence.

I’ve written before about the lessons of history regarding the strength of the Greek people, and when I look at my photos of the day I reflect on this again.

I think of the Acropolis and its buildings as symbols of the resilience of the Greek people, who may be down now, who may be worn and damaged, but who will never be out.

Parthenon of Athens

Vale Gough Whitlam

In 1972 my mother was a member of the Dandenong Greek Community’s Women’s Committee when Gough Whitlam was campaigning for the federal election under the banner “It’s time.” As part of that campaign he visited the Dandeong Greek community on the feast day of its patron saint, St Pantaleimon.

The celebration was typical of such events: lots of food, music and people everywhere. The Dandenong Greek Community president introduced Whitlam to the ladies of the Women’s Committee. What impressed my mother the most about the man was that after hearing each woman’s name he greeted her formally pronouncing her surname, no matter how long, in flawless Greek. “How do you do, Mrs Lambrellis?” and so on, down the line of women. Each one addressed personally.

It wasn’t just the sort of campaign hand-pressing and photo-opportunism that we’re used to seeing now. Whitlam made it clear in his behaviour not only that day but in the policy of multiculturalism that he championed, which was groundbreaking at the time, that he understood and valued the migrant communities of Australia. He understood and valued their history and what had driven them to leave their homes and come to Australia. He understood and valued what they offered Australia both in enriching the culture and in building the nation. In championing multiculturalism, he championed them. And they loved him for it.

Three decades later when my brother was working as a contractor in IT, he would impress and awe his much younger colleagues by telling them that he’d gone to university for free. No, he hadn’t received a scholarship; university was free for all back then, a legacy of another Gough Whitlam policy to abolish tertiary education fees.

I enjoyed a year and a half of free university education myself, before the policy changed and fees were re-introduced. The policy had been in place for 17 years. An entire generation had been afforded the opportunity for a higher education irrespective of their financial position. With his “free university education for all” policy he had democratised education and truly paved the way for Australia to become the clever country.

These are just two examples of personal touch-points for my family in relation to the incredible, iconic and visionary Gough Whitlam, who passed away today. Prime Minister from 1972 to 1975, Whitlam’s vision for Australia was transformative and nothing short of revolutionary.

You can read elsewhere the long, long list of achievements of his government, and you can read about his life in his obituary, including the political mistakes he made and the flaws of the man.

More telling is the outpouring of respect evident in the speeches made by both sides of politics in Parliament today, and the outpouring of love evident in the comments left by readers in online forums, a lot of which begin with an expression of thanks for the ways in which the writers’ lives were enriched by Whitlam’s policies.

He was visionary and brave and a man of intellect and great ideas. What I admire most about him is that he was an egalitarian who appealed to people’s better nature. He reached out to the “men and women of Australia” and asked them to build with him a modern Australia that was fairer for all.

One of the The Age’s online forums includes my own comment on Gough Whitlam’s passing:

“I was only a small child when Gough Whitlam enacted his vision for a modern Australia, however I have been a beneficiary ever since. There was never anyone like him, nor, in these risk-averse, over-spun political times, are we likely to ever see anyone truly like him again. A visionary who believed in a better Australia and had faith in Australians. What a lucky country we are to have had him; can’t even imagine where we’d be without him. Thank you Gough Whitlam, and may you rest in peace.”

Portrait of Gough Whitlam

In Praise of the Humble Desk Calendar

At the start of 2012 I was working in a small team within a government department’s IT division. The agenda for my first day back at work after a short break over the Christmas and New Year period was quite simple: check email and source a day-by-day desk calendar for my desk.

The first task was easily taken care of: very little email had come through in the previous two weeks. And so to point two: finding a desk calendar.

When I looked through all the stationery cupboards on our floor and couldn’t find any, I sought out the person in charge of ordering stationery. Perhaps they hadn’t come in yet, or maybe I had just missed them in too hasty an appraisal of stationery cupboard contents in my rounds of the floor.

Nope, I was told. There were no desk calendars because the division simply hadn’t ordered any. Physical calendars, including day-by-day calendars, were deemed obsolete in a division where everyone carried a smartphone.

I decided to buy one for myself and went back to my desk to ask my colleagues if they wanted one too. My question was met with an exchange of quizzical looks, then laughter and finally, holding up their smartphones, comments about desk calendars being “old school” and whether I would perhaps like to join them in the twenty-first century.

Now, you may remember from a previous post of mine that I don’t have a smartphone. Even if I did, though, I would still want my day-by-day desk calendar. And here’s why.

Quite simply, the day-by-day desk calendar is one of the most brilliant pieces of multi-functional stationery ever invented by man.

Here’s what it can do:

It lets you know what the day and date is. Really simply, in big, friendly, easy-to-read letters and numbers. No mistaking one day for the other and buggering up appointments with the desk calendar.

It’s a notepad. You can take notes on it. Perfect for when the phone rings. Perfect for adding reminders to special days. Perfect for writing daily to-do lists on. Perfect for doodling on. Perfect in so many ways! There are usually a few extra blank pages at the end of the calendar – “just in case” – and the calendar stand even has a handy spot for a pen or pencil so you’re never caught short.

Each page on a day-by-day calendar also shows you the entire month, as well as the previous and next month. Not only that, but at the start of the calendar, there’s also a full year calendar for the current year, the previous year and the next year. Having an argument about what day a certain date fell on last year? No problem – you can check! Want to know what day your birthday will fall on next year? You can check that too! It’s genius, I tell you!

Undoubtedly, though, my absolute favourite part of a day-by-day desk calendar is the daily quote at the bottom of each page. It might be a clever and witty bon mot, a snippet of deep and meaningful philosophy, a truism delivered wisely, or just a hilariously silly one-liner.

Whenever I turn the page and contemplate a new day, I stop for a moment, read the quote and think about it. Sometimes it might just be a way to start the day with a smile. Other times it can be something so profound and timely that it shines a light into a dark corner of my mind. I can be amused or inspired, educated or enlightened.

I know smartphones (and tablets and computers) come with calendar applications. And yes, there are a gazillion apps to deliver you as many quotes as you wish to read. But you actually have to choose to access the quotes, to go out and seek them. And when are you going to have the time or inclination to do that? I’m guessing not very often.

Whereas the day-by-day desk calendar slyly inserts a little dose of daily wisdom, humour or inspiration right into every day. And it’s the random nature of the delivery that makes it most enjoyable.

So, in honour of the humble day-by-day desk calendar, that hard-working wonder of the stationery world, here are a few of my favourite quotes from this year’s calendar (that is, so far; there has been no cheating by looking ahead!):

“Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, to give yourself to it.” – Buddha

“We are all here for some special reason. Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become an architect of your future.” – Robin Sharma

“I haven’t failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

“Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.” – David Lloyd George

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” – Charles R. Swindoll

“Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” – Henry James

“There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.” – Orson Wells

Day by day desk calendar showing page for 30 September with the word "Blog" circled on the notepad

So cool… not.

Earlier this year I rediscovered the wonderful Natalie Tran of CommunityChannel on YouTube. Back in the day when I had lots of free time (actually I can never remember a time when my life was like that, but you get my drift), I started watching her short but hilarious takes on life. Then life got busier, time passed and next thing you know it’s five years later.

What I love about Natalie Tran is that her humour is observational: her subjects are people and their everyday quirks and behaviours. Exactly the kind of thing I’m interested in.

In one of her recent videos, she makes the observation that she no longer understands young people who say things like “yolo” and “hashtag: hilarious”, acknowledging that back in her day the “cool cats” said different things. For example, she points out, back then it was cool to say “…not” at the end of everything.

My immediate reaction to this was to feel slightly uncomfortable. “Oh” I thought, “Aren’t people saying that anymore?”

I distinctly remember when I first heard that particular expression. It was on a beach in Sydney in the early 1990s. My friend Mez had a baseball cap on back to front with the word “NOT” on the front of it. When I asked her what it signified, she explained it to me and I felt just a little bit behind the cool kids for having had to ask.

I can’t say I was taken with it when I first heard it, and in fact, it was probably half a year before I started using the expression myself. But once I got hold of it, I didn’t let it go. And now it’s been nearly 20 years, and I’m still saying it.

This doesn’t just happen to me. In a clip shown during Graham Norton’s interview with Madonna last year, her teenager daughter Lourdes coolly ridiculed her for still using the expression “whatevs” which, Lourdes claimed, was out of favour with the cool set. I did take some comfort in the fact that even Madonna can be left behind the times, though admittedly saying “whatevs” is at least more recent than using “…not”.

There was a time when I was the one ahead of the expression curve. When the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out in 1990, everyone started using the expression “dude” but I had been saying it for about a decade, thanks to my brother. I’m not sure where he picked it up from but I know “dude” has ridden the wave of cultural popularity a few times over the last 100 plus years.

Along with “dude”, “cool” is another staple in my popular expression diet. I’ve been saying it at least since my teens… and yes, I still say it. A lot. (Sometimes I turn it into “coolio” which is an expression I heard a few years ago and thought was … well, I guess cool so I added it to my repertoire.) “Cool” is another word with a fascinating etymology, coming into popular Western culture through the beatniks in the 1940s who picked it up from the African American jazz scene.

Mind you, not all expressions from popular cultural movements are timeless. You don’t hear “groovy” or “square” much (unless you’re watching an Austin Powers film). Those expressions from the 1960s counter-culture have definitely had their day. But then apparently, that’s what other people think of “ace” and “pox”, terms far more popular in the 1970s when I was growing up than they are now, but I still use them. Not often, and more often than not I’ll use them ironically (in the same way my brother sometimes uses “fully sick”), sure, but not always. Sometimes I genuinely think something is ace.

If I think about the popular phrases I have picked up over the years, they’re the ones I heard being used by people I admired.

There are also a lot of popular phrases I have never adopted, maybe because I never heard anyone I admire use them, or at least use them convincingly. I’ve never gotten the hang of the mostly American tradition of turning negatives into positives. I never jumped on the Michael Jackson “bad” bandwagon, for example, and when I watch popular talent shows and the judges say things like, “You murdered it! You killed it! You destroyed it!” I’m always a little confused. Was it a good performance or not? To me it sounds like negative criticism. Like they’ve ruined the song they’re singing, for example, where “to ruin something” is actually a bad thing. And I don’t mean bad as in good, I mean, bad as in awful. Bad as in terrible. Bad as in pox.

Increasingly I feel ridiculous using the expressions of the youth of the day. I think I’ve come to realise that talking like a teenager when you’re in your 40s only makes you sound like a fool. On the other hand, I’m obviously quite comfortable still talking like I did when I was in my youth.

So I’m sticking with “…not”. Even if that makes me sound daggy. Or aren’t people saying daggy anymore?

Communicating With the Past

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This gallery contains 9 photos.

Yesterday I went on a tour of the Telstra Museum with some old work colleagues of mine. Located in Hawthorn, the museum houses a fascinating array of telecommunications equipment from highly technical back-end equipment to phones of both the novelty … Continue reading

Mi voy a Marbella… y Granada, Sevilla y Cordoba

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This gallery contains 9 photos.

I find myself in Spain so I hope you don’t mind too much if I temporarily morph my fledgling blog into a travel diary. I’m in Marbella, on the south coast of Spain (the famous Costa del Sol), at the … Continue reading