Category Archives: writing

The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace


The family story is that when my mother became a teacher at South Newdegate School, the young men of the district would race to the school to claim the privilege of driving her back to her lodgings. I’ve taken liberties with the story, knowing, of course, the identity of the winner of the Great Filly Race. 

 

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Horse and sulky

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace

There was not always a literal filly in the Great Filly Race of Lake Grace in 1938. Once Roy’s Dad realized why his son was disappearing from the farm every Friday after lunch and returning around dark, Dad positively encouraged Roy, ‘Take Man O’ War, he’s only had a day with the plough this week,’ or ‘Take Arrabella, she’s frisky today.’

Roy harnessed the horse of the day, whether filly or gelding, to the sulky and sped off. The road journey from Lake Biddy to South Newdegate School was (and is) a roundabout S-shaped route. In the first few weeks of the Race, Roy quickly refined a more direct route across farms and alongside uncleared bush near Breakaway Ridge. Once he had established the route, Roy could make the journey in under 90 minutes.

Each week, however, he tried to shave minutes off his travel-time, especially when one Friday Walter Lloyd had turned up at the school fence five minutes before him.

Roy estimated that riding Arrabella he could cover the same ground 30 minutes faster than with the sulky, but arriving with a horse only would negate the whole purpose of the Race. So he bounced along tracks and over rough white clay as fast as he dared. Dad would not be happy if he rode back to report that the sulky had a broken axle and one wheel stuck in a clay pan.

This was clearly an important Race for Roy. He was 29 years of age, and few romantic opportunities had come along for Roy and other young farmers of Lake Biddy. He dressed in clean shirt, grey trousers and polished shoes. He wore his Sunday jacket over the shirt, buttoned on a collar, combed his hair and wore his best grey fedora, ready to lift it to salute Miss Thackrah. At his feet was a jar of mulberries or a box of figs, summer fruit he had personally picked, as tribute for the lady.

For his vehicle Walter Lloyd drove a buggy, no doubt imagining that Miss Thackrah would prefer its upholstered seat to the wooden board of the sulky. Roy drove his family’s buggy in the Race one week, only to find it too big and cumbersome to travel fast through the bush. Arrabella could scarcely raise a canter with the buggy behind. That was the Friday Walter arrived before he did. The next week Man O’ War was again pulling the more streamlined sulky.

On four occasions (Roy counted them) both Roy and Walter were waiting at the school fence when Miss Thackrah emerged from the one-roomed school. Both young men stood next to their vehicle with a hand extended to invite the lady to climb up and sit in their carriage.

For this was the prize of the 15-Mile Great Race: the privilege of driving Miss Thackrah the mile to the finishing line: Jackson’s farm where she was staying. Then, with another hat flourish and the handing over of the gift, the winner would turn the horse and head home.

A summer storm boomed over South Newdegate one Race Friday. Miss Thackrah laughed when Roy, his coat and shirt dripping from driving through the rain, produced a dry but greasy mackintosh from under the sulky seat and draped it over her head and shoulders.

‘It smells of sheep!’ Miss Thackrah exclaimed. Roy wasn’t sure from that whether lanolin aroma pleased the lady or repelled her. ‘But it’s better than getting wet,’ she added. Roy didn’t know what to say. He produced little conversation, but his manners spoke volumes. He worried that when she became his wife she might not like the smells of farming.

nuytsia-floribunda-26-01-2017-444Fridays went by. The dry hot season turned to autumn. The bright golden flowers of the native Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda, had faded and fallen, and its three-pronged fruit was now maturing. The first rains brought cooler days and the brown grass flushed green. Miss Thackrah went away for the two weeks of the May holidays.

Roy made sure he met the train at the Newdegate siding on the Sunday before the next term started. He raised his hat as Miss Thackrah opened the door of the compartment and leant forward to take her suitcase in his left hand, and with his immense right hand he gingerly took her dainty hand as she stepped down from the train onto the packed earth platform. As he straightened his back, their eyes met, and Miss Thackrah smiled.

‘August holidays,’ Roy said quietly, ‘Come and stay with us.’

After that, Walter did not bother to participate in the Great Filly Race, but Roy still dashed to collect Miss Thackrah on the last day of every school week.

They married the next Easter Monday, on a shining autumn day.

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Another commended


I come home to the excellent news that my story “The World’s Greatest Mesmerist” is highly commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest. (The book contains the story.)

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Bush Funeral


It was hot when I arrived in the main (the only) street of Burdup in the south-west of Western Australia. ‘Bloody hot,’ said the barman. I had stopped at the pub to ask for directions and, somewhat nervously, for a lemon squash. In the cool darkness of the bar I felt the eyes of the four or five customers and their suspicious curiosity when my question about the way to the rectory gave me away as the ‘new Rev’rend’ – and as rather naïve. In a country town of perhaps a hundred houses, only the most complete stranger needs directions.

Heat seemed to pour out of the old weatherboard walls of the rectory that Friday. The fridge had been turned off, so there wasn’t even any ice or cold water. And it took an hour for the tap water to freeze even in the freezer. I determined to brave the pub later again in the afternoon, to buy a few cans of beer for the evening. I was too hot to care what the locals thought of a priest in the pub. Meanwhile a little unpacking. I trudged in and out from the car, which was broiling in the back yard. The lawn was brown and crisp with dryness.

Fortunately, the phone in the study was working. I rang the furniture company to confirm that the mattresses I had ordered were on the way. At least I would be able to sleep as comfortable as the heat allowed. And I would have organised one or two essentials for my wife and children due next week.

I realised that was only the heat, but I felt all enthusiasm dwindle for the task the Archbishop had given me. There seemed to be very little attraction in being temporary priest of Burdup parish during Advent and Christmas. There would be visits to the five out-centres as well. The day before, at our interview in Perth, the Archbishop had said: ‘Check that list with the diocesan property officer, and tell the vestry at Burdup they won’t get a new rector unless they put in a new oven and fly-screens.’

Out here in the near outback, the mind has to strain to see the connection between such earthly politics and the everlasting Gospel I was to preach to the people of Burdup.

The heat wore on. After finishing the essential unpacking, I filled a mug with water, now refreshingly cool, and retired to the coolest room of all, the bathroom. There the darkness and cement lowered the temperature a little.

The phone rang.

‘Darn,’ I thought out loud, and made my way to the study. There a few boxes of books lay disorganised near the old desk and the filing cabinet with the parish records, I didn’t know who knew I’d arrived. But my curiosity was low as I rather abstractedly lifted the receiver.

‘Hello.’

‘Ah, is that the new Rev’rend? Jest heard that you’d arrived in town. You’ll know me pretty soon. My name’s Fred Moynihan. I’m the undertaker. Most people call me Bushie.’

My heart sank a little. I expected undertakers to be same in Burdup as in Perth, and there was something depressing about beginning my ministry, even a short one, with a funeral.

‘I’m Frank Newman. Nice to meet you.’

‘Yeah. Got a job for you. Noongar lady, one of the best. Died at the reserve yesterday. She was Granny of the local natives, you understand. I wouldn’t bother ya with it, only the Baptist Rev’rend won’t do it, and the nearest Uniting minister’s two hundred miles west.’

I sipped my water.  The ice-blocks were getting thin.

‘I see, Fred, D’you know if she was a regular attender anywhere?’ A funeral and a conflict with fellow clergy was not a good starting combination.

‘Don’t think she went to church, Reverend. She had some papers, and one of them I’ve got here is a Church of England christenin’ paper. Guess she’s more yours than anyone else’s.’

‘Oh. Well, is there are time worked for the funeral, or any arrangements been made at all?’

‘Sunday morning, eleven o’clock. Straight after your Communion.’

‘Sunday? That’s unusual, isn’t it?’

‘Pretty normal around here. Then we don’t get many funerals.’

‘Look, Fred, er … Bushie, I’ve written all that down. Can I get back to you later this afternoon? I can see you need an answer pretty soon. So I’ll phone you back before five.’

There was a chuckle on the line.

‘Gunna ring the other guys? Okay, you do that, but I’ll expect you to ring. Number’s 365. Ya dial 9 then 479 365. Will meet you Sunday.’

His confidence bothered me. The phone book showed the number of the Baptist manse. I would have to ring enquiries at Wagin to get the Uniting Church number.

I was following the usual procedure of checking there were no lines crossed. Too many quarrels have started between clergy of different denominations over funerals, particularly when the dear departed is presented to the minister as a non-church-going person. It wasn’t the way I had hoped to introduce myself to the other clergy of the area, but after a friendly chat with the Baptist man (and an invitation to join him for afternoon tea the next day) I began to see that this funeral was normal. Granny Wilson had been nominally Anglican. The town was well aware of her death, and for traditional reasons to do with distance, funerals were often held on Sunday after the main service in the particular church.

I thought I would still ring the Uniting minister. So I went back into the kitchen to get another glass of water and replace the slippery ice. Just as I shut the fridge door, the phone rang again.

‘Now, that is odd,’ I said to myself, and carried the plastic tumbler back to the table in the hot study. I was more aware than every of my sweaty hands and the shirt clinging to my back.

‘Hullo.’

The Australian accent knifed at my brain.

‘Listen, new Rev’rend, and listen good. You do that funeral for that nigger woman and yer gunna learn what violence tastes like. Y’ever hear of using ten-gauge fencin’ wire as a whip? Works well on niggers, jest like on nigger lovers.’

The phone clicked dead. A small, rational voice in the back of my mind told me there was nothing I could do about the threat. Threats like that are almost never carried out. The purpose of making them in a cowardly way is their immediate effect on the recipient. It succeeded. I stood with the receiver uselessly pressed against my ear, almost paralysed for some minutes.

I vaguely knew the priest in the next parish, which was technically in the Bunbury diocese. I dialled his number and told him about the conversation I’d just had. He heard me out, then commented enigmatically:

‘Can’t say I’d do the same as you. Not worth my while. I leave native burials to the Baptists or Fundo missionaries. But I admire your courage, old chap. We’ll see you round, I guess.’

The click of the phone deepened my feeling of being cut off from all that made sense.

A blowfly buzzed loudly, caught between the louvres and fly-wire. I had met the wife of the rector’s warden at Church Office in Perth, and decided to ring him. This was back to front. Normal courtesy required waiting for the lay leaders to welcome you before you consulted them.

‘Number 403,’ it said in the battered Teledex near the phone, so I dialled 9–479–403. The warden himself answered. It was an awkward conversation.  His most helpful compromise was to ‘have the box at church door and not take it inside. Keep the torkin’ all for the cemetery.’

I bridled. To my ears that compromise was a sell-out. But I wasn’t sure enough of myself to tell him so.

‘I’ll think about it,’ I lied.

My next call was to the undertaker, begging for more time.

‘Sure, ring before ten tomorrow.’

To my surprise, it was after 5 o’clock. I was thirsty. (God, did I thirst!) but I decided not to buy beer. I sensed I had more important things to do. I rang my wife. The conversation was short and strained. I felt too isolated to share with her the agony and uncertainty I was going through.

At 7:30 the darkness fell, as it does in the bush, suddenly and deeply. The stars were a glorious blaze of light. Except for the occasional dog barking, and the endless crunch of crickets, there was a profound silence. After the last few hectic weeks in the city, it was deathly quiet.

I discovered a spy novel on top of one of the boxes of books and read on the back veranda until 10:30. I locked up all the outside doors. I spread a sheet over the queen-sized mattress and tried to sleep. In the heat I rolled from side to side, sweated, read some more and tried to sleep. At one stage I sat up straight in bed and said out loud, ‘I must do it. I have no choice. It is finished.’ I flicked on the bedside light. My watch said 3 o’clock. I turned out the light and slept deeply.

 

Most of the Saturday I spent at a humpy at the reserve, talking about Granny Wilson and planning the service. But it was like a dream.

Saturday night was ominous. The temperature actually climbed at 7 o’clock into thehigh 30s, making the evening nearly as hot as the day. Dry, impotent thunder rolled around the dark sky. I tried to look over my sermon for the 9:30 Mass. I slept better than last night.

 

No-one came to church at 9:30 that Sunday morning. I wasn’t sure that the parish was so run-down that this might be a regular occurrence. I waited at the altar for 20 minutes, hot in the purple vestments that ran with red dust, then made my spiritual communion.  My prayers seemed empty words echoing back at me round the sanctuary.

I returned to the vestry and disrobed, noticing the heat even of my light alb, and looked again at the service register. I was making history. This was the first Sunday on which there had been fewer than four communicants.

I sighed. A purple stole over my alb would be vestments enough for the funeral.

 

By 10:30 they began to arrive. First, the ancient hearse, a 1930s Chevrolet, backed up to the door. Bushie Moynihan single-handedly rolled the casket onto its trolley and up to the chancel steps. Unable to find any candles on stands, I took the altar candles and placed them either side of Granny Wilson.

By 10:45, the church was overflowing with black faces. Dreamlike, I began the service, aware only of the keening. Such crying I had never heard. Subdued anguish, but almost conventional, as if the deep hope of the Christian good news was only just beginning to penetrate the hearts of Granny Wilson’s ‘children’.

I chose to ride in the hearse, with its round pedals and anachronistic strip speedometer (broken, of course) to the cemetery). The sky, normally intensely blue, was black with clouds.

As I read the words of the committal, I felt nothing. The dull thud as I threw earth onto the coffin brought forth a muffled response from the skies. Lightning flashed around in desultory fashion. I felt alone, alienated, useless. I gave the blessing and walked back to hearse.

‘Jest wait an’ watch, Rev’rend. This ain’t yer city funeral.’ At least Bushie was an expert in this business. The shire workers in thongs, black shorts and grey singlets, came with their shovels to throw back the red earth onto the casket. The crowd keened more loudly. Many joined in pushing soil into the grave.

Within 15 minutes the grave was covered with a mound of earth. Some of the women – and Granny’s son, Johnnie Wilson – threw themselves onto the mound, moaning loudly. It all seemed distant, documentary-like: ‘modern Australian Aborigines demonstrating indigenous mourning customs.’

I leaned against the front mudguard of the hearse. A figure detached itself from the gradually dispersing crowd. It was Jeanie, Mrs Wilson’s daughter, a full-breasted, middle-aged woman with straggly grey hair, wearing a vaguely coloured print cotton dress.

‘Thanks, Rev.’ She took my hand in the formal Aboriginal way. ‘Yer let us mourn like we need ter.’

She walked on proudly on her bare feet. The new Granny.

I noticed the only white face in the crowd. It was the wife of the church-warden, the lady I had met in Perth. She walked stiffly, like porcelain I thought, and seemed in danger of breaking into a smile.

‘Welcome, Father,’ she said. ‘Yer’ll do f’r us. We might yet see Christ here.’ And I couldn’t tell whether her eye was wet from a tear or from the first drop of the thunder-storm.

‘Christ is risen,’ I mumbled – well outside the Easter season.

  • * * *

First published in Celebrate (Melbourne: Dove Communications), Vol.7 No.3, July 1988

 

The Tyrolean Yarmulka


Often when he travelled through Austria and Germany, Papa brought the boy a present. The boy took care to look after each present; the plush bear, the wooden truck, and the tin spinning top. He kept them in a neat row in a wooden toy box in his bedroom on the first floor of their comfortable house in Innsbruck.

When the boy was ten, Papa brought the boy a Tyrolean yarmulka. The boy cherished this gift more than all the others. He thanked Papa with a little smile.

The yarmulka made the boy proud to be from Tyrol: the tailor had decorated it with Tyrolean Yarmulka.jpgwhite Edelweissen and the red Tyrolean roses. Papa brought it home just in time for the Succoth, Tabernacles, and the boy wore it proudly as they celebrated the feast camping in the backyard of their home. Papa also covered the Tabernacles wooden frame with bright new fabric bought from the old department store in Müllerstraße.

It was a pretty yarmulka, and the boy loved it. From then on he wore it every Friday night when Mama lit the candles on the eve of Shabbat. He showed it to Reb Joachim. The old rabbi smiled every Shabbat morning when he looked out over the first row of the Innsbruck synagogue and saw the boy sitting proudly next to his father like a little tower of the Second Temple: a tower that was festooned with a colourful yarmulke!

The years passed quickly. The boy’s thirteenth year was 1938. Hitler had cast a long shadow over Europe, and Jews everywhere feared for their lives and their loved ones.

This was the year of his Bar Mitzvah. He studied hard: he worked at his Hebrew lessons and he learned about the responsibilities of Jewish manhood. Reb Joachim asked all the boys to learn especially carefully the Shema: the ancient prayer which is sometimes called the Jewish creed:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

“This is a time of martyrs,” the Rabbi said mysteriously, “and you may need to know this, for this is the heart of our faith.”

The boy couldn’t understand this – not really. He said to the other boys, “Why is he treating us as through we don’t know the Shema?”

 

The Bar Mitzvah approached. The boy and his friends planned their parties. Older relatives kept asking the boy what he would like and the boy’s present list grew and grew.  Aunt Hanna even teased him, “You’d think being a Jew was about the number of things you are given!”

A few weeks before the ceremony, Mama called him to her room. “Here are your tefillin. Don’t tell Papa I’m showing you how to put them on!” She quickly covered the boy’s head with a yarmulka – to the boy, it just seemed to be one that was sitting there on the dressing table – and then unfolded the prayer shawls and tefillin and put them on, helping him place the box with the scriptural text centrally on his forehead.

“Remember,” she said, “after the Bar Mitzvah, this is your first mitzvoth, your first duty. To put these on and to say the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to put on Tefillin’.”

“Yes, Mama,” said the boy.

“And what do you think of your new yarmulka?”she asked.

“Is that to wear on my Bar Mitzvah?” he asked, afraid. She nodded.

He raced from the room, so she wouldn’t see his tears.

Mama knew her son well, but couldn’t understand his resistance to the new yarmulka. When he finally said that it was because he wanted to wear the bright Tyrolean yarmulka she was horrified. It wasn’t dignified enough for a man to wear at his Bar Mitzvah. And it was hurtful to display too much sentimental patriotism when the Nazis had turned that to their own propaganda ends.

The boy’s grandfather arrived from Poland in time for his first grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. He understood. “If that’s what the boy wants,” he said, “that will please Adonai, the Lord of the Universe.”

And it was what the boy wanted. Grandfather was pleased too, as Mama eventually gave in. Grandfather knew that this might be his last visit to Austria. He was old, and the cancer was creeping through his body. He needed to be back in Katowice in the familiar surroundings of home with the right nursing.

The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came. The boy dressed and wore proudly his prayer shawls and tefillin and on top – to show there is someone above – his bright childish Tyrolean yarmulka.

As the boys came one by one to the lectern to recite his passage, the old rabbi winked at each. “Don’t forget to take the Shema with you,” he whispered mysteriously. But the boy had no time to puzzle out this rabbinic puzzle, because the rest of the day was a family day – the Bar Mitzvah party. There was food, there were presents, there was more food and more presents, and the boy was the centre of attention in all of it.

That night, the boy was exhausted, and was about to go to his room to prepare for bed. He looked at his new jacket hanging outside the wardrobe. He looked at the tefillin neatly laid out in the drawer. Suddenly, he thought of his grandfather and ran to his room to thank him for being at the Bar Mitzvah, and for persuading Mama to let him wear the yarmulka.

He ran into the room and embraced his grandfather. Tall and gaunt, Grandfather’s arms gently knocked the boy’s head and the little cap went flying, unnoticed. “Thank you, Grandfather, for, for … for everything!” “May Adonai be with you,” the old man replied. The boy didn’t see the tears in his eyes. He turned again and ran back to his room, and was soon in his bed asleep surrounded by all the symbols and gifts that come to Jewish boys when they become a man.

It must have been midnight. There was a crunch of boots on the gravel of the front drive. There were shouts and yells of “Juden”. The boots were in the house. The boy woke terrified. He heard his parents reply to the yells and walk past his room. His father’s voice, “There’s no one in there!” But strangely the key was turned. The boy stayed where he was. Then a feebler voice. Grandfather being led away, crying “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohaynu Adonai Echad.”

The voices and the boots receded. The boy lay there for a very long time, and then crept over to the door. He unlocked it from the inside, and walked quietly to his parents’ room. Empty. Then to his grandfather’s room. Also empty. But the yarmulka was gone. Not on the floor where the boy had last seen it. Not on the bedside table.

Next morning, the boy crept from his home and fled across the fields to Switzerland. He carried nothing. He grieved the Tyrolean yarmulka as he ran. But he discovered he had on him something to be carried with him always. Reb Joachim was right: we Jews carry the Shema in our hearts.

 

The Missing Iota


In the sacristy, Father John Wilson bent to remove the green brocade robe. He laid the chasuble – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – on the vestment table, followed by the girdle, which he laid in an ‘S’ on top of the green. He then lifted the stole from his shoulders and kissed the embroidered cross at its centre. His courtly hands, out of long habit, now folded the cloth strip in to the Epsilon or ‘H’ shape. He knew that older priests had worn a maniple until the nineteen seventies, and without the symbolism of the Iota, the ‘I’, made by the maniple and superimposed over the second and third letters of the sacred name, these ritual foldings were meaningless. Without the iota, with only the rope girdle and stole he had written nothing more than the second and third Greek letters of the name of Jesus.

The concentrated attention Fr John seemed to be paying to his disrobing was deceptive. He was conscious more of the heat: outside the sacristy door, the grass in the church yard had long since turned brown, and the river was an intermittent creek.  Somewhere a crow cawed, and flies buzzed on the warm church wall.  He was cooler with the removal of each layer of robe; the heavy chasuble, the stole and girdle and then the alb.

Under his alb today, he wore light slacks, sandals and a blue polo shirt. His parishioners had seen him recess three minutes earlier from the sanctuary as a priest in robes. Now the only thing that distinguished John as a priest was the tiny cross on his shirt collar. He thought about taking that off as well, but left it there where it glinted self-consciously.

He looked up for a moment into the mirror and checked his brown hair. He pushed an errant lock up from his forehead and pulled the sacristy door closed behind him. He walked away from the stone church without a further glance, and jumped eagerly into the seat of the restored MG-A coupé waiting in the rectory driveway.

The 150-litre motor purred proudly as John Wilson pointed his cherished MG along the main street of Kannarup away from its landmark jetty and out onto the main highway. About 15 minutes later, Fr Wilson slowed the sports car and turned it gingerly onto a gravel track that led into thick karri trees.  It was cooler here in the shade.  He frowned as a tree limb brushed the MG’s paintwork, and a light cloud of dust rose from the tyres. But the place where he was headed had to remain hard to find. Eventually he arrived at the shed. Peppermint trees camouflaged the size and shape of the steel structure. If you knew what you were looking for, you could see the outline of a large satellite dish on the roof.

The priest pressed a remote. The shed door slid smoothly aside, and he nosed the MG inside. Bright LED lights revealed a roomy interior. Three large locked gun cabinets were at the end furthest from the MG. On one wall was a long desk and chairs. Opposite was a sound-proof booth with state of the art recording equipment. A special cupboard housed the computer server. Fr John leaned under the MG’s glove-box and unlocked a flat drawer under the dashboard and drew out a large laptop computer. He got out of the car and sat at one of the desks and looked up at the large Arabic words calligraphied on the flat wall. ‘Allahu akhbar,’ he breathed.

The laptop connected to the server through the wireless modem. Within minutes, Wilson was absorbed in uploading a detailed map of the Perth CBD to the website he had been working on in the three months following the great feast of Idu’l-Adha. In this secluded place, he could concentrate entirely on his work for Allah.

His digital watch beeped. It was midday. Time for Salat was 12.03. He saved his work, powered down the laptop and, as Rollinson had instructed, he locked the laptop under the long desk.

He spread a prayer rug on the concrete floor. ‘God is great,’ he intoned, ‘I bear witness that there is no divinity but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is Allah’s messenger. Hasten to the prayer. Hasten to the prayer.’ In his mind’s eye, he saw Rachid in his barber’s shop in the main street of Kannarup hastening to prayer. Rachid would not kneel in that public place, but would stand still and recite the prayers. The image of Amir and Ida in the back of their stall in the food hall also came to his mind as they hastened to their prayer rug unrolled in the cramped space between the kitchen benches.

As Fr John salaamed in the shed in the forest, his tiny cross tinkled against the floor. There was a line somewhere between taqqiyah and betrayal, and he could not be honestly sure whether he had crossed from necessary strategic deceit into betrayal. He did know that he could not keep up this life for much longer. Each day began and ended for Christ with the Eucharist and Evening Prayer, and the Dhuhr midday prayer and sometimes Asr at around 3.30 kept the middle of the day for Allah.

He rolled up the prayer mat and glanced upwards at the security camera over the entry door. He knew that Rollinson checked the images every day, and that if he failed to keep his appointments with Allah that he would receive a visit from Rollinson late at night, with the usual threats to take away the MG-A and to expose him to the congregation. He clenched his fists briefly before sliding into the MG and backing out into the forest.

As the white sports car headed slowly back to the highway, two men approached the shed. They looked around carefully before the small man unlocked a narrow side door. These men were not local. No-one in Kannarup except Rollinson knew of their existence, but their presence was already beginning to have a strong effect. They were federal agents and their powers under Canberra’s anti-terrorism legislation were extensive.

But they were beginning to doubt their power to control the priest Wilson.

The small man was compact and fit. He kept watch while the larger man retrieved the laptop and searched its contents. Wilson hadn’t even used a password. His Google map of the Cabinet Room in Havelock Street annotated with points and times was cached in Firefox’s history and it took the larger man less than a minute to find, and then download it onto a thumb drive. Rollinson had briefed him well. With this evidence and with Rollinson out of the way in Majorca or Peru, they would be able to prove the existence of a plot emanating from the Muslims of Kannarup to assassinate the Premier.

The bosses in Canberra calculated that this would give the Premier’s party enough bounce to guarantee the Federal branch’s re-election at the House of Reps election in December. But it all depended on Rollinson’s ability to persuade the priest that he really had been recruited to an Islamic terror cell. They thought that the classic MG had clinched the deal, but they hadn’t counted on his sincerity. Now they feared that the contradictions of being both a good Muslim and a devout priest couldn’t last.

Meanwhile the priest took a different turn onto a minor road. ‘Always go back to Kannarup a different way,’ Rollinson had commanded. With the roof of the coupé down and the wind in his hair, Fr John pushed the MG up to 140 km/h on the narrow bitumen. He laid out in his mind the contours of the plan: driving to Perth in the MG with the bomb hidden in the false bottom of his large travelling communion set. This, too, with its exquisite engraving of the Passion of Christ on the silver cup, had been a gift from Rollinson. He would take this past security at the Premier’s office to the meeting on rural issues. Security would let him through: he was a priest and the bomb was well hidden, and his confidence would carry it off. Inside the meeting, he would rest his briefcase on the communion case, release the false bottom and fasten the small bomb to the underside of the Premier’s Jah-Roc Cabinet table. In all the movement at the conclusion of the meeting, Fr John would set the digital timer to 20 minutes and leave with the other visitors.

Rollinson had hacked the Premier’s diary, and established that the Premier had meetings for the rest of the afternoon in the building, most in the Cabinet room.

As Father John rolled through the farmland south of Kannarup, he smiled at the similarities between his plot and that of Bonhoeffer trying to assassinate Hitler – only this time the plot would succeed.

His attention was caught by a field filled with the Easter lily weed; as cut flowers in church they were eye-catching, but growing wild in farm-land they were a menace. This was the Johnsons’ farm. Fences were down. A few scrawny cattle sheltered under trees from which large branches had fallen, probably during winter storms, and no-one had cleared them away.

He had taken Ross Johnson’s funeral only 18 months before. He remembered the church packed for the popular 55-year-old, who had still been playing hockey and was a luminary in the tennis club. Ross had been killed in a car crash on a gravel road near where Fr John was driving today.  He’d lost control in slippery conditions, and rolled and hit the only tree on the road reserve for several kilometres.

The teenaged children had almost had to carry Wendy, Ross’s wife, into the front pew of the church on the day of the funeral. She was disheveled and distraught, sobbing and hugging each of the boys. She and Fr John had decided to have the committal from the church, and when Fr John approached the casket with the proclamation, ‘We here commit the body of our dear brother Ross to be cremated, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,’ the woman had rushed forward to the casket knocking over a large vase of Easter lilies under the lectern in her haste. Wet white and green organic stuff was scattered over the casket and the floor, while Wendy put her body between the casket and Fr John and wrapped her arms around the end of the casket.

Fr John had paused, then summoned the two sons to hold their mother while she wept over the casket. He remembered the surge of irritation inside himself as he decided to abandon the rest of the prayer of committal and instead recite the old prayer of commendation: ‘Go forth on your journey from this world, Christian soul, in the name of God the Father who created you; in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered for you; in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you; in communion with the blessed saints, and aided by angels and archangels and all the heavenly host. May your portion this day be in peace.’

Then he recalled the moment his brain snapped on the word ‘peace’. He had carried on praying, ‘O Lord forgive him, have mercy on him, pardon him and grant him prosperity and be a good host to him. Broaden his grave and wash him with water and with snow and with hail. Cleanse him of his sins just as a white piece of cloth is cleansed from dirt.’ Then he blanched, like a white piece of cloth, realizing that he had switched to the Islamic funeral service – in public, in his church.

In that moment, he thought of his newly acquired MG-A outside in the driveway. He thought of the shame he would experience if his then new double life were exposed to his congregation. He thought of the Panel of Triers and the de-frocking by the Bishop. The scandal would be immense.

He looked around the congregation, panicking. But there was no flicker of recognition. If people thought anything, he realized, they thought he had just added some prayers because Wendy was so upset.

Taking some deep breaths, he had walked to the front of the casket taking Wendy and the boys with him, he had signalled to the organist, and they had processed out to the hearse.

After the day of the funeral, Wendy and the boys continued to take Ross’s death very hard. The younger boy, Barry, headed off to Perth and buried himself in study. The older boy, Cliff, stayed on the farm. But his behaviour became erratic and six months after his father’s funeral, Wendy had discovered his body hanging in a shed, a large quantity of ice in his trouser pocket.

This time, Wendy refused to have a church funeral. She chose a private service at the crematorium, with only a close friend and Barry with her, and the crematorium staff as the celebrant.

Fr John had driven out to the farm, but Wendy had shut the door in his face. On the rare occasions he had seen her in town, she quickly crossed the street to avoid contact. Fr John heard that she had dismissed most of her friends, and that she and Barry were not talking. As he drove along their boundary fence now, he could see that they weren’t working the farm either.

Rollinson had insisted that he should always go straight back into town after his sessions in the shed. But for some reason, the Johnson farm-house was now calling to him across the field. Fr John had a strong feeling that he should make a pastoral visit to Wendy and her son Barry. It had been years since he had experienced such a strong feeling. As a young priest, he had several times responded to a strong inclination to visit and discovered on arrival that he was in fact needed.

He pulled the car to the side of the road, turned off the motor, and gazed towards the old farm-house. On a sudden impulse, he looked around in case Rollinson was watching. ‘Damn that,’ he thought. ‘Rollinson could be watching and I’d have no idea, so I may as well do what I’m going to do.’ But he wasn’t actually sure what he was going to do.

***

The attack on the Office of the Premier and the Cabinet Room in West Perth was now only days off. The meeting on social capital in the regions was scheduled for the coming Wednesday, and he knew that Amir and Ida would head off to the city immediately their food-stall closed after serving takeaway Halal dinners in the food hall on Monday. Rachid would head off on Tuesday morning, leaving his brother to cut people’s hair on Tuesday and Wednesday. Rollinson hadn’t explained to John Wilson exactly what role the Kannarup Muslims were to play in the bombing; he seemed to have the lead role himself.

As Rollinson had explained it, the priest would be killing the Premier not so much as a political stratagem, but because it was important for Muslims, especially white-faced brothers in the faith like him, to de-stabilize the country as much as possible. The siege in the Lindt café in Sydney was a good example of how Muslims could attack at the edge, rather than the center. So many questions swirled about Man Horus Monis, beginning with the shahadah flag he had placed in the window, that kept the story alive and journalists questioning his motivations for weeks. As Rollinson explained, in the Lindt siege, the propagandists at ISIL weren’t making a play for power, they were just knocking things out of kilter so that people could see the corruption of this consumer society, this weak, chocolate-addicted people.

The West Australian Premier and people close to him equally made an ideal target. Killing the Premier wouldn’t put an end to the godless government in Canberra, but it would grab  people’s attention right around Australia – and beyond – and have them talking at barbecues and water-coolers about the greed and militarism of the government. When the Caliphate comes, then its logic and grace will already be established in the minds of Australians. The priest saw a deadly explosion at Hale House as a small thing, a helpful step on the way to a better society.

He looked again at the Johnsons’ farm-house, turned the key in the MG’s ignition, gunned the engine and drove back to Kannarup in time for Evening Prayer in the church and Parish Council in the Rectory living room.

The heat rose early with the sun the next morning, beating down and drying everything in its glow. By 7 o’clock, a brief walk was hard, sweaty work, and Fr John was finding it hard to keep his temper in check. He quickly served himself some muesli – breakfast before Mass these days – and headed to the church for Morning Prayer and Eucharist. The pages of the Prayer Book and lectionary stuck together with sweat. The alb and stole were soaked. John decided to leave off the chasuble, which made him feel more uncomfortable and improper. Even with delicate handling, some of the communion wafers became soggy, and the Body of Christ was administered into the mouth of every one of the ten Friday communicants to reduce the sweaty handling.

On this day, Fr John went to the door after the service to greet his people with a hot sweaty hand-shake. Everyone made obvious observations about the heat, and the priest found this repetitive commentary irritating.

‘Yes, it’s hot,’ he snapped. As he walked back along the side wall of the church, there was Wendy Johnson. Fr John noticed that her face was moist, maybe sweat running down the sides of her forehead.

‘John, stop,’ she put her hand on his arm. ‘I need you…’

Maybe it wasn’t sweat.

‘I nearly stopped yesterday,’ John said hesitantly.

‘I know, I saw the car. The MG.’

‘Oh.’

‘You’d better come to my study where it’s cool,’ he said. “I’m hanging out for a cool drink.’ They walked to the air-conditioned house, and John invited Wendy to sit in a comfortable chair in his study while he went to the kitchen to pour some fruit juices. Turning around from the bench, he was surprised to find Wendy standing silently behind him. He nearly dropped the glasses of juice.

‘Oh, sorry,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mean… I didn’t want to be on my own.’

It was quite clear now to John that Wendy’s face was wet not from sweat but tears. He put the glasses down on the central work-bench. Wendy again touched his arm. John realized that the touch on his arm was hot, or nipping, like the charge from a battery. He warily picked up the juices again and carried them back to the study. He was acutely aware of Wendy following him through the house. They sat down in the comfortable chairs.

‘Well,’ the priest started. ‘It’s been a difficult time.’

Wendy ignored the pastoral opening.

‘It’s about you,’ she stuttered.

‘Me? What about me?’ The priest pushed at his errant lock of hair in embarrassment.

‘I’m not sure where we stand,’ Wendy pushed on.

The priest looked in astonishment at the woman in front of him: she was roughly 15 years his senior, her accent placed her the alumna of an elite boarding school, her long blond hair was tied back on this hot day in an untidy pony tail, her brown eyes were glinting, and there was a mark on her left cheek which he had never noticed. He was suddenly aware of a strong old-fashioned perfume. All of a sudden he thought of his Aunt Joan, who had been part of family Christmases on the farm until she had died when he was about twelve.

He found himself staring at Wendy Johnson as if for the first time. And with a feeling of clarity, the irritation that had stirred him along all morning drained out of him leaving him with a new feeling he couldn’t quite identify. This woman… this woman… he didn’t want her to die too. He felt overwhelmingly protective towards her. He would move heaven and earth to prevent happening to her what had happened to Ross and Cliff.

‘No more deaths. No more death and dying,’ he said softly. ‘Please, Wendy.’

It was Wendy’s turn to look with astonishment at her priest.

‘No. I know,’ she said, and began to weep quietly, ‘You can help me see…’

‘You can choose to live,’ he replied, ‘yes, I’ll do everything in my power to….’ He stopped then started again. ‘For my sake, no, for Barry’s sake, for your sake. But really I think it’s for heaven’s sake, for God’s sake.’ Even though he had been a priest for nearly 20 years, the words felt strange as they escaped from his mouth.

Wendy stood up and spoke in her patrician voice. ‘The word you’re looking for, John, is compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Then, for the first time in their conversation, a warm smile creased her face, making the lines crinkle.

On her way out through the study door, she touched his bare arm again, leaving John’s skin tingling. ‘The word is compassion,’ he thought. On the corner shelf of his study stood a small Buddha, a Ganesh, a Bahá’í calendar and a star and crescent flag. He looked at the flag and recited silently, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate, in the name of Allah, the merciful’; the Basmala, the invocation before each sura of the Qur’an.

Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’ Wendy’s words had set off a great confusion inside Fr John Wilson. Surely the messy tragedy and petty grieving of a farmer’s widow in Kannarup carried no weight in the great scheme of things.

A message popped up on his mobile. ‘Where are you?’ The number was blocked. Rollinson.

‘Oh, shit!’ The priest scrambled for his car. He headed out of town to the secret shed. As he drove he pressed the button that brought the roof of the coupé over to keep some cool in. Today before Friday prayers he was supposed to record a message in case something happened on the day. A martyrdom video. Rollinson thought he might die. Another death.

With his hands slippery with sweat on the steering wheel and sweat running down his temples, it was hard to think, but something was wrong. Something did not add up for Fr John Wilson. He tried to put his mind to the words of his martyrdom video, but could not concentrate. Each time he started with the Basmala, ‘In the name of Allah, the compassionate,’ he would stop and his brain would respond, ‘Compassion. No more deaths. No more dying.’

He thought his response was selfish and that he was afraid to die. ‘No more death’ was his own death. But he wasn’t going to die. He was going to leave an explosive device under a table and be 20 minutes away when Hale House exploded.

He tried again, ‘In the name of Allah. I, John Wilson, a Christian priest and new Muslim convert wish to express my contempt for the corruption of Western society and my opposition to the greed mentality which pervades every level of it. In the name of Allah, the compassionate.’ But would a compassionate God express his contempt and opposition by more deaths? ‘Didn’t I say to Wendy Johnson that I would move heaven and earth to prevent more deaths and dying?’

He thought of Rollinson waiting for him at the secret shed. ‘Toughen up, you idiot. Your actions will bring in the glorious Caliphate!’ But the words felt empty in his mind. This feeling of compassion felt real, much more real than the enthusiasm for the cause Rollinson had recruited him for.

He thought of the people he had shared communion with that morning; people he had known and encouraged for the five years he had been parish priest in Kannarup. Some he had married. For others he had buried their spouses, or heard their secret problems with their children. For others he had discussed Christian faith and hopefully helped to deepen and strengthen their relationship with God. John Wilson decided he would not want these people dead. He had vowed to keep Wendy Johnson alive at all costs.

There was no-one at the secret shed. John Wilson drove the MG-A inside. He found the laptop in its hiding place, and fiddled with its underside. He walked out of the building, closed the garage door with the remote and flung the device as far into the forest as he could.  Then he walked as briskly as the heat allowed him along the forest track towards the highway. 20 minutes later there was an enormous explosion behind him. Without turning to look, he took out his mobile, dialled 000 and reported the fire and location. The operator repeatedly asked him for his name and address, but he refused politely, saying he was only a bystander.

When the sirens of the trucks and appliances screamed along the road towards him, John Wilson turned off onto a smaller farm track that led across country to the Johnsons’ farm-house. He was fairly confident that Rollinson wouldn’t know this short-cut, and, besides, why would Rollinson think that he would head for the Johnson farm, of all places?

Wendy saw the priest limping up from her back fields in his city slacks and sandals, head bare to the sun. She snatched a jug of iced water from the fridge and ran towards him.

‘John, it’s 43 degrees, for goodness sake! What are you doing here?’ She held out the jug and he swigged it down, as she pulled him into the cool of a patio. ‘Sit down. I’ll get some more from the fridge.’ She ran back into the kitchen while the priest collapsed at an outdoor table.

‘Did you come from the fire over there?’ Like all country folk, Wendy was on edge on fire warning days, and she had seen the smoke and heard the sirens in the distance.

John nodded. ‘I think I started it,’ he smiled wearily at Wendy, whose eyebrows shot up. John held his head in his hands, brown curls glimpsed between sweaty fingers. ‘And, you know, it wouldn’t have made an iota of difference.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Wendy demanded.

‘The shed I just blew up. I thought it was a matter of principle. I thought I could do something to stop the world, to help it get off the roundabout of consumerism and greed and corruption. I thought if I got the world’s attention, then people would want to live, would want to be better human beings, but…’

‘But how, John? What were you going to do? I mean, you were doing that, you are doing that. You’re our priest. You…’

Wendy noticed that John had torn the once-tan slacks, probably when he climbed the barbed-wire fence. She saw the sweat and dirt on his blue polo-necked shirt. She saw that his fingers and the hair poking through them were trembling.

‘But you told me,’ John continued, and Wendy could hear that he was almost crying, ‘that religion is about compassion. About no more dying. No more deaths. I had it so wrong.’ He paused. ‘That killing the Premier wouldn’t make an iota of difference.’

He looked up at Wendy through tear-filled eyes.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ he continued, his voice under control again. ‘They’ll take me away.’  He gave a rueful little chuckle. ‘The MG is in that fire. That was my reward. They’ll tell the congregation that I was a secret Muslim. That was their hold on me. I’ll end up in some secret lock-up in Canberra, no doubt, for the plot I worked on to kill the Premier. I’m glad that you showed up in time to remind me that faith’s about more than reciting the prayers, folding the robes.’

At this point, Wendy looked confused, and she heard the engine of a car approaching along her driveway.

‘I’m not sure what it is you’ve done,’ she said, ‘but do you need to hide? Or run away?’

‘No. I’ve put you at enough risk coming here. I’ve got to give myself up, so that there are no more deaths, no more dying. Look on the bright side, Wendy, it’s Australia. It won’t be Abu Graib where I’m going.’

Neither of them laughed at that.

‘You know my Grandad was a priest?’ Wendy asked suddenly. ‘I’ve got something of his. I’ve often thought to give it to you. Thought you might be interested, but with Ross and Cliff and all that… Before they come, quick.’ She led John into the lounge room, which had the appearance of not having been used for decades: everything was clean, but the fat armchairs dated from the nineteen-fifties, and an old-fashioned glass display cabinet dominated one wall. Wendy hunted through drawers at the bottom of the cabinet.

‘Ah, here it is,’ she said and offered John a short piece of brocade wrapped in white tissue paper.

‘A maniple. Extraordinary.’ He looped it – as decreed in Percy Dearmer’s The Parson’s Handbook – over his left arm. ‘A maniple for compassion and service. Purple for penitence.’ He removed it and laid it flat on a coffee table. ‘An “I”. An “Iota”.’

Two men showing Federal Police badges knocked at the front door of the farm-house.

John smiled at Wendy. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘for the missing Iota.’

An Intense Life


GMH coverINSCAPE OF AN INTENSE LIFE IN CHRIST 

Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Life. 

New York City: Viking Adult, 2008

Reviewed by Ted Witham

 

The 13th century Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus was one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ heroes. Duns Scotus invented the idea of haecceitas. This ugly Latin word is usually translated by the equally ugly ”isness “, but would be better rendered as “uniqueness.” Haecceitas refers to the quality that makes a thing itself and not anything else. In other words, Scotus was encouraging his readers to gaze at things until they disclosed their unique quality. Gazing, according to Sister Ilia Delio among others, is a characteristic aspect of Franciscan praying. Duns Scotus’ philosophy places him firmly in this Franciscan tradition.

Hopkins pays homage to Duns Scotus in his poem ”Duns Scotus’s Oxford.”   This sonnet deplores the way Oxford has developed and grown since the 1200s.

”… graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping – folk, flocks, and flowers.”

Hopkins has evidently informed this judgement by gazing  at the buildings and trees he so loves until he sees what makes Oxford unique.

”Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river­ rounded.”

Hopkins was expert at gazing. Ilia Delio tells the story of Hopkins gazing at a tree in Ireland for three days until it disclosed its haecceitas. Hopkins felt at home in the natural world of Ireland and Wales. It is this world, gazed at and wondered about, that is “charged with the glory of God.”

Paul Mariani’s biography reveals that Hopkins’ expertise was profound but narrow. His powerful intellect was trained at Oxford in the classics, and he remained absorbed in Latin and Greek even after the Jesuits had thoroughly trained him in theology.

The Jesuits seemed not to know what to do with this strange, intense young man, so they eventually sent him to Ireland on the pretext that he would help other Jesuits establish a Catholic University in Dublin. Even though he was on the Catholic side, Ireland was not a congenial place for an English patriot, especially one who found it difficult to make friends. In practice, his lonely years in Ireland were an almost endless task marking the Latin and Greek exams of all the children matriculating in Ireland.

Depressed and physically ill, he battled on until his death in 1888 aged only 44. He cried out, presumably in the mid-1880s:

“My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter, kind,
Charitable; not live in this tormented mind.
With this tormented mind, tormenting yet.”

Only hours before his death, Father Wheeler heard Hopkins whispering over and over again, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Mariani’s simple telling of this story leaves us with the impression that Hopkins is finally happy because he knows he will soon be passing from this unhappy life to his glorious reward.

Mariani’s Life is richly textured. The biographer gathers a mass of detail and tells the story of Hopkins’ life chronologically. His sources are so detailed that he often reports verbatim conversations that Hopkins had on a given day, and records what he was thinking and confiding to his journal.

-.

Hopkins’ story is simple. From the English upper-middle class, Hopkins would have been expected to remain lifelong Anglican were it not for his awkward conversion to Rome. This choice, made at Oxford, determined his direction.

It was a time when young Oxford men agonised over ‘going over’: John Henry Newman, another of his heroes, had done it a generation earlier, and several of Hopkins’ circle either converted or seriously contemplated it. It was a decision to be made, as Hopkins did, with lengthy deliberation and careful disclosure to family and friends. Some never forgave or understood his decision.

His lifelong friendship with the poet Robert Bridges only just lasted this decision time.

Hopkins did well enough at his theological studies and loved the setting of the Jesuit Novitiate at Roehampton, Wales. His daily walks inspired his poetry; he learned Welsh to better minister to Welsh-speakers; and he regaled his fellows with erudite jokes at end of term dinners. He was happy – or at least as happy as he would ever be.

His engagement with the craft of poetry started to flower at Roehampton. Paul Mariani shows how original Hopkins was both in developing the idea of ‘sprung rhythm’ and in paying attention to ‘inscape’. These are both complex ideas, and Mariani helped me understand them better.

Hopkins’ concept of ‘inscape’ is the poetical descendent of Duns Scotus’ haecceitas. Where landscape is exterior, ‘inscape’ is interior. It describes the qualities revealed when you gaze on something in nature or on the action of a person. Poetry is partly about capturing inscape, as a painter, in depicting trees and sky, communicates the qualities of the landscape.

Hopkins deeply understood the contribution Shakespeare had made to poetry and to the English language by adapting iambic pentameter to English poetry in both drama and poems. Hopkins believed that English is not a syllabic language and questioned whether iambs and dactyls and other syllabic patterns were best for English. So he experimented with a line of five beats – still a pentameter – that was independent of the number of syllables: this was sprung rhythm.

Mariani explores at some depth the influence of Duns Scotus on Hopkins. In a book of over 400 pages, I was a little disappointed not to find more about another influence: Ignatius of Loyola. I felt Paul Mariani played down the Jesuits’ influence of Hopkins. However, there is no way that a sensitive man like Hopkins could have completed the 40-day Exercises without being deeply permeated by Ignatian spirituality. Mariani may have thought that David Downes in his study on the Ignatian spirit and Hopkins had sufficiently covered the notion of Hopkins the priest-poet.

While still in simple vows, the Jesuits put Hopkins into a classroom. He taught zealously, and students remembered him as gentle and trustworthy.

They would surely remember his illustration of how Achilles hooked Hector’s bloodied corpse behind his chariot and dragged it beneath the walls of Troy. ”Hopkins lay on his back and had a student drag him around the floor.” (p. 333) His zany pedagogy sometimes connected with his students, but often, his students simply found him over-scrupulous and strange. Teaching was not his vocation.

Meanwhile, Hopkins struggled on with his craft: sprung rhythm and internal rhymes pressed into service to express his insight into the true nature of the world around him. Not that Hopkins was always convinced that being a poet was the heart of his vocation. He stopped writing for some years, disappointed that he was not being published, and unsure of what his superiors really thought of his poetry.

And so to Ireland, and to the lonely room with the desk piled high with papers to mark, and the daily walk and his poetry his only escape.

We might be tempted to conclude that he had lived the life of the archetypical Romantic poet: the genius whose suffering was transmuted into Art. This was the ideal that Byron, Keats, Coleridge and others proposed. Yet I doubt Hopkins would want to be placed with the Romantics. Every day, he might say, he had the privilege of seeing the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’, and though to the observer, his life may seem to carry the shape of the Crucified Lord, Hopkins knew every day the presence of the Risen Lord:

‘EnoughI the Resurrection,//A heart’s clarion!
Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.’

This disciple was not waiting for the after-life to taste the joys of life in the Risen One. He was enchanted by it now.

Bridges and GMH 1863For this lover of Hopkins’ poetry, this life was not only fascinating to read, but it was also good to hold such a beautiful book. The narrative is sustained with clarity over 435 pages, and a handful of illustrations add much it. I found myself often looking back to the photos of Bridges and Hopkins taken in 1863, and used as a pictorial epigraph for Part 1, and then flicking forward to the photos taken in 1888 months before Hopkins’ death in Dublin. These show  Bridges as a mature man with a vital eye looking forward to the future. Hopkins, by contrast, looks exhausted and grim, with his hair receding and his head tilted slightly backwards as though he already looking up in anticipation.

Mariani has captured for me the haecceitas of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet. Mariani’s inscape is an insight into his intense, short life.bridges-and-gmh-1888.png

 

 

 

 

 

La Fantôme Grise


A short piece of fiction to mark ANZAC Day:

The Grey Girl from Kojonup

 

They called her “La Fantôme grise”. One of the first acts of the new French government in 1946 was to award her France’s highest honour, la Croix d’or, the golden cross.

Emily Louise Brown was born at Katanning in 1918 and grew up near Kojonup in Western Australia. She attended the one-teacher school at Brokerup. If you visit there today, you will see only a few acres fenced off and a plaque. The little school was Emily Brown’s window onto the wide world beyond her father’s farm.

Her reading developed early, and by age 10, she was enjoying Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. The worlds depicted in Oliver Twist drew her imagination. Not only did she want to see the vast, teeming cities of old Europe and the mother country, but she wanted to change the world. She knew that living on their tranquil farm, with plenty to eat, safety from violence and freedom to dream and choose was a privilege, and she wanted every child to enjoy the same abundance that she experienced.

In 1928, Mr Trevelyan, a Cornish veteran, arrived at Brokerup to teach in the one-teacher school. He boarded with the Browns and guided young Emily’s reading, telling her a heady mix of stories of Cornwall and King Arthur and Celtic mystics.  At her parents’ church, Father O’Reilly woke in her a sense of mystery, and introduced her to the concept of God’s care for the poor.

The only high schools were in Perth. Perth Modern awarded her a scholarship, and Emily excelled in her studies. Perth Modern was probably the only school in Perth in the 1930s that took seriously the teaching of languages, and Emily loved Monsieur Roland, the old eccentric Frenchman who taught her French and Latin. On the netball and tennis courts she showed a fierce determination.

Three years at The University of Western Australia followed. The University’s motto is ‘Seek Wisdom’ and its message seemed to be as engraved on Emily’s heart as it was on the stone near the Reflection Pond. Emily graduated with a degree in French and Modern History. Young women in 1936 could then become a monitor in a school for a year before returning to the Teachers’ College in Claremont to complete their training.

Emily, strong-minded as ever, had another plan. Her parents did their best to dissuade her from setting off for Europe on her own, but she got her way, as she usually did, and her parents supported her financially. After the war she learned how much they grieved when the steamer left Fremantle. On the wharf that day they had a premonition that Emily was going into a war-ready continent to her death.

Paris delighted her, but she wanted to see where the real poor people of France were, so she set off south to Marseille. She stayed with a welcoming Catholic family, the Germains, from where she devoted part of her time, like a missionary, to helping the poor.

Emily was only eighteen. The vibrant night-life in Marseille drew her to clubs and parties. Older men introduced her to the private dance clubs which only the very rich could afford. Her life became a contradiction: by day, devout Catholic volunteering in soup-kitchens; at night, the wild, out of control socialite. It couldn’t go on.

One night, in the Club de Danse de Marseille, Jean-Laurent Renoir asked the young Australian girl to dance. Renoir was 28 at the time, absolutely wealthy, but a steady and thoughtful man. He liked what he saw.

Emily fell in love with Jean-Laurent, just as she had fallen in love with the Marseille‘s poor. Emily and Jean-Laurent married in August 1938, just before the Germans turned their greedy tanks towards Paris.

Emily’s French by this time was excellent. She spoke with the twang of Marseille, called herself Emilie-Louise, but could easily switch to the deep tones of Paris and then to the rolled r’s of the Riviera. She was, in short, a linguistic chameleon.

Jean-Laurent’s house had always been a centre for parties. Emilie-Louise had a talent as a hostess, and all Marseille rhapsodised about the glittering soirées at the Villa Renoir and the sparking Mme Renoir at its heart.

Jean-Laurent and Emily both watched with horror the events in Europe in 1939 and 1940. The Renoir family had deep roots in the Midi, and Emily had come to love the French people, especially the poor she had met in her role as a Catholic volunteer. When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, this young couple were ready to resist however they could.

The Germans occupied only the northern part of France, and so in Marseille, they were in Free France. They seized opportunities for resistance knowing that they would be different from those trapped in Maréchal Pétain’s Nazi-controlled France.

The Renoirs’ war began with channelled large sums of money to the displaced and hungry in occupied France through Catholic Aid agencies.  Then, as intelligence about incipient Resistance groups in Paris arrived at the Villa Renoir, they began financing them.

A Tract Society in Marseille called La Société Catholique de la Vérité distributed devotional tracts through the south of France. Emilie contributed to these, especially those with cleverly disguised addresses of safe houses. What would Pope Leo XIII have thought of a footnote in a small devotional tract referring the reader to “Section 10, paragraphe 12, vers 42” of his encyclical on Unity, if he knew that the numbers combined to give 10-12-42, the phone number of Villa Renoir!

Inevitably, Emily’s role became more personal and more dangerous.

Escape routes like that through the Château de Chenconceaux across the Loire River began to deliver downed airmen to Marseille. Shortages meant that these aircrew would arrive in the south exhausted and famished.

Most of them were determined to return to England. The port at Marseille was blockaded, and the Germans controlled all the Atlantic coast of France. Their only escape route was over the Pyrenees into Spain and onto neutral Portugal. Their lack of condition meant that they would never make the journey. Emilie-Louise took them in and fed them.

This became more and more dangerous as German officers searched houses regularly. Emilie-Louise decided that the best way to hide them was in plain sight. She invited the Germans to lavish parties, encouraging them to drink the best wines and liqueurs. They obliged by dampening any suspicions they may have had of the taciturn waiters.

On one occasion, an RAF pilot dressed in the Renoir livery was serving drinks. A bellicose German was demanding more whisky. It was clear that the “waiter” didn’t understand the officer’s accented French, and the demands became more insistent. The attentive hostess noticed that the pilot’s hands were shaking with fear, so she pushed past, sending the tray flying, and apologising profusely in the ensuing embarrassment all round. She saved the pilot.

The Germans ferreted out the large sums of money coming to the Resistance. They began to suspect Jean-Laurent and began watching his movements. A series of betrayals brought tragedy to Emily’s door. In the local parish church, one of the priests had been helping channel some funds to Paris; another had begun collaborating with the Germans. To his shame, he was identifying to the SS Jewish families from the area. Jean-Laurent realised that there was a blockage in getting the money out of Marseille, so he chose to test the possibility of carrying the cash himself.

He and Emily said their emotional farewells at home. He caught the Paris train.  When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon Jean-Laurent was found alone in his first-class compartment with his throat slit. The French police found a huge number of francs secreted in his overcoat and suit.

News got back quickly to Marseille to Emily. Her life in danger, she searched for a way out.

One of the RAF pilots was due to make the crossing to neutral Portugal across the Pyrenees. Emilie persuaded her resistance colleagues to let her take on the tough role of guide. Three months later, London was briefing her for a mission with the Special Operations Executive. Emilie’s perilous journeys into occupied Paris as a clandestine wireless operator are now well-documented, as is her escape from Paris after she seduced a suspicious German officer, and then shot him.

La Fantôme grise was not able to return to Paris until after the war, but for the remainder of 1944 and 1945, her voice on the wireless from London steadied many S.O.E. operatives and saved many lives.

Emily Louise Brown stands alongside Nancy Wake, “the little white mouse” as a great Australian war hero. She claimed that she only did what she had to, and followed the values she had learned on a farm near Kojonup in Western Australia. We call her bravery stupendous.

 

  • Ted Witham

 

 

Louis Dantin’s OPTIMISM


Louis Dantin’s Optimism

Translation – Ted Witham.
First Published in Azuria #5 (Autumn 2016), by the Geelong Writers Inc.

Everything suffering and vile the Ideal can lift
And shine refracted through Beauty’s prism:
The windflower’s aroma becomes the tomb’s petalled chrism
And all mud is gold in the sun’s dawning shift.

Things that are shredded shine in their splintering;
Corruption is a catalyst for nectar’s distillation.
In the murdered brain is the masterpiece’s creation
And in the night the heart’s flame is a torch glittering.

Bloody battles turn to smiles on the lips of History
And the blood as it’s spilt floods into rivers of glory;

Mudflats are transformed by Art’s chaste fingers;
Tears are rubies in the poems of their singers;

Death is beautiful in Mozart’s heavenly harmonies,
And even hell is divine in Dante’s crowning ecstasies.

*****                                    *****                             *****

Louis Dantin (alias Eugène Seers, 1865-1945) was a Québecois priest, poet, novelist and literary critic. He straddled Romantic and Symbolist styles.

Optimisme de Louis Dantin

Rien n’est souffrant ou vil qu’un idéal n’élève
Et qui n’ait son reflet dans le prisme du Beau :
L’anémone parfume et fleurit le tombeau
Et toute fange est d’or quand le soleil se lève.

Tout être déchiré rayonne en son lambeau ;
Toute corruption élabore une sève ;
Dans le cerveau meurtri le chef-d’œuvre s’achève
Et dans les nuits du cœur l’incendie est flambeau.

La bataille est riante aux lèvres de l’Histoire
Et le sang répandu coule en fleuve de gloire ;
Laïs se transfigure aux doigts chastes de l’Art ;

Les pleurs sont des rubis dans le vers qui les chante ;
La mort est belle aux sons des harpes de Mozart,
Et l’enfer est divin dans l’extase du Dante.

 

http://beq.ebooksgratuits.com/pdf/Dantin-coffret.pdf

 

Make your Point High and Dry


High Point of English

I went to school with a character called A.P. O’Strophe who used to punctuate a lot of my work. With a name like O’Strophe, we kids thought he might be Irish or Russian, but our English teacher assured us his family originated from Greece but had been in England at least 500 years.

A.P. was the high point of our compositions. Disconcertingly, he did go all through one’s belongings. He tagged one’s books, one’s hair, one’s friends, one’s parent’s cars – and he was interested not only in people’s possessions, but also in things’ things, like one’s bike’s brakes, and birds’ nests, Mr Kenilworth’s Rover’s motor, and ARIA’s Hall of Fame!

A.P. appealed to the rebel in me. We used to escape formal English, and A.P. knew every short cut: there wasn’t a contraction he didn’t know how to compress. Only he couldn’t hide from the teacher who could see that he’d changed to informal register because he left the O’Strophe tag wherever he’d shortened a word.

The Guidance Officer couldn’t easily advise A.P. on a suitable career. A.P.’s father had been really busy in the old sailors’ navy, making short work of the bos’n, and hacking into the fo’c’s’le’s timbers.  The Royal Australian Navy however had discharged A.P.’s family in the middle of the 20th Century. They now write all ranks either in full, or with capital letters with no punctuation: CAPT, LEUT, PO, etc.

A.P. would be lost in the greengrocers! He would never understand why apple’s could not sell at $4 a kilogram. The best option the Guidance Officer came up with was for A.P. to go into midwifery or gynaecology where his proficiency with contractions might prove useful.

This skill with shortcuts made him good at sports like orienteering and geo-caching, where knowing where the GPS’s apostrophe should go saves hours of confusion. But for the same reason, A.P. was thrown out of the cross-country race, his ability at shortcuts seen as the cheat’s way.

These days, A.P. gets into arguments about whether he’s wanted to make plurals of non-standard words. Should he mind his Ps and Qs? Or should be he mind his P’s and Q’s? We were at school in the 1950s. No: we were at school in the 1950’s. I think he’ll lose that argument!

All the signs point to the fact that we’re coming to the end of A.P.’s life. Poor A.P. He’s beginning to be ignored and not just at the greengrocers. A.P. is nowhere to be seen in directional signs like DOCTORS SURGERY, and welcome signs telling the driver YOUR NEARLY THERE.

A.P., like a cancer, is also every place he shouldn’t be (SPEED CAMERA’S, SPA’S AND POOLS, PERFECTION HAS IT’S PRICE), indicating that sign-writers will soon give up in despair and just leave A.P. out everywhere.

I’m in a state of preparatory grief for A.P., who used to be such a high point of one’s writing, and is now dotty, old and showing early signs of dementia.