Miglo, my blogmaster at Cafe Whispers outed me at the Political Sword on November 11th, 2010, as having a birthday. Of course he couldn’t have known that I had been planning not to mention it until today in this post because I rather expected that other more serious stuff about war and lost soldiers would be being discussed on Armistice Day. That wasn’t a guess. I knew, because no matter where I’ve lived or worked, even when it falls on a weekend, Remembrance Day has serious pre-occupations for most people beyond the birthdays of friends. Which is as it should be.
Yes, I was born on November 11th, 1935, and my Dad always called me his ‘Poppy’ girl. As a small child I was somewhat bemused by so many people seeming to remember my birthday by wearing a red poppy. But no one seemed very happy about it, wearing black armbands and taking wreaths to the cenotaph, standing still and quiet for a very long time and then listening to a bugle mournfully playing what I later learned was The Last Post.
By the time World War II was over I understood more about war and why November 11th is not really a happy day. Now after a lifetime of watching and participating in so many Armistice Day ceremonies I believe that war serves no purpose at all except to enrich those who make weapons and the power hungry who use fear rather than good will to rule.
I’ve also learned to wait to celebrate my birthday at least until teatime when the sombre mood of the morning will have lifted somewhat. Even here in Australia where April 25th is the all-important ANZAC day for honouring soldiers killed in action, November 11th and Poppy Day is marked with as much gravity and ceremony as I had long learned to expect in England and then through my years of living in Canada and colonial Kenya before I migrated to Oz with my husband and two children in the late sixties.
Here after 1975, of course, if you were part of any self respecting lefty family, Remembrance Day was marked by another sort of grief for another loss; that loss of hope promised by Gough Whitlam, which was destroyed by the dastardly Kerr and his Cur, Malcolm Fraser! I forgot to have a birthday that year; I was so angry and caught up with the drama of that day. I can still feel my rage as I stood with other teachers in our staff room and seriously debated taking to the streets with students in tow. After all, there had been a coup d’etat! The overthrow of a legitimate government! That amounted to a revolution and a rightist one at that! I still haven’t forgiven that then bastard, Malcolm Fraser, not for my lost birthday, but for that lost opportunity for Australia to have a proper government, a Labour one.
You might well ask, as many did, why it mattered so much to me since I’d only been here a few years. But I was a card carrying unionist with Labour blood in my veins. As a small child mine had been a deprived working class life and I had experienced real fear, hunger, cold and chilblained feet through harsh wartime years which in 1945 suddenly gave way to the miracle of peace and prosperity. All of which, it seemed to me, was achieved by Mister Attlee and his Labour Government who had been voted in to replace the Tory toffs. Within two years our bomb damaged tenement house had been demolished and replaced by a brand new council house with a garden front and back. My haggishly hollow cheeked mother was given new teeth and transformed into a comely woman who was employed as a cinema usherette. All at once I had a nice looking mum and a free pass to Saturday morning pictures! And then I passed the Eleven Plus exam………
I can’t remember my 12th birthday or even my 13th, but I can tell you that between them I was reborn in a very real sense in those months of 1947, my first year at grammar school. When Julia Gillard talks so passionately about the transforming power of education, believe her! In 1949, two months after my second year there which started in September, I was chosen to participate in the simple Remembrance Day ceremony which was held like thousands of others in the school hall. Nothing grand – our school hall was a renovated army nissen hut. I wish I could tell you that I read ”In Flanders Fields where poppies grow, Amid white crosses, row on row,” but someone else had that honour. Mine was a bible reading, I’ve long forgotten the text. I’v e just remembered, today, December 14th, 2013! It was Isaiah 53 – all twelve verses of the standard revised version of the Bible! That’s sent me now to pull out my own copy of the Bible, presented to me, I see, on March 9th, 1952, in accordance with the will of Philip, Lord Wharton who died in 1696.
What I do remember is that I read it slowly, clearly and with perfect diction. This surprised many teachers and nearly all of the girls in that hall, since I was notoriously that awful girl who talked like a Cockney. For this occasion I had been given elocution lessons and carefully coached by Mrs. Roberts, our French teacher! She had noticed that even though I couldn’t speak ‘proper English’ I seemed to have an ear for picking up French pronunciation surprisingly well. She figured that if I could speak French then I should be able to speak English; good English and not my ‘mother’ tongue. It had been hard work, at recess times and after school, but we both persevered. Anyone who knows the English class system and its obsession with accent will understand what a gift that teacher gave me. Acquiring a wide vocabulary, learning the rules of grammar and maintaining that ‘good’ middle class accent was an ongoing challenge, particularly when I had to deal with the inevitable resentment of the kids on our street when they heard me talking with that ‘posh’ voice. Soon, however, all the homework I had to do took up every spare minute of my time and I didn’t need them. Though the last few years between fifteen and eighteen before I went to University were less bearable as I became a further object of fun still wearing my school tunic and lace-up shoes with white socks when former friends were flouncing around in high heels, nylons, ‘new look’ skirts and wearing lipstick and rouge.
Why all this reminiscing? These memories have all been stirred up recently by poppies! This year flowers and blossoms of every kind seem to have flourished early and have lasted longer than usual here in our Fremantle gardens. It has something to do with climate change, I think, and oddly, the drought. With only a little rain and early warm weather spring has sprung here several weeks ago!
A few years back I had a thoughtful present from my young grandson, Jacob, who’d heard about my love of poppies and given me a gift-wrapped matchbox full of poppy seeds. So I’ve already had a pretty good showing of poppies in my yard before. But this year they are everywhere; in my garden, all along the street nature strips, in walls, and cracks in paths and in gutters, even pushing up through the grating of drains. They are stunningly beautiful with their scarlet silk petals so delicately swaying in the sunshine as they are blown about by our sea breezes or bent by even stronger winds.
So I’ve been thinking about my birthday earlier than usual this year as I walk out with Tacker in the mornings, with Sheba our cat jumping out from behind the gate to surprise us as we turn in to visit my family next door. There are poppies all over their garden too so I think again of ‘Flanders’ Fields where poppies blow’ and about birthdays past and all those Armistice Day ceremonies when that other lovely poem by Binyon would be recited.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
I used to think that Binyon was suggesting that somehow there was a compensation prize, a sort of reward for the sacrifice those young men had made. They would be forever young and beautiful, not burdened by age as those who survived would be. That may have been true for those who lived then, but how different it is for those of our generation who have been blessed by the progress wrought by social change. Now that I am myself grown old without wearying and have enjoyed a long, healthy and satisfying life I am even more convinced that this is what we should be working to achieve for everyone.
Mine has been a privileged life, largely made possible by the Education Act of 1944. That and agreement on other major social reform legislation like the National Health Act, which gave my mother her teeth, was the result of work by the British Labour Party; all achieved in the middle of World War II because of compromises made by powerful men like Winston Churchill who needed the support of a newly organized working class. Since then so much has changed for millions of others like me, but much more needs to be done. Opportunity for education, good health, work for reasonable prosperity and long life should be possible for all humankind throughout the world without wars and those rows and rows of crosses amongst which the Flanders poppies grow.
Min, 13/11/10 Prose as well as poetry Patricia. These are such wonderful images. A highly recommended read for all.
TB Queensland, 13/11/10, What a lovely read! I can relate to some of your thread, pwa …… I was born in Yorkshire but lived for the first four years of my life in Eastbourne, Sussex … then back to Yorkshire and at 12 emigrated to Oz … from a working class family (although my paternal grandma was a multi millionaire) … I have in fact had three “accents” in my lifetime and firmly believe people “pick” their own (consciously or sub-consciously) … I had an Aussie accent within 12 months no mean feat for a lad from the West Riding, Heartbeat/Days of Wine and Roses country!
I firmly believe in education as a life changer … I graduated at 45 … the first degree ever in my family … I had failed the 11 Plus, completed the last Qld Scholarship 86% and started an apprenticeship at 15 – no high school for me …) I do now have a niece I’m proud to call, Doctor (in medical research) …
… but it was the poppies that encouraged me to post – we travelled through Europe, spent a week in Turkey and zig-zagged across the Medfrom Istanbul and back to Harwich … earlier this year …… what struck me was that every battle field we saw (right through the centuries) all seemed to have Flanders poppies growing …… when we came home I asked The Minister if she could plant some poppies – as a reminder … we now have both Flanders and California poppies growing but as yet no flowers … lots of rain here in SEQ this year ……….Really interesting post, thanks for sharing …
Miglo, 13/11/10, Wonderful post, Patricia. Being tied up like I will be for the next 24 hours prevents me from providing the reponse it deserves. I’ll be back.
Nasking, 13/11/10, Wonderful, evocative retelling Patricia w/ important messages for all. Had that entire generation spent their youth pursuing education and other ventures imagine what would’ve bloomed…instead so many of their precious lives were wasted in muddy fields…whilst faraway, protected dynasties flourished off the back of their blood & their family’s efforts. N’
handyrab, 13/11/10, Just a magic read! Thanks Patricia (a REAL true believer).
Kevin Rennie, 13/11/10, Patricia, Thank you. We went to see Leonard Cohen last night. A very moving experience. He’s another great poet, born a year before you.
Monty, 15/11/10, Thanks for a wonderfully evocative read.
jane, 15/11/10, Many happy returns, patricia and many more to follow. Lovely read.
libbylodge, 16/11/10, A fine piece of writing Patricia. I am with you re education. It can indeed make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!
puffytmd, 22/01/13, wonderful!
Rossmore, 22/01/13, PatriciaWA, A most poignant and moving essay.
Ratsars 22/O1/13, PatriciaWA, Great to read youR story for we are all the product of those who went before us and our children are a continuing line that we contribute to. We all have different stories to tell mine comes out of Ireland then to Liverpool where trades were acquired but not educations. Then the move to Australia where we had to start over again, this time through the rural industries. One of my great grandfathers took up a selection just like in “Dad and Dave” and the other was a groomsman. Neither could read nor write.
I am a fourth generation and the first generation to get a University degree. Some have taken it too far and have made collecting degrees their life’s work while others are still not alert to the benefits of education.
One of the reasons that I am so fond of Gillard is her commitment to education. It is the means of solving what is wrong with this world, what is wrong with our communities and what is wrong with ourselves.
I am glad that you are enjoying your latter years in WA and I hope there are many more to come. Immigrants make a very large contribution to who we Australians are. They have taught us to take the best the world has to offer even if the world does not want it and use it to give those who live in this wide brown land a standard of living that most of the rest of the world can only dream about.
Malcolm Kukura, 06/06/13, what a delightful electronic garden you have grown.
Patriciawa, 07/06/13, Thanks Malcoim – not the least for the opportunity to revisit how I was feeling not long after Julia Gillard became PM in 2010 and to look back on how well she has fulfilled the commitments she had made to us going into the election a few months before. Considering the restrictions imposed by a hung parliament and the daily onslaught of the Opposition and their media mates, they have achieved an amazing legislative reform program. The very setting up of the Gonski enquiry, the completion of its report and then preparation of the legislation to execute its major recommendations is particularly impressive. Now let’s watch her get more States on board to sign up.