Paula Morris on Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac and Gallipoli to the Somme

02 May 2018
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Paula Morris in conversation with Alex Calder and David Hastings at the Devonport Library.

 

Launch speech by Paula Morris, 24 April 2018

 

The following speech by Paula Morris was delivered at the launch of Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac by David Hastings and Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand Infantryman by Alexander Aitken (edited by Alex Calder). Republished with kind permission from Beattie’s Book Blog.

Tonight, on the eve of ANZAC Day, a century on from the last year of the war, we’re celebrating the launch of two very important books. When I was a child, attending ANZAC Day commemorations with my family, Auntie Hopi selling poppies in the Domain, there were still veterans – old fellas – alive to attend the ceremonies and tell their stories. Now there are just stories, and memories of stories – the private legacies of war, the personal costs, the family tales and secrets.

Every year we pledge to remember those who fought and didn’t return, but it gets harder, the generations more distant, the human experiences of the first World War increasingly part of history, and the thick clouds of the past.

David Hastings, in Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac, quotes from the Iliad: ‘The wind scatters one year’s leaves on the ground, but the forest burgeons and puts out others, as the season of spring comes round. So it is with men: one generation grows on, and another is passing away.’

Reading those lines reminded me of one of my favourite Philip Larkin poems, The Trees: ‘Is it that they are born again/And we grow old? No, they die too/Their yearly trick of looking new/Is written down in rings of grain.’

With every cycle we have more rings of grain, more deaths and births, more wars, more secret histories and accounts of years past hidden within.

So it’s my pleasure and privilege tonight to launch two new books that bring that past and its people back to us in vivid detail – Odyssey of the Unknown Anzac, and Gallipoli to the Somme. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, perhaps, because without books like these, we’ll forget the epic feats demanded of ordinary New Zealanders, often very young men very far from home. Without books like these, we may forget who we were and what we did, and not understand who we’ve become.

We may also forget the individual stories of men who were not generals or politicians, heroes or villains, but this person and that, real and complex, trying to make it through another day – and to make it home. In David Hastings’ book, we follow a detective’s trail, in a way, in search of one man, George McQuay – from a Taranaki town to Gallipoli to the Western Front to a Sydney mental hospital, a ‘straggler’, as David describes him, ‘finding his way home from war and overcoming great odds to make it’. In Gallipoli to the Somme: Recollections of a New Zealand Infantryman, Alex Calder’s new edition brings the words and experiences of the mathematical genius Alexander Aitken, a man Alex describes as ‘a man as humane as he was extraordinary,’ to a new generation of New Zealanders.

We’re lucky this ANZAC Day to access such rich histories. I thank Auckland University Press for publishing these two books, and the writers here tonight for making these men visible again, the men who witnessed the traumas of the Great War and managed to survive.

 

Paula Morris