Old folk at lunch

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Darby and Joe

Michael Darby is one of Australia's great characters. For some years, an old Dennis fire-engine was his personal means of transport around Sydney. He is also an old friend of mine. He spends great energies on politics -- very much at the conservative end of it -- but he also has great talent as an exponent of Australian poetry -- particularly bush poetry.

Bush poetry tends to be narrative poetry set in the country areas of Australia and Michael himself has written some excellent poems in that genre -- helped by a genuine love of the bush and bush people.

But what he is particularly known for is RECITING Australian poetry. He does so -- often in a stentorian voice -- with great verve and panache. He really brings it to life. He has memorized an amazing number of both well-known and lesser-known Australian poems and delivers them with great gusto whenever he is at all encouraged to do so.

My own favourite poem is an Australian one: "The Teams", by Henry Lawson. It is about bullockies (teamsters -- men who used bullock teams to move heavy loads in the early days). The fact that my own grandfather and great-grandfather were bullockies no doubt has something to do with that. When Lawson describes bullockies he knows what he is talking about. I recognize in his descriptions my own ancestors.

And, of course, I have a great love of English poetry generally -- from Chaucer on. I know some pretty good German poetry too -- particularly those set by Schubert as Lieder.

So I was quite horrified when I discovered in his final year of High School that my son Joe had virtually had his literary heritage stolen from him. I had always assumed that his courses at the private school I sent him to would have introduced him to the great classics of English and Australian poetry. Instead, he had been introduced only to poems by politically correct people -- very minor literary figures such as black poetess Kath Walker. Joe had not even heard the NAMES of greats such as Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Ever since I have therefore been trying to make up that gap in my son's education. Fortunately, he does enjoy the poems I read to him when the occasion offers. He is however too deeply engaged in his studies of mathematics at university for that to happen often.

Last night, however, was the first day after the end of his mid-year exams so I took the opportunity to organize a poetry night for him. I flew Michael Darby up from Sydney and Anne cooked us all an old-fashioned Australian dinner of corned beef with three veg. Anne makes an excellent white sauce -- which is in my view essential to a corned beef dinner. Joe, his girlfriend Sam, Anne, myself, Michael and two old friends who are also old friends of Michael -- Jill and Lewis -- made up the party.

Michael started reciting even before the dinner was served, during the courses, in between the course and afterwards. He was in great form and gave us a wonderful experience both with old favourites ("Clancy of the Overflow", "The man from Ironbark" etc.) and other poems we did not know -- including some excellent poems of his own. He gave us a lot of A.B. Paterson and Henry Lawson but at my request he also gave us a lot of C.J. Dennis. Paterson and Lawson are not likely soon to be forgotten but I think Dennis is in some danger of that. Yet he is in a way the most Australian of the three.

I had found a nicely-bound anthology of C.J. Dennis poems so I asked Michael to autograph it and then gave it to Joe as a memento of the occasion. It was a most successful night.

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