Friday, February 21, 2014

Happy Dispatches by AB "Banjo" Paterson

In honour of Australian poet and journalist Banjo Paterson's 150th birthday earlier this week, I posted one of his comic poems, Mulga Bill's Bicycle. While saying a few words about Paterson in that post, I suddenly remembered how much I liked his prose, and how I had never gotten around to reading the selections from his war diaries included in our big Best of Banjo Paterson book. To cut a long story short, I spent the next few evenings laughing out loud over these articles, and then discovered that they all came from a book originally published in 1934, toward the end of Paterson's life, available on Project Gutenberg Australia and titled Happy Dispatches. Reading the whole thing was irresistible.

It's an odd sort of book, a patchwork of diary entries meandering through war and travel--Paterson worked as a journalist in the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion, then as an ambulance driver for a hospital on the Western Front of World War I and finally as a remount officer for the Australian Light Horse in Egypt. Paterson made his reputation as the English-speaking world's second-favourite poet after Rudyard Kipling (with whom he went to stay in England at one point) as a student of human and horsy nature. Happy Dispatches has relatively little to say about the wars and rebellions Paterson went through, or the dangers and excitements glimpsed around the borders of his anecdotes. It saves all its attention for humans and horses.

Thus the first few chapters are dedicated to great personalities of the Boer War--Roberts, Milner, French, Haig, and Winston Churchill (of whom he says, "Churchill was the most curious combination of ability and swagger....[he] had such a strong personality that even in those early days, when he was quite a young man, the army were prepared to bet that he would either get into jail or become Prime Minister.") There is a curiously sketchy account of French's relief of Kimberly, which Paterson memorialised with much more historical detail in his poem With French to Kimberly.

This is followed by a few chapters following Paterson across the South Pacific from Australia to China for two equally important events--the Boxer Rebellion and the Chefoo Races. Then there are some accounts of London celebrities, including Rudyard Kipling, of whom Paterson said, "In private life he was just a hard-working, commonsense, level-headed man, without any redeeming vices that I could discover." Paterson respected Kipling's work ethic, observational skills, and insistence on accuracy in everything he wrote, as well as his prescience of the possibility of a Great War:
Kipling stalked through the land of little men, as Gulliver stalked through the land of the Lilliputians. He would never have made a political leader, for he was less of a quack, less of a showman, and less of a time-server than any public man I ever met. Had he been a spectacular person like Gabriel d'Annunzio he might have led a great Imperialist movement. But he had no gift of speech, and his nature abhorred anything in the way of theatricalism. He wrote of things as he saw them, bearing in his own way the white man's burden and expecting no fee or reward.
Finally there are two fascinating chapters on the Western Front at the beginning of the Great War, and three in Egypt with General Allenby, the Light Horse and "that weird branch of the army, the Remount service".

You will find very little consistent information on any one topic in this book, for Paterson flits from one anecdote to another, from horses and socialites to generals and charges in the blink of an eye, with little warning. What you do get is a sort of back-door view of everything: great men, armies, wars, horse races, and a whole eighteen years or so of world history. How people talked and acted when they weren't speaking to journalists or recording their thoughts for posterity; what the ordinary man's attitude was toward the outbreak of World War I; Kipling and Paterson in a room talking shop about poetry. It is uniformly fascinating.

And funny! Paterson spends very little of the book talking about himself, but he comes across as an entertaining man whom it might not, perhaps, have been so pleasant to know, for he is cynical and witty and dry, perhaps feeling more in common with the Tommies than the generals and duchesses. For he laughs at the generals, and with the unrefined and occasionally profane Tommies. The one man he seems to have respected most is Kipling. I said in my last post that Paterson reminds me of John Buchan stylistically, and now I am not so sure. There are some similarities, but while Buchan was very much a Scots-English gentleman, Paterson is firmly in the irreverent Aussie larrikin class, with an insatiable appetite to be in the thick of action. Here is his description of the Duke of Marlborough, Winston Churchill's wealthier and less interesting cousin:
Marlborough, by the way, was just as retiring as Churchill was aggressive. He could not get much higher than the House of Lords, so he had no necessity to advertise himself; but he was a duke, so he had to act up to it when under public observation. He was riding one day on the flank of an Australian patrol, when it was found that the Boer bullets, fired at extreme range, were just about able to reach the patrol. The common or garden Australians swerved hurriedly out of danger; but the Duke rode on impassively, while the bullets whipped up the sand in front of and behind his horse. Said an Australian trooper:

"If I had that bloke's job, I wouldn't do that."
If you are at all interested in the personalities and history of the early 1900s--or Australiana--or horses--I highly recommend finding a copy of Happy Dispatches. Funny, irreverent, and irrelevant, it is a vivid snapshot of a time and a culture that has mostly vanished.

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