Archives For Australia

Elysian Fields was to be home for the next couple of days – an Airbnb that charmed us from the moment we opened the front door. Two old shot-gun houses knocked into one, with the central fireplace cleverly opened on both sides. It wasn’t quite at the posh end of the road and the small bodega a block further up was not a place in which one could find a bottle of wine, or anything that wasn’t processed to an inch of its life. It gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘food desert’ – that phrase used in the US to describe an area devoid of healthy options. Laurie and I were scrutinised as we, in turn, searched the shelves for something, anything, to purchase. In the end we left empty-handed and, with an apologetic nod, scurried home.

Driving is hungry work so over cups of tea we decided on our dinner destination. In answer to Emy’s cravings, it had to be French. Herbsaint fitted each and every requirement – casual elegance, delicious food and a crisp wine for those drinkers amongst the trio, and it had the benefit terrace dining which added to our enjoyment. With apologies to Irving Berlin and Putting on the Ritz, who doesn’t like seeing ‘the well-to-do? Up and down St Charles Avenue, on that famous thoroughfare’. We left feeling the restaurant deserved its regular place in the Times-Picayune’s list of top ten in the city.

Morning came and once again our thoughts turned to our stomachs. Our host, Andrew, in the copious notes left for guests, had assured us that joining the waiting line for a seat at the table was unnecessary for locals, and so we headed down to the French Market to Cafe du Monde. I hustled ahead and, studiously ignoring eye contact with those tourists not-in-the-know, found a table recently abandoned. Within moments the residual icing sugar was wiped away by a Filipina waitress and as my companions joined me, we ordered café au lait and beignets. Our cups overflowed when a jazz quartet starting playing on the sidewalk and we knew we were headed into a good day.

“Well, well, hello, Emy – This is Louis, Emy, it’s so nice to have you back where you belong, You’re lookin’ swell, Emy, I can tell, Emy, you’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’, you’re still goin’ strong.” Yup, next stop Louis Armstrong Park where, though disappointed by the statue of the great man, we still managed to sing our way around and take Emy’s photo under the lights for her brother.

Who needs a ‘fascinator’?

Having found a spot to park I bottled out of city driving and under my inexpert guidance we boarded a streetcar for a quick ride down towards the Mississippi. Three changes later we were still miles from where we wanted to be but, as often happens, we stumbled upon the Audubon Butterfly Garden where we had an enchanted couple of hours. Our streetcar ride back was faster and we returned home glad we were not staying in a ‘cockroach motel’ such as the miniature shown at the Insectarium.

The French Market called us again and though we didn’t go to a jazz club, we had a lovely evening watching NOLA come to life as the lights went down. Some sights were not for the faint of heart but enjoyment was all around.

Fully loaded with cups of coffee and chicory we left our haven on Elysian Fields and squeezed Bruiser in a parking place near our chosen breakfast stop, only to find it firmly fermé. Instead we stumbled upon Anotoine’s Annex, a dear little patisserie and coffeeshop and a subsidiary to the famous Antoine’s, in business since before “New Orleans was queen city of the Mississippi River, when cotton was king and French gentlemen settled their differences under the oaks with pistols for two and coffee for one.”

The World War II Museum was next on our calling card. The three of us, having different areas of interest, split up agreeing to meet in a couple of hours. I had been looking forward to the visit but was bitterly disappointed in the presentation of the Pacific theatre. Whilst I recognise the desire to put US involvement in the forefront, I truly felt the museum did a great disservice to those Australian men and women embedded in the mud and bloody grime of war alongside their American counterparts. I couldn’t help feeling the majority of younger visitors would leave with little idea, if any, of how bravely the Australians fought. Certainly those same visitors would have no knowledge the reason the Australian fleet and air force were not on immediate hand was because they were in North Africa and the Mediterranean, and had been at war a great deal longer than any US troops. Much of the fleet and RAAF were re-stationed to the Pacific after the attack on Pearl Harbour, which took place on the same day but after the Malay peninsula was invaded at Kota Bharu. Neither was there any mention of the ‘fuzzy wuzzy angels’ – not a derogatory term – for the incredible fortitude and bravery of the New Guinea men who served as guides and stretcher bearers for injured American and Australian troops through the rugged terrain of the New Guinea jungle. I left the museum feeling very cross.

A drive through the quiet grandeur of NOLA’s Garden District soothed my ruffled feathers and, as Laurie took the wheel, we headed along the I10 through the most horrendous storms to where …..

White Feathers

February 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

p09909-005           Sister Ida Morse, my mother, back row, tall unhatted!

Over the years, I have been asked by those on the global trail how I have managed multiple relocations to multiple countries with a certain amount of sangfroid. This is how, and why.

I must have been about twelve. We were living in Kuala Lumpur so maybe that triggered the conversation about war, which prompted my mother’s comment, “Being shot in the stomach is a terrible way to die.”

This is Mum’s story.

75 years ago, on February 12th, 1942, 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service boarded the SS Vyner Brooke in Singapore. Not far offshore Sumatra the ship was bombed and sunk. 12 nurses drowned or were killed in the water. 53 staggered ashore at Banka Island having been in the sea for about three days. On Radji Beach, 22 of those women and one civilian, were lined up in the shallows and machine gunned. One, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived. Shot in the waist, she played possum in the waves until the Japanese soldiers moved on. She later surrendered and was interned in a POW camp. Of those 65 nurses only 24 survived to be rescued on 16th September, 1945.

Sister Bullwinkel and my mother, Sister Ida Arundel Morse (NX76286), were passing acquaintances. They met in the chaos of a Singapore under threat from the rapidly advancing bicycle brigade of the Imperial Japanese Army, which on December 8th, 1941 landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north eastern shores of the Malay Peninisula.

An hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour began.

Fresh in people’s minds were stories filtering in from Hong Kong of the gang rape and massacre of nurses at St Stephen’s College, being used as a front line hospital, on Christmas Day 1941 just prior to the British surrender. As it became increasingly obvious the island citadel of Singapore would be breached, General Gordon Bennett ordered the evacuation of all Australian nurses.

Matron Irene Drummond called her nursing staff into the main hall, explaining there were two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the SS Empire Star, on which they could be evacuated. One to depart within the hour and the other the following morning. Volunteers were needed for the second departure. Every nurse stepped forward. The matron smiled,  nodded and raised her arm, unilaterally signaling one side of the room would leave immediately aboard the SS Empire Star. My mother was allocated the first ship. Each nurse was allowed one small case. Matron Drummond was shot on the beach at Banka Island.

The SS Empire Star, under the command of an irascible Brit named Captain Capon, not happy having women on board, had accommodation for 23 passengers and a crew. An air raid attack on the wharf delayed embarkation but eventually 2,160 people, of whom 59 were AANS or physiotherapists, were herded into the holds. They did not set sail until first light on the 12th February due to the darkness of the night, mines in the straits and the light buoy being shot out.

Japanese aircraft found them at 9am, bombarding and strafing the fleeing ship until about 3pm. It was due only to Captain Capon’s seamanship they survived with, at one point, bombs landing simultaneously on either side of the ship. If one of the bombs had disabled the ship completely they would have drowned, as most were in the hold. Two nurses were on deck, and threw themselves over the wounded. Both sisters, Victoria Torney and Margaret Anderson were awarded medals for their valour. There were three direct hits in which 37 men were badly wounded, and 13 men killed. It was one of these men my mother nursed until he died.

“What did you do during the attack?” I asked.

“No one panicked. We sang. Waltzing Mathilda mainly. Over and over.”

There was very little food on board. Mum remembers an empty tin of Players cigarettes being used as a tea cup, and someone had a bottle of whisky. The Empire Star eventually made it to Batavia (Jakarta) where everyone was moved to a Dutch vessel for 48 hours while repairs were made. “It was heaven. We had hot showers.”

It was overcast when they left Tanjong Priok and, feeling safe aircraft wouldn’t be able to find them, everyone slept on deck as they sailed for Perth. Disembarking, Captain Capon saluted the Australian nurses, saying it had been a privilege to know them. By the time the nurses arrived in their home states, about a month later, the fate was known of those aboard the SS Vyner Brooke.

Some of the nurses, including my mother, were met at train stations by people waving white feathers. Because these brave and selfless women had survived.
Sister Ida Morse was a pragmatic woman, not given to sugar-coating or dramas but was softness personified to babies, and those who were sick or injured, whether two or four legged.

After that initial telling, my mother rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, either in Singapore or later in New Guinea. She gave me a book, White Coolies, by Betty Jeffrey, a friend from the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, which told of the nurses internment in the camps in Indonesia.

Mum’s story unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson.

Those of us lucky enough not to be directly impacted by war or terror should, I sometimes think, emulate the courage of our parents and grandparents. Our relocations, or dislocations, pale in comparison and are, for the most part, merely inconveniences.

Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!