Sometimes a bloke gits glimpses uv the truth
(“In Spadger’s Lane”)
I wasn’t sure, really, that I wanted to read CJ Dennis’ verse novel, The moods of Ginger Mick, which I received as a review copy from the Sydney University Press as part of their Australian Classics Library – but have surprised myself. I rather enjoyed reading it and am glad that I had this little push to do so!
The moods of Ginger Mick was published in 1916 just weeks before the big Conscription Referendum, according to Philip Butters who wrote the new introduction to this edition. It does not however buy into that debate. The book comprises 15 poems “written” by Dennis’ other character, The Sentimental Bloke, at whose wedding Mick was best man. The poems introduce us to Mick and his larrikin life before the Great War and then go on to chronicle his life as a soldier.
Dennis writes his poems in broad Australian slang (but there is a glossary at the end). Most are 6-line stanzas with an ababcc rhyme (the same as Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”!) but every now and then there is a different rhyme scheme which mixes it up a little. The sweet poem “The singing soldiers”, for example, has a sing-song aab(with an internal rhyme)acc, while the poignant “Sari Bair” about the eponymous battle has 4-line stanzas with a simple aabb rhyme.
I enjoyed reading the poems, not only for their evocative language but also for their subject matter. While their setting and language make them very much of a particular time and place, their concerns have some universality. They are about egalitarianism vs class difference, and about what it means to be a man (a “bloke” as it were). Mick starts off as a bit of a larrikin – one who cares not for the “toffs” and for whom the “toffs” care not! As he says in an early poem:
But I’m not keen to fight so toffs kin dine
On pickled olives …
What sends him to war in the end is “The call uv stoush” but, when he gets there, he starts to discover that in uniform all men are equal, that
… snobbery is down an’ out fer keeps,
It’s grit an’ reel good fellership that gits yeh friends in ‘eaps.
This poem, “The push”, provides a wonderfully colourful roll call of the sorts of men who enlisted. Other poems cover the support of women at home, hopes for work when they return home now they’ve proved themselves (after all the “‘earty cheerin’ … per’aps we might be arstin’ fer a job”) and the sense that Australia has grown up as a nation (“But we ‘av seen it’s up to us to lay our toys aside”). There is ironic humour (as in “Rabbits”) and pathos (as in “To the boys who took the count” and “The game” in which Ginger Mick finally realises that he’s found his metier). There’s also some racism that was, unfortunately, typical of the time. And of course there is patriotism, with some rather lovely descriptions of the Australian landscape. I just have to mention here some references to gums:
An’ they’re singin’, still they’re singin’, to the sound uv guns an’ drums.
As they sung one golden Springtime underneath the wavin’ gums.
(“The singing soldiers”)
An’ we’re ‘opin’ as we ‘ear ’em, that, when the next Springtime comes,
You’ll be wiv us ‘ere to listen to that bird tork in the gums
(“A letter to the front”)
As a group, the poems offer an interesting insight into Australia’s experience of the First World War, particularly given their mix of realism and romanticism that belies perhaps the recent glorification that’s developed around our ANZAC heritage. If you are interested in Australia’s cultural and literary heritage, it is well worth giving this short little book a look.
The moods of Ginger Mick
Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009
(Review copy supplied by the Sydney University Press)