Saturday, February 27, 2010
Tommy's big dream
I shuffled through the old postcards. I had stacks of them, each one a small glimpse into the past. Collecting things is a strange hobby. None stranger is that of Postcards, where the brief correspondence of a bygone age becomes the property of a reader voyeur.
The scenes of Paris and northern France were scattered about the table, as I searched for the photo of a line of horse drawn cabs in the Champs Elysee. A few cards had turned over and the early messages of long gone correspondents were on view. The ones in ink were mainly from French men and women, wishing their addressees: "mes meilleurs amities" or "sentiments affecteux", and other similar Gallic endings. Others in pencil were from the front. Pathetic messages from soldiers with little time, writing possibly their last messages to loving wives, girlfriends, mothers and children."All well here, hope you are same over there", or "At Field Hospital until Wednesday, then rejoin regiment, saw Ted Porter from the Avenues", and "Hope you like this pretty card, we go up the line tomorrow".
Postmarks were generally of Field Post Offices, and the addresses were to Brighton and Liverpool, Aberdeen and Glasgow and then I noticed one sent to Port Adelaide, in South Australia. Addressed to Doris Watson, the message betrayed little except that writing didn't come easy to the soldier, and what lessons he had never included spelling and the use of capitals.
"on leave in paris with frend. reckon I saw you at the stashun. better than a picture. tell you about it when I get home and we get wed. Tommy."
It was not many months later that I too was in Paris. There was no purpose for the trip other than to make use of the free flight which came as part of the return ticket from Australia. I took the opportunity to visit the Musee D'Orsay, while I was there. This was a museum of French Art of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The building erected not far from the banks of the Seine in 1900 was a former Railway Station. Its fine architecture and convenient position made its reuse for public purposes essential. I spent some hours in the galleries wistfully enjoying the paintings of Corot, Manet, Renoir and Degas. The sculptures of Rodin and Maillol were a delight and the Art Nouveau designs of Mucha, made me wish that I could live closer to France so that I could visit the Museum again and again.
Sated at last, I left the great building. I came out into an autumn shower. The former entrance plaza still had the original statues that greeted the rail commuters years ago. I walked up to them and gazed with awe at the massive bronze castings. They were of the four races of man depicted by the female form. These sad figures posed there crying tears of rain. Here was the European beauty, there the Asiatic maiden, now the African queen and the last was an Australian Aboriginal girl! I thought at first that I was mistaken but no; her features were quite distinct. She proudly looked out into the plaza so many miles from home with a little kangaroo by her side.
I thought back to that postcard.
"reckon i saw you at the stashun...better than a picture.."
That postcard from the first world war in my collection must have been from an aboriginal soldier! He had seen his girlfriend at the station. When I first read the card I had naturally thought the soldier's girlfriend was a nurse or some other auxiliary, that he was unlikely to see again before they returned to Australia. But he had seen that magnificent statue looking just like his Doris with even a kangaroo at her side. No wonder he said it was better than a picture.
It was much later that with some digging in the war records that I found out that Private Tommy Karpany, hadn't returned home to Australia to fulfill all his big dreams with Doris but had stayed on in a battlefield in France .
Pictures: 1. Collecting Yams by Susan Wanji Wanji 1991, 2. Bronze statue of L'Oceanie by Mathurin Moreau c 1880.