Classic Ellis: Eric Bogle, 2008

(From And So It Went)

Friday 18th January, 5.10 p.m.

To Eric Bogle at The Harp, an Irish pub in Tempe, a purgative tear-splashed experience with my two sons Tom and Jack and a lot of Labor people, gnarled old girls I was at university with, Brian Langton the former Transport Minister and Damien Stapleton the vigorous party stalwart from (yes) Mosman, and a crammed standing audience, mostly over-fifties.

Eric sang with his eyes closed, his head tilted back, a wise wan smile, an expertly fingered guitar and an old friend John whose body, face and humour were a slightly enlarged version of his own, who guitar-accompanied and joined the choruses. They sang ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, the Willy McBride song ‘The Green Fields of France’, ‘Shelter’, ‘Now I’m Easy’ and my favourite, ‘Singing the Spirit Home’, about the teenage black activist about to be hanged whose weeping terror is soothed by cell-mates in chorus who ‘sang his spirit home’.

I have not been more moved in a while. Part of it was knowing Eric, too, like the mouldy cockatoo, has survived and the bleeding-heart ethic of which he was our anthemising laureate had also, though mocked and buffeted and bruised to the core, come through the Howard years and was now in its purity available for acclaim. Like the dying old farmer in ‘Now I’m Easy’, he, and we, could go to our last rest not exactly justified but proud we had a go.

For nearly sixty years I’ve been a Cockie.
Of droughts and fires and floods I’ve lived through plenty.
This country’s dust and mud have seen my tears and blood,
But it’s nearly over now, and now I’m easy.

I married a fine girl when I was twenty,
But she died in giving birth when she was thirty.
No flying doctor then, just a gentle old black gin,
But it’s nearly over now, and now I’m easy.

She left me with two sons and a daughter
On a bone-dry farm whose soil cried out for water,
So my care was rough and ready, but they grew up fine and steady,
But it’s nearly over now, and now I’m easy.

My daughter married young, and went her own way,
My sons lie buried by the Burma Railway,
So on this land I’ve made me home, I’ve carried on alone,
But it’s nearly over now, and now I’m easy.

And so on. Then Eric told a story of Tony Blair.

This handsome, ardent new young Prime Minister, it seems, had in 1997 shown a visitor to Downing Street a silver plaque engraved with ‘my favourite war poem The Green Fields of France’; by, he said, a private soldier, Eric Bogle, who died, he said (and the plaque did too), ‘in the First World War’. And Eric’s one surviving auntie, Thelma, read about this and wrote to Blair saying, ‘My nephew Eric Bogle did not die in World War 1, he is alive and famous and singing and you are a dickhead and your silver plaque, sir, is wrongly engraved’; or words to that effect. And a Downing Street flunky after only eighteen months wrote back to say the Prime Minster was ‘pleased and relieved that Private Eric Bogle was still alive and he would make his best efforts to catch his act when next he performs in England’.

How much by this small tale is told of Tony Blair, I thought, and how well informed are those impelled and sleepless minders who tell him what to do. Eric had frequently played in Blair’s home town of Edinburgh and his song was on the charts in England and Scotland, the land of his birth, and already a standard that many, many other performers performed in pubs and folk festivals. And Blair had never heard it, or heard of it. And he’s been lately ‘surprised’, he says, by how badly the Palestinians are being treated, how many starved and harassed and beaten and killed, unjustly in his opinion. Most things are news to Blair who is on the evidence, as Aunt Thelma deduced, a dickhead.

  1. Well done Aunt Thelma.

    A fool who goes along with George W Bush into Iraq, who believes implicitly in the myths of Christianity and who seems to know little about anything except perhaps the jurisprudence he studied at Oxford.

    At school in the 1960s : “All the teachers I spoke to when researching the book said he was a complete pain in the backside and they were very glad to see the back of him.” John Rentoul, his biographer)

    A dickhead? Sounds about right.

  2. I went to a Bogle concert a few years back and it was awesome. I have all his songs (his site says to find free downloads so I did), the audience was not all old but it was all totally engaged.

    Kat Krauss who sings with them is awesome and for those who love Eric he does have a 2 hour DVD concert which reduces me to tears everytime I watch it.

    He also gave his time to a bush fire concert with the likes of John Schumann and the amazing Vagabond Crew, the brilliant Borderers and many others to raise money after Black Saturday.

    His lyrics for Bushfire end with:

    “Arrogant man he squats upon the land, he buys and sells and zones it
    Cuts down weeds, plants his seeds, and imagines that he owns it
    For 40 years our land we’d cleared, we ploughed and sowed and tamed it
    Now where the bushfire’s passed, there’s only black ash, and Nature has reclaimed it.”

    And his song to Ibrahim and Woomera ends”

    You didn’t count Ibrahim, on political opportunism
    Our leaders knew that to many Australians the very word “Muslim”
    Meant Al-Quaeda, Hammas, the Taliban and terrorism
    And that’s why you and your family are locked up in prison.”

    All the lyrics to all his amazing songs are available on his website.

  3. Blair a dickhead? Who would have guessed?

    That a souless, dead-eyed and pathocratic sycophantic appeaser to his war-mongering brethren, a true cunt amid a fertile field of contenders for the laurel-leaves of cuntery could also be a dickhead?

    I guess it could be so. Anyway, I’m with DQ, he’s right about Aunt Thelma being on the money.

    There was a Thelma in my life, long ago, an unhappy housewife with a likable but hopelessly alcoholic husband, I was 17, virginal, and she 27. But I digress…

  4. I will, over drinks at the Newport Arms, hear more of this.

  5. A wonderful performer Eric Bogle, - I wish more teenagers could hear him - not on a CD, but in concert - jovial, sincere, rare.

  6. I wonder if someone will be calling me a gnarled old girl someday :)

  7. I agree on his quality. I use to sing a couple of his songs ,they don’t come out the same. He’s got the lot, musically, sentiment, unique voice.

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