Friday, 8 February 2013

John Masefield - Fever Chills

“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky” ………. Oh yeah, I may mess around with poems about princes and alternate psychology, failed love and pets I’ve had, but after I’m done with all that, and I’m bored from being ashore and I’m bored with lubber prose then I’ve got to breathe salt air and taste the salty sea once more.  That’s when I turn to men like John Masefield.  And what better poem than Masefield’s Fever Chills to put me arm in arm again with characters doing their time at sea.  This is one of my favourite Masefield poems, the poor bastard at the bottom of the pecking order in a voice, a language and a behaviour that is absolutely historical in it’s preservation of how sailors once thought and talked ………. and hopefully, probably, still do.  I believe the 'Chief' in Fever Chills was still in when I was doing my time on Vendetta.

                                                                           (John Masfield 1878 - 1967)
He tottered from the alleyway with cheeks the colour
        of paste,
And shivered a spell and mopped his brow with a clout
        of cotton waste:
“I’ve got a lick of the fever-chills,” he said, “ ‘n’ my inside it’s
But I’d be as right as rain,” he said, “if I had some
        quinine, --
But there ain’t no quinine for us poor sailor-men.
“But them there passengers,” he said, “if they gets
There’s brimmin’ buckets o’ quinine for them, ‘n’ bulgin’
        crates o’ pills,
‘N’ a doctor with Latin ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ all – enough to sink
        a town,
‘N’ they lies quiet in their blushin’ bunks ‘n’ mops their
        gruel down, --
But there ain’t none ‘o them fine ways for us poor
But the Chief comes forrard ‘n’ he says, says he, ‘I
        gives you a straight tip:
Come none o’ your Cape Horn fever lays aboard o’ this
        yer ship.
On wi’ your rags o’ duds, my son, ‘n’ aft, ‘n’ down the
The best cure known for fever-chills is shovelling bloody
It’s hard, my son, that’s what it is, for us poor sailor-

In this post I’m including two short pieces from a eulogy I wrote in honour of my grandmother’s youngest brother (Jimmy Oliver) who died as a prisoner of war in Sandakan, Borneo in 1945.  Jimmy was with the Australian 8th Division, 2/10th Field Regiment, sent to Malaya in 1941 to safeguard Singapore should the Japanese attack.  We all know how that turned out.  Anyway, I like to think Jimmy and his mates maintained their Aussie, larrikin and military sense of humour throughout the ordeal.  That’s how I wanted to write it.  I was lucky to be able to do some research at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra one time when I was posted to Navy Office.  I was allowed access to the hand written diaries the Regiment maintained daily from it’s inception in Brisbane, embarkation, soldiering in Malaya and the retreat and final surrender in Singapore.  It was the little snippets that I was interested in – the daily routine; who went on leave with whom; who got punished   Unashamedly, I borrow the rhythm of Masefield’s Fever Chills to try and portray the voice of those poor bastards who embarked on an adventure and got trapped on Singapore.
“Tranquil you lie,
      Your knightly virtue proved,
           Your memory hallowed,
                 In the land you loved.”
……..Memorial to 2/10 Field Regiment, Brisbane

1941, Thursday, 20th February         A greaser from the troop ship Queen Mary was found drowned in Singapore harbour.  He had been drinking.
E staggered from the Horse Guard Bar
with two of his new found mates,
spat in the gutter and crudely yelled, up the AIF
I gotta get back to the Queen e says,
for Mary’s me home and bed,
so they turned him to port and held up his head
til his eyes stopped lolling about,
then they let him loose and he teetered and rolled
the way that a sailor would,
you’re a greaser they yelled, a greaser from hell,
you’re a bad and evil man,
and the greaser rolled into the night as happy as he could be
in the morning they fished a body out
from the harbour of Singapore,
it were Charlie Smith the greaser were he,
and e drank in the Horse Guard Bar.
1942, 2nd to 8th February.                   The Japanese subjected the 22nd Brigade area to an intense artillery barrage.
We cowers and our morale is low,
but we’d be alright
if supply could get us more ammo,
them Japs, they
got plenty of ammo, too right,
and they hides and hurls their projies on us
all day and at night,
but there ain’t ammunition enough
for Aussie artillery use.
Sarge from ‘is briefing says,
ration the ammo some more,
twelve rounds a day each gun,
to fire at the Japs in Johore,
it’s tough, I know,
but if you’d pull your heads from your backsides,
you’d be better gunners, and find,
it ain’t ammo on what you’s rely,
but there ain’t ammunition enough
for Aussie artillery use.
                              J. O. White


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