"Year Without Spring."
Unpublished typescript account of World War Two service in Papua New Guinea.1942 Stock Code: 93902
NotesThe typescript gives an epistolary account of the army service of Ernest Briggs (1905-1967), the Australian poet, broadcaster and music critic, in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War, the letters being addressed to the pianist Harriet Cohen.
The first letter dates from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 26 June 1942; the last is dated 22 November 1942. As he explains in the first of them, Briggs has employed the literary device of arranging the text in the form of a series of letters to Cohen: "I have determined to write a daily series of little notes, even though your eyes, or other eyes may never see them, in order that something of my imagination may yet be saved". There is no indication in the correspondence of interaction with another human being, the tone being that of a man talking to himself, mixing stories of army life with ruminations on music and the arts (with an apparent bias towards women including Clara Butt, Fiona MacLeod, and Laura Riding).
Briggs tends to avoid specific detail, but much of the five months covered in the volume is spent in Papua New Guinea (there is a reference on 20 August 1942 to Port Moresby, and another on 8 September to "rubber plantations at Eworogo Creek"). On 18 July he describes his "new post with the Administrative Section", and later he works at "road-making". Along the way he covers such topics as military food, guard duty, pay-books, hospital, and chaplains.
A typical letter (6 July 1942) begins with news of "a chap in the cookhouse, a lad by the name of Thistlewaite", whose sister has died giving birth to twins, followed by an amusingly snobbish account beginning: "To-night I created an uproar in one of the tents. The chaps asked me to come around and bring the gramophone, but they didn't take kindly to Bach, and in rejecting him they have proved that there is no greater hell than being forced to endure what is alien or distasteful to one's inner nature. To the highly developed sensitivity it is the low and vulgar that is repellant sic; to the less developed sensitivity it is the high that is repellant." He abuses the "chaps" as a "lecherous low-browed mob of grovelling peasants", and is hit on the back of the head by a thrown boot on leaving the tent. "I retraced my steps, and opening the flap of the tent I returned it with such vigour that a lucky hit brought down the centre-pole which was already askew with the previous souffling."
Briggs is an unwilling conscript to the very end: in the penultimate letter he explains that he has "upheld an ideal against an army... I have been called up, taken 3,000 miles, brought back and released, all in five months. I have never fired a shot, never used a bayonet, never injured a fellow-being, and never taken a human life. I have been taken on Active Service, and have never made a will. I have never been vaccinated, nor have I had any prescribed medical injection whatsoever. I have never received a penny for military service from the time I left Australia until the time I came back. I have never been out of touch with my real work of letters, even on the sea, on a mountain-top, or in the jungle. I have written a book unaware that I was doing so."
Briggs's choice of Cohen as recipient is explained in his first letter: "You have been described as a poet among musicians. I have been referred to as a musician among poets, so we are enabled to meet on common ground. I am writing to you now for two reasons; firstly because you are now generally acknowledged to be the world's finest interpreter of the clavier music of Johann Sebastian Bach; and secondly, because I have need to save my imagination from the environment in which my obligation to serve under military law has placed me."
He complains that, having "spent the last fifteen years in the shaping of my soul in the hope of serving my generation as a poet", he has now been "wrenched from all to which I gave my life, and tossed into the army where there are a hundred subtle ways of destroying imagination and sensitivity".
The work is unpublished and the only other copy traced is in the Ernest Briggs Collection, Fryer Library, University of Queensland.
Contemporary spring-back binder, quarto. Purple pebble-grain cloth, 297pp. carbon typescript, with the loose leaves and their brown card wrappers placed in contemporary lavender pebble-grained cloth "Riven Spring-back Binder". Binder worn and somewhat faded, lightly marked from old tape repairs, contents a little toned, overall very good. Two photographic prints - Harriet Cohen, C.B.E." and "Franz von Vecsey" - tipped in, with a third loosely inserted (typed label on back headed "Passager sur Terre"). Tipped in onto the reverse of f.20 is what appears to be the original pencil diagram by "One of the lads, Norman Palfrey", intending to "prove to the rest that a right-angle is not a right-angle". With a few minor manuscript corrections (almost certainly in Brigg"s autograph).
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