The Gallipoli Diary of Alfred Cameron
Paintings by Bob Kerr
Music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure
Slava Fainitski (violin) / Brenton Veitch (‘cello) / Catherine McKay (piano)
Robin Kerr (speaker)
Pataka Museum, Porirua
Sunday 25th April 2010
At Pataka Museum in Porirua, an exhibition featuring a series of paintings of Gallipoli by Wellington artist Bob Kerr was presented, bearing the title “HellHereNow”. The ten paintings together made up a sizeable panorama of Anzac Cove in Gallipoli – a place that uncannily resembled Makara, not far from Wellington, one similarly rugged and desolate. Interestingly, the ambience and atmosphere of each panel was reflected by the elements in different ways – the landforms were depicted as more constant and immutable from image to image, whereas the sea and sky expressed movement, change and occasional volatility. The sequence thus engendered at once a sense of permanence and the unceasing movement of time and tide.
At the bottom of each of the panels Bob Kerr wrote an exerpt from a diary written by Alfred Cameron, one of the young New Zealand soldiers who saw action during the First World War at Gallipoli, while along the top of all except the outside pair was written the words of a statement attributed to a Turkish officer, Ismail Hakki, expressing his anger at the senseless of soldiers being made to “kill each other without reason”. The effect of these writings transcribed upon images of a totally unpeopled and forbidding landscape is a somewhat ghostly one – almost as if the land is quietly murmuring the sentiments of the shades of the soldiers who fought there, keeping their stories alive for those coming after who would take the trouble to stop and listen.
Kerr found Alfred Cameron’s diary among a collection of fifty World War One diaries in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and was struck by the directness, the honesty and the clear-sightedness of the young man’s writing, enough to want to express in visual terms the all-too-enthusiastically expressed spirit of the age, a desire to experience the adventure and excitement of going to war.
Alfred Cameron’s diary captures the wide-eyed idealism of the young men who went off to war, as well as the bitter disillusionment which followed. Over twenty-one days of diary-writing Cameron had gone from reflecting this idealism to expressing the brutal realisation of the situation’s realities in one of the final entries – “It’s hell here, now”. Alfred Cameron was subsequently wounded at Gallipoli, hospitalised, and eventually repatriated. He returned to farming in New Zealand in North Canterbury, married, and raised a family, some of whose descendants now live in Wellington.
The paintings were exhibited at Pataka for over two months, from March 20th until May 23rd. During this time, appropriately enough on the weekend of Anzac Day, the exhibition featured several performance presentations of the diary writings as a spoken narration to the accompaniment of live music, all set against the backdrop of the series of paintings. With the artist’s son, Robin Kerr as an impassioned and theatrical, though nicely-poised reader, along with the heartfelt playing of a trio of musicians, violinist Slava Fainitski, ‘cellist Brenton Veitch and pianist Catherine McKay, presenting exerpts of music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure, Alfred Cameron’s diary writings took on even more of the emotive force of a living, cumulative tragedy.
The performers chose Alfred Hill’s music as reflecting the somewhat naive patriotic spirit of the times, playing a reconstructed work, a piano trio written in 1896, whose piano and violin parts were subsequently lost, but which had also been reworked by the composer as a Violin Sonata. From this work, Australian musicologist and publisher Alan Stiles had been able to put the Trio back together along its original lines, to marvellous effect in the work’s opening movement, much of which was used to reinforce the forthright optimism of the diary’s first few entries, eagerly and youthfully conveyed by narrator Robin Kerr.
The presentation began with Bob Kerr welcoming the audience and speaking about his paintings, after which it was the turn of the musicians and the narrator to take up Alfred Cameron’s story. The first music we heard was the opening of the Trio by Alfred Hill, at the outset arresting, forthright chords and strongly syncopated emphases, with lyrical lines in between the more energetic episodes. A second subject was beautifully prepared by the writing and nicely shaped by the players, the ‘cello having the line and the violin the descant, before the instruments joined, with piano accompaniment.
Whenever the playing broke off to allow the speaker his turn I found myself torn between wanting to hear the music continue, and waiting for the next piece of the narrative. The words of Cameron’s diary brought out the young man’s essential boyishness excitement at the prospect of going to war, and the first exotic ports of call that the young men experienced, in Egypt and at Suez. The music began again at the diary’s description of the young soldiers’ going out to dinner in Cairo, the sounds wistful at first, then gradually returning to the mood of the opening, jagged and athletic, with strength and lyricism well-harnessed together. Throughout I liked the tensile, well-wrought argument between all three instruments, the robust and rugged interworkings and the singing of the lyrical lines contrasting to rich effect.
The diary narrative skilfully dovetailed with the music – the first news of casualties from the “front” was contrasted with descriptions of the beauty of the Mediterranean, and the excitement of the arrival at the Dardanelles, where, upon approaching and landing on the beach the soldiers were suddenly confronted with the realities of war, the company being heavily shelled by the Turkish forces. Before long the situation’s hopeless tragedy became apparent, the diary towards the end describing the desperate conditions, the ill-fated skirmishes, and the loss of life – the description of the soldiers’ graves was placed alongside Gabriel Faure’s Elegie, beginning with sombre ‘cello and piano, and with violin eventually joining in as the music became more impassioned. The full force of Alfred Cameron’s words seemed to find expression in the instruments’ tones: – “It’s just hell here, now, no water or tucker, only seven out of thirty-three in number one troop on duty, rest either dead or wounded. Dam the place, no good writing any more.”
At the end, the music took over from the words, the heartfelt playing by the trio of musicians ineffably expressing the mood of the evocation, wrought in tandem with the paintings and the narratives. Altogether, the presentation made a stunning effect, the synthesis of visual art, music and spoken narrative finely and sensitively judged by all concerned, artist, speaker and musicians – an Anzac Weekend event to indeed remember.