Kapiti Poet and hymn writer Shirley Murray has written an Anzac poem (see below) so powerful that some soldiers, clerics and politicians have been afraid to allow some of it to be read aloud at services.
This seems strange when we are forever told that our service people sacrificed everything to preserve freedom and democracy. So why should the ‘authorities’ be afraid of these words?
Is it because this internationally-honored writer tells lies?
Or is it because her words tell the truth about war?
As we live in a free country, only you can decide. And here, to help you, is Shirley Murray’s story of her struggle to be heard…
ON WRITING A HYMN FOR ANZAC DAYBy Shirley Murray
Hymn writing might seem to be a peaceful, rather private occupation.
Not so when you have touched a nerve in the national psyche. A hymn for Anzac Day, voicing what NZ’ers might consider right for the occasion has brought forth an intriguing raft of reactions.
I have a large file of them.
They come from the Defence Dept., the RSA, newspapers, church bulletins and a former P.M .
They also come from other countries, such as Japan, Canada and the USA, where the hymn has been seriously studied.
From the first use of the words for the official Chunuk Bair remembrance in 2008 at which Winston Peters presided, to an angry confrontation on a train platform by an enraged local woman, this was never going to be an easy run.
On every Anzac Day of my early experience, (though perhaps less so now, when we don’t do community singing), the public has been asked to join in a traditional hymn or two : ‘Abide with Me” and ‘O God, our help in ages past”, perhaps, and maybe ‘O Valiant Hearts”.
These were directly culled from traditional British hymnals – an irony when one considers the feelings of NZ’ers and Australians towards the British command at Gallipoli, its military mismanagement and subsequent disasters.
Where, I wondered, was an NZ expression of our own national feeling about wars and their enduring pain?
I wrote my hymn in 2005 with the firm intention of honouring the Day and paying tribute to my two uncles who at the ages of 21 and 20 volunteered for the Otago Mounted Regiment and survived Gallipoli.
I also wrote with the firm intention of commemorating the tremendous courage of those who refused to kill or wear a uniform. Ormond Burton, whom I had met in my student days, has been my hero. I thought of him as I wrote the central verse which was deemed so suspect that the local Kapiti district Council, having used it once, banned the hymn thereafter.
Veterans’ Affairs officials also omitted this verse at the Chunuk Bair event.
This was also to remind ourselves as a nation that, while we gave due deference to the element of sacrifice, and have become almost morbidly sentimental in the observance of wreath-laying and glorifying war, we were a very brutal and punitive society in our treatment and attitudes to C.O.’s (conscientious objectors).
Many of these held firm religious convictions which might echo the words of Norwegian martyr to the Nazis, Kaj Munk. He writes of the churches needing a
“holy rage at the senseless killing of so many, and against the madness of militaries.
a rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction ,’peace.’ “
Some affirmations cheered my spirits. Helen Clark, as PM and Minister of Culture and Heritage, gave a thumbs-up to the hymn in her Foreword to the NZHT collectiion ‘Hope is our Song’ in 2009:
“This hymn will make a significant contribution to the expression of our nation’s identity on Anzac Day. ….I am sure in the years to come, Hymn for Anzac Day will be sung in memorial services in NZ and overseas.”
Maybe, but not yet at the Wellington Cenotaph.
Several colleges have discovered and taught the hymn, beginning with Lindisfarne in Hawke’s Bay. The then chaplain, Sande Ramage, premiered it at that college, and at Linton Military Camp as well.
Australian churches and prominent Australians, including the Governor of South Australia, have used the hymn for their own Anzac services while NZ’ers in officialdom keep their distance from it.
One important dimension is that the words were given a Maori rendering by Ray McGarvey and Whirimako Black, both Tuhoe, who sang it at Chunuk Bair. The music is an integral part of all this, and Colin Gibson’s strong setting, with its opening notes like a sad bugle call, gives exactly the right dignity and weight to the words.
This was immediately recognised by the Director of the NZ Army Band, Dwayne Bloomfield, who arranged the music early on and premiered it at the Wanaka Festival 2007 in such a way that everyone could join in. Wonderful! It was simple to do so because this impressive tune is so easily picked up.
But with typical cowardice in the face of challenge from a new tune, church worship leaders saw that the metre would fit ‘Abide with me’ and used that. I wept. They still do it.
There is little acceptance, either, of the white poppies for peace alongside the red poppies we wear.
It would seem that Christian people might be the first to make this statement and pin on a white poppy. But no – we might offend the RSA?
If the national psyche cannot hold more than the idea of remembrance and sacrifice, if the causes and cost of war are not constantly in our mindsets, we may turn our most solemn day into a military funeral parade, with youngsters wearing great-grandfather’s medals and a complete lack of understanding of our own history.
Then the glorification of conflict becomes a sentimental journey.
– Shirley Erena Murray MNZM