A Characteristically Bold Innovation in Form: Peter Stanley Launches ‘Plevna: A Biography in Verse’ by Geoff Page

Plevna: A Biography in Verse by Geoff Page. UWAP 2016

plevnaLadies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends. Good evening and thank you, Geoff, for inviting me to do the honours tonight. I’ve known and admired Geoff Page for about thirty years. In the early 1980s he put together an anthology of poetry reflecting on the Great War and submitted it to the Australian War Memorial, where I worked, and which in those days saw itself as open to publish words that did more than merely salute brave, dead diggers. His book, Shadows from Wire, was an honest and critical reflection on that war and all war, and it went on to be re-published by Penguin and become what I think can rightly be described as a best-seller in Australian verse.

As a sign of the passing of time, I remember that Geoff submitted the manuscript in a blue spring-backed binder, with the photographs (which were an integral part of his concept) stuck into a series of typed pages. It looked more like a school project than a manuscript, but he was after all a high school teacher, and ah, it was a more innocent age …

Since then Geoff has of course established a reputation as one of Australia’s foremost poets, and there can be few readers of the Saturday Canberra Times who are not aware of his standing as not only a poet himself but also as a critic and interpreter of poetry. That Geoff has survived the Fairfaxisation of our Canberra Times is a testament to his stature as a poet known nationally and not just in Canberra.

Geoff has always had an interest in reflecting on history through his use of words. I had the great pleasure in preparation for today of reading his novel Benton’s Conviction. It was not, as I had mis-remembered, written in verse, but it was all the same a very fine rendering of the stresses that the Great War brought to an Australian community. I noticed that it was dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Linden Webb, whose unusually principled sermons in Hay, NSW, questioning the easy acceptance of the war as a Christian crusade I referred to in my recent chapters on the war’s effects on Australian society.

And Geoff’s use of poetry to sharpen our awareness of important issues in history is fixed in my memory. In the early 1990s Geoff spoke at one of the big annual history conferences we used to hold at the Memorial. Geoff recited some of the poems he’d written commenting on frontier conflict in the settlement of colonial Australia: an unusual form and an unexpected venue, but they were different times. That subject – the acceptance of the fact and significance of frontier conflict – is still not resolved. It might be time to give those poems another outing, Geoff.

This evening we gather to celebrate Geoff’s latest book, and a characteristically bold innovation in form, a ‘Biography in Verse’ of Charles ‘Plevna’ Ryan. (If you try to find ‘biography in verse’ in the National Library’s catalogue you get just one hit: Plevna. (There are a very few memoirs in verse, but only one biography: this book is literally unique. As people say these days Plevna is ‘one of the only’ books to describe a life in verse.)

Who was Charles Ryan and why was he nicknamed ‘Plevna’? I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of Geoff’s account of Ryan’s life, so I’ll just say that he was a Melbourne-born surgeon who in the late 1870s found himself working as a medical officer for the Ottoman Turkish army at the siege of Plevna, in Bulgaria.

As Geoff shows, this eventful, stressful and traumatic period was the most intense time in Charles Ryan’s life and it defined him thereafter, when he had returned to practise in Melbourne, to marry and live a more sedate life – but he always carried the nickname of ‘Plevna’.

Ryan became the Ottoman empire’s first honorary consul in Australia, and he embodies an important stage in the long relationship between Australia and Turkey. In a book that I’ve just published, co-written with Vicken Babkenian, Armenia, Australia and the Great War, we mention Plevna Ryan’s service during a typhus epidemic in Ezeroum, in eastern Turkey. Indeed, we noticed the same anecdote that Geoff tells – but I’ll quote Geoff’s version, because it’s more economical and elegant than ours:

Along with Denniston and Stoker [British surgeons]
you treat Armenians for nothing,
including their archbishop who
insists you take, in recompense,
an ancient Persian bracelet
rescued from the time of Xerxes.

Did its maker’s father fight
at Salamis or Marathon?
you cannot help but wonder …

Here we have a writer whose skill and confidence with words enables him to do something that no one else has dared to do – to render a man’s life (or at least the most dramatic and accessible parts of it) in a form not usually associated with biography. It persuades me how verse enables a biographer to expose the essence of the story and of the emotions that underpin it – even when they are not apparent (as I hinted, Charles Ryan was a pretty buttoned up Victorian, and a surgeon to boot) – but some of his experiences in the Russo-Turkish war must have affected him for years, something to which Geoff’s text alludes. Geoff’s adept words and spare but sharp lines are like a lively life sketch rather than a fully worked-up oil painting.

But in just a few lines Geoff gives us the essence of Ryan’s experience – as a 60-year-old he served on Gallipoli as the 1st Division’s senior medico (one of the oldest combatants on the peninsula). Here he is at the celebrated 24 May truce on Gallipoli:

Those bodies, sprawled and rotting,
are hazardous to health
and dysentery is rife already.
You walk among the corpses,
quietly giving orders.
The shovel parties overlap;
and now some Turkish officers
have seen your Plevna decorations.
They think, like some Circassian,
you stole them from the dead and start to remonstrate.
‘No, no,’ you say in Turkish.
‘I got these when I fought at Plevna
with Gazi Osman Pasha.’
And then, we’re told, they’re hugging you
expansively as comrades.

And so on until Ryan’s death, on a ship off the South Australian coast in 1926.

I liked the sense of Geoff’s reflections throughout the book. On the very last page he wittily observes the challenges of writing any biography, in verse or not, noticing the

… random slips of evidence
the internet preserves,
managing the clash of dates,
the multiple accounts,
the various lacunae,
the several contradictions
that hinder and release,
forcing one to speculate
while falsifying nothing.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I hope that I’ve given you a fair impression of a wonderfully innovative, bold and fair ‘biography in verse’, one which resurrects one of the great characters of late Victorian Australia and one of the most notable characters on Gallipoli, a man who uniquely spanned two of the belligerent nations then and forever since.

On your behalf I congratulate Geoff Page on another wonderful book, which I pronounce duly launched. Congratulations, Geoff.

 – Peter Stanley

Prof. Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s most active military social historians, and President of Honest history. His latest book is Armenia, Australia and the Great War. 

Plevna: A Biography in Verse is available from http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/plevna

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