The sol­dier’s tale

A new play tells the re­mark­able story of a blinded Anzac who be­came an art teacher, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts - Cor­rie Perkin

IN the fi­nal months of World War I, James and Lu­cre­tia Fer­gu­son re­ceived a tele­gram dated May 1, 1918, say­ing that their 27- year- old son Nelson had been in­volved in ac­tion. ‘‘ Dear sir, I re­gret to ad­vise you that Private N. H. Fer­gu­son has been re­ported gassed, classed as wounded,’’ it read.

The tele­gram pro­vided a field am­bu­lance mail­ing ad­dress so rel­a­tives could write to Nelson, with a re­minder at the end: ‘‘ In the ab­sence of fur­ther re­ports it is to be as­sumed that sat­is­fac­tory progress is be­ing main­tained, but any­thing later re­ceived will be promptly trans­mit­ted.’’

The gas at­tack oc­curred dur­ing the lib­er­a­tion of the French town of Villers- Bre­ton­neux. Fer­gu­son, a stretcher- bearer in the med­i­cal corps, was al­most com­pletely blinded in both eyes. For the rest of his life his vi­sion was im­paired. He also suf­fered from dam­aged lungs and a hack­ing cough: the phys­i­cal fall­out of his 19 months on the West­ern Front.

Fer­gu­son was an or­di­nary Aus­tralian in ex­tra­or­di­nary and trau­matic cir­cum­stances. In the years af­ter the war, how­ever, he proved him­self to be any­thing but or­di­nary. De­spite his vis­ual im­pair­ment, Fer­gu­son worked as an art teacher in Bal­larat un­til he moved to Melbourne in the 1920s to teach at what be­came the RMIT.

When he was com­pul­so­rily re­tired in the 1950s be­cause of fur­ther de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of his sight, he worked be­side his son, John, and son- in- law Nick Pa­pas in their stained- glass win­dow busi­ness. Through his own quiet de­ter­mi­na­tion, good hu­mour and a tal­ent for in­spir­ing oth­ers, Fer­gu­son be­came ex­tra­or­di­nary.

And then a mir­a­cle: in 1968 he had a corneal trans­plant and his sight re­turned. For the first time in 50 years, he could see. It was a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment, though: his beloved wife Madeleine, whom he met be­fore the war and mar­ried in 1922, died just weeks be­fore the op­er­a­tion.

Fer­gu­son died in 1976. For years his story was kept within the fam­ily, which is now scat­tered through sub­ur­ban Melbourne. But its mag­ni­tude nagged at his grand­son Don Far­rands, who felt the story should be shared, pos­si­bly through a film or play.

‘‘ Most of the other fam­ily mem­bers thought I was seek­ing an im­pos­si­bil­ity,’’ says Far­rands, a bar­ris­ter. ‘‘ I told them I needed to be­lieve this is an ex­tra­or­di­nary enough story, that it would lib­er­ate it­self. And to my as­ton­ish­ment, it has.’’

Next month the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany will present The Glass Sol­dier , a play by Han­nie Rayson. It is Nelson Fer­gu­son’s story, with Jay Bowen play­ing the younger Nelson and Robert Men­zies the older one. The cast in­cludes Asher Ked­die and Kerry Arm­strong as the younger and older Madeleine, Steve Bis­ley, Julie Ni­hill, Sara Glee­son and Ben Geurens.

Rayson met Far­rands in 2004 and was cap­ti­vated by Fer­gu­son’s story. Her orig­i­nal brief from a new pro­duc­tion com­pany, Hot Road Pro­duc­tions ( fi­nanced by Far­rands and other part­ners), was to write a film script, which she is still com­plet­ing. But dur­ing the re­search phase, Rayson re­alised Fer­gu­son’s story had po­ten­tial as a piece of theatre and pitched the idea to the MTC’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Si­mon Phillips.

Com­poser Nigel West­lake has also made a con­tri­bu­tion. The Sol­dier’s Suite has been recorded by the Melbourne Sym­phony Orches­tra and will be part of the stage pro­duc­tion, as well as a stand- alone work of beauty and el­e­gance.

None of this would have hap­pened had Far­rands, 48, not dis­cov­ered his grand­fa­ther’s war ephemera hid­den in an old Scotch Fin­ger bis­cuit tin 10 years ago.

‘‘ My mother ( Jes­sica, one of Fer­gu­son’s three chil­dren) said, ‘ Have a look at this and see if there’s any­thing. One of the rel­a­tives is think­ing of putting them on the tip,’’’ he re­calls. ‘‘ When I saw what was inside I said, ‘ Hold on, I think there might be some­thing of value in here.’ ’’

Inside were sketches, wa­ter­colour paint­ings and diary notes that cap­tured the hor­ror of the bat­tle­fields of north­ern France in 1917 and 1918.

On Septem­ber 28, 1917, Fer­gu­son notes: ‘‘ Rain comes in shell holes filled with wa­ter, red­dened with blood. A large area strewn with the dead as they fell, some hor­ri­bly mu­ti­lated. The chap face down. The arm. The body. The leg. The sol­dier rigid across a shell hole.’’

April 17, 1918: ‘‘ Fritz ( the Ger­mans) opens with a heavy gas bom­bard­ment at four go­ing on ’ til nine. Chaps gassed ev­ery­where in the vil­lage. We be­gin to feel it and all be­gin vom­it­ing badly. I went for re­lief but was un­able to get back. Very weak and retch­ing all the time . . .

‘‘ Now about 1 o’clock. A cou­ple of hun­dred are gassed and ly­ing in a sunken road await­ing trans­port. A mo­tor takes us to Au­bigny where Jack fixed up my be­long­ings. Blaikie washed and bound up my eyes.’’

The war is just one chap­ter of Fer­gu­son’s re­mark­able tale. His suc­cess as an art teacher and his abil­ity to nur­ture young artists de­spite his blind­ness had a pro­found im­pact on RMIT stu­dents.

Af­ter re­tire­ment, Fer­gu­son con­tin­ued his men­tor­ing role. He helped his son and son- in- law with the glass busi­ness, mak­ing win­dows for churches and homes. The stu­dio was orig­i­nally in Fer­gu­son’s back yard, in sub­ur­ban Carnegie.

Rayson’s play in­cludes bat­tle scenes but fo­cuses on what hap­pens af­ter the war. Partly fic­tion­alised, it’s about the re­la­tion­ships be­tween Fer­gu­son, his wife Madeleine and his mate Wolfie, a shell- shock vic­tim.

The play­wright dis­cov­ered a com­pelling fivedecade con­nec­tion through the beauty of stained glass. ‘‘ One of Nelson’s last images be­fore he was gassed was in a church in France with a stained­glass win­dow,’’ she says. ‘‘ The church was bombed and the win­dow was shat­tered. I use it as a metaphor: over the cen­tury there have been mo­ments of peace shat­tered by war. This is kind of about the quest to pick up the pieces of frac­tured, frag­mented lives to let in the light.’’

Rayson, who lives in Melbourne, says the Fer­gu­son fam­ily are ‘‘ lovely, lovely peo­ple, but they’re very mod­est . . . They were very keen that Nelson’s story be told as an ev­ery­man’s story. This is not, for ex­am­ple, the story of a great artist who lost his sight; that’s some­thing they would be em­bar­rassed about. He was a teacher, and that’s what he did best. They wanted this to be a story that stood for an ex­pe­ri­ence that spanned the 20th cen­tury.’’

Far­rands, a for­mer se­nior fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer with Rio Tinto who calls him­self a ‘‘ lowly worm bar­ris­ter’’, is the fam­ily spokesman, ‘‘ the cus­to­dian of the con­text and rep­u­ta­tion’’. All three of Nelson and Madeleine’s chil­dren, Far­rands says, are pleased and hum­bled by the projects ded­i­cated to their fa­ther. Shar­ing the tale with Rayson, he adds, was a priv­i­lege.

‘‘ I told her my grand­fa­ther’s story in about two min­utes and she was won­der­ful,’’ says Far­rands, re­call­ing their first meet­ing. ‘‘ She said, ‘ I have hairs stand­ing on the back of my neck and I’m go­ing to write the story.’ ’’

Al­though the film and mu­sic score are Hot Road Pro­duc­tions com­mis­sions, the MTC has in­vested heav­ily in The Glass Sol­dier stage pro­duc­tion. Un­usu­ally in th­ese cash- strapped times for the arts, the com­pany is us­ing 12 ac­tors

( most per­form­ing more than one role) to bring the epic script to life.

Phillips, who is di­rect­ing the play, re­calls his first con­ver­sa­tion about it with Rayson last year: ‘‘ I was sold, just as ev­ery­one who ever hears the story is kind of sold on it, and said, ‘ Let’s go for it.’ ’’ The so­cial his­tory of a gen­er­a­tion that went through two world wars and the De­pres­sion gives the play back­bone, he says. ‘‘ You of­ten feel if you just scratch the sur­face of any fam­ily and then cover that fam­ily over 40 years, you’re go­ing to find a re­mark­able tale.’’

As part of her re­search, Rayson and her his­to­rian hus­band, Michael Cath­cart, were sent to France by Hot Road so they could walk through the for­mer bat­tle­fields. Rayson vis­ited war mu­se­ums in France and Bri­tain and read ‘‘ ev­ery­thing I could get my hands on for two years’’. One of the most pow­er­ful mo­ments, she re­flects, was stand­ing in the fields near Viller­sBre­ton­neux. There she let her imag­i­na­tion con­verge with the view in front of her. As she scanned the site she was struck by the enor­mous sac­ri­fice of 1200 young Aus­tralians to save one vil­lage. A Bri­tish gen­eral later de­scribed the at­tack on Ger­man forces as ‘‘ per­haps the great­est in­di­vid­ual feat of the war’’.

‘‘ It was such a sav­age, grue­some busi­ness,’’ Rayson says. ‘‘ I think there was a sen­si­bil­ity which is so dif­fer­ent now. I tried to imag­ine what it would be like, psych­ing my­self into a mind­set where it would be fine to die for the em­pire.

‘‘ The duty thing that was go­ing on . . . it’s very hard to get your head around it in 2007. What is as­ton­ish­ing, of course, is the mate­ship. It shines through the more you learn.’’

The play­wright says her ver­sion of Fer­gu­son’s story ‘‘ is like a fam­ily saga. It just rolls down. It’s not a his­tory les­son, it’s the story of one man and his best friend, and what hap­pens to mar­riage when mate­ship is a dom­i­nant part of your life. We all know about mate­ship and its im­pact on your mar­riage, when there’s this kind of third party.

‘‘ I also felt I could bring an un­der­stand­ing of how post- trau­matic stress rolls on through the gen­er­a­tions.’’

Far­rands de­scribes the past few months as ‘‘ a won­der­ful fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ence for all of us’’.

His cousin Andrew, who runs the fam­ily busi­ness mak­ing and restor­ing stained glass and lead­light win­dows with his brother Peter, agrees.

‘‘ My fam­ily is a bit shell- shocked by this. Don has been work­ing on this for 10 years, and while we are all re­ally proud of Grampy, we didn’t want him to be por­trayed as a war hero, or to glo­rify war. I’m pleased Han­nie took that approach.

‘‘ We pre­fer to think of Grampy as sym­bolic of all the sol­diers: the fact that th­ese were just a lot of nor­mal guys thrown into a hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion. I think the re­al­i­ties of war are pretty bloody hor­ri­ble.’’

Says Far­rands: ‘‘ The virtue of my grand­fa­ther was he didn’t come back from the war bro­ken and per­ma­nently dis­cour­aged. He came back, he mar­ried, he re­turned to his art and cre­ated a whole gen­er­a­tion of artists.

‘‘ What­ever we can do to put fuel un­der the fire of this story, we’ll try it. I think that’s what the story de­serves: a ventilation of this man’s life.’’ Melbourne Theatre Com­pany presents The Glass Sol­dier at the Arts Cen­tre Play­house from Au­gust 8 to Septem­ber 8.

Colour­ful life: Nelson Fer­gu­son, left, suf­fered im­paired vi­sion in a gas at­tack in north­ern France dur­ing World War I; the sol­dier, who would later be­come an art teacher, made many sketches and wa­ter­colours while serv­ing on the West­ern Front; writer Han­nie Rayson, far left, is tak­ing Fer­gu­son’s story to the Melbourne stage, where The Glass Sol­dier will pre­miere next month

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