Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FERDINAND – the Peaceable Bull

by Arthur Palmer          February 2017

Was there ever a more unlikely hero than this? In the land of Spain it is the height of valour and national glory to show that you are able to court danger and escape the perils of conflict with apparent disdain. Bull-fighting is lauded as an artistic way to demonstrate this, and matadors are heroic models. Then what do we make of this tolerance, or even affection, for Ferdinand, the bull who had no desire to engage in this display and preferred to sit quietly and smell the flowers?

Perhaps it was the timing. When the story first appeared we were in the mid-thirties, emerging slowly from a major economic depression, following a disastrous war. We needed a new model to admire. To many of all ages this rejection of violence rejoiced the spirits and delighted the imaginations of a world that was unsure where to look for answers to ancient social problems. The children’s book, written by Monro Leaf, was translated into many languages, more than sixty it is said, and came to the attention of men whose job it is to restrain all threats to national power. This unrealistic rejection of violence was not to be encouraged. The powers that be banned the book in many nations and it gradually faded from world attention as the Thirties focussed on the unfinished business of WW1 and began preparing for the next contest.

In April 1942 I met up with Ferdinand again. As a young Methodist I had become a convinced pacifist in my teenage years and now, at 23, I was entering Strathmore Detention Camp. Here I joined about 300 other objectors who had refused the army uniform, and were now coming to terms with a sentence of detention until the end of the war. This supposedly milder form of imprisonment was a new concept, and the Government was anxious to have it accepted, so for the first year it was easy-going, designed to keep us out of the news while the terrible war hogged the headlines.

After three months at Strathmore my attitude was painfully negative: “I refuse to work in this Detention Camp. I protest at this wartime expedient, designed to stifle our cry for peace. Count me out.” Eight of us signed a statement to this effect and we were sentenced to prison rather than the Strathmore experiment. I was sorry to leave so many of my conchie friends, though several of them before and a number of them later were to be found in the prison camps, which were very similar. So I appeared before the Court again and was transferred to Mt Eden Prison for three months, and later to Mt Crawford Prison in Wellington.

One major question remains. Was it necessary to repeat the massacres of WW1 to defeat this evil doctrine of racial superiority? How could the violent death of millions of citizens of many nationalities, many of them unresisting bystanders, be the only option at this time? The last such military contest had laid waste whole continents and left behind the seeds of further violence, as this new crisis was demonstrating. This world war contradicted my core beliefs. I was unwilling to be part of a repeat, though rather short on convincing answers to probing questions as to what should be done right now to counter the Nazi threat.

But I did gain something from that brief interval, and Ferdinand is one of the good memories. At a Camp Concert in May 1942 Ferdinand entertained us with conchie Brian Snowdon’s re-make of Monro Leaf’s classic, even leaving some lines unaltered, but with that more subversive twist and a catchy tune:

Oh, there once was a bull, a magnificent bull
In the green grass around Taranaki,
And he loved modern waltz and such innocent faults
As music and women and baccy.
He was gentle and kind and his moo was refined,
Attracting the heifers’ attention,
But his attributes mild made the other bulls wild,
And they sent Ferdinand to detention.

Ferdinand, Ferdinand,
The bull with the delicate ego,
Ferdinand, Ferdinand,
The heifers all called him “amigo”,
Ferdinand, Ferdinand,
He’d curtsey and greet them politely,
Oh he knew how to tango and dance the fandango,
But he’d never learned how to fight.

Ferdinand would not shirk
Useful everyday work,
But considered armed violence vulgar,
Turks and Wops by the dozens he counted as cousins,
He was brother to Greek and to Bulgar.
When they asked him to go, and he gently said “No”,
The Chief Bulls were stricken with horror,
And they cried “What would hap. if some slap-happy Jap.
Assaulted your heifer tomorrow?”

Ferdinand, Ferdinand,
He thought it considerate of them
To be derned well concerned
About his own personal problem.
Ferdinand was so bland. He answered, “If you will look after
The wealth you collect and want me to protect,
Well then, I will look after my wife.”

Ferdinand wastes his time spreading phosphate and lime
Or whatever the public determines.
Other bulls find it pays to go wasting their days
Out in Poona (Bai Gad!) shootin’ Germans.
Ferdinand’s tail is long, and the tale in this song
Has several instalments impending.
Many years will have passed ere the tale ends at last,
And Heaven alone knows the ending.
(Repeat first chorus.)

-Sung by the “Whenuaroa Warblers”, a camp choir group, on May 9th, 1942.

Yes, those who listened to that, in Strathmore Detention Camp in 1942, spent on average another three and a half years in such isolation. Not much was heard of Ferdinand in those succeeding years. Nazi war-making skill and the world’s haste in emulating it had silenced him. At huge cost the levers of power were transferred to new hands, and now, seventy-five years later, we find ourselves wondering what awaits us as a new President in America assumes a key role in world affairs. We pause to consider what may come next. Is this what we bargained for when so much human potential, much of it innocent and unresisting, was sacrificed or blotted out? Were there no better weapons than this to counter the racist demons which caused our world so much anguish, and which continue to bedevil us?

It’s time to look for new answers.

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