World War Two didn’t just wipe out tens of thousands of young Australian men and scar a nation. It meant the death of the 136,000 horses who accompanied our soldiers to the battlegrounds, but weren’t allowed to return home. WA horse trainer and author Portland Jones has just written her second novel, Only Birds Above, touching on this very sad topic while exploring the bonds between humans and animals, and on the power of family to help heal. She chats to The Starfish
What’s Only Birds Above about?
The novel is about Arthur, a blacksmith who goes to war with the 10th Light Horse and Tom, his son, captured by the Japanese in Sumatra in 1942. It’s about the effects of war, not just on the men who served but also on the families that they return to. It started out as the story of my great grandfather, Dirk Huisken who was a prisoner of war in Sumatra in 1945 but as often happens during the writing process, other characters took over and Dirk ended up with only a very small part.
Mostly though, I like to think that Only Birds Above is about hope and the power of family to heal us.
What does the title refer to?
For me the title was a way of conveying a loss of religious faith. When you no longer believe in a higher power there are only birds above you, nothing else.
As a horse lover and trainer, how painful was it for you to tackle the heartbreaking issue of how the horses were culled at the end of World War Two?
I teach equine behaviour at university and each year for the past 11 years, I have told my students how, at the end of the war, an officer simply walked down the horse lines and shot the horses where they stood tethered. The horses were so used to gunfire at that point, that they weren’t frightened, even at very close range. And every year, telling that story makes me terribly sad.
Telling the story of the men and the horses in Only Birds Above had its difficult moments for me but mostly the wider story is about the relationship of the men and their horses. It’s about the bonds between humans and animals, and that part felt like home.
My PhD was about learned helplessness and Vietnam War veterans so to me, that story is about more than just the loss of the horses. To me that story also speaks to a wider truth about how we have failed and continue to fail our war veterans. The more I learn about history the more I see familiar patterns emerge. Sometimes it seems as though we are compelled to make the same mistakes over and over again.
It’s not something many of us know about; where did you first hear about it and where did you do more research?
As an animal trainer I’m really interested in the role that animals play in human history. So I can’t remember not knowing about it, but certainly I never realized just how many horses went to war. The figure that is generally agreed upon is 136,000. And only one returned.
When it comes to research, I’ve always been lucky to have met experts in the fields I am researching. I think when you’re really interested in someone else’s passion, they are happy to share their knowledge with you. Lots of people in Australia are fascinated by the history of the Light Horse. I travel to Darwin to train horses, where I was lucky enough to meet a local who has been breeding horses that are the exact type as the chargers of the Light Horsemen. And a friend in Perth collects Light Horse memorabilia and artefacts. Talking to both of them, and being able to ask questions was enormously helpful.
I’ve also ridden in a replica of the universal pattern saddle (the kind used in WW1) and I was given an original universal pattern saddle by a friend who saw it hanging in the rafters of a shed. It’s now restored and I often look at it and think about all the stories it could tell.
I’m also a huge fan of my local library and the librarians who work there. I’ve never met a librarian I didn’t like, I think paper and ink must have very therapeutic qualities.
If we could go back to the end of World War Two, how should our horses have been treated?
That’s a great question, but I’m not sure that I know the answer. The horses couldn’t return to Australia because of the quarantine requirements. Perhaps they could have been shipped somewhere else without such strict protocols, or quarantined elsewhere.
Historically the context was very different. Today, horses are viewed by many as pets, whereas in that era they would definitely have been seen as livestock. While to me the ethical question regarding their treatment remains unchanged, because all animals deserve respect and humane treatment, 100 ago it would have been viewed differently. Today we look at the treatment of the horses, not just at the end of the war but throughout it, and it seems unimaginable. In the same way that the men who served were treated very differently than today’s soldiers. It’s hard to understand because it was a different era with different values. But I think that ultimately it asks some important questions about the dehumanising effects of war and the way in which an individual’s life loses value.
Had they been able to bring their horses home with them, what difference do you think it would have made to those returning from battle?
I think the loss of the horses would have been extremely traumatic for the men who had served alongside them for years. To men already traumatised by what they had seen and lived through, it must have been incredibly tough.
This is your second novel set in war and spanning time; what draws you to this grim topic and this technique?
My grandparents fought in the Dutch resistance during WW2 and my grandmother used to tell us stories about hiding my grandfather between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second. So, from an early age history was something that happened to people I knew. As a novelist I’m a storyteller and history provides us with a never- ending supply of stories.
When I was doing my PhD, I was struck by how many Australian families have three generations of soldiers. Great grandfather went to the first world war, grandfather to the second and dad to Vietnam. It’s an extremely complex legacy and I think a lot about how that impacts upon the way that masculinity is perceived and enacted today. In a sense it’s hard to talk about modern Australia without integrating an understanding of that aspect of the past.
Your first, acclaimed, novel Seeing The Elephant was published in 2016; how would you say have you evolved as a writer over the past six years?
I’d like to say that I’ve become more confident but I’m not sure that would be true. I’d also like to think that I’ve become more methodical in my research techniques but as I look around at the unorganised notes I’ve taken while researching my third novel, I don’t think that’s true either.
The steepest learning curve I’ve been on as a writer was editing Only Birds Above with Georgia Richter from Fremantle Press. That was a wonderful experience and taught me a great deal about making the story clear for the reader. Georgia also pointed out, in a very kind way, certain obsessions of mine that had crept into the writing. Together we worked them into a tidier, less obsessive form.
Editing is such an intimate process because a really good editor gets into your head in order to work out what you were actually trying to say. I joked to Georgia after we finished editing that I felt as though we should share a cigarette! But apart from the fact that neither of us smokes, it wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Who would Only Birds Above appeal to?
I hope it will appeal to a wide audience. I was very pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions to my first novel. It seemed to appeal to quite a wide range of people, not just people who read literary fiction.
Finally, tell us a little bit about your life in The Swan Valley. It sounds idyllic, full of horses and writing! What’s a typical day for you?
A typical day for me starts at 5am with a run – usually through the bush or alongside the river because, for me, any day with a pelican or a wedge tailed eagle in it is a good day. Then I have a swim, which is great in summer but can be a little bracing in July.
After that it’s time to feed all the horses and assorted other animals… goats, turkeys, chickens, cats and dogs. Then it’s time to start work. Most days I eat my breakfast on the arena with one of the stable cats on my lap and I don’t get back inside till around 1pm. I eat lunch, maybe play some guitar (badly) or read and then get to work at my desk. I’m currently working on a big writing project for a national horse related organisation as well as trying to write another novel and a second non-fiction book. I also lecture at Murdoch University and I’m on the board of a charity that sends Australian trainers to Asia to help modernise the way that captive elephants are managed and trained.
I run the property on my own so there’s always fencing, mowing and maintenance to be done in the afternoon. Then, it’s time to feed all the animals and, once that’s done, make dinner for myself and the two of my three children still living at home. We don’t have a TV but we usually manage to squeeze ourselves onto the couch between the dogs and chat before bedtime, which as you can imagine, isn’t very late.
It’s not a very glamorous life. And although when it’s 42 degrees or pouring with rain I sometimes ask myself why I didn’t become a lawyer like my parents wanted, I actually wouldn’t swap it for anything.