Hamish Henderson and Danny Spooner
By Roy Hay
Recently I attended a performance by Danny Spooner, a former student of mine, at Wurrong, near Camperdown, which recounted the incredible story of another man I knew well, the Scottish poet, writer, collector of folk songs, soldier and academic, Hamish Henderson. Danny Spooner is man with an enormous range of talents too. Born in London, the worked his way up to become a tugboat captain on the Thames and skipper on a trawler before emigrating to Australia in 1962. Here he became a school teacher, wrote a first class honours degree on folksong and industrialisation, singing the songs which he studied. He also sang the songs on the soundtrack of a video film we made on industrialisation in the valley of the River Forth in Scotland. Danny has a wonderful, earthy, or should it be nautical, voice and has become one of the leading singers of folk songs in Australia. He is a regular at festivals here and overseas.
The man whose life story he told and whose songs he sang began life as the illegitimate son of a wine merchant or a descendant of the Duke of Atholl. At Dulwich College in London at the age of about 12 he came across the poetry of Christopher Grieve, better known as Hugh McDiarmid, and was immediately hooked on the language, Lallans or lowland Scots in which it was written. When he left school, Henderson travelled in Europe in the years before the Second World War, helping Jews and others escape from Nazi Germany. Joining the British army, his command of several languages led to a career in intelligence, where he took part in the North African and Italian campaign with the 51st Highland Division. He accepted the surrender of the Italian forces at the conclusion of hostilities.
After the war he returned to Scotland where he wrote some powerful ballads, songs and poems based on his experience in the services. Among them was a compilation of the verses the soldiers of the 51st Division wrote while they fought their way up through Sicily and Italy. It was said that Lady Astor, in the House of Commons, described them as the D-Day dodgers, and the soldiers turned this slight to satire. Henderson also produced a series of elegies for the dead in Cyrenaica, which established his reputation as one of the finest modern Scottish poets. Having come across the writing of the Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned by Mussolini. Henderson translated his prison notebooks and eventually had them published.
When the Edinburgh Festival began in the 1950s, quite typically Henderson helped start a peoples’ festival ceilidh to showcase popular culture. He also began collecting Scottish folk songs, establishing that there was a domestic tradition stretching back to the pre-industrial period carried for the most part by the travelling people of the rural areas. He discovered a number of wonderful talents, pre-eminently Jeannie Robertson, whose work is now recognised as a vital element in the Scottish cultural tradition. He was one of the key influences in the establishment and development of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, where a huge collection of indigenous culture was preserved.
Henderson took part in a vigorous argument with Christopher Grieve over the merits of the folk material he was collecting and promoting. They engaged in that traditional Scottish sport of ‘Flyting’—conducting an intellectual argument in the literary magazines and newspapers of the day, which anyone who did not know the participants might have concluded would soon lead to fisticuffs or worse between them. Grieve championed poetry aimed at and written by professional poets whose literary sensibilities had been honed by serious study and training. Henderson took a much more popular and populist line, but tried hard to show that the folk tradition was equally full of learning and complexity. For all their disagreements it was clear that they shared a deep mutual respect.
Danny Spooner’s concert took place in the most idyllic setting. John Menzies, a doctor in Camperdown, bought the property at Wurrong on the south side of Lake Bullen Merri which he runs as a working farm and centre for the arts. He taught himself dry stone walling and has hand-built many of the boundaries on his land. When an old building in Camperdown became redundant and was about to be demolished, Menzies bought it and had it transported to Wurrong where he butt-jointed it on to the existing farm manager’s cottage to make a superb venue for intimate concerts, functions and gatherings of interest groups. It was the perfect location for Danny Spooner’s performance in which he was accompanied by fellow singer Duncan Brown and Dave Bail on bagpipes. John Menzies also played the pipes at the start of the event. He has done his bit over the last three decades to promote musical and artistic performances in the western district.