‘It’s Miss Helen’s turn now’

After the First World War, Rudyard Kipling wrote beautiful short story, The Gardener, about a respectable middle-class Englishwoman, Helen Turrell. She is unmarried, but has an illegitimate son, Michael. Helen keeps up the pretence that Michael is her nephew, and the village pretends to believe it. When the war comes, Michael volunteers, and is sent to the killing grounds of the Western Front.

A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. …  By this time the village was old in experience of war, and, English fashion, had evolved a ritual to meet it. When the postmistress handed her seven-year-old daughter the official telegram to take to Miss Turrell, she observed to the Rector’s gardener: “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”. .

The same terrible ritual played out in Australia. The casualties of that war were on a scale almost unimaginable now. Nearly 70,000 men, out of a population of four million, were killed. It was always the arrival of a telegram, ostensibly from the King, which let a community know that “It’s Miss Helen’s turn now”.

0281 label aSuvla Bay was one of the battlegrounds of Australia’s first major engagement, on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, and the song tells of the news reaching a woman that her lover has been killed there.

This recording was made in the 1960s by Reg Lindsay and his wife Heather McKean, who were stars in Australian country music at the time. The song is much older, however. It first became a hit in England in 1948, and its origins are mysterious. The Sydney Sunday Herald of 23 January 1949 reported

London songwriters are mystified about an Australian song “Suvla Bay,” which has suddenly become the rage of Britain. Sheet music copies credit both, the melody and the lyric to “Jack Spade.”

But Jack Spade cannot be found. There is some doubt whether he is even an Australian. The BBC has made the song the hit tune of the month. Every “pop” singer and dance band leader is asking “Who is Jack Spade?” The copywriters of the song are the Irwin-Music Company. They claim that “the Jack of Spades” (a name often given in the profession to an unidentified composer) is alive and lives in England, but will give no other details.

Suvla Bay is a sad waltz, and there is much talk of sorrow and duty and playing one’s part. It sanitises the experience of grief, perhaps, but it is a good song, an attempt to capture part of the Australian experience of war. One detail is wrong. The news would not have arrived by letter. It was always a telegram.

  • Artist: ‎Reg Lindsay and Heather McKean
  • Single Title: Suvla Bay
  • Track: Side A “Suvla Bay”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Columbia DO-4547
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965

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