Trevor Wilson Eulogies, 24 June 2022
Jenny Wilson [00:00:24] Emeritus Professor Trevor Gordon Wilson, AM. Known as Trevor to Mum and his colleagues, as Gordon to his daughters and granddaughters, as ‘Trevors’ to his grandson Ben, was born on Christmas Eve in 1928 in Auckland, New Zealand. Sara and my existence depended on a crowded train from Oxford to Manchester and a custard tart. A story that will be told shortly. But Dad’s existence depended on the war that became his great area of research, writing and teaching. The First World War. Trevor’s dad, Andrew Gordon Kingsley Wilson, was fighting as an ANZAC in the trenches in France.
[00:01:21] Going on leave to the village of Todspring (?) In Essex, where by chance he met Winifred Annie Banyard, known to us as Beulah. She made quite an impression on him, because four years later he returned to England and married her. Dad grew up with his mum and dad and his older sister Win, in Auckland, loving reading, his greatest joy, especially English and history, doing well at school and revelling in watching cricket as he did all his life in the company of family and dear friends. Some of them are here with us.
Sara Wilson [00:02:11] After finishing his secondary education, Dad attended Auckland University studying history. And after finishing his degree lectured for about a year at Christchurch University. Dad won a scholarship to study at Oxford University and he became a scholar at Magdalen College, where he completed his DPhil in English history. While dad was studying in Oxford, he caught a train to Manchester that was so crowded he had to stand in the luggage compartment. He describes the journey thus: On the train I ran into a young woman. And I was immediately fascinated with her. She had brown hair and was very attractive. I started talking to her and we had an instant connection. I found out her name was Mary Jane. She had been teaching music at the Dragon School in Oxford. She was on her way home to Stockport. Dad invited Mum to a cup of tea and a custard tart, but never one to rush things, he then didn’t see her for a period of about three months. Finally, Dad found out where the attractive brown haired Mary Jane lived and invited her to the ballet. Mum and Dad were married on September 7th 1957 at the Church of St Mary the Virgin on the High Street in Oxford. Dad lectured in Manchester for about three years and on September 5th 1959 in Stockport near Manchester, Jenny, known to the family as Bun, was born.
Jenny [00:04:06] Just months later, Trevor and Jane with their fairly new baby, boarded the P&O liner, the Himalaya, arriving in Adelaide to take up the lectureship at the University of Adelaide, that was to be the joy of his life for 50 years. Mum quickly embraced life in Adelaide, learning piano from Lance Dosser at the Conservatorium and on August 30th, 1961, Sara was born. Mum later completed a master’s in accompanying before coordinating daily programs and fine music at Radio 5UV for 20 years. Dad’s great love of jazz found expression in his weekly program on that same radio station, a program entitled ‘The Jazz Collector’. We have set the scene for Dad’s 50 years of teaching and writing in the University of Adelaide. And for a rich life with family and friends, who gave him, we hope, only a little worry. And we also believe, a great deal of joy.
[00:05:26] Dad would say that is not the role of history, so much as to catalogue dates and facts, as to reflect on the context and to wonder at the motivations at the actions of the protagonists, to tell the stories from diaries and letters, from snippets of scenes of the lives of human beings, as much as from the war records.
[00:05:52] We think that eulogies and especially this eulogy, might be the same. And so we will invite his student, co-writer and dear friend, Professor Robin Prior, to share insight on his work as a historian, before Lucy and Harriet invite you to hear our beloved dad’s voice in his own words, then Sara and I will draw this to a close with a few stories of life with our dad.
Robin Prior [00:06:46] Let us now praise a famous man. Emeritus Professor Trevor Gordon Wilson AM. When I first met Trevor in 1966, he was in the process of becoming famous. He had just published his first book, The Downfall of the Liberal Party (laughter). Not that one. [00:07:11] The book was a phenomenon but it wasn’t a book of prophecy. From the reviews, and there were dozens of them. It was clear from the start that we were in the presence of a classic work by a mind of the first order.
[00:07:30] He followed with the impeccably edited diaries of CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian. And his reputation as an author and authority and inspirational lecturer of great lucidity soon spread. Indeed, his lecture theatres were crammed. And not necessarily with those just taking his courses, people came to hear him speak. When I got to know him better as a graduate student, he had just begun work on his masterpiece, The Myriad Faces of War. Those were the palmy days when universities allocated time to scholars to write masterpieces. The book, the Myriad Faces, was published to great acclaim in 1986. He was approached by universities from overseas to move, to relocate, such was his fame. But he chose to remain in Adelaide. And I’m awfully glad he did. Because our collaboration as joint authors was by then well underway. Together Trevor and I wrote four books, a host of chapters articles and reviews. And in all I reckon we wrote 600,000 words together.
[00:08:57] What was it like working with Trevor? The word that comes to my mind first is that it was hilarious. This, you might find surprising given that the topic of our four books was industrial scale killing. But the aspect that made it hilarious was the military mind. Or should I say the minds, and I use that term loosely, of the military that we were studying. Trevor particularly enjoyed Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander in Chief on the western front. He particularly enjoyed his incisive insights. The one he liked best was this one. This is Haig giving an order for battle.
‘We must attack on a broad front’, he said, ‘in order to obtain the advantages of attacking on a broad front.’
[00:10:01] There were plenty of other penetrating insights from Haig. Listen to his plan for the 1917 campaign. Haig said ‘the general direction of my attack will be east’. That was a relief because that’s where the enemy was. If Haig had attacked north he would have attacked the Belgians. If he attacked South the French would bear the burden. If he attacked west the British army would march into the Atlantic. This was the kind of mind that led to the hilarity we shared, it reminded us of farce and variations on the Goon Show.
[00:10:56] My move to Canberra at the end of 1986 threatened to disrupt our partnership. But we soon found, much to the delight of Telecom, that we could write chapters over the phone. The bills which arrived were often as long as the chapters themselves. And our collaboration was in some ways unique, like no other. There are other styles of historical writing which produce alternate chapters or sections of books.
[00:11:28] We didn’t work like that, and in the end it was impossible to tell which of us had written what in our books. I remember pointing out to Trevor a fine piece of writing he had contributed to our book on Passchendaele, only for him to tell me that I had written it. I protested and said it was his, but to this day to tell you the truth I don’t know which of us wrote it. And we pretty quickly stopped attempting that kind of analysis. The first thing then, working with Trevor, was it was great fun. But underlying that fun was a serious purpose. Trevor didn’t study war or battle so that he could examine manoeuvres on the battlefield. He studied war and battle in the two world wars in particular, because such large issues hinged on the results.
[00:12:34] Our work on Passchendaele and the Somme were designed to demonstrate how close bone-headed generalship came to wrecking the last best army of the entente. These books were not designed to show that the first world war was futile, a stance Trevor strongly resisted, but to show that there were futile and dangerous episodes within a war that was far from futile.
[00:13:02] If Britain came out on the losing side, and the dull stifling militarism of the Kaiser and his gang won out, the liberal order in Europe as represented by Britain and France, would have been crushed and we would now be living in a different world. That is, the values Trevor regarded most highly, decency, toleration, parliamentary democracy, freedom of expression, would have been snuffed out. That’s why Trevor studied war. Pick up the Myriad Faces and look at any chapter, and you’ll find those values shining through.
[00:13:49] And the same values of course were evident in Trevor’s attitude that kept coming up in other wars. He opposed Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, not because he thought Chamberlain was a bad man. But he thought the concessions he made to the Nazis might snuff out civilisation itself. Look at anything Trevor wrote. Every time he put his pen to paper, and yes it was a pen, and there was paper, something thought-provoking and true and elegant, and even noble, was the result. This was a mind of the enlightenment, a mind dedicated to the writing of history, to those values he held dear.
[00:14:45] There was of course, another area where Trevor and I shared quite a bit. It would be too broad to say it was music. Trevor thought (inaudible, something about rock and roll) and I thought rather the same about his addiction to the American musical. We came together over jazz.
[00:15:10] Trevor was very important to me here, and I am sure to many others who liked jazz, and listened to his jazz collector program on 5UV. He preached two virtues in jazz as he did in life. Patience and sympathy. He would say when I questioned the importance of a musician new to me, Keith Jarret was one, John Coltrane was another. He’d say you’ve got to be patient. You have to listen to them with sympathy. Give them time. He was right, of course. Except Trevor, I have to say in the case of Cecil Taylor, he’s had all the patience and sympathy he’s ever going to get from me.
[00:16:05] I’d like to conclude on a jazz theme. I like to think with jazz, with Trevor, near the end, perhaps he thought of the last two lines of St Louis Blues. Feel tomorrow just like I feel today. I’ll pack my grip and make my getaway.
[00:16:29] Well Trevor, you made your getaway. Go well, it was a privilege to know you.
Lynn Arnold [00:17:41] Thank you Professor Robin Prior. I’d now like to call on Lucy and Harriett.
Harriet Iles [00:21:34] Harriet Iles reading from The Myriad Faces of War. See separate attachment.
Sara [00:21:34] As dad became older and finally stopped writing in his eighties, he seemed at peace with his life. I think that it is because he had achieved what he wanted to with his books in his career and that is a rare and precious thing. Obviously, the Myriad Faces of War was his magnum opus, and the book that probably garnered him the most awards and praise, and that led to his very successful partnership with Robin. I think his other joy was in his lectures and interactions with his students. He was clearly a lecturer and teacher that people remembered. When we ran our bookshop, Michael lost count of the number of people, when they realised the connection with Dad, who said that he was the best teacher they had ever had.
[00:22:25] As a parent Dad was enormously consistent and pretty uncomplicated. He was loving and loved, and he was generous to a fault, and he wanted to share the things he was passionate about with his family. So Bun and I were watching Marx Brothers films at a very young age, and we sat through Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet at about the ages of ten and 12. We were exposed to jazz and Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and records of Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And who could forget sitting in church with dad, and in fact all of us, shaking with laughter, listening to a real sermon which bore a frightening resemblance to Alan Bennett’s famous spoof sermon on the text, ‘my brother Esau was a hairy man, but I am a smooth man’. We watched the films of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His favourite film actor was Humphrey Bogart, and when Casablanca finally came to TV, he was desperate for us to experience it. Mum’s plea that it was going to finish at 10 p.m. and was far too late for children, fell on deaf ears.
[00:23:51] We watched lots of ABC series together, including the excellent British Secret Service series Callan at too young an age, because at the end of every episode, apparently we would say: ‘But Dad, what happened?’
Jenny [00:24:12] Dad wasn’t someone who talked a lot about emotion, but he was tremendously loyal. His support and love, and his desire to help us in whatever way he could. He and Mum’s unfailing generosity was something that we always knew. This extended to friends and colleagues who described him as always having the time and support when they needed it. Sharing his love of not just history, but jazz with generations of students.
[00:24:41] He took great pride in both his sons in law, and when he became a grandfather, his love and acceptance of his grandchildren was beautiful. Dad was a great reader and after family dinners, he would read to us. He read us the Narnia books by CS Lewis, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Afterwards he would most nights go out to his study and write. For ten years he worked on the Myriad Faces of War out in that study, laboriously writing his massive tome by hand, one of his wonderful assistants in the history department typing it out, checking and rewriting and eventually going to proofs and print.
Sara [00:25:31] Mum and Dad loved music and theatre, of which they saw an incredible amount. They saw Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in the School for Scandal. And when Judi Dench and the Royal Shakespeare Company brought A Winter’s Tale to the Adelaide Festival in 1970, Judi famously playing both Hermione and her daughter Perdita, the Wilson family were there.
[00:25:54] Dad loved musicals both on film and stage and even into his 80s, Dad and Mum would get the program for the Cabaret Festival, and mark out at least 15 performances that they wanted to see. Nicholas recounts the story that when they were together in New York, mum and dad went to shows both in the afternoon and the evening, with one night Nicholas walking past the Red Diamond at midnight, seeing them happily eating pancakes after a show.
Jenny [00:26:31] Dad and Mum had strong feelings about politics and social justice and Dad was a member of the Labor party. We well remember him telling us that after the 1975 dismissal, he called out to Sir John Kerr who he must have seen driving past ‘you blaggard’. While living in Manchester at the time of the Suez crisis, he sent a telegram to the Prime Minister Anthony Eden, writing ‘for God’s sake, go’.
Election nights were always passionate evenings in our home, either loaded with great joy or great disappointment. Dad and Mum’s belief that the world could be made a better place through politics and through the hard work of organisations such as Greenpeace and UNICEF, to which they still contribute, was woven into who we were and are.
[00:27:28] Before we draw this to a close, Mum, Sara and I, and our families including Mum’s sisters Lou and Susan in London want to thank you. To thank, especially Lynn Arnold, who came to the hospital with us when dad died. And we prayed and told stories. To thank Josh who helped organise the funeral. And we do want you to know that the first thing we planned was the afternoon tea, Dad would have approved of that, the conference not being so interesting. Please join us for that afterwards.
[00:28:07] We want to thank the staff of Allity Walkerville for their beautiful care of the one they knew as ‘Professor’ and of Mum in the frail time of their life. We want to say thank you to all of you who played table tennis with Dad, went ten-pin bowling with Dad, played French cricket on the beach at the family beach house with all of us, enjoyed family gatherings, those endless birthday parties with us and with Dad that we all enjoyed. We want to thank all who revelled in the study of modern history as students, colleagues and co-writers with Dad. And those who delighted in the joy of jazz, theatre and musicals with him. We want to thank you for your love of Trevor Gordon Wilson and of the way each one of you who knew him helped him to thrive.
Sara [00:29:04] Whenever we said goodbye to Dad either in person or the phone, he would sign off with ‘Go well’. And it occurred to us that those words sum up his attitude to life. That whatever happens in life you keep going, you keep moving forward. You don’t give up and you do what you have to do without complaint. And also that you do the thing well, that you put some rigor into it. Not only to achieve a high level of excellence, giving it your all and doing the best that you can, but having some fun with it, in a spirit of play and companionship. Going well didn’t have to be at the expense of others or in competition. It was worth picking up some good companions on the way, sharing your triumphs and struggles, and if there was a dessert or Devonshire tea or a glass of champagne to be shared, then all the better. And so we won’t say goodbye to you, my darling dad, we say thank you for all that you shared with us, and go well.