Les Tanner Remembers

I first met Bill when I was a seventeen year old copy boy in the artist room at the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1944. He had just returned from New Guinea and I was greatly in awe of him. I had seen his work long before (my father had worked in the publishing rooms of various papers and always brought copies home – the Telegraph, Smith’s Weekly, Women’s Weekly, etc) so I was familiar with his comic illustrations. What I now discovered was his immense versatility in the war paintings he did.

He was probably the first adult I was encouraged to call by his first name. At his insistence he was either Bill or Billy Wep or Bill Pidge. Everyone else was Mr. or Sir. He was very warm, friendly, encouraging and funny.

He had a reputation for heavy drinking being among those that appeared in the pub when they opened at 10a.m.. What very few knew was that he’d already worked six hours, rising at 4a.m.. Newspapers were pretty boozy places anyway so the reputation did him no harm.

I didn’t know Jess at all as she was very sick but I heard a lot about her from his friends and colleagues. I know he adored her and that she was strikingly good looking and that he adored her not only for that but for her spirit and all the qualities she had and shared with others. He nursed her until her tragic death.

He used to come to the Artist’s room to get pencils, ink, white poster colour and paper but would always look at what I was drawing and say things like ‘that’s very funny, do more like that’ or show me the books of the old masters. I remember him showing me a book of Hokusai the Japanese 18th century print maker and telling me that he signed his work ‘An old man mad about drawing’. Bill thought that was marvelous.

Bill would appear always wearing a pork pie hat, always well dressed in a casual way. He had a soft voice, workman like hands with solid blunt fingers (as I well remember, from having one of them down my throat to make me up-chuck some of the excess liquor I’d consumed at the Artists’ Ball so I’d be sober enough to drive home.)

He was great encourager of young talent, Brett Whiteley, Peter Harrigan and me. He even set up a travelling scholarship which I was told later he meant for me but I was in the Army in Japan and madly in love with an American girl and didn’t enter. Peter Harrigan did and deservedly won a year in London. I think he was so in love with drawing and painting and just creating with his hands that when he saw talent in others he couldn’t help but foster and encourage. I remember him showing me a short flight of concrete steps at Northwood. He was so proud of having made them that he signed them Wep.

His friends Geoff Turton, George Finey, Bill Mahony and others told me stories about him shocking a posh dinner party with an oyster stuck in his nostril waggling about. About him taking Lennie Lower away to the Snowy Mountains with instructions not to give Lower any more money than two shillings (20c). Lower went to Cooma with his two shillings and came back rotten drunk with seven and sixpence change. He’d gone into Cooma, told everyone who he was and that he was there with Wep so no-one would let him pay for a drink and actually pressed money on him thus defeating the other instruction ‘sober him up and keep him sober’.

I saw a lot of your father when he was cartooning for the ‘Sunday Tele’ as I was rostered on on Saturdays. We used to drink in the Windsor hotel in Castlereagh St. He had his paper on the bar marking stories that might give him an idea for a cartoon. We’d go back to the canteen for a cold pork sandwich and he’d buy a bottle of dry sherry to share with the women in the Social dept. next door to our rooms.

Ure Smith the publisher got me to design the cover for ‘They’re A Weird Mob’ which I did but came down with appendicitis. Ure Smith asked Bill to illustrate it which was a bit much as he was trying to break away from illustration for serious portraiture and in fact had won his first Archibald [not at that time – 1957]. I think it was when he and your mother were either courting or had just married. I know he visited me in hospital to tell me he would do it. I only mention it because when the book launch was held, the author John O’Grady, a XXXX man at best, made his speech he hoped “You all made enough out of my talents to buy a new suit of clothes.” This was greeted by us all in stunned silence until someone announced that Bill had won his second [actually his first] Archibald. O’Grady was lost in the cheers that went up. O’Grady was very put out.

I met your mother several times both before and after marriage and have fond memories of her.

– Les Tanner, Feb. 2000

War Letters – NW Australia: 10 Aug 1943, Darwin; funeral service for two mercantile seamen

W.E.Pidgeon
C/O DPR Unit
APO Darwin
Tuesday 10th [Aug 1943]

Darling,

Got another letter from you posted the 6th.  Thanks sweet you’re doing very well indeed.  Sorry you haven’t had any mail for 5 days.  I can’t understand that as I don’t think at any time have I gone longer than 2 days without sending you something.  Maybe a censor somewhere has tossed one out.  Why I wouldn’t know.

Sometimes I get fed up with it here.  I think I’ll just clean up a few more things & come home within 3 weeks.  To cover everything would take me months.  So get ready to receive me right.  Am looking forward to seeing you again – it does seem such a long time – doesn’t it?

Wrote 4 letters on Sunday to you, George Finey, King Watson, and the boys at the office.   So that’s that.  I was quite exhausted after it all.

Wep hanging out his washing
Wep hanging out his washing. The Correspondents’ Mess is in the background

We have all been washing & ironing today as the batman is sick.  Frank Tierney knows all about the job.  I think he must have been a good wife to somebody.

24 x 18 cm
Sketch study for Loading A Bomber On A Camouflaged Field North-West Australia

Yesterday I spent with a bomber squadron and managed to get a good set up of the ‘erks’ (as the air force call the ranks who do the hard manual work) loading bombs into a plane.

Funeral service, Darwin
[ Note: The funeral services held on 8 August 1943 were for George Dew and Harold Keller, killed when their vessel, ‘Macumba’ was sunk during a Japanese air attack. This particular scene is of the funeral for George Dew which was conducted by Padre T. Gee, Church of England Chaplain – see http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/055131/]

Sunday afternoon I make a very quick note of a funeral near here.  Two of the mercantile marine seamen who were killed when Japs bombed a ship a few days ago off the coast north from here.  I think it would make quite a good picture.

Study for Relic of Feb ’42 - Darwin
Study for Relic of Feb ’42 – Darwin

Made a quick water colour sketch of one of the bombed houses here.  Water colors are hellishly awkward to manage out of doors.  The colour dries on the box before you can get it onto the paper.

Air Force Pool, Darwin
Air Force Pool, Darwin

Am dashing this letter off because I’m going up the road a little way to finish off a painting of a swimming pool I started some time ago.  As the mail will go before I return I am in haste to express my adoration.

You must be stopping a packet of cold weather down there.  The “Army News” (local paper) mentions it nearly every day.

Yes I am getting sunburnt.  Poor old nut had peeled several times and is now sweetly crowned with a tiara of freckles.  Borrowed a pair of shorts from the Loot yesterday so hope to lose the lily whiteness of my nether limbs.

It’s a hot day but with extra pleasant cool breeze coming off the sea.  The climate here much to be preferred to that down the road where there is a great lack of breeze.  The water pipe line feeding Darwin is exposed to the sun and the water from it is incredibly hot where it is tapped into camps alongside it.  Almost to hot to shower under.  In Darwin you can have a shower any old time night or day & it’s just beaut-o!

Will be off to the pictures tonight to see “Sun Valley Serenade” again.  Be pleasant to see Sonia skiing whilst we swelter & combat the mosquitoes.

Guess I’ll have to be getting along it is now almost 3pm.  So put your arms around yourself for me & save me some great big kisses.  Lots of love sweetheart – till I see you soon.

I expect to be home for your birthday.  Love

Bill.

42

War Correspondent Jimmy Smythe doing his washing in the Darwin area
War Correspondent Jimmy Smythe doing his washing in the Darwin area
1 NW Australia - 3 Darwin Area-5
Possibly War Correspondent Frank Tierney doing washing in the Darwin area

Relic of Feb ’42 - Darwin
Relic of Feb ’42 – Darwin
[Note: American Headquarters corner Peel and Smith Streets, Darwin, damaged by a crashing Spitfire. Building was originally McLure’s flats.]
AWW 1943-11-20 P8 Loading A Bomber On A Camoflaged Field North-West Australia Clr neg 2 - Copy
Loading A Bomber On A Camouflaged Field North-West Australia, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 Nov 1943, p8
Interior Cockpit, Transport Plane 1943
Interior Cockpit, Transport Plane, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 Nov 1943, cover
Lockheed Crew
Lockheed Crew, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 Nov 1943, p9
Lockheed Hudson Bomber, 'Houdini'
Lockheed Hudson Bomber, ‘Houdini’; sketch study for Loading A Bomber On A Camouflaged Field North-West Australia
Interior, Cockpit Hudson Transport Plane
Sketch study for Interior, Cockpit Hudson Transport Plane
Interior, Cockpit Hudson Transport Plane
Sketch study for Interior, Cockpit Hudson Transport Plane
Fuelling a Hudson
Fuelling a Hudson

24 x 18 cm 24 x 18 cm 24 x 18 cm Lockheed Hudson Bomber 21 x 11 cm 21 x 11 cm

24 x 18 cm
Building in Darwin
Darwin Post Office
Darwin Post Office
Commercial Bank, Darwin
Commercial Bank of Australia, Darwin

 

War Letters – NW Australia: 2 Aug 1943, Darwin; Reviewing the N.W. Navy

W.E. Pidgeon
C/O DPR Unit
Army Post Office
Darwin
Monday night
[2 Aug 1943]

Dear Jesso,

I may as well carry on with the news concluded by the letter I posted you by today’s mail.  As I’m going down the road tomorrow I won’t be writing.  This letter will serve that day’s purpose as it won’t get away from here until then.  This week I am staying with a fighter squadron under the command of Caldwell – shall probably meet Flutter eye Gloria’s husband – I believe he is with the same bunch.

Thanks for thinking about my lack of amenities.  I’m running somewhat short – only 24 large packets left.

I hope Tommy got as much out of his drawing as he hoped for.  Selina is dopey alright.  Are you still getting plenty of steak over there?

The thing has started off again – Gawd help us!  Tap-tap-tap-BLOODY TAP!  This will be damn short – I get into such a helluva bate (?).  It’s worse than being in a machine gun nest with all guns firing and hailstones beating on my tin hat.  I’m not deaf enough to take it – Tap – tap – taP – tAP – TAP TAPTAP! – and so on.

I’ll write you tomorrow some time – or else wait till the bastards go to bed.  Up’em!

[3 Aug 1943]

Next morning – Much quieter – I am by far the earliest bird up here, all of which doesn’t help catch the non existent worms, but it’s plumb peaceful like.  Inside, spines are slowly being zipped into action, razors being flapped, and kidneys drained in preparation for a general exodus down the road in the wake of the Governor-General who has begun his tour of inspection.

24 x 18 cm

Yesterday he reviewed the N.W. navy such as it was.  We got out onto the flagship & under panicky directions of some naval lieut. allowed ourselves to be hid behind pipes, vents, doors, etc so that the G.G.’s august vision would not be defiled by the sight of the lowly non-combatant press correspondents.  It was wretched farce – the boys have wiped the navy or so they say.  Seems more like to me the navy doesn’t care about the press.  The review of passing ships was catastrophic.  Some of the old tubs couldn’t make any speed against the out-running tide, with the unhappy consequent cancellation of part of the programme.

The tide, by the way, has a rise & fall of 20 ft and as the approaches to the land here are very shallow the water when it gets a move on races like one thing.  In the harbour I believe it does about 5-6 knots and in the creeks about 10.  I’ve seen it coming in on the creeks – it moves alright.  The harbour is a big one with an average width & foreshores much like Botany Bay.  Because of its lack of depth the water is quite green.  Here and there the side of a sunken ship rises up.  Somewhere else the masts & funnel of another stick forlornly & ridiculously out to provide parking stations for the few sea birds to be seen in these parts.

Will have to leave now – have had breakfast the all are ready for the trip.

Mail came in & I have just got another of your letters – you beaut.  Haven’t read it yet – lots of love honey – look after yourself for Willie.

Possibly Darwin Harbour
Possibly Darwin Harbour
[Bomb damaged Destroyer in harbour]
Possibly a bomb damaged Destroyer in harbour

24 x 18 cm 24 x 18 cm 21 x 11 cm 24 x 18 cm 24 x 18 cm

War Letters – NW Australia: 31 Jul 1943; Under dive bombing attack by a Mosquito squadron

W.E. Pidgeon
C/O DPR Unit
APO DARWIN
Sat. night
[31 Jul 1943]

 

Darling,

You’re an awful nice kid to write me long letters.  I likes ‘em fine and appreciate in a big way your doing so well what with the quiet life you seem to be living.  Keep it up honey – it’s a great help to hear about the poor old civilians back home.  It’s great for the morale of our intrepid war correspondent.  That’s the kind of battling (with bores & loud speakers) which really shakes the soul.  To see you standing up to it gives me fresh heart and a sterner eye.  I think you are a darling.  Looks as though this short separation helps somehow.  Makes us think more about each other & how to be nicer in both large and tiny ways.  Wish you were here for me to give a big hug & kiss. (platonic like?)

The mosquito craft are zooming about in token formations, manoeuvring into position.  I’ve already received a few direct hits but retaliating have got 4 destroyed, 6 probable, and 32 near misses.  There is no thought of my evacuating – I shall carry on in glory, in honor, and in love.  It must in all fairness be reported that had the enemy be backed by squadrons of sand flies retreat would have been both rapid and inevitable.  I have never seen a sandfly.  They must have some sort of radio direction finding equipment especially tuned to my wave length.  They never miss.  The inverted craters scaring my beyootiful body bear ample witness to the efficiency of their aiming.  I am not in the hunt.

A constant drone of war reminiscences slithers round the corner of the mess but, thank God, no tap-tapping blasts the sub-tropic heaviness of the night.  In fact it appears highly probable that there will be no rude & hearty interruptions to my pleasant solitude.  It’s a hell of a problem to be alone in any sort of comfort.  And I could do with a spot of nice cold weather – Cripes – think of all that snow going to waste!

2 more of the enemy crashed screaming to their doom.  6 more near misses.  Am becoming quite an ace – what?

Have just applied methylated spirits to my sand fly bites.

Have also practically recovered from the correspondents’ occupational disease – motor car arse and/or crumpled coccyx.

George Finey wrote me too, the old villain, a very nice note telling me not to bust the poor old boiler.  Tomorrow I’ll settle down to a field day of letter writing.  Whilst you are shivering (and maybe drinking sherry) or even eating, ½ an hour’s mean time before me, I’ll be lolling near naked in the sunshine sopping up all sorts of light rays and vitamins.  Occasionally I shall put pen to paper.

Have been to a lousy picture tonight.  One could hope to escape the uncivilizing influence of Wallace Beery at this local show – but no.

Shall put up one more ack-ack barrage before I turn in.

24

Anopheles, where art thou?

 

Time Sunday morning

Scene In the backyard young old Wep is discovered lounging in lounge – He is bare to the waist & under bright sunshine is simmering nicely giving forth sweet fleshy odors more fragrant than myrrh and sandalwood.  Centre background is wire meshed kitchen. In right back is seen dimly as through a black blanc-mange a man and a bike.  This man is a solid straight forward type not the sort who would make lewd use of a bike.  In the foreground a grease trap & a pool covered with sludgy fat.  2 Dogs, Mim and D’ouevre sniff at pool and posteriors.  As the curtain rises wep is again discovered writing to his beloved wife – anon and anon he brushes fat green ants off his bronzed gladiatorial form.  A young lad, a press correspondents’ driver, enters scratching his poll.

WEP:                  G’day!

DRIVER:           G’day!

WEP:                  Have a good day yesterday?

DRIVER:           Upta f—ing putty!  The f—ing f—ers f—– round all f—ing day & f—-ing night.  And wadda the f—ing f—ers f—ing well get.  F— all!

(Driver exits back centre, scratching crutch & slavering at cook house).

(CURTAIN)