As Anzac Days come and go, the gulf between our comfortable modern-day lives – global pandemic aside – and the veterans we honour can feel ever-increasing, our responses to war dulled by the 24-hour news cycle and the seeming remoteness of combat zones. Every now and then, however, something personal pops up, reminding us of a family connection. Or maybe some contemporary trauma suggests events back when society’s way of dealing with the pain was often for everyone – victims included – to bury our collective heads in the sand and keep shtum.
Tom Donald. Photo © Sara Shamsavari
Such was the case when award-winning London-based Australian composer and pianist Tom Donald found himself reflecting on his late grandfather who suffered harrowing experiences during WWII in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). As a radar mechanic in the Pacific War, Maxwell Donald served in Morotai, one of the Maluku Islands about 300 miles northwest of Sansapor, New Guinea. On his return, he would suffered all his life from what we now call post-traumatic stress. His last words to his son before he died were “no more wars… never again”.
Tom Donald’s new work, Honour of the Season, has been written as a tribute to both his grandfather and to his grandfather’s generation, the men and women, he says, upon whose shoulders we stand today. “The post-traumatic stress of WWII haunted these men, including my Grandad who suffered nightmares for the rest of his life,” he explains. “There were no mental health services that we have today, you were told to just get on with it and not complain. None of us understand even a fraction of the trauma experienced, despite our endless contemporary discussions on mental health in our materialistic world.”
For Tom, the trigger to write his piece came in 2020 when his father, Mal Donald, and uncle, Graham Donald, shared a digital account of his childhood stories. Like many who served and fought in WWII, Maxwell Donald grew up in what feels now like a very different world. Bolivia, on the Northern Tablelands in the New England region of New South Wales, was even more remote in the 1930s than it is now (in 2016, its population was recorded as 66).
“I had some recollections of some of Grandad’s stories from when I was kid, but reading them in more detail as an adult was absolutely captivating,” he says. “It paints a vastly different lifestyle to anything we could ever imagine today. During the great depression of the early 30s, for a rural community the local rabbit plague presented rare economic opportunities. Despite the frugal living, [there was] an incredible resourcefulness in running a family farm and cultivating your own food and income virtually from nothing.”
For Tom Donald, that process of making a living in order to help your children get a better start life is part of a journey from the past through to today. It’s what he means when he says that his music’s broader theme is about standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us.
Maxwell Donald photographed during the War
Tom sees his grandfather’s upbringing as both humbling and inspiring, but it is his war experiences that are at the heart of Honour of the Season. Maxwell Donald enlisted on 22 May 1942 in Sydney and was finally discharged on 19 February 1946. “From all accounts, Morotai was a hellhole,” his grandson explains. “It seems like such intensity and destruction was concentrated into such a small island and space. The experience created a lifelong horror and trauma, which my Grandad probably tried to suppress his whole adult life.”
“As a child, Grandad would happily share how he mastered the radar technologies for the numerous campaigns, which allowed a conversation on his WWII experience. But even with all of that, he would often say, ‘Despite all of this, war is still pointless,’ and I remember him once saying, ‘I will never understand man’s inhumanity to his fellow man’. I also remember seeing him once very upset when his German Shepherd dog passed away. He told me, it might seem weird that I’m crying about a dog, but if you saw what I’ve seen you’d know they are far superior creatures to us humans. I’ll never forget the intensity of how he told me that.”
Those who fought and suffered in WWII came home to a world that offered little support to those dealing with the trauma of war. Tom Donald’s father and uncle recently shared with him a document that Maxwell wrote later in life, describing the long-term impact of his experiences on both his mental and physical health, and how as years went by his sense of isolation grew worse rather than better.
“I won’t quote all of it, as my Grandad was the sort of person who wanted to keep these thoughts only for close family,” he says, “but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing this: ‘No-one hates warfare like I do, anyone serving in a warzone releases what it’s just like, the aftereffects of the unfortunate experiences of being in the front-line warzone, all these heinous things too numerous to mention. The horrible dreams, nightmares have continued unabated over the years. I try to sleep but can’t, I get up and maybe have a cup of tea hoping to fix it.’”
The 11th Communication Unit Radar Section in the SW Pacific
“We talk about mental health in a pandemic, but [here] we are talking about an extreme emotional toll that was largely unsupported for an entire generation,” says Tom. “We use the word sacrifice, but I often think we don’t really understand what it really means.”
After mulling over his grandfather’s words and experiences for some time, Tom eventually sat down at the piano and improvised a simple hymn-like memorial. “The piano harmonies are really just a moment of gratitude,” he says. “Music that is not trying to say or be anything other than just a glowing recognition.”
On reflection, he decided to take it a step further. “It soon became clear to me that I didn’t want to make a traditional arrangement, there is already plenty of repertoire for that,” he explains. “I wanted to create a feeling of meditation, so I took a more cinematic and contemporary approach to the arrangement.”
To do that he added sampled sounds with subtle echoes and gentle humming noises to the original piano version. “I wanted the piece to feel more like a dream, rather than the nightmares that my Grandad suffered for his whole life,” he says. “I also wanted to hear the ghosts of previous generations, and perhaps the listener can reflect on loved ones [who are] not with them anymore, but still imagine their presence as we say thank you for their service and sacrifice.”
So, what does the composer hope his finished work might convey to listeners? “I think music at its best doesn’t tell the listener how to feel or think,” he admits. “In a sense Honour of the Season, for me, is a canvas for meditation, in both a dream sense and a ceremonial sense. If there is one emotion though that is connected to this piece, it would be gratitude – gratitude to the generations that came before us and built the world we are privileged to enjoy today.”
Tom Donald with his grandfather Maxwell in the 2000s
For the Donalds, Anzac Day was always a family day, and on a few special occasions, Maxwell was encouraged to join his grandchildren who marched as school kids. “Anzac Day became something bigger than just remembering the souls who had fallen in battle,” Tom Donald reflects. “I remember vividly the bands marching down the parade at Kootingal – the small town I grew up in outside Tamworth. But the event in my memory still seems big: numerous wind bands; piercing bagpipes and percussion; learning to march; dressing in school uniform on a Saturday; singing the hymns.”
Maxwell Donald lived a complete life. According to his grandson, you’d be forgiven for not noticing his war traumas. A loving husband and family man, friends and relatives described him as empathic, jovial, and charming, a humble and well-respected member of both the Tamworth and Macksville communities in which he lived for many years. “When you have such happy memories of a loved one, you can easily blindside and completely forget the personal suffering they may have gone through, especially when they were so determined to bring joy into other people’s lives,” says Tom.
On one level Honour of the Season represents a dream of closure in which gratitude is a central theme. Meanwhile, understanding the true sacrifices that have been made, he says, takes longer to comprehend – who knows, perhaps a lifetime.
Maxwell Donald was born 23 April 1923 and died in 2008. This Anzac Day he would have been 98.
Tom Donald was born in the remote Australian town of Coonabarabran, NSW. He grew up in Tamworth and has been based in London since 2004. He is known for his piano improvisations and award-winning compositions for film and stage. He has performed at venues from Abbey Road Studios and the BBC Radio Centre to Hackney Empire and Ronnie Scott’s. He is also the Founder and Principal of the London Contemporary School of Piano, an influential force in piano education worldwide. As a composer, he has written the soundtracks for numerous films, working with Iraqi directors Haider Rashid and Koutaiba Al-Janabi and has collaborated closely with Kurdish Iraqi singer and Freedom Fighter, Nawroz Orami.