Broad, Sunlit Uplands: How those words fired my young imagination! Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say: how those words fused, in my young mind, with the image printed on every packet of Fielder’s Cornflour. Always fascinated by history, especially modern history, I cannot hear Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words, even at more than half-a-century’s distance, without Edmond’s image of morning sunlight, golden fields, and a plentiful harvest gathered in a time of peace, rising unbidden from my store of childhood memories.
IT’S CURIOUS, isn’t it, how words and images fuse into a single compelling recollection? As I look up from my keyboard, my eye alights upon the decades-old packaging art of “Fielder’s Cornflour” – now, alas, replaced by a more up-to-date expression of the graphic designer’s skill.
The original packaging features a brightly rising sun, its broad rays dappling the rolling hillsides in a golden glow, while below a farmer leads a team of draughthorses across his wheatfield. I remember my Mother giving me the name of the peculiar standing bundles of harvested wheat: “Those are ‘stooks’.”
Even then, in the early 1960s, the Edmonds company’s graphic art had an old-fashioned feel. When my Father’s North Otago wheat-fields were ready to be harvested, I looked forward eagerly to the arrival of a gigantic (to my eyes) combine harvester. The days of draughthorses and stooks were long gone.
So much for the image. What of the words?
My Father was 15 years-old, and my Mother was twelve, when World War II broke out in 1939. Old enough to take a deep personal interest in the great events that were now shaping their young lives. Twenty years later, married, with a growing family, both would recall those years with a mixture of pride, sadness and exhilaration. My Mother would entertain us at the piano with “In The Mood” – Glenn Miller’s wartime hit. On Anzac Day, both of them would sing Vera Lynn’s haunting anthems: “The White Cliffs of Dover”; “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”; “We’ll Meet Again”. And Dad would quote Churchill.
Churchill was still alive in the early 1960s, but failing fast. In the hearts and minds of my parents’ generation, however, he would always be the indomitable “Winnie”, whose stirring wartime speeches – masterpieces of English rhetoric – gave heart to Britain and its empire in the dark days of 1940, when Western Civilisation found itself staring into “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
Dad could quote huge chunks of Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech. Not just its immortal last sentence: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’”, but also many of the sentences that preceded it. It was one of these: the sentence that promised the millions of people whose future then seemed so dark; that they would overcome their enemy; that Europe would be freed from Hitler’s tyranny so that “the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands”.
How those words fired my young imagination! Or, perhaps, it is more accurate to say: how those words fused, in my young mind, with the image printed on every packet of Fielder’s Cornflour. Always fascinated by history, especially modern history, I cannot hear Churchill’s wonderfully evocative words, even at more than half-a-century’s distance, without Edmond’s image of morning sunlight, golden fields, and a plentiful harvest gathered in a time of peace, rising unbidden from my store of childhood memories.
“Broad, sunlit uplands”, it was a phrase that resonated not only with me, twenty years after the event, but with the people – most especially with the people – who lived and fought and died in the awful shadow of Hitler’s evil. They were determined that the dreadful experiences of the decades that followed the First World War would not be repeated in the decades that followed the Second. This time all the death and destruction, all the suffering and heartbreak and sacrifice, had to produce something better, something fairer, something that would, indeed, allow the world to move forward into “broad, sunlit uplands”.
It is my hope, as New Zealand once again finds itself in a dark place, beset by the threat of loss and ruin, that we can make our way, as before, into broad, sunlit uplands and a new morning. I am also confident that young New Zealanders, now walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, will, like their forebears, emerge from it not unscathed but unbeaten. And that, twenty years from now, they’ll be singing the songs of the Great Pandemic to their own children, and explaining to them proudly why this was their finest hour.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 March 2020.