Objects

”For me it is a strange emotional feeling to hold this knife considering where it has been and also the fact that it was a prized possession of my father when he was just 21 years old.”

-Clive Rattray, son of Lieutenant Kenneth Rattray, a Rat of Tobruk, on being handed his father’s wartime knife. From a story in the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2010 (link: http://www.smh.com.au/national/tobruk-knife-finds-way-home-20101016-16oat.html).

The knife in question had been lost for nearly 70 years. Lt Rattray carried it – a simple pocket knife, engraved with his name and his service history – through the Siege of Tobruk, then through Bougainville and to Darwin in 1943, when it disappeared. It turned up in, of all places, an English cinema some years later. It then disappeared again, before being found in an old suitcase in Kent in the house of the cinema’s former usher. The family of the usher was intrigued by the inscription on the knife and set about tracing its real owner – until, finally, just a few weeks ago, the knife was returned to Lt Rattray’s son.

It’s the story of the knife – seeing action in two major theatres of WWII, then its unlikely journey to England and its equally improbable return to Australia – that makes it so special. On its own, it’s ‘just another knife’, albeit one engraved with faint letters. But knowing its intriguing history somehow gives it extra meaning. It adds a human element to an otherwise unremarkable inanimate object.

I was reminded of this story when I visited the Powerhouse Museum’s Discovery Centre in Castle Hill in north-west Sydney for one of their recent monthly Open Days. I went along and enjoyed a tour of the warehouse – an esoteric collection of fantastic and fascinating objects covering Australia’s technological history.

Among the collections in the warehouse were a number of models of biplanes. They had been built, we were told by our guide, by a young man with a keen interest in aeronautics in the 1920s. The man later followed his dreams of flight, joined the RAF and flew fighters in WWII. He was shot down and disappeared over Crete. Many years later his son found some limited information about where his father was buried. He visited the island armed with only some bare facts – but he managed to find someone who was there when his father was shot down. Someone who, in fact, had sat with his father while he took his last breaths. It was a special moment for the son when the old man led him to the gravestone under which his father lay.

A very special story, then. Knowing the story of the man who built them gives the models something extra. It raises them above the wood, wire and fabric of which they were built. Like the Tobruk knife, they are otherwise ordinary objects that become representative of something more.

Incidentally, Steve Leadenham had a small stand in the main foyer at the Powerhouse and was displaying some of his work – which offered a chance to see the Lancaster painting in the flesh, so to speak. Steve was talking to a small group of people at his stand when I arrived back from the tour. The Lancaster was there too, on his easel. Underneath the canvas there was a small palette with smears of paint and a brush – evidently he had been doing a little ‘touch-up’ work. We talked for some time about the painting, the Lancaster and the men who flew it. Steve’s wife Glenda took a photo of Steve and I with the painting:

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Encouragingly, Steve reported some good interest in the painting from some of the people who had wandered through. Some even asked about the possibility of getting a print of it. I was happy to hear that – it means that the story of B for Baker and her crew won’t be forgotten.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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