Donnelly’s donkey

The Coalition’s drive to impose its reactionary values on schools has found a stalking donkey. The campaign has been launched with a poster of Simpson and his donkey. This choice returns to the ANZAC legend, beloved by chicken-hawk Howard. However, the Coalition’s promotion of Simpson suggests that its ideologues are as ill-informed about Australian history as they allege government schools are wanting in values.

The truth about Simpson is not as simple as the version that used to appear in primary school readers. Peter Cochrane’s 1992 book Simpson and the Donkey the Making of a Legend (Melbourne University Press) told the full story. Cochrane summed up his findings about the distortions made:

Again and again Simpson’s allegiance to class, his vehemence and anger, have been erased, in favour of the simple tale centred on his alleged loyalty to mother, nation, empire and, in the last instance, to his manhood.

For a start, Simpson had been born in England as John Simpson Kirkpatrick. He adopted the surname Simpson after he came to Australia in 1910, where he worked as a ship’s stoker and labourer.  

The following extract from a letter which Simpson-Kirkpatrick wrote to his mother in 1912 gives a taste of his values:

I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution and that will clear some of these Millionaires and lords and Dukes out of it and then with a Labour Government they will almost be able to make their own conditions.

Simpson joined the army in the hope of getting a free passage home. He got no closer than Canakkale (Gallipoli), where he was shot through the heart on May 19, 1915.

Melbourne Methodist preacher, the Rev. Sir Irving Benson, solidified the orthodox account of Simpson in 1965, when he published The Man With the Donkey, The Good Samaritan of Gallipoli. Cochrane exposed Benson as an unconscionable liar and indefatigable arse-licker, whose loose attachment to the facts sits well with John Howard’s values. Benson knew the truth about Simpson’s politics but censored the correspondence. He used Simpson to support his Cold War prejudices.

Anzac need not be abandoned to the reactionaries. The Left can challenge the reactionary distortion by telling the rounded story of Simpson Kirkpatrick. The same holds for the last of the Anzacs, Tasmanian Alex Campbell, another red-hot unionist.