Five Bells

When homesickness eats at me I listen to podcasts. I listen to news broadcasts, talk shows, shows about sport, science, design, culture. I don’t care just as long as I’m hearing voices from home.

One of the my favourites is The Book Show1. Ramona Koval’s voice and sense of humour soothe me and the range of coverage is excellent: old books, new books, local books, o.s. books, books in translation, poetry, essays etc. etc.2

Last week was all poetry. They looked at five classic Oz poems. Beginning with one of my favourites, “Five Bells” By Kenneth Slessor:

    Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
    Is not my time, the flood that does not flow.
    Between the double and the single bell
    Of a ship’s hour, between a round of bells
    From the dark warship riding there below,
    I have lived many lives, and this one life
    Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

The reading by Robert Menzies was gorgeous and the people commenting on it were smart and insightful. I first read “Five Bells” in high school, but I feel like I never really understood it until I listened to that show. Beautiful.

Made me wish I was back home because the Sydney he describes, the harbour he describes, I know it well and I miss it so much:

I looked out my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon’s drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.
Five bells.

Someone asked me what was the last thing I read that made me cry? At the time I couldn’t think of anything but I have an answer now: “Five Bells.”

  1. Which I can’t help thinking of by it’s old name,”Books & Writing” []
  2. Though it’d be nice if there was more YA coverage. I keep waiting for the show devoted to all the Oz YA writers storming the world: Sonya Hartnett, Margo Lanagan, Jaclyn Moriarty, Garth Nix, Marcus Zusak and so on and so forth. We are hot overseas, Book Show, honestly we are. Between us we’ve sold in more than thirty countries! Won prizes all over the place. You need to notice this world domination! []


  1. deborahb on #

    I love Slessor’s poetry, & can also remember studying Five Bells at highschool! I always loved its mournful isolation…

  2. Kelly G. on #

    Wow, that’s beautiful. I’d never read it before now, but it really took me aback. I love being surprised by a poem that I like.

  3. the dragonfly on #

    I’ve been feeling a bit homesick lately too (from the States, live in Germany). I’ve never really been homesick before, but because my husband is in Iraq…I miss my family. And I miss the Lake…I grew up not far from Lake Michigan and spent lots of time there.

    It’s funny how reading about you and your home makes me think of my home. 🙂

  4. Amber on #

    I feel the same way: live in Canada, emigrated from the UK via New Zealand. You just have to hear from your other life sometimes. (thought it worked the other way too – in NZ, had to hear Canadian radio). Sometimes I think you always miss what you can’t have, and the more places you live, the more there is to miss. Sighs.

    Oh, and I agree – they need to know ‘back home’ that the Oz YALit bandwagon is well and truly unstoppable over here. A few years ago, I felt like a one-woman promotional show, feverishly pushing Jaclyn Moriarty and Nick Earls etc while the Canucks looked at me as if I were a deranged loon. These days they get it, and you are all so tres tres big over here. Hurrah!

  5. genevieve on #

    Oh, cool. Thanks for sharing the love. I’ll enjoy that too.

  6. Garth Nix on #

    Did you know the copyright in “Five Bells” is for sale? Probably not a good investment, though there might be a market for tea towels, mugs etc, in addition to the odd reprint here and there. It’s one of my favourite poems, too.

  7. Garth Nix on #

    I think your spam eater scoffed down this comment when I made it earlier, because I included the URL to the story — the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Slessor’s heir is planning to sell the copyright in “Five Bells” to support an animal rights shelter. He hopes an ad agency or someone similar will buy the copyright, which has around 30 years left to run (out of the 70 post Slessor’s death).

    It’s one of my favourite poems too. There was a very good play adapted from Slessor’s DARLINGHURST NIGHTS collection, which included this poem and the story behind it (about a friend who fell or jumped from a Sydney ferry and drowned).

  8. fifi on #

    Five Bells articulated my harbour, when I was a sixteen year old schoolgirl, and I think of the words and their sound whenever I cross it.
    Especially at night.

  9. Sheryl Gwyther on #

    It’s one of my very favourite poems, too, Justine. And reading it just now has touched my heart again.
    Re ‘The Book Show’ we all need to email the ABC furiously, and get more YA and junior fiction writers and books on the show. There’s not enough exposure to this area anywhere – at least Saturday’s Courier Mail has a page devoted to children/YA books. I wrote to the Australian’s Review editor re this lack but he wasn’t all that forthcoming. Grrr. Cheers from a very rainy Brisbane. 🙂

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