A people's suffering portrayed in David Mead's "The Churning".
"Cambodia The Churning"
By David Mead (2000).
Portrait of a people tormented.
David Mead publisher. 64 pages.
Distributed by Phnom Penh Post Publishing
Reviewed by Geoff Coyne
This just-released book is a collection of verse and photographs by David Mead.
Colonel Mead (Retired) first came to Cambodia in 1994 as Australian Defence Attaché
and throughout his three year period saw at first hand the results of the ongoing
civil war - the poverty-stricken draftees, the maimed, the helpless civilians, the
corruption, the poverty.
After his retirement he remained in Cambodia working with disadvantaged groups and
as a consultant in forestry and conservation. The verse and photographs reflect his
The book is dedicated to "a torn and weary people: may their God grant them
the sight to see the path to permanent peace". It begins with a brief overview
of the recent history of Cambodia, setting out how and why the Khmer people have
experienced such conflicts. It expresses the hope that the present peace will continue,
while cautioning on "the next disaster", an imminent HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Nevertheless, the author is confident that the Khmers will continue to find the will
to struggle on, "searching for the path to a permanent peace".
There are 18 poems, accompanied by two-tone (sepia-like) photographs taken by the
author of people and places in Cambodia. They focus on how ordinary individuals think
and feel, as they experience life as a soldier at war, maimed, dying, and the effects
on their families. They admire the stoicism of the people, their struggles to survive,
their personal tragedies, their love of life, their strengths and their beauty.
There is an underlying pattern: an appreciation, through the suffering and pain of
the people, of their remarkable fortitude, their innate charm and dignity, and their
culture which offers a way forward to peace.
The poems cover the range of emotions from anger, rage, humility, compassion, wonder,
admiration, and hope. The author is not concerned with the generals or senior people
in politics or the civil service, but with ordinary people. He delights in their
wonderful smiles and laughter. He has a special place in his heart for the young,
as shown in "Smiling Child" (How could you paint that smile?...How can
you paint that laughter?"), and "The Game" ("chortling children...
barefoot... racing home to the smell of steaming new rice").
He has an eye for the ironic, as in "Tinted Glass". The poem reflects on
how the Khmer Kings travelled in pomp and ceremony to meet the throng, as the King
still does today. However, today's children who make up much of the flag-waving bystanders
do not see the King, they see only tinted glass.
A strength of poetry over prose is its ability to condense and focus on passion and
meaning. Col. Mead uses this strength very effectively, and it is particularly evident
in "No Tears for Mao". The poem tells the story of Mao's progress as an
orphan, through the Pol Pot years, through sacrifice and study, only to be blinded
in an acid attack by a thief who stole his motor bike:
The thief struck by night, wanting the moto, not Mao's sight; but the acid took
Left writhing, burning, only pain, what in this did he have to gain;
A moto for a life of struggle, he melts away, little trouble;
The thief, a good night's work, at least two hundred dollars;
Mao, sight, light, everything; lost.
Yet even here the author sees hope: Mao's adopted family and friends stood by him;
with help from them and from doctors he has made a new life for himself. He is the
first blind student to attempt a degree at the Phnom Penh University and he now works
as the Executive Director of the newly formed Association of the Blind in Cambodia
(ABC). All profits from the book will go to this Association.
The book concludes with the poem "Lotus Flower", a metaphorical journey
through time of the Cambodian people, according to their own traditions. Kings and
empires come and go, but the living patterns of the people are timeless. War and
death and conflict may be a constant pattern in life, but there is hope because love,
trust and beauty will always prevail.
The collection of poems and photographs is an intensely personal and revealing portrait
of the author and his experiences. We are privileged to have these impressions and
photographs of a former soldier who experienced so much of the recent war and its
effects on the Cambodian people, who kept his mind and his heart open to them, and
who continues to share in their struggles and hopes.
- Geoff Coyne, Cambodia: 1969-1970, 1993-2001.