Poetry A Centenarian Remembers: Conversations with Thelma McLean

Poetry A Centenarian Remembers: Conversations with Thelma McLean

Collected, collated, written and produced by Graham Bathgate

Thelma McLeanThelma McLean lived at a resthome in Waikanae, New Zealand. She was there for almost six years and almost every day was visited by her daughter, Rae. Thelma grew up in a family of ten siblings; poetry was a part of their education at home, in school and at Sunday School. She could recall short poems and many lines in longer poems, a great thing for anyone to do but at Thelma’s age it was marvellous to hear.

I first met Thelma in 2011 when she came to hear my poetry reading to a small group of ‘senior’ poetry lovers once a week. I tried to make sure that the poems were known to them; old favourites therefore were the usual choice: ‘Daffodils’, ‘A Thing of Beauty’, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, ‘Cargoes’, ‘Tyger Tyger Burning Bright’; ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’, ‘Ozymandias’, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’, ‘The Listeners’ and ‘Sea Fever’. And anything by Pam Ayres was well received.

I always enjoyed Thelma’s regular presence. Amazingly although she was a few years older than some of the others, she would recite some of the lines along with me and share memories of schooldays when she first learned the poems. I thought it would be a good idea if I could work with Thelma as an individual and make a note of her observations and memories through the poems.

I met regularly with Thelma since 2013, making notes of her observations, always enjoying her appreciation of poetry, her memories of long ago, and her sparkling way of expressing herself.

Thelma McLean

As a centenarian, Thelma had been in a group of 400–500 New Zealanders, but since turning 105 at the end of May, 2016, she joined a smaller group of 40 Kiwis over that venerable age.

The choice of poems involved several influences. Of course, I tried to think of what Thelma would know and remember. This wasn’t easy but when she would say ‘Oh, an old friend’ I knew it would be a winner.

Those were poems such as ‘Buckingham Palace’, ‘Ring Out Wild Bells’, ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. There were times she didn’t recognise the poem but she would still try to appreciate it. Then there were poems I liked, such as ‘Abou Ben Adhem’, ‘The Sands of Dee; Philip Larkin’s ‘Reference Back’, ‘The Vagabond’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Magpies’ by Denis Glover, ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ and ‘The Village Schoolmaster’. There were poems or extracts which I felt would be old favourites of Thelma’s, such as ‘Cargoes’, ‘To be, or not to be’, ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat’, Kipling’s ‘If’, ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the New Zealand song, ‘Taumaranui’. Indeed these were all known to Thelma, and she would happily recite, even sing parts of them.

Thelma reciting “The Owl and the Pussycat”


Pechakucha presentation on “Poetry a Centenarian Remembers”:


• NZ Herald, Dominion Post/Stuff
• Centenarian Recites Poetry (Video, SourceStuff.co.nz)
• Pechakucha Presentation on “Poetry a Centenarian Remembers” by Graham Bathgate
• Graham Bathgate and the Centenarian – Kapiti Independent News (KIN)

Below is an extract from an example of dialogue from one of our meetings and a poem that Thelma enjoyed: Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns.


Thelma sang the first verse and the chorus:

‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!’

‘For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne. ‘

Thelma: We sang this often at New Year time, also when someone was going away, after a celebration or party.

Graham: It’s almost like a national song in Scotland, especially to farewell the old year. Actually, it’s more than a song, it’s like a hymn to past times.

T: A hymn, I like that word.

G: All over Scotland it is sung at the stroke of midnight to bring in the new year. It was written by Robert Burns in 1788.

T: He wrote the words of the song. What about the music?

G: Oh, I think that was an old traditional song, a folk song. Burns was very good at rewriting old songs and improving them.

T: The great Scottish poet, like a poet laureate.

G: Yes, yes … As you said, Auld Lang Syne is also sung at the end of functions or celebrations … after funerals, for example.

T: Oh, I didn’t know that. We also sang, ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow …. ‘ at the end of something, someone going away or being celebrated. Then we’d end that song with ‘Hip, hip, hooray!’

G: Yes, it’s great to sing like that.

T: What is ‘Auld lang syne’? It’s the past, isn’t it?

G: Yes, it’s Scottish dialect for literally ‘old long since’, meaning times past or long ago. So, ‘We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.’

T: Oh, yes! To remember the past. Very good.

G: You know, I have to admit something, when I was a child and went to Christmas parties or some such, I used to think ‘Auld lang syne’ was a person. I imagined a very old man; I think he was very tall, too! So we should never forget him, never forget Auld Lang Syne.

T: Oh, it’s strange what we can think as children, our thoughts can be odd.


Adlestrop – Edward Thomas
Auld Lang Syne – Robert Burns
Buckingham Palace – AA Milne
Cargoes – John Masefield
Colours – ‘Judie’ Henderson
Twelve Days of Kiwi Xmas – Adapted by Kingi M. Ihaka
Down the Hall on a Saturday Night – Peter Cape
Endymion – John Keats
Four Ducks on a Pond – William Allingham
From a Railway Carriage – Robert Louis Stevenson
How do I Love Thee? ­ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
If – Rudyard Kipling
John Anderson my Jo, John – Robert Burns
Leisure – WH Davies
Macavity – TS Eliot
My Way – song by Frank Sinatra
On Being Sixty – Po Chu-i
Ozymandias – Shelley
Pied Piper of Hamelin – Robert Browning
Poems by Ogden Nash
Reference Back – Philip Larkin
Ring out Wild Bells – Alfred Lord Tennyson
Sea Fever – John Masefield
The Spider and the Fly – Mary Howitt
Taumaranui – Peter Cape
The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond – Anonymous
The Cloths of Heaven – W.B. Yeats
The Lord’s Prayer
The Magpies – Denis Glover
The Man from Ironbark – Banjo Paterson
The Owl and the Pussycat – Edward Lear
The Sands of Dee – Charles Kingsley
The Vagabond – Robert Louis Stevenson
There was an Old Woman – Anon.
This is the House that Jack Built – Anon.
To be, or not to be – Shakespeare
Tyger! Tyger! – William Blake
Village Schoolmaster – Oliver Goldsmith
What is a Friend? – Barbara M. Zellner
When you are Old – W.B. Yeats