this cutie was taken by Crazyegg95 in 2005 and is from flickr

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Monday, 27 April 2009

the radio plays all australian electronic music to commemorate ANZAC day

During the war that culled the male population of the gold mining town where everyone comes from sooner or later, my grandfather went to Papua New Guinea. Slicing through foliage, vines of wait-a-while thick across his feet, the ground wet and crawling with insects, birds whooping in the trees, he came across skulls hanging in the rain forest. A windchime of skulls clanging in the monsoon.

Japanese they were, though how he could tell I'll never know. Maybe their uniforms were nearby. Maybe one wore a tattered Imperial Army cap that a passing, or slaying, Australian had tipped at a rakish angle. Could be that they weren't really bone yet.

Take them down and bury them, they have mothers too, Nan told me Pop said to his men. A skull has a mother, but in far off Japan would she think of her son as part-skeleton, bleached white, hanging from rattan? In her mind her son is intact. Only in Pop's mind was she the mother of skulls.


Saturday was ANZAC day in Australia (also in New Zealand,Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tonga). It seems that each year further from the senseless WW1 suicide mission in Gallipoli, the more patriotic the marches get, and the more people join them. We aren't a particularly religious nation. Maybe that is part of it. An adhering to a form of identity.

Poor old Cec', my grandmother's and great aunt, Mag's, brother, died in the mud at Flanders. An old man's name (to me), but a young man's demise. The mud always got a mention. I think anyone reading Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon can imagine it well enough, but I don't know that those poems resonate around the RSL now. I could be wrong. One of their other brothers, Jack, went to fight, under-age. I didn't know Jack. My mother had a lot of time for him, but said that they said that the war had changed him, as it would. He was the most cynical of the brothers, with the darkest sense of humour. They. The ghostly family that hovers around the fringes of the older generation's experience.

On a weekday instead of class, the grade sixes and sevens gathered in the library. My sister is only 18 months older than me, so she was in the year above. We were learning Where have all the flowers gone?, a pretty enough song, but as it came out of our Sing, Sing, Sing book, I always put it up there with Little Boxes, and Windmills of our Mind, which seemed to be important songs a decade before, though they were probably a lot more current than my eleven year old mind gave them credit for. I didn't particularly like the tune. It didn't strike me in the way that this did (couldn't find the Peter, Paul & Mary version. Ironic, cos' they sang the flowers number, too!). And, hey, it was the era of the Sex Pistols, not that I knew too much about that, except that they didn't like the Queen too much and used rude words (bollocks).

My sister started to cry. I guess she listened to the words. No-one knew why she was crying, though I thought it was pretty obvious. My father was called, and he stated he didn't want us to participate in any ANZAC day concerts, memorials, call them what you will, as he viewed them as warmongering. We were pulled out and had to sit in the library on the day of the presentation, this time by ourselves, as the rest of the school either paid respects, or glorified war, depending upon your point of view. I think there was one other boy in there, rifling the Secret Seven and the Famous Five with us, but I am not too sure. Maybe his religious views stopped him from participating, or his folks had the same kind of principles as mine. It was a small school, but in a RAAF area, so students were always coming and going. It was easy to forget someone.

The following year as ANZAC day approached, I wrote an anti-war poem, I guess, in that earnest way twelve year olds have. Maybe it went something along the lines of War. Hnnh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again! . . . In all seriousness (and other such trite phrases) it was a kind of nice balance to the Soldier, by Rupert Brooke, which follows:

The Soldier
Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Lord! Who was our teacher? One year the hippy trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, the next year the fallen Australians and New Zealanders should be ecstatic that school children in the Antipodes were thinking of England whenever they remembered their deceased fathers, brothers, sisters, grandfathers and so on. No wonder Owen was calling out 'Gas, Gas'... we all thought it was a panicked warning, but it was actually a plea. However, maybe it was an ironic (2nd use) selection, because Australian and New Zealand soldiers were most definitely sacrificed at Gallipoli for England's sake.

Digression. The above means that my poem probably went along the lines of War is bad/ It makes me sad/ When someone dies/ I always cry... though who knows, maybe I really was the idiot savant they all claimed me to be, and it was up there with the best of anything that Blake had to offer. When my mum saw the Brooke poem, she told me not to let dad see it or I wouldn't be able to go (to read my poem). Ironic (number 3), really, that 'Where have all the flowers gone?' probably expressed the sentiments he had about war, yet he didn't let us participate in the year it was sung, whereas the year when I was going to be reading, the poem selected was as jingoistic as they come. And not even about our own country.

I was always fascinated with Blackboy Hill. Blackboys are now called Xanthorrhoeas, which is their botanical name, or Grass Trees. I don't think the hill has been renamed, though. It fascinated me because I grew up in a suburb that sprang up in the 60s, yet there were older areas nearby. Greenmount, Helena Valley, Darlington. D. H. Lawrence spent some time getting spooked by the Australian bush in Darlington. See, even when I lived there, no-one lived there, so I could not imagine that there were all of these soldiers in WWI and I suppose WWII who trained up on Blackboy Hill. I can't imagine there was much of Darlington to see when Lawrence popped in. Swan View, just behind Blackboy Hill and Greenmount, was mostly made up of wineries and paddocks. It's all housing nowadays. The Aboriginal history of the land stretches long, and is mostly unknown, and local predominantly white history is almost as unknown. I didn't even know there was a memorial up there, just behind the school, in bushland I sometimes cut through (which has all been divided up now, for houses and St Anthony's church and school). That was probably part of my wonder, too. Despite being surrounded by beautiful areas and some historical points of interest, my parents seemed to mostly live in a cocoon of the house, though we did go to the museum in the city and art galleries and so on. Maybe they had just uprooted and set themselves down in the wrong place. As I said before, the suburb was state housing too; surrounded by areas that weren't. When I turned 13 I was amazed to find that I could leave the fights and broken glass just by walking five minutes up the track. And so the world grows larger.

Blackboy hill is, unsuprisingly, surrounded by Xanthorrhoeas, or it used to be. The mostly young men, boys, heading off, must have been excited and shit-scared. Considering the location, a lot of them must have come from the outlying country towns. A very different Australia existed then, I think, but how can we ever really know what existed?

The following day at school, one of the teachers pulled me aside and said that as my father had been so opposed to my sister and me participating in the ANZAC day proceedings the year before, the school had taken it upon themselves to pull me out of them this year. Oh, I said. Oh, I wanted to read my poem, I thought. Maybe it was actually the poem that did it, though the year before it would have been a perfect match. Maybe we'd had a change of headmaster and he was steering us into more conservative waters. Anyway, the library was not so bad, though I really did want to walk over to Greenmount and check out that area where people trained as far back as the 1940s, and ye gads, even the 1900s. I don't think Johnny Rotten would have understood, but neither would have Rupert Brookes.

One of our teachers taught us how to debate, and I remember pestering him, for weeks on end, to let us debate as to why there should not be uranium mining. I wonder who my opponents were? Another time I was on a team which debated why Western Australia being 150 years old was not such a great thing (it was at the RSL club, against the girls from St. Bridget's). We had lunch there. Some broiled of all flavour kind of corn beef thing with mush vegetables. Either before or after we ate (I'm guessing before) we had to stand up and face a portrait of the queen as the old codgers (but I am sure, distinguished soldiers) sang to God to save Her (Regina). I didn't know the words. My parents' heritage is Irish. I even think that Australia might have adopted a new national anthem (Advance Australia Fair) the year before, though that might have still been in the works.

Anyway, we lost. Our scrappy state school. Our teacher was pretty cool. I remember we didn't wear uniforms, though we looked nice enough (I hated the way I looked, but that was a general state of affairs). St. Bridget's wasn't really up there either on the socio-economic scale, but it was a private school, and they did wear uniforms. My argument against the celebration of 150 years of white rule in Western Australia was that it wasn't really all that wonderful that we had poisoned flour left out for Aboriginal people, and that after killing Aboriginal leader, Yagan (who had also killed a number of white people - he is regarded as a resistance fighter by his people) we sent his head off to England as an "anthropological curiosity", among other atrocities. (I think my Dad might have helped me. When I was ten, I was probably the only girl who knew what plutonium was - that was Mum's doing - radioactive for 500,000 years)

The St. Bridie's girls had the stronger argument, though. Skylab had fortuitously chosen to fall on Western Australia, and we had hosted Miss Universe (replete with stage collapse), and couldn't we see this string? No? That's because it was as full of holes as... You get the picture. They won. By the way, I just found this out about Skylab from Wikipedia:
The Shire of Esperance fined the United States $400 for littering, a fine which remained unpaid for 30 years. The fine was paid in April 2009, when radio show host Scott Barley of Highway Radio raised the funds from his morning show listeners, and paid the fine on behalf of NASA.
Considering the money individuals and other promoters made from the debris, I guess that's fair enough. Maybe they should have chased up those St. Bridie's gals, who shamelessly used Skylab to further their own cause, and got them to cough up the money (there's a story in there).

My pop, who was in WW2, my mother's father, refused to attend any ANZAC day service for as long as he was alive (however, now that he's dead...). A lot of the returned service men were like him. So, when I think about the stories and the memorials where the names of all the fallen are listed, in town halls and on monuments in the middle of small country towns, it is not the glory, but the loss that strikes home. And what is probably forgotten, between remembrance of loss, and maybe recognition of glory and bravery, is the waste. Nearly every family suffered a death, and many more were affected when soldiers who had been wounded, affected by gas and psychologically scarred returned home. Life wasn't a picnic for the returnees, either.

Same with any war, I guess. Once the war had finished, many people still reeling from the after-effects came from the United Kingdom, and tried to clear swathes of land in the south west in the soldier settler programmes. Ill-equipped, and also often ill (mustard gas'll do that to you), it was a very hard life and many did not succeed. Many did go on to do extraordinary things, though, realising all too well that they only had one life and they should live it as best they could while they had it.

So I think of my sister who found truth in the sentiment of the song, and how she felt so terribly alive that she could cry for those who weren't. And for Yagan, and for the way there seems to be great never-ending waves of destruction and misery throughout history pushing further misery and destruction. Not widespread, or I wouldn't be writing this now and today. But a pocket here, and here, and here. A century here, and here, and here. Spores of war spiralling on the wind, landing where it will, spreading as it may, drawing nourishment and sustenance any way it can.

People become stories and stories become understanding will have some interesting stories and photos on Flanders in the upcoming days, I think. I'll let you explore her blog, if you like. It is beautiful, and will be well worth the visit.


Di Mackey said...

Oh, I was reading through your post, delighting in it. I love this one, and then I reached the bottom and was so surprised to find myself in there too.

It's the loss I think of when I'm there, the heartbreaking loss you feel when you read the headstones on Flanders Fields and you imagine whole groups of vibrantly alive young men dying such terrible deaths in that terrible war.

I see them lounging about watching us remembering them, smoking and maybe pleased not to be completely abandoned in this cold flat land so far from their beautiful home country.

The Belgians take good care of their memories though, and in Turkey it's the same too. Ataturk said that Turkey would look after the soldiers who had died fighting there, he told the mothers that their sons had become Turkeys sons ... he said that of the enemy soldiers but that's Turkey for you. They are good people. Let me find his quote and add it here.

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well."

lizardrinking said...

It definitely seemed a very different time, and you have gone there and read a lot about it. The events definitely shaped our countries' senses of identity. There are a lot of stories, more than the next, that we seem to know from that war. In Australia, Simpson and his donkey(don't tell me they were both Kiwis! No doubt they were), the image of the poppy, and the as yet (for me) unexplained sprig of rosemary, the minute of silence on Armistice day (poetic in concept). . .

Thanks for enjoying the meandering. On a side issue, which I managed not to mention in here, apparently there are Australian (and NZ?) war graves in Palestine, too, which are tended by the locals. You probably know of that. I haven't looked into that yet.
Thanks for the quote, information and imagery.

Di Mackey said...

You made me curious, as I don't know so much, just some things but then I almost wish I hadn't looked ...

Check it out:

lizardrinking said...

Wonderful, Di, just in that now I don't have to search for it. I wonder if Kevin Rudd knows about it? I am sure he does. Maybe I will have to write ANZAC day post 2soon.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing post, and not just because I appear in it as the sister! I never knew half the history or only perhaps half knew it, like D.H. Lawrence.

As to my tears, well, I hadn't realised they were causal! You didn't get to read your poem! :-( Yeah, I think I cried because of the meaning of the song, but you attribute a very noble motivation to me. I think I was just an oddball. Ah well. ;-)

Fascinating snippets of information in here, like the Skylab debt.

From The Older Sister

lizardrinking said...

Older sister, you can choose name and type in a name. You don't have to post with a URL. Glad you liked it ♥ . It kind of meandered, but was personal, so I like it too. Everyone overreacted, of course. But I suppose the teachers did the right thing. I find it interesting that you didn't think the two things were connected, though maybe Dad would have pulled us out of the memorial service anyway.

Somebody Somewhere said...

They're right, that really is a great post. The only question is whether to doff my cap or take off my hat (although, seeing as you won't see, I suppose it's not a matter of the greatest consequence).

lizardrinking said...

Doffing is so much more fun, I think. Thank you for the compliment. I do tend to be the antithesis of short, sharp and succinct, and I am sure it could actually be more of that. I'm glad that Sydney was worth it. ♥

this cutie was taken by Crazyegg95 in 2005 and is from flickr