The meaning of ANZAC is everywhere this autumn morning in a small, Western District soldier-settlement as a few old-timers rugged up against the cold, huddle outside their dark and draughty hall, its 1960s facade a wall of blank, red brick over the original, 1920s wooden building, once the heart of town.
A chill wind moans and whistles in the stays of the flagpole, slapping the lanyard noisily against the cold steel of the pole. It reddens the noses of a straggle of elderly folk mustered for the ANZAC service, their hats and shoulders dashed with the rain a gusty southerly brings in gusts from up the coast. Pleurisy plains they call it.
‘Just as it should be, says Helen McPhee, relieved the gods are scowling. Her eyes are so damaged now she wears huge dark glasses everywhere that give her a basilisk’s stare. At 83, her face is ravaged by a lifetime of punishing physical exertion, outdoors in all seasons, raising stock, crops and children; fighting fires, frosts, droughts and floods.
But her mind is still whip-smart and she gives no quarter. She’s worked as hard as any man all her life, if not harder. Last year she was still breaking horses. Easier than training a husband she says. Her late husband was a hard man even before he went to war. Impossible when he got back even before the whisky bottle got him.
…defying all odds to the bitter end.
A rich American company bought up their farm. An offer too good to refuse, her son told me, before he pocketed the proceeds and skipped out of town to head north into warmth and sunshine. Helen alone stays on, a fighter all her life, defying all odds to the bitter end.
‘It’s not a celebration. When I think of those poor boys who went away never to come back. It’s meant to be miserable.’
‘Gets smaller every year, says Wesley. Numbers are down at the school they say, too. Soon it will disappear altogether. When the school goes, the town goes.’
A few nod but none feels the need for words. Besides, what is left to be said when everyone has known everybody else forever? They continue their vigil in dutiful silence, as the whole town mourns its fallen, its past and its future.
Forty years ago, things looked up. Flush with funds from a long wool boom and buoyed with all kinds of hopes, local farmers updated their hall with a face-lift. Cannily they built a new façade in a measured flirtation with progress, a prudent, shrewdly frugal each-way bet on the two-faced god of modernity, a tribute to their civic pride and Presbyterian thrift. Nothing was too much trouble.
They carted the old hall across the road, wrenching it suddenly away from its partner of forty years, the old bluestone hotel next door. Progress left conviviality and hospitality behind; divided forever by the highway. The hall now brick-faced with funereal austerity, thrift and civic sobriety stands stiff and aloof across the road a respectable distance from its former neighbour’s joyful debauchery.
…strangers on what is now nobody’s land.
Now new money is set to close the town. International capitalists have mechanised the farms. Old holdings are joined up into one new vastness by faceless men from other places chasing profits around the globe. Foreign investors put managers and other strangers on what is now nobody’s land.
The town, like countless others has dwindled to a few hundred mostly elderly folk and a few lucky elder sons whose inheritances are still viable provided a man is rich enough to pay for laser-guided machinery and fit enough to farm at night by GPS.
Some, like Helen’s son have sold up and moved out leaving an elderly mother behind for the term of her natural life, a condition written into the contract of sale. You will only get me out of her in a box, says Helen. Kiwi contractors do the shearing now.
Down the road, the march assembles on the little rise outside old Jock’s hardware store. Numbers are down but it’s always like that nowadays. Head boy and girl of the local school and the primary school captains are joined by a handful of reserves, a widow and an old digger for the hundred metre march to lay the wreaths.
Jock gave up the ghost when his wife persuaded him into a retirement home in Ballarat. He was at a social game of bowls just before he left when his partner, Johnny W upset him with a display of high spirits. Stop larkin’ aboot, this is fookin’ serious, laddie!’ Jock’s reproach echoes in the voiced of the dour, determined townsfolk who must daily battle to survive.
Someone has to volunteer …
RSL Tom was never in the services. A former teacher, he says he put his hand up to lead the branch when the diggers died out. He’s on every town committee. ‘I’m a joiner,’ he says. Someone has to volunteer, especially these days. He does his best but still it seems like filling in.
The toy army lays its wreath, salutes, a bugler plays the last post and Tom recites Binyon’s ode. We file inside to hymns from the 1950s. ‘Melita’ to begin. Jesse McNab tickles the ivories, her powerful forearms flexing, hands rough but still sensitive after a lifetime of chopping wood, mending fences, driving the tractor. Like most of her generation Jesse could do anything from delivering a baby to fixing the brickwork in the chimney. That piano wouldn’t dare not to respond to her touch.
At times, in the old music and the fast-emptying halls you imagine ghosts returning to homes left long ago, now overgrown and empty all over the district. Some are still filled with abandoned furniture and belongings. Uncles, brothers, fathers, mates are recalled into being by the gathering of kin and the singing.
The old melodies test most of us save for a few staunch women elders whose alto voices soar high and pure and still beyond all hardship, hurt and wrong. Purified by suffering and by selfless devotion, their voices fill the vault above us, touching all of us with a true, unyielding testament, a sacrament of song.
How small towns were hit hardest …
Tom speaks. He speaks well of the privations of his boyhood during wartime. He talks of the change in the men who returned. How small towns were hit hardest. He says he places hope in the young people of today. A visiting retired army officer, a professional speaker, gives his views on the meaning of ANZAC, about duty and sacrifice and the folly of war. The captains read the ANZAC ode, stumbling fittingly over foreign place names; as their forbears before them stumbled upon the same unfamiliar places.
None of this talk is as moving or as wise and profound as the women and their song. And none can find words to address a far greater foe, the nemesis of capital investment which reaches effortlessly across continents and oceans, past all borders and boundaries, tipping villages and nations out of their old ways, turning inside out their lives of self-sufficiency, identity and community and a life on the land into the maws of a machine age and the certain uncertainty of an international, invisible market capitalism, a death in life, from whose bourn no traveller ever returns.
Everything they say the ANZACs fought to protect us from, or all they were told or believed they must fight to preserve: our sovereignty, our security, our values, our ways of life are all at stake as a global tidal wave of money threatens to wash old farms with national borders into oblivion. Unless, against the odds, our spirit rallies; unless, somehow we choose not to surrender; unless on this one day in this small place we rediscover what it is we truly stand for.