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Every year, about this time, I re-read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August “one of the finest works of history written by an American in the 20th century”. It won her a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. The book is, essentially, a military history of the first month of the First World War. If you have never read Tuchman or this book, it will pay you to do so now. You can get it on Kindle. At the time of writing it she was described as “a fifty-year-old housewife and mother of three daughters”. She has never aspired to a conventional doctorate, but has been awarded at least three honorary ones. She found that there was an “aura about 1914 that caused those who sensed it to shiver for mankind”. Like Jane Austen she wrote at an ordinary household table in longhand amidst her family.
The first sentence of the book deals with ceremony and reads: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England...that the crowd could not keep back gasps of admiration”. Four years later, all of these kings were on the edge of war. Five years later the first Anzacs were in training for their baptism of fire on a remote, and eventually irrelevant, beach on the Turkish coast. Seven years later, the survivors of Gallipoli were rehearsing for the bloodbaths of the Somme. And this morning, 107 years later, I attended a simple local ceremony designed and mounted by a small sub-branch of the RSL in a quiet rural village which contributed its share of blood to the First World War in battles for places whose location few ordinary Australians would know, even now.
The pre-dawn twilight was pierced by a bagpipe’s eerie wail and my hair stood on end; the murmuring of those attending was stilled as the pipes paused to allow a movingly simple choral rendering of the autumnal hymn Abide with me. The Last Post and Reveille faded into the dawn, played beautifully by a female hand. There were perhaps ten thousand such ceremonies across Australia: they would all have contained similar elements and the same muted reverence. There has been much discussion of late about Anzac Day. As the playwright said, it is “the one day of the year”. The intensity of its celebration has ebbed and flowed, and sometimes it has seemed that it would be consigned to the memory chapel of discarded, but once-important ceremonies, like the Queen’s Birthday. But nowadays it is marked by a large, growing and respectful audience. It is one of our most important and enduring ceremonies as are the similar gatherings at Gallipoli and the Western Front.
Yet Australia has never gone to war on its own account. It followed the British without hesitation into South Africa in 1899-1902, Breaker Morant’s war, and echoed its declarations of war in 1914 and 1939. It has followed the Americans into the Middle East and Vietnam, and currently to Afghanistan. Only once were we permitted a choice and that was during the Conscription Debates in 1916 and 1917. The issue then proved as divisive as the debates about the Vietnam War and conscription in the 1970s. In 1939-40 we fought in North Africa against German and Italian expeditions, in the air over Europe, and in the islands to our North against the invading Japanese and their projected South East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. That war was the only one in which Australian territory was directly threatened or bombed.
Anzac Day has now acquired its own momentum and meaning. That we keep on marking it must mean something. It does to me, and I suspect, many others. Sentiments expressed on that day carry a disproportionate weight. The speeches follow an endorsed line, are sometimes inspirational and by and large avoid controversy. It is clearly a national occasion, although I don’t believe it was specified in the recent disquisition on ‘what it means to be an Australian’. It would be interesting to hear the peoples’ views, but we are unlikely to be asked for them.
I’ll see you next Anzac Day.
Meantime, and further to my recent ‘Opinion’ on recycling, a reader (thank you, Jurgen) has noted a significant omission and has asked me to comment on the ways in which we dispose of batteries,
large and small, and the effect that they have on the environment. I plead ‘guilty’ to the omission, which is a significant one, and will attempt to retrieve it in a future column.
John Fleming II
Grumpy: Ode to Autumn
Back nearly 200 years ago, in a land on the other side of the planet, the romantic poet John Keats in 1819 wrote an Ode to Autumn. It begins with the line: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”
If he lived here in southern Tasmania, in this day and age, his poem might better have started: “Season of coughs and clagged-up sinuses...” For let’s make no mistake: if there’s one thing that characterises the mid-autumn here in the Huon Valley, it’s smoke. Smoke descends from on high, the legacy of the forestry regeneration burns that go off from time to time like incendiary bombs in the hills, pushing great mushroom clouds of steam and smoke into the still air. Smoke hangs in palls from lower-level ‘fuel reduction’ burns – exercises in deliberately burning the bush in order to prevent it accidentally burning at another time. And of course, there are the countless backyard bonfires; puffs and trickles of acrid smoke from burning vegetative heaps that have collected over time as people prune, weed, and slash the rampant growth in their gardens throughout the summer – then set them alight to smoulder in the cooler conditions, after the fire danger period of summer has passed.
I know that there is a rational reason for most of these fires. Although I’m not sure the frequency of some can be justified, I accept that in most cases the reasons are valid. But I do ask, loudly and plaintively: can’t they be timed better?
I guess that most people who live in big urban areas wouldn’t know the difference. They live with a constant background of vehicle exhausts, cooking aromas, garbage smells and the like. Some additional smoke from other sources quite probably isn’t noticed. But for those of us who live in ‘the country’, one of its many great attractions is that we’re able to breathe clean, fresh air. We can leave our windows open, even at night, so that we’re not stuffed-up with re-breathing our own stale air. We can go to sleep knowing we’ll wake up in the morning fresh and healthy, not dull and head-achy. Except in autumn, that is.
What brilliant scientific purpose can it possibly serve, to choose a day when the air is still , then delay the burning until late in the day, when it’s starting to cool? Smoke billows up – and with no breeze to dissipate
it, hangs in the air. As the air cools, it descends – and the smoke descends with it. In the valley of the Huon River, then a mist develops – which joins with the smoke, makes it damp, and spreads it thickly up the valley slopes and into the hollows. The smoke seeps in, stinking, through any and every window that is open even a small crack – and the innocent sleeper wakes coughing and spluttering to the acrid stench of incinerated vegetation. For weeks on end there’s hardly a night goes by where we don’t wake to a heavy smoke-filled fog or a grey-brown haze that permeates your clothes and curtains, penetrates your lungs, and guarantees you start the day dull-headed, hacking, and GRUMPY!
I know that constant exposure to cool smoke is good for preserving meats and fishes. A nicely smoked ham or rasher of bacon, or a thin sliver or two of smoked salmon, are all very desirable things. On a plate. But I have no desire to be similarly preserved, thanks all the same.
So why, oh why can’t the pyromaniacs among us at least pick a day with a wee bit of breeze, and light their fire in the middle of that day, so that the warm air lifts the smoke up, and the breeze takes it away? Then perhaps the more poetic of spirit among us could continue to enjoy our peaceful country idyll, rather than choking in this fume chamber.
And perhaps we could continue to enjoy living in Kookaburra Crescent, or She-Oak Drive, rather than the less-appealing but somehow much more accurate Bronchial Crescent or Asthma Drive!
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