Anzac Day

Rosemary 1It was the centenary of Anzac Day on Saturday: 100 years since Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the Turkish beaches at Gallipoli to begin an eight-month campaign that was a military failure, but which continues to resonate in the life of all three countries.

Indeed, over recent decades the commemoration has grown in Australia’s public mind to the point where I think Anzac has become our true national day, though for reasons it is almost impossible to properly understand let alone articulate.

Even so I found myself drawn to attend not the great national ceremonies at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra where I live, but rather the morning service of a suburban sub-branch of the Returned & Services League at the Yamba Sports Club, not far away from home at all.

Partly it was a desire to avoid the crowds of well over 100,000 people at the main events. But mostly it was because the club, the memorial stone and the flagstaff are on the site where the family – two generations of servicemen – I’ve written about in my latest book, For Love of Country, built their homestead.

The farm in fact was called Yamba. And while the house has long since gone – the paddocks, orchards and outbuildings subsumed beneath suburban streets and houses, bowling greens and a shopping centre – two English oak trees in the front garden planted by Captain and Mrs Eddie still stand outside the clubhouse. Bearing witness, for those who know, to this soldier-settler who served at Gallipoli and France during the First World War, and the three sons who went to the Second … and did not come home.

It was another military tragedy, as war always is. But standing there on this cool autumn morning, I had a sense of their presence … people whose lives I have come to know so well during the research and writing these past three years. Indeed, one of the Eddies’ grand-daughters was there to attest the continuum of time and place, and the role every individual plays in the narrative of history.

Nor was it just me. We legatees of those first Anzacs overwhelmingly felt the same. They usually have about ten people at the Yamba morning service. Today they had thirty or forty. The old, middle-aged, and young … men, women and youngsters. A troop of scouts with their banner, one detailed to run up the flag after The Last Post. Ex-service people with their medals and sprigs of rosemary…

Several serving personnel in uniform were there to be an honour guard as we stood in what had been the Eddie’s garden and went through the rituals of the non-denominational service. The same as those performed everywhere on this Anzac Day, at the War Memorial and the beach at Anzac Cove, albeit here writ very small…

The president read a call to remembrance … not just of the Anzacs, but for all who have served our country in many theatres of conflict down to the present. A few simple wreaths were laid and there were brief prayers of peace for the dead and also the living. The famous verse from Laurence Binyon’s Ode to the Fallen was recited: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old… The Last Post was played on a recording, a minute’s silence, followed by Reveille. Lest we Forget. And in quavering, unaccompanied voices, we sung O God Our Help in Ages Past, and the National Anthem. Goodbye Cobber

At the end of it our local Senator read a message from the Prime Minister – a précis of the fine speech he gave at Gallipoli that morning. It spoke of the Anzacs’ courage and perseverance, duty and selflessness; of how they represented the best of those qualities we saw in ourselves, and he urged us to emulate them in our own time.

All very generous and true. But whether, as we stood drinking hot tea and dunking Anzac biscuits afterwards, these sentiments got to the heart of the matter I just don’t know. What is it about Anzac Day that speaks so directly to the young? And the revival of interest is all driven from below – from the young people themselves. It’s not being imposed by politicians from above. They simply reflect it.

I imagine it’s something to do with the rediscovery of our history at the time of the Bicentenary of the founding colony in 1988. Gallipoli was the first time Australians went to war as a federated Commonwealth, not as six separate colonies. It was the first time they fought on the battlefields of old Europe, and were not found wanting. And national days, sadly, seem to require battles (successful or otherwise) to commemorate, rather than peaceful, constitutional referendums.

Howard WaringBut it’s more than that. There’s a very deep human need to connect to the generations that have gone before. We are instinctively social beings, and I have a sense until recently that was largely missing among non-Aboriginal Australians in this land. Our people are mostly migrants or descended from them. It’s why we looked to Europe and elsewhere so often to discover our identity.

Now, as the nation becomes ever more heterogeneous, we find it in Anzac Day. Home is no longer “over there”. It’s here. And hence the youngsters in the marches wearing their grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ medals. Carrying their banners. Hence, too, the media overflowing with reports and old photographs as families rediscover the parts their relatives played in battles long past.

For ultimately history is not a grand, disembodied sweep of events. It is the sum of countless individual stories and the roles played by each man and woman and child who were involved with them. His-story. And her-story. And for many of us I suspect that is what Anzac Day has come to represent: that by rediscovering the qualities and actions in life of those of our families who have gone before, we are in some inexpressible way trying to find connections, meaning and belonging in our own.

After all, as the Prime Minister said in his speech on the Gallipoli beach this morning, unless Anzac Day was emblematic of something profound within each of us, we would not have been there, this morning.

So the autumn leaves on the Eddies’ oak tree outside the Yamba Sports Club continued to turn sere and yellow, and fall gently to the ground as we made our way back to our cars. The banners rolled up for another year. The tea wagon moving off. Sprigs of rosemary for remembrance in our pockets. And still faintly around us, the bugles calling somewhere from out of the past.

Photo credits:

Sprig of rosemary; grave of Trooper Rush, Gallipoli: author photos.

Private Howard Waring, KIA France 1916: author’s great-uncle.


Travellers’ Tales

What are the silliest notices you’ve come across in hotels and boarding houses? Just back from a three-week visit to New Zealand, in part to see my editor but mainly holiday, we’ve been making a collection of some of the more absurd signs that have greeted us in the various hostelries where we stayed. It’s one of the small amusements open to a traveller, and can yield memories to treasure when you get home.

Some of these notices are gratuitous. Some are funny. Some are quite unconsciously rude. And some just merely pompous.

The environment, in particular, seems to bring out the worst (or you might think it the best) among certain proprietors, some of whom seem to compete to impress guests with their green consciousness.

One motel had little homilies printed on coloured paper perched on every rolled up towel. Fashion has caused more damage than war. Another advised that HERE, YOUR TOWELS PLANT TREES. What can it possibly mean? One large hotel had painted on our door In this room, the planet can sleep peacefully (though in our room the planet had to compete with a vast neon-lit frame around the imperial-sized bedhead, that must have contributed mightily to global warming).

But a particular favourite in one establishment’s lengthy book of guest dos and don’ts, was a warning against putting our luggage on the bed in case we brought in bed bugs! Luggage had to be placed on the racks provided in the wardrobe – even though a doctor friend later advised that bugs are perfectly capable of crawling out of a suitcase, crossing the carpet, and creeping into a comfortable new bed.

There’s no point getting irritated by these messages. Much better to have a laugh and let them lift the spirits amid the stress of a journey, and finding yourself in new places with unfamiliar customs. I’d be interested to hear of your own experiences and any favourite traveller’s signs you may remember. We might be able to put a book together. It could be a winner with the hospitality industry!

Travels in New Zealand: Week Three

Wellington – Cook Strait – Nelson – Kaikoura – Christchurch – Home

image* An eclectic mix of music to serenade us into the last week. Marching bands, whistles and electric guitars at a Wellington Mardi Gras, where we found ourselves caught up in a Gay & Lesbian street parade. A fine blues singer around the corner. And soaring above the bustling noise of Cuba Street, members of a brass consort standing on three opposing shop verandas playing Gabrielli. Venice, 1600. Three drag queens in white and gold graced a performance of Maori and Chilean fusion music at the Te Papa Museum (there is certainly the Pacific bond). And finally, on the Interislander Ferry across Cook Strait, some travelling musicians entertained us with some splendid early American fiddle music. Spirited and with origins in the shanties and dances of both Old and New Worlds, it was the very thing for a sea voyage.

*Of course we had to sleep in, didn’t we, when I failed to set the alarm properly. Woke up at 7 o’clock – and the taxi was booked for 7.15! Can’t remember when we last moved so quickly. Fortunately we’d done the packing the night before. Even so, Jill went white, I went red – and thus being in the pink we were in the lobby just in time, and standing on the ferry wharf ahead of ourselves. We’d even managed to gulp a mouthful of tea. Not bad for a couple of old ‘uns. image

*Last time I was in Queen Charlotte Sound, researching Captain Cook, it was grey and stormy. This time it was dazzling blue and green. The sea calm. The wind fair. And the views, as we drove around the bays stunningly beautiful. You can see why Cook returned here on each of his South Pacific voyages. Not so pleasant the steep, mountainous descent into Nelson, where sadly much of the native forest has been removed for pine plantations. Which explains the presence of so many heavy logging trucks!

image* We’re in Nelson to see the WOW (World of Wearable Art) Museum – a subject in which Jill, as a textile artist, has a great interest. Over the past two decades New Zealand’s annual creative costume showing has grown to a truly international event. Several friends, in fact, have successfully entered in recent years. And the three dozen or so costumes on exhibition (including at the co-located Classic Cars Museum) certainly show great imaginative breadth in their conception and the materials used: zips turned into fabric, plastic tie strips, wood, metal, corks, paper, even party balloons … all have been used to remarkable effect. There’s a dress made from a coil of soft wooden rope … another with wooly sheep leading all the way up to a shearing shed at the top … costumes that dazzle under fluorescent light … an extraordinary dragon stage costume, and so on… image

* Even so, the museum was not as comprehensive as we’d been expecting. There was very little information that we saw on display about the history of WOW, or background easily available to visitors about past section winners and their garments. There seemed plenty of room in the large foyer for some interactive technology that would help people access the large WOW archive and database. It might be worth thinking about.

image* We were therefore very glad that we saw a major WOW travelling exhibition of recent costumes at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, shortly before it left on an international tour. The pieces here were at a very high level … among the very best of recent WOW showings. A imagepink dress made out of fibreglass stays in the mind …  a garment modelled as a gothic cathedral … a lobster … a gown fabricated from pierced, painted and shaped aluminium … an  astonishing dress like a yellow lampshade… I don’t know how comfortable many of them would be to wear in a conventional sense. But as examples of creative flair and artistic imagination, they certainly excite the response WOW!!

*So to the last leg, back-tracking on ourselves a bit as we drove to the east coast and the highway down to Christchurch. The hills very winding again until imagethe vineyards around Blenheim (such fresh, aromatic sauvignon blanc), and again through the ranges towards Kaikoura. Spectacular scenery, though, the road and railway line skirting the littoral: long, empty beaches of black volcanic sand, sea birds, dolphins leaping offshore, and everywhere, as if arranged by an artist, still lives of driftwood, seaweed and round, dark stones cast up by the ocean. Kaikoura is known for its whale-watching and crayfish. Alas, the last afternoon whale boat had stopped for the season,  and no fresh crays had been caught for three days. But we dined excellently on local fish all the same.

* The country hereabouts is also in drought; and the grass-green sheep hills and emerald imageCanterbury Plains we expected, are more the burnt russet brown we’re used to in Australia. The wide rivers now are mostly stone beds with a thin stream running down the middle. We were struck, too, by the absence of much forest cover on the hills, apart from the ubiquitous pine plantations. How much of this bald landscape is natural below the snow line, and how much is man-made it’s impossible for us to know; but we were told that most of the original forest (other than the major valleys) was cleared over the past century or so for grazing, a practice now yielding hard returns with the present lack of rain. Even Cyclone Pam, for which everyone was battening down as we left home, failed to produce many significant falls.

image* Christchurch, I have to say, seems a very sad city. Four years after the earthquakes, in which over 180 people were killed, there is still a sense of grief – a void – in the townscape and its people, as if the heart had been knocked out of the place. “A broken city” the local Press calls it, and they’re right – metaphorically and in fact. There are still many gaps in the central part, like missing teeth, where buildings have been demolished and reconstruction not yet started. Some still stand damaged and vacant. Elsewhere you can see the framework for new offices going up, and before long the brightly painted shipping containers used as shops under the Re:Start program will probably begin to go. It was a great example of the spirit of self-help, and I hope they retain some of those shops as a memorial when the city is rebuilt.

image* It will be a long time, however, before Christchurch is properly healed again. The conflict between the desire to retain what was and the need to rebuild the new, is a real and painful one for many people. Some of the older structures are still propped up with massive steel girders, chief among them the gothic cathedral, which still looks like a war zone, after the tower and much of the facade collapsed. It was Good Friday when we were there, and some young people were holding an Easter service in the square nearby; but other parishoners just sat outside the perimeter fence with us tourists and mourned the old building they loved. The debate still continues on whether to rebuild the cathedral in bluestone as it was, or to incorporate what can be salvaged in a modern, wooden structure: and certainly the colonial wooden buildings withstood the quake better than many of the stone ones. It’s something only the local people can resolve, but you can’t escape the fact this is a volcanic region, and another shock may recur.

image* Our last day-trip, for example, was to Akaroa at the foot of the Banks Peninsula: it’s actually the crater of a huge volcano where the sea has entered, so deep the Queen Mary anchored there before we saw her at Waitangi. It was a nerve-wracking drive for me up the mountain, and when we reached the Hilltop pub at the summit, we saw there was another 18 kilometres to go down the other side before we reached the town. We stopped. Lunched on Akaroa salmon as we sat on the hotel lawn admiring the view. And then went back. Young people say they enjoy the steep winding roads: it makes them feel as if they’re on a road rally. Me, I prefer the straight and very wide. If we ever get to Akaroa it will be by ship.

Captain Cook rose. Christchurch

Captain Cook rose. Christchurch

* And finally a bouquet. I was cursing Sydney International Airport when we left: but coming home they did us proud. The plane was late leaving Christchurch (“sandstorms in Dubai” we were told), and we had only an hour to disembark, get through Customs and catch the bus to the domestic airport for the last plane to Canberra. True, it was night and there weren’t many people; but the staff pulled out all stops to get us through quickly, and we made it. With five minutes to spare. Sincere thanks. And also to my cousin, who was waiting to drive us home – with a basket of food to see us through the first night again, under our own roof.

Travels in New Zealand: Week Two

Hamilton – Matamata – Lake Taupo – Wellington


* Art and War. In Hamilton to meet my editor, Suzanne, and talk over revisions to my latest military book, we were lucky enough to see a statue of the New Zealand soldier, map-maker and war-artist, Sapper Horace Moore-Jones, being lowered onto its plinth of Gallipoli stone in the main street. It’s a fine bronze by Matt Gauldie, himself a serving soldier, who was there supervising the work. It shows the sapper with a rifle on his back, pencil and sketchbook in hand. Moore-Jones was a Hamilton man, and this is one of the city’s significant Anzac centenary commemorations. A fine one, too, given that the sapper also painted the notable picture of a Gallipoli stretcher-bearer (sometimes wrongly referred to as Simpson) The Man With The Donkey.

image* The good news is that Suzanne liked the book, its essential flow and structure, and it took only a couple of hours and several strong coffees to discuss the main areas where more works needs to be done. Time shifts … re-pointing sections of dialogue … sharpening the high points of the drama. That sort of thing. Nothing major. Which gave us time afterwards for a walk in the Hamilton Gardens. What a revelation! Apart from the lawns and arbours, there are a series of beautifully planted gardens on specific themes … a Tudor Garden … Japanese Garden, Chinese, Italian Renaissance, walled vegetable garden, and so on, many of them overlooking the broad and swift-flowing Waikato River. Among the favourites was this Indian Garden, with its pavilions, fountains and formal beds planted with red, blue and yellow flowers, like a Moghul carpet. The blooms are beginning to fade now with autumn setting in, but they’re still exquisite. Continue reading

Travels in New Zealand: Week One


For nearly three weeks between the middle of March and Easter, my wife Jill and myself are travelling in New Zealand: mostly holiday through the North  Island, but a few days to discus s the new book with my Editor, Suzanne. What follows are some random jottings – not a travel diary but a few stray thoughts.

Week One.

Auckland – Whangerei – Bay of Islands – Makatane

* The Shock of the Old. It’s not until you go travelling, that you suddenly realise how much things have changed and how the reflexes have aged. We were so busy worrying about Cyclone Pam, due to touch down in Auckland at the same time we were, we didn’t give enough attention to crises at the Australian end. For instance: Continue reading

Word Games

BOur little grand-daughter started school this year, and as part of her preparation for reading we’ve been playing some entertaining word games with her. You know the sort of thing: big coloured cards or blocks with letters, and putting them together to form whole words. CAT, DOG, SHIP, HOLE and OAR.

“What  about this one ore that one, Grandpa?” “No dear, it’s spelt this one or that one.” “Why Grandpa? They sound the same.” “I know, but different spellings help us tell the different meanings of similar-sounding words.” “Awesome, Grandpa.”

Yes, without mentioning other variations of the “or” sound as in TAUGHT, SOUGHT and COURT! Not that I went into that just yet with the little one. But it did lead me to reflect on the rather silly – but nonetheless quite heated – debate taking place in Australia and other places between varying advocates on methods of teaching children to read. Continue reading

Chapter Notes

Many thanks to everyone who contacted me over last week’s post End Matters, and suggested links to programs or apps that might help with my References and Chapter Notes. I’ll certainly be checking them out.

Of as much interest to me has been the way the discussion developed on some sites around the notion of whether we need end matter – and especially references and chapter notes – in historical novels at all? A novel, after all, is essentially a work of fiction, albeit built around a skeleton of historical fact.

Notes 1

Author photo

I must say I’m very much with those who favour the use of end notes and reference material. I’m not one of those authors who knowingly alter historical facts to suit my story. On the contrary, I must alter my story to fit the known facts. Accuracy, so far as the externals are concerned, is everything.

It’s true that assumptions often have to be made where the historical record is silent – and also true that the internals of thought, emotion and speech can only come from the author. But as I try to recreate my period and characters (and I mostly write about real people) as accurately as I can, it seems important to let the interested reader know the sources of my statements, the reasons behind the assumptions made, and those sections that are entirely imagined. Disinterested readers, of course, can ignore the end matter altogether. Continue reading

End Matters

Do you have a system for sorting the end matter of your book? Mine is hopeless.

Acks 4Having recently finished cutting and revising the second draft of the current work, and sent it to my editor for a first read, attention has now turned to the Acknowledgements, References and Further Reading, and all the other material that has to go at the end of a published book…

…Chapter notes, photographs and illustrations, picture credits and captions – not to mention the horrors of an index.

I must say that, with me, the process of preparing the end matter is always a mess, and I wonder if anyone has a better method I could adopt? Continue reading

Auld Acquaintance

Scrolling through the computer files the other night, I came across some old friends I hadn’t seen for years – had largely forgotten about – and was able to spend a pleasurable hour or so renewing our mutual acquaintance.

Clown Not long after I started my career as a writer, a friend sent a collection of sketches she’d made when a travelling circus came to town. They were vivid and highly entertaining little drawings: the ringmaster …  trapeze artiste … a clown … the high-wire rider…

And I wrote a set of short poems – or at any rate verses – to go with them, thinking it might be an amusing illustrated book for young readers. Alas, the publisher didn’t.

‘Not poetry!’ they exclaimed, more horrified it seemed than if I’d suggested a volume of pornography. ‘Nobody reads poetry!’

When a second publisher said the same, I assumed the fault was mine, printed the poems out under the title Circus, put them in a folder somewhere, and went on with other things. Another forgotten manuscript left to gather dust

Yet I can’t tell you what joy it gave me to rediscover them  the other night. Siddie the Tumbler.  Elanora the elephant (Her grandmama once carried Rajahs). Mrs Rodriguez, the bareback rider, who doubled as seamstress, ticket-seller, dog-trainer and ice-cream vendor at interval. The man on the flying trapeze (The question is: should I let her go? There is no safety net below.) And the other half-dozen performers . Continue reading

Wishing away computers…

Do you sometimes wish the Internet had never been invented? That we could go back to those more innocent times before lost passwords, suddenly deleted text, endless emails, spam, cybercrime and online advertising? To those more leisurely, writerly, happier times altogether? At least as they were in retrospect.

The Typewriter

The Typewriter

Such thoughts crossed my mind the other day when I got a message on the iPad from Apple and the iCloud asking me to re-enter my password. Which I did. Correctly.

Only to have it rejected. I entered it again. And again. And after the third attempt found myself locked out of the site. No emails!

I was bereft. Incommunicado. Cut off from the world.

The only thing to do was to ring my ever-helpful computer doctor and ask for a house call to make things better again. Which of course he did for a modest fee.

Though as he left I repeated my vow never to succumb to the electronic temptress promising a paperless world, where written words can evaporate into an ethereal Cloud. I’ll still print out everything important in hard copy. Continue reading