5. Meeting "The Guardians"
Updated: Apr 17, 2018
After my first dabble into this subculture – my battlefield tour and wandering around the Granite Belt resettlement locations – my everyday life returned, and it was not until 2013 that I found myself back in Stanthorpe ready to begin my project in earnest.
I wandered into the Stanthorpe Art Gallery, showing the manager some of the images I had captured during my initial travels five years earlier.
I explained I needed to expand my project and interview people willing to share personal stories of their families’ involvement in World War I and the resettlement farms – and not the textbook jargon I was tired of.
I needed to find the ancestors of those who lived on the resettlement farms and the people dedicated to telling the stories of the Diggers in Australia and Europe.
They are the people hidden amongst the crowds at Anzac Day – the quiet ones silently taking part but feeling bereft. Anzac Day is not enough for them; they are a quiet group of locals walking through the crowds, needing more and seeking it out.
They are the custodians of the stories I want to hear.
They are present in Australia, France and Belgium. They breathe life into the textbooks I have chosen to put away.
The Stanthorpe Art Gallery manager has the perfect solution.
The next day a journalist from the local newspaper (the Stanthorpe Border Post) arrives to interview the gallery manager, and they subsequently publish an article encouraging locals to participate in the project.
The local art gallery is going to host an exhibition of the final works.
They say your life can change in just one phone call.
In the days to follow I am forced to turn off my phone; the Border Post published my mobile number at the end of the article.
It was my first experience of the enthusiasm of these self-assigned custodians of the Digger legend.
I would soon begin to refer to them as ‘The Guardians’.
They are the voices I have been seeking and they tell this story from Australia, France and Belgium.
There are obstacles to travelling to these places – the small town of Stanthorpe and the northern villages of France and Belgium – and to penetrating their communities.
In Australia, potholes and kangaroos intent on murder/suicide missions on dusk roads are not the only challenges.
People are naturally welcoming but have some aversion to a stranger asking many probing questions.
We Australians do not like to talk too much about our feelings – especially Aussie blokes. Tough Australian battlers like to get on with the job at hand and not ponder too deeply or indulge in navel gazing.
Added to the tradition of ‘we don’t talk about the war’, some resistance is inevitable on this journey.
The obvious smokescreens in French and Belgian communities are the Australian Digger stories.
All the tales they tell of the brave Australians are fine to share, with vigour, but probe into their personal stories and eyes become reflective, dropping slightly.
Breath becomes deeper as they peer into memories of shocking events that changed their own families forever.
Their ancestors could not leave those battlefields for a resettlement farm far away; they had to stay and learn to live amongst the memories.
Once resistance is broken, however, something exciting happens: the shoulders relax as the words come flooding out.
Women are always more forthcoming with their feelings – and with tales of their family and the tragedy of war – but horrified men find their throats thickening, reducing their voices to a shy mumble as they scratch their heated necks when memories cut close.
One thing is clear, however: there is a similarity of pain, hardship and emotional upheaval for families on both sides of the world.
Regardless of nationality or gender, it is felt across the divide of thousands of miles of ocean.
Tenaciously asking questions about this shared, very human desire to commemorate and not forget the war, it becomes necessary to traverse a somewhat dangerous terrain, one to be delicately manoeuvred or doors and lips can smartly close.
I start with the politicians.
TO BE CONTINUED