March 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Flag of Convenience

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Australia Day in Pyalong

On the morning of Australia Day, the people of Pyalong notice their flag is missing. Pyalong is in central Victoria, loosely suspended between Tooborac and Tallarook. Usually the flag is kept in a cupboard in Neighbourhood House, right next to the police station, but before Christmas there was a robbery. Thieves stole almost everything, including the mop and bucket, though they left the children’s Christmas presents. The flag, it is belatedly discovered, has also been swiped.

“The night the thieves came, the local cop was in Melbourne seeing Dolly Parton,” says Vicki Forde, who helps organise the Australia Day festivities. After searching for about 20 minutes, the Neighbourhood House volunteers resign themselves to using the Victorian state flag. Peter Hoskins, who ventured into the building “five years ago for a cuppa, and never left”, goes outside with David Waye to rig the flagpole.

“Two of the biggest enemies of a rural farming town are loneliness and depression,” says David’s wife, Moira, explaining the House’s place in the town. “If you come to a town without any children and don’t meet other parents at the local school or kindergarten, things can get quite tough. We try to find out who’s new to the town and bring them here.”

Endless cups of tea are offered in Neighbourhood House. Molly Sanders, a pretty 16 year old in a summer frock, arrives looking reticent. Molly’s mother relays that her daughter is nervous about reciting Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’ in front of so many people she knows. Pyalong is a town of about 660 residents, and most take their national holidays seriously. They celebrate Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and even Christmas in July. Meanwhile the older women spend all year knitting and crocheting scarves and hats to sell at Pyalong’s Biggest Morning Tea to raise money for cancer research.

Most celebrations are conducted in the memorial gardens, an extended nature strip of grass and concrete in front of Neighbourhood House, with a shaded pagoda off to the side and a flagpole in the centre. A podium has been set up, and plastic chairs arranged as if for a small outdoor wedding. Ahead of the 11 am festivities, a tape of Australian songs Vicki has compiled plays through the speaker system. “If you listen carefully to the songs, they don’t make sense,” she exclaims. “Listen!”

‘Is it mum and dad?’ sings John Williamson. ‘Is it a cockatoo? Is it standing by your mate / When he’s in a fight? Is it Vegemite?’

When told that there are two versions of the song ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’, and that one is really racist, Vicki worries she has downloaded the dodgy version. But her fears are assuaged when the arrival of townspeople drowns out the music – children with fake Australian-flag tattoos stuck on each cheek, parents in cotton T-shirts and sandals. A quarter of the audience are wearing Australia Day hats from the Herald Sun newspaper. Small paper flags and balloons are handed out. On every seat is placed a program of events, which includes the lyrics to ‘Click Go the Shears’.

Shire of Mitchell councillor Robert Parker arrives after conducting the 9 am celebrations at nearby Kilmore, and a shy girl named Leah Pett starts to play the guitar. She sings a Kasey Chambers song in a lovely, earnest voice that belies her years. Leah is wearing a T-shirt she has painted herself, reading ‘NUKE PYALONG’. The meaning is ironic and proud. “A councillor a few years back said that Pyalong was so small and insignificant it should be nuked out of existence,” Leah explains.

A group of local schoolchildren rise to sing ‘Click Go the Shears’. They are barely audible. Then Molly and her friend Ellie stand up to deliver Dorothea MacKellar’s poem. They have memorised all of it, and take turns reciting the stanzas in unwavering bell-like voices. Sitting under the unblinking hot sun, the crowd listens with the sort of silence you expect to find in a cathedral, not on a nature strip. Pyalong is the epitome of a farming town, unencumbered by the politics of the city or the different deconstructions of this national day. The feeling of being ‘sick at heart’, the smell of ‘soaking rain’ and the expectant hope in the ‘filmy veil of greenness that thickens’ really signify something here.

Moira closes the ceremony by inviting everyone back to Neighbourhood House for homemade sausage rolls and Val Smith’s scones, once everyone has stood up to sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’. So hot is the day, no one notices that the flag hanging overhead is not the national one.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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