May 2005


Country talk

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Early in the new year I entered a hairdressing salon in the main street of the Victorian Wimmera town of Horsham (not “Hers and Sirs” but the one next to it, if ever you’re looking). At 9.30 in the morning the place was empty, and in no time the hairdresser was fluffing the hair around my ears in the familiar way of her profession, and I was about to say, in the familiar way of the country, “Hot isn’t it, but I suppose we should expect it at this time of the year.” But before I could begin she said, “So, how’s your day been so far?”

There was a time – a very long time – when country people rarely asked more of another human being than how he or she was going. In this same time there was often a whiff of damp hay, dogs or sweat about country schoolrooms, churches and picture theatres. Country people – this was before they were called rural and regional Australians – were the living embodiments of their work and environment, somehow even of their faith. They were as seals are to rocks and owls to the night, the elemental Australians.

Media celebrity has had some say in revising the ideal from, say, a sheep shearer to a crocodile wrestler. But a much more general and probably unstoppable change is underway too. The country, you see, is going forwards, which is to say it has joined up with the rest of the economy, the rest of the economy has joined up with the global economy, and when that happens “So, how’s your day been so far?” becomes pretty well mandatory. It is the standard greeting of all customer-focused businesses, worldwide, and the world now includes the Wimmera. For hairdressers it is doubtless as much part of their training as scissor technique. As I left this hair-care centre of excellence I thanked her. “Not a problem,” she replied, “have a nice day.”

Cruise control and empty roads create a state of mindlessness that is perfect for getting round Australia. Think of a Fred Williams or Arthur Streeton if you will – or in the Wimmera, Sidney Nolan – but the pleasure is in not thinking. Thinking is a form of resistance. Let the emptiness swallow you alive. Time and the miles will simply fly by.

Yet enough remains in the Australian countryside to occasionally disturb the driver’s trance. A glimpse of a house in ruins can do it; a tank toppled off its stand, an overgrown domestic fence or fowl-yard can provoke the subversive thought that something once happened here. What we see now was once something else. Children slept beneath that collapsed roof, were conceived beneath it, climbed in the shattered cypress.

You know it is the quaking of your own childhood that the house in ruins provokes, and the empty schools and halls remind you of the thin, brief shadow your own life throws. A glimpse of rusted iron and flaking weatherboard can hollow you out for half an hour. Or it can set you thinking of the ping pong that was played inside that hall, the dances, weddings, meetings, baby shows, the young men gathering to enlist for wars. You can suddenly find your mind in full-blown worship of these ancestors: the prodigious work they did and their children never thanked them for; the faith no longer comprehended; the lives lived with no certainty of reward or sense f entitlement.

Those old halls with the broken pine trees round them speak for vanished communities and their secular spirit in the same way that the abandoned churches stand for an age when people, though they rarely got excited about it, practised religion in the hope of salvation and, if not that, for the good it did their souls, its restraining force and the pure energy it mined. Along with work, cooperation and religion were the eternal verities and the conditions of success. Those public buildings might now be forlorn monuments to these beliefs, but for the people who built them they were also the reward, the proof of their devotions.

It was natural for pioneer communities to erect the essential markers of civilisation’s progress, and the pioneering went on long after those inveterate builders, the Victorians, had departed. The Great War demanded monuments and every second hamlet got one. They will last as long as the civilisation, unmistakable evidence of a strange, Homeric event and the myth it engendered. We should genuflect twice every time we pass one; the first time for the dead and the second for the builders who imagined something permanent, secular and noble.

The Great War also demanded postwar settlement schemes which created new communities, and wherever they survived up went public buildings. The halls, libraries and mechanics institutes, post offices, churches, banks, butter factories, grandstands, rail stations, wheat silos and war memorials – just about everything that is substantial in form and meaning – were built before World War II. And apart from swimming pools just about everything built after it is gimcrack and suburban.

Put the difference down to the spirit of an imperial, pioneering age when stone, bricks, skill and labour were much cheaper. Wherever the need occurs and funds allow, no doubt public buildings still get built. But it is rare to see a modern one of imposing substance or of deeper meaning than a shopping mall, perhaps with a McDonald’s in the middle puffing the fumes of frying oil into the air. The absence of substance or any sign of an aesthetic also exemplifies an age – our own, the one ruled by market ideology and private taste. Market ideology deplores public investment. It rearranges the cosmos on post-modern lines. Those old banks, courthouses, post offices and churches now do for hairdressers, beauty salons, pancake parlours, estate agents (known in some places as “lifestyle merchants”) and people exercising various lifestyle options. No one can miss the irony, and nor should we miss the fact beneath it – that the first language of the post-modern is accounting.

There are no less than 18 hairdressers in Horsham (population 13,000), and in January local ABC radio reported that the shire intended to teach them drought counselling. They have “a one-on-one relationship for half an hour to an hour and it’s important that they know how to listen and respond”, a shire spokeswoman said. It seems when your customers are going through a drought – or, one assumes, a flood, bushfire or locust plague – it is not enough to ask them how their day has been so far. It might seem curious that the man on the land must now have the spiritual as well as the physical comforts all farmers since Job have had to do without. But much more radical is the idea that people need to be trained before they can take a sympathetic interest in their neighbours. Soon there will be diplomas in it, diplomas of mateship, perhaps. The cost of course will have to go on the price of the haircut.

Hairdressers occupy the old Bank of New South Wales building in the once grand Murray River town of Echuca. They have adopted the familiar marketing strategy of keeping a blackboard on the street outside and every day writing on it a homily or maxim of their own invention, much as Cicero might have done had he been in retailing. The one I saw in January was perhaps a taste of the counsel farmers can expect next time they go in for a tint. It said: “Never put limits on yourself. Just be free at all costs.” It must be that the booze got to Henry Lawson before he could think of that.

This is the bush, the mighty bush; crucible of the nation’s spirit, imagination and binding beliefs. The legends were born in these places. Mateship was born here, and Anzac was born of mateship they say. So were Carbine, Bradman, the Drover’s Wife, John Curtin and Black Jack McEwen all children of the bush and all chips off the country’s block because, as the legend says and our media and leaders would very often have us believe, it was from the bush that Australia’s character and traditions came.

Some readers might remember a few of them: a collective rather than individualistic ethos; an aversion to boasters; an outlook more fatalistic than optimistic; laconic, sceptical in most things, practical, more inclined to admire physical than intellectual prowess and achievement. In all but the last of these traits our New World society was believed to be different to the American one. Readers might note as well that Australia’s traditional “values” in no way resemble the values of what contemporary commentators and successful political parties call “values-based” politics, which is said to be the most suitable variety in the current social climate.

As far as it is possible to tell with such an abstract term, “values-based” politics is concerned with other abstractions such as religion, the proper role and entitlements of fathers, the entitlements of the unborn child, the entitlements of the born ones, lifelong entitlements and what are called lifestyle choices. In vain will our political leaders and their ideologues search the Bulletin school, the collected works of Paterson and Lawson, Weary Dunlop’s memoirs, the school readers, Mary Grant Bruce or the words of “Waltzing Matilda” for any sign of such “values”. Too bad, we might say if they got on with their “values-based” politics and left the ancestor worship to those who know they have them. But they won’t of course.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they’ll pretend that mateship is alive and readily seen in the nation’s juice bars, that it is more than a male thing, that it has something to do with what the media and politicians would have us believe is a unique determination to save our homes from bushfires, and that it has nothing whatever to do with trade unionism, the welfare state or any species of big government. They will make themselves and their words heirs to mateship, or any other traditional “value” they can convert to the narcissistic prism essential to marketing and personal enlightenment. Who can say for certain that the swagman’s defiant leap into the billabong should not be understood as a lifestyle decision? A values-based decision? It is tempting to believe that they are wasting their time; that you cannot invent or re-invent tradition. But you can of course. You just need to say the same things often enough, starting with the ones who don’t know better and shutting up the ones who do.

That life in the country is sweeter and richer in choice than it used to be is not a reason for the rest of us to feel gloomy. Why should the gentle breezes of air-headed aspirationalism caress only the suburban dweller? May they all be cabled to the World Wide Web until, in the name of individualism, freedom and choice, the dream of sameness is made real. Not a problem. May they plant the nation’s cereal crop while watching Foxtel in the air-conditioned cabins of their mobile power plants. But deliver us from the refrain about traditions. Spare us the sacrilege.

In Wentworth, at the junction of the Darling and the Murray, a little grey Ferguson tractor has been hoist high on a pole to memorialise the heroic little machines that in the 1950s saved the town from floods. When I first looked up at it, a kookaburra was sitting on the steering wheel. It’s impossible not to like Wentworth with its old gaol, its tractor worship and its junkyard museum. By these small gestures a town says it is a town, a conscious culture, a place with a memory. And Wentworth seems to say it as it should be said in the bush, without taking itself too seriously.

You go down to the Wentworth Club for tea and eat your steak and chips and out the window, pink in the sunset, the Darling flows on its immortal course. A cormorant crouches on a dead branch and hangs its wings out to dry. Downstairs young couples are playing the machines and older ones are dancing evening three-steps nose to nose. It is Austral bliss. But on the big TV in the dining lounge A Current Affair is covering the tsunami. Ray Martin and his team are up there in devastated Aceh and Phuket and the message keeps coming at us: our Aussie generosity is awesome and unmatched; it’s amazing how we Aussies pitch in when there’s a crisis; it’s the Aussie way, the Aussie spirit, and Aussie tradition akin to mateship and our long history of fighting affliction.

It can only be to make us feel good, as if we need to feel dividends from kindness. As if, unlike the people who lived in those crumbling houses by the roadsides, and the people who built those public halls, we can’t do things or face things without this constant stroking, without reward. We need the warmth of mutual self-congratulation, to see ourselves in everything, to be wrapped in the story of our life’s progress every day. We need to be customers, valued customers. So we always have an answer to that question – “How’s your day been so far?”

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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