Don’t wanna

Rick and I had been planning a little project for some time: laying a small patio in front of each of two new sliding doors at the guest bedrooms. The project, which involves arranging a few dozen pavers on top of a shallow bed of gravel and sand, would not tax a handyman for a moment. Now, Rick and I have our skills, but laying out a simple patio was not among them.

As we were sipping our coffee one morning, contemplating the project, Rick made the following observation: “I notice I’m feeling dread at the prospect of what we’re about to take on. Although we’ve worked it all out and have clear and simple instructions, I keep having this feeling of: ‘Uh-oh—too big for me.’

“As a matter of fact,” he went on, “it’s the same feeling I get about loading the kayak. I’ve done it dozens of times, we’ve got the tools and the leverage down perfect, it’s NOTHING for me to get the kayak up on the roof of the car – and yet every time I contemplate it, it feels like a big deal.”

Eventually Rick got to his point: “There’s a four-year-old in there calling the emotional shots. That little guy wasn’t capable of levering a 40 kilo kayak on to the top of the car, and he’s certainly not up to figuring out how to build a patio. He’s just a Little Guy.

“But what’s he doing HERE?! Here I am, a fully grown man who’s carting around the spiritual residue of a four year old. Go figure.”

At that, he grimaced and said, “Well, let’s get stuck into it.”

Little guy 1There was no sign of the Little Guy a few hours later, when Rick was measuring out dimensions, doing complicated calculations, and shovelling wheelbarrows of gravel and sand, all the while humming happily. The patios gradually emerged, punctuated with a number of learning experiences, and now there are a couple of nice platforms where you can sit on your deck chair and have a cup of

Tree dahlia

Tree dahlia

coffee, while the tree dahlias wave above you and the pheasant coucals cavort in the trees below.

The whole episode led me to speculate about my own Little Guy. There is a feeling I notice on occasion, which I might meticulously define as Don’t wanna. I haven’t distinguished out the voice, and I mistake it for my own, or perhaps for the voice of the universe. It’s just how it is. But in reality, I can see it’s my four-year-old talking. Don’t wanna, she’s saying. And if I scratch under the surface I can see a Little Guy who’s having an adverse reaction – about things that might be logical in a four-year-old but not so much in a strong, mature, independent adult. “This is too big for me,” the voice is trying to say. Or “I could get hurt,” or, “This is scary.”

The Little Guy wasn’t smart or articulate enough to define her terms, only to notice the raw emotion she was abuzz with. The 40 kilo kayak was clearly too heavy to handle, the wave was too big to safely walk into, the German Shepard was a terrifying size – and it all rolled into Don’t wanna. It’s a mantra our Little Guys learned well. Very well. Who’d have guessed it was becoming a lifelong partner, in for the long haul?

My own Little Guy doesn’t get triggered by construction projects. My four-year-old was trained by my father, a farmer, that there’s no challenge that a few tools and bit of thinking can’t solve—and you can have some fun in the process. My own Little Guy looks at construction projects like building a patio as, “Yahoo! I’ll help!” (She hasn’t noticed the irony of exploiting Rick when the project is my own idea.)

But my Little Guy learned other Don’t wannas. I have a spontaneous reaction any time Rick suggests a drive. I promptly think, Don’t wanna, with a whiney-voiced addendum: It’s too faaaaar. It doesn’t take much to spot that the voice is actually that of a Little Guy who spent 45 minutes on the school bus every morning and every afternoon, punctuated on occasion with two-hour drives to our nearest town. Eventually a more adult voice kicks in, commenting on the cappuccino coming up, the crossword puzzle we’ll be working on, the shopping we’ll be doing—and it’s only a 20-minute drive, for pete’s sake.

But the Little Guy always takes its cut, dampening my experience with her Don’t wanna.

Emotion is a powerful thing, sometimes learned early and rarely reliable as an indicator in the present.

Little guy 2At any rate, it’s fun to have the patios. But I suspect the greatest contribution the project will make is in the insight it has provided. For Rick, he’s discovered that rather than resisting the ungrounded dread, or trying to talk himself into a more sensible approach, he can simply get a kick out of seeing his little alter-ego having its four-year-old reactions. He can give the Little Guy a hug and set him on the fence to watch as Big Guy throws together a patio or two, or effortlessly hoists the kayak up onto its lift bar. Everyone’s in his rightful place.

Mothers R Us

The temperature dropped to 9 degrees last night, which surely means that winter is on its way. And that in turn means that many of us Mitchells Islanders will be partaking of our annual migration to warmer climes over the next few months. Our good friends Kerry and Gordon leave on Tuesday for the Galapagos, then on to Europe, New York and Japan. Rick and I head off for Canada soon; in July Eve and Daniel take in a wedding and some touring in the USA; in September Judy and Michael will go dancing their way across Cuba and the southern United States.

My mother surrounds meAnd what that means is that we won’t all be together again until the end of October. So we decided we should get together for a farewell-to-travellers’ dinner last night. As icing on the cake, housemate Judy suggested that, since the dinner would be on the eve of Mother’s Day, we each take the opportunity to honour our own mothers by telling some of their story.

So after indulging in one of Rick’s Massaman curries, a fine Penfold’s red, and some champagne, we talked about our mothers—one at a time. You should have met these eight mothers! I wish you could have gotten to know them all as I did last night. We were shown photographs, we had bits of letters and interviews read to us, and we were told remarkable stories. We’ve heard about these mothers, but last night each one came alive in our imaginations, as never quite before.

They were a varied lot, these mums. The oldest was born in 1905, the youngest in 1921. One had died in her thirties; only one is still alive, at age 93 (my own lovely mother). They were all deeply influenced by the Great Depression, and were young women through World War II.

There was a politician’s wife, a famous model, and someone who had been visiting family in Poland when the Germans invaded. Someone had run a number of family businesses. One had nine children. Four of the eight mothers were farm women. There was an artist, a drummer, a couple of gardeners, an accountant, some seamstresses. Several began a second career or took up studies when their families had grown. In keeping with the times, most ran a tight ship. All had been tested by and survived serious challenges: abandonment, bad marriages, loss of offspring, being judged by family and community. Religion, divorce, war and poverty all had their impact.

There were wonderful photos; I stared into those faces to see what I could discern about these smiling women with their arms around children who I know today as 60 and 70 year olds. Old photos are always like that: they hold their secrets, some of which I couldn’t begin to guess at. We became present to a very different time: a more conservative time, a time of fewer choices, when things moved more slowly. We could sense a culture by which our own has been shaped.

If you met my mum you would understandAs people spoke, a few shadowy silhouettes slid into the room with us. The children we were when our mothers were young women showed up as the stories were told: there was a little Eve helping to hold the family together while her mum had a rough patch, as well as a little Judy swaddled in family secrets and a little Michael dealing with his mother’s illness. Also there in the room we could sense fragments of our mothers in who we are today: ”Aha! – I see you in what you’re saying about her.”

The love each of us had for these women who gave birth to us was palpable, as well as how much they mean to us now. And we could feel the love they clearly had for us, and for our siblings. Their courage, beauty, exuberance, commitment and caring filled our living room.

This parade of mothers populated my dreams last night, and they’ve been strolling through my head since. I hear echoes of their voices and the click of their high-heeled shoes. I sense their strong feelings and their brows furrowed with concentration. They are women from the past who have had an immeasurable impact on people I love in the present, and they came alive last night.

It was a great exercise, which I strong recommend. There are still a few hours of Mother’s Day left. Especially if you haven’t seen your mother for some time, grab some friends and take a half hour each to bring Mum to the table with you.

And if you can’t get to it today, do it next week—because, actually, any day is a good day to acknowledge one’s mother and reflect on one’s roots.

Sometimes when I open my mouth my mother comes out.


Unilateral disarmament – sayin’ sorry

Rick and I were sitting in our respective corners the other day, licking our wounds and nursing our grievances after a little marriage-y stoush. I won’t bore you (or embarrass myself) with the details, except to say it was one of those minor but annoying arguments that leave you feeling miserable and trying to figure out ways to undo what just happened.

At any rate, about 15 minutes later, Rick came over and said, “I’m so sorry. I was completely out of line and that’s not the way I want to behave at all.”


A puff of dandelionHe did it again. There I was, with not a leg to stand on, no hostility left in me whatever, not able to remember what could possibly have been so important that I was willing to fight about it—and knowing that any part Rick played in the problem, I played at least twice as much.

But Rick is pretty much always the first to say sorry. He somehow just sets his ego to the side, recognising early on that winning is not much of a victory compared with being in harmonious relationship. So he just drops his weapons to the floor.

I have long recognised that anytime I am involved in an argument, there is always something I am sorry about. And if I can identify what that is, it’s works a treat to say it out loud – to the person I’m out of sorts with. I remember working very hard at that one time when I’d just faced off with a co-worker and had strong words. He was generally something of an idiot (ahem) and this time I’d let him get to me. I truly believe that if any of you were watching you would have rubber stamped his position “INVALID”… but that didn’t alter the fact that harmony at work was threatened (as well as my sleep) until this was set right. I knew I needed to say something, but what? I didn’t want to appear weak, and I didn’t want to be inauthentic.

What I realised was that I felt stupid and immature for letting myself get out of control. So I went round to his office and apologised, without a trace of grovelling, for that simple thing. That was all it took. Solving the initial disagreement was easy once it was clear that there was something more important at stake than just being right about this issue.

Rick and I were talking the other day about the old practice of duelling, and how for several hundred years a perceived insult could result in two people facing off with an intention to kill one another. As a matter of fact thousands upon thousands of members of the English, European and American upper class were wiped out in this fashion. I wonder how often someone managed to come around to his opponent the night before the dual, to say something that was not weak and not inauthentic, and thus to avert a potential disaster. And I’ll bet you when that happened, it was the stronger of the two who was willing to withdraw.

I observe a similar thing in people’s primary relationships. When a couple is experiencing a lot of friction, you can always spot which one will be strong enough to unilaterally disarm. This partner is somehow able to learn to stop resisting and stop escalating. That’s the person with the power to make a difference in the relationship. (If you have any friends like this, you might consider sending them to Rick for lessons.)

Now, here’s a thought experiment for you: what if whole countries were willing to unilaterally disarm? What if America were to announce that it was getting rid of its entire nuclear arsenal, and furthermore was sorry for the threat to world peace that that those armaments have posed for decades? It’s a scary idea, given our perception of some of the enemies out there. Our great fear is that our goodwill will be taken advantage of—and that indeed could happen.

But a much more likely result is a de-escalation of hostility. There’s probably the odd psychopathic bully out there, but fortunately not too many of them, our fears notwithstanding. I suspect most of our enemies feel they’re doing the right thing in view of the insults they’ve received, and that doesn’t describe a bully. How long would most hostilities hold up if one party apologised—with strength and integrity?

If you managed to successfully imagine that scenario, and now want a REAL challenge for a thought experiment, picture Tony Abbott supporting unilateral disarmament. He finds a way to be strong and to be authentic, while laying down arms with his cabinet, with the honourable members of the opposition, and with the world at large. (Warning: this exercise could fry your circuits.)

Anyway, Rick, I was wrong about you-know-what, and thank you for the example you set for the world.

Lest we forget

As it’s turned out, I’m taking a bit of a holiday this week, so my regular post is not forthcoming.

However, in the wake of Anzac Day, I strongly recommend to you two articles I read this weekend.

The first was in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, written by journalist Peter Fitzsimons, titled What stunned Peter Fitzsimons most about the Gallipoli story.

And then in today’s Herald, another article by Peter (who is in Gallipoli for the centenary), titled Anzac Cover dawn service: The fallen were with us, and we honoured them.

Rest easy if you’re concerned that Peter’s contribution is yet another tribute to young men who died gloriously for their countries: it most assuredly is not. Let me give you a couple of tastes:

For this writer that reflection turns on the fact that the number of attendees [at the dawn service in Gallipoli], just over 10,000, was a rough equal of the Anzac dead, lying in the cemeteries that surrounded us….It was a catastrophe – 10,000 death-knocks across our two young, small countries, making a damaging impact for generations to come – and one to be compounded over the next three years as in Australia we went on to lose another five times that amount of dead on the Western Front.

Or this:

I reflect on the generosity of spirit of the Turks. Our men invaded their land as part of an Imperial force that would leave behind no fewer than 90,000 dead Turkish soldiers. And yet, somehow, in the time since, they have cared for our dead, welcomed our backpackers, greeted our dignitaries and officials as long-lost friends, all with a smile and nary any recrimination. Could we Australians, as a people, ever muster the same warmth and forgiveness if, say, the Germans…or the Japanese…landed at, say, Pearl Beach, and only left after leaving behind 90,000 of our dead?

But please do read both articles, and prepare to be entertained and severely provoked.

A sprig of rosemary




You need a passport for a trip to oncology

Sometimes it can take a lot to get to where you can trust The System. Take it from friend Linda, who says she’s had to get a passport in order to take her to her destination in the remote country of Trust.

Chemo moonshineI spent most of the day yesterday in the oncology unit with Linda again, as she underwent her second chemo treatment, the first being three weeks ago. Both times we sat there glancing apprehensively at one another as one bag after another of ferocious toxins was fed into a little vein in her wrist. Especially unnerving is the fact that the staff are masked and gloved as they hook things up and handle the bags (“It’s just that we have to deal with this stuff all day, every day…”). Hmmm.

Linda knows about the contents of all those little bags. She’s studied them, can pronounce every exotic syllable, and knows every effect and possible side effect. She knows which ones attack her hair, her fingernails, her white blood cells, her serotonin. And given just how nasty something has to be to actually kill off a cancer cell, how can you trust that it’s not going to do you in as well?

So how do you get to where you can trust the complex medical science behind it all? And if you make it that far, how about trusting the Taree Base Hospital? And what about all the way down to Jenny in the oncology department? Most of all, how do you trust your own particular body to override all the fine print and allow you to survive this non-particular onslaught?

Clearly, you need a passport to travel all that way.

As an occupational therapist, Linda works inside the medical profession, and yet that somehow doesn’t qualify her for absolute trust of The System. [Why is there no irony font when you need one?] She’s seen the mistakes and the mis-matches, and she knows there’s no guarantee of a smooth ride.

Astonishing science

But I have to tell you, it’s amazing to observe the whole process. For one thing, the staff are SO careful. Every dose is set up by someone and checked by someone else. Linda’s treatment was held up for an hour or two while we waited for a report to come back from the pharmacy about a smear of oiliness spotted in one of the brews. It turned out normal, but no one was about to take that outcome for granted.

And then there’s the complexity of the interactions among the various medications. Chemo bagsWe’ve all seen the movies where the chemo patient is hanging over the toilet, suffering from the dreadful nausea that the drugs cause. But that result is no longer an absolute, nor are the other side effects. Linda spends an hour or so of her treatment (the first two or three bags) taking on board chemicals that combat consequences like nausea and gloominess. She takes chemicals that accelerate the repair of her white blood count after each treatment, in order to spend as short a time as possible without the ability to resist even the simplest infection.

One of the nurses told us she hadn’t worked on this ward for several months, and in that time so many of the medications and procedures had changed that she barely recognised the place. It takes your breath away to imagine all the research going on all over the world, all the assiduous compiling of data, all the effort to keep little Taree’s hospital at the leading edge of what’s available. I have to say: I felt awe.

Fifteen years ago I had a friend about my age who had breast cancer and couldn’t trust the system. All the homeopathic medicine and spiritual practice in the world couldn’t battle the progress of the disease, and a year later she was not alive to review her decision.

There’s a person inside there too

The System also turns out to be much more than just an intricate cocktail of chemicals being carefully poured into one’s system. Somebody understands that the human brain works in mysterious ways, as well as the body. Taree’s oncology department is a spacious, comfortable room with floor-to-ceiling windows that let the light pour in. There’s a little courtyard just outside the glass door where you can watch palm fronds and contemplate a perfect little bonsai tree. The staff are funny, self-expressive and entertaining. They encourage a dash of repartee among the patients and their offsiders. These professionals understand the main game, but they’re determined to bring some lightness along with it. They know there’s a lot more to battling a cancer cell than lambasting it with toxins. They know exactly what Linda’s going through, inside and out, and they bring a matter-of-factness that most of us could afford to emulate.

Other people in The System understand the complexities too. A volunteer by the name of Cynthia Crocheted beanieknits and crochets hats—warm beanies, cool ones, fluffy ones, sleek ones. She does hats in all colours of the rainbow, ones with little brims and ones that wrap and twist in fetching ways. Cynthia must know about the shock of contemplating one’s completely bald head in the mirror, and about being ready for that event; she’s wise about the role head-covering plays in keeping us warm, not to mention looking “normal”. (Factoid: one’s hair begins to fall out 15 days after the first treatment, and is gone, gone, gone by day 17.)

Linda thanked me for spending the day with her. Well, I can tell you, it was no sacrifice. For one thing, it never goes astray to spend time with Linda, who is wise and fun and an excellent role model for many things (singing, gardening and mastering trust spring to mind). But there is also magic in the oncology department—being in the presence of science at its leading edge, of a profound commitment to health and well-being, of goodwill, respect and empathy.

How can spending a day immersed in the evidence of humankind at its best be anything but time well spent?

Dusting the cactus

Housekeeping 4Friday is housecleaning day, and this week as usual I spent a few minutes out on the front deck sweeping the ever-resilient cobwebs off the walls, railing wires and window ledges. Our front deck is also the home of a big potted cactus, which in turn is home to several spiders and their incessant webs. And, as is often the case, I found myself whisking off the cobwebs with my brush. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking. After all, what kind of person dusts a cactus?

Question #3 that we Shedders are asked is, “How does housekeeping work out?” Perhaps the question relates to our experience with crazed roommates in college days, because for some reason people have a deep concern about the housecleaning angle of things. (In case you’re curious, Questions #1 and #2 are, respectively, what do you do about meals, and what happens when you don’t agree about something?)

Think about it. Never in the history of the world have two or more people who shared a home had identical ways of viewing what’s important and what’s not in the cleanliness and tidiness of things. I defy you to find an exception.

There are six of us who live here, and as you might expect, standards differ. Perhaps they don’t differ all that dramatically, as we’re all housebroken: we generally pick up after ourselves, clean up the counter after making toast, wipe the spilled milk off the floor. But also as you might expect, every single one of us has pet peeves and pet customs. For example, I can’t bear cups being left in the sink, but have no qualms about leaving rinsed items in the dishrack. Any ant who challenges me to space in my kitchen is facing imminent doom; any spiders will be carefully removed to the great outdoors Cup in the sinkwhere their job is to search out mosquitoes and eliminate them. I reckon it’s time to dust the coffee table when you can write your name in it, but am compelled to remove the first flickering of cobweb from the bemused cactus.

In other words, there’s not a great deal of consistency within this one individual. What happens when the idiosyncrasies of six people hit the exponential curve? Housemates who shall remain nameless do leave their cups in the sink, get cranky about items left in the dishrack, protect ants fiercely, spray spiders on sight, and would roll their eyes clear into the back of their heads if they caught me dusting the cactus.

So given all the possible pitfalls, Question #3 is quite a sensible one. How DO we make housekeeping work?

Well, we cover it off in three different ways.

A few good structures

In the early days, we sat down and tried to establish some housekeeping accountabilities. This has evolved into a big date-driven spreadsheet that lists all the major housekeeping tasks (categorised by weekly, fortnightly, monthly, etc.) along with who has agreed to do them. This document is useful because it reminds us what we’ve agreed to, allows us to keep track of what we’ve done recently and what needs doing, and lets other people know what’s been done (in case it’s not obvious).

Another structure we use is a regular cleaning time, currently Friday mornings. You can do your cleaning any time you wish, but if you want to join in the fun and take advantage of group energy, Friday morning is the time to do it.

We also use a guideline for duration: roughly an hour and half. It’s just a guideline, and we often find ourselves happily stuck into something that eats up a few hours—but the guideline helps address the issue of fairness. Of course at our age, we’re far too mature to be concerned about such trivialities, but, well, you know, just in case.

Timely communication

There’s no getting around the miserable fact that nothing will work without communication, and its joyous corollary that anything can be worked out with communication.

When it’s just your partner, it’s easy: you can nag, whinge or shout. But with housemates, an extra bit of sophistication and skill is required. Some issues we handle (sensitively and professionally, of course) in our monthly house meetings; some are brought up over dinner; some we settle with one-on-one conversations.

Truth be told, we rarely have these conversations. Occasionally a health and safely issue will arise. Could you not leave your boots in the entrance to the door (where I trip over them)? Could you please put your crackers in an airtight container (so they don’t invite unwanted guests?)

But most issues get addressed through our final and most important way of dealing with them:

An accepting attitude

All of us Shedders have said at one time or other, in one way or other, that it’s the process of getting along, of accommodating differences, of practicing acceptance, that helps keep us flexible and strong. I know that if left entirely to my own devices, I would surely calcify. Life might be easier, but I’m not sure it would be good for me. When Fred’s cups are left in the sink (there are no Freds here; that’s how I’m protecting individual privacy), it’s a gentle reminder to me that there are more important things in life to worry about. It gives me a glimpse into Fred’s life and priorities, if I chose to take it. I can have an internal rant or I can practice some empathy. As the latter is the route to world peace, it’s not a bad thing to have the opportunity to practice it at the kitchen sink.

The importance of my opinions is just another thing I can work on Shedding.

I will, however, continue to dust the cactus.


Eve, Heather & Fiona

Eve, Heather & Fiona

For those of you who’ve been following the rise to fame of the Shedders:

Eve was recently contacted by Fiona Wyllie of ABC Radio in Port Macquarie, and she and I were interviewed last week on drive-time radio. Here’s a link to the session.

Tall poppies

Crocheted poppiesThere I sat, with about a hundred poppies coiled in my lap, and looking at ten times that many again in a long string across the tables in the room. Yvonne from my garden club was explaining to us all how local women had been crocheting these beautiful poppies, each about 4 inches in diameter with a black button at its centre, over the last weeks. They are being joined into a long rope, she explained, which will be used to drape across the cenotaph at the upcoming Anzac Day memorial.

I wish I’d taken a photo of the real thing to share with you. I was amazed by the display, as were most of the other women in the room. All these magnificent poppies; all the hours of work to bring them into existence. What were these women thinking of, I wondered, as their fingers whirled around the crochet hook? Was their zeal inspired by working together to create something as a community? Or by the fallen Diggers being commemorated by the service? Or by the desire to make a statement about peace, and war? Whatever the inspiration, the long chain spoke a fervent message. The individual whispers of crochet hooks tugging at red wool added up to this passionate declaration.

But what was it saying?

Remembrance Day

Poppies bring to mind the memorial services of my youth: Remembrance Day, it’s called in Canada, and it happens on November 11th (the date of the signing of the armistice at the end of WW1). As school children, we stood absolutely still at 11:00 a.m. and for two minutes of silence thought about the soldiers who died defending our country. And then we solemnly, often with tears in our eyes, recited in unison the poem which in the northern hemisphere is integrally linked to memorial services, In Flanders Fields. Here are the first two stanzas:Poppies 5

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Poppies in a French fieldEven today, though I am no longer a dewy-eyed teenager, the poem (written in 1915 by Canadian poet and WWI veteran/surgeon John McCrae) moves me. The poppy, blood red and blanketing the war-torn fields of France, has come to represent the sacrifice of the soldiers who also fell in those fields. Yvonne’s thousand poppies were sourced in McCrae’s poem.

The Anzac Legend

It’s a very different experience in Australia. I recall a few months after we first arrived, over 30 years ago, this unfamiliar event called Anzac Day came to my attention. A friend invited us out to the “dawn stand-in”, which involved a pancake breakfast and sounded like an interesting experience for the kids. As you might expect, it was much more than that. I was deeply touched by the alienness of the ceremony, and especially by all these old men who stood silent and alert, lost in their thoughts.

Some background for those of you who aren’t natives of Australia or New Zealand: Anzac Day happens on April 25 and is a holiday throughout much of the country. Its purpose is to commemorate the Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in various wars.

The origin of the event goes back 100 years. At dawn on the 25th of April, 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers stormed the shores of Gallipoli, with the intention of quickly capturing Constantinople in order to keep the Black Sea open for the Allied navies. Eight months later, with the campaign hopelessly bogged down and some 12,000 Aussies and Kiwis dead, the forces were evacuated. But that outcome could not have predicted the profound impact the event had at home. April 25 immediately became a day of celebrating the astonishing “digger” spirit, with their endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, and mateship” in the face of horrific battlefield conditions.

In spite of the horror of all the deaths, something magical happened on that battlefield. Somehow it created the Anzac Legend, whereby these “knights of Gallipoli” became a symbol of how Australians and New Zealanders regarded themselves—so Dawn servicethat even today, with all the diggers long dead, people still gather in parks and war memorials for the dawn service, with its two minutes of silence and the lone bugler playing the Last Post and the Reveille. In the Australian tradition, the service sometimes includes the “gunfire breakfast” – coffee with a good shot of rum, as was the practice before the soldiers faced battle and sometimes certain death.

For decades, the day and its ceremonies were core to the heart of Australians and New Zealanders. During the 70s and 80s, the impact of Anzac Day dwindled, perhaps due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. That trend has been reversed in recent decades, and crowds again swell the memorial services.

The real digger message

Alec Campbell in GallipoliBut here’s the thing. Until I began reading about the “Anzac legend”, I hadn’t realised that, as the diggers grew old and became rare and famous, many of them spent their airtime on an anti-war message. The last digger to die, in 2002, Alec Campbell, was typical. He attended services and surrendered to interviews until his death. His conclusion, as expressed at age 103 on the eve of his last Anzac Day, was this:

Alec Campbell the Elder“The whole point of Anzac Day has been lost. It’s not for old diggers to remember, it’s for survivors to warn the young about the dangers of romanticising war.”

Campbell is also the one who famously said, “Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”

That comment needs no elaboration.


The poem In Flanders Fields ends like this:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I’m no longer fond of this last stanza. Better the poet advised us, “Patch up our quarrel with the foe…”

This, I’ve decided, is the message of the poppies.

It seems to be what the diggers, seasoned as they were in war, hard slogging, mateship and sacrifice, came to realise. They could help write a better ending.