NOTE: For some reason the wonderful upgrade that WordPress did recently has taken away my toolbar, so I don’t have the little button to add a link. I had several ready concerning Carol Heuchan, Claire Hayes, Waler horses, etc. I’ll try to add them in the future!)
One thing that my host M. truly understood was the “Exchange” part of Help Exchange. At every turn, I was brought along to visit friends, to attend functions, even to suggest events which I’d like to attend. In fact, when I got there, she already had an extra ticket to Bush Poetry Night with Carol Heuchan, and musical guest Claire Hayes. (By the way, this wasn’t purchased for me, per se – it was purchased for the current WWOOF-er or HelpEx-er.) Soup and damper (that’s a sort of bread roll) were served, as well as desserts, so attendees were instructed to bring their own beverages and nibbles.
The event was held Baerami Memorial School of Arts Hall, a country hall that stood at a crossroads a few kilometers from the stud. We had driven by it before – a white clapboard-sided building in a large, grassy lot. I grew up in Minnesota with this sort of gathering place. In the 1880s, when the Red River Valley was settled, gathering halls and one-room schoolhouses sprung up in every township. By the time I was growing up, many of them had fallen apart and been torn down, or abandoned. A few still existed though: big and square, concrete steps at the front door, wooden floors. Generally, they smelled rather musty and mousey. Usually there was a stage, and somewhere in a place of prominence a roll call of those who served in the military in World War I – sometimes both WWI and WWII, but most often WWI, because that, after all, was the war to end all wars.
This hall was similar enough to make me wonder why all of these people were speaking with a funny accent. Although it was only a single story and more rectangular than square, this hall possessed the requisite war honor roll on the back wall of the stage. Long tables stretched the length of the room, the smell of soup pervasive. We found our reserved seats – right up front – and unloaded the nosh. I was introduced to a woman sitting across from me, who was quite gregarious (read: loud) who asked me what I thought of Australia.
In Paul Theroux’s book, The Happy Isles of Oceania – Paddling the Pacific, he comments on Australians’ propensity to ask, “So what do you think of Australia?” Experience has taught me to regard this question with caution, largely because I find that I will have to justify my answer either way, most often when I respond positively. Although I hate to generalize, it seems that the Australian psyche has a chip on its shoulder. Humility in demeanor is highly prized. In fact, there is an Australian phenomenon called Tall Poppy Syndrome which describes how Austrlians who succeed on a global scale – and have extraordinary talent – are attacked or cut down with the blade of “who do they think they are?” because their achievements distinguish them from their countrymen.
When asked the inevitable question of my opinion of Oz, I encountered the contrary nature of the Aussie. If I responded positively, I very often got a criticism in return. “Oh, but look, it’s nothing like your country’s (fill in the blank).” This was often offered in a mournful way, maybe with an accusatory glance. If I responded negatively (i.e., “Everything here is at least twice as expensive as in the U.S. and your Internet services suck.”) I would get an agreement. Heaven help me if I ever say anything about relocating. Occasionally, I get a defensive posture, which usually includes something about how Australia is getting more like the U.S., a response which is not offered as a compliment, in which case I started getting a bit defensive, because I can make fun of my family, but you better not. At any rate, since the response has not been consistent, I’ve had to develop vague answers such as, “This country – so vast!” Sort of like when you haven’t read a book and answer, “The words. The words!”
This woman was not prepared to accept a vague answer, though, as much as I tried to respond in neutrally.
She: Where are you from?
Me: I live in America.
She: Well I know that! Where in America?
Me: I live in southern California right now.
She: Why would you want to move here? It’s beautiful there!
Me: Oh – have you been there? It’s beautiful when it’s not 118 degrees.
(Digression alert: That’s another thing I have found – when I tell Australians that I’ve been living in southern California, they can’t understand why I want to leave. I believe that it’s because their image of SoCal is formed by television programs that show glitz and beach, that’s the immediate image that comes to their minds. I’ve only met a couple people here who know that Palm Springs is sort of like living on the surface of the moon, with lots of golf courses.)
Blank look. They use centigrade.
Me: That’s 40 – 45.
She: Oh, well, it gets that way here, too. It’s really hot here in the summer. And flies are terrible. It’s awful. Where have you been so far?
Me: I’ve spent time in Sydney and Melbourne, and traveled a bit in the country.
She: Oh, I bet that’s been pretty different for you!
Me: Actually, I grew up in the country.
She: Nothing like this country, I bet. This is the real boonies!
Me: You think so?
She: Don’t you?
Me: It sounds like you do.
She: Well, what do you think?
Me: I think this country is vast – so vast!
And then the music started, so I turned towards the stage and didn’t look back.
The musician, Claire Hayes, had her CDs on display on the piano (a wooden, upright piano – required for country halls of this vintage). She was 40-50-ish and slender and wore high black boots with skinny jeans tucked in, immaculate short precision cut hair. Her vest featured the Australian flag in pieces on the front yokes so that if you buttoned it up, the flag would be whole. A rhythm/sample machine provided drum and strings and other accompaniment. Reminded me a bit of what I might see at a county fair state in the U.S. – Texas panhandle, Oklahoma. She sang an assortment of songs, most of which I didn’t know but the audience did and sang along at some points. Wait – I did know a couple of them: “Throw Another Log on the Fire” and “Tie Me Kangaroo Down.” Seriously. Every single person in that hall was singing it. And here I thought that was just a goofy stereotype about Australia. Maybe it’s sort of like Americans singing “Oh, Susanna.”
Carol Heuchan is an award winning poet who writes poetry that rhymes, something that snotty MFA professors and students would ridicule. But here, it works. It not only works, but is celebrated. I can’t help but wonder what has she won – and from here? U.S.? Australia? She’s quite horsey, and has a long-time relationship with showing circles. She rides, teaches and even has been a judge. I had to give myself over to the experience, though, and understand that this is the entertainment. If I want Bell Shakespeare, then I have to go to Sydney or Melbourne – or even Bendigo. But this is what is available out here.
Carol is a 50-60-something woman slightly portly, strutting and mugging on stage, and playing the spoons along with Claire as she sang. Her books of poetry were displayed on the piano along with Ms. Hayes’ recordings; she had a couple of her own CDs on offer, too. The poetry was quite droll, except for the piece about the chestnut mare that was given to a soldier to fight in World War I. This poem referred to the 3rd Battle of Giza, when the Australian Mounted Division’s 4th Light Horse Brigade made what is sometimes called the last successful cavalry charge in history. Two regiments successfully overran Turkish trenches, galloping 3 kilometres (1.9 miles) into machine gun fire, equipped only with rifles and bayonets. Some of the front ranks fell, but most of the brigade broke through, their horses jumping the trenches into the enemy camp. The town of Beersheba and its vital water supplies were captured.
(Digression Alert: The Australians primarily rode Waler horses. The English cavalry officer, Lieutenant Colonel RMP Preston DSO, summed up the animals’ performance in his book, The Desert Mounted Corps: … (November 16th, 1917) The operations had now continued for 17 days practically without cessation, and a rest was absolutely necessary especially for the horses. Cavalry Division had covered nearly 170 miles … and their horses had been watered on an average of once in every 36 hours … The heat, too, had been intense and the short rations, 9 1⁄2 lb of grain per day without bulk food, had weakened them greatly. Indeed, the hardship endured by some horses was almost incredible. One of the batteries of the Australian Mounted Division had only been able to water its horses three times in the last nine days—the actual intervals being 68, 72 and 76 hours respectively. Yet this battery on its arrival had lost only eight horses from exhaustion, not counting those killed in action or evacuated wounded … The majority of horses in the Corps were Walers and there is no doubt that these hardy Australian horses make the finest cavalry mounts in the world …)
Because of Australia’s strict quarantine policies, returning the horses after the war was impossible. As a result, animals over the age of 12 or those in ill health were destroyed. About two-third of the rest were moved to other Imperial units. And most of the rest were destroyed by troops who could not bear to have their fellow soldier and faithful companion taken by the enemy. The poem tells the story of one soldier who chose to do that after the battle. I still get a big lump in my throat thinking about it. I think there were grown men weeping that night.
Ms. Heuchan finished up with a rap about cockroaches. When an Australian bush poet writes and performs a rap about cockroaches, it means that rap has either cemented itself in world consciousness as an art form, or become completely irrelevant. Clearly, she knows the show biz axiom of leave ’em laughing and wanting more.