Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Anzac Day portraits
Both my parents signed up for WW2 and both my grandfathers for WW1. The parents only just snuck in under the age wire -- both turned 18 in 1945 -- but the grandfathers, at 22 and 19 respectively, were sitting fair and square in the age bracket for the Great War when they both sailed off to it in 1916. Both were in France, both were gassed. My mother's father carried the bullet he took around with him till his death in 1970; my father's father got bad frostbite and ended up in Edinburgh City Hospital, from which he emerged with a Scottish fiancee and all his fingers and toes intact.
My mother's father George, my Grandad, was very tall, very thin and very deaf, with blue eyes and a shock of white hair. He drank strong red tea and addressed all of his four daughters and seven granddaughters, indiscriminately, as 'Bonny'. In his younger days he was in demand as a reciter of verse and had a notebook with all his favourite poems, all Australian, written out. He gave me my first lesson in literary criticism when I was five or six and we went for a walk in the bush somewhere around Gosford to listen to the bellbirds so I could hear for myself that Henry Kendall's 'running and ringing' wasn't a particularly good description of the sound they made.
It's through him that I'm connected to my two First Fleet adventurers and ancestral ratbags, Jane Langley and Thomas Chipp. He worked before the war as a horsebreaker, training Australian horses for the British Raj in India and once travelling with them on the ship to what was then Bombay. After the war he worked as a carpenter. I mostly remember him from the house in Arcadia Vale on Lake Macquarie where we made pilgrimage from South Australia to visit every summer. To this day I can't smell fresh woodshavings, passionfruit, tropical rain or a certain kind of sunblock cream without thinking of him.
My dad's father Leslie, called Papa, is the handsome sausage in the photo, on leave in Ireland in 1919. He looked in his later years like a cross between Robert Menzies and Tom Playford, who were in charge of Australia and South Australia respectively for the last few decades of his life. He approved of both of them. He was a third-generation South Australian farmer, living simply in the original homestead house, which was small and simple and nothing like as grand as it sounds (my dad, the only child, used to sleep in the closed-in veranda, kept warm by the cat).
He worked his backside off doing hard farm graft till he was about 65 and couldn't any more, but I don't remember him in any clothes other than beautiful, immaculate shirts and pants of cotton and wool, in muted colours like sage and slate. After he retired and they moved to Adelaide, he tended his roses and fruit trees with the same meticulous Virgo attention he'd always given to the wheat and sheep. He was donor and board member of a favoured children's charity and a judge in the sheepdog trials every September at the Adelaide Show. Every summer he made big pans of jam and trundled round his suburb carrying buckets of perfect peaches, apricots and nectarines to give away.
Whenever something bloody awful is happening in life, I remind myself that I've got their blood in my veins and will deal with it. Today seems like a good day to salute them.