By Adam Gibson
November 11, 2007
A fidgety choir of local kids, led by a woman who appears to be their school teacher, is gathered on a stage in the packed town hall of the tiny northern French town of Villers-Bretonneux. A 20-piece band and seemingly the entire town are fanned out in front of them.
After running through various numbers, a bagpipe player announces his arrival by tripping through a side door, whacking the top of his bagpipes on the doorframe and then nearly falling over, all while peeling off a succession of notes that I’d be kind to label a “tune”.
Welcome to an Armistice Day commemoration in the heart of the Somme region, north of Paris; a home-spun event that would later provide me with one of the most profound experiences of my life…
Looking for a meaningful way to celebrate November 11, the date World War I officially ended, I have gone to the Somme in the hope of finding some semblance of occasion to mark the end of hostilities which decimated the area from 1916 to 1918. And I have chosen Villers-Bretonneux as my first stop because I know it’s a town with a strong connection to Australia after the Aussie troops recaptured it from the Germans in 1918, thus turning the tide of the German advance on Amiens and towards Paris.
I’d heard that the main street was called Rue de Melbourne, that the town symbol was a green and gold kangaroo and that the local school was called Victoria School, with “N’oubliez pas les Australiennes” (“Never forget the Australians”) written above the blackboards in the classrooms. All up, it seemed a pretty good place for this Aussie to be on such a day.
With the crowd appropriately stilled, and our man on the bagpipes doggedly ploughing on, a local dignitary ascends the stage and launches into a passionate distillation of what the day means to the town.
My rough translation is that “La Premiere Guerre Mondial” (French for the First World War) had a big impact on the town and is something that, 90 years on from the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, should be appropriately recognised. He makes specific mention of “les Australiennes” and talks of how they took the town with great bravery.
On such an occasion as this, therefore, one would expect at least a few other Australians to be present. But no, there are apparently no other Aussies here: I am Australia’s sole representative…
Later, with a theatrically Gallic shrug of the shoulders and a thoughtful rub of his beard, President of the Franco-Australian Association of Villers-Bretonneux, Jean-Pierre Thierry, tells me increasing numbers of Australians are coming to the town, visiting the wonderful local museum and seeing the place where the Australian legacy is so great.
Back at the ceremony, the dignitary gent finally finishes up his speech and signs off by announcing two triumphant words: “Waltzing Matilda“. And before you can say “who’s strangling that cat”, the bagpipe player launches into an interpretation of the tune.
To his credit, he doesn’t let talent, nor any lack thereof, stop him being a focal point of the town’s big day. Mais non, monsieur. On he plays till the (bitter) end.
And just as I and everyone else are about to clap him for effort, at the very least, suddenly the band sparks to life and begin their own version of the song. Bracing myself for more aural torture, I am therefore pleasantly surprised when the band bounces back from their own dodgy start and actually coalesce into a cohesive whole.
But as the first verse looms I am prepared for anything as the choir, who have hitherto shown more interest in pinching and tickling each other, are readied for their role. I watch as the music teacher begins rushing around like a head mechanic getting set for a Formula One car to arrive in the pits during a race. This could be interesting…
Australia provided the greatest military contributions of all the British dominions which sent forces to the Great War. There were 331,000 Australian volunteers (out of a population of 4,875,000) with 16,000 killed and a further 42,500 wounded.
I have these figures, plus images from the museum of smiling diggers in the trenches, durries hanging from the corners of their creased mouths, in my mind as I warily listen to the band and choir prepare to bring ‘Waltzing Matilda’ to lift-off.
But I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have doubted the kids of this little town with their ill-matched clothes and pale faces. I even shouldn’t have doubted the little chap in the choir’s front row who decided it would be a good day to bust out his camouflage army pants.
Nope, with a frantic wave of the teacher’s hand, the kids eagerly lean into the iconic Aussie tune with full confidence and the result is absolutely note perfect.
And here I am, the only Aussie in a tiny hall on the other side of the world and these kids are singing a song every Australian knows. I’m both proud and excited and it’s a moment, obviously, I won’t easily forget.
The bagpipe player, however, might not last as long in memory.
And it’s the great silence here
Weighing all night through our sleep
And it’s the great silent night
And it’s been here all our lives.
Hi there … riiiiiighto. So I have bitten the bullet and am doing a Pledge campaign for the release of ‘Australia Restless’. The album is going to come out in May and you have the chance of helping it get there, if you’d be so kind. Have a look at the campaign – there are lots of special things on offer that, if taken up, will greatly assist in getting the album out and touring it effectively around Australia. Enjoy! http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/10902
I’m not a betting man, but sometimes people in your close proximity get “on the punt”. A song by our band The Aerial Maps.
People come in all shapes and sizes but at Coolangatta Airport, by and large, the shape is round and the size is extra-large. Tattooed, sunburnt men and their waddling wives, and vice-versa. Their noisy kids with pudgy arms gripping iPads with greasy fingers and running a version of amuck because no one’s ever thought to tell them not to.
This is the picture I see before me.
Here, also, slouch grown Australian adult men who think it’s ok to wear baseball caps (it’s not), often coupled with a pair of the latest thongs down below – deemed adequate dress for a voyage out into the greater public, nowhere near a beach (except as the crow flies).
Add to that ensemble a singlet, allowing full visual access to hair and/or flabby underarms and you have the Great Australian Men’s Travelling Uniform. And it’s uniform in its baseness; common ground for common folk, those men who were never told or to whom the thought never occurred that some situations may call for something *slightly* more than the barest minimum of attire – just because thongs protect your feet to some degree, just because a singlet covers a percentage of the upper body and just because American sportsmen wear baseball caps as significant identifiers, doesn’t mean a tradie from Shepparton should as well.
Have some dignity, you morons. Have at least some semblance of pride. Wear a button-up shirt. Wear some slacks, even a pair of chinos if you have to. Don’t eat so much fattening food and, for fk’s sake, shut up your noisy children.
Then get on a plane.
By Adam Gibson
As a young cadet journalist in the late ’80s/early ’90s at News Ltd’s Sydney newspaper HQ, I was assigned to work on the Foreign Desk at The Australian newspaper. There were a variety of interesting characters on the paper at that time, all sorts of pleasant and not-so-pleasant eccentrics hanging on from an older era of Australian newspapers. A time when copious amounts of alcohol were consumed at lunchtime (or any time) at the old Journo’s Club on Chalmers St, when it was commonplace for junior female journalists to be mildy harassed without compunction at any given opportunity and there was the occasional dust-up in the corridors.
It was a tough, cut and thrust environment, but that said, it was a generally convivial place and there was a sense of being “all in it together”. Young fresh-faced journos were mates with crusty old crime reporters who had quite literally been there, done that. The radio room operators monitoring the airwaves for the latest police incidents were chums with the most powerful news editors or newspaper chiefs of staff. The woman who ran the photo library was just as likely to be your pal as the fellow who ran the canteen or the sparky who fixed the fuses.
But one particular character has always stuck in my mind. He never said hello to any of the cadets, nor any of the copy people, nor indeed seemingly anyone from the general news desk. He was a “leader writer”, meaning he was responsible for writing the editorial and some comment pieces in the paper. He was in sweet with the editor Chris Mitchell and there was no doubt he was best mates with owner Rupert Murdoch. You just knew that he answered directly to him and few others.
But he didn’t seem to be mates with really anyone else. He seemed a lone wolf who carried himself with a slightly menacing air. He stomped around the office with a swaggering gait and always had his shirt sleeves rolled up over what at the time to me seemed Popeye-like forearms. He always looked like he’d just taken his tie off and undone his top button but I never actually saw him wear a tie. He would sit at the keyboard station next to me (these were massive computer terminals at which journos sat when writing their stories) and hammer away at the keyboard with a distinctly heavy-handed manner.
The general air about him was “don’t even think about talking to me”. I probably saw him every day for about six months and not once – not once – did he ever acknowledge my presence or even existence, even if it were just he and I passing in the corridor, no one else around. That in fact didn’t bother me. I just thought, “what a wanker you are mate. What a private school, up ‘imself goose”. Fair enough, he had no reason to need or want me or any of my peer group in his world. But I remember at the time thinking that the mark of a person is how they treat people whom they might not have anything to gain from, people who were juniors or perceived “lessers”. To this day, that man would have absolutely zero knowledge of ever having seen me, nor probably anyone else in a similar position to me then. I made no impression on his world or memory and that’s just how he clearly wanted it.
But to this day, I remember the mark of the man from those days. In an unvarnished view, with no sense of hindsight, just a raw impression of his ungilded character, I knew for certain back then that he was a dickhead, and I have never wavered in such an opinion. It’s the small things that tell the greater whole about people. That bloke was Tony Abbott.