Archival research is one of the best things about being a historian. Although it usually involves inhumane levels of reading on microfilm, every now and again we get to don gloves and rifle through piles of old letters. Most of the archival material I’ve looked at for NSW and the Great War is old and little-used so remains in its original bundles. And sometimes those bundles contain tiny, overlooked objects.
These are badges, made as samples by WJ Amor of Amor Ltd, Newcastle, for Australia Day on 26 April 1918. They were tucked into one of the Colonial Secretary’s Special Bundles (NRS 906, Australia Day Red Cross Appeal, 5/5341.1) and were in amongst letters about race meetings, fund-raising and other issues that mattered on the day when the whole country stopped to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Society to help Australian soldiers. When I found them I was very excited – an excitement shared by my colleagues in State Records NSW, which owns these little treasures.
During the Great War ‘Australia Day’ was a day of pageantry and fund-raising that had nothing to do with the arrival of the First Fleet. Dreamed up by a Manly woman, Mrs Ellen Wharton-Kirke, who had four sons at the front and wanted to raise money for the Australian Red Cross Society, the concept was taken over by the NSW Government, who got expatriate American theatre entrepreneur Hugh Ward to organise it. It ended up being a nationwide event, was a roaring success, and became a feature of the fund-raising calendar from 1915 to 1918.
I like to think these little badges were made and adorned the patriotic breasts of Australians on 26 April 1918. I wonder if anyone has one?
I’ve written a new piece for The Dictionary of Sydney on my favourite walk in the Blue Mountains, the path to Lockleys Pylon. It’s part of the lovely Blue Mountains Icons Project, which has been supported by Blue Mountains City of the Arts Grants and Varuna, the National Writers House. This project supported the writing of essays by John Low on Darwin’s Walk, Mark O’Flynn on Varuna, Julian Leatherdale on the Hydro Majestic and my dear friend Delia Falconer on Echo Point. It’s a privilege to be in company with such distinguished authors, and I’m looking forward to talking about the project with them and the City Historian, Dr Lisa Murray, at Varuna’s Writer’s Festival event on Monday 16 May.
I’ve been tangled up writing about home front dissent during the Great War – the peace movement, the International Workers of the World, socialists, feminists and other anti-conscriptionists, and I’ve been thinking about what it is that leads one to get tangled up, as I have at various stages as I work through the drafts of NSW and the Great War.
Here’s what I think. It’s hardest to write about things we know best or feel the most strongly about. How to cover all that we know and love in just a few words? But these are the words we really must write. We spur ourselves on, telling ourselves that no one else can talk about these things the way we can, that it is a duty and a mission, and end up putting so much pressure on ourselves we can barely breathe. Creating is hard, because you are constantly staring at the gulf between what you want it to be, what it needs to be, and what it currently is. The joy comes when you manage to cast a slender rope over that gulf, and start to think you might have the beginnings of a swing bridge and that, one day, you’ll let people walk along it.
It’s pretty exciting to be able to announce that I’m going to be on Varuna’s programme for the 2016 Sydney Writer’s Festival. With Delia Falconer, John Low, Julian Leatherdale and Mark O’Flynn, I was selected to write a piece for the Dictionary of Sydney and Varuna on Blue Mountains icons, as part of a Blue Mountains City of the Arts project. We’ve all been fellows of Varuna at one time and another and it’s been a big part of my life so it’s lovely to be able to do this.