I decided that I would go to the bushfires memorial service this morning. I knew that it was being televised, but I didn’t want to sit alone in my lounge room watching it. I’m not really sure what I wanted it to be, and hence my ambivalence about it, I suppose. I didn’t want it to be about what it could do for me, but I did want to mark my respect and acknowledge the loss, and I wanted to do it with other people.
The sound of St Paul’s Cathedral bells marked the start of the service, and I was surprised that there were not more bells- a sign, perhaps, of the gradual disappearance of city churches in the central business district. The crowd was smaller than I anticipated, although it built as the service went on. It was a sombre gathering: certainly no-one sang the national anthem.
The service opened with the didgeridoo- a haunting, ethereal, intensely Australian sound, and Auntie Joy Wandin’s welcome to country which, actually, I thought was most heartfelt address given. There was a succession of politicians and church leaders shown on the large screen- “Our Quentin” who is surely as regal as Her Maj, the Governor, the Prime Minister, Premier, Opposition leaders etc. Most of them spoke- even though words are inadequate and superfluous- and I was surprised by the little ripples of applause that started, at least at Fed Square, for Princess Anne. As the service went on, people were more likely to applaud the speaker- I’m not sure if the later speakers were any more eloquent or insightful than the earlier ones or whether it was just that people felt less inhibited about clapping as time went on.
At times the choice of music seemed somewhat oblique- Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluia” with its inappropriate lyrics which are obscure at the best of times, and a rapturously delivered “Reach out and touch somebody” by Michael Paynter (who I’d never heard of but evoked shades of Hillsong evangelical church) once we’d moved onto the feel-good part of the ceremony.
And, though I hate to admit it, it was Kevin Rudd’s speech that had me shifting most uncomfortably. He admitted that the human qualities shown through the fires were universal , but then proceeded to wrap them up in the Aussie-values rhetoric that could just as easily come from John Howard at his most hubristic. Ironically, Bruce Woodley’s “I am, you are, we are Australian” was less overtly nationalistic, with two specially penned verses that felt like a gift to the country at a time when something more had to be added to our view of ourselves.
I felt as if I was been ‘evented’ at this service- start with some sombre reflection, then a dash of nationalism, then some upbeat, feel-good stuff to send us on our way tapping our feet. There was remarkably little emphasis on the people who had died- I envisaged, with some trepedation, an acknowledgement of individuals who had died, similar perhaps to the tolling of the bell for each person who died in the Twin Towers. Perhaps it’s because they don’t know the final toll yet; perhaps even an acknowledgement that the bushfires may be with us tomorrow, or Friday when the hot winds come again. Or perhaps that would be just too painful for now.
It’s interesting to note that people from the bushfire regions spurned the buses laid on to bring them en masse to the city for the memorial. They turned instead to their own community, and watched it from their showgrounds and footy grounds. Perhaps they were not ready to be turned into an event, either.
The image that stays with me from these fires is one that they used, ironically enough, to advertise the televising of this memorial service on Channel 2: a thick, evil green, glowing ball of smoke and ash, rolling along a road towards you- a sight truly from hell. Surely anyone who looked at that and survived, would be changed forever.
For me, the most affecting part of the service was seeing photographs of what we have lost- little Marysville nestling in amongst the red and gold of autumn leaves; the tall, straight trees of the Black Spur wreathed in mist, that dry, dense bush around Kinglake. I think that to stand in the bush again, and to smell it and listen to its shifting stillness, and to remember those two hundred people who also loved it and died in it, will be my best memorial.