“The continuing dialogue between living and dead”

In 2012 my sister Antonia Riviere and I were visiting fellows at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We were there researching Australian clothes rationing during World War 2. We were interested in how film had been used to support the government’s austerity drive, whether Australians been encouraged to ‘make do and mend’ like their British counterparts, and how could we use our own making to explore these and other questions.


In Braidwood last Saturday I had a small breakthrough with our research. After having gloomily wandered up and down the long wide streets for a couple of hours (more on this below), I went into a second hand bookshop and found what turned out to be the ‘right’ book.

Braidwood is an ex-mining town about 100km south of Canberra. A bus passes through the town twice a day on its way to the South coast, leaving Canberra at 7.30am and heading back at around 4.00pm.

It was good to be out of the city, driving through the green of this Australian Spring, seeing the endless stands of different eucalyptus trees. I got off the bus onto Braidwood’s main street, a long straight road with shops up either side, most selling antiques, clothes and touristy goods. None opened until 10.00am and so I walked slowly, looking into each of the the windows, my hands cupped against the dark glass.

I had a tight knot in my chest. Over the course of the morning it came to me that somewhere between the week before and the present moment I had lost the shape of the research. This is a feeling my students sometimes struggle with, yet it always surprises me when I fall into it myself, as if I should somehow be immune.

Perhaps I had been watching too much WW2 footage. I was especially affected by two films I viewed back to back, one of them Road to Tokyo made by NFSA historian Graham Shirley about Australia’s experiences of the last months of the war, built around archival footage and intense interviews with surviving POWs and the other Gaylene Preston’s War Stories. Preston interviews seven elderly women about their experiences of World War 2 and each reveals something about love, sex or death in a way that captures and celebrates their ability to make sense of their unique yet common experiences.

The bookshop-cum-café I had my eye on opened at around 11 o’clock. A group of people, my age and older, were sitting at one of the wooden tables, chatting amicably. I caught snippets of their conversation as I inspected the bookshelves around the edges of the room. There was a section on Australian history and I took time to pull out each volume and leaf carefully through the pages. As I came to the end of the last row I had two books in my hand that seemed promising, one by Helen Colijn called Song of Survival, the other by the Australian historian Jan Bassett, The Facing Island. I sat down with them and ordered some hot coffee and toast.

Jan Bassett’s book is a memoir published posthumously in 2002. When she was 13, Jan’s beloved Nana Edie died, and Jan inherited Edie’s beautiful, old chiffonier. In it she found a secret drawer containing a bundle of letters from a New Zealand soldier, Wilson Tonks, written while he was fighting in the trenches during WW1. Tonks had thrown a bottle with his address into the sea on his voyage from home and Edie had found it and replied.

The book takes an unusual form for a memoir. It consists of the letters written by Wilson to Edie – of course without the replies that Edie wrote back – and letters from Jan to her now dead Nana Edie, in which she writes beautifully and poignantly of her own historical researches about war, especially women’s experiences, her relationships with family, friends and lovers, and here and there of her treatment for cancer, from which she now knew she was going to die. The tone of the book is resilient but compassionate, wise, intelligent and sad – especially about war.

The book seemed to resonate with our work here. I reflected on how in our first few days in Canberra we had gone to an op shop where Ant found a grey pullover half-finished. She was drawn to it partly because it had been abandoned.

She wondered who had spent so much time on it (it has complicated cable stitch) only to leave it unfinished. Purchasing it, she brought it home, picked up the dropped stitches and with bits and pieces of wool began to mend, change and finish it, including within the colours she introduced, some lines of morse code. When I asked her why the morse code, she said it was in response to one of the film segments we had been watching which shows servicemen leaving Sydney dock. Each man holds onto several long streamers stretched between themselves and the women, children and older folk on the dock, communicating in ways that are visible yet encoded.

Both Bassett’s work as an historian and Ant’s giving of new life to the pullover seem to be concerned with fragile and endangered lines of attachment between people. People who know each other and people who don’t, people who are alive and people who are no longer alive or who might soon be dead.

Jan Bassett’s book about war and love periodically comes back to death, something we have been dealing with since we arrived — for as soon as you watch footage and read letters and histories of war, it is death you are inescapably faced with.

Bassett writes of a visit she made to the north-eastern Aegean island of Lemnos in 1988 to carry out some research on Australian Army nurses of WW1. At the Commonwealth war cemetery she felt compelled to read every name in that cemetery.

“Was it because it seemed such a long way from Australia and I felt sure that very few of those men’s families would ever have had the chance to see their graves? I don’t know.”

Across the road she found the Greek general cemetery with its brilliantly coloured flowers growing between the cracks of the stones, in which ‘everything […] suggested that there was a continuing dialogue between the living and the dead.”

I sat in the bookshop reading this and I thought of a film we had watched a night or two earlier -– Ray and Charles Eames’ Day of the Dead. Near the end, the male narrator explains that the filmmakers have come to the house of a young girl who died 5 months ago and that “there is no sign of sadness, no superficial gaiety, nor any hint that struggling emotions are being held in check. It is a dedicated preparation for a good party which the [dead girl] will enjoy and in which she will take part.” A little later the female narrator says “Tears are shed for the living. We never shed tears for the dead. We must be very careful that no tears are shed on this day. Because it would make the roads slippery and dangerous for the souls on their journey…”

I sat reading and thinking about something Jenny Gall had said to Ant and me the day before, about how research is always on some level about the questions we need to be asking ourselves – something I try to remember with my students. It suddenly seemed clear that Ant’s making and my videoing and the clips we have chosen and our presence in the archive was in Bassett’s words, about how to keep alive a ‘continuing dialogue between the living and the dead.’ Given its tactility, longevity, potential for individual signatures and transmission of emotion and meaning, textiles appear to be well suited to this.

Later in the book, after a longish passage where Bassett writes about Spanish flu and why it’s so little discussed given that it killed more people than the Great War, she finishes by describing a friend of hers called Beth receiving news that she has cancer of the liver. She and Beth and Beth’s husband spend several hours talking about many things, including grandparents.

“Beth spoke about her maternal grandmother, who had died from ‘Spanish’ flu in Mildura, leaving behind several children, including Beth’s mother, four year old Veda…..I had never heard this story….Less than nine weeks later Beth herself died, leaving behind a nine-year-old daughter and a fourteen-year-old son. Working out how best to convey the meaning of Beth’s grandmother’s death twelve thousand times over is a very difficult problem for historians. One death seems much more ‘real’ than thousands of deaths. And if I can’t make any sense of Beth’s death myself, how on earth can I communicate its meaning to other people?”

This question of the individual is one we have wondered a lot about. Only one of the films made during WW2 that we’ve seen here really comes close to giving an individual perspective on clothes rationing during the war. And although individual experience holds problems for the academic researcher – to do with context, reliability, perspective and so on – to understand the human condition we need to connect with the ‘reality’ of individual experiences.

Finally, sitting in the café, I tried to see how improvisation fitted in with all of this. It seemed to make sense to think of improvisation as a mode of connecting, a way of picking up on something someone else has had to let go of (the pullover, the archived films, things inherited from loved ones, ideas passed on, someone else’s waste). If new experience and knowledge is to be created at the same time as connections with something’s or somebody’s identity and history are maintained, then this picking up is likely involve an embellishment, a different nuance or interpretation, even a radical transformation – but the picked up thing will somehow still bear the handprint, the voices, or the form of what has been relinquished.

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