I’m a little tired. This is the Australian art of understatement. Right now, we’re using that a lot. If an Australian tells you that they were affected by the fires, check (don’t ask them – find out in a more tactful way) if their house burned down or all their pets died. If they say ‘thank you’ for help, then interpret that as gushes of amazement at your generosity.
Right now, our tendency to quiet irony is handy.
Most of the time it means that the rest of the world doesn’t see how deeply we feel and how angry we are at stupidity. Today, I was watching a news report and it showed a street about 6 kilometres from my home. A series of cars had windshields broken by today’s exceptional hailstones. My comment to my mother was “Oh, look – that’s the carpark for the Treasury building.” For it was.
Senior public servants had to get emergency help with their cars. Many of them. These senior public servants were all interviewed for the news and they were calm and they were lucid and one of them rubbed his head in puzzlement.
Canberra’s been caught in between two megafires for a while now and everyone was expecting smoke and fire… not hail. We totally can be full of drama, but when the real stuff hits, we’re more likely to rub our heads in puzzlement, say something ironic, then ring whoever needs to be rung and do whatever needs to be done. It’s our culture. That and feeding people.
Another part of our culture in times of trauma showed last weekend. One of many fundraisers for the crisis, but the one I was in: #authorsforfireys. On Sunday the numbers for #authorsforfireys were announced. Each of us gave a little. I donated two books, a menu and recipes, and a chat. Those four things raised $450. Each one of us added up to over 500 writers, ranging from Nick Cave to… someone like me. The amount earned to help those who are on the front line putting out bushfires came to over $500,000. “Little things into big things grow” is a line from my childhood. This writerly gift came from somewhere deeply Australian.
What’s really interesting is that became of that tiny saying. It was turned the other way around and used in a song and the song taught most of Australia about Vincent Lingiari. Why is he so important? (and why do I like asking questions?) The action of Vincent Lingiari – walking off the job and staying off for as long as it took – helped non-Indigenous Australians finally start to realise what we do to our fellow Australians. We’re not there yet, but when someone sings “From little things big things grow” the story is there, prodding us. I think the song works because it appeals to this sense we have that small actions can add up.
Given our leaders are pretty bad at crisis management, it’s just as well that Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly saw this thing about us. What we’re doing now, how we’re dealing with fire and smoke and dust and hail the size of golf balls is to remember that small things count. People are important.
Many people ask “What can I do to help?” Do the little things. Buy books, toys, art, food from the affected regions: help the families keep their business and help the regions grow their economies. Little things add up. None of us need be unimportant. I say this from a very strange January – climate change is leading us into new places. We’re all going to have to adjust and deal and help other people.
Two weeks ago I thought that Australia might end up in a place we couldn’t recover from. With all the work that each and every person is putting in both here and abroad, I no longer think this. I’ve got a lot more to think about. One of the things I need to consider is how I can reach out when all this is past, and help people in other countries the way people from other countries are helping us, right now. I know our emergency isn’t over yet, but I’m beginning to ask what will happen next.
What I’m doing right now on Facebook and if anyone asks is sharing stories and notes from areas that have been affected and that are open for business. The amazing Mogo ice-creamery is open, and truffle season will be brought to Australia from one of the fire zones this year. This is something small I can do. Let other people know where interesting experiences and food and people can be found, so that they can visit them and give those places and people back some of what they’ve lost.
I can also write it into my books. The novel I’m writing right now will be about how different people reach out and what that means. I’m thinking of asking friends or catching buses into fire zones when I can (when they’re safe over the next year) and setting more of my fiction in those places.
I’ve already set work in those places. I keep forgetting this. My story in Book View Café’s Nevertheless She Persisted was set all over the fire world. Most of those roads have just been opened (seventy people worked night and day to open just one of these roads), but driving along them is a very different experience. The fires are still burning from Eden to Robertson and beyond. If anyone wants to travel those roads with me, I’d love to join you. I don’t want to go alone. Even Moss Vale is still under alert.
I’m talking as if the crisis is over. It’s not. It’s just that, in a time of megafires and fire tornadoes and smoke that kills… the hailstones outside Parliament House today made the world feel a bit absurd.