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Travelling with my father’s ashes.

The people, the local produce and offerings, listening and enjoying the company of others are all a common thread of village life.

Apr 6, 2021

Words: Tim Biles
Images: Tim Biles

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I grew up in a village. Not the chocolate-box Cotswold village of my father’s birth but a village in the South Australian desert. Kilometres from anywhere and isolated in that way that endless gibber plains, salt lakes and the searing heat reinforces every day.

Woomera in those days was a defence town. Full of secrets. You couldn’t get into the village without a security pass from the Commonwealth police.

It was a town of mainly city folk living a ‘village’ life separated from the rest of the world. There was no TV reception and listening to the radio was difficult, except on shortwave. Radio Australia and a country relay of the ABC connected us to a limited choice of material, largely pitched at our near Pacific and SE Asian neighbours.

My father had small photos of his Cotswold village on the wall of our transportable house in Woomera. He’d kept mementos showing the stone buildings flowing along a single high street, backing onto rolling green pastures dotted with grazing black faced sheep. He played records of hymns from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, while a picture of the tower of St Eadburgha’s church from his village sat silently in homage to the place of his ancestors burials. It was an odd contrast to where I was living, but strangely it had similarities with what we might call ‘village life’.

When I first think of villages, I think of the Cotswolds, Greek Islands, and bucolic regions of Europe.

“You have to get along with people in a village."

But it is a fleeting reflection before passing onto what it is to live in a village like Metung, as I do now. A place of lakeside beauty but no stone buildings like Greece or the Cotswolds. Sprawling across rising timbered ground around Bancroft Bay and Lake King. Curiously, there are similarities with Woomera. Principally, you have to get along with people in a village.

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Woomera was so isolated that we had to cooperate with one another. When the dirt road to Adelaide closed for a week because of floods (when it rains in the desert it really rains), that cooperation intensified. Similar to Gippsland’s towns when last summer’s fires struck.

More than that, everyone has a story. In the desert, I listened to ‘New Australians‘ tell me about Italy, Yugoslavia, Latvia and life under autocratic rule in places I knew little about. There was a wonder in it that changed my perspective. Sometimes the story was simple, the lament of something lost or the joy of something achieved, but mostly it was conversation with people I might never have otherwise stopped to engage with. The essence of a village.

“Everyone has a story"

It’s the same in Metung, Loch or even Fitzroy. Listening and enjoying the company of others, often almost strangers, is a common thread of village life.

The memory of a village is also important to our sense of attachment. We do not want it to change too much. If we leave, we want to return and find it hasn’t changed. For instance, an empty building can be transformed into a fine new gathering place, like the Kilcunda Store. But ‘woe be tide’ those who infect a main street with a generic food outlet as they did in Tecoma in the Dandenongs. People will fight hard against change unfitting the village. Just try putting a chain store on a Greek Island or in a Cotswold village. Sometimes the store wins the legal battle but with time, other forces come into play to seize the war; like a certain American coffee chain that failed to sell its coffee in Carlton’s Lygon Street and eventually disappeared without even a whimper.

Our attachment to place is often over small things, like the handpainted sign at Jenkins Orchards in Johnsonville: honest and unequivocal in its message, making it clear that this is no supermarket.

Food and food outlets can define a village through their produce, offerings and the character of the people who run it. For example, Mindy with her Udder & Hoe stores in Kilcunda, Loch and Korumburra. Neil and Katrina from The Farmer and the Cook in Metung are quietly selling local food that’s often different each day, or Stuart, who is across the road pumping out woodfired pizza made only with local produce and his ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ enthusiasm as another offering comes out of the fire.

These are people in our community that we love. A brief encounter over a purchase of food is the antithesis of a personless encounter at the self-serve checkout of a chain store and further defines life in a village.

Underlying it all though are the countless examples of people working together. Be it running a book stall for the local church, a BBQ brimming with sausages to fundraise for the netball club or a jumble sale for a new CFA station — each dollar raised is another step in the community quest for a common goal.

When the time comes, and we have had enough of it, I wonder if staying within the village is important. My parents loved Woomera, but their ashes needed a home and there was no one left in that desert settlement. So, I took them back to the Cotswold village of my father’s birth, where they now rest with the ancestors in St Eadburgha’s church yard. I think they like sharing their stories with family and old friends, knowing that not much has changed in the village over the past 1000 years.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 18

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