War Stories

by Gaylene Preston
Penguin Books Australia, 1995
ISBN 978014025619

War Stories. I don't know how I started collecting them. I suppose I grew up in the shadow of the war. During the peace. Back then, to me as a small child, there were three times: 'before-the-war', 'after-the-war' and, the most secret time of all, 'during-the-war'.

I heard stories around my mother's skirts. Sitting under the kitchen table while the women talked above me. Never about the battles or the bombs. Always about the relationships, dislocated and wrenched apart or, sometimes worse, forced together again because of that time called 'during-the-war'.

The men's stories were very different. Not only in context, but also in the telling. They were recounted loudly with a beer in one hand, a rollie in the other and eruptions of laughter. Army yarns for public consumption. Sometimes the voices would become serious and a small silence would fill the room, but not for long. The show must go on Lest We Forget.

Everyone was trying to, I realise now. Desperately seeking that amnesia that blocks out thoughts of waste and futility and tunes them into mythology. Because we won, it had to have been worth it. So my whole generation grew up in the bright piercing light of the peacetime. The fifties. Security. Conformity and everyone living the same happily-ever-after, with the deep shadow of the war largely unacknowledged. I suppose it's hard to own a war as a first-hand event when it didn't happen here. When you live in a little piece of pink on the edge of the British Empire in a place where hardly a shot was fired. No apocalypse here. No blitz. No death and carnage. Just romantic photos on the mantelpiece of young soldiers who never came back. Who never had funerals and who stayed forever young encased in the black and white reality of an Egyptian photographer's studio portrait. And those who did come back, often could only confront the terror in their worst nightmares. Sissy stuff. No demobbing. No therapy. No 'let's talk it over'. Just roll your sleeves up and work it off.

But down among the women the war was a continuing event. It was the reason why a neighbour never married, or couldn't have babies, or another's husband drank. Why a father rejected a son, why a husband couldn't be loving.

I used to think they were a timid bunch, these women, with their naïve unworldly ways and their insistence on conformity and security, but I now know how wrong I was. Reluctantly at first, because they all felt their stories weren't important, they have with great candour and frankness, told us tales that vividly evoke their lives and times. The nine stories in this book haven't been found after years of careful searching. Carefully selected they are, and it has taken a few years, but 57 similar stories are now lodged on sound tape in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and there's plenty more where they came from. Ask your grandmothers.

I have found the experience of knowing these women and listening to their stories a very humbling and inspiring one. Humbling because I suppose in my supreme confidence, I thought my generation invented everything; and inspiring because of who these women are. Their humility and deep understanding is a testament to the overwhelming triumph of the human spirit.

Unsurprisingly, I suppose, one of them is my mother. I would like to thank her and the other women in this book for coming clean and telling it like it was.

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.