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  • How’s Your Day Been?
  • Don Watson (bio)

Early in the new year I entered a hairdressing salon on the main street of the Victorian Wimmera town of Horsham (not Hers and Sirs, but the one next to it, if ever you're looking). At 9:30 in the morning, the place was empty, and in no time the hairdresser was fluffing the hair around my ears in the familiar way of her profession, and I was about to say, in the familiar way of the country, "Hot isn't it, but I suppose we should expect it at this time of the year." But before I could begin, she said, "So, how's your day been so far?"

There was a time—a very long time—when country people rarely asked more of another human being than how he or she was doing. At this time, there was often a whiff of damp hay, dogs, or sweat about country schoolrooms, churches, and picture theatres. Country people—this was before they were called rural and regional Australians—were the living embodiments of their work and environment, even of their faith. They were as seals are to rocks, and owls to the night: the elemental Australians.

Media celebrity has had some say in revising the ideal from, say, a sheep shearer to a crocodile wrestler. But a much more general and probably unstoppable change is underway. The country, you see, is going forwards, which is to say it has joined up with the rest of the economy, which has joined up with the global economy, and when that happens, "So, how's your day been so far?" becomes pretty well mandatory. It is the standard greeting of all customer-focused businesses, worldwide, and the world now includes the Wimmera. For hairdressers, it is doubtless as much a part of the training as scissors technique. As I left this hair-care centre of excellence, I thanked her. "Not a problem," she replied. "Have a nice day."

Cruise control and empty roads create a state of mindlessness that is perfect for getting round Australia. Think of a Fred Williams or Streeton if you will—or, in the Wimmera, a Sydney Nolan—but the pleasure is in not thinking. Thinking is a form of resistance. Let the emptiness swallow you alive. Time and the miles will simply fly by.

Yet enough remains in the Australian countryside to occasionally disturb the driver's trance. A glimpse of a house in ruins can do it; a tank toppled off its stand, an overgrown domestic fence or fowl yard can provoke [End Page 126] the subversive thought that something once happened here. What we see now was once something else. Children slept beneath that collapsed roof, were conceived beneath it, climbed in the shattered cypress.

You know it is the quaking of your own childhood that the house in ruins provokes, and the empty schools and halls remind you of the thin, brief shadow your own life throws. A glimpse of rusted iron and flaking weatherboard can hollow you out for half an hour. Or it can set you thinking of the ping-pong that was played inside that hall, the dances, weddings, meetings, baby shows, the young men gathering to enlist for wars. You can suddenly find your mind in full-blown worship of these ancestors: the prodigious work that they did and that their children never thanked them for; the faith no longer comprehended; the lives lived with no certainty of reward or sense of entitlement.

Those old halls with the broken pine trees round them speak for vanished communities and their secular spirit in the same way that the abandoned churches stand for an age when people, though they rarely got excited about it, practised religion in the hope of salvation or, if not that, for the good it did their souls: its restraining force, and the pure energy it mined. Along with work, cooperation and religion were the eternal verities and the conditions of success. Those public buildings might now be forlorn monuments to these. But for the people who built them, they were also the reward, the proof of such devotions...