The colours are so subtle, the English couturists of the early 20th century had to turn to the French nomenclature, as their own language had failed them: eau de Nil, ecru, vielle rose, champagne, beige, taupe, verdigris, bleu francais, nue. The colours of a pre-teen girl’s unicorn pillows, a garden behind a Watteau portrait, the jacket of the once-widow-now-bride marrying her childhood sweetheart 65 years after they first met, long after the first partners have died, her middle-aged son giving her away; she coyly chooses the clouded jade, nacreous pink and faded gold to soften the hard grey hair and brighten the age-speckled cheeks, flatter the long teeth behind happy smiles.
But I’m not looking at antique fabrics, or bleached photographs, or shells.
This is the sky over Ballarat today, that should be blue and white, that I should be able to see arching over the hills encircling the town. But I can’t see any hills now. There’s a film of mist between me and the cars three ranks away in the car park, that’s reduced the colours of everything, blurred the edges as if we’re walking through old newsprint photos. My throat is sore and my face prickling. Hackles rise instinctively at the smell of bushfire. The nearest? I google.
There are no major fires reported in the state of Victoria today. It’s a westerly wind, so this smoke has come possibly 700 kilometers, from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia where 100 homes have gone in the past 24 hours. Tens of thousands of animals reported dead, including livestock, domestic and native animals. Over 40,000 hectares (that’s just short of 99,000 acres) burnt including 11,000 hectares of vineyards, some dating from the 1830s.
In New South Wales, 800 homes have been lost so far this fire season, in this month of early summer before the real heat begins. These aren’t student flats or little bedsits, in many cases these will be family farms held for generations — you know, the sort of thing you see on period drama: a spinster great aunt’s water-colours on the wall, a lumber room of surplus that would grace the best city antique shops, wedding dresses and christening gowns and hand-written recipe books. On average there’s four people to a home, so around 32,000 or more New South Welshmen, women and children have lost everything. The kind of ‘everything’ that includes memory, sentiment, value, income; clothes, cars, pets, Christmas. The kind of ‘lost’ that covers the new year with ash so deep you can’t see your way.
On the radio, after the news reader describes the figures and the losses, they give a quote from this shit of a Prime Minister; he says he’s got to protect those 38,000 jobs in the Australian coal industry. As if 38,000 managers, admin staff, accountants, security guards, cleaners, technicians, canteen cooks and drivers and IT programmers can’t get a job anywhere else at all ever… does he seriously think we’ll be conned into thinking “man with pickaxe”? I’m screaming with rage in the car. What about the jobs of the farmers, the rural town businessmen, post mistresses and handimen, vets and vintners, stock feed stores and little touristy cafes with toy boomerangs on the wall and a display of home-made jams.
But I have to stop screaming for a moment, because now I can’t actually breathe properly. And then I notice the colours of the sky are the colours of those faded silk bouquets, under glass domes, in Welsh chapels; a gift to the beloved dead of another century.
These colours. Again, English words fail me: memento mori.
And: Vive la rébellion!