Arch walks us out to the car. We stand on the footpath outside his Lindisfarne home and look out over the Derwent River and the Tasman Bridge. For a few minutes we chat about the view. Arch is very understated. He says something about how you can get a good look at the water from a lot of angles in Hobart.
The other person in the picture is my son, Jack. Whenever he features in one of these stories, I make sure to ask what he remembers. He remembered this simple scene.
I asked him, “Why did you remember that part?”
“Dad, because he walked us out to the car,” Jack recalled, “and Dad, do you remember? That driveway was steep and how old was Archie then? It was the time of the World Cup in 2006, I was nearly ten, Archie was like, 91?”
Parts of my memory that are smudged, Jack remembers and restores them like an old painting. He brought back into the clear, Archie’s old world courtesy. He saw out his guests – simple kindness. Paul Kelly once wrote in his song about Don Bradman, let the part tell the whole.
How did we get to visit Arch and his wife, Helen? They are the parents of someone who I’m fortunate to call a friend. I learnt that day that the family call him ‘Mart’. Readers of The Age would know him as, senior writer and author, Martin Flanagan. I had always felt buoyed by his stories. He makes images and sounds with his written words. I feel like his words, speak for me, only far more eloquently. We met in 1998 at a conference where Martin was the last speaker. I had plucked up the courage to go up and say ‘thanks for your writing’. He responded with a warm ‘thanks for that’ back and, with a smile in his eye. I recognised that same characteristic in his dad’s eyes when he opened the door to welcome me and my son, on that day in June, 2006. In the hallway I recall there were stacks of Age newspapers piled high, mementoes of Martin’s work.
Yesterday I went out to my shed where I have a filing cabinet full of stuff like the notes I have kept from that education conference. I found a page of quotes and reflections I’d scribbled from the talk Martin gave. On that day I learnt that his dad was a veteran of what is known by the soldiers as ‘The Line’, the infamous Thai-Burma Railway that was built by allied Prisoners of War in the Second World War. Martin wrote that ‘it is said that one man died for every sleeper that was laid’. In barbaric conditions, hungry, and bare footed, the POW’s worked eighteen hour days to break open enough of a cutting to put the railway line through. Their leader was Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop. With Weary, that often overused description, ‘legend’ remains undiluted by his acts of leadership, courage and service to his men who worked on ‘The Line’.
In my notes, a direct quotation from Martin is there…
“I didn’t know my father’s totems.”
And below it are the words, “you’ve got to tell me dad”.
In 2005 some of that ‘telling’ happened as father and son, Arch and Martin, published The Line – a man’s experience; a son’s quest to understand. I commend it to you. Arch does not waste a word.
So back to how we came to be visiting Arch and Helen? The young bloke and I were in Hobart. I rang Martin in Melbourne to let him know I was in Tassie, his country. I had recently read The Line. Martin suggested that if I wanted, he could set up a chance for me to go and visit his mum and dad.
“Are you sure Marty?” I asked.
“No worries Billy, they are always having visitors over and they love it.”
So in Jack and me went. Arch ushered Jack straight to the lounge room and turned on the telly for him and I was taken to the kitchen table where scones and cups of tea were being produced in quantity by Helen. We talked footy and ordinary things. Martin’s sister Jo, popped over with her daughter. I remember the care that Arch and Helen’s grand-daughter had for them. I remember too that I wanted to bring the young bloke into the kitchen. Arch had thought he mightn’t have wanted to sit and chat but of course, he was welcome. Jack loves to this day, being around older generations.
More scones and cups of tea were consumed and then it was time to go.
There was one tangible memory Martin mentioned in the book. His dad had crafted a personal tribute and I asked Arch if I could see it.
Arch took me to the hallway and there was the simple tribute mounted on the wall. Martin described how it came to be there in The Line.
Weary had a small grey splinter of Hintock rock on his desk in his rooms… When he died it was given to me. I gave it to dad who made a small monument with it. On one side of the rock is a photograph of Weary… Then written in a felt pen like slashes in the bare unvarnished wood are the names of the men he knew who died up there… On the bottom of the plain bit of board are the simple words are ‘Lest I Forget.’
I remember I wanted my boy to see the little monument that Arch had made for his mates who never came back from the Hellfire Pass.
Jack remembers that Arch walked us out to the car.
In my notes, I have written…
His (Martin’s) Father – All that mattered was humanity.
This story is posted on ANZAC Day. Arch was born in 1914… so he was a six month old baby when Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed at Gallipoli. On Tuesday, Arch died two days before the 98th anniversary of ANZAC.
It was privilege to meet him.
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And here is Martin’s article about The Line that was published in The Age (September 4, 2005).