I visited the Alexandra Club on Wednesday and spent a wonderful hour there learning more about the club’s involvement in the sending of billies to Gallipoli in 1915.
It seems the club had already begun planning to send treats to send soldiers for Christmas when a club member heard (letters home?) that there was a need for billies. Rather than just send a single billy, or a couple, they decided to send 20,000! Within a time so short it seems impossible, they had organised the manufacture of billies, moved the furniture out of their club room, lifted carpet, set up trestle tables and put the call out to members and non-members alike. If they were to reach the soldiers in time for Christmas, they needed to leave Melbourne in October. The scale and ambition of this inititiave is staggering. Even thinking about the logistics is mind-spinning.
Donations arrived from everywhere. There are stories of one member driving around collecting billies until there was barely room for her in the car ! Members in rural towns organised and inspired their local communities. Other groups around Australia and New Zealand took up the challenge and by Christmas 1915, around 55,000 filled billies had made their way across the seas to the warfields. A staggering feat.
Should I have known this before writing? What’s the point of doing this research now? I’ve been thinking about this and whether I should be spending my time researching new projects. Sure, it’s interesting, but do I need to know this?
I may not NEED to know more, but I WANT to know more. This knowledge wasn’t necessary for the writing of The Anzac Billy. When I write, my aim is to stimulate curiosity in readers by presenting them with stories they may not have encountered before. When Mark Jackson and Heather Potter illustrated this story, they added so many layers of information in the illustrations. They induce curiosity in me, wondering at what is the same now and what is different. Discovering more about how these billies came to be, I understand more about a time other than my own. Understanding more helps me to bring it to life for young readers when I visit classrooms. The book must stand on its own, of course, and I hope it induces curiosity in the reader, as well as engaging them in a story about family and a boy missing his dad.
I have no control (and neither should I) in what someone takes from my words. Those words are now fixed in print and will have their own life. I read recently that a reader contributes about 40-50 % to a story, by what they bring to the reading of it. I like that. And I’ll keep being curious.