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Living in the past: it's a sign of our times

Date

Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<em>Illustration: Edd Aragon</em>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

The tall American before me in the queue is modest and thoughtful-looking. He wears socks under hiking sandals, a sagging backpack, antediluvian corduroys and an expression of benign amusement. I take these things to mean he's a retired academic; an anthropologist, or some other sweet anachronism.

Then again, maybe he's a sous chef or merchant banker costumed as anthropologist emeritus. We are, after all, at the global centre of affected anachronism.

It's the entry queue to the 13th annual Lithgow Ironfest, a thousands-strong gathering of re-enactment aficionados, or ''creative anachronists'' as they're known in the trade.

Unperturbed by the passing swarms of green-haired goths, corseted fairies, wizards, pirates, villeins, camo-rednecks, tartan bagpipers and Second Empire soldiers, my anthropologist and his friend are talking model helicopters.

With gentle condescension, the anthropologist explains that his interest in helicopters is abstract, derived from his helicopter theory of civilisations. (How, with increasing energy, societies evolve, gradually achieving lift-off but how, if the rotors over-accelerate, the culture destabilises, crashes and burns).

The friend glazes over. His mind likes the helicopter's whirring reality, not the metaphor. But I'm with the anthropologist. I want to see what makes these muppets tick.

We all know about American Civil War nuts, bit-parters from some Carl Hiaasen novel or Coen brothers flick. But until recently discovering the Viking groups strewn through the Blue Mountains, I hadn't really believed Aussies went for this re-enactment stuff. So wrong.

This year's Ironfest was themed ''Apocalypse'', in deference to the 5000-year Mayan calendar that puts world's end at 2012. It's the 13th Ironfest, the 13th Mayan baktun and a good moment for general primitivism.

Which is what my anthropologist is explaining when his friend, helicopter man, butts in. ''Maya?'' he says. ''We were arguing about this in the car, and I said Maya was a people group, but everyone said no, Maya's the place in Melbourne where you go shopping.''

I stifle a snort, although helicopter man has a point. If there isn't an apocryphal link between the shopping mall and the end of the world as we know it, there should be.

Civilisations end but the yearning for a simpler - less complex, less material, less energy-guzzling - life, a life whose rotors whirr serenely, is eternal. Virgil wrote the Georgics about it two millennia ago and still, in many ways, it drives these dress-ups.

From the outside, the yellow Lions Club T-shirts and aroma of frying onion presents Ironfest as an Easter Show without the cart horses, skinless mice and giant zucchini. Inside the big gates, though, it's clear it's something different.

For a start, it's friendly. All these steampunk pirates exude a sense of welcome you never feel at the Easter Show, where you're only tolerated for the rip-off. There's Lithgow's peculiar cultural mix of new age and old coal: mountain hippie meets mining hardhead. But there's also enchantment. Welcome to my fantasy.

Of course, at one level, we all live inside our own movies. But much of modernity, from the sporting field to the shopping mall, deliberately strips the story out of existence. Story-less synchronicity was part of scientific objectivity and its promise of a new, democratic Eden. It's this against which Ironfest rebels.

People love it. There are Napoleonic re-enactments - real muskets, real cannon, real clouds of saltpetre smoke. There's a mediaeval village (mainly tents) with farriers, chain-mailers (yes, you can try it on) and cloth-capped cow-horn minstrels. There's steampunk, robots (including K-9 and R2-D2), hippie bluegrass and falconry, using native buzzards and an imperious wedge-tailed eagle.

There's fully costumed jousting, swordplay where children can ''bash each other into submission'' and Uppsala, a fully armoured adult fight club with real swords and shields. ''We're a combat-based mediaevalist group from'' - wait for it - ''Chatswood and we fight not for love or honour, but because we like fighting''.

Risky stuff. But riskier still is Soldatenheim, an authentic German World War II mess tent, kitted out with mortars, field tables and SS insignias. No swastikas but, this close to Anzac Day, we all cringe.

Altogether it's fun and, despite the jumble, convincing. But our hosts (we're staying locally) are shocked that we even attend Ironfest, which is seen to hover between the ratbag and the redneck. Said hosts are themselves Vikings, first generation from Samso - the Danish farming island now a famous exemplar of energy-autonomy.

Do we, the latte classes, despise re-enactment for being phoney, history Disneyfied? Or for not being phoney enough, for the implied glorification of violence and cruelty?

Mediaeval life was never fair, pluralist or eco-aware. In fact it was sexist, racist, barbarous and cruel. This wasn't just necessity; the pain and fear were, and are, also part of the entertainment, the edge. The thrill.

These days the jousters' lances are balsa-tipped, the falconers are conservationists, the rabbits are fake and the musket balls blank. From under the wimpled ladies' gowns, scuffed blunnies poke.

Yet its appeal, and its unity, is still underlying secessionism. The Kingdom of Ironfest, just launched, is a collective of co-ops, designed to ''seize back control of our collective financial destiny''. This is what unites the disparate mob: refusal.

Can you have the secession without the savagery? Can you rethread history to make it reinhabitable?

There is an obvious alliance between mediaevalism and environmentalism. Yet the eco-thread is conspicuous by its absence. Lithgow is coal country. Cooling towers billow over the landscape. Forget Soldatenheim. If it's audacity Ironfest craves, next year's should be themed ''Green helicopter; keeping the rotors turning''. It should feature solar-steam punk, biofuel robots and wind-powered warfare.

Too tame? Not really. Badge it ''Miners versus Greenies'' and I reckon they could lose the balsa tips, and have jousting for real.

elizabethfarrelly.net

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30 comments

  • Elizabeth, simplicity is the getting of wisdom. While younger folks believe that complexity brings satisfaction, as we mature we appreciate that first, there are millennium values that exist in every society and second, technology is crud.

    And finally, that the 'treasured' city is hell to live in. So many people simply live there for the higher income jobs, but at the end of the week, still have nothing, their incomes squeezed from their pocket by every technique known.

    So foolish, this ruination of a life by pious submittance to a lie - that Sydney is actually a good place to live in. Its Hell, and its citizens don't know it.

    Commenter
    Axis
    Location
    Far North Coast
    Date and time
    April 26, 2012, 7:57AM
    • "Hell" is wherever you create it - the location varies from person to person.

      Commenter
      Relentless
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:00AM
    • Yeah,

      When I moved to the bush people started to talk to me as though I was a simpleton - I mean, family and friends who see Sydney as 'IT'.

      Poor deluded beings....

      Commenter
      CHCHCHCHanges
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 12:30PM
    • @Relentless, you are defending the indefensible. Cities create the walking dead. Quite a few of the zombies migrate around here hoping that paradise will cure them. Sometimes it does.

      The internet offers alternatives. Everyone with an electronic skill can make money via the internet. And often, its a very generous income. But think of how long most people travel to work - an hour each way - around here, there's a huge amount of work for people with skills within an hour's drive. And its pleasant, too.

      Much cheaper too - there's a fabulous little town in the midwest where people are migrating - Rylestone/Kandos - where you can get a great home for $150k. The people are lovely, the community is strong, and regional life is sooo satisfying.

      And there's no drive-by shootings, either, or raids or run-overs or stinking hot car-jams and indifferent neighbours with their neurotic relationships and a price on the air you breathe. How can anyone consider THAT environment to be healthy?

      Commenter
      Axis
      Location
      Far North Coast
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 1:40PM
    • Axis,

      But without cities, all the opportunities you claim to have vanish in a puff of smoke. Our culture is built on cities, for better or worse.

      Further, and more to my original point, generalising your own experience is neither helpful nor valid. We all have our own likes and dislikes. As for the zombie hyperbole, that's just silly and offensive.

      Commenter
      Relentless
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 2:26PM
    • Relentless, you really think Zombie oversteps the mark? When I visit, that's what I see. Zombies, arms outstretched, crying out for meaning. Inch by inch the city gets worse - less inclusive, more guttural, less civilised. Unless you've been outside the prison walls, you wouldn't know.

      But you're right, Relentless. We need drones in cities.Go for it!

      Was that offensive?

      Commenter
      Axis
      Location
      Far north coast
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 3:00PM
  • Of course, Lizzie, anyone who has interests different to your own highbrow pursuits is a muppet.

    Get back to the mall yee unwashed heathens!

    Commenter
    Miss Piggy
    Date and time
    April 26, 2012, 8:02AM
    • Yep, the muppet line was definitely out of line, but the rest of the article is a bit more open-minded.

      Commenter
      Relentless
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:01AM
    • Agreed, I thought that juvenile snark said far more about Ms Farelly than it did about her targets.

      Commenter
      Kitteh
      Date and time
      April 26, 2012, 11:48AM
  • skinless mice???

    Commenter
    GH
    Date and time
    April 26, 2012, 9:20AM

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