Most years we take ourselves off to the Royal Agricultural Show. Usually it's me, Paul, Joel and Eva, our friends' daughter, born eight months after Joel. Sometimes one of us is away, sometimes one of Eva's parents comes, but today was a classic day, with just the four of us. Now that the kids are older, the day is easier, really, as we can give them some money and tell them to stick together and meet us at intervals. This allows us to spend as much time as we like with the chickens, geese and ducks; the woodchopping; and the craft and cooking displays. It also means we don't have to spend hours in queues for rides and while they make up their minds about their showbags.
The show has changed a lot in the years we've been going, though. They no longer have the lunchtime cattle parades, and there seem to be fewer farm animals. I used to like the Victorian government expo with the helicopter and the ambulance you could climb into, and the large satellite image of Melbourne on the floor you could walk over. One year I picked up a bookmark with the Parliamentary mace on it! I love the hot sweet corn drizzled in butter; I love the cats asleep on their posts, waiting to be patted; I love seeing the lambs being born (well, once); I love marvelling at the kitschy designs in the handcraft section; and I love seeing the judging of the cakes. I love the dodgem cars; and I loved seeing the kids being strapped into the "cliffhanger". They lay on little leather hammocks, on their stomachs, and when the machine started whizzing around, they looked as if they were flying. I love the stupid wigs and outsize sunglasses they bought; and the Elvis wig and white cape that came with Joel's "rock star" showbag. I bought a bag for myself for the first time ever: the farmers' market show bag, with little jars of olives and pickles and jam, some fresh and dried fruit, fresh asparagus, and a book about farmers' markets in Australia.
But most of all, I think, I love the woodchopping. We watched for about half an hour today. It's a wonderful festival of masculinity. The long rectangular yard is filled with men and boys, clustered around the three rows of different kinds of stands as they are got ready. The competitors wear white trousers and white sandshoes; and some wear t-shirts of their teams' colours. They don't say much, these men. And there's no particular body shape for this sport. Some are lean; some are less so. Most are muscly, but it seems to be mostly about the skill.
One round we watched was for kids aged between 9 and 13 years. One boy must have been only 9, but stood up on the log with great panache. All the boys in this group were learning so much about how to become their fathers. They didn't talk a lot, but spent a lot of time polishing their blades. They were allowed to have their coaches (mostly their fathers, I think), giving advice as they cut. The kid who finished first stepped so quickly off his block and over to where his menfolk were gathered that it took me a moment to work out he'd won; and then I saw his cheeks bright red with exertion. The boy who came second had his hair all dyed with blonde tips; and was so overcome he didn't realise his father was standing there waiting to shake his hand. The youngest boy took much longer to finish his log, and the commentator encouraged us all to cheer him along. When he finished, his dad reached over and patted him on the head. The wonderful understatedness of it all.
We saw a presentation of the three finallists from a different competition; and saw the winner come over to us and hand his ribbon to his girlfriend. We saw a beautiful Maori man rehearsing his strokes, dreadlocks flying, and then tuck them up into a knot before he competed. We saw one man sit down abruptly during his round, and take off his shoe. He'd cut through the shoe, and we saw a thin trickle of blood run down his foot as they propped it up on the log he'd had to abandon.
A little, over the last few weeks, I've been thinking about mortality; and not always in cheerful daylight hours. At times today, in the crowds and the commercial hustle and bustle, I felt a bit detached from the human world. Seeing the woodchopping, though, and seeing these traditions being passed down to the next generation, was consoling. And in any case, there we were with our own family tradition, too. Little continuous threads, holding us together.