Love & war

Lovelorn Brisvegans: you have but days left to wallow in the sweet sadness that is the State Library of Queensland’s Love & War exhibition. On loan from the Australian War Memorial, it’s a lovely little exhibition exploring the many stages of love as magnified by the pressures of wartime.

From meetings and rushed courtships before men were shipped out, to tearful goodbyes and correspondence-fuelled seperations, and ultimately reunion or loss. There are some remarkably intimate insights into love affairs spanning a century; and unfortunately a happy ending is never guaranteed.

My mum and I went in on a Saturday, expecting a lot of love letters. In actuality the exhibition is more made up of mementoes, souveniers, and photographs and paintings. There are wedding dresses, one of which a bride went on to loan to a number of other wartime brides. There are handmade keepsakes, amateur cartoons, even some very early photoshop work from World War I!

Given the way colloquial language ebbs and flows over time I was really interested to see the ways people spoke and wrote about love (and lust!) over different decades. Some of the language of love and yearning is obviously eternal; other phrases seem dated and stiff. The rather chaste wishes of a soldier to lie with his sweetheart in a quiet bush hideaway and “let my hands roam about your face, arms and hair” seems adorably quaint.

Small acts of quiet romanticism now preserved behind glass now seem all the more remarkable for the stoicness of the men who were inspired to commit them. My favourite story was of Robert Towers who had a brooch made from the Australian coat of arms in the centre of a shiny florin. He gave the brooch to his sweetheart, Lois, and wore the outer part of the coin on a chain around his neck. When the two pieces were joined after he returned from Malaya, he said, they’d be together forever. It was 1945 before Lois heard anything of Robert; caring for freed prisoners of war, a patient told her Robert had died of illness in 1943 after being captured by the Japanese. His part of the florin was returned to her with his belongings.

So sad, you can barely imagine how excruicating it must have been for her not hearing from him for years, holding on to hope that he would come home ok. His token of his love for her was so simple and thoughtful. Makes you think, every love is so unique.

It’s not all sad stories. There are beautiful romances that lasted through and beyond the wars, tear-jerking reunions, happy endings. I liked the inclusion of same-sex couples. And then there’s funny stories like a young woman who ended up with dozens of penpals after her photo ran in a troop magazine. There are bawdy pin-ups, crass cartoons, and creepy propaganda posters.

Sunday (March 6) is the last day you can catch Love & War, on level 2 at the State Library of Queensland. You can have a sneak peek via the Australian War Memorial’s website. It’s well worth a look and, just quietly, the air-con in there is phenomenal.

Plus, if you’ve been feeling sorry for yourself for something as paltry as missing your long distance lover, reading the stories of people who lost their sweethearts and husbands to conflicts in distant lands will promptly put your woes into perspective.

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