Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Remembrance of things daft

Wooden Soldier* by Pants

Last year on April 25 I drove into Larrikin's End central to stock up on food basics and found not a single shop open. Why would this be? I had no idea. When I went to live abroad in the early 80s, the shops were shut on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. When I returned, they were open all the time to service the seemingly limitless capacity of people to be fascinated by things they did not yet own. But here it was, ten o'clock on a Saturday morning and all was quiet on the waterfront. Then I noticed rows and rows of foldaway chairs by the shore and a portable stage draped with flags. My yuckometer started to buzz like crazy. What was this?

Australians who do not have a quarter-century domicile gap in their CV will of course be aware that it was Anzac Day. It has eclipsed Armistice Day (November 11) as the primary occasion for commemorating the two world wars and subsequent skirmishes in which our nation has been involved. It is one of only three days on which the commercial world comes to a dead stop and in a country where people can think of little else but shopping, this is major.

In the past, Anzac Day has been about the abortive Gallipoli campaign of World War 1 but since the recent reburials in Fromelles, equal reverence is now being accorded to the soldiers who fought on the western front. Thousands of tearful great-great-great-grandchildren apparently Qantas their way across the globe every year in a kind of military haj to the little corners of Turkey and France that are forever Oz. Most Australian towns have a WW1 memorial and Larrikin's End has a whole series of wooden carvings depicting the war*. Lest we forget? I'm afraid I had forgotten just how big a part the commemoration of war plays in Australian culture.

I should really have twigged when ten years ago a cousin took himself off to Gallipoli for the Anzac Day 'dawn service'. My only experience of dawn service in Turkey is a refreshing cup of apple tea in a cafe after a night of furious clubbing in Fethiye. All I could think was if you wanted a beach holiday in Turkey it's Olu Deniz you'd be headed for and not Gallipoli, surely.

A new book, What's Wrong with Anzac, the Militarisation of Australian History, dates Anzac Day's elevation in the national consciousness to the mid-1990s and a concerted effort by the government of the day to 'militarise' Australian history. I heard the two principle authors of the book Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds interviewed on the radio the other day. Their view is that the elevation of Anzac Day was a strategic effort to divert the focus of national pride away from Australia Day which had become somewhat fraught as it marked a loss of nationhood for Aboriginal people.

I come from a generation brought up on a play called The One Day of the Year written in 1960 and on school curricula by the end of the decade. A working-class war veteran father and his educated, upwardly mobile son are embattled over Anzac Day. The son takes photos of veterans in an alcoholic stupor to demonstrate how ridiculous the whole thing is. The father finds a justification in the celebration of military disaster, "They tried and they was beaten. A man's not too bad who'll stand up in the street and remember when he was licked," he says. The play had a powerful impact on me, particularly as studying it coincided with the anti-war movement generated by Australia's involvement in Viet Nam.

Why doesn't WW2 have more prominence? It did involve sacrifice and engagement of the whole population and Australia was in imminent danger. Why not Viet Nam? There are plenty of us about still with strong feelings about that. WW2 veterans and their widows are treated fairly well in this country but Viet Nam vets are and always have been treated appallingly. Initially, they weren't even allowed membership of the RSL (Returned Services League). And why choose war as the primary focus of national identity? Britain was far more impacted by the world wars than Australia was yet on Armistice Day in Britain life stops for one minute, not twenty-four hours. People wear poppies out of habit and the Prime Minister lays a wreath on the Cenotaph and that's the extent of it.

Maybe it is the sheer remoteness of Anzac Day that makes it so acceptable. Gallipoli was like the charge of the Light Brigade, a failure whose glory grows fat on myth but remains largely inoffensive. Successful invasions are still a bit of a sensitive issue here. And as a nation-defining event it's sorely lacking in inclusivity. An event that took place half a world away with no real meaning for women or indigenous people or any of the ethnic minorities that comprise today's Australia can't have sincere resonance for most of us. Perhaps someone should chocolatise it.

Reviewing What's Wrong with Anzac? in the Australian Literary Review today, historian Geoffrey Blainey says enthusiasm for Anzac Day has come and gone in the past and will do so again. Let's hope so. Meanwhile, I must remember to get milk on April 24.