Thursday, April 26, 2007

Very random and disjointed musings about Anzac Day

The first thing I ever won -- practically the only bloody thing I ever won -- was an essay competition, when I was 11 years old. In retrospect, I would say that my success in that competition was one of the main factors in my life that led to my conviction, at the age of 14, that my life's vocation would be that of a writer. Not that I'm trying to lay the blame outside myself.

It was 1964. The competition was run by the Eastwood Returned Servicemen's League, and canvassed among the schools of Eastwood. The aim of the competition was to get essays for the forthcoming sesquicentenary commemorations of the first Anzac Day, April 25, 1915. My essay was about John Simpson Kirkpatrick, 'the Man with the Donkey'. I now wonder if in the vaults of Eastwood RSL is a copy, because I would like to read it again. I won a 30 shillings open order at Eastwood Newsagency, which I redeemed on a Collins Junior Encyclopaedia and a MAD magazine, leaving twopence remaining, which precisely covered the cost of a packet of four Arrowmint chewing gums, thereby exemplifying three themes that were to inform my life: the quest for knowledge, a love of satire and comics, and a sweet tooth.

My paternal grandfather was a Christian pacifist. At school I was one of the few boys whose father had not served in the military, so I had no Anzac legends told me in my childhood and I always felt alien when the playground games revolved around toy tanks and air force planes. Looking back, that alienation probably formed a fourth theme of my life. Yet my winning that competition, while those boys did not, might have set a tension in my psyche about me and war.

Millions of Australians each year attend Anzac Day dawn services in every city, town and village. Yesterday, 10,000 people attended such a ceremony at Anzac Cove, the name Westerners give to the beach where the invasion of Turkey began 92 years ago. Given my family background, and the fact that for many years I visited a friend of mine whose birthday was Anzac Day, and who slowly died of multiple sclerosis, I have attended only two services. One was by chance, when I passed through Martin Place, Sydney, early one April 25. I found myself by accident passing the cenotaph and hundreds of people. I lingered, curious and with a rather maudlin sentimentality. I'm a sucker for emotion and bagpipes.

The second dawn service I have attended was at the age of 54. It was yesterday. I was awake early anyway and went down to the war memorial -- an obelisk -- in Hyde St, Bellingen, the main street in the small town in which I live. I was a bit late (I thought it would start at dawn, not finish at dawn) but arrived in time to hear the piper and watch a catafalque party of five young soldiers. I followed some old women and medal-wearing men into the Anglican hall where breakfast was to be served. I didn't feel comfortable so I came home.

Random thought 2: When I grew up, it became usual for young people to snub Anzac Day. Now its popularity seems to grow, largely among young people who were not even a glint in their fathers' eyes during WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the rest. Why is it growing? It baffles me. Is it because the service has a religiosity that is missed by a generation that has not had to endure hard church pews every Sunday? Is this a religious thing? Certainly the dawn service in Canberra, which I heard on radio later, was full of hymns and sermons by preachers.

Random thought 3: What do the Turks think of the Anzac ceremony in which 10,000 drunken Australian youths listen to blaring rock music, strew the 'sacred' ground with litter, and leave? The newspapers worry about what the old diggers -- Australian soldiers -- would think. I worry about what the Turks think. They lost hundreds of thousands of youths when we tried to take over their country -- they lost more than the Allies. Apart from tourist dollars, what is brought to the Turkish people who we so assaulted?

Random thought 4: The young people know about Gallipoli, where Australians, fighting for the British, lost a dreadful battle that was badly handled by the British War Office. But what do they know about the Siege of Tobruk, the Kokoda Track campaign and the Battle of Milne Bay, three WWII battles in which Australians significantly affected the outcome of the war by victories won over the Germans and Japanese? My late Uncle Charlie was at Milne Bay, and was one of the Rats of Tobruk, so I ask on his behalf. Moreover, what do non-Australians know about them?

Random thought 5: In an email group in which I am a member, another member took issue with my almost casual remark that Anzac Day is a day of mourning. He asserted that it's a day of celebration. There was no celebration that I could see in the faces of the fifty or so people assembled at Bellingen's obelisk. Have I missed something?

Random thought 6: I drove through Repton on Anzac Day, yesterday. It is a village, if big enough to call a village. It just has a tiny general store and one petrol bowser. There is a small marble 'Repton Honor Roll' that I have noted many times in the past (as I used to live in Repton). It's not easy to find and is in the long grass by the side of the road. It has the names of about seven local men who served -- or died? -- in WWI, and several new wreaths were on it. I found that to be my most moving Anzac Day experience as I imagined the farm boys who went off to war on the other side of the world. And I wonder why 'honor' is spelled after the American fashion on such an old memorial.

Random thought 7: I still don't have much of an Anzac Day gene, so once again, typically, I seem to be out of step with the zeitgeist of the times.

Random thought 8: It rained yesterday. Does it ever not rain on Anzac Day? Is this a divine thing?


Blogger GoAwayPlease said...

Those of us whose fathers and grandfathers did see action'
(as it is so eupehemistically put)
in WWs 1&2 have no ANZAC legends told us either.
My father loathed the RSL and never went near The Day, my grandfather, a hero of ther Hindenberg Line battles, marched without fail every year of his life but never spoke a single word of his experiences.
They were both farmboys who signed on in their teens.
The rock music at the Turkish beach commemoration catering to hordes of Aussie backpackers who only see it as a rallying point for their own travel experience makes me sick.

7:07 AM  
Blogger GoAwayPlease said...

I just noticed you have the WONDROUS Ignatz Mouse Officer Pupp and Krazy Kat on your banner.

Since I am back, may I bring to your attention a website I have posted on more than once (not that my readers care)

BAE Systems the bastards who make the bombs which they like to kid themselves by calling 'canisters'.

7:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a divine thing but let me tell you that every turk I have met in my travels overseas have been great and we all got on just fine.It was the beginning of two modern countries,also on the 23rd of april 1951 the two nations soldiers were allies & expected to have a celebration on ANZAC day but the battle of Kapyong stopped that.Kapyong is a battle as significant as Tobruk,my old Battalion never forgets it.Mate if you cant understand ANZAC by now you might never understand.The one thing you are right about is that the battles you mentioned are not credited enough internationally,I have studied and written about Tobruk which was a major turning point of WWII as was Kapyong in last thing-everybody these days ,at least it seems to me,thinks they have a right to know everything,well they dont.You NEVER ask a veteran anything indepth,he will talk if he wants to and its the worst kind of manners to do otherwise.

11:45 PM  

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