Friday, April 20, 2007

Anzac Day; Someday Everyone Will March There

An Englishman's first Anzac Day.
Also on the Burleigh Heads RSL site.

“Do you fancy going tomorrow?” asks Michael, a tiler from the Gold Coast and old school friend of my wife’s. Sounds good, I reply. “Meet you at 9am?” Michael looks at me with a wry smile, his eyes set back into a lined and deeply tanned forehead, the result of twenty years spent on sunburnt roofs, “No mate. Pick you up at four. If you’re going to learn something about your new country, you need to be up with the birds.”

I have been a regular visitor to Australia, making the annual Christmas pilgrimage every summer since 1998. But this Christmas we decided to stay. My Queensland born wife just couldn’t hack another English winter. Today is April 24th and it is clear from all the news coverage that something important is happening tomorrow. I decide to investigate.

03:45; Getting up at this time of the morning is not something I particularly enjoy. Our youngest child is nearly four now and the dark days of disturbed sleep are now just distant memories. One of the surprising elements of life at four a.m. is the total stillness, being the last part of a perhaps three hour window where almost no one is awake, including the birds. Having dragged oneself out of bed, it is an inspiring time to be awake. We drive in silence to the Burleigh Heads Park Cenotaph, clutching flasks of strong black coffee, deep in our own thoughts.

04:10; The sight that greets us at the Memorial will stay with me for a long while. Talking softly in small groups, some flanked by children, all wrapped up in coats and hats, were more than a thousand people. Having only seen the Gold Coast at Christmas, I wasn’t actually aware that they sold hats and coats there. Not a very profitable line of work I would imagine, being a hat and coat seller in Burleigh Heads. But folk of all ages were there, huddled onto the small piece of grass in front of the war memorial.

And then the War Vets arrived, with their spit-polished boots and starched shirts, their chests bursting with bronze, silver and gold. Their sergeant major, voice still intimidating enough to cause most of the crowd to stand up straight, drilled them to their seats at the head of the Memorial. One old soldier joined the parade in his wheelchair. At the point of the passing the wreaths, he tried to get up out of his chair to salute. He couldn’t manage it but immediately two young lads rushed out of the crowd to help him stand. Amongst the young, there appears to be a love and respect for Australia’s old soldiers that just does not exist in England. Veterans of English battles and campaigns are viewed with pity or even suspicion, not love.

04:27; And then the lorikeets woke up. The one minute’s silence at 4:28 was a surreal experience indeed. One thousand people on the ground respectfully remembering those that had given their lives for our freedom, and seven thousand noisy, irreverent lorikeets above us chatting at twenty decibels. I'm deep in thought, reflecting on the beautiful words of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey,

‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace, there is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they like side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.’

09:30; Party time! This time a crowd of many thousands watched as schoolchildren, scout groups, surf life saving clubs and all manner of children’s sporting and social groups marched with the War Vets through the streets of Burleigh Heads. Australian flags were in abundance. In England enthusiastic waving of the Union Jack or the cross of St. George is associated with the far-right and racism, but this is evidently not the case with the national flag of Australia, where pride and excitement have replaced the guilt and self-loathing of the Mother Country.

The story of Anzac, whilst not well known outside Australia, is one of Australia’s most famous tales. But unlike fairy tales, this one does not have a happy ending, nor does it show the country as I see it. ‘Tried hard but ultimately failed’ is not an epitaph that I associate with Australians. From Anzac Cove to Ned Kelly to the suicidal swagman in Waltzing Matilda to the Eureka rebels, Australians love to remember their bad days and their bad guys. But this is not a nation of losers, nor is it a nation given to wallowing in nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ (partly as there are so few days to remember). So why does this day mean so much to my new friends?

When Australia went to war in 1914, many white Australians believed that their Commonwealth had no history, that it was not yet a true nation, that its most glorious days still lay ahead of it. 'She is not yet', proclaimed James Brunton Stephens in 1877. In western culture, sacrificial death was widely recognised as the foundation of nationhood, and Gallipoli seemed to fit the bill. Indeed the physical superiority of Australian soldiers to their English counterparts was a prominent theme in much of the contemporary writing about the ANZACs - ' a race of athletes' according to English journalist Ellis Bartlett. This athletic advantage was accompanied by a contempt for the British officer class and the Tommys. For the first time Australian fighters were not the 'sheriffs' but friends and partners of the English soldiers. A nation had truly come of age.

The Spirit of ANZAC was suggested by official war historian C.E.W. Bean to have

'stood, and still stands, for reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat.’

For ANZAC, read Australia.

In 1972 Eric Bogle, a recent Scots immigrant to Australia, wrote the anti-war song, ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda', after watching an ANZAC Day parade. The song ends with these words,

And so now every April, I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glory,
And the old men march slowly, all bones stiff and sore,
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask "What are they marching for?"
And I ask meself the same question.

But the band plays "Waltzing Matilda,"
And the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear.
Someday, no one will march there at all.

More of the old men did disappear until, in 2002, there were none. Someday perhaps ‘no one will march there at all’ but not today, not on April 25th 2006. For today Burleigh is packed. Packed with the sounds of young children laughing and playing, their older brothers and sisters proudly wearing Grandad’s medals taken out and polished for the occasion, their parents paying their respects to a bunch of old men, whose bones are ‘stiff and sore’. A bunch of old men who risked their lives for them in a 'forgotten war'.

To those who snipe from the sidelines that Anzac Day is a glorification of war and who are ashamed of their country, i'll leave the last word to Alfie Cook, a ne'er-do-well working class character in a play by Alan Seymour, The One Day of The Year, when confronting his anti-war upwardly mobile son,

"You'd take away everything.
You'd take away the ordinary bloke's right to feel proud of himself for once.
You know what this march means?
You know what it is?
Marching without uniforms, that's what it is.
Y' don't go out there to show what soldiers y' was, y' go out there as mates.
Y' go there to say it was a job.
It had to be done and y' did it.
Boys i knew all my life.
Went through the Depression with me, through the war.
They're nothing much, either, nothing much.
But for one day of the year they're somethin'.
Anzac Day.