Our souls, singing

When I woke up this morning it took me a few moments to remember that it was Anzac Day. The sudden thought filled me with warmth. Anzac Day is my favourite day of the year. It’s the most Australian of days, and the day I think that sees Australia at its best. And it’s a public holiday.

By the time I woke a good part of the days events were already completed. The dawn service is a solemn event attended by many thousands each year. People rug up their warmest clothes while it is still dark outside and travel across town to stand around one of the memorials across the country – here, in Melbourne, the most impressive of them, the Shrine of Remembrance. They stand in humble silence while the proceedings begin, the military ceremonies, the speeches commemorating those who fell, and those who fought, remembering their sacrifice, and the playing of the Last Post on a melancholy bugle – designed always to send a chill up the spine.

Ceremony over the crowd filters off, enlarged I think in some way, moved, grateful not just for what we celebrate on a day like today, but also for the rare opportunity to join as a community and to touch upon something much larger than ourselves.

By then the Anzac Day parade will be getting itself organised. Old diggers from different wars will meet again and greet and then with medals poinned to their chest march stiff backed down St Kilda road in front of an adoring crowd cheering them on. They snake their way towards the Shrine hearing the applause and cheers, remembering doubtless those who aren’t there for various reasons, fallen then, or since. It is not a sad occasion however, but rather one of pride. I was lucky enough to march a few years back wearing my grandfather’s medals, my nephew beside me. I look back on it as one of the great occasions of my life. The veterans were welcoming, friendly and supportive. We were ushered into place with military precision. Then we marched with a sense of wonder as thousands of strangers looked upon us and cheered.

As I write the parade will be nearing its end. Each year there are fewer, for obvious reasons, but the fervour and sense of gratitude is undiminished. Sometime soon these old diggers will get together over a cold beer and remember old times. Or else they’ll get together in some laneway or out of the way spot and play two-up, the only day of the year that it is legally permitted.

To this point the national psyche, the national memory, has transitioned through different stages: remembrance, pride and celebration. The next step is less official, but to my way of thinking, very Australian.

The Anzac Day footy match is a recent tradition, but at least here in Melbourne, very deeply entrenched. There are some few who decry it as something either irrelevant or disrespectful to the true meaning of the day, but I strongly disagree. I recall the day I marched how the old diggers spoke as we got organised, or as we stood afterwards, of the big game ahead. Some were looking forward to going to the G in a few hours to witness it. They have a history, and a place in our story, but end of day they’re just like us. A good game of footy stirs them as much as it does me. And a good game of footy somehow epitomises the spirit we celebrate.

It was always a big thing for Australian soldiers of the first war that they should be ‘game’ – that is to be brave and forthright, to never shirk an issue, to be worthy of the respect of your mates. Much of this ethos was born on the sporting fields of Australia. It’s still there. Other’s will scoff, but the reality is that there is a great spiritual attachment to competitive sport here in Oz, born, I think, from the desire to measure up, to prove oneself competitively and courageously. I sit here in suburban Melbourne writing this, but feel those fires in me too.

The big Anzac Day clash then is in a way a spiritual culmination of all that has preceded it. We have remembered, we have been solemn and humble, we have been proud – now we go to battle. This is what makes our souls sing.

The day itself is beautifully done. I’ve been to about a dozen of these matches. Even before the game begins there is the sense of grand occasion. More often than not the day is bright and sunny, much like today. The birds twitter in the trees. The sky is blue. People converge wearing their club colours – red and black, or black and white – in clumps on train stations and tram stops around the suburbs, before streaming into the parklands of the MCG in long, colourful, excited ribbons. Sitting in the sunshine inside the ground there is a hum of conversation building into expectation. Then the designated time approaches. The teams take to the ground bursting through banners, they kick a ball around before lining up opposite each other. Then under a blazing sun before a crowd of a hundred thousand the solemn ceremonies of the dawn service are repeated. A slow, solemn drumbeat marks the beginning as an army colour sergeant barks orders the whole ground can hear (though not understand). Silence permeates the ground, you can hear a pin drop. The Ode off Remembrance is recited by the RSL president to a hushed crowd (They shall grow not old…).

It’s a great thing to behold and to be part of. It catches in you, this communal devotion. Then the bugle begins it’s slow lament, a few notes at first drifting on the breeze before gradually hurrying into something that is both a call to arms and a tribute to those left behind. You stand there in the crowd feeling your heart in your chest. Perhaps there is a tear in your eye. Electricity runs from one person to the next, regardless of team colours. And then as the last notes of the Last Post drift into the blue sky a we’re asked to listen to the national anthem. As the last strains of the national anthem are heard a guttural roar emerges, like a distant train at first that is suddenly right there, filling the stadium and pushing at the sides of it. The scalp creeps, you feel ready to jump the fence and take part – you want to jump the fence and take part, oh so badly. Instead as the roar dies away and the players take their position you become part of the great shifting crowd taking to their seat. Then the umpire raises the ball aloft, the siren sounds to a new round of cheering, and the game is on.

At the end of the day there’s a collective sigh all over the country. It’s been so big, so filled with stuff that is meaningful to most of us, that at the end of it we are happily spent. While the genesis of this day is in many ways solemn, I always find it a happy day. It means something to most people, much more so than Australia Day. And because of that I think as a people we are at our most humble. It’s the closest thing we have to thanksgiving day, but celebrated in our own unique way.

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