Anzac as it is

It’s Anzac Day this Saturday. I always think of it as our true national day, the day that truly unites the nation. It wasn’t always the case. We went through a period when Anzac Day was less fashionable, and even had protestors demonstrating against the march a few years, highlighting violence against women in war. Times have radically changed since then, an interesting cultural tale in itself.

I’ve always been on-board with the day. My earliest memories of it are going to the footy and the pre-game ritual of the minute’s silence and the plaintive wail of the bugle. I’d watch occasionally the old diggers march by on TV on their way to the shrine (and even a few years back marched myself with my nephew). I was told stories by my grandfathers while they still lived of their war service. As a boy I was a military buff, so it was natural in any case for me to take an interest. I was also a proud Australian, and this was a day as a kid I felt an indefinable pride – in later years something I was better able to understand and articulate.

Eleven years ago I attended the dawn service at the place where it all started, Gallipoli – a holy place in the Australian culture. I have vivid memories of the day, and count it still as one of the great things I’ve done on my travels. The day means a lot to me.

I try not to be sentimental. Often it’s impossible not to be, but I like to think I cut through it with some intellectual rigour. Sentiment clouds issues. It makes them vague and rosy hued, beneath which the truth, the real meaning of it, is obscured. I want to see things as they are, not just because that is the truth, but also because it’s more rewarding to understand and appreciate the true meaning of something, and not just the rosy hue of it.

I was listening to the radio this morning as conversation turned to the meaning of Anzac Day. People called in to express their opinions, and all of them expressing their support of everything it entails.

I too am in support, but I felt some instinctive unease at some of the language used to describe the day and it’s import. The word that really lodged in me was ‘sacred’, repeated time and again.

I’m hesitant to use a word like that in any context. In a nation like Australia, generally dry in character and overwhelmingly secular, it’s an unusual term to be so easily invoked. It disturbs me in the sense that it seems to elevate Anzac, and all that it represents, beyond the everyday reach of common Australians. A lot of people might say yep, absolutely, that’s what it is – but I think it runs counter to the real Anzac ethos.

We run the risk of over-inflating such an occasion. Like so many things these days an occasion such as this is bloated by rhetoric, exploited and commercialised. I understand that’s the way of the world these days, with culture in large part attuned to it. That’s another discussion for another day, and I’ll accept it as a fact of life.

It’s an important date, and we rightly play tribute to the Anzacs. Is it sacred? It’s one of those words that slips from the tongue too easily. Sacred is personal. When we begin to pronounce it as a national virtue it just sounds over-precious. The Anzacs wouldn’t want that. Our appreciation of the occasion needs to be grounded in the earthy reality. It’s much more fitting to pay tribute to these men and women remembering that we are of them. They’re not saints, just people called upon to do great things in titanic times, in the service of their country. We honour that, but as soon as we begin describing it as sacred we put a barrier between us. Perhaps it’s the need in a secular nation for a spiritual belief. In any case, let us not lose sight of the common humanity of the day, the occasion, and the Anzacs themselves – something we are not separate from, but are inheritors of.

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.

Always remembered

Anzac Day is just about my favourite day of the year. Yesterday it was fine and mild. I headed off early to get myself a seat at the MCG for the big match. Bought a badge at the ground, one of the marinated chicken rolls I like so much, then settled in for the game. IMG_0091

As always it was very impressive, and very moving. The two teams burst through the same banner before lining up across from each other for the last post and the national anthem. Everyone stood. In the silence you could hear the flag flapping in the breeze. In the national anthem 90,000 sung along to the words everyone now knows so well.

It was a cracking game, worthy of the day. We lost, which was no great surprise, but we gave them a fright, and played with intensity and heart. I left satisfied knowing that we are the real deal, thinking that we are ahead of everyone else in the comp but Collingwood. That's a big call, but I've seen no other team this year approach the intensity and skill on show by the two teams yesterday.

Last night I watched some of the programs I had recorded earlier. I watched the pre-game show, which featured interviews and conversations with the usual experts, but unusually also featured social commentators and journalists. Anzac day is the big day in Australian culture, and yesterday was deep immersion.

I found myself greatly adffected by what I saw. Many times I found my eyes glistening with emotion. Interviews with old diggers relating their stories. Commentators putting into some kind of context. And in the background looming was the big game.

There is occasional controversy over whether a big game of football devalues the day, or commercialises it. I find the arguments specious rubbish. I'm loathe to get into discussions about what people fought and died for because it becomes trite in the expression – however, if I want to attribute any meaning to it then I would suggest these men marched off to war to preserve the lifestyle and freedoms we all so cherish. Football may seem small beer, but it is a good part of our culture and in its way representative of those hopes.

Football is not life and death (though it feels it sometimes), and it doesn't pretend to be. We fight for 4 points, and no lives are on the line. Only the very lame draw those parallels. It is who we are though, proved by a crowd yesterday of 90,000 and a TV audience of millions, including thousands of ex-servicemen. It's part of the life these great guys fought for, and a day like yesterday the perfect celebration of what they stood for.

What is also often overlooked is how a game like this has put the spotlight on the Anzac tradition. The teams, the AFL, are very respectful of the day and what it means. The hype and and aura of the game feeds into the Anzac legend, which the teams and the media pay homage to. I truly believe that this game creates awareness, and in the periphery of it educates as each year other stories are highlighted.

The other argument is whether the day should be the sole provence of Essendon and Collingwood. Not surprisingly there are many envious of the tradition and granduer of the big Anzac day clash. For me it's a no-brainer. These are the two biggest and most popular footbal clubs in Australia. Support for them is tribal and vociferous. Between them they have created this tradition around which so much has accreted. They have made Anzac day this celebration, and it is the tradition and the rivalry between these two clubs that has made it so.

To change that formula would be to diminish it. The magic is in the tradition and the clubs who have built it. It would lose the glamour and mystique if it was just another home and away match.

Footy is a good way. This is a great season so far, and the Bombers are looking good.


Enhanced by Zemanta