Saturday, May 02, 2015

Anzac Day 50 years on, 50 years on

One-hundredth anniversaries are necessarily artificial re-imaginings – there will be no one alive, with a cogent first-hand memory, to listen to.  And when there is no one to listen to, talk is cheap and abundant – albeit within some strict limits.  That is to say, it is ubiquitous and meaningless propaganda.

Book browsing recently, I came across a fiftieth anniversary of Anzac Day account #.  With many WWI veterans still alive in 1965, it was refreshingly unvarnished looking back to the long summer of 1915 at Gallipoli.  It could have, but didn’t, dwell on the more cringe-worthy aspects of Anzac Day commemorations c. 1960 (a la the play “The One Day of the Year”), and/or how, back in 1915, Incompetent British Officer X wasted the lives of Y plucky Australians at Z beach, when instead ZZZ beach was, in hindsight, the obvious weakness in the Turks’ defences.

My main recollection of George Johnston’s article is that nudity at Gallipoli was a big thing – lots of nude swimming off the beaches (including by British officers, whose competence was not specified), and later on, presumably as the summer heat peaked, general nudity in the trenches.  As with any good homoerotic idyll, then, the late-autumn evacuation (a non-botched operation, by all accounts) was a dream ending – from above, it was a sobering prod from the real-world, and from below, a sweet, seasonal passing. 

What George Johnston doesn’t indicate is how much of a downright gay old time was had.  While accepting that what happened at Gallipoli sexually was always, quite properly, going to mostly stay at Gallipoli, it could liberate the Australian national consciousness in several ways to think that the silver lining at Gallipoli (an upside of the sort that is found in many other awful and/or macabre situations, which in no way minimises the downside) was not a vague, collective “us” Finding Somebody to Ceremoniously Blame, but rather was young Australian men improvising and doing it for themselves – assertively in charge of their own bodies, despite or because of the dire situation all around.    

Why George Johnston’s account, and its underlying implications, have not gained traction over the last 50 years is not hard to explain.  The Official Australian Anzac Account TM was first penned by 30 y.o. Australian journalist (and later newspaper proprietor and WWII Chief Censor) Keith Murdoch, who used it to advance his career greatly, despite the content of the long letter he wrote clearly breaking wartime censorship rules.  In that letter, Murdoch famously – and to date, everlastingly – stuck it to the British.  More importantly perhaps, Murdoch’s loftily-praised Australian soldiers were virile but otherwise apparently sexless, and also mostly voiceless.  Overnight, an idealised, politically-passive (and fully-clothed and heterosexual) volk was manufactured – delivering packaged readers to Murdoch, and packaged voters to the politicians who clamoured around him.

One hundred years on, it is breathtaking how little has changed.  In April 2010, the Murdoch press freely incited the murder of a police informer, Carl Williams, publishing top-secret information without legal sanction.  It and its government and other cronies get away with this, and much more, because Australia’s volk have short memories – our democracy, like Anzac Day at 5pm, is a drunken echo-chamber.

Murdoch’s capture, and privatisation of history has perpetuated a false history that masquerades as communally-owned authentic populism – dangerous as it is to say this (albeit it is now well after 5pm on Anzac day).  The real story – one piece of which is what George Johnston told – is not suitable for private manipulation and profit.  It is also, therefore, genuinely owned by all of us.  Sketchy though it is, it is time that we took pride in this story, and junked, once and for all, Murdoch’s wretched Anzac crock.

# George Johnston, “Anzac – a myth for all mankind”, Walkabout April 1965, reproduced in Walkabout anthology 1968, pp 52-58.  

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