Sunday, May 1, 2011

What does ANZAC Day mean to me ... other than a great game of footy?

25 April 2011

5.15am, walking briskly along a ghostly Swan Street. I’ve stumbled home through the Richmond Streets at all times of the night, never noticed such emptiness.

In the pre-dawn chill, Rick and I headed to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, via the Tan track, gradually joining more fatigued strangers along the way. No words are spoken, barely a nodded greeting that might be normal during the day; which, paradoxically, emphasis the beginning of a shared social, even spiritual experience. I also note there are no earphones to be seen.

I’m familiar with the Tan track, and what I call ‘ANZaharakis Bend’ (a tribute to the great Essendon player and that match in 2009), where you pass the Shrine on the left. It stands bold and proud, yet sits comfortably within its scenic, active surrounds.

What does ANZAC Day mean to me? A grandfather and an uncle served, but its just a fact to me; its never been discussed in any detail, I don’t have any stories of their experience or knowledge handed down. I’m just an educated, progressive, sheltered pacifist, prone to cynicism at the first sign of nationalism. War is always a sad, horrible, blight on humanity, even when necessary.

For better and worse the recognition of ANZAC day has exploded in the last 15 years, in Melbourne partly due to a football match with overdramatised and awkwardly inappropriate clichés. It’s my favourite match of the year (until Essendon start winning finals again) – the connection to war is loose, but feeds the hype, which feeds the rivalry, which feeds the enjoyment of the game. Long live Zaharakis.

As we arrived a sombre voice echoed over a loudspeaker, recounting stories of war, and silhouettes could be seen on the hill leading down from the Shrine, itself shrouded in an ethereal fog that gave it an imposing presence in the breaking light. This could have been a foreign land; modern buildings just a few hundred metres away were lost in the fog and the Shrine appearing to be the last standing building in a ruined city.

I will never be able to comprehend what it was like to sit in the trenches awaiting certain death, or to shoot at another man who is merely a representative of your national enemy, or the many other horrors faced by far too many. Or to be in fighting/working in terrifyingly unstable parts of Iraq or Afghanistan, engaged in a war you may or may not believe in, but your commitment to serve and protect your country overrides your personal views.

The crowd, estimated at up to 40,000, was deathly silent, as if itself awaiting terrible instructions to proceed from the trenches. The eeriness was clearly nothing like war, but gave an appropriate sense of the occasion far better than any bastardised tribute used in commercial promotion of sport or other entertainment.

At the Dawn Service – my first – I felt a connection to the day I’ve never experienced. I saw few signs of outward nationalism; no flag-caped bogans, no southern cross face paintings, just a flag here and there and the fact the men and women being honoured specifically were indeed Australian.

As a speaker noted, this was a day not for celebration, but for remembrance. And we should remember that war divides humanity, so nationalistic celebration seems paradoxical to me. We should make particular acknowledgement of our own service men and women, but reflect on our shared humanity and how we can progress with the lessons learnt.

Gallipoli itself is an important and sacred place for Australians. I intend to visit some day. A quiet day, preferably, where I can try and connect to the spiritual legacy and appreciate, in my own way, the horrors that took place there. You won’t find me there on ANZAC Day. Not among the sea of Aussie flags – worn around necks and painted on faces – the left-behind trash and tinnies, the disrespect of naïve backpackers to the day, the place, the memory and the country who share it with us, dressed up inconspicuously as national pride, Cronulla-style.

I went to the football a few hours later. I missed the pre-match entertainment, on TV and at the ground.

I was in my seat (well, standing in front of it) for the Last Post – which was almost as haunting in the daylight at an 80,000 packed MCG – and those famous words “Lest we forget.”

For me, and I’d confidently predict just about everyone at the ground, it all returned to the back of our minds. Lest we be dishonest – we were there for a football match, and a massive one at that.

No comments:

Post a Comment