4:30 AM. I’m trooping through Kings Park in the ominous cling of before-dawn bushland. The highway’s right there but if I look into the depths of the nature reserve I can imagine I am back home; I can imagine it is the real bush that swallows lives and the space between tiny south-western towns; I can imagine I am six; I can imagine my father is taking me for some ill-advised adventure at an hour of the morning when everything is unreal; an hour that is another universe.
I feel hyperactive. Enthused. On edge. Three hours of sleep. We’re going to the dawn service. Anzac Day. Commemorating dead soldiers. Yeah. My friend tells me not to say anything sarcastic in case we get beaten up by patriots.
I find dawn services beautiful in that they are hypnotic and gentle and sad – just half an hour or so of standing as your legs grow stiff and the sky grows light. Bagpipes make my Scottish DNA a little sentimental. I don’t pay much attention to the wreath-laying, I just stand and knot my hands together and feel my legs lock up. I am there and present as the sun rises. The sky is bruised, the city lies in fog. The harbour a clean, clean mirror.
A lady’s singing the Australian anthem. She gets to the line about ‘boundless plains to share’. My friend and I give each other the Apathetic Leftist Look. Two magpies swoop overhead fighting and for a moment their cries drown out her perfectly formed vowels.
A middle-aged military man’s giving a speech. He’s listing words that describe the ANZACs. ‘Camaraderie. Mateship. Courage.’ The urge to say ‘syphilis’ loud and clear in the measured pause that follows is so real I can hardly suppress it. I keep my mouth shut. I try to get more in the spirit. I don’t know if I’m being overly cynical. Some of these people here are veterans, I should be more respectful. He describes the Gallipoli campaign as a ‘successful failure’ and I’m really confused about what that means. Something is crawling on my neck. I grab at it – it’s a spider. We fight a brief battle on the field that is the palm of my chilly hand. The spider loses. I know I’m not allowed to make a horrified ‘augh’ noise, which I feel is unfair, because the baby near us gets to do that at regular intervals, and it doesn’t have the excuse of an arachnid trying to get cosy.
My friend has chronic sinus issues and being outside in the cold is making her sniffle a lot. A woman who is literally actually crying puts a sympathetic hand on her shoulder and gives her a meaningful, compassionate look. A ‘here we are, us mourning women, weeping for our brave boys’ kind of look. My friend smiles awkwardly in response and shuffles away a little. My other friend, who is Indian, whispers ‘oh my God, I’m the only brown person here for miles’.
Unexpectedly a plane flies over, right down low, and that’s when I finally get a real surge of feeling. But it is animal and raw, not the aching, solemn, thoughtful sentiment they want from us at these services. Not as commercially viable as they’d like. I am simply and cleanly afraid for a second, because I was not expecting that loud swooping roar, that aluminium beast. Our magpie, humanity’s magpie, the straining metal magpie that we made, the one that we can control. Maybe that sudden shock I have is more akin to the real Anzac spirit than anything else. I’m sure they were scared like that. I’m sure their guts twisted.
The real Anzacs. Ancestors. Right. We’re here for our ancestors. I think for a second about my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, who was at Gallipoli and made it through alive. Apparently he was a real cunt to his family after he returned, although that’s not the word anyone’s ever used to describe him. Mum says she remembers him grumpy, definitely not her favourite grandparent. I can’t work up any kind of emotion over this distant and shellshocked man, dead long before I was born.
7 AM. Everything is misted over in greys and browns. Weather’s shit. Walking back, the rain starting to fall and the wet soaking through my shoes, my heart’s heavy. Not because of young dead men from the first World War, or even the abstract concept of young men dead in wars altogether. I’m sad about my personal life – university, dating, little chronic health issues, slightly larger mental health issues, the fact that the nervous energy that got me here on 3 hours of sleep has diminished and now I’m in desperate need of caffeine, that sort of thing. I’m sad about all that, when I’m supposed to be sad about the crushing weight of history. But I cannot access any kind of grief through Anzac. Maybe most of Australia can, and I don’t want to take that away, no matter how much I disagree with the political and commercial use of the Anzac ceremony, and no matter how much I don’t understand the cultural mindset around it.
I think jingoism is dangerous. I think Anzac commemorations encourage jingoism in a modern-day populace that should know better by now. I think people should mourn their grandmother, or great-grandfather, or their uncle who was in Vietnam and came back changed. I think if Anzac Day provides a means for people to perform this mourning amongst other mourners, then that is good and right. I think I have no right to tell my fellow Australians what they should and shouldn’t cling to as a shared ritual. I also think my fellow Australians should consider the fact that perhaps we cling to Anzac as a shared ritual because all of the other myths we have told about the Australian man – the bushman, the brave pioneer, the explorer, the settler, the noble convict – have been reworded by history as the racism- and imperialism-riddled endeavours that they were, and that therefore Anzac is an unproblematic, clean historical event that allows us to lionise and hero-worship the white Australian male again. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that Anzac Day ceremonies began to take on their modern fervour around the time of the 70s and 80s, which is when revisionist history began to expose bits of Oz culture’s rotten core.
Maybe as an aspiring historian I have had all my natural human emotion sucked out of me through the dry and endless study of the past, and I can’t connect to a legacy or an event any more without thinking ‘but, but, but’. Maybe I’m unconsciously furthering some left-wing agenda and I’m belittling the memory of these poor brave men fighting for Australia (but they weren’t! They weren’t!) in order to get myself some academic credence amongst my fellow pretentious left wing scholars. Maybe I am everything that’s wrong with Australian society today. Maybe I am just looking for something to argue about.
Maybe I just don’t care that much about dead soldiers fighting for a dead Empire.
But if we’re going for sentimentality – I can forgive myself for griping the whole walk back about things that are unrelated to dead men and the metal that ripped through their body. Because before that metal took them away (or the dysentery, or the long miserable deterioration of undiagnosed and untreated PTSD), those men complained about the rain and about their lovers and about their family. And we have that in common. Them and I, we both know what it is to walk home through the bush, the wet soaking into our shoes. So there’s that.