A few days ago I once again broke my hard and fast and utterly unobserved rule to buy no more books and bought a volume called The Best Australian Essays - a 10-Year Collection, published by Black Inc. So far I have read Kevin Brophy's account of living with appalling neighbours and trying to make sense of the experience through the medium of Slavoj Zizek's reflections on violence (my sympathies in this enterprise lie with Brophy's wife, who responds to his musings by saying 'Zizek is playing games with the word "violence". She is not impressed by his dexterity with ideas"); Frank Devine's excellent piece on Bradman; and Thomas Keneally's wonderful account of how he first came across the story of Oskar Schindler.
This morning though, I opened the book at random and began to read something by David Malouf. It turned out, coincidentally, to be a very perceptive essay on the meaning of Anzac Day, written in 2003 but equally relevant today (although we no longer have any First World War veterans, what Malouf says about our attitude to them can now be equally well said about our attitude to the remaining Second World War veterans, I believe). Here are some extracts I particularly liked:
"Anzac belongs now to a period - the early part of the last century - that is just beginning to pass out of first-hand human experience and witness, and, like all of what we know from back there, it has begun to develop the romantic glow of a reality softened, relieved of the sharper details and rich contradiction through which personal experience challenges and contradicts received views. It begins to have about it an aura of mystery we cannot penetrate and which, precisely for that reason, has a strong pull on our imagination and on our feelings.
Hence the cult - and I use the word with no suggestion at all of slight or condescension - of our remaining First World War veterans, old men now, most of them well over a hundred, who are, I suspect, rather bemused, that in these last years of a life of ordinary works and days that till now went unnoticed, as most lives do, to find themselves the subject of national interest and large and general affection. For some of them, there is embarrassment in the fact that their actual deeds in the war were undistinguished. They feel, some of them, that the aura they have acquired belongs to other and braver men. Their achievement is survival itself.
And in fact that is the point. That is the source of our interest in them and awed affection for them. That they survived the battles, but also the more ordinary dangers of war - flu and fevers and all the other accidents that young men of spirit are prone to. That they survived the years after the war; the bitterness of betrayal that so many returned men felt- the Soldier's Resettlement schemes that went bung, the Depression. Australians generally have begun to have a clearer sense of how hard the first part of the twentieth century was for their parents and grandparents. The tribute we now pay to these few survivors is in some ways a tribute to all those men and women who lived through that rough patch in our history - the way, I mean, of recognising history itself, as a lived and accumulated experience; of recognising that we have a history and that it is of this lived and personal kind; that the time behind us as Australians is not short but begins to be long, and that our roots in it are deep, not shallow.
That the lives of these old fellows we see on television, and whose names we now know, go back more than a century, touches us - and it may add to the power they project for us that they are not especially heroic and do not represent themselves that way. That they do not posture or make use of any of the rhetorical cliches, but are modest survivors of the ordinary circumstances and perils of living. And that on television, where glamorisation is almost a given, so that any claim they might once have had to youthful beauty is simply irrelevant. Very young people, I suspect, who find themselves living in a dangerous and chaotic world, and with their own lives fearfully before them, feel a special affection for these old fellows who have indestructibily battled through - and even a small sense of reassurance ...
Gallipoli ... has become a place of pilgrimage, one of our sacred sites - and we owe something to Aboriginal consciousness in our sense, now, that a place may belong to us spiritually when we have no legal or other claim upon it. All this represents the way that Anzac Day as an idea has expanded, become more inclusive, as it has passed out of the hands of the original owners and custodians, the Diggers, the RSL, into general ownership, where we have remade it in our own terms, according to present understanding and present affiliations and needs.
So what does Anzac day mean now? What does it commemorate that so many Australians, and especially so many young Australians feel that it is ours, that it is theirs? ...
There is, first of all, the strong sense of the tragic - of the waste, the loss, of young lives: 62,000 in that First War, in a population of just on four million. What that must have meant to particular towns and families and workplaces is staggering to think of. A society that does not recognise and mark with awe the presence of death, that has no sense of the tragic, is a poor one. Dying is a solemn fact of life; it is something we all understand and must come to. There is for all of us a close and personal mystery in it that touches us darkly - even the young feel that. And the death of a young person, the brutal fact of a life cut short, brings the possibility and the tragedy poignantly home; and this is especially so if the death happens in the chosen and public context of service ...
But ... why, at a time when so many people feel strongly about war and the casualties of war, so that even the death of an enemy combatant is no longer acceptable, why, in such a context, [does] this essentially military occasions - men marching, carrying the regimental flags and wearing medals - [have] so wide an appeal[?]
The fact is that Anzac Day has never been in any way triumphalist. The march is a civilian march, by men in suits. The keynote is comradeliness, and a sorrowful awareness as men walk in their platoons and battalions of the missing in the gaps. What is more, it has increasingly, as part of its growing inclusiveness, become a family affair, with small children marching with their grandfather or marching alone and carrying a grandfather's photograph, or young men and young women, who, marching in place of an older relative who can no longer manage it, wear his medals. This reminds us that the losses were always losses to family as well as to the ranks and, as so many war memorials up and down the country remind us, to community."
The full essay can be found in The Best Australian Essays - a 10-Year Collection, published by Black Inc, ISBN: 9781863955232.
Meanwhile, on the Western Front the fight is growing fiercer for my grandfather and his brother.