By Ivor Wells
ANZAC Day. Some thoughts on good old ANZAC Day.
Well, throughout this year’s festival I’ve hardly thought about ANZAC Day to be honest. Odd, given the profile of its centenary this year. But it hardly came up until ‘The One Day of the Year’, a discussion on Alan Seymour’s seminal 1958 play about how ANZAC Day is celebrated in Australia.
It’s currently being performed in London at the Finborough Theatre; a fantastic, intimate production, true to the text’s naturalism but with some great expressionistic qualities too. And the acting is brilliant. Fiona Press in particular, whose portrayal of ‘the refereeing woman’ in an intergenerational father-son conflict gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on the London stage.
The director and some of the cast joined a panel on the last day of the festival to discuss the play, the wider ANZAC myth and what it means today. After all the other discussions I’d attended it was kind of strange talking about ANZAC.
Maybe it was the sessions I had chosen to go to. Or maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough in them.
Or maybe it was simply the diversity of voices at the festival and all the other stories that speak to the creation of modern Australia and New Zealand.
Because if I’m honest, after three days of talks, debates and performances I went into this session feeling a little flat, like I was shoehorning myself back into the One National Creation Story, the One Coming of Age Story, the One To Rule Us All And In The Darkness Bind Us Story.
It’s how the popular interpretation of the ANZAC story feels to many people these days, whether they feel they can say so or not.
The panel seemed to agree that Seymour’s play – based on a conflict between a proud ANZAC veteran, Alf and his student son, Hughie who has rejected the ANZAC myth – had come full circle. A teenager in 2015, it was suggested, could well play the part of the father Alf – proud, nationalistic, chest-thumping – and an older actor the sceptical student with more questions than clichés.
It was a good point and it got me thinking.
Compared to the late 50’s when the play was written and first performed, the ANZAC legend is back in vogue. Dawn services swell in numbers year on year across Australia. Gallipoli seems inextricably linked to Australian nationalism and it’s a very similar story in New Zealand too.
So why did I feel so, I don’t know, claustrophobic?
Well, it’s complicated I guess.
I’m the grandson of an ANZAC for a start. Auckland Regiment. New Zealand 2nd Expeditionary Force. Bullet to the thigh and a facial injury on the last day of the battle of Messines, 14 June 1917. Bloody lucky to have survived, my granddad.
I’ve visited Messines, just outside of Ypres in Belgium, now twinned with Featherstone in New Zealand where he lied about his age when he enlisted in 1916. Although my granddad was still farming when the Gallipoli landings took place the year before, I’ve walked with other antipodean backpackers on Chunuk Bair and Lone Pine Cemetery in Turkey. I’ve sifted through the pebbles on ANZAC cove.
I was even in Westminster Abbey with the Queen last month to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli landings.
So the ANZAC story is one I respect.
But I observe its commemoration with a very wary eye these days. In so many vacuous ways it’s become The One National Story for both countries and a quasi-religious circus of chest-thumping nationalism which many people feel uneasy about.
Is it the same in New Zealand, someone on the panel asked, are there any Kiwis in the audience?
Which is another curious aspect to ANZAC; having lived in both countries I’ve always found it interesting how, by and large, the Aussies overlook the ‘NZ’ in ANZAC and the Kiwis the first ‘A’. Yet both countries guard the legend as jealously and exclusively as they can get away with.
It’s as if, with its now-mythical status, we each have an insurance policy against being forgotten in the sweeping amphitheatre of world history, the great epic poem of war and Empire we once contributed a verse to.
I mean, where we come from – the utter most ends of the earth – who wants to be forgotten?
Ironically, it’s not the remembering, or even the solemn commemorating that makes me wince. It’s all the forgetting that comes with it.
Without ANZAC as our One Creation Story would we not have to come home to the other stories, or the stories of others to be more precise? You know the others I mean, especially if you’re Australian. Or perhaps you don’t.
If the Australia & New Zealand Literature and Arts Festival has left me with anything the last two years, it’s a renewed fascination for those longer, more complicated and, at times, uncomfortable stories from the formation of Australia and New Zealand.
I’m talking about the stories that aren’t 100 years old last month but 175, or 227, or dare I say it upwards of 40,000.
Curious is it not, that on The One Day Of the Year a booming number of young Aussies and Kiwis, draped in flags on beaches far from home, shoehorn their imaginations into that One Story of Nation grown from the soil of a bloody and futile contribution to the eternal story of war.
As their numbers continue to swell you could be forgiven for scratching your head at how the story of Alf and Hughie really did come full circle. As if, like the aging Ulysses back home on quiet old Ithaca, ‘to rest unburnished, not to shine in use’ is unimaginable in a world of war.
Or perhaps it’s not such a curious thing at all.
Ivor Wells is a London-based Kiwi/Brit hybrid who grew up in NZ, Australia, USA and Germany. He writes a blog called ‘Pacific Londoner’ about his travels, reading and musings.