Anzac Day is, for me, our most meaningful national day. I’m not a dawn-service goer or marcher or medal-wearer. I’m certainly not a two-up drunk.
The sacrifices of the original Anzacs resonate through me with the quiet shock of long-remembered tragedy. Their day is, and was always meant to be, a day of national mourning, for sons sent far away from home to fight in a bloodthirsty imperial trade war.
The members of my family who joined the Australian Imperial Forces didn’t go to Gallipoli. They did the European tour. And they weren’t boys of Mother England, either. One was a German Australian, and the other an Irishman. One lies still in Zonnebeke, somewhere in West Flanders, his remains never found; the other made it home and took life by the throat, becoming the first member of our family to go to university, only to die early from nephritis as result of his gassing in France.
Once, as a child, coming home from town with my grandmother, Nin, we’d hopped off the Maroubra bus at the Junction and were walking to the taxi stand to get a cab the rest of the way home, when an alcoholic wobbled out of the pub on the corner towards us.
I must have made a face or said something in judgment of the man, for Nin to squeeze my hand and tell me, ‘Shush. Be kind. You don’t know what hardship he’s known.’
I didn’t know what she was talking about, and yet I did. It was Anzac Day.
The sound of The Last Post squeezes around my heart every time I hear it; the lone piper at the Australian War Memorial closing ceremony makes me cry. Not only for those who die far from home but for those who return hurt. Lest we forget the fallen; let us honour and heal the broken.
It’s why I always have two bucks for a legacy badge, and always time for an old digger’s yarn.
Sometimes I feel guilty that my first two novels plumb that part of our heritage. I wonder if I’m just another Anzac-legend parasite, desperate for reflected glory, no better than a twenty-first-century Gallipoli lout.
I’ve asked a couple of old diggers this question over the years. One just laughed at me, growling sharply, ‘The dead don’t care what you write’; the other said, ‘Kimmy, don’t worry, you can’t tell these stories enough – someone’s got to.’
And there are certainly plenty of them to tell. Anzac is not one white-bread homogenous thing. Not one neat narrative. Not one kind of bronzed Aussie. They were German, Irish, Scottish, Aboriginal, Lebanese, Catholics, Coptics and Jews.
They were Our Boys, and we love them still.
This Anzac Day will possibly be louder and larger than usual, with the centenary of the beginning of World War I coming up in a few months’ time, but beneath all that noise, small voices continue to call to us. Among them, the lost tears of the ninety-six Australian Defence Force personnel who have suicided since 2000 as a result of the hardships of the job; triple our fatalities from Afghanistan.
As the brass bands strike up this Friday, I would guess that most of yesterday’s diggers might prefer that we do something to help today’s wounded and weary before we wave too many flags for them. That we listen to their stories, and tell them, and retell them, whenever can.