Keeping up with history is hard work. I find myself going through ebbs and flows with this WW1 project of mine – especially since the birth of my second son, I realise that there are many other things I care about a lot more than Anzac day. Having said that, now that we have officially passed the 'starting line' of the centenary, it actually looks like we could be in for an Anzac day which starts in late September and ends – well, maybe it will never end, but we might have to wait until sometime around 2018.
I certainly did not go looking for tanks, jeeps, guns and brass bands today, but they were very much unavoidable features of Dunedin today. As I drove down Stuart Street towards the train station this morning, the first thing I noticed was all the flags: huge brightly coloured rectangles, with hundreds of people gathering in the gardens in front of the historic railway building. I had just been on a walk with my two year old son up Flagstaff (a prominent hill which looks over Dunedin), and we were on our way to the supermarket. Driving down Anzac Ave we saw an impressive line up of various military machines: tanks, jeeps, heavy artillery and so on. There was also a fire engine, looking somewhat incongruous, which my son pointed at excitedly, and said “Fire Engine!” about twenty or thirty times. The supermarket chore wasn't really that urgent, so I found a park a few blocks away and walked back towards the militaristic carnival, looking for the fire engine.
Unfortunately the fire engine had realised that it didn't quite belong there and had left by the time we got there. But there was no shortage of impressive machines to look at, and the red poppies and Edwardian costumes worn by many of the people explained very clearly the reason for the occasion. Something to do with Anzac …. it wasn't entirely obvious why we were observing Anzac day in September, but checking in on the online ODT just now I find out that we are commemorating the embarkation of the first troops from Otago and Southland. The Otago regiment met up with the other regiments in Wellington, and the whole convoy departed together in October. So I'm guessing there will be more of this to come in Wellington in October.
Anyway the atmosphere was without any doubt carnivalesque: people were posing for photos next to the gigantic guns, there were hot dogs for sale, people dressed in costume, RSA vets in uniform, a contingent of WW1 nurses being carried around in a horse and cart, merry go rounds and buskers, the usual fair ground scenario really with a militaristic flavour. Tourists were clicking away at the tanks and guns while a grey haired choir blasted out “It's a long way to Tipperary”, assisted by stereo speakers. They had even managed to co-opt the services of a 1960s era Vietnam protest activist, and dressed him up in a mayor's costume: look, it's Tim Shadbolt! I missed his speech, but his trademark smile lit the whole place up and served for me as a sort of poignant metaphor for the event. I couldn't help myself wondering how they are going to celebrate – oops! I mean “commemorate” - the Vietnam war in 2060 or something. Maybe they will have a band playing Rolling Stones covers, fake napalm and a few token hippies.
If I think too hard about any of this, I do start to get angry. The pointless carnage of the years 1914 – 1918 needs to be looked at soberly, and the idiotic sentimentalism of Anzacery needs to be exposed and challenged. But actually, I didn't feel very angry or outraged at all today. My little boy is too young to have any comprehension of what it was all about, so he just enjoyed looking at the people and the machines and the horses and flags. The people themselves were surely not guilty of making excuses for war or for glorifying it: mostly I think they were just having a good time dressing up in costumes and eating hot dogs. They were participating in “history” to about the same extent that anyone is when they sit on their sofa on a Sunday evening and watch Downtown Abbey. The reality of the past might be brutal, ugly and without any morally redeeming features whatsoever: but what really matters is if we can somehow recreate it and make it look quaint and charming somehow. Judged by these standards, Anzac Year (times 4) is off to a fantastic start.