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Anzac's Long Shadow - James Brown

Posted March 21, 2014 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

ANZAC Spirit: Now available in fridge magnets.

The breathless Irish voice on the end of the phone had been singing for four minutes straight on the majestic scale of the Anzac centenary. ‘It will be the biggest thing you’ve ever seen,’ she said. ‘It’s going to start with a gorgeous re­creation of the Gallipoli convoy departure in Albany, Western Australia, on 1 November 1914, to bookend the whole centenary of celebrations. ‘Everybody’s involved,’ she gushed from her call centre: ‘Legacy, the City of Albany, the West Australian Government, the RSL, the Australian Light Horse Association – it’s going to be magnificent. You don’t want to miss out.’ Untroubled by the silence from my end of the phone, she homed in with her sales pitch: ‘So we’re producing the commemorative publication for the whole centenary, Gallipoli 100, distributed to 84,000 people and with introductory letters from the likes of the prime minister. Would you like to book a message of support and show the defence forces what you do?’ She outlined the options: the best spots upfront had already been taken by the National Australia Bank and a ‘gorgeous’ advertisement from the Australian Submarine Corporation, but $14,950 would buy me a full page. For a 50 per cent premium she could reserve a special spot right after the ode of remembrance.

I hesitated, and asked her to email me through a pamphlet. She duly did so. A thoroughly unsentimental advertising rate card was placed alongside a sweet photo of a World War II veteran being helped along to an Anzac march. ‘Gallipoli 100 aims both to commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who fought at Gallipoli, and by extension in other wars, and to educate the reader about what actually happened during the Gallipoli campaign,’ it read. ‘Many other scholarly and popular books are likely to appear for the Gallipoli centenary. This unique publication will stand out as the most comprehensive, accessible and attractive of them all.’ With the promise of fifty ‘lavishly photographed’ and ‘thought­provoking and satisfying articles’ written by world experts, it was hard to say no. I told my new friend Nicky I needed time to think about it. She promised to follow up with me in a few days, adding, without the slightest trace of irony, ‘Lest you forget.’
A century after the war to end all wars, Anzac is being bottled, stamped and sold. Nicky is not the only one spruiking the Anzac spirit. The Anzac industry has gone into hyperdrive. The year 2015 will be a bumper one for battlefield tour operators as thousands of Australians wing their way to Gallipoli for what is being marketed as a once­-in­-a-­lifetime opportunity. One company, with a flash of brilliance and a tenuous link, is arranging a surf boat race across the Dardanelles. Another is organising marathon swimmers to make their way from Europe to Asia Minor. Off the shores of Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove, cruise ships will anchor so that thousands might nestle alongside the Anzac legacy. By morn on 25 April, pilgrims will embark in small boats as Anzacs once did, to join the throngs on the sand. By night they’ll rock away to Daryl Braithwaite and Kate Ceberano. Bert Newton will narrate the war.

It’s an all­-Australiana jamboree. Just issuing tickets for the Gallipoli event will cost more than half a million dollars, and an events management company in Melbourne is pocketing a cool $27 million for a multi­year contract to keep everything well organised on the day. What started as a simple ceremony is now an enormous commercial enterprise. Cartoonist Michael Leunig has captured it best: ‘they’ve put a big thumping hoon outboard motor on the back of a tragedy’.
Anzac Day is also a time to honour and remember. That might best be done with a purchase from Australia Post’s limited edition ‘Sands of Gallipoli’ range of keyrings and medallions, which promises to ‘keep the spirit alive’ while earning millions for its savvy creator. In the view of the historian Ken Inglis, these little vials of sand are ‘relics from the holy land’. For just five instalments of $39.99 plus $19.99 in postage and handling, the Bradford Exchange offers the chance to ‘honour a loved one who served our country courageously’ by purchasing a ‘Lest We Forget Remembrance Watch’ with ‘iconic rising sun and slouch hat reproduced in shimmering golden­tone’. The Australian War Memorial, too, is devising an official ‘Anzac Centenary Merchandising Plan’ to capitalise on ‘the spirit’.

Selling Anzac is not a new phenomenon: one of Australia’s official World War I historians wrote of the scandal when a real estate venture was advertised as ‘Anzac on Sea’. Had the sacred word not been protected, he wrote, ‘the name was likely to become vulgarised’ and ‘Anzac companies would soon have sprung up like mushrooms’. For that reason, since the early 1920s the federal government has legislated to protect the word Anzac from commercial misuse. But just as restrictions on Anzac Day sporting events and trading hours have wearied over the years, so too have restrictions on the commercialisation of the spirit.

Preparation for the four years of the Anzac centenary is, in every sense, monumental. Governments, rarely able to lift their gaze beyond daily, even hourly, media cycles, have meticulously prepared for this anniversary for nearly half a decade. A federal Minister for the Anzac Centenary has been appointed under successive governments. In a small country already home to thousands of war memorials, debt­struck governments are quarantining funds for more commemoration. The numbers are staggering. Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200 per cent. All told, the centenary will cost Australian state and federal taxpayers nearly $325 million. With an additional $300 million expected in private donations, commemorating the Anzac centenary might cost as much as two­thirds of a billion dollars.

While there is bipartisan consensus that the actual defence force is underfunded by 25 per cent, Australians are racing to outdo one another with bigger, better, grander and more intricate forms of remembrance. In Canberra a $27­million renovation of the Australian War Memorial’s First World War galleries will give the gore of interminable trench warfare new zest. In Albany, Western Australia, a $9­million Anzac Interpretive Centre will rise on the shores of the Indian Ocean alongside a further $8 million of Anzac infrastructure providing a peace park, an Avenue of Honour, an improved lookout and a refurbished war memorial. In Europe, years of diplomatic effort with the governments of France and Belgium will underpin a $10­million Australian Remembrance Trail to link the Western Front’s most significant Australian battlefields and another interpretive centre. In Sydney, the state government is considering funding a multimillion­dollar ‘NSW Commemorative/Educational Centre of Excellence’. In Victoria, $45 million will go towards new World War I ‘Galleries of Remembrance’ at Melbourne’s already magnificent Shrine of Remembrance. The Queensland government has pledged more than $60 million towards the centenary, including a major capital project to upgrade Brisbane’s Anzac Square.

A cacophony of ceremonies will be needed to maintain the spirit for the full four years. The federal government is providing $125,000 to every electorate for community activities focused on World War I. The NSW and Tasmanian state governments will provide similar grants as well as funding the refurbishment of local war memorials. In anticipation, bronzing and stone masonry companies are advertising to veterans groups, helpfully advising them on how to best capitalise. The official start of the centenary will be a $3­million re­staging of the departure of the first Anzac troop convoys from Albany to Egypt. Current soldiers from the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy will be ordered to reprise the roles of their doomed forebears setting sail for defeat and bloodshed at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This festival will be broadcast live nationally.

Government’s role in all this will be hyperactive, leaping over veterans groups to become the ‘choreographer of commemoration and guardian of public memory’. The NSW Anzac Commission has recommended that the government ‘negotiate with media agencies for a palette of stories in daily newspapers, television, web, social networks and mixed media to provide a historical narrative throughout the Centenary period’. The NSW Ambulance Service has offered to sport commemorative banners on the side of all ambulances for the duration of the centenary. The NSW Roads and Maritime Service wants an Anzac logo to be placed on all departmental documentation. Sporting authorities have suggested convening international commemorative test matches. In New South Wales and Victoria, governments are leading the wholesale renaming of roads, avenues, rest areas and bridges in accordance with Anzac themes.

It is entirely fitting and proper to commemorate World War I and Australia’s military campaigns. Yet all of this ingenuity and industry is for an anniversary which is ultimately arbitrary. The only reason the centenary of Anzac is considered a special, once-­in­-a­-lifetime experience is because we have imbued it with that meaning. To be sure, we often mark centuries as significant. But the struggle and sacrifice of our forebears at Gallipoli will not be any greater in 2015 than it is in 2014, or was in 1915. The centenary marks an epoch that we have chosen for ourselves. And we have chosen not to commemorate it with a respectful silence and quiet reflection. At the War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park, inscribed words decree: ‘Let silent contemplation be your offering.’ Instead, Australians are embarking on a discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four­-year festival for the dead.

12 Responses to ‘Anzac's Long Shadow - James Brown’

Rob ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

'four­-year festival for the dead.' would make a great band name.

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Dick is gonna tell you...

Posted March 21, 2014

James Brown could be the lead singer.

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Barnesm mutters...

Posted March 21, 2014

That looks like being a useful anodyne to the wave coming in 2015. "Australia will outspend the United Kingdom on the commemoration of the Great War by more than 200 per cent" yeah right there - thats we we should say collectively "this needs a bit of a rethink".

I dread to think what it will mean for anyone who speaks with a dissenting voice regarding this festival of the dead. Better start practicing "but I totally support the soliders ...."

Lulu mumbles...

Posted March 21, 2014

Also probably better for me not to mention my two greatgrandfathers who fought in WW1. On the losing side.

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S.M. Stirling ducks in to say...

Posted March 21, 2014

Frankly, this article strikes me as pickle-up-the-ass, I-am-so-much-more-enlightened-than-you-vulgar-bogans priggishness.

First, Australians are not as a group noted for prim restraint; they tend to go large, which is part of their national identity.

Second, all national symbols (if looked at from the outside) are arbitrary. They exist because people feel they do; that, and that alone, imbues them with meaning.

A celebration like this is a festival of belonging, a pledge of collective membership.

Lulu mutters...

Posted March 21, 2014

One man's 'festival of belonging' is another (wo)man's festival of exclusion. The questions are 'belonging to what?' and 'membership of what'? As an immigrant (of 50% non-Anglo heritage) and a woman, I don't feel that 'Anzac' has much to do with me at all.

Dino not to be confused with swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 21, 2014


30 seconds...

Dino not to be confused with puts forth...

Posted March 21, 2014

SM Stirling,

I have read a little of James Brown and heard him speak a couple of times on the radio.

I admire him greatly, as much as Robin admired King Richard.

His topics are varied and well thought out.

I agree with him that there are Veterans here and now that deserve more than the tiny percentage of energy given to a 'long weekend'.

I cannot remember the exact figures. I am sure you could find them and find out who he is if you care to look him up.

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Rob mumbles...

Posted March 21, 2014

suddenly has flashbacks of aussies doing that tedious 'oi oi oi' thing at the vatican square on TV. Then has flash backs of skin heads shouting 'oi oi oi' to Blitz's someones gonna die.

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Blarkon reckons...

Posted March 21, 2014

Is Barnsey playing the cove?

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Guru Bob mumbles...

Posted March 26, 2014

If you are in sunny Melbourne tomorrow he is speaking at the Wheeler Centre...

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Varangian78 asserts...

Posted March 31, 2014

I thought it was a great article. SM Stirling, I don't think Brown was commenting on Australians in general, but about the industry itself trying to make a buck from a day of the year that many Australians (and New Zealanders) hold sacred or at the very least, have some respect for.

LuLu, I'm a first generation Australian myself, and I have a great respect for ANZAC Day. With all due respect, I think it's possible the exclusion you feel about ANZAC Day is perhaps self appointed. If you turned up at one of the ANZAC Day ceremonies, you may well be pleasantly surprised.

Having served in the Australian Army for 8 years (and deploying to 3 conflicts) I can safely say that the Army is very much a cross section of society itself. It is multi-cultural, and members who weren't even born in Australia proudly serve beneath the Australian flag as fellow brothers and sisters.

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