Wednesday, April 25

Reflections on our Anzac Day

Another Anzac Day, another day of mixed emotions.

As always, today was a day of mateship and pride for ex-servicemen and women. A few decades ago, newspapers carried long lists of reunions, column after column naming the pubs and clubs where old diggers could meet up with comrades after the march. Today there are fewer reunions and fewer diggers to attend them. Some of Sydney's pubs now turn them away.

Despite the diminishing number of old diggers, Australians young and old appear to be observing Anzac Day more strongly than ever. Some people see too much jingoistic nationalism, but support for the day is widespread. It wasn't always so.

Acccording to historian John Hirst, for the years up to World War II, the RSL battled to gain Catholic Church support for Anzac Day ceremonies.

Catholic leaders saw the quasi-religious Anzac services as an heretical rite, and instructed their members that even if they marched, they must not attend the services.

And then there was The One Day of the Year, the play written in 1958 by Alan Seymour, and banned from its planned first performance at the 1960 Adelaide Festival, although a fringe group then presented the play.

Seymour developed his ideas from an article in the Sydney University student paper Honi Soit claiming Anzac Day was a mawkish celebration of confused ideals, marred by drunkenness.

The play's central character, Alf, is a lift-driver who knows he's a failure in life – except on that one day of the year when he joins his old comrades and gets drunk. Alf and his mates disgust Alf's university student son Hughie, who sets out with his hoity-toity girlfriend Jan to prepare a photo-essay documenting their excesses.

When it was written, the play did reflect the concerns of many Australians. How could a day dedicated to solemn remembrance of sacrifice and high ideals degenerate into such alcoholic excess?

On top of that there was a generational gap – arrogant youngsters in contempt of old codgers still wallowing in the glow of wartime friendship, when the world was moving on.

Alcoholic excess remained a serious problem on Anzac Day – but it's not the old diggers, it's been the drunken teenagers staggering around the two-up at the back of pubs. So much so, that most pubs and clubs now say two-up isn't worth the hassle.

This year heavy rain forced organisers to call off the Dawn Service at Woy Woy, usually a moving ceremony in a beautiful waterfront setting, with a big crowd in the memorial park and along the road.

But as Merry and I lay in bed listening to the rain drumming down, the ABC was broadcasting cricket and we switched to local community radio Five-0-Plus (for over-50s, geddit?). Five-0 carried on with its on-location broadcast at the waterfront, a very creditable coverage of an event that wasn't taking place.

Five-0 won me with its marvellous selection of World War II songs and music – Vera Lynn, Tommy Trinder, Glenn Miller and his big band, and all the rest of them. It went on for hours, and I enjoyed all of it. It wasn't all sentimental stuff from the 1940s – I Was Only Nineteen and Donovan's The Universal Soldier also got an airing.

Lunchtime, we headed up to Mangrove Mountain to the Mangrove Country Club. This is not as grand as it sounds. You're more likely to meet a truckdriver than a tycoon, so it's my sort of place. Our oldest son, Andrew, is the club's patron. Don't ask. I don't know how the young fella got to be patron, except that everyone loves him.

[If you're heading from Sydney to the Hunter vineyards via Wollombi, it's the club on the left with a giant wine bottle out the front.]

A good Chinese meal in the style we learned to love in the 'sixties, and so generous we'll get another meal out of what we brought home.

Then the two-up. Young men and women, and some not so young, join in the raucous fun. Most people are drinking beer, but no-one's drunk and no-one's behaving badly. Little children run around. You get to chat to people as you ask whether they'll cover you on heads.

I look around, and I know it's great to be an Australian and to be in Australia. And I feel a surge of gratitude to those who fought to protect it.

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