Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Selling Anzac

I've written before about Anzac Day, and about visiting Gallipoli.
This Anzac Day, with biscuits already in the oven, I'm thinking about its place in the national consciousness and the Anzac-related thread running through the history wars.
(I should say this is a public debate in Australia, as the situation's quite different in NZ, where the PM doesn't feel a need to see herself as an upholder of "traditional" national values - or even a definer of such things.)
Some commentators, such as Mark McKenna, have difficulty digesting the recent resurgence of interest in Gallipoli as history and Anzac Day as commemoration. He's been critical of what he would see as the cynical publishing phenomenon: a clutch of new or recycled titles on Australian experiences in war flood onto the market every April (and November). He looks at the dawn service at Anzac each April as either a politician's ploy or "crass commercialism", or both, and has registered his disgust at John Howard's manipulation of the emotional connection we have to the idea of Anzac, and sees parallels between the Dardanelles disaster and the Iraq invasion:
To me, this cheap choreography, much of it encouraged by the state, is not "sober mourning" but an example of the new Australian patriotism - largely unreflective and blind to its exploitation. (Quarterly Essay, 24.)

On the other hand, historian Inga Clendinnan, whose response to Anzac Day is unashamedly personal (and who would generally agree with McKenna about mixing history and politics) is not overly disturbed by the kerfuffle.
But she writes, in response to McKenna:
I think many Australians are indeed watchful for "another Gallipoli waiting around the corner", precisely because they know Gallipoli to have been a blunder: "a shameless waste of British, Australian, New Zealand, French and Turkish lives". The painful heroism of individual Anzacs does not sanctify the cause, as individual Anzac survivors have made clear time and time again, while the project itself is now generally agreed to be an ill-conceived, stupid waste.

Two thoughts on this:
That distinction made by Clendinnan is very important, now and then. When we hear Bush or Howard disparaging criticism of Iraq as being unpatriotic and - worse - unsupportive of the soldiers in the field, this is the timeless answer. We saw the Opposition get into all sorts of strife trying to find a way to both support the individuals in the forces AND reject the idea of the war in Iraq. It is possible to do both.
Mind you, I can't see that anyone besides Winston Churchill and that ninny Hamilton has thought the landings were anything less than a disaster since ... oh, I don't know... say dawn on April 26, 1915. Anyone who argues otherwise would be skating on no historical ice at all.
I am, as so often, with Clendinnan, on having both a personal and more dispassionate response to Anzac Day.
I hate to see crass commercialism take over such events, but in some ways I don't mind the commercialism so much as the crassness. If you take away the John Farnham concert and John Laws commentary from those poor long-suffering people at dawn on a pebbly beach, you simply have a pilgrimage no more commercial than any other. And indeed if there weren't a whole lot of tour operators organising them, they'd never get there.
I'd rather visit the place on any other day of the year - and indeed I have. There I met a whole lot of young British and Irish backpackers who were "doing Gallipoli" without any idea what had happened or even why they were there. It was just another tick on the list after the Oktoberfest and the running of the bulls. Each one was profoundly shocked by what they learned, possibly even more affected - or in a different sense - than we descendants who vaguely knew what to expect; and one of the most poignant moments for me at Anzac Cove was when one pale young man from Dublin had to walk away, sobbing, and sit staring at the sea for while to recover. He had no idea.
If it wasn't for crass commercialism, he would never have known. And it will change his view of the world, and war, forever.
That morning, I glanced down at one of the headstones in Ari Burnu cemetery and saw this:
Trooper Ernest Butcher
2nd Light Horse
4 August 1915

I'd never heard of him, but I knew he was one of my mob.
When I got back I ran a quick search on the War Memorial database and found him: Port Melbourne. He could have been from anywhere. But no. Fisherman's Bend. He was one of my mob. We figured out the connection (a cousin, in that generation). Mortally wounded 4/8/1915. Obviously enlisted on the first day - the first hour - as his number is 56.
Then a couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading my copy of John Hamilton's Goodbye Cobber, and Good Luck, about the charge at The Nek. And there he is, straining against the leash of army life during training at Broadmeadows:
22-year-old Ernest had driven a milkman's cart around the streets of Port Melbourne, past the pier where the regiment would soon embark. Butcher was charged with being absent without leave from 2.15 to 6.30am and fined 15 shillings.
15 shillings! A fortune.
But the day before the infamous charge at The Nek (on which Peter Weir's film is based):
Trooper Ernest Butcher, the errant milkman from Port Melbourne, was cooking his tea in the trenches when he'd been struck by a piece of flying shell fragment; Ernest died at the dressing station, and they carried his body back down the ridge to Ari Burnu where Lex [Borthwick] dug the grave and helped bury him.
The next day, Lex Borthwick was in the second line in the charge - and was one of the few who survived.
I quite like it that the errant milkman's final thoughts focused on tucker rather then the prospect of running into a machine gun fire, but surely "mortally wounded" is one of the most horrifying phrases in history, drenched with screams and agony and dirty field dressings.

And on that note of sober mourning, I'm off to the dawn service, which in Warrandyte is at the civilised hour of 10.30.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

First person/third man/fifth column

After my comment earlier in the week about writing in the first person, I loved this from Graham Swift in Saturday's Age:
We all exist in the first person. So if you write in the first person you're automatically so much closer to life as it's really lived. With a first-person narrator you know why the story is being told. It gives you immediate access to motivation. The story in third person has to come out of the blue from some mysterious point the author has decided on. I always have a slight sense of the author taking a superior stance.

Not sure if this makes me feel better or worse. On one hand, since first person is largely what I've instinctively wanted to write so far, I feel vindicated. It's not that I can't do anything else, but sometimes it just feels right.
On the other hand, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I thought if you were going to be a proper grown-up writer you had to do third person. In fact, I've been told that quite clearly.
So I'll ignore that bollocks from now on and trust my instincts. It depends on the demands of the story and character, and I've always known that deep down.
But on the third hand, should there be such a thing, does that mean I need to rewrite the entire story?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Honey, I'm home

I've been scribbling again, at last. Feels good.
After several weeks - or perhaps months - of unsettling chaos, packing and unpacking houses, moving across oceans, enforced temporary spinsterhood, starting a new job, and most importantly being without files, laptop, manuscripts and even web bookmarks, I'm back in business.
First, in editing mode on a picture book text that will be coming out in time for Christmas. That may seem a long time away, but apparently it isn't in picturebookland, and there's been lots to do, mostly late at night.
Then I'm back to writer-as-commuter, sitting on the train and trying to imagine myself into 16th century Venice for a historical adventure for older readers (well, 13 - 16).
And I have to do a rewrite on a manuscript set in the Blitz, because it's just not working for me yet. Third person. Maybe a mistake. Voice isn't quite right. But you can't write in first person all the time. Surely.
But soon all my books will be unpacked, and then I'll want to read everything all over again, and then there'll be no time for scribbling.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Web 2.0

As you may or may not know (or care) I work during the day at the wondrous State Library of Victoria, in the web team, bringing the world of the cool new web to the world of the rare book/research/even cooler stuff. Or vice versa.
And of course there's a great push in library land, globally speaking, towards new technologies and greater user engagement and levels of content generated by ... well... the sort of people who write blogs.
And in those dark dull moments when I am beset by doubt, I simply look at this, my new favourite blog of all time, and know that it truly is Web 2.0 in action:
It is (wait for it) the Vegan Lunchbox Blog. And it is a whole blog about lunchboxes. Vegan lunchboxes. Really.


I sat on the train the other morning reading Orhan Pamuk's love letter to his home, Istanbul: Memories of a City. I could almost hear the foghorns on the Bosphorus (through Istanbul: The Sex and the City dance mix playing loudly on my Walkie) and taste the morning's yoghurt, dried apricots and honey.
It's voluptuous, enveloping writing, perfectly capturing the feel of that most glorious of cities; one Proustian sentence on melancholy (huzun) runs for three pages.
It's as much about history (Ottoman glory, rather than Byzantine, and its after-taste) as about young Orhan and his family, and is as much about the familial love and shared melancholy that binds together the city's residents, as it is about the lives and loves (and lack thereof) of the author's own relatives.
And it's beautiful.
When I watch the black-and-white crowds rushing through the darkening streets, almost as if the night has cloaked our lives, our streets, our every belonging in a blanket of darkness, as if once we're safe in our houses, our bedrooms, our beds, we can return to dreams of our long-gone riches, our legendary past.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

It's a jungle out there

This is how things stand at my new house. There are three buildings: all mudbrick, all gorgeous. There's a river at the bottom of the garden, and possibly also fairies. Or at least foxes.
The main house is slowly losing its chaotic camping-out look. The other two buildings (what will be my study in one long gallery building, and my girlfriend's study in her own little two-story cottage) are no-go zones. Instead of having a spare room, we have spare buildings: spare in that moving house sense, that non-militarised zone where you put all the boxes you haven't yet unpacked, and exchange hostages. And since I can't unpack books, because we have to paint the walls, that's an awful lot of intact boxes.
I'm trying not to think about the garden - it's too daunting. But I wandered around this morning and made lots of new discoveries, even an old telephone pole all alone among the paperbarks, and you can hear the river splatting across the rapids from everywhere. Still, we have been generously endowed with several of the more notorious noxious and environmental weeds which will take some beating. I'm not feeling quite as organic as usual.
My girlfriend's still on the other side of the sea, but my housemates so far include Maurice Sendak the mouse (and extended family), two small bats, several brazen rabbits, and Kevin the ringtail possum; I just surprised him performing a high-wire feat across the phone line and he froze with one of those hilarious "I'll just stay very still and she won't even know I'm here" expressions. I suppose I should continue the theme and call him/her Mem Fox. But he looks like a Kevin.
My pest control measures so far have been limited to shouting: "Maurice, get the hell out of there!" or "Warren (a rabbit, of course), what do you think you're doing?" They never reply. They just stare at me and sigh.
It's been impossible to write here so far, although I did have a brief burst on a picture book text: but anything else has simply got to take a number in a queue behind faffing around getting the modem to work; folding clothes and, more importantly, finding my dressing gown; doing battle with Maurice in the kitchen; getting home late from work to spend evenings sorting through boxes, piles of paper and bags of guff; and trying not to tear open all the boxes that have been in storage for three years and just play with my stuff and read all my books.
But life is slowly returning to normal, or at least vaguely settled, and hopefully soon so will my brain.