25.4.08

Ramshackle Day Parade

When I was a student in the early 1970s there was a fashion among us for wearing army surplus gear. Especially greatcoats. I had one, an enormous, prickly, khaki job that still had its brass military buttons with embossed crowns illegally attached. These clothes acted as a provocation to old soldiers, who became predictably enraged to see scruffy long-haired youths wearing their sacred uniforms. That was of course part of the point for us. Another fashion, or provocation, was to stay up all night drinking or drugging and then, dressed in these outre garments, attend the Dawn Parade on Anzac Day. A mixed up thing to do, because part of our fascination was with the ceremony itself, the peculiar emotion that hearing a bugler play the Last Post as the sun comes up seems to evoke in almost anyone, as well as the perhaps more familiar rush of feeling the Lawrence Binyon words also reliably call forth: They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old .... I can't remember now if I ever actually did stay up all night and go to the Dawn Parade or if I only imagined doing so after the accounts of others who did, or said they did, or said they were going to. Likewise, I can't quite pick the moment when I ceased to feel derisive of, or critical towards, ceremonies like Anzac Day and began to experience them with something like an unequivocal response ... never entirely without equivocation, but still. I remember reading Les Carlyon's book Gallipoli a few years ago and weeping involuntary tears at some of the descriptions he gives of that campaign. Maybe my father's death, nearly twenty years ago now, had something to do with my change of heart. Dad's war was reduced to a few ironic anecdotes, with himself as the butt of some kind of cosmic joke that wasn't even that funny. He liked to belittle both himself and his war but behind that was a well of deeper emotion - he'd had two of his close friends killed and continued to mourn them all his life. The last conversation I had with him, on the phone, a few weeks before he died, he mentioned one of these fellows, a Maori bloke called Bill Wilson lost when his plane disappeared somewhere off Rabaul. Dad also used to like saying the names of the places he'd served, a kind of mantra that managed to suggest an enormous amount without ever really saying anything much at all. Perhaps his passing has left whatever mourning still remains to be done with me, I don't know. Anyway, although I haven't been to an Anzac Day ceremony for a very long time, this year I decided I would. And take my kids along. After all, everybody loves a parade. We ended up on George Street near Town Hall station, just where Park crosses over and becomes Druitt. It was a grey morning but the rain was holding off. The parade had already begun. I don't know what it was, but as soon as I saw the first straggle of old blokes walking by, the tears started flowing. There they were, men looking exactly like Dad would have looked if he was still around, with their bad clothes sense and misshapen bodies, their peculiar hats. Some in wheelchairs, some sitting on seats in the trays of jeeps, some walking along unaided. Some even sprightly. It was without doubt a procession of grotesques, except that element of the outlandish that makes for true weirdness was missing - these were just ordinary men, ordinary women, who'd come out from their ordinary houses all over the city to march. You wouldn't otherwise, or anywhere else, see that generation altogether at once like this. The other thing was, they were so few; and yet there were so many categories - infantry men, artillery men, tank corps, transport, ambos, nurses, land girls, intelligence, the war correspondents, each marching behind their oddly home-made looking banners with wonky applique lettering marking out who they were and the places they had been and fought. Again, the names seemed replete with feeling that did not require any further explanation, even when they weren't names I know - Scarlet Beach? Scrubby Ridge? Tarakan? And who would have thought there are still so many brass and pipe bands around? With their bizarre choice of tunes. One was playing Coming through the Rye; another, Marie's Wedding; along with the more familiar Scotland the Brave and a plethora of versions of Waltzing Matilda, the tune of which is, or alleged to be, that of an 18th century Scottish song which may itself be based upon an earlier Irish ballad called Go to the Devil and Shake Yourself ... anyway it makes a good marching song. The kids of all shapes, sizes, ages, sexes, ethnicities in their ill-fitting uniforms scarcely less grotesque. When the pipe band of Clan McLeod went by I couldn't help but tell my own kids that it was their tartan they were wearing, even though it's an almost fanciful and quite distant connection. After a while I managed to stop the tears from squeezing out the corners of my eyes and rolling down my cheeks. A few soft and gentle rain showers passed over and umbrellas flowered all along both sides of the street. My kids had wormed their way up to the front and were sitting on the road in front of the barriers. I leaned over them with the umbrella as the rain got heavier. Next to us were three Chinese girls with little plastic Australian flags that had sprigs of rosemary strapped to them, which they waved dutifully as the parade passed by. I could not begin to imagine what the day meant to them but didn't quite know how to ask; one of them gave me a sultry, enigmatic glance but then wouldn't meet my eyes again. A line from a poem kept running through my head - the many men so beautiful - and it took me ages to track it down to Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Course they weren't really beautiful any more, nor were they all men, but it was possible to see in most of them the boy or girl they had once been and that perhaps was the point. The bell on the Town Hall tower tolled the hour. It was eleven o'clock. The kids were ready to move on so I said once the next pipe band came by, we'd go. It was Knox College and they were easily the best of the lot, skirling and shouting down the wide rainy street. And all this time, the traffic lights on that busy corner, whose sequence I know intimately and by heart because of the number of times I've sat there in a taxi waiting, turned from green to amber to red and then back to green again, as if some vast array of ghostly phantom cohorts mingled with us were pausing then passing, pausing then passing on - unseen, unheard, but somehow not unapprehended.

11 comments:

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Hi Martin -- lovely post--and writing, as always.

There's a line in a Hemingway story or even possibly "A Farewell to Arms" about how in the end "only the names of the places are left..." (that's an approximation). Your Dad, naming the places, must have innately understood whatever it was that Hemingway was talking about.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

Oh, here it is--it is from Farewell to Arms -- he's talking about using words like sacrifice, honor, big words in relation to war-----

"There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of the places had dignity."

Martin Edmond said...

thank you Lynn - I didn't know about that quote - I think it's right

Richard Taylor said...

Yes a lot of fellows here in Auckland had those coats - I'd forgotten.

I have never desired to go to such a parade (Ihave eevnhad book of poemsasbedon ANZAC ceremonies dedicated to me -it is by the late Leicester Kyle who - as a priest - officiated at them every year)- war is not for me - I was reading a book called (I found it quite by chance in a library books for sale) called "An Intimate History of Killing" by Joanna Bourke...now the killing aspect of war is greatly de-emphasised. What were we doing killing Turks?

Obviously they were "on the side of Germany" but that is a weak answer I feel...

In the 3 wars she discuses - this book is about war - not politics as such - she examines various aspects (one concerns war crimes e.g. eth My Lai massacre where of 500 men & women and children (none with weapons) the women were raped and killed and the children and men were also butchered - but My Lai was very common throughtout all wars or actions like it by the Allies (the so-called "goodies") and the Axis soldiers ("the baddies") - in all cases atrocities occurred (and this means of course that "both sides" committed more or less the same level of butchery etc): but I didn't realise how prevalent the shooting of prisoners was - one example leapt out of over 3000 prisoners taken by the AZACS at one time - only 300 were left. The rest killed in cold blood - as was the practice. Prisoners in the First, Second and the Vietnam wars were routinely slaughtered. In fact the majority of victims were civilians.

Even before reading this I have never felt any sympathy or warmongers or any desire to attend the hypocrisy of parades...bugles or not.

But that is what our glorious ANZACS, our uncles or grandfathers or fathers etc were - murderers.

Martin Edmond said...

Think you are missing the point Richard - war is hell, yes, but it happened as much - or more - to the soldiers as anyone else. they were just people like you or me or anyone. a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end of it.

Richard Taylor said...

I get the point(s) - but I reject the hypocrisy - I realise e.g. that Leicester's book ["Five Anzac Liturgies" by Leicester Kyle.] was simultaneously celebratory and satirical. He had wicked view of things - he was genial rogue - I loved him. I don't (didn't) share his faith...he knew that.

Actually there are no "points" to get or not get...

I know you are ruminating - your view is as valid as mine - we all have our views...

At lest you respond.

But I keep away from parades - you see - killing - terrible as it is - can also be wonderful. This also the experience of war - the ecstasy of killing - frequently experienced...My uncle in the RAF - bombed Europe. He said it was terrible - losing all his mates (and this would be true enough I would say) - but I suspect it was also the terror, the sheer animal terror, (terror is the purest emotion) and the guilt (more when one cant see the enemy in some cases) - or - perhaps more to the point - the beautiful joy in and of destruction wrought by the bombs (soldiers report the beauty of napalm exploding).

And think of: "How to Kill" by Keith Douglas)...

The guilt, perhaps, or even the intense, near erotic, pleasure: of my uncle killing thousands on the ground, "innocent" or not...

Think now...history has contrived....

Be wary of the traps Martin.

I (any of us) could have been Hitler or Goebbels or whatever - we are capable of anything - all of us.

We are all murderers - complicit in darkness and dust and death.
Ordinary people? Fuck them - let them all die in their own blood - to me they were stupid murderers.
Because we are all so - all of us. I am also a murderer. We are killers...

So...don't pick up a gun [young man - it is always young men]...be pragmatic...live...don't be seduced by these apparent realities of pity or love.

"Destruction is always more convincing than construction." (Patrick White in 'The Tree of Man')

"Hands that can murder or create"...

Martin Edmond said...

have you killed Richard?

Richard Taylor said...

Why do you ask?

Yes - I am a serial killer!!! (Joke...)

No, I haven't as it happens. I will give an "answer" - but that isn't about me as such - of course there is the problem of the author - dead or not!

[The "arguments" I made or have made on here may not be "logical" - but that doesn't concern me - it's as if one could "work the universe out!" ... ]

I am not saying that I wouldn't kill - that is my point as I hope you realise. I am not a pacifist (but I believe in negotiation if possible rather than war) but I feel that too many people go to war for ill advised or mixed or stupid reasons - ultimately the responsibility rests with he who has the gun is what I am saying - I know there are historical forces and so on... [and yes, there but for fortune, in another time - I could have been in an army killing - or not]

As far as killing - I have never intentionally harmed an animal or killed one (but I am not squeamish I worked in the freezing works etc in the Offal Dept at one stage -in fact my father was the chief Architect-Engineer for Hellabies in Auckland and designed [I knew quite a few many of the people who are in "Stock in Trade" by Dick Scott) the killing methods for killing pigs and cattle etc - I used to eat my lunch in the slaughter house... I actually liked working in the Freezing Works)(but the killing of animals there seemed to me useful - not gratuitous) and there is a case for some hunting, but I am not keen on hunting)) ...and I feel the same about people - o.k. I would kill in self defence (I mean as a last resort) and so on...

So 1) No I haven't killed any person

and 2) I know I could kill and possibly even enjoy it

(Or be tormented by the experience -and or both))

3) for now I want to stay away from situations where I could kill as know all humans are capable of - well they are capable (potentially) of anything (they kid themselves otherwise)

4) I really abhor these Anzac parades and RSA and military bastards "remembering" a whole lot of dead morons...

5) If I am wrong I am wrong - you can go to parades (of course) - I am just stating my view.

6) I understand the emotions you describe - it is that I want to totally avoid.

7) I can also imagine the excitement of standing at Nuremberg - Hitler would have fascinated me (I was fascinated by him (and war in general) as boy/teenager (but I also cried when I read Anne Frank's diary) - he does still (!) - but equally I see how horrific war is - I am simultaneously attracted to Hitler war and power etc and repelled as one is to evil...

8) I am as terrified of myself as anything else...of what I can potentially do...

Martin Edmond said...

I just wondered.

Parades are about celebration for some. For others it could be about mourning. Denial's a third option.

Richard Taylor said...

I don't mind the question BTW. I could be a killer - any person can become such. The key term here is potential. But like most people I cant "imagine" killing is what I would trot out and in sense that would mostly be true...

Killing an individual is different from war - a fight or murder is not war..although I can see the connection.

Coincidentally I am reading another book about war (o.k. I usually try to avoid this subject (I mean I lately I avoid accounts of the wars (I do read them I mean _lately_ )) - but I am interested in studies of the whys and wherefores* - called "The Most Dangerous Animal") subtitled Human Nature and the Origins of War by David Livingstone Smith - it is not anti-war - it confronts war: so far it is very fascinating. I will give a 'report' on it when I am finished.

Going to parades etc can in fact be a way of "denial" - one feels smugly "good" or even "goody" - this is partly the brilliance of Leicester Kyle's book "Anzac Liturgies " it repeats Anzac days in various mundane places - places inhabited by the eternal groans of platitudes and stupidity and immense dollops of denial...to use that word you brought on here... - in NZ and simultaneously a satire and a 'celebration' - it is a brilliant work like all of Leicester Kyle's and very witty also. There was marvelous arrogance, or at least, a very amused and rather wry view of his fellow dwellers on this (hopeless?) muck ball, about Leicester at times...

The question I ask is why don't we parade for ALL those who have died?
All the dead - after all (a lot in fact of the dead..most of whom we can never (will never) remember) some missed the boat and couldn't make it to (a handy) war and just died of appendicitis or fell in front of a bus and so on....

*((hence I once read a book about Hitler that was a psychoanalytical study of him - done during the war - it was very accurate as far as such things can be))

Martin Edmond said...

So far as I could see that parade was for all the dead of war.