Last time I walked into the Transcontinental Hotel in Brisbane I was thrown out for being a Sheila. This time, on the eve of the 100th commemoration of the Gallipoli landings, my dollar was welcomed. I spent it – and a few more – on a glassful of memories. To the Fallen.
It was 1979 and I was heading from Brisbane to Toowoomba on a McCafferty’s coach to visit my Nana. With a little time to kill I headed across the road from Roma Street station – that glorious transport hub which tells new arrivals instantly that they are in a world class city – to the pub.
I was in the company of a young man of my acquaintance who had kindly given me a lift into the city and together we fronted the bar, only for the barman to genially say, “Sorry mate. We don’t allow Sheilas in here. You’ll have to take her into the lounge.”
Knowing me well, my companion grabbed my elbow and steered me firmly out of the place without giving me a moment’s opportunity to express my outrage. He was right of course. It’s hard to clamber up the slippery slope and plant your flag on the moral high ground when you’re not actually old enough to be there in the first place.
My dollar is welcome at the bar of that pub these days and I was happy to spend it and a few more on raising a glass to old memories the other night. Given the time of year, it’s not surprising that my thoughts turned to that most solemn date in our calendar – Anzac Day, which will be commemorated for the 100th time on Monday, 25 April 2016.
Turns out 1979 was a defining one for Your Girl Reporter. That refusal of service in a public bar shaped my attitude to discrimination in all its forms (I’m against it) and my feelings about Anzac Day were also given shape that year when I saw a television report on the commemorations which featured Eric Bogle singing ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.’
It was the first time I had heard it and I have sung it every year since – usually just quietly to myself – in whichever corner of the world I have found myself, to pay my personal respects on this most important of days.
Last year I sang it on a Brisbane veranda to a bunch of young Aussies who had not heard it before. And for the first time I felt uncomfortable – that it might draw criticism from some of the neighbours who may regard its anti-war sentiment as out of keeping with the current national mood.
Later that same day SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre expressed views which were deemed offensive to the national mood and hounded out of his job as a result. A confidential settlement between McIntyre and his employer was reached just a few weeks before this year’s commemorations.
In the ensuing furore over the McIntyre Tweets – for this was a thoroughly modern controversy – there was much discussion about what the Anzacs had been fighting ‘for’ with many suggesting ‘Freedom’ including the ‘Freedom’ to be offensive, as long as it wasn’t about the Anzacs, apparently.
What I always liked about the Bogle song was that it captured the futility of the question. If the protagonist in the song, sitting on his porch minus a good pair of legs, doesn’t have an answer then it seems to me that none of us can claim to.
Some would fight for King and Country, some for glory, some for gold, some for a regular feed. And none, not one, would be all hero or all villain. That’s as true of today’s servicemen and women as yesterday’s and true also of tomorrow’s for, alas, it seems war will always be with us, no matter how futile it may seem.
The song’s prediction that Anzac commemorations would fall away with the passing of those old men has not been borne out by time, as attested by the swelling crowds at each successive dawn service.
This year marks the centenary of the first Anzac commemoration and what is remarkable is how unchanged our modern service is from that first ceremony held in Brisbane’s pre-dawn light on 25 April, 1916 just a year after the horror of the Gallipoli landings.
It was a humble Brisbane churchman named Canon David Garland who devised the simple order of the Ode, the minute’s silence and the playing of the Last Post. His historian, Peter Collins, said Garland was determined to create an inclusive ceremony.
“To bring people together of all faiths, or no faith at all, to find a space to express what they felt about sacrifices made,” Collins told the ABC.
Just 12 months on from our greatest national trauma Garland’s simple idea must have seemed such a small, fragile candle of hope. It’s a testament to its power that it burns today brighter than ever.
But the young people, when they ask what their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were fighting for, deserve more than the simplistic answers that politicians give when they send the next generation off to war.
On this centenary of our Anzac ceremony let us remember them, not as cartoon heroes but as they were, in Bogle’s words, “just ordinary Aussies doing a shitty job.”
I will see you in the morning, in the pre-dawn light. And then I’ll see you in the pub, at the public bar, and raise a glass to their memory.
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle
Eric Bogle: Australia’s anti-war balladeer reflects on his Anzac anthem – Daniel Keane, ABC
Regatta pub protest: Merle Thornton, who chained herself to Brisbane bar, returns 50 years on – Isabella Higgins, ABC
SBS deletes media statement after settling with Scott McIntyre over Anzac Day tweets – Max Chalmers, New Matilda
Once I was a Girl Reporter, working in newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and the UK. Now I’m an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and anything else that takes my fancy. Read more Baxter here.