ANZAC Day: No ordinary day in an Australian suburb

There are no medals in my family. That my father, five uncles and both grandfather’s escaped conscription is something of a small miracle. There are Australian families who lost all their men to war in the last century, so my family I think is unusual. And fortunate.

I grew up not thinking at all about ANZAC Day. But things have changed. Since my daughter joined the Scouting movement, ANZAC Day has become a tradition in our family calendar, and I’m not sorry for it.

This morning, for the fourth year in a row, I observed our local ANZAC ceremony, which grows a little larger every year. The march begins at the local RSL (Retired Serviceman’s League) with an ever dwindling gathering of local servicemen and veterans. There are a few World War 2 men among them. It’s sobering to see these dignified, suited gentlemen with their vast array of medals adorning their chests.

The march is led by a bagpipe band and I appreciate the melancholy edge the music gives to the occasion. Those who can walk behind do accompanied by grandchildren, children, brothers in arms. Others, for whom the walk up the hill has become too great an effort for their old legs, are ferried by minibus to the Greensborough War Memorial.

The soldiers are followed by local Air Force cadets, Scouting groups and family. The cadets look no more than sixteen and are polished and nervous in their crisp blue uniforms. I can see how seriously they take their role in the parade, trying hard to keep in tidy step. Later I will notice the lad who lays the wreath, his head held high and proud, a small smile of pleasure on his face at being chosen for this honour.

As I stand taking in the reverence of the ceremony I realise how very Australian this event is. The rising sun glints through dewy gum leaves and the Salvation Army band plays softly amid the cries of magpies and rosellas. Those who are not part of the formal ceremony dress casually. The crowd is scattered across the surrounding park and the top of the nearby climbing equipment in the playground is crowded with children of all ages, claiming the best vantage point to watch proceedings.

The master of ceremonies has a strong voice. An army voice, trained to give orders. His words ring clearly over the PA system, the distinctive Australian twang resonating among the gum trees. Nearby three long trestle tables are loaded with wreaths soon to be laid at the base of the memorial, setting it ablaze with colour.

Even though I have no personal connection with ANZAC Day, I am moved as the ceremony reaches a close and the The Ode is read. Tears sting my eyes in the silence that surrounds the playing of the Last Post. I think of all the young, able, good men and women who volunteered, or were lawfully forced, to do the most frightening thing in the world – go to war. All the flesh and bone of generations lying far from their homeland. The Aboriginal servicemen who fought and returned still unacknowledged as citizens of their own land.

People prepare to leave and I notice the area around the trestle tables is littered with trodden flower petals. The image leaves a poignant and irrevocably sad impression. I feel now, it’s important to be part of this day. I am glad that my daughter is growing up with these memories. These annual national acts of melancholy and remembrance will become part of her identity as an Australian. Her generation will at least have some awareness of the terrible legacy war leaves. Destruction. Devastation. Loss. Damage. Awful things difficult for children to understand, but important for them to remember lest they make the same mistakes when they are grown.

 The Ode

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, they fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Lest we forget.


Choccie Royal & a cuppa? Review The Fine Colour of Rust: Paddy O’Reilly

I had occasion to meet Paddy O’Reilly late last year. At the time I had to hide my gob-smacked ‘WOW A REAL WRITER’ sentiments as she awarded me my first major short story prize (see 10 Dec 2011 post The One that Won). What impressed me about Paddy was her no-nonsense, down-to-earth passion for writing. Here was someone who spoke to me seriously about my writing, was genuinely interested in my career as a writer and wanted to support me in achieving my publishing goals. What a cool drink of water!

This impression was reinforced when I again connected with Paddy at the Emerging Writers Festival in May. I was impressed she a) remembered me, and b) listened to how my writing was going without her eyes glazing over (not an experience I’m used to in daily life).

Paddy is one of Australia’s national treasures when it comes to literature. She’s won a stack of national and international awards with her long list of publishing credits. Over the past ten years her work has become an integral part of Australia’s cultural landscape (check out her website for the long version of her accomplishments).

It took me too long to get around to reading this book, but I’m so glad I did. Beforehand I’d been trailing through erotic fiction (including the notorious 50 Shades), so The Fine Colour of Rust came as a welcome relief from the adolescent ‘Holy crap – Whoa – Arrrrggghhh’ I’d been subjecting my poor mind to.

O’Reilly’s taste for all that is quintessential about Australian character is palpable in this book. It’s a relief to read about uniquely Australian characters without the sentimentality or stereotyping so common in Australian narratives. These people are flawed and funny and believable because of it. It’s a laugh out loud story filled with recognisable characters and laconic dialogue reminiscent of Sea Change (still one of my all time favourite TV series).

The main character, Loretta Boskovic, a self-proclaimed ‘old scrag’, thinks and speaks in vivid country town lingo. Having grown up in the country myself, there is much I recognise about the landscape, social mores and way of life at the centre of this story. It was like coming home to visit rellies I haven’t seen in a while. City life brings a pace and sophistication that has no place in a town like Gunapan (the fictitious town where Loretta lives), and it was nice to be able to put my guard down for a while and join in the scoffing of Chocolate Royals and tepid tea.

This book is filled with golden moments of insight and humour – from Loretta’s two inherited lawn mowers (goats) named Panic and Terror; to the hilarious account of Hector the butcher dismembering a cow carcass in an effort to impress a visiting Minister; to the heart wrenching effects of illness on Loretta’s special relationship with Norm the junk man. This book’s honesty is what makes it funny. The prose literally sparkles with wit and is littered with gems like this one:

‘…clustered around the small waterhole like ants at a droplet of sugar water.’

It was the kind of book I couldn’t wait to get back to, yet savoured slowly because I didn’t want it to end. Moreover, I highly recommend it as a perfect remedy for mental indigestion caused by over consumption of low-brow popular erotic fiction.

NAIDOC? Wha’ the?

English: aboriginal site, australia

English: aboriginal site, australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Australia has some great festivals and days of celebration. ANZAC Day, the Woodford Folk Festival (Qld), Moomba (Vic), Melbourne Cup (everywhere) – (NB I’m deliberately avoiding Australia Day for reasons I’ll explain in a minute – bear with me). There’s nothing we Aussies like more than an excuse for a long weekend and a barbie. NAIDOC week should be one of those great festivals. For what it represents it should be celebrated widely on a national scale, but unfortunately it isn’t mainly because not enough of the general population know about it.

National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) has a long history. It started as a ‘Day of Mourning’ in 1935, but dates back as far as the 1920’s & 30’s when groups of Aboriginal people organized formal boycotts of Australia Day, and with good reason. Let me explain.

Imagine how you’d feel if Australia was invaded tomorrow by a swarm of people who saw us as little better than pigs and killed most of us, pushing us out of our homes and off the land we believe we have a right to live on. These people then changed everything about the way we lived. They now control where we go, who we hang out with, who we marry, what happens to our children, where we live, what we eat. We are no longer allowed to speak English or sing Ke Shan or dance like idiots to Midnight Oil. All the festivals we look forward to every year are banned. No more barbies or long weekends. These people, after murdering and separating us from our families, and putting us to slave labour without payment, then announce a national day of celebration – on the very day they first landed here and took everything away from us. Not happy, right? Do they care? Nope.

Just imagine that then goes on for decades and decades, so all the generations that follow us, knowing what has happened to our ancestors as a result of the invasion, must face this national outburst of pride by the invaders, without any apology or acknowledgement of what it means for us as a race, every punishing year. As a day of celebration of all that is Australian, it kind of loses its appeal, doesn’t it?

NAIDOC week (always held in early July) has its roots in the political, in the celebration of survival of Aboriginal culture – that doesn’t mean just a handful of songs, stories, and rituals. Culture defines who you are. Think about it. What nationality do you and your family identify with? What does it mean for you, as a person, to identify with that nationality? It means language – how you express yourself and your feeling and ideas. How do you communicate if you’re not allowed to speak your language? It means rituals and holidays you take for granted – like Easter and Christmas – even if you are not a practicing Christian, growing up in a Western culture means these holidays are part of your family life. It means ways of being and behaving that you simply don’t think about until you are immersed in a different culture and your uniquely Australian cultural characteristics become obvious.

Given Australian Aboriginal people are part of the oldest (that’s 60,000 years compared to the measly 220 years the non-Aboriginal ancestors have been here) living culture in the world – you’d think the entire nation would enthusiastically celebrate its survival wouldn’t you? I mean, that’s really something worthy of a big celebration, don’t you think? But do we embrace it as our own? Nope. It’s a fringe festival, celebrated by those who’ve made personal or professional connections with our Aboriginal community. And yet, there’s a lively and ever-growing calendar of events organized each year by Aboriginal organizations (and lots of other public and private organizations) that anyone can attend. So why don’t many of us go?

Simple. Most of us don’t know about it, and many that do think of it as an Aboriginal festival, not a national one, and I think that’s a shame. As Australian’s we should be so proud of the original culture, and the complex and fascinating history of the land we walk on every day. Our Aboriginal people have survived a terrible and dark history, but the culture born in this country is being preserved and passed on to younger generations. This history, this story of survival, is something worth celebrating – vigorously and on a national scale.

NAIDOC hasn’t reached the mainstream yet – but it’s getting there. Each year it gets a little bigger. This week, all over Australia, Aboriginal people are celebrating their strengths in all kinds of ways. Art exhibitions, musical performances, elders breakfasts and lunches, the NAIDOC ball, flag raising ceremonies, speeches. Everyone is welcome to join in. It’s a warm and welcoming atmosphere with community at its centre. It’s just the kind of festival Australian people love to love. So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late. Go celebrate.

NAIDOC Victorian calendar of events

UBUNTU – a way of life

In a world driven by greed (I’m talking at you, Gina Reinhart), where competition is everywhere and Darwinism (survival of the fittest) is rife, I am both reassured and deeply unsettled by this blog post.

I spend half my week watching my fellow human beings push each other out of the way for something as simple as a seat on a train or the last discounted chocolate bar on the store shelf. We Westerners are grown up on a cultural diet of selfishness. We are taught entitlement from the moment we are able to talk. We know we must learn to be strong, to look after our own interests because (and how many times have you heard this in your life) ‘no one else will’.

The attitude of these African children is similar to the traditional attitudes of our Aboriginal people. Sharing and caring for community and culture are the core values that form the foundation of Aboriginal life.
As a culture, Australia has missed so many opportunities to become a unique culture. We’ve not only allowed our Westernism to dominate Aboriginal culture, tradition and knowledge, we’ve failed to recognise and integrate it’s strengths. We could have deveoped a completely unique Western culture in Australia. The opportunity was always there, may still be there, if we could stop competing with each other long enough to see it.

Comtemporary Australia has grown up alongside the oldest living race – and instead of listening, instead of discovering what we might learn from the wisdom that is right under our noses, we arrogantly keep trying to tell them our way of life is better.
How? No, really, I want to know.

There are some things that we do well. We build, we research, we do medicine and invent amazing things that help the unwell or the disable to have more free and comfortable lives. But we do so many of these things at a terrible cost – our humanity for each other.

What these African kids (kids, mind you) and our Aboriginal people teach us is that there is enough for all of us. We don’t need to be afraid of missing out. We don’t need more, we just need some, and so does everyone else. It isn’t about me. It’s about all of us, together. If all Australian’s could think like that, if we were less fearful and more generous, imagine what an amazing culture we could be.

Kindness and humanity

People need to each other’s humanity. They need to reach out to each other and offer some kindness.

It’s a simple rule, often forgotten in the hurly burly of
our modern lives. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as a result of
watching the way people interact on the public stage.

Andrew Bolt. A man, an issue I’ve been wanting to write
about, seems to me to be a prime example of a human being who has lost his way
when it comes to being considerate of others. The bafflement on his face when handed
his verdict, his inability to understand the subsequent dressing down delivered
by the judge, smacked of someone who has forgotten how to recognise another
person’s humanity.

There’s too much of it around these days – this lack of
acknowledging another’s humanity. I keep wondering if it’s a result of the ever
growing population inuring us to each other. Or if it’s because of the rise of
electronic technology and the arms length distance it lends to our
communication. Or perhaps it’s globalisation – fear on a pandemic scale – fear of
losing what we have, of not having enough, perhaps even fear of not deserving
what we do have. Or maybe we are just losing our manners.

Whatever it is, I despair of it. The vitriol that was dished
out in the wake of the Andrew
Bolt Decision
, from both sides of the coin, was unnecessarily unkind and
only served to reveal the latent insecurities and loathing in Australian

The fact that the HWT said they thought that section 18 of
the Racial Discrimination Act “overly
detracts from free speech and should be revisited by the legislature” tells us that
the good folk of the HWT, the executives, the staff, the loyal readers, don’t
understand what the Racial Discrimination Act is. They clearly don’t respect
the humanity the Act is trying to protect. Their responses only reinforced the dire
need for Australia to retain, if not strengthen, the Act.

A quick scan of the blogs – and there were many – discussing
the Bolt Decision reveals a disturbing level of ignorance in the ‘mainstream’
population. Many felt that Bolt’s
was lost in translation and to some degree they were right. Bolt
believed that people who were not genuinely entitled to the support made available
to Aboriginal Australians should be prevented from receiving it, which in
itself is a fair statement. The mistake he made was to link the statement to
his own judgement of who he believed is entitled, and that was based on his misguided
idea that colour constitutes race.

Culture is not about colour. Sometimes colour can be
synonymous with culture, but they are not the same thing. There are plenty of
blonde Italians, fair Asians, light Africans, dark Germans – the colour of
their skin does not preclude them from identifying with the race and culture
into which they were born. That Bolt received so much support for this idea of culture
based on colour was disturbing enough. But then to witness the righteous
outrage of Bolt’s supporters as they vented their spleens on his behalf, well,
it was downright embarrassing.

While lamenting the ignorance of my fellow whitefella
brothers and sisters with an Aboriginal friend of mine he said ‘We have a
saying for what’s going on – white is right.’ Hearing this was like a punch to
the guts. Because I understood that the core what he was saying was right. In
our country whitefella views and values dominate every debateable topic, even
if we have zero knowledge, understanding or experience of the matter. Debates are
an essential ingredient to a vibrant democracy – but there is no place for fear
mongering and misinformation in a sound debate. And the debate that followed
Bolt’s well deserved loss in our courts was filled with both of these things.

‘I want Australia back’ ranted one blogger.

Fine. Let’s hand Parliament over to the Aboriginal leaders of
this country. Let’s see Aboriginal people dominate the discussion for a change,
set the policy, lead the country – because they are the ones most entitled to
claim Australia as it was in the past.

Somehow I don’t think that’s what the lady meant.

[sic] makes perfect sense. And I’m NOT sorry if I offend anyone. – KennyMcCormick

Not much humanity here for any one. I wonder how Kenny feels
when someone pushes in front of him in a queue? Or when someone steals his car park?
Or when his boss ignores him in the morning? I wonder how Kenny will feel when
he’s refused a job opportunity because he’s over 50? I’m sure Kenny doesn’t
like it much when his humanity is ignored – yet he, and many others, feel they
are perfectly entitled to ignore the humanity of Aboriginal people. Because,
after all, they’re only Blackfella’s – aren’t they Kenny?