We can hold more than one story in our heads #anzachistories

As History Week draws to a close in Sydney, this is a summary of the Symposium held to explore public and popular histories of Anzac. The Symposium was put together by Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, and was supported by the Modern History, Politics & International Relations Department, and the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University. These are my (possibly somewhat random) thoughts on the day. I hope not to mis-represent any of the arguments advanced during the day, and welcome comments from anyone who was there, or who would like to know more.

The day was a success, with some great presentations, excellent questions, and thought-provoking discussions. For the students in the audience, there were many hints from the speakers about areas crying out for further research (a history of the RSL anyone?)  I always think it’s well worth the price of admission to attend these sorts of events as listening to researchers and commentators invariably sparks creativity and questions, and avenues for further research.

The day opened with keynote addresses from Carolyn Holbrook and Anna Clark. Holbrook’s book Anzac the Unauthorized Biography was a joint winner of this year’s prize for an Australian First World War History, part of the NSW Premier’s History awards. Holbrook addressed the question of how we account for the change in attitude about Anzac from being a point of protest about war (the position for much of the last century), to today’s reverence for the sacrifice of naive young men, which seems to takes on more and more the mantle of a civic religion? Given the attachment of today’s Australian politicians to the ‘Anzac legend’ and the supposed un-Australianness of questioning it, can we blame politicians for the revival of the legend? Holbrook argued that no, the roots of the revival lie not in high politics, but rather in popular life. She noted Bill Gammage’s ground-breaking study of Australian WWI soldiers in The Broken Years, an approach which has been taken up by family historians, shifting the focus away from the military aspects of the War, towards the voices of the soldiers. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli has something to do with this too.

Anna Clark addressed the question of Anzac and everyday historical consciousness, drawing on interviews undertaken with a variety of ‘ordinary’ Australians in her current research project Private Lives, Public History. Clark noted the “quite nuanced” views her interviewees expressed about Anzac, including conflicting, complicated thoughts and emotions, even for those with a personal connection to Anzac. Clark concluded by noting the complexity of vernacular historical consciousness. This resonates with me, and was a theme which emerged throughout the day. It is so easy to simplify thoughts and reactions to history—in this case Anzac—but history is never as simple as one uncomplicated story.

The panel on Anzac Fictions included a discussion of the history of Anzac in Australian cinema by Daniel Reynaud, Fay Anderson’s assessment of Deadline Gallipoli, and Kylie Flack’s fascinating review of representations of Anzac in Australian junior historical fiction since 2000. I mean to follow up Reynaud’s claim that the footage we often see on Australian TV of the landing at Gallipoli is genuine, but rather is from The Hero of the Dardanelles, a 1915 movie filmed at Sydney’s Tamarama Beach!

I chaired the Selfies and Diaries panel. Tom Sear discussed the ‘hyper-connective commemoration’ pf Anzac Day 2015, including Woolworths’ infamous ‘Fresh in their memories’  campaign/PR disaster, which was live for all of eight hours on 15 April this year. Maggie Patton then discussed the State Library of NSW’s exhibition of WWI diaries in ‘Life Interrupted.’

The final session was Q&A style, run by Dr Michelle Arrow, with a panel comprising Christopher Lee (screenwriter: Gallipoli), Andrew Anastasios (screenwriter: The Water Diviner), Lisa Scott (Producer: Anzac Girls), and Rachel Landers (Director) and Kate Aubusson (Presenter) for ABC’s Lest We Forget What? The panel canvassed many issues, but a theme which had emerged earlier in the day was taken up, which is the power of Anzac to engage Australians emotionally, something the writers and directors drew upon in their screen work. All the panelists expressed their essentially anti-war motivations. Lee channelled this into as realistic as possible a depiction of the violence and ugliness of war in his Gallipoli—a stark contrast with Weir’s version, which contains virtually no combat. I would do the panellists a disservice if I tried to sum up their discussions in a paragraph, so will leave their work to speak for itself. But as with the speakers I heard during the 2013 Presenting the Past Symposium on History and the Media, I was struck by the amount of research writers undertake, and the care with which they approach their subject.

I’ll end with a quote from Kate Aubusson, which epitomises for me why the study of history remains crucial, and has so much to offer society… “We don’t have the memory of mice, we can hold more than one story in our heads.” Anzac is complicated.

PS. a number of attendees tweeted about the day via the hashtag #anzachistories

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