David Stephens. The magic Anzackery pudding

Apr 7, 2015

Norman Lindsay was busy during World War I. When he wasn’t doing propaganda posters of slavering Huns or sketching buxom young women he was writing a children’s book called The Magic Pudding: being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff. The magic pudding was remarkable for its ability to keep regrowing itself, regardless of how many slices were taken off it.

There are some people who think Anzackery is like the magic pudding. There are two elements which are essential to the Anzackery concept and which reinforce each other: sentimental and jingoistic commemoration of an Anzac myth; making money from this commemoration. Anzackers hope they can go on doing Anzackery indefinitely (or at least till something better comes along) and the pudding will just keep growing back.

There are, for example, the promoters of 2015 centenary cruises to Gallipoli via all sorts of exotic places. A ticket on one of these expeditions costs anywhere between $9000 and $90 000 for about 35 days, with the price varying depending on whether you simply want to see out the porthole or, at the other end of the scale, have a room big enough to practice your chip shots in. All comers, though, get to listen to the on-board historians and entertainers.

The highlight of one of these cruises is standing off Anzac Cove, like Sir Ian Hamilton, before dawn on 25 April, possibly with champagne in hand, with an expert helping you to imagine what it was like heading to shore in those boats a century ago. Unlike those men then (and Sir Ian) you get to leave Gallipoli on the afternoon of Day 1. At some point, one imagines, the strains of the Last Post will drift over the water.

There are always, as someone said, people with more money than sense. Gallipoli cruises, though, that arrive in Anzac Cove on a date other than 25 April ‘the centenary of the Second Battle of Krithia perhaps, or Lone Pine, or the evacuation’  might not have the same cachet. Will the enthusiasm for military tourism last till the centenaries of Fromelles (1916) or Villers-Bretonneux (1918) or will African safaris or the North-west Passage become the rage instead?

At home, one feels for the promoters of the Spirit of the Anzacs Arena Tour (‘a musical experience commemorating 100 years of Anzac pride’ tickets $89 with $3 going to charity) who are not getting their show on the road until 21 August. They’ll be signing up bums on seats early in case the punters are bored witless by the Lee Kernaghan song which headlines the program and which will have had saturation airplay by then. (Mr Kernaghan will be able to buy lots of new Stetsons.) In an era of rapid fad turnover how much cloying patriotism can a market stand?

Those who specialise in more durable commercial Anzackery might do better from the pudding. Somebody sent us a page from a bookshop catalogue which carried blurbs for 20 children’s books about Anzac. Then there are Anzac pot holders, oven mitts, stubby holders, t-shirts, ear-rings and other knick-knacks. Perhaps being less ambitious and taking smaller slices off the pudding is the better option. Even then, how many Anzac-themed items can one acquire before the brand becomes passé?

Should we care about commercial Anzackery? A radio presenter asked the author that very question just the other day: in a market society isn’t it OK to make money from everything? Are there no sacred cows any more, only cash ones? One answer is: see above, about fools and their money. Another answer is: what would the men of Anzac thought? One could also answer with a question: do buyers of Anzackery assume that some of their money is going to charities like Soldier On and Legacy? One enterprise has been misleading about how much of a cut charities get and another which can genuinely claim to be not-for-profit freely admits that its merchandise provides attractive commercial opportunities for suppliers.

Then there is the political side. Politicians help mix the pudding. They set people up for commercial Anzackers by promoting and fronting seductive commemorative occasions. When two former prime ministers, Bob Hawke and the late Malcolm Fraser, and other luminaries produced a report to help the Rudd government get things rolling for the Anzac centenary they came up with a ‘partial’ list of some 250 events in our military history that were worthy of commemoration over the years 2014 to 2019. The list was that long mainly because the bureaucrats, uniformed and not, supporting the commission could not agree on whether the object of commemoration was World War I or ‘a century of service’ (by military people to their country) so they decided to do both. The list of 250 events thus dates from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first.

Was there not a concern that Australians might be commemorated out before the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, the author and others asked some senior commemorators more than 18 months ago? Might the pudding stop regenerating? (Some of these commemorative events won’t even offer a souvenir t-shirt.) ‘Yes, of course’, was the reply, but ‘it’s what the bogans want’, the ‘bogans’ being not the government but the voters, represented by focus groups, to whom the government was listening. And, we can add, to whom the commercial Anzackers have been selling.

More recently, Joan Beaumont, joint winner of the prime minister’s history prize for Broken Nation, a book about the Great War, suggested that commemoration fatigue might be setting in. She noted, among other things, the ratings failure of Channel’s Gallipoli. Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial, was quick to demur. Promoting an insatiable appetite for Anzackery pudding is good for public budgets as well as commercial revenue, and possibly good for careers, as well. A regenerating pudding is what both the commercial and political Anzackers are counting on, the former because there are potentially big bucks in it, the latter because wrapping oneself in the flag, with moving music playing and a Victoria Cross winner or two nearby, never did a politician any harm.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History (honesthistory.net.au) a coalition of historians and others supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history during the centenary of World War I. The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History. There is more on these subjects at honesthistory.net.au; use the Search function.



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