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Home » Australia » JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Australia, part 6

JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Australia, part 6

austraalia flag

They like to think they’re like Americans.  And yet they’re like “big-time-Charleys.”  And loud—you never saw such a crowd.  I get invited to a party and I figure, it’s a frontier country, informal.  Remember that I’m a traveler and you don’t carry patent leather shows and all that, but I figure I’ll get all dressed up.  I put on my white shirt, my paisley tie with the crawdads on it, my sports jacket and a fairly clean pair of slacks.

I get there and a butler leads me up the staircase and immediately I’m in the middle of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers party.  I’m surrounded by fifty guys wearing formal evening dress.  And I’m standing there and they’re making polite chatter, and this is Australia, a strange country of true contradictions.  They’ve got red faces, they’re real loud, yelling, hollering.  And what are they talking about?  You would think a crowd like that would be discussing the latest novel, they would be talking about Edward Albee.  Oh no.  I get in the middle of a group and one guy’s saying, “Oh, I say, should have bashed him the side of the head!  I say there, that damn referee!”  They’re all yelling about some idiotic football game in the most slobbish terms.  Talking like that, I realized—here’s another contradiction. After about two or three days in this atmosphere, it became suddenly, without any warning—Sunday.

ANZAC DAY

You have to understand something about Sunday in Australia.  If you can imagine an entire continent being turned off—like they just turned the switch!  It all stops!  It’s dead!  It just stops!  And I wake up and I look out of the hotel room and for miles around it’s as though there are just toy buildings—nothing.   The city has stopped.

On April twenty-fifth, a beautiful Sunday morning, it was ANZAC Day, commemorating the fatal attack at Gallipoli and in honor of all who had fought and died in Australia and New Zealand’s wars.  In the middle of town, at four-thirty in the morning, there were thousands and thousands and thousands of people gathered, having a silent religious service.  I had never heard about this.  So I observed this for a while and then came back and had breakfast.

And then it began.  This unbelievable, strange, folk-historical ritual.  And that morning I hung out of my hotel window because I happened to be on the main street where the parade was all happening right below me.  And I watched those marching figures.  It was not like any parade I have ever seen in America.  It was silent except for the drums and the pipes.  The men, and the women who were nurses, march in groups, all silently.

There is part of that paradox.  The Australians, on the one hand, like to believe they’re separate from England, and on the other hand, I have never been in a country that more celebrated the English way of life and the old Empire.  The entire city was ringing with that sound.  Broooom! Broooom! Broooom! And you could hear those pipers for miles and miles and miles.

I hear in the distance—one of the most eerie experiences I ever had—I’m standing on the fifth floor of this hotel and I hear in the distance the sound of bagpipes skirling.  And I hear drums.  The kind of drums that are not being beaten in Sunday-afternoon-friendly-fashion.  They’re genuine martial drums.  The kind that go Broooom!  Broooom, brooooom!  Broooom, broooom!    And they’re coming closer and closer and closer, and then I see millions of people have gathered.  It is ANZAC.

anzac poster

You know what ANZAC Day is?  It’s like being in Oz and seeing a great national holiday celebrated, with the Wizard himself up there in the front with the baton going.  How can you explain that back to the people in Cleveland?  I can’t tell you exactly what it was about except that it was the one time that I have been in an English-speaking country and I have felt completely, utterly, totally foreign.

Let me tell you what this was.  ANZAC Day is the biggest holiday in Australia.  It’s as if you took the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, if you took Christmas, if you took every holiday we’ve got, piled them all on top of each other and then multiplied them by ten.

ANZAC Day is the celebration of the great battle at Gallipoli.  It was at that moment that Australia became a country—not just an island.  They became a country, and thousands of Australians died in a strange battle at Gallipoli.

Here’s what they do on ANZAC Day.  Thousands and thousands of people march in silence—but really march! You know, we’re used to parades in America and everybody sort of walks along, they’ve got a big sign that says “SHAME!” or they’ve got one:  “HOW LONG?”  In Times Square today there were seventeen different demonstrations going on simultaneously, most of them cancelling each other out.  And nobody paying any attention to any of them, guys handing out leaflets and yelling.  Free-form anger.  Whatever America does is rotten. Oh, wow, terrible, terrible, it’s all of us, you know.  We’ve done it all.

And to the Australians, this parade is a very—serious—and, in fact, almost a— religious occasion.  So, you see all these units.  It’s really a very peculiar sense of time, too.  Each unit, in all the armies going back fifty years, march.  All the old soldiers come from everywhere and they march in their unit.  Some units have only one man marching.  Maybe just one guy is carrying the flag of a unit where nobody is left alive.  They have a big sign that says “317th Artillery ANZAC Brigade.”  And there’s nobody alive.  The people applaud.  The next unit comes and you see this big banner that says “6th Infantry Brigade,” and underneath the banner it tells where they fought.  And there’s three guys left—one ex-corporal, one sergeant, and a lieutenant.  And they march.

anzac parade

All these people are marching past.  And they are laying a wreath at the base of the big monument that they have to all the soldiers who have died and all the ones who fought.  The last one in the parade is the most spectacular unit.  A group of spitfire pilots.  They have a big RAF eagle up in front and underneath it says, “Spitfire Squadron 614.”  This squadron fought at the Battle of Britain and had one of the highest percentage of casualties.  It’s interesting to see old fighter pilots twenty-five years later—walking in the sun.  An eerie sight—fighter pilots, remember, and they are marching along, and in back of them is a fife and drum corps.  Just marching.

Overhead, suddenly, you can hear this wild sound.  I can’t believe it.  I hear the sound of Bwawauuua!  It sounds like no other aircraft, anywhere else in the world.  It is the last Lancaster bomber in the world that is still flying.  Flies over just as these guys are laying these wreaths at the foot of this monument.  It is Sunday afternoon in Sydney, Australia.

And little old ladies lining the streets are crying.  And little old men stand there who fifty years before had fought at Gallipoli.  They just stand there in the sun.

I turn on the radio and I can hear this commentator giving the history of each battalion as it went past.  He says, “This is the Seventh Armored Corps, that fought at El Alamein, their casualties were seventy-five hundred over the period of eighteen months.  Their commanding officer….”  You hear them go past.

Now I ask you, as an American—what could have been a more strangely foreign celebration than to see this?  At the outset, this guy I am with and I, both looking down, thought it was funny—we thought, “Oh, it’s a parade.”  Because we kept thinking about American veterans who run around and throw water bottles out of windows and yell and holler.  But this is a solemn occasion.  And ten minutes after starting to watch it, we can’t do anything except sit and watch.

austraalia flag

You know what was playing on TV that night?  On the Beach.  It’s a story about the end of the world that comes as the result of an atomic war, and it takes place in Australia.  And the Australians keep running that movie.  It runs every night.  Somehow they want to think they’ll be the last ones left.  I asked an Australian about the kind of “To hell with it all” quality that comes through about Australian life.

He says to me, “That’s the way Australians believe.  I’ve lived here for over forty years.”  And he says, “Australians are on one long party.  It’s in the air, I guess.”  He says, “Every time I go to New York, I’m constantly amazed at how serious everybody is.  Everybody is doing something.  But in Australia it’s a party.”

austraalia flag

More Australia to come

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