ANZAC stands for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The legend of ANZAC had it birth on 25th April, 1915 when Australia which had become a federation in 1901 and New Zealand sent its best men, all volunteers on the first amphibious invasion of the 20th Century, on the Gallipoli Peninsula near the Dardanelles. It was part of an allied attempt to open the lines to Russia and side-line the decaying Turkish Empire.
This ended in the loss of tens of thousands of young men on both sides. It ended in a strategic withdrawal the following winter. We lost 60,000 dead and 250,000 wounded in the years following for a population then of five million. Every man was a volunteer as there was no conscription in Australia then. In every hamlet, every small town in Australia there is a silent monument to the generation lost in that awful conflict in Gallipoli, Palestine and Arabia, in the Somme and in Flanders as well as on the high seas and in the air and in the wars that followed. We were never neutral. We can hold our head high.
We have always been in the thick of it and still are. We have always fought everybodyelse’s wars. We have never been shy to help out an ally, never one to shirk from taking on a bully. I served as a LTCOL in East Timor where 70,000 East Timorese had died under there repressive occupation of Indonesia. We are in Iraq and in Afghanistan and we will always be in wars where wars must be fought because we value the price of freedom and the value of free thought and the dignity of the human spirit. I would rather be dead than servile and my countrymen and women feel the same. We are a small nation but we have always punched above our weight.
Every year young Australians gather in hushed silence on the beaches of Gallipoli and at the Somme and at the Mennen Gates in Flanders to hear the chill call of the bugle playing the Last Post and to feel the hairs on the necks stand up and to feel the warm tears flow from their eyes, the blood of a generation they never knew but have instilled into their being.
Our symbol of Gallipoli is not a soldier running triumphant into battle against the Turks but a private soldier called Simpson who carried wounded men on a donkey under fire, back to the Casualty Clearing Station for weeks on end until a sniper shot him through the heart. He is our Jesus and every schoolchild knows him. He is the face of war; the face of compassion, the face of love, the face of the madness Homer knew on beaches not far from Galliopoli in another age, and another war. There is a bronze statue of Simpson we all know. He is the symbol of our nation.
Wearing Homer. Reflections for ANZAC Day, 25th April
Yesterday being a Saturday I had a lot of odd jobs to do, while my wife did chores at home with the children. Last June we went to Greece for a fortnight including a week in wonderful Crete. It was there I bought a few of the obligatory T-shirts, my favourite being black with the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey in Ancient Greek. It starts like this;
“Sing, O Muse, of the man so wary and wise, who in far lands
Wandered whenas he had wasted the sacred town of the Trojans.
Many a woe he endured in his heart as he tossed on the ocean,
Striving to win him his life and to bring home safely his comrades.”
This was the translation of H.B. Cotterill in 1911 and is in the same poetic style of the Homeric hexameter (six feet, akin to a bar in music with six bars to the line). Some criticised him later for such an attempt to fit Homeric style into English but I find it the most lilting and evocative of all the translations I know…each to his own. Indeed it gives me goose bumps when I read this epic poetry which has its roots in the second millennium BC and was written in the late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age somewhere about 800 BC or a bit later and probably over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. It is about life in the glorious age of Mycenaean Greece harking back about 1200-1300 BC, the memory of which is preserved in astounding detail.
Armed with this stirring epic on my breast I headed for one of the few bastions of Greek in my suburb, my barber, Phil who comes from Rhodes. As a preamble and knowing the order or my arrival like one of the suitors of Penelope in Ithaca, I patiently thumbed through two girly magazines displaying modern woman in her enhanced buxomed glory complete with Brazilian and the odd sacral tattoo, one magazine on surfing spots all over the planet for well-healed itinerant Gen Y’s, another on hotrods complete with chrome and triple layered clutches for dragsters maintained to perfection by some anally- retentive Gen X also with heaps of spondoolies, and a final piece of relative ‘couth” on equestrian genre complete with where to buy dollops of extravagant horse sperm in liquid nitrogen, and the best “elevated” saddle to buy for the prospective jumper. My mind was glazing over by this stage as none of these subjects struck a cord with me; nay not even the siliconised mammary enhancements whose appearance on a chest x-ray are a dead give away for an experienced chest physician. Indeed one day, I put up the chest X-ray of a woman patient who was consulting me and looked in wonderment at it and then asked her why she hadn’t told me she’d had a breast augmentation. Her male partner next to her looked as stunned as she. From that time hence, I am now the very model of discretion.
After my haircut which is usually a “number 2″ as my dermal androgen receptors have taken their toll, and the fastest way to make $15 I know, I stood up, brushed the hairs off my shirt and reached for my wallet. I usually say a few words in Modern Greek to him by this stage as my Greek teacher has had some impact on my conversational abilities. However, this time, after he had taken the white drape off my shoulders I said, “Look, Phil. This is Homer. It’s in Ancient Greek!” I add that I excelled in a year of Ancient Greek in the first year of my medical course, and I may add the only subject I felt moved me during those asphyxiating six years of slog. However his reply was a thunderbolt to me when he said, “I can’t read Greek.” He could speak it fairly well but the written word was beyond him. I left the barber’s shop feeling deflated.
Not to be outdone, I thought the next port of call would be the new Greek restaurant, come cafe, that I’d heard was about to open just around the corner on Racecourse Road, Ascot. However when I arrived, I saw the name….”Yassou” which sounds like the Greek words meaning “Hi there” or “Good-day” but not in the Greek which is the two word meaning ‘health to you”. I looked at the menu only to find it all in English or worse still in an anglicised version of Greek which I had to pronounce out loud and then convert back into the Greek to get the original Greek word. This is a bit like the way the Japanese use a Romanised version called ramanji to say a Japanese word. Homer would have been mortified. Some say he was blind but he was probably lucky.
Ask the average Aussie in the street about Homer and his face will light up with instant recognition as he will tell you he watches the Simpsons every night with his kids. To allay this anti-intellectual stereotype of male Aussies with beer guts, T-shirts and thongs, my Australian-born father and grandfather were men of letters read Homer in the original in those days when clever boys did Ancient Greek as well as Latin for Senior or what is now called matriculation. Nay, many a lawyer and doctor did Latin Greek and people were arguably more rounded in their education although they didn’t have Foxtel or Face Book. Cicero was read in the original Latin and the histories of Herodotus and Thucidides were as familiar to them a Tom Cruise is to a modern generation.
I am currently engrossed in the Iliad which for Philistines and Phoenicians is all about the Trojan War and now made notorious by the film, “Troy”, which I have not been game to see lest it mutilate my appreciation of Homer. Hollywood has the alchemist’s knack of turning gold into lead; an epic into a “soap”, and all in 120 minutes not including a trailer.
Robert Fitzgerald’s translation is sheer magic, with a fast narrative, and his use of words and turns of phrase like a master stone mason fashioning crude sandstone into gargoyles and flying buttresses. The reader soars from the bitter struggle of keen-edged bronze staining the killing fields of the Trojan Plain, to the ethereal heights of Mount Olympos (note the Greek spelling) where Zeus wrangles with his recalcitrant wife, Hera and high- minded daughter, the grey-eyed goddess, Athena, who have taken sides with the Greeks. It is a fast-moving set fashioned by the best in verbal cinematography, by a masterful producer and director, Homer himself. I read each book or chapter like a young boy reading Boys’ Own, captivated and wanting more. Interspersed with the action-packed narrative are delicate touches of poetic colour like a Rembrandt putting a touch of shade here and there or a blush of vermilion or cobalt blue. This along with his Odyssey is the apogee of Western literature which is quite amazing being one of the first lengthy epic in Europe. Everything since has paled in comparison, and has either been a counterfeit version or a neoclassical re-run…a sort of “Troy 2″. Even Vergil’s Aeneid which I have read in Latin is a politicised counterfeit of much lesser quality, written to tickle the fancy of the then supremo, Caesar Augustus. Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Cervantes all write in the shadow of Homer.
Homer is the old growth forest of our western civilisation. We neglect him at our peril. I care not whether Homer was two people, a committee or didn’t exist at all. What matters is we have Homer. It’s a bit like saying, Moses did not exist. In this era of collapsing financial edifices globally, we see the shear emptiness of modern capitalism, which functions and falls without value systems like a runaway train without tracks. Modern education has also focussed too much on vocational training which is not underpinned by value systems, reflective thought or higher intellectual endeavour. This has reached the banal state in Queensland, the state more famous for cane toads and rugby than inventors. The Queensland University of Technology, which has metamorphosed from a TAFE as is the trend, has recently dissolved its arts degree and thus the arts faculty as an irrelevance in a world where it can produced semi-literate “professionals” for “today’s work place”.
The current standard of journalism in our press reflects this and the entrance O.P. score for arts in general is now so low that almost anyone who was not decerebrate could end up with a BA. In stark contrast with out abysmal educational standards which rank us at about 23 in the OECD, I saw a young European patient recently who had done six years of Ancient Greek including Homer at high school as just one of his many subjects. A civilisation does not stand or fall on how many sprockets it makes but on its intangible qualities such as its moral code, ethics, and its artistic and intellectual aspirations. Imagine a culture with no fine art or art galleries, no museums, no libraries and no universities where critical thinking is fostered, no ethics and no social justice. The Romans made great maritime concrete but they emulated the Greek culture as the apogee of intellectual endeavour up to that time.
At the Classics Department of the University of Queensland, the teaching of Latin and Greek is dwindling although students doing Ancient History are now encouraged to do one or the other if they want to do a major in Ancient History. In general many read the classics in English as the “Classics” are regarded as “too hard”. We are losing it. Imagine if we said cricket is all too hard, we’d better do cyber cricket on the “Wi”. Why read Homer in Greek or for that matter, any language? Why not let it fade into oblivion or to be left to a few specialist universities in the more developed world? Well, he may just be able to tell us something apart from the aesthetic beauty and charm of his words.
Let us look at the Iliad. The opening scene is on the Trojan Plain after nine long years of slugging it out on the battlefield in hand to hand combat with men whose names are known to both sides. This was no impersonal war but one with names. It was all over a woman called Helen who had run off from her husband, Menelaus to live with her lover, Paris also known as Alexandros with the help and blessing of the seductive goddess, Aphrodite. The aggrieved husband enlisted the help of his brother, Agamemnon and his allies from all over the Grecian world to wage a protracted and bitter war to take back Helen and family pride, not to mention take the illustrious city of Troy, her contents both human and material. How could such a thing happen you may ask? This is fanciful in the extreme.
Let us go to 1914 AD in when an Austro-Hungarian prince is shot by an aggrieved Serbian hot heat in the social tinder box of the Balkans. This act triggers off recriminations, the closing of ranks of allies and confederates on both sides all itching for a good “scrap” in a time when there was too much testosterone, gun powder and steel in the narrow confines of the patchwork quilt the Greeks called Europa. Within a few days the west is embroiled in a European civil war which Australia finds herself soon exsanguinating its all volunteer army made up of brave and arguably naive young men determined to protect Britain, the Empire and her allies from the ravages of German militarism. Of a population of 5 million then, we lost 60,000 dead and 250,000 wounded.
It is now the morning of 25th April 1915, as a fledgling Terra Australis under the aegis of Britannia and Gaul embark on an ill-fated invasion of Asia Minor and surrounding districts at the unlikely, desolate sea-side real estate north of Dardanelles, only a stone’s throw from Troy which was excavated by the German merchant and amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann only forty years before. This stroke of strategic genius was the brain-child of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill while in a manic phase of his bipolar disorder. Indeed the name Gallipoli comes from the Greek meaning “beautiful city”, named after a city on the southern side of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Indeed the French troops were stationed at Cape Helles not far away from Troy.
Like the Greeks or Achaeans of the Iliad who landed on the sandy strands of Troy, the Australians landed with other allied troops in wooden boats rowed by sailors under fire. This was an amphibious landing but not the first by any means. We too were aliens from another land, another culture and bound by the same strong bonds of mateship and kindred that was integral to the Greeks and Trojans alike. Commercial self-interest, indignation, notions of king and country, as well as cultural and racial superiority made up the caulking which kept these like all wooden boats afloat. Indeed to add to the dramatic irony, Homer called the Trojans, the Dardans, and hence the Dardanelles.
There was a sharp fight near the ships: you’d say
that iron men, untiring, clashed in battle,
so fiercely they fought on. And to what end?
There was no way of escape, the Akhaians thought,
sure they would be destroyed. But every Trojan’s
heart beat fast against his ribs with hope
of firing ships and killing Akhaian soldiers.
These were their secret thoughts as they gave battle.”
(Iliad, Book 15, lines 806-14, translation by Robert Fitzgerald).
Both sides in both ages slugged it out for months with appalling losses mixed with begrudging mutual respect until, like the Greeks, they eventually disembarked for another adventure again like Odysseus who came not from Terra Australis, which is Greek for the South Land, but from his beloved Ionian island of Ithaca, also a suburb of Brisbane.
So familiar have we become with the legend of the ANZACS at Gallipoli, we have ceased to analyse it with any objectivity or scepticism lest we this be branded as sacrilege and disrespectful. It has become our own Iliad. Woe betide anyone who tries to debunk the sacred sacrifice of those hallowed Turkish shores or the ghoulish wasteland of life and limb of the red poppied plains of Picardy and the vast anti-intellectual military morass of the Somme which proved the breeding ground not only of flies, mosquitoes and innumerable rats grown enormous from eating corpses, but of the dragon’s teeth of discontent that led to a phoenix rising from the ashes in 1939 and a second sorry Iliad only in a grander and a ghastlier scale. Read the Iliad and it is all there. This is nothing new. What happened in the 20th century was all a re-run, a “fast-forward” which we may have avoided. Instead we became sucked into like a worm-hole of jingoism, unfettered bravado and machismo, shiny brass buttons, Colonel Blimp moustaches, arrogant faces with sabres scars, goose-steps, monocles and mass hysteria.
So go wear Homer if not on your T-shirt but in your heart and mind as he is the embodiment of both excellence in the written and dramatic art but also of life and its pitfalls. His heroes are eternal like his foibled gods and misguided goddesses. He has distilled the human condition is all it stark brutality, its lust, its beauty, its nobility and its frailty. No man has done this better and all transmitted through the ages by sharp witted bards who told these tales around warming heaths and star-canopied campfires until someone immortalised them in ink and sent them to an editor. Our society should foster the adventure of his imagination. Each generation needs its own translation and its own revisitation lest we die inside with the hunger pangs of empty materialism dosed with the anodyne of the vacuous ephemera and modern mores. I’ll wear Homer till I die. My T-shirt’s script is indelible and will never fade with the telling, for Homer is more than words; he is the mind of cultivated Man at its apogee. He has no equal.
“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.”
Iliad, Book 1, lines 1-6, from Robert Fitzgerald.