Les Murray and ANZAC Day

I’m tired. And tired of computers. Today I finished a draft of a chapter on the Australian poet Les Murray, and emailed it off to my supervisors. I always find deadlines stressful – I need them to force myself to get things done but they’re not pleasant. Anyway, the chapter is well on the way, and I have expanded the 2000 words of the conference paper I gave earlier this year to 15,000 words, which with a bit of tweaking will make a chapter.

Today is ANZAC Day – which for you non-Aussies celebrates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Gallipolli in 1915. And all wars Australia has been involved in since then. Les Murray is ambivalent about the role of war in cementing a nation’s identity – though I suppose it’s a pretty global thing. He compares it with human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs practiced. Dying in order to give a nation an identity doesn’t sound much fun to me either.

Coming from a family (on both sides) of conscientious objectors, ANZAC day has never meant much to me apart from being a public holiday. This is despite the fact that my great uncle (who was English) died in World War II when his plane disappeared. There was never any mention of sacrifice or bravery, just a sense of overwhelming tragedy and even shame (he left behind his mother, his sister and his fiance, who all adored him).

My chapter is about Les Murray’s use of medievalism to construct notions of belonging in Australia. This means the way he uses images of and ideas about the Middle Ages in order to form images of Australia and establish connections to it. This sounds like a pretty batty idea, but it’s not actually as strange as it first appears – it’s about the way we all use history as myth, to construct our own identities and homelands. As I’ve worked on the chapter I’ve realised that Murray does not only use the Middle Ages to establish a sense of belonging in Australia, but also to explore notions of not-belonging. The not-belonging I’m talking about here has to do with his Christian perspective of ultimately belonging in the next world rather than this one. The Middle Ages can be useful here partly because that’s the way people thought back then, and partly because it’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a sort of lost world, which can then be used to imagine a promised land, waiting beyond death.

ANZAC day is also about using history as myth. All these ideas have been swimming around my head today. How in some ways the soldiers are supposed to have died to help people to belong, but because they’re dead, the soldiers don’t belong, they belong (perhaps) somewhere else. And what about the awkward belonging felt by those who refuse to fight? The picture, culled from The Advertiser, shows the dawn service at the war memorial in Adelaide. It’s near the University. I’ve always liked the angel.

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4 thoughts on “Les Murray and ANZAC Day

  1. A range of interesting connections here Mel. We were down near the war memorial and the angel on Anzac Day, (having decided to ride into town on the public holiday to visit exhibitions in the museum and the art gallery). We ran into the local Anzac Parade, and I was interested to notice how military music stirs the spirit, and that despite my very strong pacifism I responded emotionally to the sense of pride and service somehow swirling in the music around the marching soldiers and the clapping onlookers. I guess that’s how national sentiment works- stirs the heart and attaches one to an imagined/imaginary ideal, rather than encouraging an opening up of both mind and heart together.

    I was also interested and surprised at your picking up of shame in relation to hearing of Dad’s Uncle Jack. I wonder if it was more to do with you as a child hearing him spoken of from within a church tradition that didn’t support it, than any shame his sister (who so looked up to him and loved him) felt re his service. She now has and treasures the medals he earned.

  2. helo
    back aain, trawlin your interesting blog.
    The funny thing is, I am trying to put toether something about nostalgia, and usin the past in the present. Plus have been readin Les Murray’s “Working Forest” and thinking about how in his poetry he creates such a sense of affect…and trying to work out other things, like how he documents the past in his writings, and creates testimonies or something. A trace.
    I guess I am floundering along. I am a generalist and teach Visual Art at Tertiary level, but my writing and researching skills are so lacking!
    Am looking at current painting practice and the way artists reference the past in a nostalgic way.
    Hopefully will be in UK later in the year. If I mamage to cobble together this paper, I might be giving it. Anyway, this is far too long a post, but I just couldnt believe someone else in the world would have these things together in a paragraph.
    Dont suppose you are off to glasgow in october?
    If I am in Leeds I’ll shout you a coffee and drop you in some Tim Tams if you like.

  3. hi fifi,

    wow, I’d really like to read more about what you’re working on. I’m rewriting my chapter at the moment, with (as you know!) lots of helpful comments from my supervisors. What’s happening in Glasgow? (It’s not that far from here really.) You are more than welcome to drop by – that would be fun!

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