ANZACs real and imagined
By MICHAEL CAINES
It’s not exactly the most stunning view New Zealand has to offer: a misty morning on North Head, overlooking Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour. Note the disused building, though – a remnant of the country’s coastal fortifications built in anticipation of attack, at various points in the past century, from Japan or the Soviet Union. A network of tunnels runs through this strategically significant promontory, connecting one heavy artillery position to another; apparently, the big guns were never fired in anger, and, as I learned a few years ago, when I took this photograph, the hill is now a national park.
New Zealand’s soldiers, by contrast, saw no shortage of action abroad – most famously alongside their Australian counterparts at Gallipoli during the First World War. The centenary of that prolonged battle falls next year, and will no doubt feature the same sort of reflection and revision of the historical revision that we’ve already seen in relation to the outbreak of the war in 1914. Less widely acknowledged outside Australasia, perhaps, is the part that these expeditionary forces, the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) played in later conflicts: Australia’s most sustained military engagement, for example, was apparently in Vietnam, and it sparked the same kind of controversies there that it did elsewhere.
Writing about war’s power to beget literature in last week’s TLS diary column, J. C. noted that, besides the obvious poetry of the First and Second World Wars, Vietnam gave us memoirs by Tobias Wolff and Michael Herr, Korea Chaim Potok’s I Am the Clay and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (published in 1961, regarded by the author as a comment on the 1950s, but based on his own experiences as a bomber pilot dated from a decade earlier). Iraq, though? “If something of the calibre of The Quiet American has emerged from the conflict, we haven’t heard about it.”
I’ve heard of several Australians and Kiwi writers, on the other hand, who have written about both the front line and its delayed impact on life back home – distinctive work, I feel, for the dislocation between antipodean communities and Old World theatres of war. There is C. K. Stead’s Talking about O’Dwyer, for example, in which a Kiwi recalls how it all seemed to be happening “over there”, even though Auckland had black-outs, rationing and “signs saying DIG FOR VICTORY”. (Things briefly look more alarmingly close to home after Pearl Harbour and the Germans sink a ship, the bullion-laden RMS Niagara, “not far north of Auckland”.)
There is also Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, a powerful dramatization of life after Korea and Vietnam for generations of men – and there’s a novel I started reading only yesterday, Spirit House by Mark Dapin, which begins with a brutal bulletin, from 1944, in territory that Ian Watt, the author of The Rise of the Novel, would have recognized from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma railway.
They’re not the only ones, of course, but, along with Ashley Hay (whose novel The Railwayman’s Wife features not only memories of war but, Russian doll-style, memories of writing about war), Evie Wyld, C. K. Stead and Mark Dapin are the writers with whom I’ll be discussing all of this (disarmed Auckland hillocks included, maybe, who knows?) at King’s College London on May 30, as part of the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts. TLS readers – and anybody who happens to read this blog, would you believe it – can purchase two tickets for the price of one for this event, ANZACs at War: Writing about WWII and Vietnam, merely by entering the code TLS241 at the virtual checkout. I can only assume it’s going to be a lively discussion, with plenty of knowledgeable opinions voiced – although whether that necessarily makes it an easier or a more difficult discussion to chair, I’m not entirely sure.