An eve-of-battle note about the ANZACs, ahead of the event I'm chairing tomorrow morning at King's College London:
In my post about Australasian soldiers in later twentieth-century conflicts last week, I almost mentioned a minor incident in After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld (one of the novelists who'll be speaking on the ANZACs at War panel). "Hold up your hand whoever's dad is out in Korea now", a teacher orders in class one day, in 1952. One boy, Leon, feeling sorry for the others whose fathers hadn't volunteered, holds up his hand "so high his shoulder clicked". The teacher shows them photographs of "the kinds of thing you got in Korea", to Leon's delight:
"You got muskrats and brown bears and tigers. His dad liked animals, he'd be excited to see a tiger. Leon imagined him lying on his front very still among the ferns and watching a tiger roll with its babies in the long grass."
It's a fearfully ominous naivety Wyld captures here, I think; the sort of enthusiastic innocence also found in, say, newsreel footage of happy soldiers marching off to certain victory with a dash of glory thrown in for good measure.
Something like Leon's view of the supposed joys of signing up and seeing the (natural) world is there, too, in the work of another of the speakers, Mark Dapin's Spirit House, in which the boy-narrator simply tells the reader: "I liked war, all the guns and tanks and uniforms . . . ." And sure enough, it's there again in C. K. Stead's Talking about O'Dwyer, in the war games of two boys, among the bamboo trees – between them, they "shot a lot of Jerries".
I'm guessing, in other words, that we could find ourselves talking tomorrow morning just as much about innocence as experience – youthful expectations running up against bloody realities.
A further point about Leon's dad, though, and one that has acquired renewed and ugly pertinence back here in the Old Country: he's a first-generation immigrant. Goaded into fighting – not exactly handed the white feather, not mobbed in the street – but clearly challenged by the immediate community around him to do something for his adopted country as it mobilizes for war, he and his wife argue in Dutch about his trying to prove he's "more Australian than anything else" (while she is described as a "Flaming clog wog" by somebody who presumably feels herself to be more of a native). How better to prove that, his actions imply, than to go off and fight for your country, and demonstrate your willingness to lay down your life for it?
So maybe we'll end up talking about immigration, too, then – albeit not in a sense that any gaffe-happy British politician, enjoying his moment in the sun, would understand. "You know what I mean."