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Launch of
Anzac Memories (new edition)

On 11 November 2013, journalist and speech-writer James Button launched the new edition of Alistair Thomson's book Anzac Memories. at Readings, Hawthorn. The complete launch speech is reproduced here, and photographs from the launch are presented after the speech.

Anzac Memories launch by James Button

It is a great privilege to launch Al’s book, Anzac Memories. It is a wonderful book. I want to try to describe the effect it has had on me: what I have learnt from it, how it has helped me make sense of episodes of my own life, how it has made me think about the professional and ethical obligations on anyone who seeks to tell other people’s stories, and finally, what the book tells us about the impact of great public or private events on people’s lives, and how these effects are handed down through the generations.

I have known Al for more than 30 years, since we were both arts students at Melbourne University in 1979. I knew from early on that he had a fascination with war and with the Anzac story: he used to rhapsodize about what reading Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years meant to him. I think that even then I found this interest a little odd, especially for an arts student, moving in left-wing circles in which many of the most charismatic people were women and feminists. But I also noticed and admired the fact that he was upfront about it. Beyond that I didn’t give it much thought.

In 1980 and 1981 he and I had the mandatory stretch in Europe, and he came to stay with me in Paris, where I was studying. He told me with great excitement that he had been in Poland and got to know members of a new political movement called Solidarity that was shaking up the country and causing reverberations as far away as Moscow. And I thought to myself: “Nah, that movement’ll never go anywhere.”

In fact, so great was Al’s enthusiasm for Solidarity and what it promised that I remember it spurred a pained and rivalrous thought in me. Here was I doing the standard middle-class Grand Tour: studying Italian in Perugia, French in Paris and working as a waiter in London – while Al was hanging out with dissidents in Poland at the height of the Cold War, and visiting remote cemeteries in France and Turkey looking at Australian war graves. “Wow, he’s really taking risks and living large,” I thought. Even then, Al’s field of study and his life and passions were closely enmeshed.

Then, in 1982, Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli, came out. Al was crazy about that film. The two young Australian soldiers were played by Mel Gibson and a blond, fresh-faced actor called Mark Lee. Al said to me one day: “That Mark Lee is a real spunk.” And I remember thinking: “You’re only saying that because you think he looks like you.” Which – I have to admit -- he did.

A few years after that Al went to London and I mostly lost touch with him for the next 30 years. Now, finally, I have had the chance to read Anzac Memories and to learn a lot more about a man whom I have always thought of as a friend, despite the many years we have spent out of touch.

The book works on so many levels. The stories of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrell – three old diggers from the western suburbs of Melbourne whom Al interviewed near the end of their lives and who form the backbone of the book – are powerfully told. I like the way Al’s interviewing and reporting style is both meticulous and loose: meticulous with the facts and the careful, accurate reporting of their stories, loose in the way Al allows us to read our way into the characters and form our own impressions, without the author telling us what he thinks we should think of them. The men’s war and postwar stories are forceful responses to simplistic or jingoistic versions of the Anzac legend – they do not debunk the legend but they make us see the many ways in which it has been harnessed to political purposes, the ways in which it fails to tell the truth.

The journalist Chris Masters once said that complexity enhances a story, it does not weaken it. Al’s treatment of the lives of these three men and their struggles to make sense of their war experience shows him to be a historian and a writer who is comfortable with complexity. More than that, who understands that there is no other way to tell a powerful and true story.

When you read Anzac Memories, I urge you to read the first appendix. Now, you’ll think I’m just showing off in telling you I’ve read the appendix. But as a former reporter, I found it a fascinating account of the meticulous and ethical way Al approached interviews with the former soldiers: how at every turn he kept them informed of the ways he would use the material he was gathering. More than that, Al reflects candidly on his strategies in getting the men to open up. As a middle-class young man going to interview working-class old men, what should he wear? How should he talk? Should he share the war stories of his father and grandfathers, in order to encourage similar candour in the men? Anyone who has been a reporter will be familiar with these dilemmas.

I was also very engaged by Al’s account of the life and work of the official war historian, Charles Bean. Knowing little of him before I began to read, I expected to find a rather dry figure: a propagandist, a government man. I was mistaken. Al captures beautifully Bean’s achievement, built as it is on the tension in Bean’s life between his wish to record the ordinary soldier’s real experience, without gloss or trimming, and his desire to create an Anzac myth that would not only help the war effort but spur the creation of an Australian legend, the bushman turned digger turned archetypal hero. Of course both cannot be true, and the book is excellent on the contradiction in Bean’s life and work, and how this contradiction has reverberated in Australian attitudes to war and war remembrance long since Bean published his many-volume history.

In fact, how we feel about this war that killed so many Australians and so many others is the tension that runs through the book – through the stories of the three men, through the excellent chapters on how the diggers were treated when they got home and the changing ways in which we have told the Anzac story since 1915, and how this story has been used in the so-called history wars to privilege one view of Australia over another. As both Al and political scientist Judith Brett have pointed out, John Howard was able to conscript Gallipoli veteran Alec Campbell to his construction of a mateship myth built around Anzac without once mentioning that Campbell was a radical trade unionist. What’s more depressing is that the Labor Party let him do it.

As I read the book, I tried to imagine life on those hills in Turkey, or in the mud and cold of the Somme. What was it like? How would I have coped? The book doesn’t seek to answer those questions, but nevertheless it helped me to make sense of aspects of my own life. My grandfather fought in France. He wasn’t in the front line – he carried supplies to the lines by horse. I don’t know what sort of war he had, but I know that he had an intense feeling for his mates in his unit. I know that when we watched him march down Swanston Street on Anzac Day and waved to him, he looked very proud.  But he never spoke about it and to my great regret now, we never thought to ask him.

In 2005 I covered the Anzac Day commemorations in Gallipoli as the Europe correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. I went again in 2006 and 2007.  2005 was the 90th anniversary, John Howard and Peter Cosgrove were there, and the peninsula was packed with young Aussies. I saw young men and women poring over tombstones, sitting on the beach and weeping openly. I found it a strange and disturbing experience. Why were they crying? Were they moved by the reality of the Gallipoli landing or by some other need or lack in their lives? Or was I the problem? Did I just lack empathy and imagination?

Yet I didn’t find the young people jingoistic. In fact, many of them exhibited a very contemporary desire – fashioned by our multicultural society – to find common cause with the Turks, to see both Australians and Turks as victims of the war. This was helped by great Turkish generosity: the famous quote of Ataturk that the dead Australian soldiers lying in Turkish soil are now children of Turkey was quoted by many young people I met. But the experience I had is explained well in Al’s book – the way we use history, truthfully or not, to fashion stories about our present. 

But the most powerful thing I take from Anzac Memories is the story that is told for the first time in this new edition: the story of Al’s grandfather, Hector Thomson, of Al’s father David, and, in the background, of Al himself. Hector fought in Palestine as a member of the Light Horse, but contracted malarial encephalitis, which wrecked his health and spirit for the rest of his life. Al could not tell the story of Hector before: one, because the Repatriation files he uses so well in this edition were not available when he published the first edition in 1994; two, because Al’s father David, who as a child suffered greatly from Hector’s absences and mental illness, would not allow it. Al writes of his father: “Perhaps worst of all, my writing ripped off the scab that had formed across his terrible childhood and unleashed angry, painful memories. I changed the line, ‘in and out of mental hospital’ to the more socially acceptable half truth that Hector was in and out of Caulfield Repatration Hospital after the war, which you will still find in the introduction to the first edition.”

There the story, the half-truth, might have lain. But Al was persistent, determined to uncover and reveal the whole story. At Christmas 2012, Al told his father – then suffering from Alzheimer’s – about uncovering Hector’s story in the Repat files, and gave him a draft of the chapter in this new edition that deals with Hector. Al writes this moving paragraph:

In recent years my father has declined with Alzheimer’s. He can’t remember yesterday and speaks very little, but he still recalls that his father was ‘damaged’. Over the Christmas of 2012 I explained about the Repat files and gave him a draft of this chapter. He spent hours slowly reading each page, with an intensity of concentration that he rarely manages nowadays. His eyes narrowed and creased with pain as he recalled his childhood and said that Hector’s physical and mental condition was worse than I described. For a lucid, fragile moment I think that he, too, came to a new understanding about the cause and extent of his father’s illness and about his mother’s tenacity. He agreed that Hector probably did the best he could in the circumstances and consented to the publication of this chapter.

David Thomson, as many of you will know, passed away this month.

And so we come to the hidden story in this book, the one always just behind the tales of Percy Bird and Fred Farrell and John Monash and Charles Bean. It is the story of the author himself. Reading Anzac Memories gave me a keen sense of the complexities of Al Thomson’s life and finally explained to me, all these years later, why the Anzac story speaks so powerfully to him. He is the son of a soldier and the grandson of two soldiers. Even today, he writes with admirable candour in the book’s first edition, “martial music and marching men make my spine shiver, and I can feel within myself some of the entranced enthusiasm that impels young men to war.” But from the start, Al is also drawn to alternative interpretations of Anzac: those of women, of the left and of the men whose experience did not neatly fit the myth. This tension within him, so elegantly handled, leads him to Hector Thomson.

Why are so many memoirs – including those written by women – about fathers, and far fewer, it seems to me, about mothers?

There is one obvious reason. We are still living through the effects of the pre-feminist period. In that time, it was men who did things in the world, while women were more likely to raise children and stay at home. Going to war or into politics, for example, is easier to write about than the complex, delicate, invisible world of the home.

But I think there’s an even more important reason for the primacy of fathers in family memoirs. Fathers are mysterious. They have such an impact on us, we long to know them, to understand what propelled them away from us, even when they loved us, and into the world. We think that if we can understand that we will understand so much of who we are. And so in our lives – and occasionally in books – we go in search of them.

Paul Kelly wrote a song, Going about my father’s business, in which he sings: “What’s done to me, I’ll do to mine.” But here’s the thing, Al. I don’t know for sure, but I bet that some of the painful things that Hector passed on to David – through no fault of his own – David did not pass on to you. Some things that David passed to you, you have not passed on to your own children. Slowly, generation by generation, this how we learn and grow as human beings.

So, Al, all that leads me to conclude that you have one more edition of Anzac Memories to write, or perhaps a whole new book. A story that combines a national myth with the reality of war, the great sweep of history with a family’s private struggles and pain. A story of how a war that began nearly 100 years ago still reverberates today.

I hope you write it. But if you don’t, that’s OK, because Anzac Memories is a bloody good substitute.

It gives me great pleasure to launch this new edition of Anzac Memories. May it get the audience it so richly deserves.

        — James Button

About Anzac Memories

James Button launching Anzac Memories

Alistair Thomson talking about the process of writing Anzac Memories

An enraptured audience

From left to right: author Alistair Thomson; journalist, speech-writer and book launcher James Button; and Director of Monash University Publishing Nathan Hollier

Guests at the launch of Anzac Memories

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