‘Bruce Ruxton is right: we should embrace the legends of defeat,’ Richard Glover, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20.04.90
I arrived home to find my partner ashen-faced. The cat was wailing in the kitchen and the kid was clearly upset. The words came gushing out as soon as she saw me: “I don’t know what to do. I just found myself agreeing with Bruce Ruxton.”
Since she had confessed, I thought I could too. A healthy marriage, after all, is based on sharing such dark secrets. “Yep,” I said, “I agree with him too.”
The issue, you understand, wasn’t Asian immigration, gay rights, or whether environmentalists are all dole-bludging hippies. It was Anzac Day.
Ruxton, the Victorian president of the RSL, is currently doing battle with the journalist Phillip Knightley, who has expressed the view that next Wednesday should be Australia’s last Anzac Day.
It is absurd, argues Knightley, that the battle at Gallipoli should provide our key national image of war. Gallipoli, he says, was a defeat; and a defeat in a battle waged for British interests.
Better to celebrate, he says, the taking of Damascus by the Australian Light Horse, or the victorious battle by General Sir John Monash’s troops on the Western Front in the last months of war.
“Monash’s scientific breakthrough tactics,” he says, “were a powerful factor in the German decision to ask for an armistice and thus a real turning point in history. Yet the Australians who fought on the Western Front appear doomed to live forever in the shadow of Gallipoli”.
But Mr Ruxton replies that these triumphs, along with others, are already marked by Anzac Day, and that traditions, once established, carry their own weight and importance.
But we can take the argument further. Knightley is right: Anzac Day does mark a defeat. But as such it is in keeping with one of the most consistent themes in the Australian legend: the celebration (or at least worldly-wise acknowledgement) of failure.
Any country can make hoopla about its victories. What makes Australia unique is the way it has always preferred to remember the brave-but-defeated, the underdog and the loser.
Consider, for example, some of the subjects of Australia’s successful historical films: Phar Lap, the story of a horse with international promise who was poisoned; Les Darcy, the story of a boxer with promise who was killed; Breaker Morant, the story of soldier with promise who was shot.
And, of course, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the story of fighters of promise who were misled and misused.
Dad and Dave never expanded and made it rich, they just battled on against flood and rain – two steps forward, three steps back. The heroes of Lawson and Paterson were triers more than they were doers; just as the great national bards were humourists rather than battle-balladeers.
Waltzing Matilda, the real national song, is about a tramp who can only find freedom through suicide. The Dog on the Tucker Box comes from a poem reciting the multiple disasters of an accident-prone bullocky.
Oh, to live in a country that makes a national icon of a dog that relieved himself in a bullocky’s food hamper.
But not, it seems, for Knightley.
He wants Australia to follow every other nation: to edit the defeats out of history and concentrate on the victories; to puff itself up and worship the tall poppies.
His Dog on the Tucker Box would be straight from Walt Disney – a heroic pup who saved the bullocky’s life rather than spoilt his dinner.
But I rather like Australia’s curious traditions: I like being part of the land of the rising inflection, where every statement is turned into a question; I like a tradition that sees the grim absurdity of life and embraces legends of defeat with a wry smile.
There are many who have argued against Australia’s traditions: arguing our lack of self confidence has held us back; that we have driven away our talented by rejecting a culture of success.
There may be some truth in this, and certainly we face continuing battles to wean ourselves from cultural and economic cringes of various kinds.
Of course, we do need to wave the flag and be proud. But my problem remains: how can you be flag-wavingly proud when what you’re proudest of is the lack of a pompous, flag-waving pride?
All in all, it seems to me a perfect symbol. And that’s why Bruce Ruxton – just this once – is right.