One hundred and one years ago a collection of young, brave and shockingly naive young men set foot on a foreign shore to protect our home shore. Yes, many of them paid the ultimate price and sacrificed their lives for ours on that skinny strip of sand in Anzac Cove in 1915. But their sacrifice made us into a nation. We may have been united under Federation a few years earlier but it was Gallipoli and WW1 that made Australia into a nation. You may consider that romantic foolishness but it is part of our mythology and I am happy to subscribe to that.
Today I want to consider what that means for Australians. There are no Anzacs left. But we cannot forget Anzac Day – April 25 – and the way I am commemorating it today is by looking at our cultural place on the world stage. Forget politics, forget economic power-house but cast your eyes around music, performing arts, literature and you’ll find an awful lot of Australians at work, doing us proud; doing our Anzac tradition proud.
Once upon a time in order to make something of yourself you had to leave Australia (and or NZ, if we’re being truly Anzac-y today) and establish yourself OS – usually England but latterly the USA. Thus in the 1960-70s luminaries such as Germaine Greer, Clive James and Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage to you) left home seeking more than was to be had Down-under. These people have established loud and large personalities on the world stage, and regardless of their politics or yours they clearly established Oz as more than a place for convicts and surfers.
In Hollywood we had a few who had their toe in the waters early on, but their numbers were few. Errol Flynn, Peter Finch, Rod Taylor, but not Merle Oberon – oh, no, she was never ours. It was all smoke and mirrors to disguise where she really came from. Her exotic skin and luminous beauty hailed from the sub-continent and a sleazy beginning, not from obscure and far-far away Tasmania.
Many of the rock and rollers of the 60s and 70s got as big as they could and tried their hands OS but most returned bloodied and bowed. Who broke through: The Bee Gees (but they were British in the first place); The Easybeats had one colossal hit (Friday on My Mind); Helen Reddy (I am Woman); LRB were quite successful for quite some time; Air Supply did very well; Rick Springfield left Zoot and was a huge hit in the States; Olivia Newton-John was one of our biggest stars – she is forever Sandy in Grease, isn’t she? Peter Allen married Liza Minnelli to help things along, but he was an amazing performer. But our failures were greater.
But things changed, as they often do and slowly but surely there were more of us on the big screen, on the radio and various music channels, TV shows; winning prizes in literature. We were taking major roles, not just character parts; we were headlining tours, filling theatres. Our accent stopped being a problem. We arrived. Being Australian is not embarrassing, we have lost our cultural cringe. We have stepped up to our Anzac heritage in more ways than those young men could possibly have imagined.
Who are our world players now?
We have Oscar winners and actors who command some of the biggest salaries in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman may have ridden off on Tom Cruise’s coat-tails but she has stood on her own for years as a fine actress. Cate Blanchett is simply gold – everything she does is amazing – perhaps she is our finest actress ever? Chris Hemsworth and Hugh Jackman earn small fortunes and are two of the best looking men in Hollywood, and reputedly the nicest guys too. We have a string of excellent actors: Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, Naomi Watts, Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Debicki and the wonderful Eric Bana. If we go Anzac, we can include Sam Neil and Russell Crow, who did bag an Oscar and was stunning in Gladiator.
Kylie rules as our music queen these days but AC-DC are still going strong and as popular as ever. Why else the upset about Axl Rose joining the band? INXS were absolutely huge, as were Crowded House (yes, NZ again but this is about Anzac Day). Yothu Yindi owned the world there for a few years. Neighbours and Home and Away still run home and OS. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was one of the best movies ever and is now a West End stage production. Jason Donovan still performs regularly and Adam Hills has his own comedy show on UK TV. Ozzies pop up all over the place and these days, because of the amount of talent and ability we have you may not instantly recognise them. This is a good thing – we are as good as the rest.
Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan are our stellar writers. Both have won the Booker – Carey twice. Both write of our experiences and all manner of things that show that any notion of inferior literature being automatically associated with Australia is a notion that belongs in the dark past. Other writers have international impact, including Christos Tsiolkas and The Slap that sold phenomenally and was made into an excellent TV series. The Rosie Project has been an international hit and of course Eleanor Catton, from NZ, was the youngest ever Booker Prize winner with The Luminaries. Don’t forget other stars like Markus Zsusak (The Book Thief), Tim Winton, David Malouf and Thomas Kenneally who wrote many wonderful things but notably Schindler’s Ark which was made into a harrowing film.
This Anzac Day don’t dwell on the less acceptable side of our nation, the treatment of refugees and Aboriginals; ignore the vile exploits of Rupert Murdoch and Gina Rinehart and their ilk. Ignore the idiot politicians, the division in our society that doesn’t need to be there at all. Remember our fallen soldiers, on that memorable day so long ago, so far away, and all the others who have fought for us, to make us into a great nation. We may not be as good or as kind or as clever as we should but we do have a great deal to be proud of and it is timely to be aware of the good things we are and do.
We have come a long way since April 25, 1915, and indeed we have a long way to go, but we can pause and be proud of our cultural giants. We are no longer lone men riding the outback, surfers or convicts: we are world players. We compete. In fact we really punch above our weight. (Images from Private Collection)