Barbarians at the gate

“Behead all those who insult the prophet” is a curiously worded slogan. Mohammed is a figure so holy even the mildest rebuke should end with severing that person’s arteries at the throat. It is a common punishment for trivial matters in hard-line Wahhabist regimes such as Saudi Arabia. One such trivial matter lies behind the latest calls for such barbarism, a “clumsily overdubbed and haphazardly-edited” low budget film with no production values. Its US-Egyptian maker Nakoula Bassely Nakoula could well be the Ed Wood of the 21stcentury. But because his film contains “insults to the prophet”,  it is causing world-wide riots, multiple deaths including a US ambassador and the banning of youtube in Afghanistan.

Yesterday’s protest in Sydney was the first Australian attempt to normalise such an extreme response. It was a deliberate affront to the norms of western culture and the live and let live philosophy of multiculturalism. Saturday shoppers on Pitt Street would have been bewildered to reads signs that told them, “Our dead are in paradise, your dead are in hell”. It was so far outside their life experience as to be surreal. But the anger was real enough.
It was worse in other parts of the world where protesters were taking active steps to behead the insulters. Urged on by opportunist Salafi political leaders they lashed out at whatever target was convenient. In Libya and Egypt, it was Al Qaeda-affiliated groups preaching to the disaffected. In Yemen, it was former president Salahi undermining the current administration. Behind the scenes across the region it was Iran flexing its muscles.  There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet, but politicians are pulling the strings.
As usual, the West had no idea how to react. The protests were cloaked in wrath so righteous, it dared not be criticised. Far easier to criticise the target of the wrath, as western countries did in the past, blaming Salman Rushdie or the Danish cartoons for antagonising Muslims, not the protesters themselves for their over-the-top response or their leaders for their cynical manipulations. It is easier to retreat into pious homilies that attack the proximate rather than political causes. US president George HW Bush refused to condemn the fatwa on Salman Rushdie with a non-committal “no American interests are involved” while the British deplored his fight with a great religion.
The American can’t look away any longer when a work of no artistic value causes international murder and mayhem. Nakoula had every right to make a film portrayed Mohammed as a flawed man, not as a flawless “prophet”. If that was humiliating and offensive to some then so be it. That is their problem and they could have ignored it. But the Innocence of Muslims is not only a rubbish film, it is not even honest rubbish. Nakoula lied to his cast and crew about its intentions.
Under an assumed name of Sam Bacile, Nakoula pretended he was making a “historical desert drama” called Desert Warriors. His lead character was Master George, a philanderer and husband of multiple wives, one as young as seven. The references to Mohammed and Islam were thrown in later in the absurdly bad editing process. When one of the cast rang Bacile/Nakoula to talk about his deception, he replied, “I’m tired of radical Islamists killing each other. Let other actors know it’s not their fault.”
Nakoula wanted to light a flame but others wanted to burn the house down. Former Iranian Hezbollah leader Massoud Dehnamaki gives a clue as to how others would use the spark. Dehnamaki told the Daily Beast it was up to the US to “prove” it was not involved.  The US government had to prosecute the filmmakers, he said. “Westerners see their own freedom in the ability to insult others,” Dehnamaki said. “They see freedom as a one-way freeway that moves in the direction of their demands. They don’t respect other people’s beliefs.”
There were pictures in the news today of Nakoula being arrested. Though it was not well explained by media, his crime was not blasphemy or even deception but a breach of probation conditions. When he was done for a fraud crime in 2010 Nakoula was not allowed a computer or the Internet without permission for five years.
There is no crime in his film, except against taste. It was not as the White House said  “reprehensible and disgusting” but the response was. Bad films don’t kill people, people kill people. No one wants to take to side of a convicted fraudster who has deceived his crew and set out to deliberately offend with a ham-fisted film.  But that is what we must do.
Freedom is not a one-way freeway as Dehnamaki calls it. It is an 18th century enlightenment value that understands complex societies need a certain tolerance of difference to survive. No longer tied to the dictatorial value-system of any one church, some leeway is needed to ensure a peaceful life. It is why blasphemy was wiped off the books in the west in the 20th century but also why it is creeping back in the 21st in legislated race hate crimes.
It makes it harder to get criticism into the public domain while doing nothing to address the root cause of the hatred. It is the thin edge of the wedge. There are more serious works than Nakoula’s at stake. This week, British television canned a serious historical program that casts doubt on the authenticity of Muslim traditions. Filmmaker Tom Holland said his “Islam: The Untold Story” was a legitimate subject of historical inquiry. But it was cancelled on “security advice”. British audiences should slam Channel Four’s cowardice and demand they show it. This is not war of civilisations, it is test of strength. We must stand up for free speech. Unless we are happy for western countries to imitate the Saudis, those who demand beheading need to be disarmed.

Dark night rises

It was impossible not to think of the Denver shootings as I attended the new Batman movie at the local cinema tonight. This latest random mass murder could have been scripted in the film itself, though it would have been the work of a cardboard-evil mastermind rather than just an unhinged student. While I’m a fan of director Christopher Nolan, this latest effort was turgid twaddle. The plot was so predictable I left after an hour of tedious violence, with the hero in a bit of pickle but assured the good guys would “win” in the end.
  (Photo: Barry Gutierrez/AP)
I came away thinking it was folly to believe there is no connection between the film and the murders. Guns and the power they confer are at the heart of the Batman movies – as they are at the heart of most Hollywood blockbusters. Guns are the ultimate deus ex machina plot device. Whoever is holding one calls the shots. The drama moves towards the pivot where either the tables are turned or someone is shot. In the Dark Knight Rises, guns were everywhere and only “superhero” powers could overcome them. When the real murderer went berserk in the cinema, many in the dark assumed the noise was from the film and paid no attention.  James Holmes called himself The Joker for the stock Batman villain, painted his hair red and used tear gas before opening fire. There was no superhero to stop him.
The film producers’ coy reaction showed they are part of the problem. Warner Bros said they took “the unprecedented step” of delaying revealing “eagerly awaited weekend box office figures for Dark Knight out of respect for the victims and their families.”  How the box office news would have affected grieving families is beyond immediate comprehension, though there was no sign any of the record takings would be used to compensate victims or be put to a campaign against weapons.
America’s “foremost defender of Second Amendment rights”, the National Rifle Association were as quick as I was to blame the culture.  The problem was caused, they said, by “violent imaginary movies”, many of them like Batman having, perish the thought, “absolutely no patriotic value”. As NRA’s Wayne Lapierre deadpanned when wheeled out to defend their position, “Guns don’t kill – Batman kills. Had someone in the audience been armed, this tragedy could have been averted.” Multiplexes, were according to Lapierre, death traps. Lapierre have preferred a good old fashioned saloon shoot out where everyone could have taken a pop at the dark knight.
Lapierre is right about violent movies, though muddled about multiplexes and patriotism. The culture promotes death and violence, as do the movies of many other countries.  But there is one big difference about America compared to nearly every other first world country. There, guns and weapons are as easy to get as movie tickets and popcorn. The reason the unhinged Holmes could act out his fantasy was because he was easily able to accumulate a formidable collection of weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. None of the journalists baying at Lapierre for answers picked him up on his lie: Guns do kill and the tragedy would have been averted had no one in the audience been armed.
As the New York Daily News said, Holmes did not act alone. Lapierre was at his side as were Obama and Romney cowed into quietness over gun control for fear of unleashing NRA’s mighty political wrath.  “(Also) standing at Holmes’ side as he murdered 12 and wounded 59, were the millions of zealots who would sooner see blood flow and lives end than have to check a box on a gun registration form,” the Daily News said. It wasn’t just about the occasional newsworthy massacre but the “day-to-to-day mayhem of street-crime shootings, responsible for more deaths than all the mass carnage combined, (that only) makes it to the police blotter, the courts, the newspapers, the emergency rooms and the cemeteries.”
The Daily Beast’s Adam Winkler said mass shootings don’t lead to gun control. Colorado has some of the weakest laws in the land despite the Columbine High School massacre 13 years ago. Winkler said the radicalisation of the NRA in the 1970s stalled American gun reform. He quotes Bill Clinton as saying the Brady Bill (named for Reagan aide shot in the 1981 assassination attempt) cost the Democrats the control of the House of Reps in 1994 and neither party has mounted any gun control since, despite America having five murders for every 100,000 people.
The NRA vigorously defends its stance at every opportunity against every perceived threat to its clout. This week they attacked Obama signing a UN Arms Treaties because they might “trample our Constitutional right to bear arms.” The 18th century need for a well-regulated militia remains a holy cow despite bearing arms now sounding as ridiculous as arming bears. America deserves a referendum on the “right” but even if it happened, the majority of Batman watchers across the land would probably vote against change. Violence is endemic in the culture. Unless one of the dead in Colorado had a well-connected senior operative in the Republican Party for a relative, this latest massacre won’t change anything once the hand-wringing is completed. Superheroes are as thin on the ground in Washington as they are in Aurora.

Curtsy and CHOGM

It didn’t take long. Within an hour of what seemed like a respectful and polite greeting by the Australian Prime Minister to a foreign head of state, media companies had spun it into a breach of “protocol”. The online editions of all Australian newspapers and broadcasters were posting a story about a word that doesn’t stray often on to the tongue: curtsy. Wikipedia says a “curtsey (also spelled curtsy or courtesy) is a traditional gesture of greeting, in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. It is the female equivalent of male bowing in Western cultures.”
(photo: Debutantes practise a form of the curtsey known as a Texas dip)
If the Queen, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth is upset a girl or a woman didn’t bend their knees in greeting to her, then she is getting more doddery in her dotage than she is letting on. She had had a lot more on her mind than a knee gesture. She would have been thinking about her role as conduit between the UK and Australian Governments or deciding practical considerations about the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. This is an important meeting of 60 leaders she and Gillard will co-chair. It happens every two years and brings together a strange brew of countries who all share British colonial history, law and culture with varying degrees of adherence (We Irish need to get over our historical gripes and enter this intriguing league of nations).

The theme of this year’s conference is “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” which is not sexy sounding but of great importance to most of the leaders present as it talks about transnational responses to global poverty and climate change. A Google news search of the theme of the conference found just two occurrences – and one was the official press release from CHOGM. The other was in Trinidad Express Newspapers which quoted Trinidad & Tobago Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan. Ranbachan noted the theme would mean discussion on the challenges of food security, sustainable development and natural resource management. All these themes have much greater importance than a misunderstood gesture but attracted no media attention outside the Caribbean. Compare articles on “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” to “curtsy”. A quick glance again at Google News found 1,160 articles on Gillard’s failure to bend her knees. Britain and Australia were particularly all over it. The British Telegraph noted a contrast with the Governor General. “While Mrs Bryce curtsied to the Queen, Ms Gillard, an avowed republican, opted for a handshake and shallow bow.” The Australian Telegraph headline stated two eight-year-olds were practising their curtseys ahead of an engagement with Her Majesty. Gillard meanwhile had to “explain” her behaviour: “As I greeted the Queen she extended her hand to shake hands and obviously I shook her hand and bowed my head. – That’s what I felt most comfortable with”.

News Ltd’s Melbourne paper Herald Sun read far more into it, saying Gillard’s “decision” was a “sign”. Australia, it trumpeted, was “catching up with the modern monarchy”. While many may have been unaware the modern monarchy had left Australia behind, the Herald Sun found a TV chat show host, an etiquette expert and the deputy chair of the Victorian branch of the Australian Monarchists League who all agreed Gillard had blundered.

Someone quickly added “–gate” to it. I can find no evidence any newspaper or website journalist referred to “curtsygate”, but it took off in Twitter. The phrase was attributed to Sydney 2GB radio shock jock host Ray Hadley, and the reaction in Twitter was either one of head-shaking weariness at the thought of this latest gated abomination or else sarcastic glee it was the end of democracy.

But if the journalists did not gate it, they should not have left curtsy past the gatekeeper either. The villains here are the chiefs of staff and the news editors who select these stories and give them prominence. They not only fit the ongoing destabilisation of an unpopular Prime Minister in contrast to a popular monarch, but also hyperinflate the primary news value of “conflict” (the fact that someone might be outraged by Gillard’s behaviour).

If the news editors are seeking genuine conflict then they should give their staff the link to the CHOGM paper and tell them to chase down the Trinidad foreign minister. I’m sure he has enlightening and possibly non-complementary things to say about Australia and other first world countries. The Queen might even give them his number if they bow politely enough.

Arse over Titanic

In the final scene of A Night to Remember, the 1953 film about the Titanic, second mate Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) ruminates on the cause of the sinking. “There were quite a lot of ifs about it,” he said. “If we’d be steaming a few knots slower, or if we’d sighted that berg a few seconds earlier…if we carried enough lifeboats for the size of the ship…”
This sinking was different, he concludes.
“Because we were so sure, because even though it has happened it is still unbelievable.” The reluctance of many passengers to leave the ship, believing it was unsinkable meant nearly all the lifeboats were lowered without a full complement of passengers. The sinking of the Titanic was the shattering of the belief in the human harnessing of technology for good. It was the beginning of the end for modernism.

Expect a deluge of commemoration in April next year for the 100th anniversary of the sinking. On April 15, 1912, 1502 people died in the North Atlantic when Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage. It was the worst disaster at sea ever and it remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind only the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters, neither of which have inspired Hollywood movies. Similarly unknown is the worst marine disaster ever the Nazi ship Wilhelm Gustloff torpedoed by a Russian submarine in 1945 with 7000 lives lost. Another 3000 died when the British Troopship Lancastria sunk in 1940 but its official record has been classified until 2040 possibly because the captain ignored maximum loading capacity instructions.
The Lancastria is a mystery but the Titanic is a myth. Titanic sank for reasons familiar today: the law not keeping up with communication, technology and corporate greed. Wireless was available but unregulated and rival companies could jam each other. The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 had a section about the number of life-boats, life-jackets, life-rafts and life-buoys on British ships which delegated to the Board of Trade “according to the class in which they are arranged”.
The Board, guided by ship owners, judged the number of lifeboats to be a function of tonnage not of total passengers. Titanic exceeded its legal lifeboat capacity of boats for 1060 people carrying 20 lifeboats (enough for 1178 people including all of first class). But she could carry three times that many people.
When the Board last regulated on the matter in 1896, the largest ship afloat was Cunard’s 12,950 ton vessel RMS Lucania. The Germans outstripped it with the 14,400 ton Norddeutsche Lloyd vessel Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897, and further ruffled British feathers by winning the Blue Riband for the record speed in an Atlantic crossing averaging 22.3 knots, half a knot faster than Lucania.


White Star line upped the ante with the Oceanic (1899), Celtic (1901), Baltic (1905) and Olympic (1911) trebling the tonnage. A year later their Titanic weighed in at a new record 46,329 tons, almost four times heavier than the law allowed for Lucania. White Star’s ships were built for comfort and style not speed. Cunard continued to dominate the Blue Riband, despite their smaller ships. White Star was cutting corners of a different kind.

In 1912 White Star was part of the International Mercantile Marine company owned by monopolist J.P. Morgan. IMM was overleveraged and suffered from inadequate cash flow that caused it to default on bond interest payments in 1914. At the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster Sir Alfred Chalmers of the Board of Trade was asked about the lifeboat regulations. Sir Alfred made a strange claim.

He said if there were fewer lifeboats on Titanic more people would have been saved. He said more people would have realised the danger and rushed to the boats filling more to capacity. This claim has superficial validity as the lifeboats could have saved 1187 people but only 710 survived. But then he gave the real reasons: Newer ships were stronger than ever with watertight compartments making them unlikely to require any lifeboats, sea routes were well-travelled meaning a collision was minimal, the availability of wireless technology, the difficulties of loading more than 16 boats. Ultimately, said Chambers, it was a matter for ship owners.

Those owners were well served by the highest ranking surviving officer Second Mate Lightoller – the hero of the 1953 film. Lightoller guided his upturned boat through four hours of choppy seas to safety. In testimony to the Inquiry he said it was “necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush”. That meant giving careful answers to sharp questions “if one was to avoid a pitfall, carefully and subtly dug, leading to a pinning down of blame on to someone’s luckless shoulders.” His job was to defend the Board of Trade and White Star Lines and he succeeded admirably.

But his testimony did force a change of the rules. Lightoller admitted the pendulum had swung “to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.” But then he would remember the “long drawn out battle of wits, where it seemed that I must hold that unenviable position of whipping boy to the whole lot of them.” The only thing that bothered him was that White Star never thanked the whipping boy. They had others things on their mind. Although the Line survived the tragedy, both IMM and Morgan went under – just like their most famous ship.

Of Nika and Basmati Rice: another twocents worth on the London riots

“Cameron aims to ‘address a broken society’ with more CCTV, less social media, battering rams, water cannons and maybe the army” – @abcnewsintern
In 532 Constantinople was besieged by the worst riots in history. Known as the Nika riots, they resulted in the destruction of half the city and 30,000 deaths. It started when a member of a popular elite sporting group was arrested for murder and quickly got out of hand. But there were wider issues. Emperor Justinian was negotiating peace over an expensive war in Persia and there was simmering resentment over high taxes. Three days after the murderers sought refuge in a church, the angry mob turned its resentment on Justinian at the Hippodrome races. When it looked like he would be chased out of the city, he bought out half his opposition and his army slaughtered the other half.

I was thinking of Justinian as this quaint notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. According to the papers lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that pays no attention to anything that has gone before. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory nor is it possible to admit they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs because “they have nothing better to do”.

Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem had been smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been an excuse for conflagration. An army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t stop the disenfranchised coming back for more.

As the Murdoch scandal showed, the British media are part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power and the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate to hang on to privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.

The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of “the other”. Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless royals.

Thirty years after the riots of her making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people will commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the top end of the scale get away with their crimes, why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.

My sympathies go out to the small businesses that suffered across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and like any soft target, will be picked on again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.

The reign in Spain is mainly plain

And so a World Cup that began as African, and then turned South American before becoming European ended up as Spanish in a tense but always absorbing final overnight in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela delighted fans by turning up but not as much as Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniestra did by scoring the game’s only goal deep into extra time consigning the Dutch to their third final defeat.

One punter on Twitter said after the game a Dutch victory would have been a Scorsese award: given purely for their work in the 1970s – this is a little unfair on Martin Scorsese whose more recent films Gangs of New York and The Departed are on a par with anything he did in his earlier career but the point is well made nonetheless.

Holland (never the more geographical correct Netherlands) were the great side of the 1970s with Johan Cruyff at the certain of most of their brilliance. But they never won anything at national level being undone by their own arrogance in 1974, 1976 and 1978 losing to the hosts and winners of the tournament each time. 1978 was a particularly tragedy when Cruyff decided for political reasons not to go to Argentina. What better rebuff to the junta generals would have been him to lift the trophy in front of them.

The defeat of the current Dutch crop is no tragedy, being nowhere near the total football side of the 1970s. The current vintage is a good if workmanlike team epitomised by the starring role of Liverpool’s much maligned workhorse Dirk Kuyt. They beat Brazil which was perhaps the biggest shock of the entire World Cup. But otherwise they were like Brazil’s 2006 conquerors France, tough to beat and lucky but not worldbeaters themselves.

And in terms of sporting disappointment, they are only the second best of the month compared to unknown Frenchman Nicolas Mahut who lost his Wimbledon tennis match to equally obscure American John Isner in a record breaking three-day 11-hour contest 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. I can’t begin to imagine how Mahut felt at the end of that final 183rd game after the shared almost a thousand points between them.

But even Wimbledon reminds us of the World Cup with a Spaniard Rafael Nadal carrying off his second crown. His fellow countrymen – and they are countrymen, despites their catalogue of Catalans – one nilled their way to the World Cup final and repeated the dose one last time to deservedly take the crown. I congratulate them on their first title, a magnificent achievement especially outside their own continent.

As convincing European Champions in 2008 they went in as the favourite side from the northern hemisphere, but few people though they could get past Brazil or Argentina to win outside their own continent. More still (myself included, I must admit) wrote them off after their opening shock loss to the unrated Switzerland. The defeat was occasion for great angst in Madrid and Barcelona yet two games later they were back on track having won the group while the Swiss packed their bags for home.

The group win was crucial. It meant they avoided Brazil in the round of 16. Instead they won a tense Iberian derby before squeezing past a Paraguay side that was just delighted to be in the quarter finals. Germany was a different kettle of pescado having thrashed Australia, England and then Argentina but Spain passed them to death to deservedly win before repeating the dose against the Dutch.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the most Africanised country in Europe (and the one closest geographically) should triumph in Africa though the players probably won’t feel that way. But this victory may do what 50 years of oppression under Franco could not: seal a farrago of nationalities into a nation. Though it was a Castilian Iker Casillas who lifted the trophy (and in the process joining Dino Zoff in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats), it was a Catalan backbone that sealed the win. And the celebrations would have been just as great in Basque Bilbao and Galician La Coruna as they were in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. Viva Espana.

21 years of living next door to Anzac

My first Anzac Day in Australia was in 1989 and it brings back happy memories purely because it was an unexpected long weekend and a first chance to visit Adelaide. When in the city of churches I paid no attention to Anzac Day ceremonies and probably spent the day either on Glenelg beach or in the Barossa wineries. Even when I got Australian citizenship a few years later, I didn’t think my love for living in Australia would ever cover its military history or traditions. (picture: 2010 dawn service at Muckadilla, Western Queensland)

The first 20 years of my life in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting institutions with links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal. My anti Anzac Day sentiments were shored up by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the angry lament of the Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.

Eric Bogle wrote that song in 1971 but Anzac Day would eventually prove him wrong. Although the numbers of the original diggers shrunk to nothing, there were enough veterans of other military conflicts and overseas engagements to take their places. The size of the march began to increase again and so did the audience for the services and parade. The young people stopped asking “what are they marching for” and began to wear their grandparents’ medals with pride. Gelibolu Yarimadsi became a compulsory stop on European tours.

Thanks to Hawke and Keating government funding Anzac Day was well on the mend in Australia by 1996. Through a collection of circumstances I was awake and in the centre of Melbourne for that year’s Anzac Day dawn service. I shivered through a crisp autumn morning at the city’s massive war memorial on St Kilda road but was fascinated by the formal solemnity of the ritual. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.

About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister, the times finally suiting him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism and the primacy of the flag. Anzac Day became bigger than ever.

I resisted most of these strains. Yet Gallipoli was growing on me. I read Les Carlyon’s history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the catalog of errors, was the number of Australian deaths. 643 in the first week, 1,805 through May, 265 in June, 143 in July, 2,054 in the August offensive with another 572 in the last four months. All across Australia that winter, people would have heard about the death of a father, brother, son, cousin or friend. This was Australia’s first major national tragedy since Federation in 1901 and it was communal grief Anzac committees tapped into as early as 25 April 1916.

The Anzac experience was compounded by events in Western Europe. Thousands more Australians would die in hell holes at Ypres and the Somme. Over 400,000 Australians enlisted in the First World War – almost two in five of the adult population between 18 and 44. 61,513 of them died (easily the largest of any conflict) and another 170,000 were injured or taken POW. In a country of four million people, most were affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was a way of honouring the memory of this harrowing experience.

This year, my job as a country reporter took me to two dawn services, the first in Roma and the second 40km away at Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since that one in Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few parades. The formal part of the Roma and Muckadilla proceedings had not changed. “Shortly after 2am, three battleships, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and London reached their sea rendezvous off Gaba Tebe and stopped to lower their boats,” began the narrative of 95 years ago. The flag was lower and raised, the Ode was recited followed by a minute’s silence, the last post and the national anthem.

Beyond the symbolism lay the meeting of real people. 250 people turned up in Roma, 42 in tiny Muckadilla, easily doubling its population. A bigger crowd still congregated back in Roma for the parade and another service. It wasn’t the ritual that was important. It was what those people did and said to each other before and after the ceremonies that gave the day its power. It brought people together for a common theme and common purpose. I asked people what Anzac Day meant to them. Almost all the answers were thoughtful and complex. Most remembered the deaths of family members or friends or people they knew about. The Anzac tradition concentrates the mind about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.