Saturday, 25 April 2009

The Shrine (ANZAC Day 2009)

Children at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.

CROSSING the Yarra River at Prince’s Bridge it’s impossible to miss. Set at the top of a gentle slope it looms above the road to St Kilda like something from another age. In its physical dimensions Victoria’s war memorial – The Shrine of Remembrance - is huge, but its spiritual dimensions are larger still. Modelled on the tomb of Mausolos – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – it’s design dwarfs the visitor, deliberately reducing his transient individuality to that of a mere speck before the vast collective sacrifice of "The Fallen". And lest he be in any doubt, letters of bronze, set into the flagstones of the Shrine’s vast forecourt, inform him that THIS IS HOLY GROUND.

They come to this forecourt every year on 25 April to remember the event that did so much to make the nation of Australia. More and more as the years have passed, so that the crowds of today begin to rival the crowds that gathered in the years immediately after the Great War, when the wrench and twist of grief was still new, and the tears for the sixty-two thousand young Australians who fell for "King and Country" had yet to dry.

The buttresses of the mausoleum, vast arrays of granite statuary, identify the young state’s tutelary deities: PATRIOTISM, SACRIFICE, JUSTICE, PEACE & PROSPERITY. Carried upon chariots, drawn by lions, these sixty-foot civic goddesses gaze down upon the city of Melbourne through eyes of stone, unblinking in the bitter Autumn wind. Brown leaves from the adjacent King’s Domain swirl and flutter like unquiet souls around the shrine’s battlements, collecting in anonymous drifts, to be trampled beneath the feet of passing tourists.

And in the very heart of the shrine, set beneath the level of the flagstones so that all who read the words engraved upon it must bow their heads, lies the Remembrance Stone itself. So placed that upon the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – the moment in 1918 when all the guns fell silent – a single shaft of sunlight falls upon the stone. The words chiselled into its surface - "greater love hath no man" - are taken from John 15:13, and recall Christ’s words to his disciples: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" On the morning of Remembrance Day it is the word "love" that the solitary sunbeam sets ablaze.

The weight of sorrow and the depth of loss that could build such a structure as Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance is difficult for someone of my generation to comprehend. Constructed in the depths of the Great Depression, when every penny was precious, the funds for the Shrine were nevertheless extracted from Victoria’s impoverished citizens in less than six months. Three hundred thousand people attended the opening ceremony in 1934.

But, my most poignant memory of the Shrine is not of the vast mausoleum itself, but of the Cenotaph. Standing in a corner of the Shrine’s forecourt, this stark memorial to the dead of the Second World War seems to mock the vast structure in whose shadow it stands - testifying to the unbearable fact that all the sacrifices of 1914-18 were offered up in vain.

As a New Zealander, it was impossible not to be moved by this sense of the futility of it all, and not to share in pathos of this extraordinary memorial. Impossible, too, not to feel proud of the fact that out of all the blood and pain and slaughter, the "Lion’s cubs" forged a new identity – catching from Lone Pine Ridge and the summit of Chunuk Bair a glimpse of that morning when the encumbering cultural armour of imperial loyalty could finally be laid aside.

Perhaps it is because we were the smaller cub, that we shrugged off the need for Imperial patronage a decade or so earlier than our larger Australian brother. But, if the words of Mark Latham, the Australian Labor leader, can be believed, the day is fast approaching when both of the nations joined by the word ANZAC will feel free to march to the beat of their own drummers. For what New Zealand learned decisively in Vietnam, Australia is only now absorbing in Iraq: that all empires – American as well as British – have an insatiable appetite for blood.

And, when that independence day arrives, we ANZACs will need no shrine but the tawny flanks of Australia’s fruitful valleys, and the deep green pastures of our little southern land.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 23 April 2004.

In memory of the fallen of all wars, and in recognition of the ultimate futility of all forms of collective violence, I urge you, this ANZAC Day, to let the following three links take you to what are, in my opinion, the three finest songs about war ever written.

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda – Eric Bogle

The Green Fields of France – Eric Bogle

And then, this final link to:

1 comment:

Hels said...

This was a particularly sensitive telling of an old story, one that Melbournians should know well but probably don't. I have created a link with my blog

many thanks
Art and Architecture, mainly