Thursday, April 26, 2007

Anzac Day

I don't like Anzac Day. Never have. It scares me, the violence inherent in the commemoration of war, the sentimentality that masks the violence. I remember in the early 1970s in Auckland there was a fashion amongst us for going to the Dawn Parade, dressed in our army surplus great coats - a sure provocation to the old soldiers who would certainly become enraged at what they saw as a calculated insult. And perhaps they were right.

I remember another Anzac Day, 1987, here in Sydney, at the Caledonian Hotel, where I lay awake all night listening to my enemies, two brothers, plotting, as I thought, to murder me. I could hear their voices echoing through the disused shaft of the old dumb waiter, that came all the way down from their barricaded hideout on the top floor to my basement room in the servant's quarters. I fled that place as soon as it was light, and never went back, or only to get my things.

So driving on Anzac Day felt like ... a risk. Nevertheless I needed the money and so decided to do it. The day was grey and wet, the streets gloomy and deserted. I took a man and his shopping home and then an aged Englishwoman, with her son and daughter-in-law, to the airport. She was going back to the Old Dart. In the City, all the ranks were full and none of them were moving, so I drove around until a tall fellow with a chest full of medals whistled for me in Castlereagh Street.

Going to Mosman. Well-liquored and quite pleased with himself. Had a wonderful time. Told me that the marches are getting bigger, not smaller, as the old diggers fade away: made up of Reservists, Territorials, Home Guard and the like, many of whom have never seen action but remain besotted by the military and all it entails. The romance of war. Couldn't find it in me to like this man but was polite enough to him. He too was flying to Europe the next day.

Not long after, back in the City, on the Park Street rank, I picked up a skinny fellow with more medals than his thin chest could hold. His head was poked forward on his neck and he had an improbably large nose. He said he'd had an amazing day and told me why: he'd been a regular soldier, had served two tours in Vietnam, and during the second was part of an ad hoc unit formed by a field commander to fight alongside the SAS in special operations. They drove light armour and were extremely successful - he apologised for using the phrase kill ratio but said it was current at the time and theirs was very high.

Well, after two months, the unit was disbanded and, subsequently, when members of it applied for war pensions and offered as support this part of their service record, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied that the unit had ever existed. So these guys had just embarked on a process of organising some proof that they had existed. They'd had a reunion that morning during which they'd met, and spoken to, an ABC journalist. One of their proofs was a strange meeting between this guy and his brother, a conscript, who'd been at an artillery base in Vietnam when the lost patrol, the light armour unit, rolled in at 3 am. That kind of thing, he said, can't be faked.

I dropped him off in Rose Bay and answered a radio call to the Eastern Suburb's Rugby Club, where the two-up game had ended, the buffet was trashed, everyone was going home. Took two blokes up to the Four in Hand in Paddington, where two big young woggie fellows got in. Expensively dressed and unremittingly foul-mouthed, indeed abusive, about the woman who was joining them. Of course I've heard blokes go on like this before but they generally stop once the woman appears ... not these guys.

She, a blonde, came pirouetting across the road to the cab and they started in on her immediately in a way that was brutal, shocking, vile. And she took it! Even gave a little bit back but couldn't really compete. They had met that afternoon at the Randwick races; she had (her words) gatecrashed their party. That must have been why she was beholden to them; why they didn't care. What is a 'spit roast'? I almost don't want to know.

The worst thing about rides like this is the punters generally try to enlist your support: the blokes wanted me to validate their stream of insult and innuendo, the woman wanted me to defend her. Not long before we pulled up at King Street Wharf she asked, in a tiny, little girl voice, if they wanted her to go? There was the merest pause then they both said Nah, you fuck, you can stay ...

Then there was a couple having a fight, then some gross young men who, despite the protests of the woman they were with, whose father was cooking for them, insisted on stopping for kebabs on the way to the barbie ... had to pick their mess off the seats and the floor afterwards, wondering why I didn't just leave them at the kebab shop ... didn't go near The Rocks again, nor any pubs, but you see things anyway:

Four or five sailors fanning out into four or five empty cabs stopped in traffic outside the cinemas on George Street just as a violent brawl breaks out. A cop car pulls up opposite, two female cops run through the traffic and hurl themselves into the melee, which rolls into the street ...

At the other end of George Street, later, another sailor collapsed in a gutter while another woman cop bends over him, trying to haul him upright. In a clinch, they stagger then fall together into the street ...

I'm taking a young woman, starry-eyed with the romance of war, from Summer Hill to Surry Hills when we stop at the lights outside The Rose in Cleveland Street. There are three people swaying there, too drunk to know the cab's engaged, too drunk to realise I've only stopped because the lights are red. They begin to lurch towards the car, I roll the passenger side window down to tell them it's not on, then one of them disappears, falling onto the road and, who knows, under the wheels of the car?

Her friends, a man and a woman, scarcely less drunk than she is, drag her upright and get her back onto the footpath. For some reason they have both her arms raised in the air and appear to be lifting her skywards. Owww! she screams, you're hurting me! as the lights go green and I accelerate away. There, about two blocks on, I see two people recklessly riding shopping trolleys down the footpath, out of control, likely to hurtle into the roadway at any moment ...

Much later, at the end of my shift, I've just dropped off at the airport and am heading back to base through Erskineville when I'm hailed outside the Kurrajong Hotel. They're going my way so I take them, to Annandale. A young couple, drunk, but not offensively so. How's your Anzac Day? the boy asks. I've escaped with flesh wounds, I reply. He giggles. I'm maimed, he says, Fucken' maimed. There's a pause. Anzac Day's supposed to be about all these things, he says. But it's really just about drinking. Drinkin' fucken' alcohol. 'S'a good thing too ...