Monday, April 27, 2009

Anzac Day

Public holidays seem to fall into two classes. There are those that still have important symbolic meanings -- Canada Day and Australia Day are days to celebrate a nation; Christmas is... well, it's complicated, but it's certainly fraught with meaning.

Other holidays are primarily a day off work. Few of us really care about Queen Victoria's birthday, or that striking printers helped found the modern labour movement that we celebrate at the beginning of September.

In Australia, April 25 falls squarely into the former category.

April 25 is Anzac Day, and in Australia it seems to outrank Nov 11 as a day of military commemoration. It marks the beginning of the Battle of Gallipoli campaign, which was launched on April 25, 1915, and which dragged on for months before the British and Empire troops finally withdrew from the peninsula on Turkey's coast in late 1915 and early 1916. It cost tens of thousands of lives -- 28,000 dead and wounded from Australia alone. The campaign killed or injured 336,000 men on both sides, with that many again ravaged by diseases like dysentry and typhoid. It was a typical First World War cockup.

Anzac Day is traditionally marked with one of several services, the first of which is held at dawn. At Gallipoli itself, an estimated 8,000 people gathered this year for the dawn service, most of them waiting all night for the service to begin. It has been described as a pilgrimage and a rite of passage for a young Australian to attend the dawn service in Turkey.

In order to fully embrace our year in Australia, I decided that I would go to one of the dawn services. I left it up to the rest of the family to decide if they wanted to go, and much to my surprise everyone but Ana said they would come, too.

We chose to go to Coolum, since our friend Jackie's son, Josh, was playing in the drum corps at that service. I figured we would be part of a small crowd there -- a few hundred people at most. After all, why would anyone get up at 4 a.m. when they could go to a similar service at 10 a.m.?

It turns out I was quite wrong. We were still nearly a kilometre from the cenotaph when I began to see cars parked at the side of the road. It was 5:00, and as we got closer we could see that both sides of the road were thick with cars, and the parking lots were overflowing. There were cyclists and walkers coming from town, and hundreds of people already standing in the darkness. As we parked and walked to the cenotaph, we figured there were well over a thousand people there; by the time the service started, there were over 2,000, all of us there to mark the 94th anniversary of a battle that took place in a spot I probably couldn't find on a map.

Of course, it wasn't just about Gallipoli, or even about the first world war. In Australian mythology, that battle is now seen as marking the beginning of true nationhood, the first time Australians fought as Australians, and the first time they began to see that their interests were not necessarily the same as British interests. (ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a unit that was created just before Gallipoli began and disbanded shortly after.)

It's also a day to celebrate the work, sacrifices and achievements of all "Diggers", as Australians call their troops. The speaker at the service in Coolum was a veteran of the Vietnam war; in the days leading up to Anzac Day the t.v. stations ran greetings from Diggers stationed in East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hotspots. It may be partly because of those conflicts that Anzac Day services have actually been growing larger in recent years, as people find new meaning in a ritual that honours a job their friends and relatives are doing. It may also be a matter of renewed nationalism, self-conscious mythologizing, or just plain old post-modern hero-seeking.

The service itself was similar to many Remembrance Day services I've attended -- the minute of silence, the playing of the Last Post, the sometimes dull and long-winded speeches. The high point of the service came right at the beginning. As we stood there under the streetlights, we could hear a bass drum thumping in the distance, telling the marchers it was time to parade to the cenotaph. As it came closer, we could pick up snare drums as well, tapping out a rhythm. Then there was another sound like distant rain, the sound of people clapping. The marchers came closer, and we joined in the clapping -- not applauding the drummers, but the people shuffling along behind them. They were the Diggers, grey old veterans of WWII, retirees who had fought in Vietnam, a smattering of younger men and women my own age, and even a couple of children wearing the medals of a father or an uncle. As they walked by, every person there applauded appreciatively. Nobody had told them to, nobody had said "let's give our Diggers a clap." It was spontaneous, heartfelt and moving, a community coming out in the dark to thank the people who had gone to war.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

If they ever offer me a vice-regal job...

I love short pieces in newspapers. Sure there are times when I like to dig into a meaty, 10,000 word feature, but the pieces that are more likely to inspire envy and delight are often small, tight, funny, and sharp.

That's partly because, like all editors, I have spent many, many hours looking for creative little things that I can use to fill those annoying holes that appear when a story is too short or an ad gets pulled. As a result, I enjoy seeing what other editors do, and what good writers can achieve when asked to tell a story in under 200 words.

Movie reviewers almost always do it well (check out Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who's often at his best when at his briefest). John Heinzl's Stars and Dogs column in the Globe is a series of delightful 65 words summaries of strong or weak stocks. E.B. White was a genius at the short piece -- sure, he's best known as the author of Charlotte's Web and the co-author of Elements of Style, but some of his best writing was found in the squibs he produced for the New Yorker: 150 words, unsigned, and almost always gems.

Then there are the pieces that are entertaining just because of what they are, because they reflect something odd about the community that reads them. Which brings me to the Vice-Regal report in the Brisbane Courier-Mail.

I like the Courier-Mail (and not just because they pay their freelancers very quickly, although that is most appreciated). It's a good, entertaining, well-balanced paper. But every good paper has its quirks, and the C-M's is found at the bottom of the comics page.

The bottom quarter of that page is given over to four features: On This Day, Today's Birthdays, Shipping News, and Vice-Regal. The first two you see everywhere, lists of what happened on this day in 1847, and which actress shares a birthday with which long-dead writer (great fun if you try to picture the birthday party that would be hosted by Immanual Kant, Aaron Spelling and Queen Isabella I, for example.)

The shipping news is less common, for obvious reasons, but it's usually found in most port city papers. But never before have I seen a regular Vice-Regal report.

Every day the paper faithfully reports what the Governor of Queensland did the day before. It's one long paragraph, written very formally, with everyone's title duly spelled out -- the Governor is always "Her Excellency, Ms Penelope Wensley, AO" on first reference and Her Excellency on second. And it's almost always insanely boring.

Today we learned that Her Excellency toured Roma House and Mission Australia, and was briefed on their mission to help the homeless, after which she had tea with the board. Very worthy work, no doubt, and probably somewhat interesting if you only had that sort of briefing and tour occasionally. But poor Ms. Wensley does that every day. On Monday she toured the Springfield City Development Project and was "briefed on education, health and technology aspects of the Springfield Project." Friday she opened the Distribution Centre and Office of the Mt Gravatt Meals on Wheels Service. On Thursday she was at the Brisbane Holiday Inn announcing the Queensland Mother of the Year for 2009, then hosted the annual awards ceremony for the Queensland Guides. If you want more you can see all the details on her web site.

She's often accompanied in her rounds by Mr Stuart McCosker, her husband. In a previous life, he was a vet, which I always thought had to be one of the worst jobs around. After a few weeks of being the Governor's companion, though, I might rethink it: sticking my arm up cow's bums for a living might not look so bad after all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Meeting the local wildlife on Great Keppel

Amazing how a few weeks can just slip through your fingers between posts. I guess that's a sign that we've been busy.

Easter in Australia is the start of a school holiday -- one week in Queensland, two in New South Wales, not sure about the other states and territories. Sharon returned from Canada a few days before Easter, so we spent the weekend here then took off for the Capricorn Coast.

The Capricorn Coast is unique in Australia, since it's the only landmark in the country that wasn't named by Captain Cook. At least, I don't think it is. It's named because part of it sits at 23.5 degrees south lattitude, meaning the Tropic of Capricorn runs through it. The town of Rockhampton celebrates this with a nice little monument outside their visitor's centre. (Unfortunately, the actual line of lattitude is a few miles south of town, but the idea is a good one.)

We weren't there to see the line, though; we were there to see an island. Specifically we were there to spend three nights on Great Keppel Island. It's a few miles offshore from the town of Yeppoon, which is about 6 1/2 hours drive from here. At least it is if you're not driving through a monsoon. It took us closer to 8 1/2, and we were lucky to get through before they started closing sections of the highway. And yes, poor old Kin Kin got flooded out again.

En route we stopped for dinner with our old friend Therese, who we used to see when we lived in the Ottawa Valley. We haven't seen each other in years, but she and her mum are travelling through Australia so we met up for dinner. It is indeed a funny little world.

Before heading to the island, we visited a terrific network of caves north of Rockhampton, and toured the Aboriginal discovery centre, where we all learned to throw a boomerang. And yes, they really do come back. Getting them to come back where you want them, it seems, is the real trick. We bought two in the gift shop so we could practice. I'm sure the neighbours will be delighted.

Great Keppel Island is part of a group of islands (named by Captain Cook, naturally). Some of the islands are now a National Park, but at one time Great Keppel was Australia's party central -- the marketing slogan in the 80s was Get Wrecked on Keppel!

Last year the biggest resort on the island closed down, taking with it a number of smaller bars and shops. Now there are just a couple of little backpacker places and a pizza shop that's open three days a week. But the biggest attraction remains the beaches and the water, and we enjoyed them immensely. The southern end of the Great Barrier Reef is a few hundred kilometres to the east, but Keppel has some good coral too, and we spent a fun couple of days snorkelling over and around it, admiring the fish and the rays in the clear, warm waters. In the evenings we sat and chatted with Germans, Australians and Brits at the communal kitchen/dining hall, and one night we pulled out guitars and had a session.

The last day was the only downer. As we walked into the water for our last snorkelling session, Charlotte shrieked that she had stepped on something. It was a ray, but it swam away without doing anything more than frightening her. We got her calmed down, told her she'd have a good story to tell, and waded back out. Then it was Sharon's turn to shriek: she'd stepped on one too, and this time it had stung her. The pain, she said, was insane -- second only to childbirth, in her estimation, and Sharon has a very high pain threshold. That came from a small sting on the foot, a cut that was less than 2 cm long.

Fortunately we were near the resort, and someone got a ute to take her back. Even more fortunately, there was an acupuncturist staying there who had treated stings before, and he knew exactly what to do. (Hot water, as hot as you can stand it, until the pain plateaus. Then elevate the foot and treat it with ice and antiseptic.)

On the way back we enjoyed the scenery that we had missed in the driving rain. Now we're back home again, looking forward to our next adventure.

Oh, and we've lost one of the boomerangs. If anyone spots one in the surf at Great Keppel, throw it down this way.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A pub with no beer... but lots of water

Turns out the flooding was a bit more dramatic than that last post may have indicated. Apparently water rose so quickly in Kin Kin that people had to jump on the bar. Not for the usual reasons, either, but to avoid getting washed away.

There's more on it here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Under water? So what.

They're going to have to rename the Sunshine Coast if this keeps up. It's been raining off and on for a couple of weeks now, and going steadily for a couple of days. When it rains here, it doesn't mess around, either. Forget the gentle mist or soft rain. Here it's huge, pelting gobs of water that come pummelling down, as if God's bucket is being thrown at you. The rain here can hurt.

Usually this just lasts for a few minutes, then it stops until the next squall blows through. But occasionally it just goes on and on. Last night one part of Noosa got over 400 mm of rain in four hours. Yes, that's a foot of rain!

Not surprisingly, roads are closed all over the place and some communities are cut off. One of Charlotte's classmates went home early yesterday because her parents knew their road was going to flood soon; a school group had to be evacuated from their campground along the Noosa River; people will be calling in to work all over the place because they can't get through the water.

But what makes this so cool is how blase everyone is about it. The community radio station has information about which creeks have crested and which roads are closed, and there are advisories reminding people not to drive through deep water, but nobody seems to be too agitated. Nobody, that is, except the national media, who get all excited about reporting "severe weather in southeast Queensland." Fifi the weather girl on one of the national morning shows (yes, she really is named Fifi) was reporting from Noosa this morning, because it was the weather hotspot. (She had wanted to report from KinKin, but the road was closed. So, as Ana pointed out, KinKin was a no-go for Fifi.)

It's really just like a snowstorm in Canada. Those of us who live in it know that you take precautions when heavy snow is forecast, you make sure you can get home, and you wait it out if need be. Some people are foolish or unlucky enough to get caught in it, but for the most part we know that snowstorms just go with the territory. But watch the national news the next time a big storm hits, and you'd think it's a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Even the regional news shows can go overboard: I'll never forget watching the news with Mum when a hurricane was off the coast of Nova Scotia. The whole 6:00 news hour was devoted to hurricane reporting! It was as if the province had never seen a storm before, and people might not be sure how to deal with it.

Turns out most of them knew just what to do: close the windows, bring in the patio furniture, make sure you've got candles and water, and wait it out.