Heading to Gallipoli Pt 1- Songs
I’m on my way to Suvla Bay to sing a searing song; Eric Bogle’s desolate ballad of war and waste; The Band Plays Waltzing Matilda. It’s been haunting me, demanding my attention ever since I came to Turkey.
I’ve sung it before, in another place, and strongly; backed by a banjo, safe among friends, showcasing the power of music to tell a story and stir the heart. But this will be a bare rendition; a capella and alone. My guitar’s not with me here, and perhaps that’s for the best. It would draw attention; and it’s not a performance I want to create now, but some kind of offering. I know the story, and my heart’s already stirred.
But already I know that without those firm strings to drive my voice through the harrowing verses, I’m surely going to choke. I’ll have to push myself on from the gut to make it through. My voice will disappear into the autumn wind up there, perhaps it’ll just feel foolish and pointless. So be it. Even the rolled up pain of my whole life so far would not shadow one footstep of what people went through there. My meagre discomfort is part of the tribute. A Balinese friend, exhausted from sleepless nights preparing yet another ceremony, taught me that.
Travelling teaches; and shifts us inside, as well as through space.
Until I came to Turkey, I’d no idea that drawn out battle, almost a century ago, was so important here; that it still shapes the connections between the peoples of our lands. I hear it in the generous response when I answer Australia to that constant call to travellers: Where are you from? Yesterday, when I narrowed it down to ‘Brisbane’, the questioner shouted Cool bananas! I felt like a good luck charm. A village shop has a kangaroo / emu clock on the wall. . Guesthouses far from Gallipoli are called Wallaby, Kiwi or straight out Australia New Zealand. In one tiny hill town, the barely mobile matriarch of Oz Garden brought me a flower to brighten my coffee at her ramshackle table. ‘Aussie’ she creaked as she patted my hand and sat with me to share the sunset view. Crowded House is a fine witty name for a hostel. It’s been quite the entertainment.
Then a few days ago in a bus stop cafe I double-took a closer look at a photo of what at first appeared to be raggedy clowns in a field.
Then on a hunch asked… Who are they? Where is that?
The cook reached into her small stock of English and, miming a rifle, explained Gelibolu – soldiers – war. Gallipoli! I said. That’s where I’m going. Miming a guitar. Gallipoli… to sing a song, for the soldiers. She called over the waiter; translated. Customers came to see what the action was. Together we mimed ‘former conflict’ and ‘now friends’ and my eyes blurred with sudden tears. Their eyes did too. We shared a moment of honouring those old ones and their suffering, and with hands on hearts they blessed me on my way. Travelling solo, such moments of connection can feel immense. But still I was puzzled, questioning my tears.
Why does this mean so much to me now, that long gone battle in all the wars of the world? Why do I so have to go there? Why am I so moved?
They don’t spring from reflex patriotism. I’m told it’s more so now, but in my day, Australians weren’t big on the kind of flag waving I saw a few days ago on Turkish Republic day. Not outside sport anyway. Australia Day casts a shadow, as invasion day. We are comfortable with our ‘national character’- resilient, open, natural backpackers, we’ll chat with bus stop cooks- but shy of nationalism. We fluffed or were bluffed out of even becoming a Republic. Our war remembrance, ANZAC Day, does not even celebrate victory. Decades ago, I was taught history, by teachers who cared. But there was little about the generals who sent so many away to suffer and be slaughtered. Here, Kemal Ataturk, the victorious commander, is the ubiquitous hero, his name and image almost deified. Insulting him is unlawful, like a treason or blasphemy. We learned about Private Simpson, who survived a whole three weeks at Anzac Cove, tending the maimed and dead. But that doesn’t moved me to tears. More to contempt for the bastards who sent him there. Sure we make damn fine soldiers, Aussies, but I think we more truly revere those everyday warriors, the fire-fighters who face the flames in our own backyard.
Back on the bus, I asked myself again- Why am I so moved?
And suddenly I realised. A redemption. My father.
Who never served in battle; but who took me as a raging teenager to the National War Museum, where he suffered my refusal to even go inside. Committed to the struggle of my generation, ending war in Vietnam, unimpressed by ‘the glorification of imperialist soldiering’, I sat outside and sang Masters of War
I wasn’t kind. I wasn’t smart. As Joni Mitchell put it: I thought I knew life’s purpose, I thought we had a choice. I made some value judgements in a self important voice.
I burned his hand as I smacked away a gift he wanted to share with me; respect.
Not for ‘glory’, or power as dominion. Not for simply winning, for destruction or political mastery. But for facing the unbearable, with humanity and courage. Making the choiceless choice. In war, for some of us. In life, for most of us.
Years later, with his values intact, his big heart worn out and his daughter a little less raging, he got his lesson across, so directly, as I watched him slowly die.
I almost didn’t come to Turkey. There was war in Syria and I was afraid of whatever the hell the Masters of War might promulgate next. I’m so glad I did. For the people and the land. And now for this small pilgrimage; with a song, the blessing of a small town cook and a sense of my father’s hand on my heart.
* * *The tumult and the shouting die, The captains and the kings depart, Still stands thine ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget, lest we forget.
Kemal Ataturk’s words of reconciliation, 1934. Inscribed at ANZAC Cove, Turkey and in Canberra, Australia
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
Translation and more information of the poster of Turkish soldiers in this post available on request.
The tumult and the shouting…. from Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional.