In the Face of Dreadful Odds

“That’s a story every Australian knows and, now, you do too.”

I stand there, brought up short. It isn’t the first time.

It’s been all of four hours since we met our Melbourne tour guide. We can see he’s lanky and given to vaguely Outbackish hats, but we’re still getting a feel for his communication style. Although consistently (and admirably) competent, our guides to date have exhibited no-two-alike personal styles: warm and a little raucous, witty and a little self-deprecatory, friendly and a little motherly, helpful and a little organized.  Just as if they were, you know, people.

So, on this lovely day in late November, 2014, I’m listening more for tone than for content as our guide prepares us to enter the ANZAC memorial—ANZAC being the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. With respect to content, I am, in fact, thinking, “I get it, you know? Let’s get on with this.”  

After all, I’ve seen snippets of the movie, Gallipoli, in passing on TV. Getting ready for this trip, I’ve read about the out-of-proportion-to-their-populations contribution that both countries made to WWI. Somewhere, somewhen, flying through the night to get to this part of the world, I watched a documentary marking the upcoming centenary of that epic WWI battle in April, 2015. Since arriving, I’ve seen WWI memorials all across New Zealand and in Sydney. What more is there to know?

But despite my rigorous preparation, apparently there’s something still to be done. Standing beside a bronze statue—one man riding a donkey, one man supporting the rider and leading the donkey—buddy tells us the story. Of how, in the midst of terrible fighting, a young soldier—a volunteer in the war effort—brought wounded men down from the heights above Anzac Cove to the field medical hospital, such as it was. Of how he whistled and sang as he worked, not just saving hundreds of lives, but inspiring his mates with his heroism. Of how he was killed only three weeks into the battle, just shy of his 23rd birthday.

“That’s a story every Australian knows and, now, you do too.”

As buddy sums up, I realize that knowing the facts and owning the story are not the same thing.

As a Canadian, of course, I can’t truly own this story: it hasn’t been part of my upbringing, schooling, or annual war remembrance. But by his words, buddy has graciously lent me this story, to hold as I choose, for as long as I choose.

I climb the stairs to this magnificent memorial holding this story in my heart: not just “getting it,” but feeling it, too.

ANZAC Memorial, Melbourne
ANZAC Memorial, Melbourne

Later, I look into the story a little bit, and find the nuances. I read that the initial story was typical wartime propaganda: embellished accomplishments, glossed-over complexities. That Australia’s best-known war hero deserted from the British merchant navy and then dropped his last name. That he volunteered to join up in Australia, all right, but maybe to get back home to England. That the work he did, as hard and dangerous as it was, was still easier and safer than carrying men from the front lines on a stretcher. That it was physically impossible for him to have rescued as many men as were claimed on his behalf.

And, you know, the facts matter. I shrug resignedly, move this story from heart to head, and think darkly about the downside of stories. That their very power to transform a messy reality into a memorable and even compelling package is also what makes them dangerous, as they slide over inconvenient but pertinent facts. It isn’t the first time.

But the passage of a few months and a little more reading brings a different perspective. That isn’t the first time, either.

Just as the facts matter, so do their selection and their interpretation. The story of Simpson and his donkey has survived for 100 years because it is not just about one man. It is a story Australians tell themselves about who they are—those disproportionate war contributions are also fact—and who they want to be.

ANZAC Plaque
ANZAC Plaque

ANZAC is not merely about loss.  It is about courage
and endurance, and duty, and love of country,
and mateship, and good humour,
and the survival of a sense of self-worth
and decency in the face of dreadful odds.

Yet it is a story they hold in their heads as well as their hearts: the official Australian War Memorial site acknowledges the inconvenient facts about John Simpson Kirkpatrick as well as the amazing ones, while identifying the role that the story about him played and plays in forging the nation.

As for me, I’m left wondering what “story every Canadian knows.” What story we tell ourselves, our children, and our visitors about who we are and who we want to be.

And so, on this centenary of Gallipoli, I’m breaking my protocol of Sunday postings. As ANZAC Day is being commemorated in that weird place in the time-space continuum where it’s already tomorrow, I’m taking the story of Simpson and his donkey—a story shared with me in a minute or two—and sharing it with you. Today I’m standing with the people who own this story, nuances and all.

I’m sharing it in memory of all who were killed or injured in Gallipoli, including one imperfect young man who, under hellish conditions, did something worth remembering. Something worth aspiring to.

I’m sharing it to honour an entire chain of people who kept this story alive by telling it, and to thank the one man who told it to me.

I’m sharing it to be part of that storytelling chain, and to inspire myself to learn some of Canada’s stories well enough to be able to tell them, nuances and all.

“That’s a story every Australian knows and, now, you do too.”

Yes, I do, and now you do, too. Hold it as you choose, for as long as you choose.

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4 Comments

  1. I am a specialist in stories. I recognize the motifs and the one you tell rings true to me because I have watched the rebirth “of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds” right here at home, and among those passing through. These are real, flawed people, not the obvious choices for awards and memorials; but some of the hellish conditions they have endured and the choices they have made at great cost are heroic. I believe we have more brave souls among us than we realize whose stories will never be told, but who lace together the fabric of our society with incandescent grace.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – It’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder how many of us see ourselves in the national stories? For me, that’s one of the big contributions story tellers can make – highlighting the same motifs in the lives most of us lead.

  2. Jim Taylor

    Two thoughts occur to me. One, about the stories we Canadians tell each other. Sadly, I think the main story we tell is “We’re not Americans!”
    And then, two, I wonder if you have read anything of Sapiens, by Noel Harari. One of his chapters focusses specifically on the kinds of myths we tell each other. He says that it is not laws or history that binds a people together as a nation/culture, but the myths we have in common.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Well, it’s not really marriage law that binds couples, either, but the shared stories and jokes – so I can readily believe that myth-making is a key factor in nation building. Or any community building, I guess. One of the things that startled me when I started to think about this was that I might find it easier to tell the American stories than the ones that are supposedly my own. I think that’s both a testament to their clear vision of how they are in the world (it ain’t always right or accurate, but it’s clear), and an indictment of how badly/diffidently we’ve done it. I’m pretty sure I’ve been paying attention . . .

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