Simp­son and the Don­key: The Mak­ing of a Leg­end (An­niver­sary Edi­tion)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

SOME le­gends go on for­ever. Age does not weary them, nor do the years con­demn. They are en­tirely free of the mor­tal lim­i­ta­tions of the hero they cel­e­brate. They are dis­tin­guished by longevity, by the way they res­onate in a cul­ture years, decades, even cen­turies af­ter the hero is long gone. So it is with the leg­end of the man with the don­key, John Simp­son Kirkpatrick. Al­most 100 years since Simp­son was killed at Gal­lipoli, the leg­end sol­diers on. And 22 years since this book was first pub­lished, in 1992, there has been no sign of it let­ting up.

In that time there has been a film, a play, a mu­si­cal, more books for adults and chil­dren, a lav­ishly funded es­say prize and another life­sized statue to grace the gar­dens of a cap­i­tal city, this time Ade­laide. The im­age ap­peared on a $5 com­mem­o­ra­tive coin in 1995 and it was front and cen­tre on the $100 bill re­leased in 1996. By that time Simp­son had ac­quired a fast-grow­ing pres­ence on the in­ter­net and to­day thou­sands of web­sites cel­e­brate or dis­pute the deeds of the man with the don­key, while pas­sion­ate blog­gers ar­gue the toss over the de­tails of his hero­ism and the mean­ing of it all. That pas­sion trans­lates to the real world in the form of pe­ti­tions to the Com­mon­wealth Par­lia­ment re­quest­ing a post­hu­mous Vic­to­ria Cross for the man; the De­fence Hon­ours Tri­bunal has re­cently con­cluded a year­long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into that pos­si­bil­ity.

Tourism, too, has been cash­ing in. Simp­son fig­ures promi­nently in the mar­ket­ing of ‘‘ the Gal­lipoli ex­pe­ri­ence’’. Folk­lore and com­merce are mu­tual ben­e­fi­cia­ries here. There have been end­less tellings and retellings of the tale and the em­bel­lish­ments keep on com­ing, the lat­est from a Turk­ish tour guide, a man called Ali Efes. At Gal­lipoli, Ali takes Aus­tralians to Simp­son’s grave and tells of how the man with the don­key fer­ried wounded Turks back to the Turk­ish lines.

Like Ali Efes, some of our politi­cians have also been over­whelmed by the uni­ver­sal hu­man qual­i­ties of the story. They have played no small part in keep­ing the leg­end in both Hansard and the head­lines. As the 2001 fed­eral elec­tion loomed, La­bor Party MPs in­tro­duced a bill to award a ret­ro­spec­tive VC to the man with the don­key. Th­ese MPs took up the cause in the spirit of right­ing a ter­ri­ble wrong. The ethics of politi­cians in­vad­ing the award process seemed to worry them not a jot. It was all about emo­tion: ‘‘ A man who has be­come the very epit­ome of An­zac,’’ said Jill Hall, La­bor mem­ber for Short­land in New South Wales. It was all about sym­bol­ism too. The ar­gu­ments for a ret­ro­spec­tive VC strayed far from merit based on first­hand ev­i­dence of ex­tra­or­di­nary val­our. ‘‘ I say bug­ger the pa­per­work — let’s re­ward an iconic fig­ure and give John Simp­son Kirkpatrick a post­hu­mous VC,’’ said Harry Quick, La­bor mem­ber for Franklin in Tas­ma­nia. The Lib­eral Mem­ber for Par­ra­matta, Ross Cameron, agreed: ‘‘ Simp­son is clearly an enor­mous fig­ure in the na­tional psy­che . . . He is the most cel­e­brated, the most em­blem­atic, and the most iconic fig­ure in Aus­tralian mil­i­tary his­tory,’’ he told the par­lia­ment.

The cause car­ried into the 2001 fed­eral elec­tion with the La­bor Party in Op­po­si­tion vow­ing to leg­is­late a VC for the man with the don­key if elected. They weren’t elected and John Howard, in his third term as prime min­is­ter, was not in­clined to in­ter­fere with the hal­lowed pro­ce­dures for the high­est award for val­our in the land.

But Howard was alert to the sym­bolic util­ity of the fa­mous icon, and Simp­son fit­ted per­fectly into his vi­sion for a na­tional day that would unify Aus­tralia in a tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­va­tive By Peter Cochrane Mel­bourne Univer­sity Press, 296pp, $24.99

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