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