CTIVE UTHS

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way. Aus­tralia Day in the bi­cen­ten­nial year of 1988 had in­cited more di­vi­sion than unity. Cel­e­brat­ing our colo­nial ori­gins seemed only to bring dis­cord, fo­cused on is­sues such as invasion, dis­pos­ses­sion, stolen chil­dren and land rights, and that dis­cord car­ried into the 1990s in the form of the ‘‘ His­tory Wars’’. When Howard came into gov­ern­ment in 1996 he was in­tent upon rid­ding Aus­tralians of the ‘‘ self­lac­er­a­tion’’ and ‘‘ guilt’’ as­so­ci­ated with our colo­nial his­tory, pre­fer­ring in­stead to com­mem­o­rate and cel­e­brate our mil­i­tary past and fo­cus­ing that celebration on An­zac Day.

The Prime Min­is­ter was adamant that gov­ern­ment had a role to play in press­ing this cause into schools. Cur­ricu­lum ma­te­ri­als for An­zac his­tory were lav­ishly funded as the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs was trans­formed into an ed­u­ca­tional re­source fa­cil­ity cen­tred on the idea that our na­tional his­tory is essen­tially a story of heroic mil­i­tary en­gage­ments abroad, none more im­por­tant than the found­ing nar­ra­tive at Gal­lipoli in 1915. The lu­cra­tive Simp­son es­say prize was es­tab­lished for year 9 and 10 stu­dents in 1999 — with prizes in­clud­ing trips to Gal­lipoli — and in 2004 the PM was per­suaded that ‘‘ val­ues’’ were flag­ging in pub­lic schools and Simp­son would do nicely as the of­fi­cial icon for the restora­tion.

The Na­tional Frame­work for Val­ues Ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralian Schools was re­leased in May 2005 by the Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Bren­dan Nel­son. The nine val­ues the gov­ern­ment wanted taught in Aus­tralian schools were headed by ‘‘ care and com­pas­sion’’ and listed on a big poster that schools were re­quired to dis­play promi­nently to re­ceive a share of $33 bil­lion in fed­eral fund­ing. The val­ues were su­per­im­posed over an im­age of Simp­son and the don­key res­cu­ing a wounded sol­dier. Be­neath the icon was an out-of-con­text quo­ta­tion from nine­teenth-cen­tury English nov­el­ist Ge­orge Eliot: ‘‘ Char­ac­ter is des­tiny.’’

The Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion hyped up the cause. He said the story of the un­armed Simp­son and his don­key bear­ing a wounded sol­dier to safety had be­come a leg­end that rep­re­sented ev­ery­thing that Aus­tralia as­pired to be. He said the val­ues listed on the poster must be taught in all schools, Is­lamic schools in­cluded, and ‘‘ If peo­ple don’t want to ac­cept and em­brace those val­ues then they ought to clear off, I don’t care where they’re from’’.

Crit­i­cisms came thick and fast. Many Aus­tralians in­di­cated they did not want the gov­ern­ment dic­tat­ing how school chil­dren should think and some had reser­va­tions about the use of Simp­son as the pin-up fig­ure. Crit­ics said he rep­re­sented, at best, se­lec­tive and nos­tal­gic truths about the land­ing at Gal­lipoli. An ed­i­to­rial in The Age ar­gued ‘‘ the 90 year old im­pe­ri­al­ist tale of Simp­son and his don­key is ar­guably of mar­ginal rel­e­vance in 21st cen­tury Aus­tralia’’. The Age called the choice a ‘‘ sim­plis­tic Boy’s Own An­nual vi­sion of Aus­tralia’’.

Ed­u­ca­tors spoke out too. The head­mas­ter at Mel­bourne Gram­mar School was ap­palled by Nel­son’s com­ments and was not en­thused by Simp­son, while An­drew Blair, Pres­i­dent of the Sec­ondary Prin­ci­pals As­so­ci­a­tion, ob­jected strongly to hav­ing Simp­son as the val­ues icon.

Why, he asked, ‘‘ an im­age that is grounded in hero­ism in con­flict’’ when an im­age ‘‘ about tol­er­ance and trust’’ would be much more suit­able? The Simp­son im­age, he said, was ‘‘ of yes­ter­year’’ and ‘‘ too blokey’’.

Ques­tion­ing the use of Simp­son in the val­ues push stirred Min­is­ter Nel­son to dizzy heights. ‘‘ He [Simp­son] rep­re­sents ev­ery­thing at the heart of what it means to be Aus­tralian,’’ he said, and ‘‘ ev­ery­thing that we should strive to be as a na­tion.’’ He said that un­der no cir­cum­stances would he re­move the im­age from the val­ues project: ‘‘ Our fun­da­men­tal value is that we will place the in­ter­est and wel­fare of other hu­man be­ings ahead of our own — that’s what Simp­son and his don­key rep­re­sents,’’ he in­sisted.

But while Nel­son had again called the leg­end into na­tional promi­nence, he had also failed his ed­u­ca­tion port­fo­lio in a dis­mal fash­ion. ‘‘ Char­ac­ter is des­tiny’’ sounds good, a nifty motto sug­gest­ing our course in this world is en­tirely in our hands. Yet it hardly ap­plies to Simp­son, whose main ob­jec­tive was to get home, to Eng­land, and his des­tiny was ar­guably de­ter­mined not by his char­ac­ter but by forces over which he had no con­trol at all.

Stu­dents who were told to study the val­ues poster needed to know that des­tiny is at least a ques­tion­able en­tity and that char­ac­ter alone, sad as it may seem, does not chart our course into the fu­ture.

Ge­orge Eliot’s mar­vel­lous insight into this sim­ple truth — evok­ing Ham­let in the process — can be found in book six, chap­ter six of The Mill on the Floss. Per­haps the Min­is­ter snatched the three-word quo­ta­tion from his desk cal­en­dar and for that rea­son had no idea that Eliot was in fact mock­ing the no­tion that char­ac­ter is des­tiny. Had Nel­son both­ered to read the quo­ta­tion in con­text he might have un­der­stood Eliot’s sar­casm. She ac­tu­ally called it ‘‘ a ques­tion­able apho­rism’’ and her nar­ra­tive ex­plained why it is ques­tion­able. Stu­dents could have learnt from this but in­stead they were mis­led. It is hard to think of a more cruel and de­cep­tive apho­rism when ap­plied to the front line sol­diers of the Great War, Simp­son in­cluded.

Per­haps Min­is­ter Nel­son was not wholly in­spired by Eliot, an athe­ist like Simp­son, and a woman who lived out­side the norms of re­spectable English so­ci­ety by co-habit­ing with a man whom she never mar­ried. Per­haps the in­spi­ra­tion, in the first in­stance, came from some­where else?

In 2004, US Repub­li­can Se­na­tor John McCain com­pleted a book called Char­ac­ter is Des­tiny (pub­lished 2005) to in­spire Amer­i­can chil­dren with cor­rect moral val­ues as il­lus­trated by heroic true-life sto­ries. Nel­son’s val­ues poster for schools far more closely echoes McCain than Eliot and it most cer­tainly mis­rep­re­sents Simp­son and what he stood for. The en­tire ex­er­cise pro­vides a dis­mal ex­am­ple of how Simp­son can be so rou­tinely mis­used by peo­ple with po­lit­i­cal agen­das.

The most per­sis­tent mis­use con­cerns Simp­son’s pol­i­tics. He was a class-con­scious rad­i­cal, as the cache of let­ters an­a­lysed in chap­ter one [of Simp­son and the Don­key: The Mak­ing of a Leg­end] clearly re­veals. Any­one se­ri­ously in search of the so-called ‘‘ real man’’ has to sub­ject th­ese let­ters to the most rig­or­ous scru­tiny, ac­cept­ing painful en­gage­ment with ev­i­dence that might not be wel­come and weigh­ing the man in all the com­plex­ity that re­sides within those pre­cious let­ters. The clas­sic case of de­nial and dis­tor­tion in this re­gard was the unc­tu­ous Sir Irv­ing Ben­son who, in the 1960s, set a stan­dard for bowd­leri­sa­tion that I naively thought would never be matched. But I was wrong. Since 1992 the politi­cians and mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans who have made a hob­by­horse of Simp­son have con­tin­ued to op­er­ate in the Ben­son tra­di­tion, pro­fess­ing a pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in the ‘‘ real man’’ while sys­tem­at­i­cally evad­ing se­ri­ous en­gage­ment with his let­ters. Simp­son is ren­dered a car­i­ca­ture con­sis­tent with their own agen­das. The bi­o­graph­i­cal op­por­tu­nity to un­der­stand a rad­i­cal sea­man from north­ern Eng­land in the con­texts of his trav­els, his war and, in­deed, his writ­ing, is en­tirely and hap­pily passed over.

The en­thu­si­asts who fol­low Simp­son’s

trail prac­tise a kind of ‘‘ char­ac­ter is des­tiny’’ ap­proach to his­tory. They ex­pect to find in the hero all the nec­es­sary con­di­tions for his fame. Thus they see about as much as you would see in a trench; that is, noth­ing of the big pic­ture, noth­ing of the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal forces that raised the leg­end to na­tional promi­nence and sus­tained it there­after — the forces that are the sub­ject of this book.

From one gen­er­a­tion to another and from one of­fi­cial in­quiry or par­lia­men­tary push to the next, the de­bate about Simp­son con­tin­ues to pore over much the same ter­rain -— the fine de­tail in the mil­i­tary record — the pro­tag­o­nists now and then star­tled by the dis­cov­ery of a new fact. In this re­gard the leg­end has be­come a ba­nal and tire­some feuding, per­haps best demon­strated by the self-avowed ‘‘ ex­pert’’ who pub­lished his case against a VC in 2006, declar­ing that the man with the don­key was an ill-dis­ci­plined de­serter who shirked the stren­u­ous and more dan­ger­ous work of stretcher­bear­ing. Six years later, af­ter a lot more re­search, he pre­sented his case against him­self to the De­fence Hon­ours and Awards Tri­bunal, ar­gu­ing that Simp­son was dis­ci­plined, du­ti­ful, de­cent, hard-work­ing and brave — but no more so than other stretcher-bear­ers. The Tri­bunal agreed. Simp­son would not be awarded a post­hu­mous VC.

This pref­ace to a new edi­tion of Simp­son and the Don­key pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to stress sev­eral points, since the Simp­son ob­ses­sives — whether MPs, po­lit­i­cal blog­gers or hobby his­to­ri­ans — seem happy to prac­tise de­cep­tion or live in de­nial. Firstly, the Simp­son leg­end was the cre­ation of a de­spi­ca­ble pro­pa­ganda of­fen­sive that the man him­self would have con­demned as surely as he would have voted ‘‘ No’’ in the con­scrip­tion ref­er­en­dums had he lived.

The leg­end of the man with the don­key was a mere ci­pher, one tale among many thou­sands that were aimed at com­pelling men to en­list to fight abroad. The in­ces­sant mes­sage was ‘‘ War is hell, but it is splen­did’’. Stu­dents of Simp­son need to know this. They need to know that in his­tory, con­text is ev­ery­thing and the con­text for the Simp­son leg­end is tex­tual and po­lit­i­cal it is not Shrap­nel Gully. If we can­not see the part within the whole then we are truly lost. If we can­not lo­cate the leg­end in its print con­text then we can­not be­gin to un­der­stand it.

Se­condly, Simp­son is a dis­tinc­tive fig­ure: with his don­key bear­ing the wounded sol­dier along­side him, the con­no­ta­tions are both Christ-like and piti­ful. That, surely, sin­gled him out. But in ev­ery other way, the tales told about him are more or less in­ter­change­able with thou­sands of other pro­pa­ganda tales. The tropes are widely shared — con­tempt for shrap­nel, scorn for dan­ger, self­less and sac­ri­fi­cial be­hav­iour, no risk too great, smil­ing even unto death ‘‘ glo­ri­ous death’’ and so on.

The point is sim­ple — the Simp­son leg­end was a par­tic­u­lar dis­til­la­tion of an epic model of swag­ger and bravado cre­ated and per­pet­u­ated by the print me­dia, over­seen by gov­ern­ment and the cen­sors, and at­trib­uted to Aus­tralian sol­diers in gen­eral. That epic model was heroic rhetoric for can­non-fod­der, a grotesque ro­man­ti­ci­sa­tion of Aus­tralian sol­diers in bat­tle and death.

Fi­nally, the ap­par­ent ab­sence of a dec­o­ra­tion or mil­i­tary hon­our for Simp­son was a vi­tal part of the leg­end, at least while liv­ing mem­ory still reached back to the First World War. When a statue of the man with the don­key was un­veiled at the Shrine of Re­mem­brance in Mel­bourne in 1933, The Ar­gus ran a poem that cel­e­brated Simp­son as the ‘‘ type’’ who stood for the un­sung he­roes, ‘‘ all the un­named, for­got by fame’’. The leg­end sig­ni­fied a col­lec­tive, un­sung hero­ism and in this re­gard it was pro­foundly and mov­ingly egal­i­tar­ian. But time has erased that mem­ory and the pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cates for a post­hu­mous VC forge on, obliv­i­ous. The leg­end of the man with the don­key con­tin­ues to be made and re­made more in de­nial of the his­tor­i­cal record than in recog­ni­tion of it.

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