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Down memory lane

Nick Bryant | 08:59 UK time, Monday, 5 May 2008

Digging began this week at the Glenrowan Inn site where Ned Kelly made his legendary last stand, dressed in home-made body armour fashioned out of ploughs. This week also sees a clutch of anniversaries: the 20th anniversary of the opening of Parliament House in Canberra, the 50th anniversary of the Logies, the Australian equivalent of the BAFTAs or the EMMYs, and the rugby league centenary test between Australia and New Zealand which will be played on at the historic setting of the Sydney Cricket Ground, with players decked out in 1908 replica kits.

Aside from the coincidence of timing, there's no obvious link between these disparate events and commemorations. But I wonder whether they speak of a rising popular trend: a new-found fascination for all things historical, and a growing enthusiasm for understanding, and then celebrating, the events of the past.

ANZAC Day in Sydney.jpg

Last month's ANZAC day was a case in point, as record crowds turned out to cheer on the medal-clad diggers and to commemorate the Gallipoli landings. At Melbourne's imposing Shrine of Rememberance, some 40,000 attended the dawn service, while a crowd of more than 60,000 people watched the ANZAC parade in Brisbane. Apparently it was the same nationwide, with branches of the RSL (the Returned and Services League) reporting record turn-outs in communities small and large. Even as the number of veterans dwlindles - 109-year-old Jack Ross is Australia's last surviving World War One veteran - the interest in ANZAC Day grows.

The Australian publishing industry is riding this wave of nostalgia, with a bookshelf-full of new titles published each year re-examining, and in many cases revealing, the full extent of Australia's participation in the wars of the last century. As The Australian newspaper recently reported, up until the 1980s the Australian War Memorial was the only publisher of such works. Now they're one of the fastest growing sectors of the Australian book market.

How many people below the age of 50, I wonder, knew much about the siege of Tobruk in northern Libya, until the rugby-international turned popular historian Peter Fitzsimons wrote a bestseller telling of how the Australian 9th Division held out for some 240 days against Rommel's feared Afrika corps? It was the first time that the Nazi war machine's feared Panzers had been brought to a halt.

It is not just the ANZAC spirit which is at work. When the MCC decided to take the Ashes on a nationwide promtotional tour of Australia, it was overhwhelmed by the crowd-pulling response. It had to expand and extend the itinerary.

Sydney Harbour bridge.jpg

When the Sydney Harbour Bridge celebrated its 75th anniversary last year with a rare bridge walk some 250,000 people took part - 50,000 more than had registered.

When the board of Qantas urged its shareholders last year to agree to a private equity takeover, nostalgia helped scupper the deal. The public was reminded of the companiy's humble orgins as the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, and the way it provided a lifeline to remote rural communities. Opponents of the deal argued that these routes would be threatened, and its history therefore denigrated, if heartless private equity types took over.

Expect to see a fresh wave of nostalgia when Baz Luhrmann brings out his new outback epic Australia later in the year, which deals with the bombing of Darwin in World War II.

Of course, history has also become a hot-button political issue. Under John Howard, th subject became the most hotly-contested battleground in the culture wars. The former prime minister hated what he used to call black arm-band view of Australian history, which was one of the main reasons he refused to apologise to indigenous Australians for past injustices. He also re-established history as a core academic discipline in schools, and made sure it featured prominently in the citizens' test for new immigrants wanting Australian citizenship.

In delivering his apology to the Stolen Generations, Kevin Rudd outlined his own, very different version of Australian history. In parts, his speech sounded like a history lecture as he sought to elucidate the issue.

Curiously, the fascination with history has yet to spawn a thriving heritage industry. Visiting historic buildings, for instance, ranks 10th in tourist activities - well down the list after eating out, which is first, shopping, which is second, and visiting the beach which ranks third. And is there an up-to-date book which captures the broad sweep of the country's history? Comments please.

It's a history that could be 80,000 years old, and evidently there's an audience which is crying out for it be told.

What explains the revival of the ANZAC? Is it time for a new narrative of Australian history? And if so, what should it emphasise and what should it downplay? When Kevin Rudd is trying to focus the country on 2020, why the fascination with what happened in 1915?


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