Greater love hath no man

Today marks a hundred years since the guns stopped, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

This will be a slightly random post, because it’s been a troubling few days – and also because three quarters of my brain is busily drafting posts about tiny political parties for your future delight – but a century is a long time, and a day when the guns stopped is certainly something worth remembering.

It’s a strange thing to think that there is probably now nobody living who remembers what it was like in that moment.  I wonder how the soldiers felt?  I wonder if the silence felt strange and wrong after so many years of bombardments?

I wonder how the soldiers felt in the hours and days before the Armistice?  I mean, they must have known it was coming.  It would have had to be decided in advance, so that both sides could know when to stop firing.

But I wonder how it felt, in the days between knowing the war was over, and it actually ending? Did the fighting lessen, at the end?  Did people take fewer risks, knowing that if they could just survive a few more days, they would be safe?  Did anyone risk just… not firing their guns?  I can’t imagine the psychology of war, of being in battle, of making the choice to pull that trigger and end a life.  But I can only imagine that it must have felt very strange to be shooting at the enemy, knowing that in a few minutes, he would no longer be your enemy.

I’ve sung at a few services commemorating the Great War.  At one church, on ANZAC Day, they read out the war records of those sons of the parish who died exactly one hundred years before.  To me, the most heartbreaking one was the record of the man who signed up in 1916 or so, survived being wounded twice, and then died of the Spanish Flu a few weeks after Armistice Day.

The narrative here in Australia is very much one of young lives wasted, and I think that this is as it should be.  But a couple of years ago, I started reading some of the history of the war from the French perspective, and was struck by the statement that their Prime Minister, Clemençeau visited the battlefields almost daily.  This hardly seemed plausible, until I looked at the maps and saw how near the battlefields were to Paris.  Apparently, at one point, soldiers were ferried to the battlefield in taxis.  The war looks very different from such a perspective.

(And apparently, if you live in Europe, there are still live munitions just… hanging around.  Sometimes they explode.  Sometimes they are discovered, unexploded.  I was in Germany when they found some unexploded munitions from World War 2 near Frankfurt airport, and had to shut the airport down for the day.  And European officials still have to warn tourists not to take shells, bullets, and other bits and pieces they may find on WW1 battlefields home as souvenirs, because it disrupts airports, and also, some of it is still working and dangerous.)

Today’s service was informed, of course, by the horrible events on Friday, when a young man crashed a truck laden with gas cylinders into the Target Centre on Bourke Street, setting it on fire.  He then stabbed three men, one fatally, before being shot by police, and he died a few hours later.   The young man in question seems to have had quite a lot of mental health and other issues, and police say that he had been radicalised by IS online.  He was a member of the local Somalian community, who are reported to be horrified and also deeply angry – because this will now blow back on them as well, even though by all accounts he acted alone.

The man he killed was Sisto Malaspina, co-founder and owner of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, just around the corner from where I was singing this morning.  Pellegrini’s had a lot of regulars among my friends and acquaintances, and Mr Malaspina was well-known and well-loved by Melbournians.  It seems he thought the collision and fire was an accident, and went to help.  I’ve seen reports that in doing so, he side-tracked the attacker from his main destructive attempts, and thus saved many lives.  Everyone I know is devastated by his death.

Think about those two paragraphs, those two deaths.  I don’t think Mr Malaspina’s death was a good or enviable one by any means, but he died trying to help someone, he died in a way that probably saved others, and he is remembered with love and grief by a huge community of people.  By contrast, his assailant died trying to do as much harm as he could, and succeeding… partially.  And his legacy is trouble for his community, who are appalled at his actions.

(As we sang today, love is strong as death – greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.)

I no longer know where I’m going with this.  Armistice Day always fills me with melancholy – yes, the guns stopped, but eventually they started again, and we are yet to succeed in stopping them completely.  I am lucky to be part of a generation that didn’t have to go to war – and while there will always be people like Friday’s attacker, who are determined to do harm, there will also always be people like Sisto Malaspina, who will help wherever they can, even at risk of their own lives.  There is hope to be found in that, I think.

(And thank God and John Howard for gun control.  We are so very, very lucky that people who are bent on destruction in this corner of the world have to make do with cars and knives, rather than more efficient tools for killing.)

On 2017, national identity, fear, and hope

Well, hasn’t this been an interesting year?

I don’t think I’d even know where to begin with a proper recap of all the madness that has appeared on the Australian political scene in the last twelve months.  And really, why would I need to?  We’ve all lived through it.  Most of us have no desire to relive it.  And if we do, well, there are many excellent blogs that can help you with that (did you know that Andrew P. Street now has a blog on Patreon?  It’s pretty fantastic, and this post here seems like a good place to start, though he’s pretty reliably witty and interesting at all times.).

So I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I want to write about something that has raised its head in a variety of ways this year, and has, I think, almost been a defining theme of politics in this country.  It’s a question which has been around for a while, and which seems to be being asked a lot at present – or perhaps it would be truer to say that it is a question that is continually being answered, with great forcefulness, even when nobody is asking it.  And it’s a question which I think is going to be part of the political discourse for a good long while yet.

That question is, of course, what it means to be Australian.

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To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice

Today marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.  There are articles about this everywhere, but for those who have managed to miss them, the Magna Carta was a charter originally signed (or rather, sealed) by King John, which set in stone certain fundamental rights of law, and limited the power of the King so that he was no longer above the law.  This was a radical move, and in fact, the charter was signed under a certain amount of duress, nobody stood by its commitments, and it was quickly annulled by the Pope… Still, it had great symbolic as well as practical value, and after John’s death in 1216 it was rewritten several times, was part of a treaty in 1217, and in 1297 it became part of England’s statute law.  It is considered to be one of the foundations of our legal system.

Disclaimer: I’ve never studied law, so do not expect great legal insights from this post.  On the other hand, I did major in medieval history, so if you find history intensely boring (how can this be?), you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.  I promise we’ll get to the politics/law stuff after that. 

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My first degree was in history – medieval history to be precise.  My reason for choosing medieval history was straightforward: I have always enjoyed reading primary sources, because of the way languages and customs change but people are still pretty much the same in any given time, and I especially loved the way chroniclers of those times made no attempt whatsoever to be objective.  Objectivity wasn’t their job – these chroniclers were there to tell a story and point the moral and tell you who was good and who was bad and who jumped over a fence while chasing pigs and turned from a girl into a boy (I would footnote this if I could, but my degree is nearly twenty years old now – I remember the story, but not the source). They were there to edify as much as to educate.

With the Enlightenment came a perception that history should be factual and objective.  A historian, it was felt, should rise above mere opinion and let the facts speak for themselves.  The trouble, of course, is that this is virtually impossible to do.   In fact, I would say that it’s impossible to record any event or series of events in an unbiased fashion – one’s own interpretations always creep in, and even if reporting strictly on facts, one must, by necessity, select which facts are relevant and which can be omitted.  And this, in itself, introduces a certain level of bias.  (This goes double if your ‘facts’ come from documents written in other languages – the translator must constantly choose between different ways to translate particular words or phrases, and these choices will reflect the translator’s world as much as the original author’s)

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