Speech by Michael Veitch at the launch of the Sidney Nolan: the Gallipoli series exhibition
I once knew a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign. His name was George McPhail, and the irony was not lost on him. He was my neighbour of three or four doors down in the Melbourne street in which I grew up. He befriended my father, or perhaps it was the other way round – and then he befriended me. I never saw the inside of his house. We would meet and talk in the street about all sorts of things, particularly words and the English language of which his command was as complete as anyone I have ever known. He also adored history, and he helped instil in me a love of the past I have never relinquished. Sometimes, I would spend a couple of hours tidying his small but chaotic front yard – a task constantly interrupted by his bringing out chipped plates laden with cake and lemonade for my refreshment, but he never once asked me inside. I believe he was ashamed of his small and modest house. He was in his eighties when I knew him, and he died, alone, in that house when I was about fourteen. Over the course of several years and many, many wonderful conversations I had with George McPhail, the topic of Gallipoli arose but twice. I wanted of course, to speak to him of nothing else, but his exquisitely gentle deflection of the topic whenever I attempted clumsily to manoeuvre it in that direction was both absolute and irresistible.
He told me but two things about the Gallipoli campaign, which he witnessed almost in its entirety throughout 1915: the first thing was his answer to my question of ‘what did it look like?’, he said simply, ‘all brown and green, with sudden things happening in the middle’. And to my exasperatedly blunt query of, ‘what’s it like being in a battle’, he looked away for a moment, as I leant on a rake, and said, ‘you know when you lean back on a stool a little too far, and for a brief moment, you think you’re going to fall over? Well, a battle feels like that all the time’. That was all he said, but I think he was a little ashamed having said that much, too.
I grew up amid a generation that hated war, perhaps because, at the time, we were being made to fight one that not many people thought particularly worth the effort. I however, always nurtured an almost prurient interest in things military since a child. So, it’s been quite fascinating to witness Gallipoli’s resurrection in the public consciousness, to see it mythologised, and tautologised not least by latter-day politicians to the point of exhaustion and beyond, and finally sanctified as our nation’s supposed fountainhead. I’m not sure George McPhaill would have quite seen it that way. I’m not sure he could believe that a nation can be built on what he saw men doing to each other, or indeed, perhaps, what he did himself.
We are by no means, in the Western military tradition, alone in celebrating our military failures. The Americans eulogise their Alamo, and the English sanctify the so called ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ with a melancholy that eclipses almost all of their many victories, and we of course, have our Gallipoli – a folly, a venture, a sideshow to a sideshow, insufficiently planned, compromised in its execution and according to many, doomed from the start. But is it not perhaps even more appropriate we celebrate these failures. I like to think that Gallipoli continues to resonate on some level because, given that war is itself, mankind’s ultimate failure, failure of reason, failure of spirit and sense, celebrating wars victories seems somehow churlish.
This is why this exhibition is so important. Here are none of the grave or heroic images of Ellis Silas and George Lambert. Nolan’s genius is his ability with a few disturbing brushstrokes and distressed colours, to convey so much more of the stripped reality, the warped vigour, the odd and random violence. Nothing is pretty, nothing is epic, but it is all so terribly terribly real. In his paintings, I see old George McPhaill’s ‘browns and the greens with sudden things happening in the middle’. I suspect I am seeing, through Nolan, the reality of the Gallipoli that remained locked inside the head of the wonderful old man I knew as a child. Thank you.