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Gang-gang. Malcolm and Bill: Anzac Day’s two contrasting debutantes

‘Bill’ The riderless horse marches past Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the ANZAC Day national service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Monday 25 April 2016. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Photo: Alex Ellinghausen.Malcolm Turnbull, attending his first Anzac Day National Ceremony as prime minister, was not the only debutante at Monday’s grand occasion. It was also the first of these ceremonies for Bill. He was making his debut as the occasion’s indispensable Riderless Horse.
Nanjing Night Net

We interviewed Bill (and his handler Captain Mike Fitzgerald) both before Bill’s debut and then after it as the star steed was led off the stage and out of its first taste of limelight.

Back to this noble beast in a moment but first to our theme of what an exciting, theatrical, bazaar-like spectacle Anzac Parade presents in the hour before the Veterans March struts forth. Thousands of folk many of them colourfully uniformed and bemedalled teeme and gathered along the several hundred metres of the parade, nattering excitedly and putting final touches to their sprucings up.

Different bands with very diverse sounds rehearsed and then broke into ditties meant to get everyone within earshot into a marching, toe-tapping mood.

In the still air the fragrance of the sausages being cooked by the Salvos hung about and perfumed the occasion. It was a morning of splendid light and perfect blueness. A single white cloud appeared, once, in the distant blueness above Old Parliament House but then, embarrassed by its own inappropriateness, scudded away, blushing.

The Canberra City Band was splendid in blue tunics with golden braid. For a while, warming up, it sounded like that famous band with the curious tone (cornet, clarinet and big trombone). But then when under the baton of musical director Wyana​ O’Keeffe it broke into a medley of patriotic ditties it was wondrously euphonious.

“Well-done you guys!” a bemedalled onlooker enthused after we’d been treated to a seamless bombardment of patriotic ditties, beginning with the evocative, sprightly and optimistic Road to Gundagai.

Director Wyana O’Keeffe told us she and her musicians were finding it “very exciting” to be there, to play during the preparations and then later to help put a spring in the step of the marchers.

In another of its medleys the band played Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major. They don’t write songs like that any more.

Then the band played Waltzing Matilda and it’s just as well that journalists don’t cry because if they did this is the melody that would trigger it in a sensitive patriot. Moments later the nearby Pipes and Drums of the Canberra Burns Club gave the same melody their own very different, muscularly powerful treatment, making it seem a wild, hairy-legged, Sassenach-terrifying composition.

Alas, the music of the Canberra City Band did nothing to soothe the nearby Bill. Handler Mike Fitzgerald had quite a wrestle with him. He, Bill, seemed to take an understandable dislike to the awful I Still Call Australia Home.

“He’s just a bit nervous, that’s all,” Fitzgerald explained, adding that a little nervousness was understandable because this was Bill’s first Anzac Day. It was his debut as the Riderless Horse that so poignantly represents a horse returning riderless from battle, its rider killed.

Fitzgerald asked us to tell everyone that the dear old horse they are used to seeing on Anzac Day, Rusty,  has retired.

The happy, twitchy melee was thickening and densifying now as march time approached. Old mates meeting for that One Day of the Year greeted one another with big, medal-rattling handshakes and back pats. A Salvation Army Band trilled and twittered some light, feminine, tambouriney airs while the aforementioned Pipes and Drums of the Canberra Burns Club roared into action. In lulls in the pipe band’s soul-stirring piping and drumming the waters of the nearby National Naval Memorial could be heard splishing and splashing.

The march got underway for everyone save for, right at the far end of the boulevarde the well-intentioned souls with their Lest We Forget The Frontier Wars banners. Not allowed to march with everyone else they were the orphans of  the occasion. They would like (but for now officialdom refuses it) to have Australia in general and the Australian War Memorial in particular, recognise the validity of the just wars Aboriginal people fought with their white invaders.

Bill’s moment in the limelight came and went quite early and we caught up with him and with Captain Fitzgerald as they went to Bill’s float parked near Anzac Parade. He, Bill, about to depart to his home near Sydney, seemed calmer now. The engaging brute tried to nibble my notebook.

“How did he go?” we wondered, anxiously.

“Well, he seemed to me to go really well,” Fitzgerald enthused.

“But a funny thing happened. He saw himself on the big screen and he thought it was another horse and he called out to it!”

Australian life is mostly froth and bubble, but the frothing and bubbling are suspended for Anzac Day. Somehow simultaneously earnest and fun-filled (the one day of the year when for the same occasion you’ll hear played the profound hymn Abide With Me and the zany Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major) it is a mysterious day. It is a day that leaves some of us even more mystified about what Australia is, who Australians are.

One memory that will linger will be of watching a woman in a niqab (only her eyes visible), presumably a quite new Australian listening to an Aboriginal soldier creating that most ancient of Australian sounds by playing a didgeridoo at the Stone of Remembrance.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.