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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]





This appendix explores some of the issues about oral history posed by my Anzac project. I detail my two different approaches to oral history and outline the underlying debates on oral history theory and method. I also explore the impact of the oral history relationship upon remembering, the ethical and political dilemmas posed by a popular memory approach, and the writing of memory biographies.1

The Anzac oral history project

I decided to locate my oral history project in the western suburbs of Melbourne (known as ‘the west’) because I had worked on other history projects in the area, and because the region suited my focus on working-class diggers. Initially separated from the rest of the city by geographical features, in the late nineteenth century the western suburbs had developed as an industrial and residential area of working-class communities. Most of the men I interviewed had lived in the west for much or all of their lives. They enjoyed its distinctive and often proud working-class identity, and had been active participants in the region’s cultural, sporting or political organisations, and in the local RSL sub-branches. Yet although the west had been an important part of these men’s lives, the main features of their Anzac experiences, both during and after the war, were not significantly different from those of working-class veterans in other parts of Victoria or in other States.

Class was a more significant defining feature in their lives and identities. With a couple of exceptions, the men I interviewed all defined themselves as working class. Few of them had had more than primary school education, and most of them worked throughout their lives as factory, office or farm workers. Significantly, none of them became officers in the AIF; their stories were those of the other ranks. I had suspected that this would be the case when I decided to locate my project in the western suburbs. It was unlikely that many AIF officers would have moved to the region after the war, just as it was relatively unusual for working-class men from the west to become officers.

To find the surviving western suburbs’ Great War veterans, I first contacted the RSL sub-branches in Footscray, Williamstown and Yarraville, and was given a list of First World War members who were still in good health. Although my first contacts were all RSL members, and I may well have missed men who were not in the RSL, and who might have had a very different relation to their experience as soldiers and ex-servicemen, some of the men I interviewed passed me on to friends who were not RSL members. I also interviewed a number of veterans who were not from the western region, including the grandfathers of two of my friends, a member of the Gallipoli Legion and, through a contact in Melbourne’s Labor History Society, three diggers who had become active in the socialist and peace movements.

Between May and September of 1983 I conducted interviews with eighteen Great War veterans, fourteen of them in the western suburbs, and recorded twenty-seven ninety-minute tapes (I conducted three other interviews in 1982 and 1985). Most of the interviews were initiated by an introductory letter followed by a phone call to arrange a meeting. At the first meeting with each man I described my project in more detail. I explained that I had a rough outline of questions and issues for discussion — about their life before, during and after the war — but that it was only a guide and prompt sheet, and that they should feel free to tell the stories that were important to them. I also explained how the interview would be used, in the first instance for my university thesis and perhaps a book or a public talk, and subsequently as a resource for other researchers at the library of the Australian War Memorial.

After these introductions, which also gave me an opportunity to set up my tape recording equipment, I began with an open-ended question like, ‘Where did you start off in life?’ Depending on whether the man found it easy to talk or required or expected prompts, I then tried to allow him to follow his own, usually chronological flow, but also brought the narrative back to my questions if a man strayed for long beyond the scope of my interests. As we approached the ninety-minute mark I decided whether a second tape was justified, and whether we should continue the interview now or in a subsequent session. Sometimes I was more exhausted than the interviewee, who seemed to be revitalised by remembering; in other interviews the man was quite drained by the experience. If I decided against a second tape the remaining recording time was sometimes awkward and hurried as I tried to focus on my main interests. If we agreed to make another tape then it was easier to allow the narration to occur in its own time and with its own emphases.

When taping finished I recapped about the use of the tape, and helped the man to fill in a ‘conditions for use’ form. One man stipulated that he did not want any names, including his own, revealed in publication, but all the others were happy for the tape to be used by me and by bona fide researchers as we wished. We then usually relaxed over tea and biscuits, occasionally accompanied by family members. At this point the man sometimes told stories that had not been committed to tape, which I tried to jot down. I then took my leave, promising to be in touch with a copy of the tape. As soon as I got home I wrote up an interview summary about the occasion and about the life story I had recorded. Then, within a few weeks, I copied the tape and sent the copy with a letter of thanks to the interviewee, promising to return with a copy of the transcript when it was ready.

Soon after completing these Anzac interviews I left for a year of study in England. Back in Melbourne in 1985 I revisited each of the men I had interviewed to give them copies of their transcripts, which had been produced in my absence by a typist with considerable skill in converting the nuances of spoken language into the written word. Some of the men had died, but others were delighted to see me and to receive the transcript, and told me how much their families had enjoyed the tapes. During the year I wrote about the lives of the radical diggers I had interviewed (Fred Farrall, Ern Morton, Sid Norris and Stan D’Altera) in the manuscript ‘The Forgotten Anzacs’.1

Contesting ‘the voice of the past’

At the end of 1985 I returned to England, where I commenced a doctorate on Anzac memories. In order to understand the relationship between Anzac memories and the legend, I began to explore some of the debates about oral history theory and method, and developed the following critique of mainstream oral history. The 1970s’ oral history revival in Britain and Australia was profoundly influenced by the criticisms of traditional documentary historians. The main thrust of the criticisms was that memory was unreliable as a historical source because it was distorted by the deterioration of age, by personal bias and nostalgia, and by the influence of other, subsequent versions of the past. Underlying these criticisms was concern about the democratisation of the historians’ craft being facilitated by oral history groups, and disparagement of oral history’s apparent ‘discrimination’ in favour of women, workers and migrant groups. Goaded by the taunts of documentary historians, the early handbooks of oral history developed a canon to assess the reliability of oral memory (while shrewdly reminding the traditionalists that documentary sources were no less selective and biased). From social psychology and anthropology they showed how to determine the bias and fabulation of memory, the significance of retrospection and the effects of the interviewer upon remembering. From sociology they adopted methods of representative sampling, and from documentary history they brought rules for checking the reliability and internal consistency of their source. The new canon provided useful signposts for reading memories, and for combining them with other historical sources to find out what happened in the past.2

However, the tendency to defend and use oral history as simply another historical source to discover ‘how it really was’ led to the neglect of other aspects of oral testimony. In their efforts to correct bias and fabulation some practitioners lost sight of the reasons why individuals construct their memories in particular ways, and did not see how the process of remembering could be a key to understanding the ways in which certain individual and collective versions of the past are active in the present. By seeking to discover one single, fixed and recoverable history, some oral historians tended to neglect the many layers of individual memory and the plurality of versions of the past provided by different speakers. They did not see that the ‘distortions’ of memory could be a resource as much as a problem.

These more radical criticisms of oral history practice were taken up and developed in the early 1980s by the Popular Memory Group at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. The group drew upon debates in film and television studies about screen representations of the past, and upon more general cultural studies of the significance of the past in contemporary culture. They were also influenced by the small but growing number of international oral historians — such as Ronald Fraser and Luisa Passerini — who were beginning to probe the subjective processes of memory, but whose work was still largely neglected in Britain.3

In Making Histories, published in 1982, the group outlined its initial, relatively crude alternative for oral history, which required investigation of the construction of public histories and of the interaction between public and private senses of the past. Members of the group then experimented with their theories in a number of case studies of the British memory of the Second World War. The choice of that war enabled the group to combine popular memory work with a second, related interest in popular nationalism, and thus to investigate the ways in which British national identity draws upon particular versions of the national past. During the Falklands War members of the group were astonished by the apparent degree of popular support for the Task Force, and concluded that this popularity was in part due to the ways in which the Falklands War revived selective memories of the Second World War that were deeply fulfilling for many British people. The Popular Memory Group was focusing on the forms in which people articulate their memories (adapting theories about narrative from literary criticism), and upon the relationship between memory and personal identity, when it broke up in 1985.4

Some oral history practitioners have been wary of the Popular Memory Group’s approach, which seems to represent a view of memory being created from the ‘top down’. More justifiably, they point to the group’s apparent neglect of different kinds of memory (for example, memories of aspects of life that have not been so overlaid or reworked by powerful public accounts), and of the processes of ageing and remembering in later life. Nevertheless by the late 1980s, British and Australian oral historians were increasingly influenced by the ideas of Popular Memory Group members and of international oral historians who were exploring issues about memory and subjectivity. My own work, which began as a critique of mainstream oral history theory and practice, is now part of a growing movement towards more sophisticated approaches. As Paul Thompson commented in the editorial of Oral History in Autumn 1989:

Our early somewhat naive methodological debates and enthusiasm for testimonies of ‘how it really was’ have matured into a shared understanding of the basic technical and human issues of our craft, and equally important, a much more subtle appreciation of how every life story inextricably intertwines both objective and subjective evidence — of different, but equal value.5

From the writings of international oral historians and the Popular Memory Group, I developed the theory of memory composure which has informed my study of Anzac memories. This new theoretical framework prompted me to reconsider my initial Anzac oral history project, and to reflect upon features of the project that had influenced the remembering of the men I interviewed, including the interview relationship itself.

The oral history relationship

On reflection, it was clear that the stories I was told were the product of a particular age cohort of Great War veterans, who were well into their eighties when I first met them in 1983. In chapters 7 and 9 I explored how remembering was influenced by the social and psychological experiences of old age, and by the resurgence of interest in the Anzacs during the 1980s. Age was also significant because the men who were still alive to be interviewed by me were, on the whole, very young when they enlisted in the AIF. The experiences and memories of young recruits were in some respects quite different from those of older soldiers. They were less experienced in the ways of the world, but may have been physically fitter. They were less likely to be leaving a wife and children behind in Australia, or to have training, employment and a family to return to after the war. Because war was also their youth, remembering often emphasised this coincidence, either bitterly as the loss of innocence or nostalgically as a period of excitement and adventure. The fact of survival into old age is itself significant. Although physical survival in wartime was as often as not a matter of chance, the diggers I interviewed were men who eventually coped with the traumas of the war and postwar years. Some of their mates committed suicide or drank themselves to death, and the interview project obviously did not include such men who could not live with the scars of the war and its memory.

The relationship that was established between myself and each of the men I interviewed also influenced the remembering. Each interview constituted its own particular public, affected by the ideas that each of us held about the other and about how we should behave and represent ourselves. The introductory letter which I wrote to all of the men whose names I had received from the RSL gave them their first sense of me and what I wanted, and was the first way in which I contributed to their remembering. I introduced myself as ‘a tutor in history at the University of Melbourne’ (I was teaching part-time), and did not mention that I was a postgraduate student. I wanted to represent myself as a bona fide researcher and historian — not just a student with a passing interest — and may well have made an impression as an authority who knew about the past, but also as someone who would listen to their stories and use them as authoritative history. I explained that I was interested in their wartime and postwar experience, but emphasised the focus upon their ‘experience of readjustment to civilian life after the war’. Clearly I wanted to know about the war and its impact upon their lives, and not about other experiences and memories — even though they may have had a significant impact on personal identity.

In the letter I also explained that it was important to conduct these interviews to ensure that ‘the stories of Australian servicemen will not be lost’, and so that ‘future generations of Australians will remember their experiences’. I thus appealed and contributed to a possible self-image of the older citizen passing on his histories to the children of the nation. I also mentioned that I would provide each man with a copy of both the tape and transcript of the interview, ‘so that you will be able to share your experiences with your family’. In practice that proved to be very well received, and may have encouraged participation, but the sense of a family audience may also have shaped and limited the nature of remembering, and even stopped some men from being involved.

A couple of men rang on the day they received the letter to ask me to come and talk with them, and their enthusiasm suggested a strong personal interest in the recording of their war memories. When I rang the other men, most of them said that they would be glad to see me, but several did not want to talk because they were unwell or felt that their memories were failing, and a few declined because they just didn’t want to recall the war. These few may have been wary of the history tutor, or of recalling the war or the past in general because it was still painful. In terms of my subsequent interest in the relationship between identities and war memories, these men are significant by their absence.

Other features of the interview relationship became significant after we met and began to talk. Although my tape recording equipment was compact and quiet, and I gradually became more adept at unobtrusive use, the presence of recording equipment undoubtedly affected the remembering. Some men became so engrossed in their narrative that they were relatively unaffected, but others were quite conscious that they were speaking ‘for the record’, and adopted a more formal and ‘historical’ tone when the machine was switched on. Occasionally they asked me to stop taping and spoke off the record about a delicate or embarrassing subject. On-the-record remembering was, by contrast, shaped in accordance with perceptions of what was appropriate for a wider public audience of family and nation.

Sometimes the family or neighbourhood friends had a more direct affect on the remembering. When I arrived for an interview I was often welcomed by wives, adult children or neighbours who were interested in my visit. In a number of cases these people stayed in the room when the interview commenced, and their presence tended to inhibit the questions and responses (for example about sexuality or violence). I found that I developed more intimate relationships with single men, partly because of the emotional needs created by loneliness.

Although I sometimes developed a particularly close relationship with men who were living alone, in every interview the oral history relationship between the elderly man and myself had an effect on the stories I was told. The remembering of most of the men was influenced by two main perceptions of me, as a young man and as an historian. I was twenty-three in 1983, and looked young and healthy. My youth had not been apparent from my letter, but it became an important part of most of the relationships as soon as we met. At one level it is possible that because I was about the same age as they had been when they were soldiers, my youthful presence touched off memories of that youth, and perhaps facilitated an unconscious transference to me of feelings about themselves as young men.

This transference worked in both directions. In the course of the interviews I began to develop an emotional involvement or ‘investment’ in the men I was interviewing. I was particularly affected by one of my first interviews, with James McNair in Brunswick. I had been delighted by the pleasure and performance of his remembering, and by his interest in me and my project. I was impressed by the detail of his memory and the forgotten stories it revealed, but I also enjoyed being welcomed into his home, his life and his memories. I found that I liked the company of old men, and that I was particularly interested in working-class lives and lifestyles with which I had had little contact in my own upbringing. Perhaps my emotional investment in these old, working-class and ‘forgotten’ men was an indirect way of rediscovering my missing grandfather Hector (although Hector had certainly never described himself as working class). It may also have been unconsciously related to the significant nurturing role that one elderly, semi-retired army batman played in my very early years. Apart from historical and political motivations, my own emotional investment provided psychological fuel for the oral history project.6

My age had another more obvious and even explicit effect. Some of the men remarked that young people today were not interested in the lives or memories of old people. Bill Bridgeman commented that, ‘Old men don’t mix with young men. You understand that, you’re a young man. You don’t mix with old codgers’. The interview and my listening therefore gave most of the men a great deal of pleasure, and sometimes encouraged the development of an intense relationship in which I fulfilled an important need for lonely, frustrated and yet enthusiastic old men. That relationship may have occurred whatever my age; most of these men just relished having someone to talk with. But my obvious youth also contributed to the men’s adoption of the role of elders relating their experience to a young person and the younger generation in general. From my point of view this relationship was useful because it encouraged the men to open up to me, although it could also be limiting. Stories that might have been told to older men or other veterans, about sexuality or brutality for example, were perhaps deemed inappropriate for my callow ears. More frequently, however, I felt that the men were relating experiences which they had been reluctant or unable to talk about in the past, and that my encouragement and apparent understanding helped make this happen.7

The perception of my role as historian, for whom their stories were of general historical interest, also facilitated this openness. My interest and my questions suggested that aspects of their life which may have been difficult to talk about were of historical significance, and in certain cases helped to affirm the value of such memories. For example, wartime fear or guilt and postwar despair were subjects that some of them had rarely talked about before. Several commented that I was the first person they had told in any detail about their war. The interview had helped them to overcome that silence and was an important event for the articulation and affirmation of their war memories.

Sometimes the interview was used as an opportunity to ‘set the record straight’ about personal or collective digger experiences. As an historian with a prospect of publication, I provided an opportunity for these men to feel that their stories could be heard as history, and to tell their stories in relation to this imagined public audience. Conversely, there may well have been some subjects (perhaps aspects of their personal lives) that the interviewee deemed to be historically insignificant, and kept to himself. Clearly the nature of the recognition available from my oral history interviews had an important effect on the type of remembering that was possible.

The interviews also involved a cross–class relationship; I was a middle-class man interviewing mainly working-class men. I’ve already explained why this was important for me — both in terms of the needs of my project, and because of my personal interest in Australian working-class lives — but I suspect that this aspect of our relationship was less significant in reverse. I self-consciously dressed for the interviews in a way that I thought would be easily acceptable to the men (my clothes were neat and casual and I had my hair cut because I wanted to represent myself as a particular type of youth). I usually kept my own background to myself, and if I was asked about it talked mainly about my grandfathers and their wars. Inevitably my accent gave me away, and my class background was probably assumed because of my position as a university historian. That assumption may have provoked an ambivalent relationship to public authority, respectful but also wary, but I think that in most cases my relationship with them as a young man and as a historian was more influential, and generally encouraged intimacy and trust.

The framework and content of my questioning also suggested some ways of remembering and closed off others. For example, my interest in aspects of the Anzac legend sometimes led an interview away from topics and events that were of more direct relevance to the interviewee. Yet there were many times when the men rode roughshod over my questions and asserted their own interests and emphases. This helped me to see the many varieties of digger experience, and undermined any preconceptions about the thematic neatness of the legend or of oppositional accounts of Australians at war.

More importantly, my interview focus on three distinct periods of the subject’s life — pre-war (briefly), wartime and postwar (specifically the period of reintegration into civilian life) — asserted the centrality of the war in a man’s life and played down other significant chapters of life history. The focus was partly due to the practicalities of the interview project; I didn’t have the money or time to do detailed life history interviews of the years after the 1930s’ Depression, and decided that that period was the least essential for my study. In the interviews in which I perceived a shift during middle age — such as a major change in employment or re-enlistment in 1939 — I did try to discuss new developments; but most of the interviewees, sensing my focus upon the 1914–18 war, talked about aspects of their lives relating to that war, and did not open up about their later lives. In retrospect, it would have been better to have investigated the middle age and later life of my interviewees more closely in order to analyse the events that significantly affected their identities and their remembering of the war.

Nevertheless the interviews suggested that for many of these men there were no great changes in the pattern of their lives once they had settled into a job, a family, a house and a community. Not all of the men settled in these ways, but the pattern does seem to have been common among working-class men of that generation. More importantly, most of the men perceived their middle age as a time of continuity, perhaps involving a gradual material improvement, but with few momentous events that were fixed in memory. Their memories of that period were often generalised and vague. In contrast, the First World War was a disruptive and momentous experience, both exhilarating and traumatic, for all of them. In most cases it also coincided with a personal transformation from youth to manhood. Not surprisingly, this period was highlighted in the men’s memories. In some cases this process was reinforced in retirement when men lost the affirmation of work-place identities, and in old age when they sought to recover a more vibrant identity from their youth.

A popular memory interview approach

The remembering that takes place in an oral history interview will inevitably be influenced by the interview context and relationship, by the situation and identity of the narrator, and by public representations of the past that is being recalled. The fact of such influences does not invalidate oral history; rather it suggests the need for an interview approach that is sensitive to the processes of remembering. In my second set of Anzac interviews I tried out a ‘popular memory’ interview approach.

In 1987, while on a two month research trip to Australia, I wrote a letter to each of the men I had interviewed in 1983, saying that I would like to ‘fill in some of the gaps’ of the previous interview. Most of the men had died in the intervening years, but five of them — Percy Bird, Ern Morton, Bill Williams, Fred Farrall and Bill Langham — responded to a follow-up call and seemed delighted at the prospect of a reunion and a second interview.

Careful rereading of my initial life-story interviews had revealed suggestive material about how each man had constructed and related a particular sense of his life and his identity. They showed that a life-story interview could be read in that way, and not just for information about the soldier’s experience. In these new interviews I focused on how each man composed and told his memories by exploring four key interactions: between interviewer and interviewee, public legend and individual memories, past and present, and memory and identity. The personal information that I had already gained in the first interviews made it possible for me to tailor my questions specifically for each man in terms of his particular memories and identities. If I had not done the original interviews I would have needed to integrate the life-story approach with the popular memory approach.

The relationship that I had developed previously with each man also facilitated the new interview approach. All five were men who welcomed my interest and enjoyed participating in the project. Their trust and enthusiasm made it easier for me to ask difficult, searching questions, which often cut across the ways in which they told their lives. On the other hand, through talking about their lives in the first interview (as well as other occasions), and from their use of the tapes and transcripts, some of the men had ‘fixed’ certain stories or themes in their memories, which they subsequently repeated to me and other interviewers. The tapes and transcripts had become an active constituent of individual and collective remembering, elevating the memories of my interviewees within their families and social circles, and prioritising certain aspects and versions of the past.

Sometimes I could explore the nature of these ‘fixed’ stories; and in every case the process was revealing about the nature of remembering. In a similar way, some of the men resisted my thematic questioning, preferring to retell their stories in their own form and sequence. This was understandable — my new approach was potentially undermining for men who had composed a memory that they did not want to question — and that response was therefore equally instructive. In contrast, others welcomed the new questions and the opportunity for a more thematic discussion.

Whatever the response, with each man I tried to make the interview, and the interview relationship, a more open process. I tried to discuss how my questions affected remembering, and what was difficult to say to me (and to my tape recorder). To encourage dialogue instead of monologue I talked about my own interests and role. In some ways this change in my role (limited by the fact that I never gave up the powerful position of interviewer) affected the remembering. Sometimes it encouraged a man to open up to me and reconsider aspects of his life, though others resisted that opportunity. The explicit introduction of my attitudes into the interviews may have made it easier for men to tell stories for my approval — to project what they thought I wanted to hear — although I usually felt that it facilitated discussion and provoked dissent as much as agreement.

The second key interaction that I wanted to explore in the new interviews was between public and private memories. To investigate that relationship I made the public legend a starting point for questions: what was your response to various war books and films, past and present, and to Anzac Day and war memorials? How well do they represent your own experiences; how do they make you feel? We also focused on specific features of the legend: was there a distinctive Anzac character; how true was it for your own nature and experience? Were you so very different from the soldiers of other armies? How did you respond to military authority, and did you feel that the Anzacs deserved their reputation (whatever that was)?

I asked each man to define certain key terms in his own words — ‘digger’, ‘mateship’, ‘the spirit of Anzac’ — and discovered that some of the men who were uncritical of the legend had contrary and even contradictory understandings of its key words. Others stuck determinedly to a conventional portrayal of the war, even though aspects of their own experience seemed to challenge it. The negotiations between public and private sense worked differently for each man, often including spaces in which a man could make dissident sense, although all accounts were framed by the themes of the dominant legend. It also became clear that the memories of some aspects of their lives, such as the return from the war, were less reworked by layers of public meanings. As a follow up to this section of the interview we discussed recent (as well as past) battles over the legend, such as the attempts by feminists and Aboriginal activists to make their pasts live on Anzac Day.

Another section of the discussion focused on experience and personal identity: how did you feel about yourself and your actions at key moments (enlistment, battle, return)? What were your anxieties and uncertainties? How did you make sense of your experiences and how did other people define you? How were you included or excluded, what was acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (what was not ‘manly’), and how and why were some men ostracised? Of course these memories, and the relative composure of memory, have shifted over time (the past–present interaction), so we discussed how postwar events — such as home-coming, the Depression and the Second World War, domestic change and old age, and the revival of Anzac remembrance in the 1980s — affected identities and remembering. The new interview approach showed me that what it is possible to remember and articulate changes over time, and that this can be attributed to shifts in personal identity and public attitudes.

The new interviews also focused upon the ways in which memories are affected by ‘strategies of containment’, the methods we use to deal with frustration, failure, loss or pain. This required a sensitive balance between potentially painful probing and reading between the lines of memory. What is possible or impossible to remember, or even to say aloud? What are the hidden meanings of silences and sudden subject changes? What is being contained by a ‘fixed’ story? In what ways are deeply repressed experiences or feelings discharged in less conscious forms of expression, in past and present dreams, errors and Freudian slips, body language and even the humour used to overcome or conceal embarrassment and pain. Discussion of the symbolic content and feelings expressed by war-related dreams suggested new understandings of the personal impact of the war, and of what could not be expressed publicly. My interview notes about facial expressions, body movements, and the mode of talking often revealed emotive meanings of memories that were not always apparent in interview transcripts.

The popular memory approach raised ethical dilemmas for me as an oral historian. Interviewing which sometimes approached a therapeutic relationship could be rewarding for the interviewer but damaging for the interviewee. It required great care and sensitivity, and a cardinal rule that the well-being of the interviewee always came before the interests of my research. At times I had to stop a line of questioning in an interview, or was asked to stop, because it was too painful. Unlike the therapist, as an oral historian I would not be around to reconstruct the pieces of memories that were no longer safe.8

Oral history work that uses a popular memory approach poses a second ethical dilemma with a political dimension. It is relatively easy to cooperate on the production of a history that gives public affirmation to people whose lives and memories have been made marginal, and that challenges their oppression. This has been the usual aim of community-based oral history projects in Britain and Australia, including projects in which I have been a participant. It was also the aim of the ‘Forgotten Anzacs’ project which I conducted in 1985 with the four radical diggers I had interviewed.

In Anzac Memories, however, I have used oral testimony to explore and question a legend that provided a safe refuge for many of the men I interviewed, and as such they might not have agreed with all my conclusions. I tried to share those conclusions in 1983 by speaking about the project at a Footscray Historical Society event which was attended by several of my interviewees. I also showed some of the men I interviewed — especially the men of whom I wrote memory biographies — excerpts of my writing based on the interviews, and asked them for responses and suggested amendments. However most of the old diggers had died before that was possible, or were not well enough to maintain an interest in the project, and after I went to live in England I lost contact with all but a few.

If I was to initiate a similar project today I would pursue the community history approach, which involves at least some of the narrators in both the interview and publishing stages of an oral history project. Such collective work would not necessarily resolve the tension between an approach that seeks to explore remembering, and the fact that participants may not feel able or willing to interrogate their own lives and memories in this way. Indeed, a collective project might make that tension explicit and thus generate difficulty and pain. Yet, as is often the case in participatory history projects, the collective exploration of life histories might also help people to recognise and value experiences that have been silenced, and to come to terms with difficult and painful aspects of their past lives.

I hope this book will add to the growing awareness among oral historians of such ethical and political dilemmas. My own Anzac interviews were empowering for some veterans and may well have been challenging and difficult for others. The history I have produced — which seeks to do justice to the diggers’ experiences and memories, while also exploring the legend of Anzac and the impact it has had on their lives — may well have the same mixed effects.

Writing memory biographies

The ‘memory biographies’ that I wrote about Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall explore the particular ways in which these veterans composed their memories of the war in relation to the legend, and in relation to their own shifting experiences and identities. The writing of memory biographies posed issues that are revealing about the processes of remembering and the uses of memory. Although it is relatively easy to glean information from an interview about a man’s past locations, activities and social networks (though even these details may be hidden from an interviewer), using interviews to speculate about past identities is much more problematic because stories about those prior identities are affected by subsequent events and viewpoints. Unlike positivist oral historians, for whom this retrospectivity is a problem to be isolated and excluded, for me it was an important aspect of my study, and suggested two different ways to write memory biographies.

One chronological approach is to trace the construction of memory over time, as new layers of meaning are added and old identities are re-worked or shed. The value of this approach is that it reveals how new experiences and understandings, and shifting public contexts, create changes in our remembering. The problem with this approach is that the evidence for these changes is contained in stories that are related in the present, and that are inevitably overlaid with retrospective meanings. An alternative approach is to focus on the memory of a particular experience, and then to peel away the layers of meaning that have been constructed around that experience over time and in different social contexts. In effect this means to start with today’s memory and work back through earlier articulations of the same experience. Sometimes this approach can be facilitated by answers to direct questions about changes in identity and memory, but often it requires a careful reading of the sedimentary layers of memory. This approach can be richly rewarding for an understanding of the ways in which memories have been composed. It can, however, reduce understanding of the individual’s life as a whole, and of memory and identity changing over time in the context of the life course.

I sought to integrate these approaches in the memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall. For the most part I used the chronological approach, noting where the stories I used as evidence for past meanings were redolent with retrospectivity. I broke the chronological flow at certain key points to explore the layers of meaning in the memory of a particularly significant experience. The balance of the two approaches also differed between the case studies because of differences in the ways in which each man remembered. For the most part, the Percy Bird study uses the more simple, chronological approach because Percy’s remembering clearly shifted over time. In contrast, Bill Langham’s remembering maintained and expressed the layers of meaning he constructed over time, and I tried to show this in the writing.

*    New edition note: These methodological reflections present the intellectual and personal context of the 1980s and early 1990s when I created and interpreted the interviews. I have not changed the first edition text.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson