Monday, 23 July 2012

"Ich bin ein Melbournian?"

When you take into account our country’s status, first as a British colony and far-flung outpost of the Empire, then as a member of the Commonwealth, it makes sense that so much of Melbourne honours past British monarchs and dignitaries in one form or another.  Statues scattered all over the place in various parks and gardens, various plaques and memorials, a market named after Queen Victoria.  You even notice it if you start at Spencer St and walk east, crossing King St, then William St, followed by Queen St and then Elizabeth St, commemorating King William and Queen Elizabeth, for those a little slow off the mark to put these pieces together.  Even our state is named after a monarch, and our state capital named for a British Prime Minister.

Just as an aside here: When I mentioned the phrase “British Prime Minister”, how many of you had a “Simpsons” flashback to Barney yelling, ‘Lord Palmerston!’ and punching out Wade Boggs?

Show of hands?  No?  Just me, then?

But I digress, which as you’ll find out as we go, I tend to do often.

So, no surprises so far when it comes to who we, as a society, choose to honour with memorials.  But what did come as a surprise when I stumbled across it one day, is that which is tucked away in a little alcove off to one side of the Treasury Gardens.

People smarter in the arts than me tell me this is what's known as a "bas-relief portrait", a bronze portrait embedded in stone and yes, your eyes are not currently deceiving you.  That is indeed a portrayal of John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America.

The memorial itself is not large and imposing and unlike others scattered around the city in semi-prominent locations, the John F. Kennedy memorial is somewhat hidden.  Sure, it is signposted, and shows up on the map directing you around the Treasury Gardens, but it is not immediately apparent.  Even when following the path leading towards it, it’s not until you turn the last corner that the fountain and surrounding garden becomes apparent.  And even then, the actual memorial is subtly placed off to one side, rather than being the centrepiece.  To put it simply, it's not something you're likely to stumble across in the course of your day-to-day activities.

So, why does this exist at all?  Why Kennedy?  Why here, half a world away, is he being memorialised?

I'm not old enough to have lived through Kennedy's era, so I can't rely on first-hand knowledge of what he was like and what he meant to people, but I've seen movies and documentaries, I've read books and spoken to those older than me, and Kennedy, to them, represented progress.  A relatively young man when elected (he was 43, the youngest ever to be elected president), he was a symbol of youth and vitality, emblematic of the United States as a whole, striding confidently forward into the future, perhaps best epitomised by this famous speech, (link is a heavily edited version.  Full seventeen minute version here

It was an infectious attitude, I guess, spreading halfway around the world.

And then, on November 22nd, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, the wave of optimism sweeping outwards finally broke, courtesy of an assassin's bullet.

Unlike the USA, which has had it happen four times throughout its history, an Australian Prime Minister has never been assassinated.  Over the years, we have carelessly misplaced one (more on him later), but none have been assassinated.  PMs stabbed in the back by “faceless men” don’t count.  (And that’s the extent of any political satire here, I promise.)

But the question remains.  Why this memorial?  Why Kennedy?

It's probably true that the bond between Australia and the USA was stronger than ever in the 1960's.  Both countries were fighting together in Vietnam, working to prevent the so-called "Domino effect" and ostensibly protecting the world from the spreading menace of Communism.  It was no less a person that our Prime Minister, Harold Holt, who proclaimed that we as a country were going, 'All the way with LBJ,' pledging his support to the then US president Lyndon Johnson.  But in today's age of creeping anti-Americanism and a desire to stand on our own two feet as a country, if an American president was assassinated tomorrow, would they receive their own statue here in Melbourne?  Barack Obama?  Perhaps, though I have my doubts.  Would George W. Bush have, if he was killed in his term of office?  I'm willing to bet he wouldn't.

And even if we are honouring fallen US presidents, the why not McKinley or Garfield as well?  Or even Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator", widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents?  Even if we decided to honour only our British heritage, then why not Spencer Percival, who was shot dead in 1812, the only British Prime Minister to meet his end from an opponent's bullet.  No.  Only Kennedy, it seems, captured the public's spirit in a way no-one else has.
But if there was such a desire to commemorate a overseas head of state in 1965, when the memorial was erected, then why not our own Prime Minister who died merely two years later?

I'm referring, of course, to Harold Holt, who, as Bill Bryson so masterfully put it in his book "Down Under", 'went for the swim that needs no towel,' drowning off Cheviot Beach, Portsea, in 1967.  Holt is not the only Australian Prime Minister to die in office, there have been two others, Joseph Lyons and John Curtin, but Holt's death is the only one that captured the public spirit the way it has.  Possibly because the nature of Holt's death, a sensational occurence, as well as the fact that his body was never found.
But Holt is not honoured with a statue of his own.  Oh no, that would just be too sensible, wouldn't it?  Instead, he has his name attached to something that makes people previously unfamiliar with it, look at you strangely when you tell them about it, and in some cases, outright disbelieve you.

A swimming pool.

Yep, that's right.  A swimming pool.  Named to honour a Prime Minister who drowned. 
It's been commented on and joked about and held up as an example of droll Australian humour innmuerable times already, by people such as comedian and now ABC Radio host Richard Stubbs, who once wrote, 'We put a lot of shit on Americans, but you can travel the length and breadth of the USA and you will not find the John F. Kennedy gun range.'  So I'm not even going to attempt to re-invent the comedic wheel on this one.  Suffice to say, it's a real thing, located in the suburb of Glen Iris, a massive structure that proudly bears Holt's name in big bright letters.

And for those who still don't believe me without photographic evidence, I'm sorry but you're just going to have to trust me on this one.  I stood outside and thought about it over and over with camera in hand, but even when it's for entirely innocent purposes such as this blog, I'm still not going to be that guy, looked at strangely (or worse) for taking photos in the vicinity of a public swimming pool.

Because I really don't want to go to jail, here's a picture of a meerkat I took instead.

But perhaps there is yet another reason why Harold Holt has a pool and not a statue.

The comicbook geek part of me came up with this theory, musing on the nature of death and the way it's depicted in the comicbooks I used to read.  Permenace was a trait not often associated with the death of a superhero, or even a villain, especially when popularity is a factor.  Resurrection was inevitable after a certain time and what appears to be "death" is very rarely so, especially if a character dies "off-screen", as it were.  This sort of thing has been done time and again throuought the years and continues to this day, leading to the old maxim where, 'if you don't see a body, they're not really dead.'

I must have had this in mind, buried somewhere subconsciously deep within my brain, which to be honest, works in some weird directions at the best of times.  Upon following twisted paths, not all of them located within the Treasury Gardens, and catching sight of the Kennedy memorial for the first time, I was struck by it's incongruity, and in that moment, I asked myself a question and answered it myself a moment later.

The question that keeps looping around.  Why Kennedy and why not Holt?

Thanks to Abraham Zapruder and his famous footage, we know Kennedy is dead.  We saw him shot in graphic detail and as horrific as it was, it offers us some finality on the matter.  We know what we saw and no-one argues with it (The why and the who, however, is another matter, and that one I'm not getting into).  With Holt, the fact that he drowned and was swept out to sea, coupled with the fact that his body was never to be recovered, instead gave rise to allegations of conspiracy, most notably that he was a communist, and on that fateful morning he didn't drown at all, but rather swam further out to sea, where he was picked up by a Chinese submarine that just happened to be out there waiting for him to take him to China, where for all we know, he remains to this day.  I should point out, this is subscribed to by none but the most ardent theorists, but the fact that such a theory exists at all, is telling in itself.  And why is it so?  Because Holt's body was never seen again.

Or to, put it another way.  If you don't see a body, they're not really dead.

I'm not saying the person in charge of deciding whether or not to erect a statue of Harold Holt made his decision based on fuzzy comicbook logic, but it raises some interesting discussion points if he did.  Do you also think people would accept Holt frozen in ice, Captain America-style, and re-awakened in the present day to lead a team of superheroes?  Hell, if we can re-imagine history to include "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter", the sky's the limit...

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