Every year about this time, I think of my first solo trip to London. It was early November, damp and cold and gray as I walked to Westminster Abbey. I rounded a corner and saw ahead of me a sea of red, especially vivid against the dull wet stone and asphalt. It was nearly Armistice Day, and the groundskeepers had placed thousands of poppies all around the abbey. Coming from a country where most people, let’s face it, think of Memorial Day as the start of summer and the first time swimsuits go on sale at Target, I found the display particularly moving.
A few months later, taking a course on the history of Western warfare at college, I read Clausewitz and Keegan and a long list of others, but what stuck with me were the accounts of World War I soldiers from the trenches. Those two experiences, along with hearing “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” for the first time a few months later, coalesced for me into what has become a deep interest in and respect for what soldiers of The Great War experienced and endured.
I couldn’t care less, quite frankly, about the strategies, the famous generals, the campaigns. What fascinates and moves me are the stories of regular men (and occasionally women) and how they survived what many consider the most horrible of wars (not that war is ever a fun way to spend a couple years).
So, faced with a full day in Melbourne and countless options–the Zoo! Shopping! Art museums! The Melbourne Cup, Melbourne’s biggest annual event! Walking tours! Australian Museum of the Moving Image–I knew where I was headed: The Shrine of Remembrance.
It’s one of the largest war memorials in Australia (and probably the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world) and was built in the 20s and 30s. It sits on the southern edge of one of Melbourne’s many parks, facing the city center and all its towers of steel and glass. It is a quiet place, as it should be, and at regular intervals they play what I assume is the Australian version of Taps. Each note echoes through the building’s many corridors and crypts and spaces in a haunting way that is deeply affecting.
The only experience I can compare it with was visiting the Latvian concentration camp of Salaspils, outside Riga. The buildings there had been removed and replaced with lawns and large sculptures, but what was most memorable was a giant subterranean metronome set to beat at the rate of a human heart. Everywhere I went at Salaspils on a freezing cold but clear winter morning, the steady, soft but unmissable sound reverberated off the marble and stone artwork.
I thought of all the locals (and visitors) I’d seen while taking the bus to the Shrine, walking towards the Flinders Street and Southern Cross stations to board trains that would whisk them to the Flemington race course, home of the Melbourne Cup (“a good reason to start drinking at ten in the morning,” explained the receptionist at my hotel when I asked what the MC fuss was all about). Guys in suits and ties, women wobbling in ridiculously high heels and tugging at too short dresses that they bought clearly without contemplating the walk to the train station. All of Melbourne it seemed was outfitted in silly hats and inappropriate footwear, possessing an insatiable thirst that had nothing to do with water.
Part of me, the journalist part that hates to feel like I’m missing the big story, worried that maybe I should head out to Flemington to experience Melbourne’s biggest day in person. Fortunately, the contrarian in me–compromising the majority of my personality, it must be said–wanted to get as far from the drunken, questionably-attired crowd as possible and to contemplate the sacrifices others had made so that we could live our often ridiculously silly and easy modern lives.
As it turned out, I had a memorable Melbourne Cup experience that I didn’t plan and never expected–and which was far more enjoyable than dealing with the besotted masses–but let’s look at more photos of the Shrine of Remembrance first.
Ghosts of Melbourne Cups Past
After the Shrine of Remembrance, I hopped back on the free tourist circuit bus. Every city should have these (and several do). It’s a free, user-friendly bus that runs every half-hour, stopping at all the big tourist attractions. This time I headed north, to the Melbourne Museum.
I was on a mission to see the equine Russell Crowe.
Russell Crowe was born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, where he acheived fame as an actor and smasher of telephones. The Kiwis claim him as their own by birth. The Aussies see him bred if not born as theirs.
Nearly 100 years ago, a handsome stallion named Phar Lap was born in New Zealand and sold to an Australian, who took him across the pond and trained him and let him loose on the world. Phar Lap was the Secretariat of Down Under. The horse, with a freakishly large heart (even among freakishly large-hearted race horses), started winning. And winning. Often coming from well behind in the last half of a race, Phar Lap won 90% of his last 4o races.
Then he went to America.
He raced–and won– the Agua Caliente in 1932 in grand fashion, leaving the Yanks gobsmacked, to use one of my favorite Britisms. Days later, Phar Lap was dead. He had succumbed to a swift and mysterious illness.
His death was the cause of much international ill will and rumored to be revenge on the part of angry American gangsters or other perceived enemies of “Big Red.” Phar Lap had already survived one assassination attempt a few years earlier, when, shortly before racing in and winning the Melbourne Cup, he was nearly hit by sniper’s bullets.
A post-mortem conducted years later showed he had injested a large amount of strychnine in his last 48 hours, though this could not be conclusively proven as the cause of death. Back in those days, trainers apparently often concocted tonics with strychnine, cocaine and other now-banned substances to give to their horses, and it is possible Phar Lap was actually killed by those closest to him, totally unintentionally.
Regardless of the circumstances of his death, Phar Lap was mourned by Australia and New Zealand alike. Both countries wanted a piece of him. Literally. So New Zealand got his skeleton and Melbourne got his hide and Canberra, curiously, got his heart, which is apparently on display at the museum there.
The Melbourne Museum had his hide mounted in a rather lifelike if slightly creepy installation, and it was this–as well as dinosaur skeletons–that I was going to see.
When I arrived in the Phar Lap hall (the horsehide is Melbourne Museum’s most popular draw, not that surprising in this pony-mad town), I noticed they had set up a large screen and were showing live footage covering the Melbourne Cup festivities. As I looked at Phar Lap’s remains, read the interpretational signage and watched grainy old footage of some of his amazing wins, I was aware of a crowd gathering around the screen.
“What time is the actual Melbourne Cup?” I asked one of several museum workers crowding into the viewing area.
“In two minutes.”
Oh. Much like my running into the All Blacks, it was a moment of serendipity. I noticed, just as the race began, that the screen–unintentionally, I’m sure–had been set up at an angle that Phar Lap, or at least his hide, could watch.
Perhaps it was not unintentional after all.
More Photos of Dead Animals
The Melbourne Museum, by the way, turned out to be much more than a horsehide. They had a well-done if somewhat disconcerting Hall of Dead Things were you could point at the animal you were curious about on a screen and a little box would pop up telling you what it was, where it lived, whether it was endangered, etc.
I also liked their rather playful mounting of the dinosaur skeletons, and there were interesting exhibits on mind and body, the latter including a film showing a woman giving birth, something I suspect you wouldn’t find in an American museum these days lest it offend someone’s sensibilities.
After having enough of death for the day, I walked back to my hotel through Melbourne’s Italian community, where hazelnut and pistacio gelati called my name. Until next time, I leave you with the most tragicomic expression I’ve ever seen on a taxidermied animal: