Sunday, 6 October 2013

All light and sound: the 2013 RAN Fleet Review

A large-scale popular display such as the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Review presented on Saturday night in Sydney has to please as many people as possible, for a start. As has become routine, the sails of the magnificent Sydney Opera House - a building with a global recall second only to Mickey Mouse - doubled as a cinema screen and on them were shown a sequence of images, often involving newspaper clippings, designed to provide a shorthand history of the RAN. The RAN's credentials thus extend from WWI through the better-known drama of WWII to mostly forgotten wars in Korea and Vietnam. Cyclone Tracey also featured: this was a big mission for the RAN in December 1974 when the force helped to evacuate Darwin after the storm flattened the town. The final phases of the display unfortunately resembled nothing more than a recruitment video designed to inspire the potential sailor with positive feelings like loyalty, pride, and gratitude.

The final image on the sails was the insignia of the RAN with the crown on top - you can see similar crowns on the insignia of the country's state police forces - signalling toward the overt symbolism of Prince Harry's presence at the review as the representative of his grandmother, the Australian monarch. Governor-General Quentin Bryce dutifully played second-fiddle to "the world's most eligible bachelor", a gentleman whose casual review-day attentions were much sought-after by young Sydney women.

The young women who did not get a chance to touch Harry's hurriedly-extended hand as he made his progress through the city's streets could comfort themselves by enjoying the palpable excitement generated by figurations of the most memorable naval event in Australia's history: the war against the Japanese in WWII. This section of the evening's hugely-exploded diorama served up to the audience on the ground in Sydney and - by way of the TV broadcast - to watchers elsewhere was set to the famous strains of part of Gustav Holst's The Planets orchestral suite, 'Mars'. The work was written between 1914 and 1916, we're told, and so dates from about the same time as the RAN was established in 1913. Holst's stirring and menacing music dedicated to the planet named after the Roman god of war - it's where we get the word 'martial' from after all, as in 'martial arts' - came at the same time as the fireworks being set off from boats at anchor at different planes along Sydney's amazing harbour made the night glow red. Spotlights mimicking searchlights added drama to the display.

A lone bugler playing a variety of tunes including the song Australians recognise from ANZAC Day parades - the Last Post - which are memorials for the dead, helped to turn the attention of the crowds and the TV watchers to the men and women who lost their lives in battle, and added a fitting long, solemn moment to the display.

Sailors interviewed by ABC TV after the display were all grins and yelps in their excitement at the show put on in their honour. Fathers and mothers lined up along the shoreline of possibly the best harbour in the world wiped away tears inspired by complex emotions. Children stood around quietly in exhaustion from all the activity - enough to equal their own inherent capacity for movement and sound. The TV anchors beamed with pleasure for the sheer size of the moment of shared community they had helped to create, and happily declared themselves speechless. The cooling air of the calm spring night, absent rain, slowly dispersed the clouds of smoke from the dead incendiary devices. A million people turned their attentions to the problem of getting home on crowded public transport. The black water of the harbour lapped quietly against the stone parapets at the Botanic Gardens and beneath the apartment blocks of Kirribilli. The long weekend continued.

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