Ted Egan – National Living Treasure

Ted Egan
Ted Egan

Ted Egan, OA, one of Australia’s National Living Treasures, performed at the Perth Town Hall yesterday as part of the Perth Heritage Days program of events held around the city.

Eighty-two year old Ted Egan is definitely an Australian ageing in style.

For an hour-and-a-half, he held his audience spellbound as he presented an ANZAC history. As he pointed out, ANZAC is the acronym for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps which fought against the Turks at Gallipoli in 1915.

Ted Egan is a consummate entertainer. He is also a skilled historian, as his show demonstrated.  A beautifully made video of images of old Diggers (soldiers) and war photos created the backdrop.

Ted spoke specifically about John Simpson, a legendary who enlisted in the Australian Infantry Forces in Perth in 1914. Simpson became a stretcher bearer during the Gallipoli Campaign. He obtained a donkey and used it to carry wounded soldiers from the front line to the beach until his death in 1915.

The themes of Ted Egan’s performance were his abhorrence of war and violence, and the need to honour the brave men and women involved in such atrocities. He used many of his own songs and some other well-known World War I songs to illuminate these twin themes.

Revulsion against war and the recognition of the bravery of men and women involved leave me feeling very conflicted. As a rule, I avoid mainstream ANZAC commemorations. At smaller ceremonies such as those staged by Hollywood Primary School, where some of my grandchildren are involved, it is somehow easier to acknowledge bravery and ignore the stupidity of British commanding officers who ordered Australians to face almost certain death at Gallipoli.

Altogether, during World War I over 61,500 Australians lost their lives. Over 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.As a small child during World War II, I experienced a little of the gruesomeness of that War, although at second hand.

My father was man-powered. He was unable to enlist because of the importance of his work as a cardboard-box maker. Goods from clothes and food to ammunition had to be securely packaged for shipping to arenas of war.

Someone placed a white feather in our letterbox. My father was devastated by the implication that he was a coward. Our little family suffered deeply from this act of thoughtless ignorance.

In spite of my memories, or perhaps because of them, I found myself fully engaged, immersed even, in what unfolded on the stage in this one-person show. Not only did we cry. At times we also laughed.

I wasn’t the only one in the audience at the Perth Town Hall who wept as Ted Egan performed. Perhaps older people were saddened by their own memories of war. Perhaps like me, they were reminded of the sadness of their mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

My seventeen-year-old niece sat next to me. She too, wiped away tears. I salute the generations much younger than me for their sensitivity and understanding of the issues that surround wars.

Ted Egan was chosen to join the ranks of prestigious Australian National Living Treasures for his achievements in the fields of entertainment, activism and administration.

According to the Australian National Trust, ‘National Living Treasures are exceptional Australians with substantial and enduring accomplishments in their field. We celebrate their achievements and acknowledge that they are as diverse as Australia itself.’

Thanks to the Board and Executive of Heritage Perth for this event.

A special thank you, Ted Egan!

8 replies on “Ted Egan – National Living Treasure”

  1. A very engaging afternoon well portrayed by the writer.I will endeavour to be betterprepared next time and take two large handkerchiefs.

  2. I was born in London in 1940. I recall seeing my mother crying in 1944 when she heard the news that her dearly loved brother, an air force pilot was “lost” I recall him as gentle and loving. as she was, such a gross waste of life.
    In 1944 also my oldest brother and I were playing in our garden on a bright sunny day when suddenly the sky became black with aircraft, We lived not far from Croydon airport,.we were upset and ran into Mum for safety. Talking to her about it later in life she told us it was the DDAY raid June 1944.
    Mum told us then and again in later years that all were asked to do their “bit for Britain”. Her bit she said was to produce a few children to replace those who were lost in war. We all survived for many years. Rosie. Thanks for the memory Rosiex,

    1. Oh, Rosie, how sad. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been right in the thick of a war zone as you were. And your dear, brave mother. I can imagine her saying her bit for Britain was to produce children to replace those ‘lost’ in the war. What a silly, silly euphemism ‘lost’ can be.

  3. Love listening to Ted Egan! Have done for years – read almost 40 years. Have learnt a lot of history this way! His partner Neris, sings ‘ I was a girl of thirteen when my three brothers went to the war……’ I don’t remember the song title, but it certainly brings people to tears when played at ANZAC services.
    Wish I had known he was performing!!

    1. I didn’t know you liked Ted Egan, Elizabeth. You would have loved The Anzacs. There was a tape of Nerys singing ‘Song for Grace’ (who was Ted’s mother) as part of it, with film of a young girl performing the actions in the song. The story in the song is her story as a thirteen year old girls. Soooo sad! And beautiful. Wish you’d come! Lots of songs Mum and our aunts Ivy and Evelyn used to sing, too, as well as other songs of Ted’s.

  4. Maureen, your piece on Ted Egan is welcome – he is a superb Australian. I enjoyed reading his book: Justice all their own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island killings 1932-1933 (MUP 1996). He wrote the book in support of Yolngu man, Tuckiar, of Caledon Bay and his successful appeal against the sentence of murder of Constable McColl in the High Court of the Australia in 1934 and then his mysterious disappearance following release from prison.

    The foremost Queensland historian Raymond Evans says that because the founding of Australia is so bereft of triumph, we have turned to the grim cliffs and beachheads of Gallipoli for our founding story. In The country has another past: Queensland and the History Wars in ‘Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia’ (2010), Evans believes that in effect, Anzac and the Frontier Wars 1788-1928 are reverse sides of the interpretive coin of our founding story. Evans believes the Anzac legend ennobles our birth as a nation because it portrays our heroes as heroic and sacrificial rather than venal and cruel. He says:

    The bloodshed of the real foundational saga is subverted and replaced by the story and veneration attending the reticulated retelling of the Anzac bloodletting. The first story is as immersed in forgetting as the second is enmeshed in remembrance. The former is literally unspeakable; the latter liturgical. So that the latter, unfolding peculiarly upon a Turkish coastline, replaces the former; which explains, in considerable part, how migrant Australians came to inhabit what they now see as their own soil.

    There can be no doubt that what happened on the Australian frontier is criminal and unjust – the uncompensated seizure of another peoples’ country, the wars of extermination, the theft of children, the rape and sexual enslavement of women, the terror campaigns, the invocation of Civilisation and Empire as justification for nefarious deeds; the ban on Aborigines giving evidence in courts until 1884; and in all of this, the Indigenous Peoples of Australia were said to be ‘succumbing to the inevitable because they were unable to co-exist with a superior culture’.

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment on my post, Paul. You raise issues that I’ve never thought about in relation to the Anzac story. Obviously, I need to read more history such as that you quote by Raymond Evans. Western Australia, also, has a grim almost unmentionable history of atrocities against Aboriginal people. In light of what you’ve said, it becomes obvious that the ‘bloodshed of the real foundational saga’ is deeply embedded in our national subconscious. Hence our need to overwrite it with the Anzac legend. Thank you again for bringing this to attention.

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