If I was prime minister for a day, in that primary-school hypothetical, I would make two-up illegal again. We lost a true act of remembrance when, state by state, we smoothed over the edges and normalised the whole affair to just another form of gambling at the pub.
In the lead up to the centenary of Gallipoli we have instead been forced to search for less authentic ways to commemorate. There are endless new tele-dramas; Centennial Park in Sydney is being reborn as Camp Gallipoli (camp under the stars to recreate the Anzac spirit of mateship!); and a number of new monuments are being laid. Woolworths is currently in hot water over its Fresh Memories advertising campaign.
What all these new and inventive forms of remembrance show is that our memory for Gallipoli needs supplementing by more information (more historians, docos etc), more events and more sites of remembrance.
This anxiety or hysteria around memory reminds me of the work of French historian Pierre Nora on national memory. Nora writes: “Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.”
What he suggests is that we need lieux de memoire (sites of memory) because we no longer have milieu de memoire (real environments of memory) that are truly embedded deeply in the society. For Nora what you get then is a proliferation of artificial and secon- order memory making (collecting, archiving, exhibiting) without the real social rituals of remembrance.
Memory in Canberra
This came home strongly to me last time I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. As we soberly came through the door to walk towards the the Hall of Memory past the Roll of Honour we were stopped by a guard’s arm directing us towards the museum entrance and further exhibition rooms.
New rooms of collection and exhibition have supplemented the sacred nature of the memorial constantly since it was built. And I do not think those additions have been made without loss to the original nature of the beautiful memorial.
This has happened too in Sydney at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park with the new extension to the museum. I am not sure whether the museums and collections would be better housed on another site altogether. If they must be on site, then keep them secondary.
The symbolic power of illegal two-up
I feel that this is an architectural version of what happened to our beloved two-up, a pastime that gained its reputation in the trenches of the first world war.
The move over the last few decades to legalise the coin-flipping game was ill advised. Most of the States in one way or other have regulated for the legal acceptance of two-up on Anzac Day and in some cases other holidays. Queensland went last in 2012, but Victoria and NSW legalised two-up in the 1990s.
What most of us remember though, especially Queenslanders, is the way it used to be done; the powers that be, the police, the pub manager, would turn a blind eye to the game. If you set up a “cockatoo” (two-up slang for a look out) it was only in jest because everyone knew that nothing was going to happen.
It might seem perverse but the illegal nature of the game was absolutely crucial to the symbolic power of the game.
Two-up on Anzac Day used to be a perfect example of a rite beyond everyday legal constraints. It had a carnivalesque logic, where the illegal became for that day legal. In legal theory we would characterise the carnival (Mardi Gras and Saturnalia, and other tricky and topsy turvy inversions of law) as an anomic festival, that is outside the law. These festivals though are part of the cultural language of society.
Historically the carnival is an extraordinary event to more clearly delineate the legal and everyday. It is based on the logic that we “don’t want a repeat of last night". You understand the law better by seeing what it is not. Perhaps Mad Monday every football season suggests this sort of release in the more focused world of elite football training.
The position of two-up was more particular. It marked Anzac Day as a special day, a sacred day when “mateship” and memory overrode the everyday constraints of “insignificant” laws. By destroying the anomic quality of the game we have domesticated the ritual act until it is about as bona fide as Halloween in Australia.
The transgression of it also conjures up a wonderful image of the larrikin bronzed warrior/ spinner. I imagine that the “tradition” of turning a blind eye was part of many of the original games and that illegality was a link across time.
The thrill of transgression
The law was changed to “avoid confusion". There is something about people “breaking the law” that makes people nervous. But it is exactly this scenario that actually made two-up function. What brought the society together, on this important national day, was the shared but secret (and unofficial) knowledge that you could gamble with impunity in this particular way.
If you were a stranger in the land it would not make sense but to the local there was no real confusion at all, on the contrary there was a deep understanding.
More provocatively perhaps it was the way that we enjoyed the transgression that was also central. In 2012 Queenslanders said of two-up becoming legal that some of the “thrill” had gone.
This “thrill” is worth looking at closely. We are held together by certain ties, such as family and society, but we are equally held together as friends and “gangs” through transgression and fun. Drinking, mosh pits and illicit drug taking can all be linked to Nation – just think of the crowds at the Big Day Out on Australia Day.
Drinking, beer cup snakes and “illegal” Mexican waves bring us together as a crowd of Australians at the cricket.
Sharing the “thrill” of doing something a little naughty is one of the best ways to produce “mateship” and togetherness in a group (just don’t mention it officially as Warney did recently at the post match interview at the World Cup).
By bureaucratically dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s we lost this quite unique custom. When it became legal the pubs knew then they were allowed to advertise, loud and proud, and they have. Using hip Edwardian fonts two-up is proclaimed everywhere.
There is still the power of the game to speak to the past as an artifact of the past but the very special functioning of the illegal two-up game on Anzac Day was given up without a fight.
Oliver Watts does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Authors: The Conversation