Imagine an amalgamation of every RSL club you have ever been in. For me, this would mean a number in New South Wales, a couple in Victoria, and maybe one in Queensland. So what follows will necessarily be skewed towards the experience of metropolitan Sydney, which is important, given that these clubs differ dramatically from state to state. But just imagine that you enter into a large central space, an expanse of carpet stretching away in airport-lounge fashion, chairs and tables occupied and arranged in carefully casual groupings. The far wall has an array of silent TV screens, showing racing horses, racing dogs, racing cars, and maybe some golf. It is perhaps the worst carpet you have ever seen – a base of royal blue, covered with dancing triangles in yellow and orange, the whole stippled with purple and green in such discordant tones that it vibrates against the eye like some low-rent latter-day op-art. An LED display is mounted on the wall, and flickers with fleeting, urgent messages: spinna winna at 7pm – tickets from the counter; members badge draw at 8. There is a sound of poker machines from a room nearby, their jaunty pings and hopeful electronic jingles endlessly repeated, meshing into a kind of symphony of the optimistic dispossesed.
Somewhere around there will be a bistro or kitchen, equipped with a stainless steel bain-marie and an array of fried things laid out, chicken parmigiana and chips and sausages, all glistening under lights. The tables will be laminate, a blue or grey flecked variety, spotted with damp beer coasters; the chairs will be chrome plated, with upholstered seats in some loud pattern to match the hideousness of the carpet. The interior will be unremarkable except for its very ubiquity – you have seen these chairs before, eaten from these tables, marvelled at another such carpet, in different places at different times. The menu may change, but this could be any clubroom in Australia. It speaks the anonymous, generic design language of the surf lifesaving club, the bowling club, the workers club, the leagues club, in all but one key aspect. It is marked out as an RSL by the honour roll of names picked out in gilt, the flags, the memorial flame, the wall of memorial plaques, the display of wartime artefacts. In a case somewhere there will be a series of objects: a Boer War sword, a slouch hat worn at Gallipoli, a captured German helmet, and miscellaneous pieces of ‘trench art’ made of empty shell casings, flattened and beaten and embossed. And if you are there at the right time of evening, there will come a voice through the speakers overhead. It will call for a moment’s silence, and then read the ode of rememberance; ‘they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.’ And it will be then, at that moment where the assembled patrons look around in embarrassed confusion, or pause and solemnly bow their heads, or keep talking unawares, that the significance of RSL clubs in the Australian national consciousness will perhaps be revealed.
It could be the resurgence of nationalism in Australia, or the political leanings of the current conservative government. But the Anzac myth, with its bronzed diggers and aura of grief, symbolism, and ritual, continues growing rather than diminishing in power. Strange as it seems, there are a series of great failures that loom large in the Australian consciousness – Burke and Wills at Cooper Creek, Ned Kelly at Glenrowan, and the Anzacs at Gallipolli Cove, all take on a far greater significance than their tragic and futile narratives would seem to warrant. The symbolic potency of these stories can not be ignored. And although it can be rather hard to locate that symbolism in the huge, sleek, and often anonymous and ugly RSL clubs of today, it remains there in both tangible and intangible forms.
Nevertheless, as a child of the seventies, I have sometimes felt rather troubled by RSL clubs. The Returned Services League as an organisation does, after all, have some difficult associations – of bigotry and blokeishness, of rigid traditionalism, the advocation of compulsory military service and the singing of ‘God Save the Queen’. None of these are ideas that I can really engage with, and yet the organisation has sometimes claimed a monopoly over Australian national identity, particularly through the solemn rituals of Anzac day. Yet it is true that in the life of the country as a whole, the influence of the RSL is writ large. In many rural towns, the soldiers’ memorial hall is the largest public space, the obvious and often the only place to hold meetings and concerts and public events. Such halls become institutions, central to the social and communal life of a place. Each town will inevitably also have its own war memorial, often a simple marble soldier with head bowed; and between them, the RSL hall and the war memorial form a deep bond of local and national character. But there is a third element in this, more immaterial but perhaps more powerful, which has less to do with monuments and artefacts and more to do with human behaviour. And it is here that RSL clubs are perhaps most interesting: in the way their ritual and use has helped to define the Australian character, and how the meaning of this has changed.
There is currently a phenomenon of ‘shabby chic’, whereby hip young urban types jump the generation gap and colonise spaces and traditions that belong to another time. On one level this is simply the lure of cheap beer and the possibility of winning a meat tray. On another it is an example of gentrification, of affirming your superior taste and style by testing it in an alien environment. But perhaps most importantly, it is the active process of redefining Australian national identity. There is a kind of knowing irony in the youthful appropriation of RSL clubs; while this could so easily be condescending – the young avant garde laughing behind their hands at the hokey crustiness of it all – it seems to me an affectionate irony rather than a contemptuous or aggressive one. A new version of national character thus builds upon an earlier form, in a way that is respectful, if challenging. The RSL club therefore provides one of the few interior spaces set aside, in contemporary culture, for memory and ritual and the acting out of what it is to be an Australian. As well as for drinking beer and playing the pokies, of course.
If you ask someone about their recollections and experiences of RSL clubs, they will often come up with a scene, compelling in its clarity: the memory of being taught how to play pool on a blue baize table next to a window looking down over a windswept beach; going to a talent quest and hearing a brassy young woman on a dais sing ‘don’t rain on my parade’; being transfixed by the stately movement of three old couples dancing on a parquetry floor. It is these small moments of experience which will ensure the lasting place of RSL clubs in Australian social and cultural life.