Kultar Ahluwalia
St John’s Grammar School, Belair
Winner – South Australia

‘Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

"Man is very brave. His patience and endurance are truly wonderful. Perhaps he will learn, one day, that wars and calamities of nature are not the only occasions when such qualities are needed." (Peter Ryan, 1959, p.251)

There are moments in life that call on individuals to respond positively and passionately to some form of extraordinary challenge. The capacity of the 'ordinary' person to achieve this is often viewed as a kind of testimony to their innermost character. This is certainly how Australians who participated in the Gallipoli Campaign during the First World War were judged. This campaign came to be one of the defining moments in the early formation of the Australian consciousness. For, despite the tragic losses suffered, the bravery of the Anzac soldiers under enemy fire was seen as an affirmation of the Australian nation having 'come of age'. To its contemporaries, the Anzac contribution at Gallipoli "made Australia a nation at last, with international recognition, national heroes, a national day, and a worthy tradition." (Gammage, 1974, p.277)

Of the many ordinary Australians who faced "the horror and frequency of death on Gallipoli" (Gammage, 1974, p.103) and responded with extraordinary courage, at least one individual achieved legendary status - John Simpson Kirkpatrick. (Robertson, 1990, pp.92-93; Carlyon, 2003, pp.69-73; C.E.W. Bean, 1990, p.69; Cochrane, 1992, passim.) As a member of the 3rd. Field

Ambulance, Simpson was charged with rescuing wounded soldiers even in the face of enemy fire. The image of this man and his donkey at work became the stuff of legends. His status seems to have shifted from that of, in reality, a local hero (Cochrane, 1992, p.48) to that of a national treasure whose story, after his death in Shrapnel Gully, was used back in Australia to encourage others to enlist. (Cochrane, 1992, pp. 48-63; Carlyon, 2003, p.71)

In any event, he came to represent the kind of courage and perseverance of so many 'ordinary' ambulance men who worked under the worst conditions to aid those wounded in war.

Since the time of the original Anzacs, many 'ordinary' Australians have achieved extraordinary things in their lives. Three individuals - spanning the divergent fields of politics, poetry and sport - stand as testimony to this. They are Charles Perkins, Les Murray and Ian Thorpe, respectively.

His enemies called him an angry activist. His supporters saw him as an ambassador fighting for his people's rights. All, however, seem to have acknowledged and admired the extraordinary bravery, courage and passion that Charles Perkins exhibited throughout his life. Upon his death in October 2000, this man who had struggled for so much of his life against racism, ignorance and structural oppression was honoured with a state funeral. Removed at a young age from his Arrente heritage, he worked tirelessly throughout his adult life in the political arena for Aboriginal self-determination. In 1984, under the Hawke government, Perkins became the head of the Aboriginal Affairs Department, making him the first indigenous Australian to head a Commonwealth Department. In 1987, he was awarded the Order of Australia. This 'ordinary' man involved himself in the extraordinarily important struggle for a new and more meaningful understanding of the rest of Australia to the enormous wrongs perpetrated on indigenous Australians - wrongs in the past and wrongs that persist through to this day. He emphasized the need to redress this situation when he stated: "We know we cannot live in the past but the past lives with us."(Read, 1990, p. ix)

Les Murray is acclaimed both in Australia and overseas as one of the most talented and successful poets writing today. He began life as an 'ordinary' boy, born in 1938 at Nabiac on the north coast of New South Wales, and grew up on his family's dairy farm in nearby Bunyah. He learnt to read at home when he was four and did not even attend formal schooling until the age of nine. After living as an adult in the city as well as overseas, he returned to live in Bunyah on a farm where he remains close to his roots. Murray uses his private world as well as his experiences of the rural and tells his readers something of the larger world of the nation of which he is a part - Australia. He insists that Australians have particular perspectives and language. Perhaps reflecting the working class ethos of his background, Murray believes that poetry should be accessible to all people. Using vernacular in his poetry allows him to achieve this for he sees the vernacular as "a refusal of alienation." (Peacock, 1992) In addition, he is passionately critical of some of the pretensions of those living in the city, of the modern fixation with business profit and of political power in general. (Peacock, 1992) In his extraordinary focus on the power of the 'ordinary' life of Australians, Murray can be seen as strangely echoing even some of the sceptical attitude towards authority that was so often associated with the spirit of the original Anzac soldiers.

Ian Thorpe is a young man who has represented Australia internationally in the sport of swimming, and has used his exceptional success in this field to help those less fortunate in Australian society. A former Young Australian of the Year, National and World Champion and Olympic medallist, Ian still lives a life of great humility, whilst fundraising for several charities, in particular through the auspices of "Ian Thorpe's Fountain for youth" launched in November 2000. His organization's mission statement is "Embrace Humanity by Nurturing Children." (http://ianthorpe.aol7.com.au/) This is paralleled by his extraordinary passion with regard to eradicating preventable illnesses among indigenous Australian children. He views this task as a "true national challenge. "(http://www.hollows.org/resources/media/02oct2003.htm) What is extraordinary, then, about this once 'ordinary' boy who began his swimming career at the local pool, is his spirit of compassion for others as well as his courage and determination to actively improve their living standards.

In the lives of the original Anzacs, we saw many 'ordinary' individuals facing perhaps the most wasteful and degrading of human activities - war. And it was in this arena that we witnessed their qualities of extraordinary courage and endurance. In the lives of so many ordinary Australians since that time, exemplified here in the characters of Charles Perkins, Les Murray and Ian Thorpe, we see the capacity of ordinary people to do extraordinary things - not only in light of their particular talents - but in terms of how they use these in diverse ways for the benefit of the wider community in which they live. Perhaps, then, in all these instances in which we see ordinary people achieving extraordinary things in life, it is not so much evidence of what has been viewed as the Anzac spirit alone in Australian society but is rather a testament to the best qualities of the human spirit that are beyond both time and place.


Bean, C.E.W. (1990; first pub. 1948) Gallipoli Mission, Crows Nest, N.S.W., ABC Enterprises

Cochrane, Peter (1992) Simpson and the Donkey, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press

Carlyon, Patrick (2003) The Gallipoli Story, Melbourne, Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

Gammage, Bill (1975; first pub. 1974) The Broken Years Australian Soldiers in the Great War, England, Penguin Books Ltd.

Peacock, Noel (1992)" 'Embracing the Vernacular': An Interview with Les Murray", Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 7 [Online], available from Internet: www.atrs.uwo.ca/~andrewf/anzsc7/murray7.htm

Read, Peter (1990) Charles Perkins A Biography, Melbourne, Viking - Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

Robertson, John (1990) The Tragedy & Glory of Gallipoli Anzac And Empire, Melbourne, Hamlyn Australia

Ryan, Peter (1959) Fear Drive My Feet, Sydney, Angus & Robertson Ltd.



Return to List of Winners 2004