Being my first attempt at entering an essay competition – dared by a friend – I can now share the fact I even entered it and the entry itself. Not for your judgement – other than perhaps amusement I had the cheek.
AUSTRALIA:A COLLECTION OF ASSUMPTIONS
A twelve year old child was gifted a book in recognition of her insatiable curiosity. Within its pages she was introduced to Kipling’s six honest servingmen thus finding names for the members of her pack of mental puppies. The puppies were exposed to sand, surf and Sunday School and, on the other days of the week, relaxed at the back of the class near those high achievers who had to exercise to gain their place. Having already discovered that the path to efficiency is blazed by the lazy, she sat with her ears open and hands under desk-top busy knitting a scarf using spider stitch.
Back then the days were busy and the years as long as only a country child can recall. From her bed on the front verandah she contemplated the profile of an aboriginal warrior staring up to the night sky from his home in an enormous gum tree. As the evening breeze ruffled the leaves, setting the watching warrior free into the heavens, she snuggled down to sleep with a sense of being protected; of being Watched Over. With ears open, hands busy spinning threads of experience and thought, she now knots a net into being. Flinging the net far and wide to ensnare the progeny of the Bunyip and Behemoth. Scary creatures were it not that terror is part of our mental territory.
The energies of ancestral myths, their archetypes, now hidden within modernity, seep and escape into subconciousness; leaching from the underground of understandings made manifest in the diverse behaviours Homo sapiens call ‘human nature’. The Stone Age person is still within Modern Mankind; outwardly fashioned by the survival of such genes as best suit the environments of time and place. An example given here is that of indigenous mothers within Australia giving birth to babies considered and judged by the non-indigenous as being of light weight. This assessment gives little consideration to the thousands of years mothers have had to carry babies on their hips or in a coolamon. Given the human brain’s propensity for pattern recognition, the observational powers of women and babies – their own and others – together the tribal cross cousin marriage system, credit could be given for identifying a strain prone to producing less burdensome babies.
(One snippet heard by these open ears was Kathy Freeman’s bones are far less dense than the norm of the general population. This was stated as an explanation for her capacity for speed as well as an illustration of the need to conserve energy when covering long distances by walking.)
Cross cousin breeding has a long history, the patterns and consequences of which would be instantly appreciated by those who knowingly raise thoroughbred dogs or horses. However, not all breeders have the knowledge or the courage to carry through to the five generations required to produce the true thoroughbred. For those who do there comes a time when it is judicious to bring in an out-cross; a completely new line believing in the protection hybrid vigour for the first of the new generation.
And what might the foregoing have to do with being “Australian”?
Simply put, we are a motley of mongrels. A mixture of mutts. As diverse as afghans and dachshunds. But we are a breed which likes to please, be friendly and entertaining. When well-trained, we fetch and carry for those we perceive to be our masters.
Above all, we are a bright bunch of bastards. Ingenious, inventive, motivated. We might just be Humanity’s Best Friend?
As with many Australian children, this one had never met any of the First Peoples of this land. Until she was seventeen years of age, training as a nurse in Ward 31 of Royal Perth Hospital in 1956. A woman, thin as a rake, bed-sores packed with eusol dressings from sacrum under skin to hip. Incontinent, mute and utterly miserable. During a staff meeting someone suggested her health may improve if her baby was brought in from wherever it was being fostered. A baby? A baby girl. Rumour had it, this woman (let us call her Nancy) had walked more than two thousand miles during her pregnancy. The soles of her feet, thick and hard as boot leather. The baby was brought to the ward and given into her arms. Next day, the very next day, Nancy was out of bed, walking for the first time in months, standing in the fresh air on the balcony. The first word she cried out she demanded “BEDPAN” and she had us scuttling and glad of it.
Aged 14, this girl was employed sorting trunk line dockets in the Accounts Department of the PostMaster General’s Office in Perth. She worked alongside a young woman whose parents had emigrated from Greece after the Second World War. They had brought their customs with them; one being the elder daughter must first be married before my work mate could upgrade her engagement ring to a wedding band. What a wedding that was!
Earlier, before this child was born, her maternal grandparents emigrated from the UK in 1922 to take up land under the Group Settlement Scheme in Northcliffe in Western Australia. As a Master Mariner, it did not take long for her grandfather to walk off that land in favour of a position as Harbourmaster. The move to Australia was likely to have been at the grandmother’s instigation. A family joke stated as true that he only once returned from a voyage to the same home as he had departed. (It might be her gypsy blood; her family clan territory both sides of the Scottish border.) That was a place in the countryside of Northumberland. The mother of this child was four years of age when emigrating and spent most of her years on the family’s poultry farm which sustained them during the Depression.
The Group Settlement Scheme was preceded by the Soldier Settlement Scheme following the First World War. As well as giving some soldiers something to come home to, it further strengthened the White Australia Policy. (Forgotten were those aboriginals left stranded in South Africa because they volunteered to fight in the Boer War). British soldiers have a history of making Australia home ever since being sent to guard the convicts for whom the first settlements were created. Speaking of convicts, those prisoners in Hungarian prisoners were released at the beginning of the 1956 uprising and, the young nurse was told by one such, they were the first to make a hasty departure from the country. So, convicts, soldiers and emigrants from Europe were the bulwarks of White Australia until the Immigration Restriction Act was repealed in 1958. As an Australians resident in the UK during the 60’s, this young woman found herself unable to defend her nation’s history. Unable to define the emotion experienced when her face was held by the chin to the light and hear it declared that this is “my own aborigine.” Embarrassment, yes. Shame, no. Something else. Was it the spirit of the gum tree warrior crying out for recognition and being denied?
The paternal branch of this child’s parentage descends from Scottish widow of 55 years of age who brought her large family to South Australia in the 1840’s. Among the many stories contained within the publication detailing the family history, there is one which this woman has hi-jacked and relates whenever given the opportunity. Such as this. According to my version, my grandfather was able to purchase a property for a pittance as the previous owner found difficult to get full price for the land he had cleared of aboriginal infestation using strychnine. In this version it is related that, if happening in my grandfather’s generation, there maybe, still alive, descendants from those away from the feed of flour at the time. In other words, the pain is too close for comfort; the asking of forgiveness and reconciliation premature. In her father’s generation this event was a joke shared around birthday barbecues. She read into the glare from her father’s eye; remember and record. She takes the permission to skew history for fear the descendants of the guilty are too afraid of the past to ever question it and thus not allow some light of day in this dark history.
Is sit racism or xenophobia which has empowered the political class to engage in policies which drive people to our shores? It would be facile to blame the military for their actions overseas; creating the havoc and destruction which drove, and still drives, attempts to reach our shores from Asia. Instructed by the policy of those politicians voted into power by the public, we all have a hand in the circumstances which give rise to the suicidal despair of those imprisoned in off-shore detention. They are even more securely incarcerated, and with less hope, than the original intruders into the oldest surviving cultures on this planet. They are there because, collectively, we put and keep them there.
Who has the right to make that mark on their ballot paper? Yes, those who were born here and, these days, that is irrespective of colour or creed. Those who qualify for naturalisation as an Australian are issued an invitation to a formal citizenship ceremony; a prerequisite for the granting of citizenship. Again, irrespective of colour, but allowing a choice of a either including or excluding God within their pledge. Why is God in this picture?
Given the separation of Church and State in Australia, this woman again asks, “Why is God in this picture?” If God, why not Allah or Vishnu? Does it take the invocation of an invisible entity to give weight to one’s word? No. Having observed the consequences of the imposition of Christianity on life within several aboriginal communities, this person is of the staunch belief that Christianity is intrinsically a corrupting influence. Particularly so on a peoples with a highly developed system of spiritual beliefs, many of which survive beneath a facade.
Is it racism, xenophobia or plain ignorance which permits the illusion of superiority over persons who do not speak the dominant language, who are regarded as illiterate either in their own language or one they have yet to learn? As previously mentioned, humans have a propensity for pattern recognition. Only since the Bronze Age has there been any need for anyone’s parietal lobe to be busy with reading and writing. Until the concept and practice of literacy was forced upon the general population, people’s brains kept busy recognising other patterns. Patterns within their culture, patterns within their landscapes, patterns within the seasons, patterns within the skies and patterns within the stars. Literate scientists have in recent times proposed the genetic transmission of memory such as to give credence to ancestral memory experienced in the form of the “collective unconscious”. Surely a culture as continuous as that of truly indigenous Australians would have a rich and deeply embedded collective memory. From that place could arise the fear which drove aboriginals from their racially designated section of Meekatharra hospital in the 1950’s. That section had been built as a separate unit placed close to the morgue. First dead body and they were out of there in a flash. The beds were then used to house the indigent, not the indigenous. Or again, an instance when planners designed a new township for the Kalumburu community in the 1990’s. Could they not foresee the insult of using the disused rubbish tip as the recommended site?
Coming back to the question, “Why is God in this picture?” There is no escaping it. In whatever form be it Baiame, Jehovah, Allah or Vishnu the invisible Creator of All and Everything is there. Why? If, and I repeat, IF God created Man in his own image, perhaps He is having a rethink? Could it be that Australia, this sea-locked land, is God’s chosen laboratory? Is the design of the Australian coat of arms a warning that there is no going back? What does the future hold? Should we do what the ancients did and dream on it?
For some forgotten reason, this person leaning against a wall in Port Hedland and asked for her skin name by a young, very dark-skinned woman. The younger woman knows we have not previously met and needs to place this stranger within the structure of tribal relationships. She shakes her head at the reply. An apology for not having a skin name. Later, relating this encounter to an English couple, they are surprised to find I am not an indigene. With a loud clang, the penny dropped in the realisation they had just lost the friend held out by them as evidence they are not racist. To further confound them was the information of gypsy ancestry for that is held as being at the bottom of the social pit.
Baiame beckons to live the dreams of the night into the actions of the day. As it is there, so will it be here. From this realm, satirists are inspired to create, for our entertainment, situations which play out in real life. Advertising agencies are inspired to test the acceptance of diversity. Faces inherited from Asia feature in television commercials whereas it is difficult to recall images of indigenous faces promoting the purchase of any product. The nearest is the use of aboriginal art as an evanescent art on a carpet. This is the heart of the matter. This most ancient culture is nurtured on an active belief in the spirit world. A world where the spirit speaks to the mind through dreams and the mind acts on the body to create a harmony expressed in song, dance and scary sleep-time stories so children are held close while parents are sleeping. Is there a lesson here for all components of the melting pot of persons in the Australia of this time? Should we not accept that each of us is tinged with degrees of racism, xenophobia and patriotism? Could we not accept, to the extent we are so, that this is the darker side of our being? That, first of all, we need to reconcile the shades of light, darkness and colours within to better enable an honest acceptance of the dark history of this country.
Arriving at Mandorah, tired after a long drive nursing an old Toyota Hi-Lux. When asking hotelier for permission to camp in grounds was instructed, in no uncertain terms, to go and find the long grass. So this middle-aged itinerant pulled up on the road to ask a group of young lads to show her the way to the long grass. They insisted on her backing the ute into cover under an enormous banyan tree. She demurred. This is clearly a special place. No, no. You are welcome here. So the woman organised herself for the night, opening the canopy covering her bedding arrangements and settled in. That evening she was joined by a small group of elder men and a woman who had arrived from Bathurst Island for the funeral of the last of his generation. After many chitter chatters and comfortable silences, the woman said, “You are not like other white people. Why is this? (Or words to that effect, now omitting this person’s name from this account.) The reply along the lines of; “Must be my mother’s people. She comes from a gypsy family. When in London, an old woman knocked on the door of my basement bed-sitter and asked the names of my grandmother and my grandmother’s sisters. She seemed satisfied and from that moment on, for a few mad years, my life brought me into contact with gypsy people and I learnt much from them.” From then the conversation fell into the pattern of “What do the gypsies do about…..”; answered; response “same as us, same as us; shush secret business.” So it was this person came away from that encounter knowing some aboriginal secret business even though not told directly by them.
Time to haul in the net, hoping some of the Who, Why, Where and What Australians and Australian life as we live it has been captured within. What have we? Evidence the Behemoth and Bunyip have bred their own horrors and provide the stuff of nightmares. How does this make one feel? Some folk enjoy being frightened even by their own shadows. Personally, this woman’s sadness runs as a hidden stream beneath the years between seeing Nancy leaving Royal Perth Hospital in 1956 and reading of her discovery in an Adelaide mental hospital where she had lived for many, if not all, of the intervening years.
Looking over the shoulder as the net is dragged up the sand, Rudyard Kipling again comes to mind. In an 1891 interview he warns the Chinese have a long settling to make for the insults upon them. Again, a patient people and constructors of apartment buildings within which this ageing pensioner is provided with security and protection. He is also quoted as saying, “This country is American, but remember it is second-hand American, but there is an American tone on the top of things, but it is not real.”
And where can be found the notion of Australia as Humanity’s best friend? If only we could learn we are Australians, not Americans and that bullies are no longer permitted to behave as they do in this playground of a planet. Above all, we need to learn of, enjoy and share the troves of treasures hidden within the most ancient of cultures. Our laid-back lifestyle came from somewhere and that place is the land; Country.
So there you have it: