A unique Australian identity is not a myth, writes Ross Fitzgerald The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character Since 1770
PART from a far too worthy foreword by the director of the National Australia Day Council, Warren Pearson, The Australians makes riveting reading. Assembled by John Hirst, one of Australia’s most productive and provocative historians, this collection of writings about our country from European occupation to the present is fascinating.
In some ways resembling an old- fashioned Reader, this book is ideal not just for the educated general reader but also for senior high school students of Australian history.
The front cover’s use of one of Garry Shead’s series of paintings of English writer D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda in Australia in 1922 is well chosen for a book dealing with outsiders’ and insiders’ views about Australia, and especially about our so- called national character.
Although it is a contentious notion, Hirst argues it still makes sense to discuss a uniquely Australian identity. This is despite a long campaign claiming that in a changed and changing world, ‘‘ the values and symbols of old Australia are exclusive, oppressive and irrelevant’’.
In the book’s opening chapter, Who are the Australians?, Hirst begins with an extract from Captain James Cook’s journal of 1770. Although he claimed the territory on our east coast for the king, as a man of the Enlightenment Cook was favourably disposed to the Aboriginal natives of the land he called New Holland.
In a justly famous paragraph, Cook maintained that although they may appear to some as ‘‘ the most wretched people upon the earth’’, in reality they were ‘‘ far more happier than we Europeans’’. He wrote: ‘‘ They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life; they covet not Magnificent Household- stuff & c they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air.’’
Counterpoised against this humane assessment of Australia’s Aboriginal population is the assertion by The Bulletin, founded in Sydney in 1880, that all ‘‘ true Australians’’ are ‘‘ White Men’’. A fierce advocate of the White Australia policy, formally adopted after Federation in 1901,
AThe Bulletin regularly claimed that ‘‘ no nigger, no Chinaman, no lascar, no kanaka, no purveyor of cheap coloured labour, is an Australian’’.
Hirst rightly emphasises the crucial role that Anzac Day plays in our national psyche. In a section entitled ‘‘ A Nation is Born’’, he explains that the first report of the landing at Gallipoli in April 1915 in Australia’s newspapers came from an English war correspondent, Ellis AshmeadBartlett, published on May 8, 1915.
Turning to the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, Hirst explains that for years Anzac Day ‘‘ was treated as Australia’s most solemn holiday’’. Change was in the wind by the 1960s, when radical university students, egged on by Alan Seymour’s powerful play The One Day of the Year, protested against the supposed glorification of war by ‘‘ disgustingly drunken diggers’’.
Yet from the mid ’ 80s, April 25 had taken hold of our national imagination in a manner that would have appalled anti- war activists. When Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Remembrance Day 1993, he delivered one of this nation’s finest public orations. As John Birmingham so poignantly argued in his extended 2005 essay ‘‘ A Time for War’’, Keating’s speech completed the transition of Anzac Day: ‘‘ The oafish brutes of Seymour’s 1960 play . . . had been cleansed of their sins and deified. In a way the generational gap separating Seymour’s damaged, drunken father figure, Alf Cook, and his rebellious son, Hughie, is as vast as that between Hughie’s contemporaries and the reverential pilgrims who now make their way to Gallipoli each year.’’
Hirst emphasises the powerful role sport and humour play in Australian society. In reproducing sections of A Nice Night’s Entertainment, he acknowledges the brilliance of Barry Humphries’ most touching character, Sandy Stone, who appropriately lives in Gallipoli Crescent, Moonee Ponds. Then he tellingly quotes Keating as saying, ‘‘ Patrick White and I never had a lot in common, but one thing we certainly had in common — he said ‘ sport has addled the Australian consciousness’ and I think it has.’’
Yet Hirst is too shrewd a historian not to acknowledge the pivotal role that sport — and in particular cricket, horse- racing, and all four codes of football — has played in developing our national character. Indeed, from early in Australia’s European settlement, clerics such as the rabid pioneer Presbyterian clergyman John Dunmore Lang complained that in Australia, ‘‘ when a stopping place became a settlement, it acquired first a pub and then a racetrack’’.
Perhaps the most fascinating outsider’s view of early 20th century Australia came from D. H. Lawrence. The writer fictionalised his experiences in his 1923 novel Kangaroo, in which the leading character Richard Lovat Somers is the mouthpiece for Lawrence, while Harriet is based on Frieda. In fact, the most trenchant criticism of Australia in Hirst’s The Australians comes from Lawrence: ‘‘ This is the most democratic place I have ever been in. And the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it.’’
It is a tribute to the material Hirst has assembled for The Australians that, with the addition of his explanatory comments throughout the book, he is able to make a compelling case for the existence of a national character. In this sense, what Hirst has done for the first decade of the 21st century follows on from Russel Ward’s path- breaking book in the late ’ 50s, The Australian Legend. The one may be just as influential as the other. Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 28 books, most recently The Pope’s Battalions: Santamaria, Catholicism and the Labor Split. He is writing Under the Influence, a history of alcohol in Australia.
Foreign crucible: Australian and Turkish flags held high at the dawn service at Galipolli, left; two Diggers take a breather on April 25, 1915, at Galipolli, below left