Char­ac­ter build­ing

A unique Aus­tralian iden­tity is not a myth, writes Ross Fitzger­ald The Aus­tralians: In­sid­ers and Out­siders on the Na­tional Char­ac­ter Since 1770

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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