Christopher Allen re­vis­its our glo­ri­ous days

Glo­ri­ous Days: Aus­tralia 1913

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Christopher Allen

National Mu­seum of Aus­tralia, Can­berra, un­til Oc­to­ber 13

DATES, an­niver­saries, the be­gin­ning of new years and es­pe­cially the turn­ing of a new cen­tury all have a nat­u­ral ap­peal to the hu­man mind, as we try to give shape and mean­ing to the end­less flow of the du­ra­tion we ex­pe­ri­ence as time. We won­der what the new year will bring, or we look back on the ethos of a decade draw­ing to a close and spec­u­late about the char­ac­ter of the new one. A new cen­tury tends to give us the sym­bolic dis­tance from which to con­sider the pre­vi­ous pe­riod more crit­i­cally, as Lyt­ton Stra­chey looked back on and helped to char­ac­terise Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety in Em­i­nent Vic­to­ri­ans (writ­ten dur­ing World War I and pub­lished in 1918).

Yet as has been ob­served, the di­vi­sion of time by the round num­bers of cen­turies can be mis­lead­ing. It is less the year 1700 that marks the end of the 17th cen­tury, for ex­am­ple, than the death of Louis XIV in 1715. And the 19th cen­tury can be un­der­stood best as the pe­riod from 1815 to 1914: the first of th­ese dates marks the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vi­enna, which re­shaped post-Napoleonic Europe, and the sec­ond, with the out­break of World War I, sig­ni­fied the end of that world and the col­lapse of em­pires from cen­tral Europe to the Mid­dle East.

Be­tween was a re­mark­able cen­tury of eco­nomic growth and de­vel­op­ment for Europe, in­ter­rupted only by the short wars that in 1860 and 1870 ac­com­pa­nied the uni­fi­ca­tions of Italy and Ger­many re­spec­tively. It was also a pe­riod that co­in­cided with al­most the first half of the his­tory of Aus­tralia as a part of the mod­ern world. It was a time that saw the re­mark­ably swift de­vel­op­ment of the var­i­ous colonies, the be­gin­nings of self-govern­ment and, fi­nally, the move­ment to­wards Fed­er­a­tion and the grant­ing of for­mal in­de­pen­dence as the Com­mon­wealth of Aus­tralia in 1901.

Even af­ter Fed­er­a­tion, how­ever, sev­eral po­lit­i­cal ques­tions re­mained to be re­solved be­tween what were now the states. One of th­ese was the site of the fu­ture fed­eral cap­i­tal. It had al­ready been de­cided that it would be some­where in NSW and at least 100 miles (160km) from Syd­ney, but it was not un­til 1913 that the site and name of Can­berra were an­nounced. It is to mark the cen­te­nary of the cap­i­tal that the National Mu­seum has mounted an ex­hi­bi­tion de­signed to take the vis­i­tor into the world of Aus­tralia im­me­di­ately be­fore the catas­tro­phe of World War I.

The show is at once com­plex — set out in a sin­gle vast space — and clearly struc­tured. The cen­tre of the hall is filled with cars and man­nequins in pe­riod cos­tumes, while dif­fer­ent themes are pre­sented in suc­ces­sive bays around its perime­ter. Much care has been put into re­search­ing each of th­ese, com­bin­ing arte­facts, im­ages and works of art to evoke the re­al­ity of his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, but also to bring out nu­ances and de­tails that give us the im­pres­sion of re­dis­cov­er­ing even things we thought we knew. The ex­hi­bi­tion is ac­com­pa­nied by a book that is not so much a cat­a­logue as an an­thol­ogy of es­says ex­plor­ing the cen­tral themes of the time in greater depth.

It turns out 1913 was not sim­ply the year of the foun­da­tion of Can­berra. It rep­re­sents in sev­eral re­spects a sig­nif­i­cant date in the his­tory of the new com­mon­wealth. It was, for ex­am­ple, the year the new Aus­tralian state printed its first ban­knotes and its first postage stamps. There was strong sense of the ex­cite­ment and re­spon­si­bil­ity of as­sum­ing na­tion­hood, and the great na­tion-build­ing rail­way line across the con­ti­nent was be­gun, start­ing from Port Au­gusta in 1912 and from Kal­go­or­lie in 1913; the tracks would fi­nally link up in 1917.

There were risks in be­ing in­de­pen­dent, and we can see the ef­forts to bal­ance a na­tion­al­is­tic will to au­ton­omy with the need to cling to the em­pire for se­cu­rity, whether com­mer­cial or mil­i­tary. Such of­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tions as Wat­tle Day and Em­pire Day speak of th­ese partly com­pet­ing as­pi­ra­tions, as does the iconog­ra­phy of posters and other im­ages in which Aus­tralia is rep­re­sented, al­le­gor­i­cally, as a younger woman — a daugh­ter — ac­com­pa­ny­ing the tra­di­tional fe­male per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the em­pire as Bri­tan­nia.

But Aus­tralia was not imag­ined sim­ply in a sub­servient and de­pen­dent re­la­tion­ship to the mother coun­try. We were also aware of be­ing pro­gres­sive in nu­mer­ous re­spects, in­clud­ing in ed­u­ca­tional pol­icy; the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia was opened in this same year, 1913, as the first free univer­sity in the em­pire, and pri­mary and sec­ondary schools and work­ers’ ed­u­ca­tion had a long his­tory go­ing back to colo­nial times.

At­ti­tudes to­wards women were in many re­spects ad­vanced: they had en­joyed the vote in com­mon­wealth elec­tions since 1902.

The sit­u­a­tion of the Abo­rig­ines was more com­pli­cated, but they were not in the fore­front of most peo­ple’s think­ing in the con­text of mod­ern na­tion build­ing. They re­mained in the back­ground and even sym­pa­thetic ob­servers tended to as­sume they were slowly fad­ing away. The ex­hi­bi­tion does not preach to us about the at­ti­tudes of a cen­tury ago, but a sig­nif­i­cant and im­pres­sive group of Abo­rig­i­nal bark paint­ings col­lected by Wal­ter Bald­win Spencer oc­cu­pies the far wall of the ex­hi­bi­tion, strik­ing im­ages that, even when re­cently made, seem to come from a dis­tant past.

An­other re­al­ity ac­knowl­edged with­out ed­i­to­ri­al­is­ing is the White Aus­tralia pol­icy, one of the mea­sures that, like high tar­iffs, pro­tected the work­ing class from com­pe­ti­tion. It is good for mu­se­ums to trust the au­di­ence to draw their own con­clu­sions, rather than spoon­feed them with in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

The new coun­try was not only con­cerned about the threat of cheap re­gional labour but also about the risk of in­va­sion, again a theme that oc­ca­sion­ally had been in the air in the 19th cen­tury but ac­quired new ur­gency with in­de­pen­dence. The Royal Aus­tralian Navy was also es­tab­lished in 1913, and the en­try of the fleet into Syd­ney Har­bour in Oc­to­ber that year was an im­por­tant event, com­mem­o­rated here in two small paint­ings by Ethel Car­rick Fox.

An army too was be­ing built up, be­gin­ning, af­ter Lord Kitch­ener’s visit in 1909, with the com­pul­sory mil­i­tary train­ing scheme of 1911, and the for­ma­tion of the mili­tia sys­tem that pre­ceded the reg­u­lar army. In­ter­est­ingly, for all the pa­tri­o­tism of the time, there was much un­will­ing­ness to be reg­i­mented into com­pul­sory train­ing, and a small book­let ti­tled Songs for Soldiers ap­pears to be an ef­fort to in­stil the proper en­thu­si­asm for pa­tri­otic duty; but the author seems to have no un­der­stand­ing of the kinds of songs soldiers re­ally like to sing (think of Colonel Bo­gey, En pas­sant par la Lor­raine, Waltz­ing Matilda, Lily Mar­lene) — and the jin­go­ism and mawk­ish sen­ti­men­tal­ity of the words are matched only by the in­com­pe­tence of the ver­si­fi­ca­tion, which makes it hard to see how they could be sung at all.

In­di­rectly re­lated to an aware­ness of the need to stand our own feet and be re­spon­si­ble for our own de­fence is one of the more un­ex­pect­edly in­ter­est­ing themes of the ex­hi­bi­tion, that of fit­ness and health. The ori­gin of this con­cern must lie in the ques­tion raised from the early days of the colony, whether it would be pos­si­ble to build a great na­tion out of a pop­u­la­tion tainted with the in­fe­rior stock of con­victs. Thus Aus­tralia be­came an ex­per­i­ment in the na­ture and nur­ture the­o­ries of de­vel­op­ment: if the for­mer were right, the con­vict taint would per­sist; if the lat­ter, then healthy diet, an out­door life and ex­er­cise would turn pro­le­tar­ian runts into su­per­men.

The idea that the healthy ru­ral world of Aus­tralia could breed such a race re­curs in the 1920s when, for ex­am­ple, JS Mac­Don­ald wrote, in dis­cussing the work of Arthur Stree­ton, ‘‘ we can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pas­toral­ists, the thor­ough­bred Aryans in all their no­bil­ity’’ — ar­gu­ments, and lan­guage, that were to be brought into dis­credit by the events of the fol­low­ing decades.

But here al­ready, in an ad­ver­tise­ment of 1914, we read that ‘‘ Aus­tralia needs thou­sands of healthy Bri­tish lads of good char­ac­ter. Boys of ev­ery class and call­ing, be­tween the ages of 16 and 26, are in­vited to throw in their lot with the happy ru­ral cit­i­zenry of the Com­mon­wealth a young coun­try dis­tin­guished by the health of its cit­i­zens.’’

The ex­hi­bi­tion, in fact, opens with the be­nign ideal of the health ben­e­fits to be gained from swim­ming, whose pop­u­lar­ity in turn led to a re­lax­ation of stan­dards of dress and rules about seg­re­gated swim­ming. But there is a glimpse of more com­plex at­ti­tudes in the dis­play about a fa­mous boxer of the time, Snowy Baker, who won a sil­ver medal in the 1908 Lon­don Olympics.

By 1913, when there was ap­par­ently a boxing craze in Syd­ney, Baker had be­come a brand, and he even had his own mag­a­zine, adorned with a kind of mu­sic-hall ver­sion of a clas­si­cal ath­lete on the cover. It in­cludes ar­ti­cles on boxing, swim­ming and ‘‘ phys­i­cal cul­ture for men’’, and Baker was also the author of a book ti­tled Gen­eral Phys­i­cal Cul­ture, again pub­lished in 1913, and sold a mys­te­ri­ous oil or lin­i­ment called Snowy Baker’s Em­bro­ca­tion, whose pur­pose is un­clear.

A more bizarre con­cern with health and well­be­ing ap­pears in the ec­cen­tric Wil­liam Chidley, who self-pub­lished a book­let ti­tled The An­swer and trav­elled the coun­try pro­mot­ing it. He was wor­ried about de­gen­er­acy and be­lieved we should wear loose cloth­ing, adopt veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and, above all, prac­tise coition in a way that is more or less me­chan­i­cally im­pos­si­ble. Need­less to say his pub­lic dis-

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