…and King’s College London’s Inaugural David Unaipon Lecture by Professor Irabinna Rigney (University of South Australia)
Ordinarily September arrives like a high-speed gear change with the clutch still half engaged. The teeth-shearing rasp ratchets across British academe as we shift from August’s intensely imagined worlds of more-or-less cloistered research and writing into the induction circus of Welcome Week.
Most of us brush off last year’s complaints about teaching for threadbare repartee in student-filled hallways, while concealing the thrill of it all. Teaching is the lifeblood of most academics, after all; in reality it’s harder to stop us doing it, shut us up.
This year is a little different for me (re the gear-change, not the shutting up). The nature of my role in directing the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies means I was chipping away at College business throughout summer. That kept me in the habit of coming into King’s rather than going to the library or writing at home.
But more to the point, teaching itself came to occupy the place of a research-project ‘question’ during this summer’s ‘research period’: intensely scrutinised, carried about with me in myriad different places (half way around the world, as it turned out), looked at from many sides, held up as a lens and a foil for whatever print matter fell before my eyes.
There were specific reasons for this. For a start, one of my ‘other’ administrative roles is to co-ordinate the English Department’s Graduate Teaching Assistant training scheme. This puts me in direct contact with our mid-point postgraduate research (Phd) students, and what a stellar bunch of people they turned out to be. I should have known that, of course, but there was something about meeting well over thirty of them one-to-one in June that drove home their talent, their commitment to academic research, and their sheer drive.
It also got me thinking further on a key hobby-horse of mine: encouraging discussion about what the future of ‘intellectual work’ might look like. I’ve seen some remarkable changes in the higher education sector during my own fifteen-year teaching and research career, but nothing compares, I think, with the changes about to come.
It dawned on me, then, that these brilliant GTAs comprised a cohort of young intellectuals who would be finding their first jobs—I hope—as academics just as the real change kicks in. What was I going to do about that? (Not that the future isn’t already here: it’s highly evident in controversies surrounding the ‘zero hours’ contract effect of the academic ‘early career’ experience.)
Now, as a Department we have encouraged GTAs to treat the application and allocation process of their entry into the programme as a practice-run for applying for postdoctoral academic job. For my part I realised how not-yet-in-the-habit many postgraduates are with regard to spelling out their own philosophies of higher education teaching (for themselves, that is, rather than for a graduate ‘academic practice’ course). They are excellent in practice; so a nudge towards setting down on paper what their experience and ideas have taught them about teaching per se was all that was needed.
But I needed my own nudge. What was my own philosophy of teaching? That became the ‘research question’ of my summer.
Education itself is not my research specialism, but I listened and learned about teaching as I next embarked upon a whistle-stop tour of Australia, feeding the Menzies Centre’s fledgling strategic partnerships with the Universities of South Australia, Tasmania, Melbourne and Western Australia; and developing future plans with new contacts at Curtin, Flinders, Canberra, AIATSIS and James Cook University (this trip I really charted the coast from Perth to Cairns!).
As the main topic of my visits was the Centre’s soon-to-be-unveiled British-Australian Indigenous Knowledge Exchange (the title is provisional), I met many Australian scholars working in Indigenous Studies, and many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders….If that’s not a good way to learn about teaching I don’t know what is.
I heard accounts of amazing research but also witnessed the extraordinary commitment of these fellow academics to making a difference for their students and the wider community: in extraordinarily challenging circumstances. (Some seemed to be held responsible, also, for enhancing the ‘cultural aptitude’ of non-Indigenous Australians like myself…but that’s for another blog.)
When I returned to Britain, the teaching focus continued. King’s released its own new Education Strategy 2017-2022, the product of much labour among my colleagues this last year, and a calibrated response to the College’s inspiring Strategic Vision 2029 document. More grist to the mill.
But in fact these marvellous institutional visions found great resonance with the lessons I learned from my trip around Aus: lessons which rather had their roots in country and deep awareness of shared human kinship, and the intellectual wealth of thinking with land. The ground is our source; its dry fount flows through our feet.
For engaging with these Indigenous thinkers and leaders this trip and over many years has taught me the significance of prioritising community even when in the cloister; and certainly in the classroom. Or to put it in HE speak, I have learned that my own teaching philosophy is to nurture in students research and teaching methodologies which integrate personal development, multi-disciplinary and transnational intellectual work, and engagement with professional services, communities and business people to effect change. The people I met have also given me a question to ask of all students as they confront why and how they should engage with formal education: ‘What qualities, interests and methods should I develop and what social, intellectual and business connections should I foster to make which communities stronger?’
This is all about recognising the ubiquity and worth of human intellectual work: that everyone has an intellectual life, and it is a valuable quality of every human, lost with her or him, unless brought into communication. (It’s easier than you think to forget this.) The Euro-American system of higher education is just one tool for developing that intellectual work’s effectiveness in oneself, with one’s peers and for communities. It is an immensely powerful tool, I think. But it is a tool which should only be exercised within wider fields of human value: not as arbiter of that worth.
All this is a long prelude to explaining why I found myself so overwhelmed by Professor Irabinna Rigney’s inaugural David Unaipon Lecture, delivered at King’s College London on 18 September 2017. (The Annual David Unaipon Lecture series is the ‘shop window’ to a deepening set of collaborations between the University of South Australia and King’s, brokered by the Menzies Centre.)
I always expected to be engaged by Professor Rigney’s lecture, which—on the face of it—was on ways forward for decolonizing the education of high-school age Aboriginal Australians. But I didn’t expect to be knocked out by it.
The lecture, which I urge you to watch via video, was deeply researched, persuasively argued, and powerfully delivered. It made a knock-out case for change in policies regarding the education of young Australians. And it made some excellent other points along the way (about not sending our youngest teachers into the hardest classrooms, for example).
Moreover it clarified for me the biggest mistake we continue to make as educators, and as custodians of great Western educational institutions. Every time we market ourselves as exclusive centres for talent or rank ourselves obsessively, puff out our chests about student numbers or take pride in obstruction-strewn processes of acceptance and enrolment, we seem to say to everyone else in our communities, whether we mean to or not, ‘your ideas do not count, your fields of imagination are less, the country of your intellect is null’. We are paying the price politically for this mistake every day lately; for others it costs their lives.
Looking from the outside, what I have learned about traditional Indigenous Australian pedagogy does quite the opposite. And for me, Professor Rigney was offering ways to take those lessons and turn some bad habits of Traditional British Knowledge inside out.
So I was overwhelmed because Professor Rigney’s lecture so absolutely confirmed in my head—and in my flesh and bones—a notion which, I think, has driven my own contributions to the Menzies Centre’s recent development. That custodians of Indigenous Australian Knowledge, their intellectual lives flourishing through that epistemology’s structures of learning (its systems rooted in country but ready for the world), their habits honed (for better, often for worse) through forced translation into other planetary epistemologies, are first among the many innovators we need—youthful and wisdomful—not only to make Traditional Euro-colonial Knowledge, my own intellectual heritage, fit-for-purpose in a mixed-up planet, but to create something wholly new that will embrace and transform 21st-century life.
The ‘Knowledge Exchange’ that the Menzies Centre will soon host is underpinned by recognition of the enormity of intellectual encounter between the peoples of Briton and of the First Nations of Australia: and, more importantly, the far-reaching potential for innovation of bringing together custodians of vastly different, but now ‘entwined’, intellectual traditions.
That recognition does not erase the importance of resistance and protest. And it must incorporate the attention, empowerment and funding critically needed to build the capacity of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, thinkers of our shared future.
But the broad applicability and innovation potential of Professor Rigney’s deeply researched ideas with regard to education, were what his inaugural David Unaipon lecture really brought home to me. It was quite a lesson.
In the Dove Cottage Tea Rooms at Grasmere we encountered a local artist’s portrait of Michael Jackson. It was of a standard retailed to busloads of retirees in safe day-trip destinations the world over. But also a reproof of sorts: paint-by-numbers-Michael gazed over the scorching cappuccini to say art in the Lake District need not always be natural, expert, English, and white. (The King of Pop himself, of course, was only ever one of those things.)
My own childish resistance to the lavender-bags legacy of William Wordsworth expressed itself in passages excerpted from a perverse National Trust guidebook. The painting, we decided, was by poor Dorothy, whose commitment to celebrity portraiture was matched only by a propensity to ringbark trees, explaining the occasional dead trunk in the vicinity, and the coins pressed therein for good luck. Meanwhile William apparently ended his days scrawling gibberish in the Rydal caves, physically sustained by gnawing on the bodies of red squirrels; relishing, it seems, the fur.
Could the present future be any more bizarre to the real Wordsworth? Could he have imagined his reclusion—his commitment to contemplation, solitude, the social world they might occasion, and the English word—would lead to such a B&B bonanza, such a tourist gold mine? Yet this, too, somehow, has contributed to the preservation of his beloved lakes, and his poetry. We’ll forever have The Prelude, but we may have to blame that too, at least in part, on the boogie.
Big money and the arts are rarely more on display than at Opening Ceremonies to the Olympic Games. And the more so for Rio’s self-evidently pared down efforts. Projections disguised a comparative lack of squillions of dancers making shapes on the arena floor. The Ceremony—bad BBC sound notwithstanding (and was there ever an Opening where we needed more desperately to feel rhythms and hear singing clearly to gain the full effect?)—still appealed. It sent me back to the London and Sydney ceremonies on youtube to see how they stood up: very well in fact. But all three reminded me how much they depended on pre-existing performances, companies, and practices, moulded into shapes appropriate to the Olympic extravaganza. When we complain about how much nations spend on such events we should remind ourselves how much (and indeed how little) they sustain individual performers and are underpinned by the expertise of companies sometimes subsidized over many years.
And if the ‘arts’ there swing into action on behalf of the nation, the nature of art means it always contains elements that undercut prevailing myths, deliberately and inadvertently, and express, even in wonky timing, that not everyone on stage adheres wholesale to the political movements and big businesses that prompt the circus and pay the bill.
The soil of the Lake District still seeps into your soul, doilies notwithstanding. The day we visited it was cold and misty, as appropriate to the general (though not to 2016’s) English summer. Water there was everywhere, nourishing, greening, running and still. The streams, the leaves, the breeze; the fount, the pages, the Aeolian harp, how readily the natural metaphors of poetry are to be found here. And perhaps the more so for our winding down from the M6 to these lakes and valleys, this micro-climate, this pause in the journey to explain the whole thing; this slowing, this attuning to the rhythms and circulations of wild English country.
Creativity today might as easily find its source in pop celebrity, or in the view from the Pennine Tower overlooking Britain’s first motorway. Or indeed in the jostling and rush of the car itself, and the rubbish its 4g occupants strew across four lanes, into the air and the technosphere. These things, too, are the stuff of nations and identity. But while it would be inaccurate to picture even the romantics extracting themselves holus bolus from the social world of money and politics—or, for that matter, to believe ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ was their sole fount—Wordsworth’s personal commitment to his method still tells us a lot about where and how even the noisiest of the arts are germinated.
Traditionally, for Euro-Australians like myself, inspiration comes from above: from Apollo, the sun, whose statue presides over the eastern front of Australia House in London. Wordsworth, perhaps, found something more in its reflection in groundwater; or the upwards branching flowers, trees, and bushes water and soil sustain. Or the interacting networks and cycles of nature in process. Who knows? At least he stood still to think about it.
When I try, from my outside perspective, to contemplate a vision of creative inspiration in Indigenous Australian practices, I keep coming back to the dancing foot pounded into the ground, be it red desert or city grime. Up comes the dust, released from the earth, like water from a stricken rock. From country, not the sun.
The beginning of the academic year traditionally brings a wholesale rush: with all the energy and excitement that entails. And I myself, taking up again the directorship of the Menzies Centre, consider its busy-ness and business, its outward looking and future oriented research and teaching, its hosting of big names, its showcasing of Australian culture at King’s and with our partners, as part of what creativity means. But I will also be reminding myself constantly, that giving time to our human partners, our students, and to ourselves, that finding a Lake District of our own on the motorway, is also intrinsic to whatever crazy future higher education—and an institution like the Menzies Centre–has to offer communities here and abroad.
I am very pleased to write I am BACK in post after a period of leave. It has been a time of intense self-reflection for me during which I was out of contact with many friends and colleagues. I would like to thank everyone for the many messages of support I received while I was away, and since I began working again (which has been under the radar until now).
I am now back full-time as Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies in the English Department at King’s College London, and very much looking forward to taking the reins as Director of the College’s Menzies Centre for Australian Studies from September 2016. I feel thoroughly re-energised, and re-committed to the future of King’s and MCAS. The next few years promise to be an exciting time in the history of both institutions.
In my absence MCAS has continued to move ahead in leaps and bounds under the Directorships of Dr Simon Sleight and (from June until September 2016) Dr Peter Kilroy. The work of the Centre has also been greatly enhanced by our new project officer Maddie Gay who, along with the team in the College’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, has brought an invigorating and fresh outlook on the Centre’s plans and a brilliant skill set for bringing them to reality.
Brexit (some personal views)
As far as experiences of crisis, self-reflection, and renewal go, my personal odyssey pales in comparison with what has been occurring at a national level here in Great Britain. The Brexit story, which I bought into only late in the day, is one that has swept up everyone I speak to here and abroad, and seems to overtake personal trajectories with an overpowering tide of national ‘mood’.
Let me clarify that ‘late in the day’. When the referendum was announced I decided, as an Australian citizen long-term resident in the United Kingdom, I would abstain from voting. It wasn’t that I thought I would be leaving the country anytime soon, or that I didn’t feel invested in Britain’s national community and its future. Perhaps my abstinence was the legacy of my surprise (in 2004) that, as a Commonwealth citizen resident in Britain for six months, I could vote in British elections at all. (British subjects resident in Australia once had reciprocal voting rights; but not so after 1984.)
This Commonwealth citizen’s right to vote gave me three impressions of Britain when I first arrived: of its extremely noticeable—in London—porosity (forged by its ancient invaders, its ‘united’ kingdom, its empire, its post-war recruitment of Commonwealth immigrants and the EU laws of free movement of peoples); of its ‘nation of shopkeepers’-hood (if you pay tax you should be able to vote); and of its deserved payback for taking over a large portion of the globe when it was fashionable in Europe to try and do so.
And yet when the referendum was announced I was still enough of an Australian national to feel it wasn’t my place to vote in the referendum: that this was rather the moral obligation of the card-carrying citizens of the British Isles, and I should graciously bow out. (I can’t help seeing myself dragged up as Queen Mary as I type that preposterous sentence.)
Anyway, soon the vitriol of the worst campaign I have ever witnessed re-ignited my political instincts (I am a Canberran by birth after all). So, with polls revealing the vote would be close, I effected my own personal EU-turn, declared I would vote, and did indeed vote REMAIN. (That said, I nearly didn’t make it to the polling place because of torrential rain in London during the morning and evening rush hours of the day in question: with transport in chaos what should have taken me 15 minutes ended up being a two-hour trek. I wonder how many Londoners couldn’t be bothered to battle the Underground that day.)
With the commentariat in overdrive since the result became known, I won’t bore you with the full details of my opinions. But in sum:
- What a disaster the terms of the referendum were in the first place! A stark question was bound to forge something like a 50/50 result, meaning campaigning also would be more adversarial than even a normal election (where there are numerous choices of parties and independents, and main-party lines are distributed across a diversity of more-or-less ambivalent candidates). It felt provocative to wear an ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’ referendum sticker on the streets in a way that ‘Vote Labour’ (or whatever) would never do. Referenda, it turns out, pose significant threats to national unity right at the monent they appear to uphold democratic ideals…which shows just how forward thinking the designers of Federation were when they built in what once seemed draconian measures for passing them in Australia. It also suggests that referenda are not the solution to the so-called uberisation of politics.
- Calling this particular referendum was particularly reckless in the circumstances, and conditioned by a curiously British myth: that the cohorts of some few specific schools and universities represent a national ‘generation’, the stand-out individuals of which are exceptionally well positioned to lead. (Or to put it another way, the United Kingdom was lost on the playing fields of Eton.)
- The Conservative Party leaders of the Brexit campaign seem genuinely shocked to find themselves no longer shielded by a Prime Minister when they won, leaving their lack of planning (and dubious faith in their own campaign) greatly exposed.
- The status of the referendum is confused. Referenda usually refer to a single piece of legislation or a focused item of policy: this one vaguely gestured towards the repeal or modification of hundreds of pieces of legislation by numerous houses of parliament wherein there is nothing like consensus and—now—a stark absence of leadership (other than from Nicola Sturgeon).
- Public awareness of precisely how representative the governance of the EU is, was almost zero and still is. So too any sense of the active participation of British nationals in EU administration and policy development. I only know what I know about it because I am an immigrant who had to sit the ‘Life in the UK’ exam. The one institution which might have rectified this situation—the BBC—was hamstrung by overbearing scrutiny as to its impartiality. (Of course, with the announcement of the result, reporters’ faces said it all.)
- Meanwhile the ninety-year-old embodiment of national unity in this Kingdom, the woman who is the ultimate sign of stability in the British media-sphere, she whose public presence was demanded by politicians and the people in the past to alleviate national strife in far less significant circumstances, has presumably been banned from any kind of public role in the crisis.
Elites, Empire, and Indigeneity
The starkness of the referendum question also lent itself to the whole process becoming an opportunity for voters to stick it to the man. This unintended effect was willfully deployed by Brexiteers, explicitly (UKIP) and implicitly (by many others), as a reason to vote ‘leave’, but it turned, of course, on attitudes to immigration…for the most part racist attitudes, that is.
The historic irony of various positions on immigration in Britain is staggering: but if I draw some of them out briefly, don’t think I am here simply to sneer at ‘ignorant’ voters. Rather, I do so to illuminate some of the challenges ahead.
Firstly, mine is a learned perspective on racism; by which I mean my education taught me how to perceive it in myself. I didn’t experience it because I am white; it wasn’t built into my being through everyday encounters big and small, I don’t innately sense it (as I can do homophobia). Rather, like many Australians, I had a scales-fall-from-eyes moment when I suddenly saw how I had been written into a violent history of colonialism and nationalism, and how pervasive it was in my sense of personal identity. The moment didn’t make me any less Australian: it rather revealed to me the complexity of Australia and the demands our country places on its citizens to engage with problems of justice, governance, and mind. When racism is invoked, then, and particularly if they are accused of racism or accuse others of it, white people need to take a breath, put their brains in top gear and keep it there for a while. They won’t suffer for it, and they might alleviate some other people’s suffering in the process. You’re worth it.
That present-day Britons should vehemently object to being ‘invaded’ by their fellow European Unionists would be laughable if the history it masks were not so tragic. Thousands and thousands (picture it) of men, women and children in what we now call Australia lost their very lives when so many English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and other peoples of the global north moved onto their country; and did so with nothing like the locally-mandated legitimacy of Europeans in Britain. (Nor have retirement-age Aboriginal Australians moved en masse to English seaside resorts.)
Further irony: BTL commentators in the press have urged that Britons are not anti-immigration, they just prefer immigrants from the Commonwealth rather than Europe. This forgets history which is so recent most of the commentators actually lived through it. That contemporary British society functions to the degree it does speaks volumes for the optimism and engagement of immigrants from India, Pakistan, the West Indies and other former colonies; and before that the Irish and, to a lesser extent, white British subjects born in the dominions. Hint: they were not always welcome.
The rhetoric of Brexit, I’m afraid to say, then, is racist. And it is indubitably racist: even taking account of the notion that to speak up about immigration policy is not necessarily to air racist views. The only unusual thing was the racism was directed at other white Europeans.
But the other remarkable (and remarkably ironic) aspect of the whole affair, particularly for an Australianist, is the re-positioning of ‘indigeneity’ in the ‘debate’. Apparently indigeneity is now a property of Britain’s white working class, swamped by invaders who are taking their country and their jobs. The identification of ‘the wretched of the earth’ (‘les damnés de la terre’), then, has come full circle: from the ‘ouvriers, paysans’ of the Internationale, to Fanon’s colonized, and back again.
And yet, in this conflation of white workers and black colonised peoples we can see how ‘racism’ (or something very like it) can engulf both Brexiteers and those who voted Remain: and a starting point for how those who hold power in Britain (including members of the educated elite like myself) might begin to listen to the people.
Which people? Well, apparently, the ‘ordinary people, the ‘good people’, the ‘decent people’ invoked by Nick Farage in his victory speech. Nearly all Australians will hear echoes of John Howard’s ‘ordinary Australians’ in Farage’s rhetoric and spot with ease parallels between the mainstreaming of UKIP policies in Britain and One Nation’s in 1990s Australia. So too the wedge politics which places educated elites in opposition to the victorious cohort.
But there is in fact a difference, and it rests on the fact that ‘ordinary’ people have never had the cultural cachet in British as they do in Australian nationalism. There may be a House of Commons, but commoners—over time the British tar, consumers of beef, the tommy and so on—have competed with the aristocracy as embodiments of nation…Or rather, Kingdom. They have never decisively got on top.
Meanwhile, historically, the potential for violence any ‘ordinary’ Briton might possess, born of home-grown social and economic oppression, has often been directed outwards, to empire. The elite—Colonial Secretaries and their like—sat back and deplored, for example, attacks on Aboriginal Australians by convicts and lower-class settlers, while reaping the true rewards of its effects (something I suppose Kate Grenville was getting at in The Secret River.) Not without parallel is the fact that the victory, according to Farage, of those ‘who’ve had enough of the merchant bankers’, is probably doing the work of the worst of them.
And yet foregrounding the imperial parallel suggests the principal problem—post-Brexit, and according to Remainers—is that the proletariat have been deluded by the wrong type of elite (tax-dodging multinational executives not our enlightened selves); rather, that is, than that they have legitimate cause to deplore the denigration of their culture and the loss of real political power (e.g. as once expressed by the unions).
And it is in the latter we may find true cause for thinking of communities and cultures forged by the industrial revolution in Britain in terms usually applied to Indigenous peoples in postcolonial discourse. For their racism—never less than deplorable—is nonetheless an expression of something rich and meaningful: albeit a perverted expression of the same. To see these diverse cultures among Britons as anything less is indeed to regard working-class English men and women as colonists once did the locals of the New World.
Here, then, is a legacy of the referendum: divisions between Britain and Europe, north and south, class and class, immigrants then and immigrants now, the highly educated and the less so. And here is where our new leaders, whoever they may be, must do their work.
And that work is to listen to the Britons who have lost out during globalisation but to do so in a manner which (at once): gives them due time and respect; sees through border-control bullshit; rejects a Downton Abbey vision of social cohesion (Big Society); and includes at last seeing that the men and women of Britain whose ancestors weathered—and indeed sustained—the world’s first industrial revolution, are hardly ill-equipped to enter into global modernity.
It is as much as to say that all Britons should deploy the very listening skills Indigenous Australians have taught us (or are trying to teach us): and heed their vigorous rebuttal that they were ever the ‘dying race’ that colonists claimed.
This year (and indeed this month) MCAS hosts not one but two Menzies Lectures; the first (on 6 May 2015) was our special Centenary of ANZAC Day Menzies Lecture given by Professor Bruce Scates of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. The lecture was filmed and will shortly be available on the MCAS website.
It was not, perhaps, the lecture that one might expect. Bruce’s premise was the best way of celebrating and respecting the experiences of the WWI generation was to acknowledge the truth of their sacrifice. Mining repatriation records–the saving and digitisation of which his lecture championed with great passion–Bruce gave us accounts of the true and multi-generational impact of war, intertwining information recovered from the archive with stories and memories of living families. At one point the lecture stopped and, plunged into darkness, we read in silence some of the lives Monash’s 100 Stories project has uncovered. This was very moving stuff which only made more powerful Bruce’s articulation of the uses and significance of professional history in the face of such a momentous occasion as the centenary of the ANZAC Day landings.
What follows are the two contributions by my colleague Dr Simon Sleight and myself which bookended this outstanding lecture.
Another WWI-focused event is coming up on Tuesday 19 May 2015, co-hosted with the Institute of Historical Studies, University of London–it will be held at Senate House in Russell Square–and featuring MCAS’s Professor Carl Bridge discussing ‘Australia and the Treaty of Versailles’, research derived from his MCAS/DFAT Documents on Australian Foreign Policy on War and Peace, 1914-19 project.
A reminder too that the 2015 Menzies Lecture will be delivered on Wednesday 27 May 2015 by HE Mr. Paul Madden CMG addressing the question of ‘How Diplomats Can Influence a Relationship as Close as that between Britain and Australia?’ This lecture is followed by a reception: tickets are free but please rsvp to https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/2015-menzies-lecture-paul-madden-cmg-tickets-16081476128.
Introduction by Dr Simon Sleight (History, KCL)
Tonight we’re taking advantage of a lull, a ceasefire, or, perhaps rather, in the digger tradition, a ‘smoko’ in hosting the first serious after-the-fact academic reflection on 100 years of memory making and commemorative practice in Australia. The sleeping bags of those who attended the Anzac Day dawn services have been rolled up, and the two-up rings have been packed away. But the eternal flames of Anzac still burn in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Townsville, and we wonder what the next century of remembering will bring.
The Menzies Lecture that you are about to hear has been commissioned especially to mark the Centenary of Anzac Day. This public lecture is hosted by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, a part of King’s College London since 1999. Each year we invite a prominent Australian to speak on a subject topical to both Britons and Australians and which usually reflects upon the relationship between the two countries. This year, indeed this month, we are in fact hosting two such lectures: more on the second of these (on the 27th May) on our website and ever-expanding Facebook network.
I’m Simon Sleight and I’m Lecturer in Australian History here at King’s. I’m also a Monash doctoral graduate, and hence it is with particular pleasure that I introduce tonight’s speaker.
Professor Bruce Scates is the Director of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash. His many publications include Return to Gallipoli, A New Australia, The Cambridge History of the Shrine of Remembrance and the recently republished and award-winning Women and the Great War (co authored with Professor Rae Frances, who is also with us here this evening).
Professor Scates is the lead author of Anzac Journeys (a work shortlisted for the Ernest Scott Prize for 2014) and a contributor to the Cambridge History of the First World War. He has also written a novel, On Dangerous Ground, retracing Charles Bean’s – Mr Anzac’s – steps across Gallipoli. The novel features on Australia’s first national curriculum for literature, set on university courses in Germany, Turkey and Australia, and has been awarded special commendation in the Christina Stead Awards. Forthcoming titles include The One Hundred Stories: A History of the First World War (with Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James) and The Last Battle: A History of Soldier Settlement in Australia (with Melanie Oppenheimer). Bruce – I’m being less formal, and more Australian now – is also the lead chief investigator on Australian Research Council funded projects on soldier settlement, Second World War . pilgrimage and on the history of Anzac Day.
When not writing, Bruce can be found teaching. He is the recipient of University, State and National Awards for Teaching Excellence (so tonight’s lecture ought to be good), and he is a frequent contributor to writer’s festivals and public forums. One such forum is MOOC (Mass Open Online Courseware), for which Bruce has developed content examining the fraught memory of war.
We shall retain this focus on fraught memory as we hear now the lecture, ‘The Aftermath of ANZAC: Beyond the Gallipoli Landings’. Please join me in welcoming to the lectern Professor Bruce Scates.
Vote of Thanks by Dr Ian Henderson (Director, MCAS)
Ladies and Gentlemen my name is Ian Henderson and I am the Director of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies here at King’s College London. It falls to me to give the formal vote of thanks to Bruce, a Menzies Lecture tradition substituting our more familiar Q&A session. But that doesn’t stop you engaging with his brilliant lecture in the less formal setting of our reception which follows soon, promise!
Bruce has shown us something of the power but also the questionable aspects of this Centenary year of ANZAC Day. It’s worth repeating some of the controversial words and phrases of his lecture: ‘futility’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘event not ceremony’, ‘forgetting catastrophic loss’, ‘a man deserves a living wage’, ‘gallant lie’. He has also illuminated the wider historical context of individual and family memories of war.
ANZAC Day is a curious thing in Australia, a sacred day when the mundanity of ordinary life stops to recall the dead, and when capital H history is re-bound to the everyday experiences of living men and women. For many Australians I suspect it is what history ‘is’.
History as we know it in academic settings is a comparatively problematic affair, the wreckage cast by Benjamin’s Angel re-wrought by intellectual tradition, ordered even in disorder by disciplined methods of writing, revealing itself not so much as something we make, as an impersonal force that creates us all, precisely when we aren’t looking. And yet it is also a discourse braided with—and structured by—individual biographies, as Bruce’s 100 Stories project has so beautifully shown us. These are stories in part recovered via the archive by professionals—marshalling iconoclastic evidence as often as not—but given breath by, and in, the oral tales and memories of all of us.
As I mentioned to Bruce this afternoon, thoughts about the relationship between personal lives and professional history have a new potency for me on a day which, for my own family, represents the end of an era: my 100-year-old grandfather, Major Jim Henderson, died this morning. He was our gentle and humorous patriarch, a Rat of Tobruk who became a career soldier in Canberra after the Second World War. Four months old on the ‘real’ ANZAC Day, he is seen here, in a red scarf and cool shades, being driven past the Governor General at the Centenary of ANZAC Day march in Canberra 12 days ago. I’m so pleased I was able to see him at his 100th birthday in December, and that I am able to dedicate this vote of thanks to him tonight.
I’ve been drawn before to think about my grandfather with my academic hat on—that is, with a sense of history as much as of the person—when tracing myths of Australian masculinity, not least because, for me, he embodied so many of the best aspects of the ANZAC legend. ‘I’ll never forget Tobruk, never’, he was seen on TV saying during celebrations of the 70th anniversary of that campaign, ‘and I’ll never regret going there. There was always someone there to help you if anything was happening […] There was always a shake of a hand or someone saying “Come on, Jim, get up”—it was a wonderful feeling’. It is a feeling that was interpreted, both by my grandfather and his interviewer, as a sign that ‘mateship defined his experience’ of war.
But Poppa’s was a very quiet pride: warfare and international experience at a key moment in his life gave him nothing of ANZAC Day jingoism, apart from a certain laughing distrust of the Poms. In this he reminds me of Alan Seymour’s depiction of a ‘real’ Gallipoli veteran, Wacka Dawson, in his 1960 play The One Day of the Year, a much gentler form of being an Australian hero than that displayed by the frustrated Second World War vet Alf Cook in the play.
I raise this play for a couple of reasons. Firstly, expediently, to advertise the fact that it is being revived here in London at the Finborough Theatre for a month from 19 May; and will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Australia and New Zealand Festival here at King’s at the end of the month.
Secondly, the play enables me to bring something of my own discipline, Australian literary studies, to bear upon Bruce’s lecture. For The One Day of the Year brings out, for me, some of the key points that Bruce has touched upon, showing both Seymour’s foresight and Bruce’s guts in not shying away from less pleasant aspects of our ANZAC history. The play focuses on post Second World War generational conflict about the meaning of Anzac, and the political ends for which Anzac Day could be mobilised in the late 1950s: by vociferous veterans like Alf Cook; by the politically proactive and conservative (at the time) Australian Returned Servicemen’s League; and by the rich men of big business and the media.
As Seymour revised the play he ramped up the recognition of big business’s role in mythologizing Anzac, and to the character who voices this recognition in Act III, the ‘little jumped-up snob’ Jan Castle; the character with whom I might ordinarily be most identified.
Australian returned service men and women may on occasion be collectively lumbered with conservative values by the likes of Jan and me—when academic trends are moving through us or we have betrayed our own intellectual sensitivities. If we thought a little harder, we’d see the ways in which the transnationality of contemporary Australian lives were pioneered by them—a kind of complementary counterpoint to post-war migrant experiences—and that many returned determined to bring a better life for their descendants.
Access to high-quality education was and is key here. It was a driving motivation in what my grandfather wanted for his children and grandchildren, his own education interrupted by war, and the drive towards it advanced the determination of his own mother who emigrated to Australia from Dundee. That I am standing here today as representing King’s College London would have been—was and is—a source of great pride for him.
But what is more, this evening, is the dialogue that is being developed between the Menzies Centre and Monash’s National Centre for Australian Studies: of which Bruce’s lecture is a key sign. We are working together to strengthen and develop global and networked visions of Australian Studies, making new uses of technology and building on already strong professional relations between staff on either side of the globe, both to generate research about what Australia might mean in the past, present and future, and to educate people all over the world about the peculiarities and riches of human experience in our country.
The values prized by many Australians include those brought back from war by many people like my grandfather, and by others whose insights, as we have learned from Bruce, came with great suffering and poor recompense; viewpoints sometimes embittered in the aftermath of war. Their anger too is our inheritance. But so is their compassion, their drive to better their fellow country women and men, in many instances their faith, and ultimately their love.
Bruce’s lecture has showcased not only his own research but indicated something of the wealth of work being undertaken at Monash, drawing ‘ordinary’ people’s lives into History, and opening conversations between History as a professional discourse and the knowledge and wisdom of real families.
It seems to me this has been a most fitting way of marking this historical occasion, one hundred years since the landings at Gallipoli, and I ask you then to join me in thanking Professor Scates for delivering the Centenary of ANZAC Day Menzies Lecture.
One of the pleasures of my job is to discuss the works of Virginia Woolf with first-year undergraduate and MA English students. Woolf herself attended the (excruciatingly named) Ladies’ Department of King’s College London in Kensington Square between 1897 and 1902; and my office is located in a College building honoured with her name.
In the first-year module ‘Writing London’, which I used to convene and have taught on for several years, we focus on two essays of Woolf’s, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1930) and a piece originally published in Good Housekeeping in 1931: ‘The Docks of London’.
In the first Woolf gives an extraordinary description of leaving home on a winter’s evening to walk the streets of London—from Bloomsbury down to the Strand—on the pretext of needing to buy a pencil. The domestic interior that, for the walker is ‘a shell-like exterior which our souls have excreted’, melts away, and all that is left is ‘a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’. This ‘eye’ is nothing like the ‘I’ whose memories are lodged in various knick-knacks about the house; instead it is the passive receptor of ‘myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel’ (‘Modern Fiction’, 1921) whose constant streaming is the stuff of life.
Not only do these amorphous impressions cause seemingly discrete entities and persons on the street to merge into one another, soon it is as if the street walker has become the things she senses, her self dissipating into the night. It is this evaporating ego which Woolf’s sought-after pencil will attempt to capture in words, so that later, scrawl converted to print, the reader’s eye succumbs to casting an impressionist vision of his self (or her self), one that haunts Woolf’s prose as she has done the street.
The locality of the London things Woolf’s walker encounters is also unfixed, as becomes readily apparent in ‘The Docks of London’. So many of the commodities on display have come on ‘the big ships and the little ships’ visible lower down the Thames: ‘the battered and splendid ships from India, from Russia, from South America, ships from Australia coming from silence and danger and loneliness past us, home to harbour’, into the arms of cranes and workers unloading them into warehouses for later distribution. But reversing the direction of this labour, Woolf pictures a tide of effervescent desires, consumer whims lighter than air that wash extraordinary economic and social changes around the globe.
It is we—our tastes, our fashions, our needs—that makes the cranes dip and swing, that call the ships from the sea. Our body is their master. […] Because one chooses to light a cigarette, all those barrels of Virginian tobacco are swung to shore. Flocks upon flocks of Australian sheep have submitted to the shears because we demand woollen overcoats in winter. As for the umbrella that we swing idly to and fro, a mammoth who roared through the swamps fifty thousand years ago has yielded up his tusk to make the handle.
Only Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary ability to de-familiarize one’s sense of place and self—while, with the same writerly gesture, authorising the veracity of her perception—comes close to the experience, for me, of hearing June Oscar’s lecture at King’s last Wednesday (29 April 2015). June Oscar AO is a Bunuba woman and Chief Executive Officer of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre, whose visit to London to speak at the opening of the British Museum’s BP Exhibition: Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilization was supported by the Menzies Centre.
June’s lecture, ‘Encountering Truth: The Real Life Stories of Objects from Empire’s Frontier and Beyond’, was filmed and will be shortly available for viewing on the MCAS website.
It is full of extraordinary moments: not least when her Bunuba language rang out in the College’s River Room, overlooking the Thames. June introduced us to her own country, but taught us as much about London, not just as seen through her eyes, but as it became in her presence. She paid homage to what has been achieved here, while reminding us of her own civilization’s much longer continuing presence on earth, and what it said of her culture’s endurance that Bunuba might be brought back here to the banks of this particular river. She paid tribute to Bunuba warrior Jandamarra, a resistance leader with many ‘present day incarnations’ (June’s grandfather was the custodian of his story). ‘My [undefeated] people are doing everything in their power to ensure that the greater meaning of Jandamarra’s name will live on. In telling this history we can see from convict times to this very moment, our nations existing across continents and oceans remain entwined.’
Yawuru man Peter Yu, Chair of the National Museum of Australia Indigenous Advisory Committee, in an excellent lecture shared with NMA Director Matt Trinca, also reminded audiences at the Museum that there is unfinished business between the Indigenous nations of Australia and those that make up the British Isles. But both speakers also emphasized the opportunity for educating international audiences about Indigenous Australia represented by the British Museum’s Australian collection.
On 1 May the Centre also co-hosted a panel of Indigenous artists and Australian academics (‘The Art of Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Today’). The artists were: Ishmael Marika (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala); Abe Muriata (Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre); Judy Watson; and Wukun Wanambi (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala), all of whom offered insights into their own art. We were also treated to illuminating introductions to Indigenous art practices by Dr John Carty (Australian National University) and Professor Howard Morphy (Australian National University and chair of the event). Gutsy but nuanced responses to the question of repatriating objects from the collection were expressed by all the speakers.
This is not to say the subject of repatriation—given an excoriating airing by Zoe Pilger in the Independent—is or can be easily dismissed. The history of these objects’ coming into the British Museum’s collection reveals moments when they were treated like other exotic commodities Woolf saw for sale in London. Nor is the injustice of holding such collections overseas simply a thing of the past. At the immensely stimulating British Museum/Menzies Centre conference on 2 May, ‘Challenging Colonial Legacies Today: Museums and Communities in Australia and East Africa’, the Australian National University’s Jilda Andrews told a devastating story about the effects curatorial misunderstanding of Indigenous collections can have today.
Even so it is hard to imagine a better negotiation of the challenges of representing the history, contemporary experiences, and cultures of such diverse peoples to London audiences than has been achieved with this exhibition, led by Gaye Sculthorpe, Lissant Bolton, Rachael Murphy and their team at the British Museum in collaboration with so many communities, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Research Council. These objects’ subjection to an imperialist past is not and should not be concealed; but their meaning and value are re-drawn by this exhibition, and by the ways in which they have been discussed by Indigenous artists and speakers in the exhibition’s events programme.
The superb content I will leave you to discover. (It is also beautifully described and contextualised by Maria Nugent in a recent article in Inside Story.) But let me just note the symbolic power of putting this exhibition on in this space and in this time. Britons are often new to the concept of the plurality of Australian and Torres Strait Island Indigenous peoples and cultures existing in our country; and to the complexities of their various social, intellectual, spiritual and material cultural practices. These points are unmissable in the exhibition; and their power and presence are further in evidence when, around London, Indigenous Australia’s banners and posters are juxtaposed with the Museum’s other current exhibition (about a much younger civilization): Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art.
Thinking about the ways in which authority is expressed through and in the body helps me consider the differences between Woolf’s and Oscar’s Londons, and it relates to the nature of their authorization. One can only imagine the authority Virginia Woolf exuded when she spoke in public. I’m thinking here of the lectures she gave at Newnham and Girton Colleges which became A Room of One’s Own. (I caught something of what hearing her might have been like during Pamela Rabe’s extraordinary performance of that text at Belvoir Street in the 1990s.)
Oscar’s presence is equally powerful, and it was intrinsic to her message. But any loss of the self—as articulated in ‘Street Haunting’—seemed rather about, in my view anyway, the augmentation of the individual as June drew authority (before our very eyes) from the presence of her ancestors. It was like a series of tracking shots resolving into a singular power (and person).
This might explain something of the affect of June’s lecture, certainly the most extraordinary I have witnessed. It joined the Thames and made London Bunuba country. It built like a slow tide, making a case not so much for repatriating artefacts, as for the making of an Australia where their being so out-of-place is inconceivable.
A number of events focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are coming up at the British Museum and/or at King’s College London. See information below for links.
Politics and Writing: Panel
Wednesday 13 May 2015
18.00-20.00, SW1.09, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS
No need to rsvp
Dr Lisa Slater (Wollongong) ‘Desiring Belonging: White Anxiety, Anti-Colonial Spatiality and Margaret Somerville’s Body/Landscape Journals’ and Emma Patchett (Marie Curie Research Fellow, CoHaB ITN, WWU Münster), ‘Temporal Collapse and Splintered Sovereignty in Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book’
Maria Nugent (ANU), ‘Indigenous Australia and Captain Cook’
Thursday 21 May 2015
13.30-14.30, British Museum
Melissa Lucashenko (writer), ‘Black, White, and Brindle: Aboriginality in an Age of Unreason’
Friday 22 May 2015
18.30-19.30, British Museum
Screening of The New Black [seven short films]
Saturday 23 May 2015
14.00-15.30, British Museum
Screening and Q&A
Dr Peter Kilroy and Trevor Graham
18.00-20.00, Anatomy Theatre, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS
This event forms part of a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship run by Peter Kilroy from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies and the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London. http://ScreeningtheTorresStrait.com
29-31 May 2015, King’s College London, Strand Campus
Peter Austin (SOAS), ‘Languages of Indigenous Australia’
Friday 5 June 2015
13.30-14.30, British Museum
9-25 June 2015
Supported by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London
Screening Ten Canoes
Saturday 13 June 2015
14.00-16.00, British Museum
Tom Lawson (Nothumbria), ‘The British in Van Diemen’s Land’
Friday 19 June 2015
13.30-14.30, British Museum
Screening Mad Bastards
Saturday 11 July 2015
14.00-16.00, British Museum
[W]hat sensibilities would a rough and charmless colonial history track—what would such a history look like now?
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 252
On 4 March 2015 MCAS was treated to an excellent paper by Professor Lynette Russell, ARC Professorial Fellow and Director of the Monash Faculty of Arts Indigenous Centre. Speaking on ‘Governance, Settlers and Aboriginal Victorians’, Professor Russell focused on the messy affair of early European-Indigenous Australian contact in the space we now call Victoria, Australia, showing the ways in which myriad official and non-official interactions between such diverse peoples unfolded to be shaped by the archive and by earlier historians into the imperialist story of Victoria as a colony and then an Australian ‘state’.
Her account undid any sense of smooth transition into the settler colony, not only by focusing on a series of very different types of encounter—moments of resistance, the work of Aboriginal Protectors, the histories of those caught up in the life of missions—but by recognizing the multiplicity of views and experiences on either side of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary. This included recognizing the opposed stances regarding Aboriginal ‘governance’ of ‘homerule’ institutions in Victoria and London-based evangelical groups like the Aborigines Protection Society; and seeing also some of the positive legacies some Aboriginal men and women recognize in the story of Christian missions in the region. Professor Russell showed us how we might also see Protectors and missionaries as early ethnographers whose research has preserved—and been the unwitting perpetuator of—important aspects of traditional knowledge.
While never letting us forget colonial governance constituted a ‘culture of terror’, Professor Russell’s research generally emphasizes, as does the work of Ann Laura Stoler, that no colonial administrator worked as a robotic embodiment of monolithic imperialism.
At its core is the rejection of the premise that we who study the colonial know both what imperial rule looks like and the disposition of those it empowers. It responds to the flat interiorities commonly attributed to those with whom we do not sympathize, politically or otherwise. Its aim is directed at the smug sense that colonial sensibilities are a given and we can now quickly move on to the complexities and more subtle, troubled dispositions of the postcolonial present. (Stoler, 238)
Colonists, too, in other words, had work lives bothered by the uncertainties and questions of, well, life itself.
So too were the experiences of individual Aboriginal Victorian men, women and children diverse, ever-changing and self-interrogated within the collective experience of colonial oppression: indeed it is to perpetuate the latter if we fail to recognise the forms of agency which these people exercised within the ever-varying sets of power relations they confronted at different moments of their everyday lives. As often as not, moreover, as Professor Russell reminded us, this is agency–expressed in a barely perceptible moment of resistance, a playful thought, a ‘between-us’ comedy, a wink of the eye, a determined gaze back at the camera or note-taker—which does not find its way into archival records.
This is not to say the archive is inaccurate in its record of the oppressiveness of colonial regimes: that in failing to register moments of resistance, conviviality, cooperation or even fun it makes things out to be worse than they were. It is rather to suggest that the accumulative energy of Aboriginal Australian agency which we know must have been there–if nothing else because of the sheer ebullience of Aboriginal cultures today–may only be found sporadically in the archive, and only then by applying new methodologies to its perusal.
New forms of history-writing in the last few decades—‘micro-histories’, histories from below or the ‘other side of the frontier’, postcolonial histories, subaltern studies among others—have enabled the recovery of such new voices (and/or new timbres within formerly recorded voices). All involve exercising a disciplined historical imagination in new and exciting ways.
But Australian drama and fiction have also long been sites for re-visions of contact history which–through disciplined creative intervention–give full voice to personalities and experiences that the archive does not explicitly record. To pluck some few examples from the air: Jack Davis’s stage play Kullark (1979) re-envisioned Western Australian contact history to the present; Colin Johnson’s [Mudrooroo’s] Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983) and Master of the Ghost Dreaming (1991) lent voice to Aboriginal Tasmanian experiences from the early 1800s; and Eleanor Dark’s The Timeless Land (1941) approached Sydney Cove from both European and Eora perspectives. It is timely to remind ourselves of the first sentence of the latter 74-year-old masterpiece of non-Indigenous Australian writing: ‘Bennilong [sic] and his father had come down to the cliffs again, alone’. Watkin Tench puts in a first-European appearance only 50 pages later.
This is hardly to say that Dark’s depiction of Indigenous Australians is entirely unproblematic: nor to suggest that, since she wrote, non-Indigenous reconstructions of the Port Jackson settlement have always given the owners of the ‘settled’ land due acknowledgement. (As a child I remember loving the TV series Against the Wind (1978), and even visiting history-fun-park Old Sydney Town where it was shot, though I recall no Indigenous presence among the mob caps and mock floggings—replete with audience-flicked stage-blood—in either.)
But it is to say that it is utterly inconceivable that a 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation television drama featuring the Port Jackson settlement in the late 1780s would have no Aboriginal Australian characters in it. And it is frankly astonishing that the BBC’s Banished also can so steadfastly focus its dramatic gaze as to miss this part of the story.
For one thing, the presence of the Eora and other tribal groups at this time and in this place—physically and in the minds of convicts and officers—is undeniable. For if ever Aboriginal agency, intra- and inter-tribal politics, humour, sexual relations, diverse cultural practices, and various individuals’ tics and habits are readily apparent—even foregrounded—in European writing, it is in the various accounts by First Fleet officers of their time in the Port Jackson colony. A quick glance at Watkin Tench’s A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793) is all the research you need to assure yourself of this fact: or you can turn to Inga Clendinnen’s masterful amalgam and analysis of similar narratives in Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact (2003).
Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist Amy McQuire, writing in New Matilda, has expressed her anger at Banished‘s whitewashing of Sydney Cove history with greater justification and eloquence than I could do. Her main arguments are to expose the want of consultation or employment of Aboriginal Australian producers, directors, actors and writers that the end result betrays; and this despite co-producer Jimmy McGovern’s admirable work on Redfern Now. She also lambasts the rather lame excuses trundled out re the need to present fully-developed not token Aboriginal characters (is it better, then, to have none at all?).
I agree with her wholeheartedly. But the other point that screams for attention, for me anyway, is the foregoing of the sheer dramatic potential of bringing Indigenous characters and viewpoints into the mix of this tale. I can see that, from its title, this is a story about not being in England rather than being in Port Jackson. I can see also that it is about men [sic] being limited to the resources they brought with them (food, labour, women) rather than learning to resource themselves from country; and that this may indeed capture the way many of these earliest settlers thought. That said, to suggest that dramatically or historically such issues can be or in fact were isolatable from those related to occupying Eora land is both inaccurate and an aesthetic blunder. The explicit dilemmas we see Banished’s Governor Phillip confronting in fact all come back to the fundamental paradox of his orders: be nice to the natives while occupying their land. Not to let us see this is to deny viewers the wider intelligence the best television drama of today never forgets.
Charming (in a literal and in Stoler’s’charmed’ history sense), then, as the eye candy and soapy aspects of the series might be, the potential dramatic power of its subject exposes just how lame Banished turns out to be. We may thank goodness that, being a non-Australian production, these characters—so far—are not burdened with speaking a sense of ‘building a nation’: at the same time, the terra nullius effect is wholly lamentable on dramatic grounds, let alone for the appalling colonialist gesture it repeats.
And that gesture is in evidence in the very opening credits: when a white palm print takes the shape of Australia. The white hand becomes ground: when in fact it is stealing country.
The Menzies Centre continues to promote nuanced historical, political and social accounts of Australian history and the land’s contemporary cultures. In the coming months we have numerous exciting events which will showcase academic and cultural engagements with the dramatic story of our country, several coming up in association with The BP Exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization at the British Museum. I urge you to keep an eye on our events page and welcome you to any of these complex debates about how the ‘banished’ and the ‘indigenous’ are intertwined in the making of Australian modernity.
The Dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain.
Mussolini Harvey, quoted in John Bradley, Yanyuwa Country; The Yanyuwa People of Borroloola Tell the History of their Land (Richmond: Greenhouse Publications, 1988), pp. xi-xi.
They watch us humans, and think about us.
Deborah Bird Rose, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996), p. 28
They stare at that bitter
Bright world of men,
The sweat on the forehead,
The moving pen.
Possum, who are you?
Douglas Stewart, ‘The Possum’ (1952)
I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragement
that tides from far but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.
Les Murray, ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’ (1992)
His curly hair had that touch of red
always found upon a possum’s face.
His eyes as quiet and dark as those
of the one whose totem his mother chose
and so gave him at birth a secret name.
‘Moordjitj kelang’ she gently whispered.
‘You never have to know hurt or shame
if you carry this piece of me every place.’
Archie Weller, ‘Possum’ (c.1997/2007)
A hot summer’s night in Ngunnawal country, out by the Hill’s Hoist. I am being watched, whisker-detected, sniffed, thought about. I only slipped into the Canberra dark to take a T-shirt off the line but caught the young brush-tailed possum mid apple-tree. We stare at each other a while. Then I back away to the deck, sit on the steps and light a cigarette: that one can take his time with his thinking.
My sister’s place in Watson—named after the world’s first labour prime minister—is built on his land; suburb established 1960. Maybe that possum was born here, maybe he migrated to the city from the bush like so many of his ancestors and fellow countrymen.
His place is my birth place. I’m an hour or so’s walk from where Canberra Hospital once stood on the Acton Peninsula (presently the site of the National Museum). Canberra, Kambera, meeting place in Ngunnawal. Or maybe nganbra, nganbira or ngambri, ‘the hollow between women’s breasts’, the space between Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie. A nourishing terrain.
Forty-five years ago almost to the day I came into this world and refused to suck. I lived three weeks on the ward and came home for Christmas: to Hackett, at the foot of Mount Ainslie. Brush-tailed possums live a dozen years or so in the wild: this fellow is only little, maybe two year’s old. He may be a father already. Scores of generations might take you to the ancestor of his who was rustling apples in the vicinity when I was born.
How do you write a possum?
Douglas Stewart felt himself being watched through the window by one while he was writing (‘The Possum‘, 1952).
Stranger, who are you?
What do you want?
There at the window where the branches glint,
With your black-nailed claw
And your black round stare,
And your sharp wild face
And your silver fur.
For Stewart the possum is one of ‘our masters’ in ‘symbol and mask’, watching, thinking, perhaps judging. And being measured in return:
Possum, who are you?
Half beast and half ghost
With your great black eyes
In that body of mist—
Who would have thought
They would send out of space
So much of gentleness,
So much of grace?
I wonder who ‘they’ are at the end of this poem. It might be the ‘vast’ gum trees which first bother the poet from their vigil outside his window. Or creatures from outer space. A godhead? Trees, starlight, blackness abound. Are the ancestors trying to speak through Stewart’s moving hand? Is there possum-voice here?
Gentleness and grace are not words that spring to mind when contemplating animals in Dreaming stories. Ancestors are fierce, strong, conniving, tricksy, survivors. Yes, gentle at times, yes their work in continually making worlds can be figured through the Christian concept of grace. But I also fear the ancestors. Like the ‘super-ordinary beings’ in Indigenous cultures, as Deborah Bird Rose writes, they seem ‘powerful and unpredictable’. And I am on their land.
How to write a possum?
Perhaps better than any living poet Les Murray has tried to think-speak animals: see ‘Bats Ultrasound’ (1986) and ‘Pigs’ (1992) for some extraordinary results. The latter is from Murray’s Translations from the Natural World (1992), and there he ventures to Australian animals and a ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’. His possum is the ‘five-limbed Only One’ among other Only Ones, vocalizing with a ‘cough-scoff’, inhabiting an infinitude of perches, a ‘day’ which is ‘nickel’ night, the light-time spent ‘in my charcoal trunk of night’. (Coughs and grunts recur when Australian writers turn to the possum, making me also wonder, suddenly, if these are the creatures Australian city-dwellers most often hear mating?)
Murray knows language as a sign firstly of our fall from grace, from body-knowledge and nature-being: but also the most precious of gifts charged to the ‘glory of God’ (his recurring dedication) and able—when pushed to the limit—to indicate even possum-Creation. Possum-Creation is a world of absolute interbeing: ‘me-and-my-world’ where ‘nothing is apart enough’ to require ‘language’.
This resonates with Bird Rose’s description of ‘healthy’ country in Nourishing Terrains:
A ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ country, is one in which all the elements do their work. They all nourish each other because there is no site, no position, from which the interest of one can be disengaged from the interests of others in the long term. Self-interest and the interest of all of the other living components of country (the self-interest of kangaroos, barramundi, eels and so on), cannot exist independently of each other in the long term. (10)
How do humans belong in healthy possum country? One way is to sing out to them. ‘My father used to do it’, Rembarrnga man Paddy Fordham Wainburranga tells us. ‘We used to get up early in the morning and he’d sing out and talk. […] The law about singing out was made like that to make you notice that all the trees here are your countrymen, your relations. All the trees and the birds are your relations.’ (Paddy Fordham Wainburranga, ‘Talking History’, Land Rights News, 2.9 (1988): 46; quoted in Bird Rose, pp. 14-15.)
This, my own singing out to the possum is somewhat belated. I don’t have the language: or rather I only have this language, academic blog speak.
Let me look at you. Let me look at your ‘sharp wild face’ and try and purge it of cuteness. Can I find in you again that lordly otherness which D. H. Lawrence lent his animals, vis-à-vis ‘Snake’ from Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923)? In that collection his ‘Kangaroo’ mother is rooted to the earth, ‘belly-plumbed to the earth’s mid-navel’, contrasting most animals of the global north that ‘leap at the air’ or ‘charge at the sky’s horizon’. She is a ‘liquid drop’, a ‘down-urge’, like an elemental sack of blood, all womb and gravity, leaping only to ‘come down on the line that draws to the earth’s deep, heavy centre’.
There are hints here of the Law working through Lawrence’s hyper-sensitivity, though he may have mistaken the direction of that energy’s flow. As Mudbura man Hobbles Danaiyarri reminds us, ‘Everything come up out of the ground—language, people, emu, kangaroo, grass. That’s law’ (quoted in Bird Rose, p. 9). This kangaroo does not so much bear constantly down to the ground as emerge from it: that might be what Lawrence was sensing and trying to say. And she is thinking about him, watching even while reduced to eating ‘peppermint drops’ proffered by the poet.
But there is also an insufficiently considered aligning of the kangaroo, human Indigeneity, evolutionary time and racial doom.
How full her eyes are, like the full, fathomless, shining eyes of an Australian black-boy
Who has been lost so many centuries on the margins of existence!
She watches with insatiable wistfulness.
Untold centuries of watching for something to come,
For a new signal from life, in that silent lost land of the South.
The human element of Stewart’s ‘blackness’ is made explicit here. And there is the classic modernist manoeuvre of rendering the individual ‘black-boy’ not only representative of a race, but a race in ancient time, as if he were a projection in modernity of the original ‘savage’.
Lawrence is touching on what we might call the ‘phylogenetic sublime’, a sudden sense of standing on the precipice of aeons, the horror of evolutionary time. The awe-struck feeling may direct you to the gods—as with the ‘classic’ sublime—or it may gather to itself the horror, also, of the chanciness of Darwin’s universe. (It would be worth considering the relationship between this and the otherwise distinct concept of the ‘horizonal [sic] sublime’ that, for Bill Ashcroft, governs so much settler Australian art and writing; see his chapter in Patrick White Centenary: The Legacy of a Prodigal Son (2014) and the co-authored Intimate Horizons: The Post–Colonial Sacred in Australian Literature (2009).) It lends greatness to animals, washes away cuteness, makes of them successors to a lordly line.
But it’s a manoeuvre which, in Australian culture, all-too-easily slips between species and across discourses, between evolutionary theory and social Darwinism. We are to look at the young Jedda in Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film in this way—as a projection into the present of a ‘savage’ original—while her white foster-father intones about the ancientness of her people and the immovability of her ‘primitive’ instincts. By way of contrast, when the mother of the persona in Archie Weller’s ‘Possum’ (c.1997) confers on him the totemic name of ‘Moordjitj kelang’ (‘good strong male possum’) she emphatically looks to the future. He isn’t frightened by the ancient name; it rather familiarizes him to country.
Superficially, then, the phylogenetic sublime’s linking Aboriginal men and women and Australian animals looks like the Law’s seamless transition from ancestral creatures to the human: but the distinction is the one relegates contemporary Indigenous peoples to a mythical past, ghosts of ‘fathomless’ centuries, and the other empowers their operation—and the Law’s unremitting energy—in modernity.
Dawns are at stake here. Murray captures his possum at the turning point of ‘nickel’ night to ‘bleaching’ daylight. Lawrence’s Kangaroo, ‘Her full antipodal eyes, so dark, / So big and quiet and remote, have watched so many empty dawns in silent Australia’. This is the ‘Dawn of Man’ memorably depicted with empty horizons at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), the cinematic apotheosis of a phylogenetic sublime. But it’s as if ‘the full, fathomless, shining eyes of [any] Australian black-boy’ are locked on this screen, denied a go-ahead to participate in the famous match-cut between bone and spacecraft. And again, the post-colonial mantra which reminds us of Aboriginal peoples’ continuous occupation of the place we call Australia over 60,000 years risks placing ‘them’ ‘back there’… unless we really do pay attention to that word ‘continuous’. Aboriginal Australians, after all, are as close to the future’s space odyssey as any of us.
But if tropes of Australian writing regularly associate evolutionary aeons with Aboriginal peoples and Australian fauna, settler characterizations of animals also tend to derive them from a more proximate dawn: in Eden. Few of us really subscribe to the specifications of Creation set out in Genesis but the cuteness of animals in settler anthropomorphism are their legacy, derived from dreams of nature as a garden in which ‘the fish of the sea’, ‘the fowl of the air’, and ‘every living thing that moveth upon the earth’ are ‘good’.
Murray’s skill is his poem’s ambivalence in this regard: his possumology can be read as a melding of indigenous and Christian knowledges. The possum’s diurnal dream, ‘a welling pictureless encouragement / that tides from far’, can be read as ‘born of the one light Eden saw play’ (Morning Has Broken, 1931). But it is also an instinctive, recurring affirmation of being-in-the-world, of belonging to country.
There is something more here, then, than the inadvertent registering of the force of the ancestors (‘They?’) in Stewart’s poem; the poet is not just a standing on the sidelines, feeling watched. At best he is intuiting the ancestral possum’s worldview through an extraordinarily gifted inhabitation of language; and a way, one suspects, with silence. But as the language is English—albeit English in extremis—the possum’s world-view can only ever appear in translation from its true meaning in Law. Yet I cannot help but feel this possum knows the Law, inhabits it, even if that knowledge cannot be truly expressed for him in such a language, such a form. (This makes Murray’s possum ‘horizonal’ in Ashcroft’s sense.)
How do you write a possum?
Hush, Australian literature’s most famous baby possum, began life as a mouse. The author of Possum Magic (1983), Mem Fox, writes that after nine rejections ‘Omnibus Books in Adelaide, accepted it but asked me to cut the story by two thirds, re-write it more lyrically, make it even more Australian and change the mice to a cuddly Australian animal. I chose possums. (Australian possums are very soft and cute.)’ (Mem Fox, ‘Possum Magic [the gossip]’, memfox.com/gossip-behind-mems-books/possum-magic-illustrated-by-julie-vivas/). While Hush is species-swappable, the beloved children’s picture book in which she features dramatizes the disappearance of her meaning in Law, and re-appearance as a ‘soft and cute’ icon of settler nationalism.
(Don’t get me wrong here: I love this story as much as anyone, not least for having read it to numerous under-threes during my time working in Child Care in the early 1990s. But you don’t need to be a card-carrying postcolonialist to spot the problematic ideology.)
Revelations come at dawn (again). Grandma Poss, who performs ‘bush magic’ has made Hush disappear, mainly to protect her from snakes. Now Hush wants to be visible again, but Grandma can’t remember how, and turns to book, not bush, learning to rediscover the trick.
All night long Grandma Poss thought and thought. The next morning just before breakfast she shouted: ‘It’s something to do with food! People food, not possum food. But I can’t remember what! We’ll just have to try and find it.’ So, later that day, they left the bush where they’d always been, to find what it was that would make Hush seen.
Around the state capitals they go, consuming iconic items of settler food (stuff, I should add, all Australians—not only ‘white’ settlers—might eat at some point or other): ‘ANZAC biscuits in Adelaide’, ‘mornay and Minties in Melbourne’, ‘pumpkin scones in Brisbane’. The solution will be found in Darwin, the Never Never (‘the far north of Australia’), a vague concession to Indigeneity; in a youtube reading, this is where the didgeridoo heard briefly before the telling re-apppears on the soundtrack. The secret? A Vegemite sandwich, followed by pavlova (Perth) and a lamington (the casino in Hobart). It all works: Hush re-appears, but such re-location is fragile (Appadurai reminds us locality must be constantly re-made to be sustained). She must ritually eat settler food every birthday to ensure she doesn’t re-disappear. Put this baldly it reads like a threat.
But I cannot, and should not, forget Hush in the contemplation of this fellow on the apple branch. She is one of the many things I bring to our mutual watch. Nor might those Indigenous children to whom I read Possum Magic all those years ago forego a possum of the Christian dawn at this meeting place…if the food be nourishing.
All of this makes of that fellow an entangled object. But as an interconnected subject, creature of country, what is he thinking?
What am I thinking? Why does it concern me?
These are questions prompted by the Menzies Centre’s recent celebration of the publication of ANU Press’s Ngapartji Ngapartji: In Turn, In Turn: Ego-histoire, Europe and Indigenous Australia (2014); you can download this marvellous volume from the website. Three of its editors (Vanessa Castejon, Anna Cole and Oliver Haag; Karen Hughes could not attend) spoke eloquently of their bringing the French methodology of Ego-Histoire into dialogue with Australian Indigenous Studies. MCAS’s own Helen Idle also read from her contribution to the book.
As the editors write in the introduction:
‘Ego-histoire’ is a term introduced by French historian Pierre Nora in his collection Essais d’Ego Histoire (Nora et al 1987). Nora’s intention was that ego-histoire would be a combination of a personal history, a broader social history and historiographical reflection. (5)
As Nora put it:
The exercise was to clearly set down one’s own story [histoire] as one would write someone else’s; to try to apply to oneself, each with his or her own particular style and methods, the same cool, encompassing and explanatory gaze that one so often directs towards others. To explain, as an historian, the link between the history you have made and the history that has made you. (Nora et al 1987, p. 7) (quoted p. 6)
While many in the volume dispute the cool objectivity Nora advocated, the method resonates with Indigenous Studies, firstly in its making belatedly and unintentionally a place for the life-writing underpinnings of so much work by Indigenous scholars and activists. Secondly it places the onus on non-Indigenous researchers to declare themselves in ways more usually demanded of Aboriginal Australians.
Ego-histoire, in an Australian context, goes some way to rectifying the imbalance identified by Aileen Moreton-Robinson: ‘the writer-knower as subject is racially invisible, while the Aboriginal as object is visible’ (Moreton-Robinson 2004, p. 81). (8)
Finally it confronts the non-Indigenous researcher with the motivations for her/his forays into Indigenous histories and knowledges. Am I harbouring anything other than a gleaming vision of myself as some Great White Hope (as Gillian Cowlishaw discusses in her chapter, see particularly pp. 228-9)?
The History Wars, the Stolen Generations, the lack of apology, deaths in custody these are powerful social motivations for engaging with Indigenous cultures for anyone, let alone the soi-disant specialist in Australian Studies. But there remains another motivation which I hope to have hinted at here, in this blog and in others, where my own writing comes closest—though not as richly as that of others in Ngapartji Ngapartji—to an Austral-Ego Histoire.
It is the sheer intellectual complexity of Australian modernity as it emerges through the ongoing collision of ancestral knowledges in ‘our’ space. And the depth—to the very core of the planet—of what there is to learn here, even out by the Hill’s Hoist. It is bringing something exciting and new to human culture, which I state without foreclosing the devastation it has also incurred: the destruction and death of thousands of Aboriginal men, women and children, the laying waste of a bush economy, trade, and culture. All of it wants knowing, wants more knowledge-making. Without it we cannot even begin to write a possum. Or make of our country a re-nourishing terrain.
He knows this better than I do.
And I’m trying to work out what he is watching me for.
The critical attitude of the intellectual towards the community is, of course, not in itself harmful; on the contrary it could be healthy, even a creative influence, if the criticism were felt to come from within, if the critic had a sense of identification with his subject, if his criticism came from a sense of shared shame, rather than a disdainful separation.
A. A. Phillips, ‘The Cultural Cringe’, The Australian Tradition: Studies in a Colonial Culture (Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1958), pp. 89-95 (p. 93).
‘I don’t see’, said the Queen, ‘why there is any need for a press release at all. Why should the public care what I am reading? […]’
‘To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it,’ said Sir Kevin, ‘if the pursuit itself were less…selfish.’
‘Perhaps I should say solipsistic.’
‘Perhaps you should.’
Alan Bennett, ‘The Uncommon Reader’, London Review of Books (8 March 2007): 11-23 (14).
And so one works out strategies for teasing the natives.
Alan Seymour, ‘Come The Dawn’, Westerly 4 (Summer 1995): 5-12 (5).
Naturally all those cultural traits you notice on a return to the motherland are located in the self. Everywhere, compounded by the familial onslaught of Christmas, are people like me…hence the abjection. How pleasant, rather—in Britain’s not-quite homeland—to know Dr Henderson: moderate exotic, specialist in Neighbours-style letstalkaboutittery, purveyor of relentlessly friendly information, the mostly-harmless bull-in-a-staff-meeting, the larrikin baulking at true breaches of respectability.
Instead, back in Australia, each personal mannerism refers me back to the channelsevenification of Australian social discourse (I am 7). I noticed it again the moment I re-arrived (1 December), that is, two weeks before a madman set up shop opposite the Martin Place studios and the rolling news became the news. It is too late to claim a scoop: but even if I had rushed to press in early December, I would not have been the first to notice that at some stage we all started deploying a version of Strine whose commercial apotheosis occurs every Sunrise.
It seems to be a Down-Under version of American-TV Perky and perhaps its rise dates, like Kochie’s, from around 2002. Whatever the case, it has gathered to itself the nervous laughter of Phillips’ Cultural Cringe just before it sets the face serious and delivers some dot-point facts straight from management. (Sharon Strzelecki nailed it whenever she all-of-a-sudden formally introduced herself to other characters, also from 2002 [see here from 9:36]).
Now, (Nervous) Perk-to-Serious-to-Perk Strine (PSPS) handles any transaction, taking us, in the process, from the everyday to the telemarket and back again. It sells you Mylanta at the local Chemist (greeting you with a panicky chuckle, actively listening, checking your reflux isn’t a heart problem or any of the other dot points on the manufacturer’s insert—caring—before agreeing with a laugh it is just our communal over-eating and hoping you have a good arvo) and with equal dexterity on TV negotiates a transition from sanctimonious street flowers to a baby koala, from a brief school massacre by the Taliban to sunshine at the Gabba. It did not explicitly manoeuvre between the two corrupted expressions of faith in that shop window (the Shahada and Merry Christmas) but then, why should a commercialised national tic map out the very foundation of its being?
Like its earlier incarnations, PSPS demands you end any social transaction as a mate. (I know because I do it too.) Now there is no need, thanks to Jennifer Rutherford’s The Gauche Intruder (MUP 2000), to re-articulate the aggressive egalitarianism lurking behind this everyday intoning of the Australian Good (agree we are the same/equal or I’ll bash the shit out of you). Nor need we be reminded of how it extols Australian (‘pragmatic’) management of majority-defined need (‘we are equal because we all want the same thing and our country is good because we have communally arranged for our needs to be adequately serviced, as long as no one jumps the queue’). Hence, as of old, PSPS expresses abhorrence of the opposite of Australian Good: idiosyncratic open-ended desire.
What is new, I think, is the sheer commodification of this national quirk. Then—when Phillips wrote ‘The Cultural Cringe’ and Patrick White his ‘The Prodigal Son’ (the 1950s)—the ‘need’ was determined by something like an organic community (a set of white-settler neighbourhoods with well-meaning xenophobic tendencies). Now, they are determined by the mass market in big-business hyperdrive. So just as Grindr and Tinder have commodified the desiring individual online (they make money by helping us turn ourselves into self-pimping units), even the simplest Strine greeting—to say nothing of ‘63 not out’—now expresses the paydirt of any number of multinational multimedia corporations. (Was Seymour not prescient when, in successive revisions of The One Day of the Year, his iconoclastic but nuanced play on the ANZAC legend, he increasingly foregrounded big business’s amoral and expedient promotion of The Day, and strengthened the role of Jan, the one non-veteran character equipped to see it?)
PSPS, then, might be described as an intersubjective affective sequence, involving a number of shared attitudes towards a series of managerial dot points. Compare this to the collusion that bothered Phillips. He recalls a lecture by a ‘visiting Englishman’ to ‘a Melbourne audience on a literary theme’. To illustrate a point, the lecturer summons a vision of the ‘common man’, ‘the sort of man you might meet on a Melbourne tram—rather a crude sort of chap, but…’ (p. 91). Phillips notes that the city is doubtless localised by the lecturer for wherever he finds himself speaking, but that his Australian audience’s reaction is peculiar: ‘He had simply made a transposition into a setting better known to his audience, since the point about the setting was to emphasise the familiarity of the character. Had he really intended to make a criticism of the specifically Australian Common Man, it would have been, in a guest, a piece of gratuitously discourteous irrelevance. The natural response to it would have been shocked and mildly annoyed surprise. Yet his audience—highly selected for Cringe by the nature of the occasion—laughed. They were, in fact, hastening to assert, “Yes, yes, I know that Australians are crude; I’m on your side of the fence.”‘ (p. 92)
Here the nervous laughter colludes with the lecturer to distinguish the laugher from the ‘crude sort of chap’ he knows himself—as an Australian—to be. In PSPS, rather, the nervous laughter colludes with the interlocutor in recognition that the ideal vendor-consumer relationship does not quite fit. The vendor’s perky demeanour is full of punctures, the consumer isn’t quite sure s/he is rich and demanding enough. In both cases the ‘failures’ are located in their Australian accents, which, paradoxically, foreground themselves at the moment of the transaction.
Hence Channel Cringe mainly appears in a tendency to make price comparisons. Phillips’ ‘minatory’ ‘Public School Englishman’ lurking at the back of every Australian’s mind has morphed into Kim Kardashian. And thus the mental habit/cultural ‘stance’ Phillips identified—a neurotic sign of a ‘colonial culture’—is now one of our globalised culture.
Not least for this reason, the peculiar cultural demeanour of Australians that so concerned Phillips is worth thinking about again. For a start, Australian culture today is where substantial portions of the rest of the world are trying to get (back) to. I make no claim to anything but a distorted and personal viewpoint here—not least for having this time visited only affluent regions of Hobart, Canberra and Melbourne—but for the first time my eyes are open to just how big and booming everything is here (previously I only noticed how in Britain and/or Europe everything seems smaller and more recessed). For the first time in over ten years, also, I’ve driven rather than flown into the latter Bleak-Chic City, twice on two different freeways. Take your pick, there are several more to choose from, at least six lanes each, all laced by colossal power lines, all feeding enormous road-trains of goods, along with zillions of car-driving consumers, into the spectacular multi-storey malls of central Melbourne. It happens in other major cities, too, of course, but the flat expanses surrounding this one, its relative newness and booming wealth, and the depth and exuberance of each freeway’s penetration into and through the CBD make the feeding of a monster all the more plain.
Once inside—and I do realise I witnessed the abnormal madness of pre- and post-Christmas buying—the scale of consumption is overwhelming. This is not so much a matter of extremes of wealth, like one witnesses in London among other places. No, what overwhelms is the high proportion of the population that can consume at this marvellous rate. What is more, on the face of it, Australian consumerism is Australian multiculturalism triumphans. With apologies to A. D. Hope I must agree: ‘In them [Australian malls] at last the ultimate men arrive.’ Wandering the air-con ‘streets’ of Melbourne Central is a home-grown vision of global harmono-prosperity. An assimilative vision: everyone here looks the same. Which is to say I look like them.
Have we, in fact, sleep-walked our way into equalling the world ‘overseas’? The contest is over: we punch above our weight (all we ever wanted), our malls are as bad as anyone’s…and our Westfields are even colonising London. Who can complain, then, should an Australian government be elected whose ideology unapologetically matches the practice of everyday life?
‘Yet there are some like me turn gladly home’. For even if the Great Australian Emptiness has reached a new commercial apotheosis—‘teeth’ no longer ‘fall like autumn leaves’ but are capped and fixed by orthodontic artistes—in our nervous laughter there may be some redemption. Because what, for Phillips, was a contributing sign of a repugnant Cultural Cringe may now be a true measure of Channel Cringe. At worst our nervous laughter suggests Australians can’t quite picture themselves in the full body of the global Konsumer; at best it is the Australian body’s registration that global consumer culture does not amount to much.
In this productively unsettled state we are in the domain of Australia’s (at least) century-old comic response to life in the suburbs; and hence in the full strength of our artistic and performance community’s work. No one needs me to tell them that this strain of Australian culture—featuring, mocking, abhorring, acknowledging, articulating, celebrating suburbia and suburbanites—is not still going strong in a range of media, though I am pleased it continues to be a loving representation from the ‘inside’. (Can any of us legitimately claim to ‘escape your own skin, even if it itches like hell’?)
Australia’s intellectuals, I think, face a more uphill battle with Channel Cringe. (Might this explain a certain siege mentality underpinning many papers—including my own—at the recent, nonetheless re-energising International Australian Studies Association conference in Hobart?) The History Wars, for example, are over…but I’m not convinced that means ‘we’ won. We could set two 2015 trailers on either side of the fence here (and this is not passing judgement on the aesthetic qualities of either one): Channel Nine’s Gallipoli and Channel Seven’s Australia: The Story of Us. The former’s tag is ‘Australia Was Born on the Shores of Gallipoli’; the latter’s ‘How Our Ancient Land Became a Modern Nation. The People The Events That Shaped Us. 40,000 Years in the Making’.
Either position is beside the point. Because I’m unsure whether we don’t have—now that there is a general acknowledgment of colonial violence, a managerial attitude to priorities of belonging, and a scholastic habitus that recognises ‘our Indigenous people’—a harder task ahead. To quote White again, ‘what intellectual roost there is’ has been pulled out from under us by (in culture) the high-gloss drama and (in news) the onscreen pundit (as often as not one of our own, racing for impact). Hence it is also the speed of response in the Age of Channel Cringe that is hostile to the very thing that intellectual work has to offer; the thing it offers that is different from 24/7 rolling insta-comment.
The latter is in fact well served in Australia. If our country’s corporation-dominated public sphere almost lands—on first re-entry—a knock-out blow, even in the subsequent stupor other media voices can be heard. They might emerge in New Matilda, Crickey, Inside Story, The Monthly, the ABR, and the new grand-daddy of them all the Guardian Australia to name but a few (with the links showing some examples of their counter-discourses) or the ever-embattled ABC/SBS/NITV (SBS has a history of Australian race-rioting coming up!). But they can be as likely found in the remarkably generous and informed standard of ‘users comments’ made by Australians in such fora: more generous and informed, I think, than made by their UK and USA counterparts, for whom slap-downs acquired in Oxbridge/Ivy League tutorials upend opportunities for real debate. The standard of Australian user comment may be high because our educated elite have so few spaces for resisting Channel Cringe’s all-out assault (though that is just a hunch). What we can say, though, is that Channel Cringe mercifully co-exists with strains of Australian culture and criticism which exhibit the ‘relaxed erectness of carriage’ Phillips predicted would be a sign of the Cultural Cringe’s demise.
And yet Phillips’s ‘relaxed’ wants re-routing. For him it signified the desired confidence of a kind of Australian critic whose authority was born of merit wedded to a self-awareness that did not place her/himself above or rather outside the community whose culture s/he critiqued. I think this is standard nowawdays, showing indeed how far we have come since the 1950s. But I don’t know any academic who can claim to be ‘relaxed’. Instead, self-aware/deprecatory intellectuals though we may be, we are tumbled pell-mell into the high-speed world of the global education market. Or rather, in the rat-race of competition that ‘fosters collaboration’ while eroding possibilities of true collegiality, as often as not whenever we ‘work’ we are anything but relaxed as we perpetuate the channelsevenification of academic life.
I know this because it has been something that has been seriously bothering me for the last month. It’s been bothering me because I haven’t been achieving my dot-point academic objectives (answering emails) and feeling genuine guilt about it.
There are reasons. Firstly, I’ve been experiencing what any area studies specialist—particularly one who practises the profession outside The Area—suffers when s/he is sporadically immersed in it: a kind of stimulus overload leading to intellectual reflux. (This blog is my Mylanta.) Secondly I have been reading: three random (= eeek, only tangentially related to research/teaching) books per week.
And both processes have made me realise how normal it is for me to acquiesce in the new managerial vision of an intellectual life. For is the latter not rather about making oneself for considerable tracts of time unavailable, solipsistic, even selfish? And is this not, in the context, a truly resistant practice? Australian! Get thee into the window seat, pull the red mooreen curtain and read a bloody book! It’s the first lesson I still too often forget to teach…and learn.
For more on the Cringe see
Frank Bongiorno and Ian Henderson, ‘Beating Round the Bush: The Australian Legend and The Australian Tradition’, in Tanya Dalziell and Paul Genoni, eds, Telling Stories: Australian Literary Cultures 1935-2010 (Melbourne: Monash Publishing, 2013), pp. 195-201
Ian Henderson, ‘“Freud Has A Name for It”: A. A. Phillips’s “The Cultural Cringe”’, Southerly, 69.2 (2009), pp.125-45; rpt. Best Australian Essays 2010, ed. Robert Drewe (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010), pp. 105-116.
Henry James never saw this. Stepping out of the lift into the former restaurant at London’s BT Tower, the most extraordinary night-time view of a massive city stretches away in every direction, lights twinkling as far as the eye can see. I suppose city workers in their skyscrapers behold such things every evening, but an overview of London is a rarity for me; like James—for whom only the smog of late 19th-century London suggested its magnitude—I am usually grounded, hemmed in by uniform canyons of 5-storey high buildings.
I’ve been up the Mordor-ish London Shard, looked down the Thames from the Eighth Floor of the King’s College London History Department, and experienced the measured revelations of the London Eye: but the BT Tower, isolated in Fitzrovia better to transmit all London’s telecommunications, outdoes them all, not least because the cluster of other view-points are in its purview. (It reminds me of how Guy de Maupassant lunched at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant simply so he wouldn’t have to look at it.)
I am here to help celebrate the achievements of the 2014 Accelerate Award recipients, arts professionals who enter a British Council mentorship and placement programme in Australia and the UK. They are so impressive a bunch of Australians I’d appreciate some mentorship from them in turn; and indeed a clear outcome of the scheme is that the experience flows out from a single award to the recipient’s community. The affirmation of commitment and hard work is, I suppose, a considerable reward in itself, but it is also extraordinary the effect of being lifted from one’s own locality and given a new perspective on it to draw back into one’s everyday view.
Becoming Director of MCAS has been to enter something of an accelerate programme of my own. Firstly because I feel like I have been slingshot into a new temporality, when systems for promoting change all need, it seems, to have been instituted yesterday. And secondly because I have suddenly and repeatedly bourn (sideline) witness to the ‘business’ of the university executive, of diplomacy, governance and trade in ways I have never experienced before. Without going over to the dark side, it is impressive stuff that goes on. And there is an extraordinary sense, more often than I expected, of arts and educational institutions, government and business pulling in the same direction. I may look back at this post and see only my own naivety, but it is also easy to be prejudiced against the work of those whose perspective is always well above the ground.
Previously I have used the low-high perspective metaphor to explain to undergraduates something of the university ‘hierarchy’ also: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor. The latter, through the simple expedient of having had longer to read and write—and having witnessed directly shifts in their field(s) of expertise (sometimes occasioned by their own writing)—are often able to offer widening perspectives on disciplines and the future of academic research. It’s about looking at, moving through, and helping forge an intellectual terrain over extended time.
We saw something of this in action at MCAS during our Remembrance Day seminar (12 November 2014) when our own resident professor, Carl Bridge, gave a masterful account of British-Australian diplomatic relations during the Great War. He was able to ‘dive in’ to a selected point in each year of the War and dispel prevailing myths; and also afford insight into the reasons—not delusions—of Australians’ sense of direct involvement in the conflict (i.e. not merely as dominion Britons). Dr Noah Riseman, a youthful Senior Lecturer in History at the Australian Catholic University, provided a tighter focus, but no lesser insight, into the amazing and still neglected story of Aboriginal Australian diggers: their often having to lie about their identity to be enlisted; their extraordinary contribution to the war effort; and their appalling treatment at the end of the war. Both speakers, in their way, provided overview and spotlight; if varying degrees of each.
But I want to start messing with the low-high perspective metaphor. For one thing, going up the lift I also got younger, undercutting the hierarchy. At 177 metres tall—the restaurant is lower than that of course—the Tower makes a perfect toy-town of the streets below. You feel like you could reach out, grasp a double-decker bus and whoosh it along Tottenham Court Road. I am inside my childhood in another way also: watching The Goodies repeats on the ABC, laughing myself silly as a giant kitten pushes us over.
And let me end by inverting my hierarchical metaphor altogether. If the Indigenous Australian visual arts have taught me anything it is the priority of ground, not sky. It reminds me of a discussion I had with MCAS’s Helen Idle about whether we had ever seen the sun depicted in a work of Indigenous art. I couldn’t recall it (if you have let me know!): but wanted to say it is everywhere in evidence, as if light came out of the ground. It is a paradox corresponding to the way grounded traditional art often looks like a birds-eye view. And to how ochre placed on skin seems rather to express law that comes from within it. I sensed, then, that the Accelerate Awards recipients might have a thing or two to teach all of us up the Tower about perspective.
Let this learning stand as an early account of my first three months in office. I am about to head to Australia for a couple of months, first to the International Australian Studies Association conference in Hobart, where I will seek further input into the future of MCAS; afterwards to put my head down and write during my research leave. MCAS has two exciting events still to go in 2014: the second meeting of the Group of Readers in Australian Studies (26 Nov) and a launch of Anne Henderson’s Menzies at War (10 December).
And our incredibly exciting January to June 2015 programme is soon to be released. In it you will find strands focused on public affairs, the centenary of Anzac Day, Indigenous Australia (in association with the upcoming British Museum exhibition), and Australian print culture. My colleague Dr Simon Sleight will kick these off in January in his new role as Acting Director of MCAS while I am on leave.
But I will keep posting: from Down Under.