Australia, n. A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Stalemate beneath the dense sky of moratorium agreements: the best we can hope for Europe ... But there is no escape route in sight. You feel you are standing at bay. Australia is not a way out.
Christa Wolf, Cassandra
The city of Sydney has one decent road to the airport because of the Queen’s visit in 1963; the royal nostrils were not to be assaulted by the stink from the tanneries along the slum route through the inner southern suburbs. We exploit royal visits, and do the same with our dubious anniversaries. The bicentenary, a brontosaurean occasion if ever there was one, is providing much that we could have done without, including a barrage of royal visits. But there are some welcome parks and roadworks, and with these opulent volumes, something else we needed badly: a drastic, anti-racist revision, for the general reader, of this bizarre country’s history.
The Historical Library is the outcome of ten years’ work by an army of some four hundred historians and archivists, geographers, statisticians, mapmakers, editors and research assistants, with secretaries and spouses. Contributors were unpaid, but the total cost, borne principally by the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales and the publishers, must run into millions. The design is handsome, clean and open, with superb printing by the Griffin Press of Adelaide. The illustrations, not decor but documents, come large and small, from huge foldouts to miniatures in generous margins: segments of diaries and letters, school certificates, photographs back to the mid-19th century, woodcuts, aquatints, panoramas, cartoons; advertisements, posters, paintings; Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish maps from the 16th and 17th centuries; and immaculate photographs of art and artefacts going back twelve thousand years. Historical Statistics reproduces some splendid abstract paintings which allude to time and number. The Historical Atlas uses photographs of rock paintings to complement its mappings of Aboriginal landscapes and immigration.
The first print-run was of 15,000 sets; nearly 10,000 have been sold. People are buying them especially for their children; payment is usually arranged as a monthly deduction of $A36 from credit-card accounts. On their academic rounds and in the general preface, the project’s chief devisers talk about it as the end of a hard and adventurous road, a vision fulfilled, and they praise their publishers for magnifying the comparatively modest proposals they began with. The publishers formed their consortium, paid generous advances, encouraged higher word-limits and lavish format, and marshalled their own publicists for prestige marketing. They retain the right to organise and edit potted versions for promotional spin-offs; one of those has appeared, a magazine-size booklet called Australia: 200 and Beyond. It offers a study in retrogressive transformation: what can happen to essays in progressive history when they’re summarised to fit an advertiser’s notion of the readership.
There’s a special gold-tooled limited edition, complete with bookcase and brass plate, for $A 2950 ‘on easy monthly interest-free terms’. It’s the kind of puffing that goes with a royal jubilee dinner-service: history becomes upmarket commodity.
With all that showcasing, the series is commonly referred to as the Bicentennial History. But in the strictly official sense it isn’t. The project had neither money nor endorsement from the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and does not carry the ABA’s ubiquitous green and gold logo; the historians were, in fact, refused support from that source. They were attempting a generally progressive and innovative, open kind of history, social-democratic in general intent, however the writers’ positions might vary from liberal-reformist to radical. Given the ABA’s conservative, consensus-seeking politics, some of the editors are now glad to disclaim any connection.
The difficulty is to get anyone to believe them; the danger is that the best work in the volumes could be trapped, silenced by the louder voices of promotion, so that the differences between these and the mountains of glossy Australiana now on offer – the bookshops burst, the coffee-tables groan – may be less than obvious. The anthropologist Annette Hamilton, reviewing Australians to 1788, judges that excellent volume disappointing, not so much in what it says and shows of precontact Aboriginality, but in the limitation of its address to readers who are already culturally privileged. The work, she said, is ‘unlikely to penetrate average Australia’, dominated as it still is by racist mythologies. Stuart Macintyre, discussing the whole project, put it succinctly: ‘It’s not easy to do justice to the underdog in a volume with gold-blocked end-leaves.’
The contradictions which cut between the printed substance and its packaging can also be traced, in a kind of zigzag, between the more and less conservative volumes in the set, even within volumes and sections. They are linked to the contradictions which are now, quite productively, muddling the huge bicentenary itself.
As an ‘imagined community’, Australia needs more strenuous imagining than most. Post-colonial? Not really – we are re-colonised over and over. Wall Street shivers, the Australian dollar gets pneumonia; Japan revises its shopping-list, and our coal industry verges on collapse. Britain’s hold began to loosen after World War Two, but our cultural colonisation by the United States was probably effective at least sixty-five years ago, by the time Australian cinema outlets had been secured for Hollywood, and closed off for local producers, through the nefarious block-booking system. With film and television, there never was much political will to defend ourselves; nor was there any, a year ago, to prevent the powerful American magnate Rupert Murdoch from taking over two-thirds of the press in what used to be his own country. There are moments and areas where it still seems reasonable to promote cultural nationalism, if not positive xenophobia.
Meanwhile the American nuclear bases – or, if you believe they ought to be there, ‘joint facilities’ – set the country irretrievably within the global network of terror; as Christa Wolf understood, Australia is no way out. In certain desperate contemporary dreams, ‘Australia’ is once again an Arcady, the safe place at the other end of everything. That’s how it is echoed in the dark north European limbo of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, as in the East German conversations Wolf writes about in Cassandra.
Ambrose Bierce’s old frivolity can be profitably re-worked. The problem with national commemoration is that it returns the place to island status, precisely when, more than ever, Australia should know itself a continent: internally divided, with no single ‘national identity’; facing outward, ‘part of the main’. But now, in a vast public fantasy, it is offered to the inhabitants as a highly special unity, congratulating itself on a mythic journey through two centuries to a grand point of arrival in the present. In May the Queen will open the new Parliament House in Canberra: designed by an Italian working from New York, it’s one of our more interesting public buildings since the Sydney Opera House (designed, as far as they’d let him, by a Dane). The new building is crowned by the biggest flagpole south of the equator, as phallic as you like.
That typifies the elephantiasis which has gripped the whole event – some forty thousand events, in fact, costing squillions, from the Tall Ships and the First Fleet Re-Enactment and the Perth-Sydney balloon race to the smallest gumnut-throwing contest in the local Rotary park. My car’s new registration sticker bears that logo, and the words ‘Australia 1788-1988’: I’ll swear the car, an elderly German, has been particularly grumpy in her gearshift ever since it went on.
I resent it myself. As a white Australian who rather likes living here, I am the beneficiary of an invasion. If honour is due to Captain Phillip, a brave leader with amazing management skills, more is due to the convicts, who fetched, carried and built on the fatal shore, often in conditions of enslavement – although, in his chapter ‘The Invasion’ in Australians to 1788, Geoffrey Blainey thinks that’s putting it too strongly. In any case, the convicts did the work, and if anything like a nation was founded then, it was at outrageous human cost to both black and white. In a superb chapter, ‘Towards Australia’, Alan Frost argues that the Aborigines were dispossessed, the convicts exiled and exploited, so that Britain might have a far-south strategic base which could also serve as an off-shore gaol, conveniently remote. Whatever fine words were spoken at the initial flag-raising and gunfire, they masked the workings of power which overreached all humane intentions.
At that rate, the 200th anniversary might properly be marked by a lowering of flags, Last Posts, and salutations toward long-obliterated graves. Most black citizens and increasingly numerous white ones know it, with many – but not all – historians among them. The ABA has had a rocky ride since its establishment, by a hopeful Fraser Government in 1981, with public fights, expensive resignations, and manifest uncase about its own raisond’être expressed in the censorship of its shiny literature: employees have been forbidden, for example, to use the word ‘invasion’ with reference to 1788. With ‘discovery’ ruled out, ‘foundation’ became the officially acceptable term. A few years ago the projected slogan was ‘Living Together’, an uneasy attempt to embrace Australians of more than a hundred different origins and languages into chummy, family-of-man communality. Then the Authority made an ominous rightward shift, and the words appear on hoardings which rear up, desperately cheerful, every few kilometres on our cluttered roads: CELEBRATION OF A NATION, in a burst of balloons and streamers. But most of them have been spray-canned: the one I see regularly denounces 200 YEARS OF WHITE LIES.
That line represents a major theme in the contra-centennial opposition. Most Aboriginal leaders are insisting on peaceful and dignified protest; some, peacefully or not, want to tip the re-enacted First Fleet back into the sea. A march (‘for hope, freedom and justice’) is under way; the writer Kevin Gilbert and others are working on their draft for the long-projected treaty which black Australians, unlike the Maoris and the Inhuit, have never had. When the Hawke Government backed down on a national land rights policy nearly two years ago, Northern Territory Aborigines announced their boycott of the bicentenary. They are, however, organising a year-long celebration of their own culture, with emphasis on what they believe white Australians should learn from them about caring for the land.
Some Aborigines refused ABA grants for cultural projects: they saw it as blood money, and the whole event as the expression of institutionalised racism. Others have accepted their share of the $A8 million specified for Aboriginal participation. The first Aboriginal television station, Imparja, based in Alice Springs, is beginning its broadcasts with the help of bicentennial money. A successful black artist, Jimmy Pike, was commissioned to do the ABA’s official poster. It shows the white man’s ship arriving – from the viewpoint of the shore. Although serious interrogation is confined to fringe journals like Australian Society and Australian Left Review, satirical, contra-centennial songs break from the rock stations; derision, protest and indifference (‘What Bicentenary?’) spread round on middle-class T-shirts. As I write, the federal Aboriginal Affairs minister, Gerry Hand, announces his individual boycott of the official programme, and his intention to participate in Aboriginal demonstrations of protest. Then he has to decide whether he’ll go to official black events, like the opening of Imparja. The opposition calls for his resignation, and Hawke declares that he ‘respects’ the minister’s position. The national teachers’ federation, with 175,000 members, declares its own boycott, and its commitment to anti-racist teacing. The respectable Sydney Morning Herald publishes a guide to black protest events as well. Containment, incorporation, growls the disaffected Left. Others, insanely hopeful, prepare to march and dance with the Aborigines.
A few years ago, with all this impending at a comfortable distance, we made jokes about mass emigration on 31 December ’87. The jokes wore thin. To make better ones, and unscramble the cacophony, we need some cultural analysis: a task which, as the Historical Library demonstrates too often, most of the Left, historians included, has been shirking like the plague for years. It’s not enough to talk about the mammoth circus turned on to distract us all from a worsening shortage of bread. When the politicians instituted the circus, they underestimated the force of the very symbolism they sought to promote, and permitted the outward fling of a boomerang that was much bigger than they knew.
One of the best outcomes is that history is now far more openly a field of political contestation, an arena. Pasts which were suppressed and denied have been laid open, much less by historians than by those for whom history is immanent in the present. When the Government reneged on land rights – to avoid clashes with state governments and mining interests – it probably seemed that there were no votes in it anyway. Then we were all overtaken: it became apparent that black Australians were dying in prison cells in quite appalling numbers. Hawke held off on a Royal Commission for as long as he could, but now it’s under way, and the Aboriginal issue can’t be kept out of the headlines.
Australians to 1788, using research by the economic historian Noel Butlin, proposes that the indigenous population at the time of the invasion was at least seven hundred and fifty thousand, about two and a half times more than the earlier standard estimate. By the 1930s, Aborigines, who were counted separately in the census and were not accounted citizens, numbered less than seventy thousand. A single figure changes our map of that past which, as our schoolbooks delivered it to us, was all pioneering and progress. For our concepts of the scale of human destruction through the 19th and into the 20th century, the implications are devastating.
From their academic vantage-points a whole decade back, they saw the brontosaurus lumbering towards them: ‘in 1977 a few historians in Canberra began to think about 1988 as a year offering a special opportunity to their craft. That year, we guessed, would inspire a larger and more general commemoration than Australians had organised at the end of any previous half-century. The coming occasion was sure to be more national than those others, for advances in central government, transport and community had accelerated the transformation of states that had once been separate colonies into provinces of a single polity, whose people travelled about as never before, talked to each other on STD, watched all over the continent the same prime ministerial news conference and the same cricket match.’ The graceful preface by Alan Gilbert and Ken Inglis appears in each volume. It is pervaded by a belief in Australia as one community, however divided, and the temperate acceptance that the bicentennial beast would be friendly, or at least tractable. Among the important, long-lacked amenities it could provide was the proper stock of reference volumes for enquiring citizens, historians and their students: thus ‘one half of our enterprise was quickly decided on.’ For the rest, it was determined that one more general narrative history, periodised and allocated, could only ‘elaborate present understandings ... without providing any fresh vision’: so ‘instead of inviting historians to pass the baton along a familiar track, we proposed a series of survey camps; instead of stringing events on a thread of narrative, we imagined cutting slices.’
The slice approach should never have been controversial. It doesn’t by itself guarantee progressive, let alone radical history. In the result, each one-year study assembles its epoch around it; we get windows as well as microscopes. But some historians did object, and the publishers evidently thought the market required gestures toward authority and continuity: in consequence, we have the depressingly conformist Historical Dictionary and the bland chronology in Events and Places. The former does very little, with respect to personages, that the long-running Australian Dictionary of Biography doesn’t do very much better. Anthropology and science are barely represented; film, television, broadcasting and the press are there with major omissions; while the journals Meanjin and Quadrant have entries, the important oppositional work of Overland, voice, Nation and Nation Review is nowhere in this register. The entry under Literature recites the same tired old canon, and fails the reader by talking as though nothing had happened to notions of writing, reading and authorship in the past thirty years. Very good entries on Law (Ross Cranston), Culture (Richard White) and on K.R. Murdoch (David Bowman) are exceptions to the general level. Even granting their own terms – those of closed and authoritative, rather than open and provisional history – the Dictionary and chronology could be much more imaginative; on a reprinting, they should be revised.
Much more invention lights up both the Atlas and Statistics. The former is disappointing only in that it offers no archaeology of mapping itself, although Australians to 1788 to some extent makes up for it. The relations of literacy, religion and education are mapped; so is urban gentrification – no quotes around the word now; the movements of convicts and bushrangers; Aboriginal landscapes and Aboriginal resistance, as well as the more obvious geographies of climate, land use and weather.
In the helpful Guide to Sources – where, inter alia, Australia’s underfunded and undervalued libraries get some of the attention they deserve – Stuart Macintyre surveys history-writing itself. With the crumbling of both liberal-scholarly and radical nationalist traditions, which at least made frameworks for ‘engagement with the larger issues’, he finds we have suffered loss; academic history has too much succumbed to narrow professionalism. A little too gently (he could be misunderstood), he asks how, if at all, can national history be made worth doing now? And how can it give popular memory better resources than those offered by commercial ‘preservation’ and heritage lists?
They are hard and necessary questions. The history volumes do not easily yield the answers.
The critical issue with slicing is not that its non-linearity results in some kind of incompleteness, but rather the whole idea that by looking into a brief period in detail, you can resist the temptation to know better than those you write about, and get to know them positively as neighbours. Gilbert and Inglis invoke Halévy’s England in 1815, Macaulay’s chapter on 1685, and Ulysses: ‘Slicing through a year, we might hope to see and hear people living as we do ... but at the same time surrounded by choices and uncertainties ... grasping the truth that the future that beckoned them was not necessarily our past – what actually happened – but rather a hidden destiny ... The slice approach could help us to recover the richness of everyday life.’ And the editors of Australians: 1888 believe that ‘we can view life through the eyes of the people of the time, rather than through the eyes of posterity.’
But it isn’t a matter of forgetting what’s happened in the meantime, refusing to paint in looming thunderclouds or butt in with had-they-but-known. It’s rather that we have no choice about where we sit as the stages of 1838, 1888 and 1938 fill up and crowd with the named figures of those who left diaries and letters, or traces in shipping, court and subscription-lists. Thus retrievable, they are still fictions. They have been chosen, reassembled, inserted; we slice with ideologically-moulded implements, and if we find ‘the extraordinary in the ordinary’, then our very notions of ordinariness, of what composes ‘everyday life’ have still guided the search. Nevertheless, as Gilbert and Inglis put it, ‘while charting the rhythms of existence, we have not ignored change and conflict.’ That puts it gently.
At a planning conference for the project in 1981, several black scholars walked out in protest against the assumption that the histories should begin by slicing into 1788. Their anger dramatised long-pent bitterness against what the anthropologist W.E. Stanner called ‘the great Australian silence’ – the ways in which Aborigines, with their millennia of history and culture, were written out of white history, consigned to silence in perpetual, symbolic re-annihilation.
Few Aboriginal historians were prepared to contribute to the project at all; one, Marcia Langton, who works not for a university but for the Central Lands Council, is co-author of the chapter in Australians: 1938 on the Day of Mourning, organised against the sesquicentennial celebrations of 50 years ago. There is no chapter on Aborigines in Historical Statistics, although they figure in subsections of the book, for two reasons noted by the editor: ‘because of Australia’s racist past’, they ‘usually have not been included in statistical compilations relating to the general community. Aboriginal institutions and individuals who were asked for assistance to compile material, although they welcomed the idea, were reluctant to become actively involved.’
The whole project took a leap into anti-racism: in all five history volumes, as in the Historical Atlas, it is a major organising principle. The original first slice was replaced by Australians to 1788, which its editors offer, not as ‘black history’, but as a translation made through the evidence from archaeology, anthropology, linguistics and oral history, of knowledge from societies which ‘were and are among the most different from European and Asian societies that have been recorded in the world’.
The opening chapters from prehistory, although humanity is at an immeasurable distance, still yield human evidence. The social systems which were active in 1788 had been in formation between five and fifteen thousand years earlier: a ‘complex artistic and religious life spanned the grasslands, from the Pilbara to western New South Wales, and lasted a long time’. The central chapters offer a new variety of images to the non-specialist; received notions of an undifferentiated, Edenic world of primitive hunter-gatherers must give way to dynamic variation. The people described in Chapter 15, ‘Swamp Managers of South-Western Victoria’, for example, were ‘more numerous, more sedentary and far more ingenious than we ever imagined’, and their culture differed greatly from others not so far away, the moth-gatherers of the south-eastern mountains, and from others flourishing in the west, the central desert, the rain-forests and the coasts of Arnhem Land.
In general, pre-contact Aborigines had better-balanced diets than many European town-dwellers or rural Asian people of their period. They were not aimlessly nomadic, or constantly taken up with the present moment, nor were their energies consumed in subsistence tasks. They had time to plan ceremonies involving dispersed kin groups, to enact them, to make art, to remember pasts and plan futures. They communicated widely with one another, fought and made peace, and their gifts and implements travelled much further than they did. They were artists, healers, conservationists, warriors and diplomats. Some, like those portrayed in the remarkable chapter ‘Mokaré’s Domain’, worked hard to find ways of accommodation with white people; some peaceable and perceptive whites worked with them, and left records of their co-operation. Around King George Sound in the far southwest, Mokaré and his family regarded the Europeans of the garrison and settlement at Albany as their lifelong guests. They worked out a pidgin language together, shared exploration, and talked at night around campfires and beside fireplaces. A white medical officer, Mokaré’s close friend, asked to be buried beside him: the present Albany town hall stands above their graves.
There has been criticism that the Aboriginal voices in the book are muted and distant. This is often true, not least in the chapters on language and musicology; and it is part of the whole enormous story that the distances between ourselves and those far-off societies cannot really be bridged. This book engenders, not comprehension or empathy, but respect for proper distances: the beginning of knowledge, perhaps, and a better sense of the scale of dispossession.
The last section is called ‘The Invasion’. Alan Frost’s chapter gives an account of Terra Australis as it developed in European imaginations, in Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish exploration and mapping; and he develops, convincingly, his argument on Britain’s strategic reasons for sending the First Fleet. He also unpacks its invisible cargo, the belief not simply in progress but in a special European kind of creativity, and in the virgin blankness of the land they were about to possess. ‘All the world had been Rome before Romulus, America before the Mayflower. An epic story might unfold in New South Wales ... ’ Terra nullius: perhaps for Phillip and his confrères it was an innocent belief. For the first time, this past December, 1987, an Australian government stated as a principle that the Aborigines were the first owners.
Australians: 1838, closely organised around questions of justice – between races, classes, convict and free, male and female within families – is the most unified of the slice books. It could well be read beside The Fatal Shore, complementing Robert Hughes’s information on convict life, extending the colonial landscapes, and importantly correcting Hughes’s simplistic view of the Aborigines.When everything has been said about the ordeals of the convicts, their endurance and labour, and the ways in which the Australian prison system actively inherits the cruelty of all that British justice, it can still be argued that the cost to the Aborigines was greater. There’s kudos in convict ancestry; those descended from the black Australians of that period move in different circles altogether.
The centre of Australians: 1838 is the chapter ‘At the Boundaries’, on the continuing invasion, with the appalling story of the Myall Creek massacre. The murderers were mostly convicts still under sentence, working as assigned servants on cattle runs. The account does more than uncover a half-buried atrocity, a catastrophic breakdown in black-white relations (in territory where accommodation had been attempted on both sides); it also displays the lethal entanglement of one sort of oppression with another.
The centennial celebrations of 1888, coming hard on those for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, were nevertheless fulsome. Critical opposition was undertaken mostly by the brilliant Bulletin: it centred on the convict system, already perceived as a history most hypocritically repressed. The destruction of Aboriginal society was recognised, but also accepted as the work of inevitable, evolutionary fate; the humane, Christian response was about soothing the dying pillow. The condition of the first Australians takes up less space in Australians: 1888 than in other volumes, but the findings of Henry Reynolds’s chapter on the subject are incisive: for most of the colonists, including many who benefited from Aboriginal labour, ‘the destruction of their society was seen as evidence of their own success.’
The Oral History Project undertaken by the editors of Australians: 1938, with 230 interviewers and nearly eight hundred informants, yields much for later Aboriginal history. Some at least of what it provides can be properly called black history, since its subjects put together its elements and told the stories themselves. The breaking-up of families, the institutionalisation of children, the forced training of boys for farm work and girls for domestic service – all under the rubrics of ‘protection’ and ‘assimilation’ – are by now widely-known, particularly through the work of historians who make films rather than books. What is really new for us in Australians: 1938 is the persistent refusal of victim-hood by the Aborigines most concerned. They got all they could out of tough schooling, missionary tyrannies, and impoverishment on the back-country fringes. Although, in one chronicler’s words, ‘the discrimination was so thick’ on a government settlement in the East Kimberleys ‘that the white people could do anything to any Aboriginal person or anyone of Aboriginal descent,’ he still tells a tale of resistance, hunting, dancing, an intrepid salvaging of communal happiness. From between his lines and others we find the life-strategies which account for the survival, and the present extraordinary cultural recovery, of ‘the proudest people on earth’.
By according the first Australians their central place in these books, and linking their stories with ours, the historians concerned have played a role in the late, incipient process of recompense. We can’t tip the First Fleet back into the sea: but the boomerang returns.
Determinedly social-democratic, the books each have long sections on ‘the seasons of life’, the way Australians in any one period conducted the affairs of childhood, adulthood and family life, old age and death. Impressive fictions emerge. Some commentators have elected Fred Coneybeer, the horse-collar-maker of North Adelaide, a young family man and trade-unionist, the hero of Australians: 1888. Fred survives because his voluminous, ill-spelt diary is extant in the South Australian Archives. He was a meticulous chap, fond of saying ‘you bet’ and ‘no mistake’; he saved up to take his wife and baby to the centennial celebrations in Melbourne. His health and evident normality contrast, for instance, with the penurious strivings of another diarist, Ann Currie, a farmer’s wife in the Victorian back-country; the marginal life of an upper-class widow, Julia Suttor, doing the rounds of her married children’s establishments; the hand-to-mouth existence of a perennially unemployed father, Thomas Dobeson, on Sydney’s outskirts, and his defensive stock of ridicule for politicians and emigration agents, with all their ‘fairytales’ about the ‘land of promise’.
As hero of this volume, I prefer the legendary statistician Timothy Coghlan. He thought Australia at the centenary marvellously progressive and fortunate; in his numerous yearbooks and compendia, its people ‘were marching firmly and confidently into their ordered and perfectible future’. Coghlan, who got a knighthood in the end, was every bit as well-adjusted as Fred Coneybeer. But he was no mere number-cruncher. Like his successors who made the Historical Statistics volume, he understood that figures must be chosen, and are unavoidably interpreted; they are the ground of storytelling.
A lot of the 1888 volume is very practical history on material culture, shaped by the ruling concepts of pioneerdom. The chapters on energy and distance can be mapped over those on social and political life, community, law and politics to show how power – the kind requiring coal and steam, bullocks and horses – served other kinds. These accounts also show what the invasion did to ecology, and the huge material difficulties of reproducing Western ways of life in a vast antipodean country with too much rain in some places and not half enough in others. The packhorse trade lasted just long enough to keep Fred Coneybeer’s family comfortable.
In the last chapter of 1888, the common man enters cultural history. The English-Australian cable link, only six months in place, went dead in late June; some feared action by the Queen’s enemies. ‘Great excitement,’ wrote Fred. ‘Tuesday – worke all day – the paper seems strange now without any cabels –’ ... ‘Wednesday – the Cabel is still broken and we are in suspence about it.’ Then on 13 July: ‘the cabel is repaired and we got a batch of telegrams this afternoon – great run on the papers – about seven or eight additions out this afternoon.’
There could have been more in this volume on the newspapers which Fred and all his like consumed so avidly. In that far-off, foreign country where the press was the only mass medium, newspapers, like all media now, were never merely mirrors, but always agents, working on their worlds. Francis Adams and Henry Lawson are present in these pages as individual voices: but they were empowered by the Bulletin, which gave them and thousands of others their moments of public speech. Country-town newspapers were often literate and politically independent, some of the religious press liberal and urbane.
It is because ‘ordinary’ people wrote and read that we can now build histories like these. Their articulateness, and their curiosity as citizens, might valuably be seen in continuity with the more privileged cultural work of those who made books, theatre and newspapers. At that rate, the ordinary loses its categorical boundaries: ‘there are no masses ... ’ The historians’ Coneybeers and Curries are only as ordinary as we want to make them: it is not in the once-real, now-inaccessible persons of history, but in these constructions, that they embody a sort of benign complacency. Too many Freds to console us, and we find that conservatism which is possible to history-from-below: this is where social-democratic history threatens to become populism, confirming the dominant order of things.
Australians: 1938 is well populated with Fred’s sociological grandchildren. The Oral History Project has assembled them to be their own witnesses, on the regimented childhoods of the 1930s, ongrowing-up, working, saving and marrying, living country and suburban routines, doing ballroom dancing, listening to the wireless. ‘The richness of everyday life’? There were also its poverty, banality and pathetically narrow horizons, for girls especially. It is good anthropological history, where the industry of feminist scholars makes its impact. Ladurie meets de Beauvoir’s daughters, and they produce these past worlds of traditionally-bred Australian wives and mothers, with their lifelong anxieties, their toiling heroism.
But the domestic labour of women hardly figures in the section on Work, which mainly explores under-organised labour on the canefields, in clothing factories, engineering workshops and coalmines. One journalist briefly remembers his cadetship. Work and Leisure are the names of separate sections, and culture is subsumed in Leisure: thus the historians replicate the notion, still institutionally dominant, that ‘culture’ is decor, having nothing to do with real lives except to uplift or relieve them. ‘Ordinariness’ calls the tune again: it is as though the culture of this recent past must be insistently popular if its history is to claim general attention in the present. The concepts of story and character merge with the determining beliefs about the readers of today.
Thus, in a very good chapter on radio – appropriately titled ‘Wireless’ – Lesley Johnson presents the five-year-old Australian Broadcasting Commission as entirely pedagogical and snobbish, while the commercial stations did the real job of entertaining with their serials, dance bands, light classics and jazz. Johnson writes from a worked-out position, clearly anti-élitist and feminist: she analyses commercial radio in terms of its ideological placement of the audience as family members, and of women as family-bound. But with all that can be said on the ABC’s stubbornly Reithian self-concepts, they’re not the whole story, for the Thirties or since. For country listeners especially, the national stations opened worlds which were otherwise closed: and it was in 1938 that its independent news service began to break the strict limits set by the newspaper-owners (they were led by the elder Murdoch).
Leonie Sandercock and others contribute an excellent chapter on sport, viewed as work and popular theatre, and also as a part of political life – segmented, as sport always was, by the divisions of class and race. John Rickard’s survey of entertainment takes in dancing, music, magazines and newspapers; he also notes the formation of a Fellowship of Australian Writers, and its moves for grants and subsidies. He does not consider what the novelists, travel writers and essayists of the period were doing with their worlds. There seems to be no available strategy for him, or for other contributors to the Historical Dictionary and the Guide to Sources, to think about writing as an artefact penetrated by history – let alone to count it as work, with its own political economy.
Yet the Australian Thirties were clamorous with debate: the campaigns against book censorship: passionate discussion of the Spanish war and Fascism; arguments on the functions of broadcasting and the need for a national theatre: pamphleteering on the status and employment of women; and, around the sesquicentennial, the Aborigines. A picture, reproduced from a painting of the time, shows a jostling crowd in Sydney’s Kings Cross: in a couple of paragraphs opposite, Rickard acknowledges urban bohemias and student life, stressing their marginality.
But they weren’t so marginal. Australian urban tribes have continuous histories, going back to the earliest years of our cities. As a theory of the forms of bonding within them, ‘mateship’ won’t do: Edward Said has a better word when he expounds ‘affiliation’, meaning the links which replace those of kinship. Within those milieux, academic and professional divisions break down; articulation and argument develop, and work outward beyond the enclaves. In Ann McGrath’s chapter on the publication of Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, and in David Walker’s ‘Mind and Body’, there are flashes from intellectual life. But Richard White’s chapter, paradoxically called ‘Overseas’, is the only contribution to communicate the variety of that life within the country. He writes about the inflow and exchange of ideas, about the contrasts and clashes among newspapers, and about their actual discursive work – for example, in the construction of the foreign as exotic, metropolitan and dangerous.
The same writer’s entry in the Historical Dictionary is the only place in the series to propose that for white Australians, as for black ones, culture is everything they do to make sense of their lives in the world. At that rate the high culture/popular culture divide – such a worry for some of these historians – is only one more cultural fact to be observed; there is no need to endorse it. In the same section, Hank Nelson probes the Australian Raj in Papua and New Guinea (‘Masters in the Tropics’); Amirah lnglis sketches the lives of Australian nurses on the Republican front in Spain; Janis Wilton writes of the Austrian refugees who came after the Anschluss. Here, perhaps, begins that liberation of Australian history, a hope to meet Stuart Macintyre’s anxiety; it should now be, as the economic historian Donald Denoon has been arguing, the history of Australians, wherever they have come from and wherever they have gone.