Sunday, August 26, 2007

An Unreliable Witness

Last Saturday, one’s beloved Guardian published an interview with the Australian novelist Kate Grenville in which this strange statement and quote appeared,

Grenville, who was born in 1950 and giggles about growing up reading Biggles in a "deeply colonial culture", believes Australians are in a profound state of denial about their history. She describes the bicentenary celebrations in 1988 as a revelation: "I had been brought up with this idea that Aboriginal people were a thing of the past, they were museum pieces; I'd never knowingly met an Aboriginal person. So I joined this reconciliation march, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I realised how many Aboriginal people there were. I was surrounded by people who'd been invisible to me my whole life."

I know I’ve lived away from Australia for the last twenty-five years and have therefore missed out on the reconciliation process between white and Aboriginal Australians, much of which seems to have involved a good deal of rather anal soul sifting by white Australians that tended to move relations sideways rather than forwards and did not materially redress the long history of injustice against the Aboriginal people. I understand that making tangible and meaningful reparations is no easy business and that a certain amount of ‘guilt’ is an inevitable by-product of owning the catalogue of atrocities that were committed against Aboriginal people regardless of whether guilt by association serves any useful purpose. I even think that there is a certain validity to Grenville’s assertion that many white Australians were in a ‘state of denial about their history’. These are difficult truths.

The bit I don’t get is her claimed experience of growing up reading Biggles and being taught that Aboriginal people were ‘museum pieces’. I’m only a few years younger than Grenville. Surely she’s describing an Australia of the 1930s rather than the 1960s. Did she not read Blinky Bill, The Magic Pudding or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie? The first of the Ainslie Roberts and Charles Mountford books interpreting The Dreamtime came out in 1969. There is obviously an issue about the appropriation of Aboriginal lore by white artists for commercial purposes, but these books were bestsellers and they certainly did germinate an interested awareness in white Australia of the cultural life of Aboriginal people. It may have been patronising and naive but it was an undeniable phenomenon.

None of this rings true at all to me. Had Grenville never heard of Evonne (Goolagong) Cawley MBE, holder of fourteen Tennis Grand Slam titles beginning with her 1971 Wimbledon win? She won Wimbledon twice and the Australian Open four times and she was born the year after Grenville. Cawley was named Australian of the Year in 1972, the year she got her MBE and was awarded the Order of Australia in 1982.

What about Lionel Rose, born two years before Grenville who became world bantam weight boxing champion in 1968, the same year he was named Australian of the Year? He beat Fighting Harada? That one rings no bells either?

Albert Namatjira? The world-renowned painter and subject of the Archibald Prize winner in 1956? Never seen any of his frequently reproduced paintings, even on postage stamps like the one above? Queen Elizabeth II was a fan. She awarded him a Coronation Medal in 1953. He was the first Aboriginal to be granted full Australian citizenship in 1957. Vile as the concept of Australia’s original inhabitants being denied citizenship rights in their own country may be to contemplate now, it was a landmark event and no big secret.

Oodgeroo Noonuccal MBE (formerly Kath Walker) the prize winning poet and leading civil rights campaigner? A poem from her 1964 collection We Are Going was on my school's syllabus - and I went to an ordinary girls’ school in surburban Sydney. Regular readers will recall that I was very lucky to have known Oodgeroo and to have stayed at Moongalba on a number of memorable occasions. By the time I met her in the 1970s she was a figure of considerable importance and influence in both the arts and politics.

Oodgeroo's son Bejam Kunmunara Jarlow Nunukel Kabool (formerly Dennis Walker) - founder of the Australian Black Panther movement and leading campaigner at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1970s? Not heard of him either?

What about Charles Perkins, the first Aboriginal permanent head of a government department – appointed in 1981? He got his Order of Australia in 1987.

And Neville Bonner? First Aboriginal to be elected to the Australian Parliament where he served as a senator from 1971 -1983. He was named Australian of the Year in 1979 and received his Order of Australia in 1984.

David Gulpilil? The actor who shot to world fame in Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout 1971. He may have led a troubled life but has been perfectly visible ever since his first film appearance. He was also the subject of an Archibald Prize winner (2004).

And then there is my personal hero Artie Beetson, rugby league legend of the 1960s and 70s. Artie was the first Aboriginal to captain the country in any sport, and he played for my local team, The Balmain Tigers.

So what’s going on here? All of these people were household names during my youth. Of course we could have a whole big conversation about how they faced incredible odds to reach the level of success in life that they attained and were often caught between a cultural rock and hard place, dealing with continuing prejudice from white society and resentment within their own communities but that’s not the issue. Grenville said that Aboriginal people had been invisible to her until 1988. I’m saying that can’t have been possible unless she was living in some Amish settlement without TV, radio or newspapers.

Is it possible that the considerable individual achievements of the people above-mentioned have been suppressed by the national consciousness? If so, to what purpose? Will someone please put this ex-pat out of her misery and let her know what gives here...


Lizzie said...

Hi, Pants, I've just dropped into your blog by way of JaneJill's.

Your very sensible (and very well researched, I imagine), comments were extremely impressive. I shall say hello again, if you don't mind.


That's so pants said...

Hi Lizzie

Welcome. Any friend of Jane Jill's is an honoured guest at House of Pants.

The thing is, I didn't need to research these names - I admit I did double check on dates though.

These are famous people in Australia which is why I'm interested to know how Grenville could have overlooked them.



lavenderblue said...

The one thing that brought home to me the way that the Aborigines were treated was the film 'Rabbit-Proof Fence.'
That will live with me forever.
A very good post,Pants.

Andrew said...

True, Pants. Grew up with them too. My father had an Irish friend who had an aboriginal wife. My father could drink, the Irish friend could drink even more but they remained upright while drinking. Not so the wife. Oh dear, I have just painted a stereotype.

It pleases me that there is considerable good will towards aborigines now in Australia by much of the population. But we feel powerless and can only wring our hands as things get worse. Perhaps the government is on the right track with their plans, perhaps not. It is just so complex.

That's so pants said...

Hi Andrew

On the question of alcohol I am wondering - and I have no idea really, it just occurred to me, the invaded countries where alcohol abuse became a particular blight on indigenous populations were mostly those colonised by the British, during a time when drunkenness was a particularly pernicious influence on British society.

Britain has always been the 'sick man of Europe' in its attitude to alcohol consumption and I'm wondering if imprinting the habit of 'drinking like a navvie' is as plausible a reason for the widespread alcohol abuse in Aboriginal, Maori and Native American communities as the usually cited reasons of physiological intolerance and emotional upheaval. It doesn't seem to have had quite the same impact in Dutch Indonesia or Latin America.

I pretty much knew I wasn't the only Australian who remembered the 70s but what is Grenville on about? My theory is that she can't possibly have not known of these prominent Aboriginal people so, like, what's her agenda? Is she speaking figuratively? If so, she should have made that clear because the way this reads is that she's discounting these people in some way. To me, that's a kind of racism. It may appear benign and, however crudely, she was obviously trying to express empathy with Aboriginal people. But Grenville had the ear of a leading liberal newspaper in Britain and she clearly used that power to mislead readers. She has no right to filter these people and their achievements out of our shared history. What am I missing here?

Hi Lavenderblue

Welcome! 'Rabbit-proof Fence'. David Gulpilil was in that one too. Tip of the iceberg stuff really. The theme of that film is that anthropological idiocy as practised by do-gooders was just as devastating to the Aboriginal people as the attempted genocide that preceded it. It deals with very recent history. There are no laurels to rest on here. Racial equality is still an awful long way from being realised. That's why I really hate to see Grenville's stance getting a credible showing.



Reading the Signs said...

I don't know what to make of it. The book I read first of hers was a book on creative writing which I loved, and admired how she stuck to Australian writers when using excerpts to illustrate something. She refers to The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and, whatever you might think of how the book is written, seems to demonstrate an awareness she now claims not to have had. Or is she being coy - if so, why?

I agree, if she's speaking figuratively she should make this clear.

R.H. said...

Drunks are everywhere, not just in pommyland. I saw more drunkeness in Denmark than anywhere else. And if you read War and Peace you'll find Vodka in every chapter.
Rum was a staple in the British Navy, and a currency in early Australia, but the British wrecked China with opium. And emigrant Chinese suffered more in America and Australia than indigenes ever did: the Union Pacific railway in America ended with huge piles of Chinese bones along it, and the Chinese in early Australia were attacked and persecuted everywhere they went -but especially on the goldfields.

Nothing changes. The lying bourgeoisie have new clothes, but it's the same old crowd, back again. You never get rid of them.
Meanwhile this latest prattling (and foreign to me) version of a privileged origin, want ALL Australians to apologise to the aborigines, boo hoo, yet it wasn't my Class that robbed them, it was theirs. But this modern-day Rum Corps whose tipple is now Vodka and who've lately robbed the poor of their cheap digs all around the inner suburbs of this city by pushing up rents and the price of everything also have the cheek to wail about dispossession while doing a damn fine job of it themselves. Squatters and pen-pushers -not the labouring Classes, stole this country from the natives, just as these modern cashed-up hairdoed versions continue the tradition in all our big cities.
If they want something they just take it that's all, while at the same time bleating about injustice.

Liars. Hypocrites. Give the poor back their slums. Cut down on your DVD'S, cosmetics, clothes craziness....Put your hands into your own bloody pockets and return some of the advantage you're enjoying right this moment -due to Great Grandaddy being a thief.

Liars. Prattlers.


That's so pants said...

Hi Signs.

Coy seems like exactly the right word. But why? What useful purpose does coyness serve in the reconciliation and equalities process? Is that not just internalising the agenda and making it all about oneself - again?

'The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith', (Thomas Keneally's 1972 Booker nominated novel and Fred Schepisi's 1978 internationally successful film no less), is based on the true story of a part-Aboriginal tracker turned bushranger named Jimmy Governor whose serial brutalisation triggered him into a retaliatory killing spree a hundred years ago.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Keneally has said he would 'not now presume to write in the voice of an Aborigine, but would have written the story as seen by a white character'. I wouldn't presume to question the sincerity of this sentiment but, again, why? Did he feel he misrepresented Jimmy Governor in some way or did he just feel the zeitgeist demanded some kind of retraction on his part because he gained personally? Did he feel the same about Shindler's Ark (for which he DID win the Booker?) If not why not?

The logic is completely flawed - like Germaine Greer challenging Monica Ali's right to fictionalise the Bengali community of Brick Lane as she was from a well-to-do Bangladeshi family and not actually resident in Brick Lane.

Isn't Jimmy Governer's story similar to that of Ned Kelly - an ethnically Irish bushranger harassed into retaliation through constant violence at the hands of the law? Peter Carey felt no hesitation in entering the head of an Irishman in the same circumstances, even to the extent of appropriating his own words. And (ho hum - winning a Booker Prize for it)? How exactly would Jimmy Blacksmith/Governor's point of view be better served by having his first hand experience filtered through a white perspective? Wasn't that the story we already knew?

In any case Jimmy Governor was PART-Aboriginal and (presumably) part Irish. Many 'white' Australians have Aboriginal ancestors just as many Aboriginal Australians have white ancestors. I have cousins whose great-grandfather was a full-blood Aboriginal. By this logic, am I morally prohibited from fictionally entering any of their heads?

To me, this seems crude and diversionary. It must be possible to respect Aboriginal culture without believing that to engage with in any context at all is exploitative. Surely we are mature enough to realise that this 'hands off' approach is far more likely to lead to the 'museum pieces' mentality that Grenville describes. It's a living, breathing way of life and not an anthropological relic.


I agree. The exploitation and ill treatment of the Chinese all over the Pacific is one of the great under-told stories of the last two hundred years. I read the other day in William Beattie's account of Nelson's death that they preserved his body in brandy after the Battle of Trafalgar. There must have been an abundance on board the Victory.

I always find it amusing that women are expected to participate in any reparations that follow hostilities instigated and carried out by men. The treatment of women in occupied countries who were exploited by German soldiers was despicable. It's true, we all end up paying for the crimes of the greedy ruling classes.

I do think, however, that there is a special case to answer in Australia for the completely unacceptable length of time it took to extend full citizenship rights to Aboriginal people which didn't happen until the 1960s and for the failure to ensure that Aboriginal people enjoy their full entitlement to human rights - STILL ongoing. Having lived side by side with racial inequalities in Britain for the last 25 years, I know that no amount of legislation will achieve this. It can only be achieved by the will of all of the people.



R.H. said...

Well I hope I haven't offended anyone, and I'm not much good at diatribe: appalled by my own shouting. It's better to make jokes.
The latte set are militant, that's the trouble; enormously serious, about their catechism. Which in liberality and charity, doesn't extend to everyone. Indeed, there are some people they'd string up.
Well I'm not a homophobe, a xenophobe, a misogynist, a racist, or a Christ-hustler, but I am slack in changing my underpants. And I do think that those who change theirs every day have no right to demand I be like them. Not that they'd want -in their hearts- for very many to be that way at all, because then there'd be no one to teach. And they are instructional, or nothing.

But anyway, after reading these pommy blogs, it's gladdening and depressing to see your experience is no different to here; carrot cake is consumed all over the world, and poor white men are ghosts from another age.

That's so pants said...


I do think you're right - although there was a young man sitting opposite me in the British Library yesterday whom I kind of wished was better acquainted with his washing machine.

I am quite appalled at how comprehensively and easily my peer group was turned from the idealism of the sixties and seventies into the monstrosity of which you accurately speak. It's both better and worse in different ways in Britain. Your chances of running across the acquisitive middle classes are rare unless you're one of them whereas in Australia, I probably went to school or university with most of them.

Our struggle to meet our own expectations in treating each other equally is probably easier to understand in Britain because it's primarily an issue of white/male/class chauvinism. The powerful have simply said no to giving their power up, the ignorant have simply said no to giving their prejudices up and the rest of us have to muddle along skirting these giant intractable obstacles as best we can. It makes for very slow progress.

I have to say I don't understand what's going on in Australia. People who used to be hippies drive Volvos. VOLVOS! I don't get any of it. I am rather hoping that I can just BE somewhere where I don't have to engage with any of it and live a simple, product-free life.



R.H. said...

What did you expect? They're Volvo from the start.
The people who yell loudest about dispossession are its beneficiaries: Gentrifiers, carrying on the assault. In Melbourne they invaded St kilda, closing down all the cheap pubs, shops, and accomodation. Destroying it -an entire community.
They "fell in love" with it, that's all, chasing out its bums crims and mental cases. Meanwhile they're on about injustice....feed the poor!- yes, but only if they're black, refugee: latte-approved.

What they love most is their darling new cooktop, tell the truth. Plus gym membership (but of course): Exercise, the only true religion.

That's so pants said...


We're lucky here in Hackney. There is not enough money in all the world to successfully gentrify us!