A confluence of events – someone’s enquiry about essay form, a book of poetry by Clive James, the death of Bob Ellis and the forthcoming Anzac Day – what do they have in common?
They reflect a time in Australian life that was both exciting, and character forming. Or do they?
The days of the late 1950s and early 1960s at Sydney University were certainly full of thought provoking issues. I had the privilege of been being able to attest to that personally. It was the days of John Bell and his beginning career in drama, Richard Neville and Richard Walsh with the University Newspaper “Honi Soit”, and Germaine Greer was just around the next corner. Of course the late Bob Ellis was ever talking and writing. Clive James had already loomed large on the horizon, capitalising from the very first time when he often appeared as a schoolboy, along with other children on radio, with the “Pied Piper”, Keith Smith. Barry Humphries had just created from Melbourne a thought stimulating axis for an Australian life view.
I have not pondered too much about those times in a general, group, philosophical sense. I had made my own friends, many of whom I still call close, but living within the walls of the University for four years and continuing to study there for a further two (with flat mates who, by then, walked the hallowed floors of the old “Fisher” as genuine, qualified librarians) meant we knew who and what was a happening event within those learned precincts. We read Honi Soit with enthusiasm. We protested vigorously against the jingoism of Anzac Day. To make an Australian Republican stance, like Thomas Keneally AO, we refused to stand for the National Anthem whilst it still was “God Save the Queen/King”.
Recently in search for a good essay exemplar to print out, I found a beautiful one by David Malouf (also a product of these times and a little earlier) on the subject of Anzac Day during those years.
In his essay he reflects on the past outspoken but realistic opposition to some of the practices that made up Anzac Day. He called his essay by the name of a 1961 protest play by Alan Seymour, “The One Day”. The nature of the way the Anzac campaign is remembered has become even more indefensible now, but any protests made at the unrealities of the history and the jingoism expressed on Anzac Day, would no longer be acceptable in this day and age.
At the end of his essay David Malouf suggests that he has changed his opinion. He proposes now that the last Anzac has died and the silence of the survivors has been stilled, the myths and legends about Australia and Anzac, mostly created by proud descendants, can flower. His view seems to be that it makes a positive contribution, not a negative one, not only to our view of history, but to our future.
But can we afford to go on creating new histories for ourselves and not challenging ourselves as to truth as David Malouf seems to suggest? Would this be a mistake?
We have done that with Australia’s attitude to the acceptance of “New Australians”. It, too, has become viewed in an unreal way. Even that name, applied to post war refugees and others, indicates the then attitude to and the total lack of acceptance of different origins, cultures and customs and highlights the attitude that supported our “White Australia Policy”. This policy was actually enshrined in our law, albeit in an indirect fashion. But our former attitude is now widely lauded and recognised in oral history as having been “welcoming”. Even the handful of bright Columbo Plan students our Universities accepted at the time, were subject to very onerous conditions that could best be described as racist, both then and now. We were not a country that welcomed others who were different.
We have already been rewriting history for generations in terms of our indigenous people. Has that worked? There was much information disseminated that ours was a peaceful settlement not an invasion. We recently have bemoaned, at a Government level no less, the fact that some “black armband history” is taught in schools. Many people of older generations do not accept that any Aboriginal families grew up in the areas in which they lived because of the unspoken segregation and separation of the time. The stolen generation has been wrapped up as a positive for their children. Such was the atmosphere at the time that most of the workers themselves believed they were doing something worthy. Helping families and their clan groups who were struggling did not surface as an option. We were doing good things in the name of the children!
We teach our children that it is necessary, in retrospect, to admit to their mistakes. That is how they learn. But if we change our national history we cannot ever learn from our nation’s early years.
A forward thinking Australia would accept that its history sometimes needs a black armband and we must learn to wear it with educated humility.
Sometimes we see most clearly at times of confluence.