by Martin Flanagan
You are American and I am Australian. We’re the same but different. What’s the difference?
I think there are some general points we can agree on. The modern state we call America started as a Puritan settlement, a place of hope and liberty for religious dissenters. The modern state of Australia started as a penal colony. To give but one example of how I think this difference has worked through our two cultures, your politicians frequently appeal to or cite God in making political utterances; ours rarely do. You had a revolution. Our flag still has a colonial emblem in the corner. You declared your independence and framed a constitution around the rights of man. Our constitution was a political and commercial settlement. There is not and never has been, for example, a constitutional right to bear arms in Australia.
We didn’t have slavery as such — but 60,000 Pacific islanders were tricked and/or kidnapped to work on sugar plantations in northern Australia, while the system whereby convicts were assigned to work for landowners was surely a kind of slavery. We haven’t had the calamity of a civil war — but nor have we had the sort of drama that produces a leader of the stature of Abraham Lincoln, a leader of humanity, not just his country.
In claiming Australia as a British possession, the British government declared that the Australian land mass was terra nullius — a Latin term meaning the land of nobody. This was a lie. There were people who had been in Australia for many thousands of years: Aboriginal people. Not until 1967 were Aboriginal people included in the Australian census. A sense of absence, not presence, permeated Australia’s early sense of itself and continues, I would argue, to today.
Near the end of that wonderful American novel The Great Gatsby, there is that famous passage: “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
That passage, to my knowledge, has no parallel in Australian literature — certainly not in an iconic work. Australia was strange to the first Europeans in a way that America, a fellow Northern Hemisphere dweller, was not. We had animals they had never seen the likes of before like the kangaroo. America was born of idealism, an idea to do with freedom. From the mouths of some Americans, it sounds like an idea of God-ordained liberty. I don’t associate Australia with any idea. Australia is a place, I would argue, that is well suited to agnosticism.
I grew up in Tasmania, the island off Australia’s south-eastern coast. For over fifty years, the island was one big prison. Anyone seeking to understand the psychology of such a place should read Kafka’s short story, “In the Penal Colony.” I grew up in a place that had no memory of either my people, the Irish convicts, or the people who were there before them. My Flanagan convict forebear,
Thomas Flanagan from County Roscommon, then in a state of famine, stole meal and a sum of five pounds to feed his starving family in 1847. Fifty years later, during what is called the Victorian period, having convict forebears in your family became a source of acute social shame. Within three generations there was no memory whatsoever of their songs, stories, dances. That was the first silence I grew up with.
What remained of the convict culture was a disrespect for authority that flared spectacularly around the rebel outlaw Ned Kelly. There was also a belief that actions speak louder than words, a belief that at its best finds a Biblical echo in the idea that by the fruit of their actions we shall know the people most deserving of our respect. Traditionally, Australian culture was introvert. Viewed through the prism of your cultural exports, American culture has always struck me as thoroughly extrovert.
Within thirty years of white arrival in Tasmania in 1803, the British government had shipped the surviving remnant of the Aboriginal population to a small island in Bass Strait. There are people of Aboriginal descent living in Tasmania today, but when I was growing up we were taught that the last one died in 1876. There was no memory of their songs, stories, dances also.
The one thing that made sense to me growing up in Tasmania were the local football matches. Australian football is not the game you call soccer. Nor is it rugby. Nor is it Irish football. It is a wholly Australian game with a long and interesting history which has some parallels with the history of baseball. This is the game which absorbed me and it was through football, and the folklore that surrounded it, that I first encountered theater, mythology, and a certain sort of comedy based on character.
Later, when I was wandering the world, sport was my second language, shielding me from loneliness, whether it was by playing street soccer with kids in Yugoslavia or hitching a ride in Germany with a man who had no English and finding a common link in Kevin Keegan, the Englishman then playing soccer with Hamburg. After I returned, sport gave me a passport to enter Aboriginal Australia.
The other silence I grew up with was my father. During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army used slave labor to put a railway through from Thailand to Burma. More than 100,000 men — some say 200,000 — died laying 400 kilometers of track. My father survived that. He was left weakened, perhaps permanently, by cholera, malaria, and malnutrition. He had a close friend bashed to death. I could go on indefinitely. In one of my books, I described my father, the man I knew growing up, as a hard old monk. He was gentle but he was not easily impressed. I liked him; in fact, I thought he was cool. He didn’t say much but what he said was always struck me as being really well thought out. But if a paternalistic father is one who tells you who you are, where
you come from, and where you’re going, then he was the opposite. He didn’t tell me who I was, he didn’t tell me where I came from, he didn’t tell me where I was going. I had to work that out for myself.
I did a law degree, worked in a prison in welfare, I travelled the world. When I returned to Australia, I still had many questions. How did I fit into this land? How and where did I belong? When I finally met people who understood the questions I was asking, they were Aboriginal people. From the start, they seemed to implicitly understand the journey I was on. They had every historical reason to view me as their enemy but I found that if I approached them in a spirit of humility and respect I was, by and large, accepted. I also found I had more in common with them than I’d imagined. For example, my father and a number of other Burma railway veterans I got to know were people who’d seen a lot, suffered a lot, and had great compassion. When I started
meeting Aboriginal elders, I met people who’d seen a lot, suffered a lot, and had great compassion. It seems to me that the wisdom of the elders is much the same in all cultures.
I’ve learned so much from Aboriginal people. It intrigues me, for example, that many Western artists from affluent backgrounds over the past 100 years have depicted the world in dark and often violent ways. Then I look at paintings by traditional Aboriginal artists, people whose lives have been subjected to violence on so many levels, and see colourful, free form, harmony. Notwithstanding the insults and injuries inflicted upon their culture, so many Aboriginal people that I have met have also been compassionate and with that quality comes a shrewd
understanding of human nature. And Aboriginal thinking, as I’ve encountered it, often comes back to an idea of oneness — the sense of a common origin. It was Aboriginal people who confirmed me on my path as a writer. “You’re alright, brother,” I was once told. “You come from the heart.” I have learnt that if you come from the heart, as best you can, you have your best chance of relating to people from other cultures.
I know the terms “black” and “white” are not used in your country as they once were. But during the period they were, the terms black and white in my country meant something quite different. Aboriginal people were called “blacks,” but to engage with them is to engage with an indigenous, earth-based, place-based culture. The equivalent in your country are the tribal peoples. We hear very little about tribal peoples in our country.
The word Aboriginal is really two Latin words — “ab” meaning from, and “original” meaning the start. My relationship with Aboriginal people has brought me closer to my land, both the whole of its human history and its vast beauty which ranges from Tasmania, which looks like Norway, to central Australia, with its orange sand, to the wet jungles of the north.
Do we Australians have problems? An abundance. Do we have the same problems as you? Yes and no. We have not yet come to terms with the environmental problems of the 21st century nor with the global crisis of mass migration. Our methods in dealing with illegal migrants — in particular placing children in detention centers and attempting to out-source the problem by deflecting illegal arrivals to third world countries like Cambodia — has cost us the respect of people whose respect I would prefer to have. We do have broad consensus on gun control. In Australia, I am part of what is called the reconciliation movement — the movement seeking to reconcile Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia. In some ways things are better, but in critical ways the plight of traditional Aboriginal Australia is no better or worse than it was when I started 30 years ago. I take my faith from a statement made by Patrick Dodson, a great Aboriginal leader and the father of the reconciliation movement. He said, “The struggle never ends — the reward is the people you meet along the way.” It’s true; I’ve met giants and been led into other reconciliation initiatives, one between Israelis and Palestinians, for example, and, more recently, between Australia and Japan.
Australia is very nearly the size, physically speaking, of the United States, although our population is less than a tenth of yours. I enjoy living in Australia and like a lot of
people that I meet. There is an Australian sense of humor that is hard to explain at the best of times, and certainly not in polite company, that I love. I’d also like to think most Australians can still identify what a good bloke is. Bloke is a word that came to Australia from England and then grew, I like to think, new meaning. A good bloke wasn’t a good man. That implies virtue. Traditionally, a good bloke treated you as he wished to be treated. The measure of a good bloke was his consistency. A really good bloke was someone who was a good bloke to a lot of people. And, yes, a good bloke can be a woman. So can a mate be a woman. A mate is someone you are obliged by a wordless oath to care for and protect. Or that’s how it is for me.
One of the things that saddens me about Australia is that so many Australians choose not to explore their country, but remain hemmed in by their city environments clumped around the coastline. Six months ago I went into a classroom of 18-year-old students in Melbourne, the city of four million people in Australia’s south-east where I live, and asked how many of them knew where Darwin is. Darwin, which has a population of 100,000, is in Australia’s tropical north on the lip of Melanesia. About a quarter of the kids in the classroom put up their hands saying they knew where Darwin is. I asked them how many knew about Pearl Harbour. Most of the hands went up. “It was bombed!” one girl cried. And I said to them, “Do you know the Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than Pearl Harbour during World War 2”. Nobody knew that. Not one kid.
During 1942, Japanese aircraft conducted 63 raids on Darwin, then a town of 2,000 people. The first attack was planned by the same man who planned the attack on Pearl Harbour and employed 200 aircraft, bombers and fighters. There was no air defense. Ten American pilots flying Kittyhawks had just flown in from Manila. The Japanese destroyed five of the Kittyhawks on the ground, but five got up into the air and flew at the Japanese. Five against 200. Forget them? I certainly won’t.
The Japanese bombed widely across northern Australia, and if you drive north to Darwin from the red centre of Australia, you start seeing old airstrips built during the war, many of them by American troops. And here’s another sort of Australian story, a story Aboriginal people tell. South of Darwin is a tribe called the Gurindji. And the Gurindji watched American troops building an airfield on their land — in particular, they watched the black American troops. What they saw was that the black troops in the U.S. Army were treated better than the Gurindji were treated
by the British pastoral company which claimed the Gurindji land as their own and then worked them as stockmen for little or no money and scraps of food. Emboldened, the Gurindji went on strike for better conditions. The strike morphed into a claim for their land. They won. It was the first big land rights victory in Australia. Their story still reverberates like a note from a didjeridu.
My father lived to within a few months of his 99th birthday. Not long before he died he said that God was all the good people that had ever been in the world. He was moved to this statement after his grandson was diagnosed with schizophrenia. That threw him because he thought he’d seen cruelty in the prison camps but being stricken with serious mental illness at the age of 21 to him seemed even crueller. He lost what conventional faith he had left and then, in his aloneness, found himself surrounded by all the good people he’d ever known.
In Aboriginal culture, when you leave your tribal country and enter the country of another people, you must pay respect to their spirits. The Aboriginal belief and my father’s belief sort of amount to the same idea and that is why I would like to finish my talk tonight by saying, as we do in Australia: I wish to pay my respects to the elders of this place, past and present. Thank you.
The great Australian journalist Martin Flanagan, author of the classic The Game in Time of War, was the University’s Schoenfeldt Series Visiting Writer in Fall 2015; this was his talk to a packed crowd of students.