Nature, over billions of years, has shaped a marvellous Australian landscape, an ancient backdrop to our mere 230 year old, post-British-invasion, cultural identity. Since the early British colonies, the Australian cultural identity has developed and changed from that of a near British replica that failed to honour or acknowledge indigenous Australians, to a multicultural enlightening urbanised mass reconnecting with a sense of place in our environment. Inspired by Mark Twains enthralling account of his 2 month lecture tour of Australia in 1897 entitled the “Wayward Tourist,” I have composed this article which looks at early Australia and how it has developed as an emerging young nation with a unique melting-pot identity.
When Twain wrote the Wayward Tourist in 1897, Australia had just recovered from the effects of the earlier land boom and was enjoying the highest living standards in the world. His lectures speak diversely of Australia’s many endowments, although not shared by the aboriginal community. Twain devotes several chapters on their plight, at pains to point out a people downtrodden from colonisation yet retaining remarkable skills as hunters and trackers. He deplores the ultimate decimation of the Tasmanian aborigines with a brilliant yet savage use of “black humour”; please excuse the pun!
Our sense of humour and romantic notion of the bush still persists, as was epitomised by such remarkable poets as Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. Lawson was a city bound chap; only venturing out in the bush briefly for a month during his life. Hardly surprising with such a population concentration in the eastern seaboard, exasperated ever since due to a lack of arable land. Today Australia remains one of the most urbanised countries in the world.
I also think our own sense of humour and lack of reverence to authority is still prevalent with a propensity to “pull one legs” so to speak. Amongst good friends it's even acceptable to affectionately refer to an older colleague as a “silly old bastard”. Twain himself appears to have become susceptible to having his own leg pulled by the locals as he refers to a story of a sheep eating cockatoo.
At that time of his visit, before the advent of Federation at the turn of the century each State was loyal to mother country England. After Federation that commitment continued with huge sacrifices (60,000 killed in WW 1 from a population of 4 million) in both world wars. It was perpetuated further by Prime Minster Sir Robert Menzies who served as Prime Minister between 1939-1941 and then uninterrupted from 1949-1966; retiring at aged 70.
Menzies was more English than the English themselves. Famous author and archaeologist Jared Diamond (Author of Collapse; why civilisations collapse and Guns Germs and Steel) remarked at a recent lecture when last visiting Australia that during his earlier visit in the early sixties the country was a carbon copy in thought and culture of England. Menzies presided over a period of rapid post war growth, fuelled by migration under the White Australia policy and exceptionally high birth rates. There were 4 million births between 1946 and 1961, and that group known as the Baby boomers still have considerable political clout.
Australia remained somewhat of a cultural desert for artists until the late fifties and early sixties when a number of important cultural centres were finally established that supplemented the earlier establishment of the Australian Broadcasting commission in 1932 ( The ABC ). In 1956; The Australian Opera, 1959; the National Institute of Dramatic Art and in 1961 the Australian Ballet. Despite these additions Australia continued to import most of its culture from abroad particularly from the “Dream machines” from what was being manufactured in America. Roy Rogers and tales from the Great Dividing Range featuring cowboys and Indians dominated my childhood memories, as did spitfires, fighters and tales about adventures set in England.
Today I still think we suffer from a lack of home spun culture. Not many people realise that more attend culture and art in Australia than Sport, but the institutions that serve us, including all popular mediums continue to be under funded and forced to import and rely on an ever increasing slice of programmes from overseas.
The post war period continued on at times in blissful ignorance, with racial prejudice and abuses never far away, hidden away by a majority who enjoyed a seemingly carefree existence, much like as is described by author Bill Bryson’s account of the life and times of Thunderbolt Kid in America when he recalls that “growing up was easy. It required no thought or effort on my part. It was going to happen anyway”.
In Australia Aborigines were still not considered Australian citizens until finally as a consequence of national referendum they were given the vote in 1962.
It was in the sixties that most of the earlier post war respect for authority was challenged with the arrival of the flower power generation who protested against the establishment and authority. More liberal ideas flourished which brought improvements for a more open society but I think it was also a time of self indulgence exclusive to those who fully endorsed its self serving ideology.
Since then culture and diversity which was a feature of the aborigines has been more recently adopted by the Australian Government. Multiculturalism has been introduced to the Australian way of life with varying degrees of success. As a country we have the highest rate of intermarriage between first and second generation migrants.
Further to these positive changes is a changing attitude to the land. I think this aspect is well summed up by Jarred Diamond when he talked about Australia and what has changed from over 40 years ago when he was last here. It was all about the Land, he said, the new spirit within the country that acknowledges it is not here for us to do with it whatever we please.We have a responsibility to preserve it for ever. He saw grounds for cautious optimism. I also see the same glimmers of hope for our old land; Politicians of both persuasions are finally coming to groups with the need for land care conservation and looking after the environment.
To day I think the most striking difference Twain would observe in Australia is our changed attitude to the land; this would be a real revelation.