When the world changes, stories help

Our election is over. Peculiarly and wonderfully so.

There are many, many reasons why the result is what it is. Those reasons include social justice, concern about climate change, fear of the Morrison government, loss of the centre-right part of the Liberal Party (the independent ‘teal’ candidates filled the hole left by the party’s shift right). One part of the equation, however, is very Australian. We see the world in our way, after all, and not through the eyes of any other country.

I don’t want to give an explanation. It would turn something light into something ponderous. Instead, I’m going to suggest you read some short stories. They’re all from over a century ago and they all demonstrate that the peculiarity and wonder come from somewhere very Australian.

If you want to read just one short story, try Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog.” I’ve found you a link to the 1901 volume it appeared in, with a glossary.

If you see the specially Australian approach to life, the story will resonate and be very funny. If you don’t, it won’t. This saves me 500 words of weighty and possibly futile explanation.

If you want more along these lines, we have a whole literature. Steele Rudd’s stories about farming are good (Dad and Dave, On Our Selection), because colonisation was a bit different here to elsewhere. Just as wrong-headed, but we didn’t only celebrate the big and glorious. We also told stories about the small farmers who really had no idea what they were doing. Australia has always looked to small people and their lives and our literature celebrates it. And we celebrate that literature.

Decades ago, I was at a camp for university students. John Bluthal (the actor) talked to us about working with Spike Milligan. Then he moved onto a radio play of Rudd’s work. He told us how, as Dave in a dramatisation of Dad and Dave, he had no time to read the script beforehand. He was on live radio, reading straight into the microphone. Dave was famously slow of speech.

“Dad,” Bluthal drawled into the microphone, recreating the radio play. “Dad, you need to know…” He turned the page. “The shed is burning!”

Looking to small people and their lives, being aware of how foolish the whole of politics was becoming, needing to mock and put everyone back in their place: these factors changed the votes of many last weekend. My favourite example is how a conservative region of a conservative state voted Labor for the first time ever, because they wanted to bring a family home and Morrison said he never would allow it.

Now I’m wondering about my own fiction and about that of quite a number of other writers. We focus on the small, because in the small, implicit in the everyday, lies the whole universe. Those Australian writers who follow different paths to me may write to explore isolation and our challenging land, or to deal with baggage many of us bring here when we settle, or to look bullies in the eye and show where we go wrong. Some, however, write for an international market. In the nineteenth century and right through to the 1960s, that international market was the UK. Now, it’s more likely to be the US. When you can’t tell that the writer is Australian, when they lack that sensibility that marks the work as uniquely and bizarrely Antipodean, then that writer is probably writing for a different audience and marching to a different drum.

The Australian drum that resounded on Saturday occasionally skipped a beat or took a few polka steps. Marching? That’s not our way.

4 thoughts on “When the world changes, stories help

  1. Growing up in a state that also had a gold rush, The Loaded Dog strikes a familiar tone. Reads like something Mark Twain might have written after his time here in California.

    1. it’s like some of Mark Twain’s work, but it resonates with many more Australian stories. It’s very much a typical perspective for a whole branch of Australian literature. If you want a 60s view, try John O’Grady/Nino Culotta’s They’re a Weird Mob. That’ll help show the cultural difference between Twain and Lawson, perhaps?

  2. A couple of years ago I gave up my American cable service. When I want a movie or television, I’ve used European streaming services and seen several series based in Australia. Two were “A Place to Call Home” and “The ANZAC Girls”. Both showed similarities to and differences with the US. I knew that, like Australia, we had colonies in our Southeast settled mostly by Irish and Scotch/Irish convicts from English prisons. But I didn’t know that, like African Americans, Australian Aboriginals fought in WW II yet continued to be denied rights of full citizenship when they returned home.

    1. It’s a lot worse than that. We didn’t give full citizenship to Indigenous Australians until the late 60s, and, even then, there was much denial of human rights. Australia has a shameful past (and not too wonderful present) in terms of human rights for Indigenous Australians. Some of our disgraceful behaviour can be linked to some US towards African Americans, but it’s far closer to US and Canadian treatment of First Nations people.
      The way we finally gave citizenship to the people who were here first (through a referendum) has some interplay in common with last Saturday’s election. The political establishment didn’t care about changing the status quo and was very surprised when most of Australia demanded human rights.

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