Sylvia Lawson

  • Australians: A Historical Library
    Fairfax, Syme and Weldon, AUS $695.00

Australia, n. A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Stalemate beneath the dense sky of moratorium agreements: the best we can hope for Europe ... But there is no escape route in sight. You feel you are standing at bay. Australia is not a way out.

Christa Wolf, Cassandra

The city of Sydney has one decent road to the airport because of the Queen’s visit in 1963; the royal nostrils were not to be assaulted by the stink from the tanneries along the slum route through the inner southern suburbs. We exploit royal visits, and do the same with our dubious anniversaries. The bicentenary, a brontosaurean occasion if ever there was one, is providing much that we could have done without, including a barrage of royal visits. But there are some welcome parks and roadworks, and with these opulent volumes, something else we needed badly: a drastic, anti-racist revision, for the general reader, of this bizarre country’s history.

The Historical Library is the outcome of ten years’ work by an army of some four hundred historians and archivists, geographers, statisticians, mapmakers, editors and research assistants, with secretaries and spouses. Contributors were unpaid, but the total cost, borne principally by the Australian National University, the University of New South Wales and the publishers, must run into millions. The design is handsome, clean and open, with superb printing by the Griffin Press of Adelaide. The illustrations, not decor but documents, come large and small, from huge foldouts to miniatures in generous margins: segments of diaries and letters, school certificates, photographs back to the mid-19th century, woodcuts, aquatints, panoramas, cartoons; advertisements, posters, paintings; Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish maps from the 16th and 17th centuries; and immaculate photographs of art and artefacts going back twelve thousand years. Historical Statistics reproduces some splendid abstract paintings which allude to time and number. The Historical Atlas uses photographs of rock paintings to complement its mappings of Aboriginal landscapes and immigration.

The first print-run was of 15,000 sets; nearly 10,000 have been sold. People are buying them especially for their children; payment is usually arranged as a monthly deduction of $A36 from credit-card accounts. On their academic rounds and in the general preface, the project’s chief devisers talk about it as the end of a hard and adventurous road, a vision fulfilled, and they praise their publishers for magnifying the comparatively modest proposals they began with. The publishers formed their consortium, paid generous advances, encouraged higher word-limits and lavish format, and marshalled their own publicists for prestige marketing. They retain the right to organise and edit potted versions for promotional spin-offs; one of those has appeared, a magazine-size booklet called Australia: 200 and Beyond. It offers a study in retrogressive transformation: what can happen to essays in progressive history when they’re summarised to fit an advertiser’s notion of the readership.

There’s a special gold-tooled limited edition, complete with bookcase and brass plate, for $A 2950 ‘on easy monthly interest-free terms’. It’s the kind of puffing that goes with a royal jubilee dinner-service: history becomes upmarket commodity.

With all that showcasing, the series is commonly referred to as the Bicentennial History. But in the strictly official sense it isn’t. The project had neither money nor endorsement from the Australian Bicentennial Authority, and does not carry the ABA’s ubiquitous green and gold logo; the historians were, in fact, refused support from that source. They were attempting a generally progressive and innovative, open kind of history, social-democratic in general intent, however the writers’ positions might vary from liberal-reformist to radical. Given the ABA’s conservative, consensus-seeking politics, some of the editors are now glad to disclaim any connection.

The difficulty is to get anyone to believe them; the danger is that the best work in the volumes could be trapped, silenced by the louder voices of promotion, so that the differences between these and the mountains of glossy Australiana now on offer – the bookshops burst, the coffee-tables groan – may be less than obvious. The anthropologist Annette Hamilton, reviewing Australians to 1788, judges that excellent volume disappointing, not so much in what it says and shows of precontact Aboriginality, but in the limitation of its address to readers who are already culturally privileged. The work, she said, is ‘unlikely to penetrate average Australia’, dominated as it still is by racist mythologies. Stuart Macintyre, discussing the whole project, put it succinctly: ‘It’s not easy to do justice to the underdog in a volume with gold-blocked end-leaves.’

The contradictions which cut between the printed substance and its packaging can also be traced, in a kind of zigzag, between the more and less conservative volumes in the set, even within volumes and sections. They are linked to the contradictions which are now, quite productively, muddling the huge bicentenary itself.

As an ‘imagined community’, Australia needs more strenuous imagining than most. Post-colonial? Not really – we are re-colonised over and over. Wall Street shivers, the Australian dollar gets pneumonia; Japan revises its shopping-list, and our coal industry verges on collapse. Britain’s hold began to loosen after World War Two, but our cultural colonisation by the United States was probably effective at least sixty-five years ago, by the time Australian cinema outlets had been secured for Hollywood, and closed off for local producers, through the nefarious block-booking system. With film and television, there never was much political will to defend ourselves; nor was there any, a year ago, to prevent the powerful American magnate Rupert Murdoch from taking over two-thirds of the press in what used to be his own country. There are moments and areas where it still seems reasonable to promote cultural nationalism, if not positive xenophobia.

Meanwhile the American nuclear bases – or, if you believe they ought to be there, ‘joint facilities’ – set the country irretrievably within the global network of terror; as Christa Wolf understood, Australia is no way out. In certain desperate contemporary dreams, ‘Australia’ is once again an Arcady, the safe place at the other end of everything. That’s how it is echoed in the dark north European limbo of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, as in the East German conversations Wolf writes about in Cassandra.

Ambrose Bierce’s old frivolity can be profitably re-worked. The problem with national commemoration is that it returns the place to island status, precisely when, more than ever, Australia should know itself a continent: internally divided, with no single ‘national identity’; facing outward, ‘part of the main’. But now, in a vast public fantasy, it is offered to the inhabitants as a highly special unity, congratulating itself on a mythic journey through two centuries to a grand point of arrival in the present. In May the Queen will open the new Parliament House in Canberra: designed by an Italian working from New York, it’s one of our more interesting public buildings since the Sydney Opera House (designed, as far as they’d let him, by a Dane). The new building is crowned by the biggest flagpole south of the equator, as phallic as you like.

That typifies the elephantiasis which has gripped the whole event – some forty thousand events, in fact, costing squillions, from the Tall Ships and the First Fleet Re-Enactment and the Perth-Sydney balloon race to the smallest gumnut-throwing contest in the local Rotary park. My car’s new registration sticker bears that logo, and the words ‘Australia 1788-1988’: I’ll swear the car, an elderly German, has been particularly grumpy in her gearshift ever since it went on.

I resent it myself. As a white Australian who rather likes living here, I am the beneficiary of an invasion. If honour is due to Captain Phillip, a brave leader with amazing management skills, more is due to the convicts, who fetched, carried and built on the fatal shore, often in conditions of enslavement – although, in his chapter ‘The Invasion’ in Australians to 1788, Geoffrey Blainey thinks that’s putting it too strongly. In any case, the convicts did the work, and if anything like a nation was founded then, it was at outrageous human cost to both black and white. In a superb chapter, ‘Towards Australia’, Alan Frost argues that the Aborigines were dispossessed, the convicts exiled and exploited, so that Britain might have a far-south strategic base which could also serve as an off-shore gaol, conveniently remote. Whatever fine words were spoken at the initial flag-raising and gunfire, they masked the workings of power which overreached all humane intentions.

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The ten volumes of Australians: A Historical Library are made up of five volumes of histories, of which the general editors are Alan Gilbert and K.S. Inglis, and five volumes of reference, of which the general editors are Frank Crowley and Peter Spearitt. A Guide and Index is also available. Individual volumes are as follows: Australians to 1788, edited by D.J. Mulvaney and Peter White. Australians: 1838, edited by Alan Atkinson and Marian Aveling. Australians: 1888, edited by Graeme Davison, J.W. McCarty and Ailsa McLeary. Australians: 1938, edited by Bill Gammage and Peter Spearitt, with Louise Douglas. Australians from 1939, edited by Ann Curthoys, A.W. Martin and Tim Rowse. Australians: A Historical Atlas, edited by J.C.R. Camm and John McQuilton, with Trevor Plumb and Steven Yorke. Australians: A Historical Dictionary, edited by Graeme Aplin, S.G. Foster and Michael McKernan. Australians: Events and Places, edited by Graeme Aplin, S.G. Foster and Michael McKernan. Australians: Historical Statistics, edited by Wray Vamplew. Australians: A Guide to Sources, edited by D.H. Borchardt with Victor Crittenden.

[*] The Fatal Shore was published by Pan on 12 February 1988 (688 pp., £4.99, 0 330 29892 5).