QUARTERLY ESSAY 11 Whitefella Jump Up



Les Murray

At question time in a reading I gave in Cambridge a few years ago, a lady up the back row asserted “You’ve got an Aboriginal accent!”

“It could well be, ma’am,” I replied truthfully, though with doubts about her ear, “I’ve got any number of Aboriginal relatives.” As possibly a majority of country Australians do.

When the audience and I were leaving, another woman asked me in awed tones “Did you know who that was?” I said no, and she reverently uttered the name of Germaine Greer.

“I used to see her around Sydney University a long time ago, but we never met,” I told the English woman, not adding that I’d thought Dr Greer formidable and rather forbidding back then.

“Would you like to meet her now?” the woman asked breathlessly. I agreed that it was high time, and in the event Dr Greer and I got along amicably, like old contemporaries. I told her how I’d been moved by her book Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, which works like a fine novel. Whether she had been testing me to see whether I would fumble my response to her assertion and so maybe reveal a streak of racism, I guess I’ll never know. Perhaps it was unworthy of me to admit the suspicion, but these are horribly political times, as the very early ’60s at Sydney were blessedly not.

One side of Dr Greer’s new manifesto Whitefella Jump Up that strongly appeals to me is its subtle understanding of what for a generation I have been calling convergence, the slow mutual assimilation of Aborigines and other Australians. She understands the dynamics of this, how it is both genetic and cultural, and how truly equal it has been, despite all the efforts, earlier and recent, to hide and deny it. She is good on the Aboriginal visual art of the last thirty years, which for me is Australia’s equivalent of jazz, a major new art style arising from the most oppressed group in our nation. The rest of her case mainly reflects the mythology of the Skippy left, and so will seem unreal to ethnic and mainstream Australia.

I doubt her proposal to transfer the nominal ownership of our country from Queen Elizabeth to the Aboriginal people, necessarily without any alteration of real ownerships, would have much chance in a referendum. I will be fascinated to read what Aboriginal citizens think of it. To me, it seems very American, in its urgent desire for resolution, for closure, the Big Fix Right Now, rather than the slow working out of themes and equity in a society. Something like it, if genuinely and widely embraced, might secure more visibility and credit for Aborigines as a vital creative force among us and a potent source of subconscious iconography. In a poem I wrote two or three years back, I adverted to what I’m sure must have been a marvel of serendipity, if indeed the architect had not studied Aboriginal forms:

Clothing as Dwelling as Shouldered Boat

Propped sheets of bark converging

over skin-oils and a winter fire,

stitched hides of furry rug-cloak

with their naked backs to the weather,

clothing as dwelling as shouldered boat

beetle-backed, with bending ridgelines,

all this, resurrected and gigantic:

the Opera House,

Sydney’s Aboriginal building.


Les Murray’s latest book in Australia is Learning Human: New Selected Poems (Duffy &Snellgrove, 2003).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 11, Whitefella Jump Up. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 12, Made in England.


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