What follows is not another of the hundreds of studies of Aborigines that are published every year. Neither is it the nth paper bullet shot off in support of the black arm-banded or the white blind-folded. Its author has not studied a particular remnant of the original populations of this country as if they were stone-age pond-life, nor has she read more than a few hundred thousands of the billions of words written about Aborigines by ethnographers, ethnologists, ethologists, psychologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, linguists, semiologists, historians, glottochronologists and graduate students.
All such are welcome to make what they will of a modest suggestion offered by an elderly Australian laywoman who is not in search of a qualification or a job or promotion. I would hope that what I have to say will be recognised as grounded in simple commonsense, but I confidently expect that among the comments that will be made, if any are made, will be that I have lost my marbles, to which others, whom the media recognise as my friends, will obligingly rejoin that “Germs” was always crazy and this no more than the latest manifestation of her ratbaggery. Above all I’m not trying to be right at the cost of proving everyone else wrong. I’m offering a suggestion for consideration, discussion and modification, in the hope of bouncing a tired and rancorous discourse onto new tracks. Where it goes after that is not up to me.
There is only one way to escape from an impasse, that is, to turn back to the point where you went wrong, sit down on the ground and have a think about it.
I’ve seen too much of the frantic grief that is eating the heart out of Aboriginal communities not to have racked my brain for years trying to imagine a way of healing it, but I’m not here offering yet another solution to the Aborigine problem. Rather I want to suggest an end to the problematisation of Aborigines. Blackfellas are not and never were the problem. They were the solution, if only whitefellas had been able to see it. The country I love has been crazily devastated by whitefellas who seem unable to give a damn, and who even now insist on continuing in their madness, knocking down its mountains, grinding up its trees, diverting its watercourses, building high-rises on its flood plains, creating an endless nightmare of suburbia from which our kids try to escape by sticking needles in their arms. I want to turn the situation upside down and see if it wouldn’t run better that way.
My white countrymen appear to me afflicted by a kind of emotional paralysis, a pathological indifference. It is obvious to anyone who gives the matter five minutes’ thought that Australia’s “sophisticated recreational lifestyle” comes at a huge cost in terms of non-renewable resources, water for instance. The senescent bush along the densely populated foreshores will one day explode in firestorms that will wipe out the insurance market and bring the whole shonky economy to its knees. Australians have access to adequate and reliable information about the threat represented by their mismanaged environment, but they remain unable to give a damn.
A good deal of energy has been expended on diagnosing the malaise that leads to high levels of alcoholism, addiction and crimes of violence in Aboriginal society; there are as many explanations of Aboriginal self-destructiveness as there are writers on the subject. Whitefella spiritual desolation is seldom admitted, let alone discussed. Problem drinking affected whitefellas long before it made devastating inroads into Aboriginal society, and it continues to wreak havoc today. Drinking habits that are well known to be implicated in violence of all kinds, especially domestic violence and child abuse, as well as road accidents, avoidable illness, suicide and premature death, are regarded with a kind of amused tolerance. When we see such behaviour in Russia we know it to be pathological and we can diagnose demoralisation, displacement and despair as root causes, without invoking cop-out theories of alcoholism as a disease caused by genetically inherited factors.
Early observers of Australian drunkenness posited a disease they called dipsomania; others treated alcohol itself as a race poison. The powers of the demon drink were wildly exaggerated, as by Charles Eden, writing in My Wife and I in Queensland. An Eight Years Experience in the above colony, published in 1872:
Once taste the degrading debauch, and there is no remedy, the victim goes on knocking down his cheque half-yearly, sinking lower and lower, all that was ever good in him withering and drying up under the curse, and he dies alone at last unknown, unregretted and unmissed. This may seem a terrible picture but, reader, it is underdrawn.
If whitefellas are wrecking their lives and the lives of others because of the way they abuse alcohol, it is not because alcohol is itself addictive, but because something has gone badly wrong. That something has been wrong from the beginning of settlement and it has yet to be put right.
It seems obvious that convicts and settlers bartered with the military for a share of their rum ration during the first years of settlement because they were seeking an anodyne to their shock, disorientation and misery. They were in the wrong place and they knew it. It was clear to the captains of ships trading with the colony that they had an inexhaustible market for vast quantities of rum. In 1794 the captain of an American ship refused to supply provisions to the starving colony unless the governor also relieved him of his cargo of 7500 gallons of rum. Rum became currency; wages were paid in rum. In 1797 Governor Hunter was appalled to find “spirits enough to deluge the colony” being sold to the settlers “at an immense profit, to the destruction of all order, to the almost total destruction of every speck of religion”. Between 1800 and 1802 when D’Arcy Wentworth and his mates held an exclusive licence for the importation of liquor, 69,980 gallons of spirits and 33,246 gallons of wine were landed in Sydney, to be consumed by a population of less than 6000. John MacArthur, much-lauded founder of the Australian pastoral industry, was only the first landowner to solve his cash crisis by dealing in alcohol. Many others followed his example. The first thing John Pascoe Fawkner did after choosing the site for the future city of Melbourne was to build, not a church or a town hall, but a hotel. It was accepted that without alcohol life in the Great South Land would be unbearable.
For convicts and settlers of Irish background, it was second nature to set aside part of any crop of grain or potatoes for distilling poteen. With spirits retailing at high prices, and the land refusing to produce the hoped-for riches, many of the settlers turned to sly-grog manufacture as a way of making ends meet. Even the most remote rural tracks were studded with shanties or sly-grog shops, run on the lines of the shebeens in Ireland. What was sold in them was a dangerous mixture of ethyl and methyl alcohols, which could drive a man off his head, or leave him blind, or dead. Not for nothing did Banjo Paterson call the shanty where sheep-stealer Ryan was found “drunk as a lord” by Trooper Scott the “Shadow of Death Hotel”. Inland Australian townships were little more than strings of pubs, where the publicans and their employees were expert at “lambing down”, filling the pastoral worker with grog in order to separate him from his pay-cheque. Drunks were left to sleep it off where they fell, sometimes in the filth of the gutter, where the sun completed the dehydration that the liquor had begun. Ruinous drinking habits did not change as the colony grew; wherever the settlers went alcohol followed, and workers in every branch of the pastoral industry if they got their hands on alcohol would drink it to the last drop, unless it killed them first.
Drinking is now so deeply embedded in Australian culture that it is perceived as normal, healthy even. In Gone Bush Bob Lunney spins a yarn about life in Darwin at the beginning of the fifties: a rugby-playing mate of his was suffering from kidney cramps and went to see the doctor:
The doctor was a bit mystified, and then … he asked timidly, as if he thought it was a stupid question, “You do drink beer, don’t you?” [He didn’t.] “Bloody hell!” explained the doctor, “no wonder you’ve got kidney cramps, you silly bugger. You’re the first patient I’ve had up here over sixteen, male or female, who doesn’t drink. Drink two beers a day to flush your kidneys or pack your traps and go back south.”
This advice is both apocryphal and bad, but it illustrates the universality of the belief that alcohol consumption is an essential marker of the good life, and tangentially, of adulthood. Lunney goes on:
He drank his two beers a day and the cramps disappeared, but unfortunately when last I saw him he was an alcoholic bum.
In prissy white-collar 21st-century Australia, a culture of macho hard-drinking still prevails. As Frank Moorhouse says in his essay “The Australian Legend” (1984), “Heroic spree-drinking still characterises males of many sub-classes [sic]. Drinking is a man’s way of crying, as Lawson said.” For Moorhouse and Lawson before him it seems obvious that self-punishing bouts of drinking have a strong connection with grief of some kind. For whatever reason it remains easier in most places in Australia to get drunk than to find something half-way decent to eat. In towns like Alice Springs, liquor outlets outnumber food stores by a ratio of six or seven to one. One in three Australian men will exhibit symptoms of alcoholism at some time in his life; 15 per cent of Australian alcoholics will kill themselves by violent means; more will just drink themselves to death. Binge drinking is one of a galaxy of self-destructive behaviours making a continuum with suicide, suicide attempts, drug abuse, reckless driving and self-harming, all of which are rife in the “lucky” country.
What is there for whitefellas to cry about? Explanations of Australian binge-drinking are lame, but they do contain some clues. Henry Lawson’s Joe Wilson explains it this way:
Shepherds and boundary riders, who are alone for months, must have their periodical spree at the nearest shanty, else they’d go raving mad. Drink is the only break in the awful monotony, and the yearly or half-yearly spree is the only thing they’ve got to look forward to: it keeps their minds fixed on something definite ahead.
Country is only awfully monotonous to those who are uninterested in it and unattached to it. Lawson and his characters Mitchell and Joe Wilson are typical in their downright loathing of the outback, “a blasted barren wilderness that doesn’t even howl”. The wilderness was not in fact barren, and at least until whitefellas fenced off vast areas to serve as test sites and rocket ranges it was not blasted either.
In Australian literature, the Europeans’ corrosive unease expresses itself in a curious distortion of the pathetic fallacy, which characterises the land as harsh, cruel, savage, relentless, the sky as implacable, pitiless and so forth. The heart of the country is called “dead”. As Thomas Keneally said in “On Being Australian” (1984), if we call the heart of our nation dead we render ourselves “reduced humans, cultural and geographic maggots”. But it is not the heart of the country but the gubba’s heart that is dead, empty of attachment, and petulant under the penalty of Adam. In our literature vicissitudes of heat and cold are interpreted as a kind of punishment and the physical world itself given the role of an avenging deity. The vegetation is described as “stunted”,“warped”, “misshapen”, “gnarled and twisted and ragged”, another example of projection of a presentiment of evil within to the countryside without. Michael Blakemore in “The Straight Poofter”, published in 1984, describes the landscape as “endless and neutral, not hostile to human beings, nor nurturing; just profoundly indifferent”, and again we are contemplating another transference; it is Blakemore who is indifferent to country, here revealingly called “landscape”. It was not the country that was damned but the settler who felt in his heart that he was damned. His impotent cursing, which has left a legacy in the unequalled degree of profanity in Australian speech, was a classic piece of transference. We hate this country because we cannot allow ourselves to love it. We know in our hearts’ core that it is not ours.
Migration, especially to a land from which there can be no return, is invariably traumatic, but the stress that followed was exacerbated for Australian settlers to become the kind of unremitting and inadmissible psychic pain that demands escape into oblivion, for which the culture of drunken jollity provided an acceptable mask. It is my belief that the pain that the alcohol was meant to kill was complicated by deeply repressed shame and guilt. The settlers did not mean to destroy the Aborigines, but they could not deny that the Aborigines were being destroyed. They could agree not to mention the fact but they couldn’t forget it. Their descendants prefer to bicker over just how badly whitefellas treated blackfellas and just how much or how little the blackfellas deserved it, rather than utter the simple word “sorry”. John Howard’s stubbornness on the issue was certainly politically expedient, but it also demonstrated once more the whitefella’s inability to come to terms with his own history in Australia. Saying sorry would not have fixed anything, but it might have reaped the whirlwind, as Australians came to wonder just what it was that they were saying sorry for. Admitting that one is sorry is tantamount to confessing that one is sad, and Australians are supposed to be happy-go-lucky. Australians can aver “She’ll be right, mate!” in the teeth of disaster.
Such self-destructive denial is part and parcel of the pathology of colonialism. Four hundred years of humiliation and unrevenged outrage at the hands of the English may explain why it is that the Irish still consume more alcohol per head than any other nation in the world. This pathology they imported with them to Australia, where they found themselves once more under the control of Anglo authorities. Whether they were directly involved in the atrocities committed against Aboriginal people or not, they must have been aware that black Australians were suffering the same agonies as the “black Irish” in the old country, when their religion was ridiculed as barbarous heresy, their lands taken up by foreigners and they and their families reviled and humiliated as depraved savages. Some such unrecognised remorse could be what drove the Celtic part of the Anglo-Celt majority into crazy postures of denial, so that they insisted on discovering a country that was already well known, and fantasised about gaining total control over vast tracts in which they couldn’t have survived without the assistance of those whose claim they tacitly denied, and indulged visions of wealth in plain defiance of the ruling regimes of drought and flood, only to drop everything and dash back and forth across the country in desperate pursuit of any rumour of a gold strike. The British elite may have caught the madness from the Irish; those who eventually came out on top were the ones who held aloof, bided their time, bought up the ruined and rented their selections back to them, acquired mining rights and sheep runs and cattle leases by the dozen, and had the capital to exploit all of them. The winners were no saner than the battlers; their delusion was their utter conviction of their own mental and moral superiority and their God-given right to civilise and subjugate all other groups in the Great South Land.
The settlers toiled like madmen to remove the scrub, bush and trees that stood in the way of cultivation. They no more realised that the newly denuded land would be vulnerable to extremes of heat and cold, drought and flood than they realised that the rising of the watertable would bring the stored salts to the surface, gradually poisoning the land cleared with so much blood, sweat and tears. Nor did they realise that the willows they planted along the waterways, the trees so beloved of writers like Lawson and Paterson, would spread through entire river systems, until the flows were clogged, or that their garden flowers would become a curse. The settlers imagined that they were redeeming a land that the original inhabitants had failed to manage in any rational fashion, and that they could turn it into a new Canaan. What gave them the right to displace the original inhabitants – they thought – was their fealty to the biblical command to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, in which duty – they thought – hunter-gatherers were derelict and so forfeited any right of ownership they might be said to possess. The argument was pure sophistry, because it depended on identifying tilling and herding as the only activities that could be called work; in any case the newcomers had only the vaguest idea of how Aborigines got a living off the land. They did not suspect, until it was too late, that the “virgin” territory they were claiming for themselves was actually a man-made resource. The only thing that could ease the settlers’ deepest suspicions about the rightness of their enterprise would have been success, which would prove that God had blessed it. Instead failure followed failure.
The settlers’ desperate longing to recreate their homelands is easy to understand and sympathise with, but homesickness is not the whole story. The imaginary patchwork of neat farms punctuated by pretty villages with churches and tidy towns with law courts and concert halls attended by happy small farmers and their jolly families had never existed in the old country. The very concept derived from a view of “Merrie England” that was no more real than Tolkien’s bucolic Middle Earth. For some such dream the settlers fought the bush to a standstill and lost. Lawson’s early story “Settling on the Land” (published in 1896) tells how Tom Hopkins struggled to grub out trees on land he was not even sure of owning, and eventually managed to clear a patch.
Tom ploughed and sowed wheat, but nothing came up to speak of – the ground was too poor; so he carted stable manure six miles from the nearest town, manured the land, sowed another crop and prayed for rain. It came. It raised a flood which washed the crop clean off the selection, together with several acres of manure, and a considerable portion of the original surface soil; and the water brought down enough sand to make a beach, and spread it over the field to a depth of six inches.
Lawson and his readers seem perfectly to understand that the farmers’ Herculean struggle was misconceived and misdirected, and that instead of creating a new land they were destroying an old one. The disaster of the closing of the mouth of the Murray is prefigured in this story written when the colony had been in existence barely a century, nowadays a human lifespan. Tom tries dairying, with dire consequences for both the unfortunate beasts and Tom, tries sheep and is worsted by the squatter. Long since he had begun to curse Australia.
Tom was admitted to the lunatic asylum at Parramatta next year, and the squatter was sent there the following summer, having been ruined by the drought, the rabbits, the banks and a wool-ring.
Lawson tells Tom Hopkins’s story in as few words as possible, with a dry deadpan humour that suggests better than hair-tearing could do, the irrationality of the whole project. Tom’s one regret was “that he wasn’t found to be of unsound mind before he went up-country”. Paterson’s cattleman Kiley fared no better:
But droughts and losses came apace
To Kiley’s Run
Till ruin stared him in the face;
He toiled and toiled while lived the light,
He dreamed of overdrafts at night:
At length because he could not pay
His bankers took the stock away
From Kiley’s Run.
When Kiley died of a broken heart his run was taken over and renamed Chandos Park Estate by an absentee landlord living in England. The once-bustling homesteads and outbuildings stood empty, but for “a half-paid overseer”.
Ultimately rural Australia ended up emptier than it was before it was “opened up”. Australia has now the most highly urbanised population of any country in the world. The process was already advanced when Lawson and Steele Rudd began writing about rural Australia in the 1890s for an urban and suburban readership. The whitefellas who tried to make a living in the bush soon fled from it, and wound up as far from the interior as they could get, on the continent’s very edge where they built themselves houses that faced outwards and away, across the ocean. Happiness is now a house in a seaside suburb with not a single native plant in sight. Most Australians would these days deny that they hate the land, but actions speak louder than words. Try going into a main street bookstore and asking for books on Australian natural history, and you’ll see what I mean. You will be offered a book on gardening (with exotics) or breeding cats or fishing. Substantial books on Australian flora and fauna, ecology and geology are occasionally published, but they aren’t sold. As Judith Wright said in her essay “Australia – Landscape Ancient and Modern” (1984), “our revulsion from the country is still with us, and is one of the reasons for our continued ill-treatment of it”. The NSW Rural Fire Service chief, Phil Koperberg, remarked to Ashley Hay after the last ruinous bout of wildfire in the Blue Mountains, “It’s a weird country. You wonder what the hell we’re doing here.”
To a jaundiced eye the much-vaunted hedonistic Australian lifestyle appears shot through with a kind of raucous hysteria, exemplified in phenomena like the greatest outback knees-up of them all, the phantasmagoric Birdsville Races. Thousands of people in thousands of vehicles make for what used to be a hub of Aboriginal transcontinental travelling, as fast as they can go, so they can fetch up at preordained campsites and wateringholes where they can indulge in alcohol-fuelled bonhomie with strangers. Once in Birdsville they assemble at the race-track at midday for a few hours drinking and betting, before spending the evenings just drinking, until the roadways are submerged by a tide of cans and the pile of bottles behind the Birdsville Hotel is bigger than the building. Then they all depart, leaving Birdsville to the cattle-trucks and the hundred or so people who live there all year round. Some will take the inner road and pit their four-wheel drives against Big Red, the biggest sandhill in Australia, in yet one more example of the endless game of whitefella versus country. The annual trek to the Birdsville Races is a pilgrimage to nowhere. Similar paradigms of displacement activity such as Henley-on-Todd and the Mindil Beach beer-can regatta pop up wherever there is a hook to hang them on. Common to them all is an element of mockery of self and of country. Anybody who finds such frantic and motiveless jollification disturbing will be told to lighten up, not to take things so seriously. And so the culture of denial perpetuates itself.
Australian culture used to be anti-bullshit; Australians now lend themselves to every kind of threadbare cultism, instant religion and DIY spirituality, all focused on the individual, all promising the inner peace that whitefellas know they don’t deserve. A ragbag culture of self-improvement has concentrated the individual’s focus more and more upon himself, his self-esteem, his energy levels, his purity, whatever. Not a surviving fragment of rainforest but is not infested with people communing with themselves and submitting to the guidance of shamans and charlatans of every kidney, expert at solving everyone’s problems but their own.
As all his dreams crashed around him and all his hard work came to nought, the settler of literature was sometimes heard to say that the country should be “given back to the blacks”, as if, worn out by the ineffectual struggle to prove something that wasn’t true, he had finally given up fooling himself. Such statements, like Lawson’s story, are meant as jokes, but jokes are often the only way of saying the unsayable.
Australia cannot remain
A land of mystery,
And tainted history,
Of hidden secrets
And eternal regrets.
These lines were written by Matthew Quilty, a direct descendant of the Quiltys who acquired the infamous Bedford Downs Station in 1917. There is only one way to purge the taint, uncover the secret, and ease the otherwise eternal regret, and that is – not to give the country back to the Aborigines because it isn’t ours to give – to admit that it has been an Aboriginal country all along.
This is an extract from Germaine Greer's Quarterly Essay, Whitefella Jump Up: The shortest way to nationhood. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY