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Sunday, October 20, 2019

Walkabout to Wave Hill

Our ramble begins with an internet writer's reference to an Australian comedy book from the Seventies, The Outcasts Of Foolgarah. Surfing the reviews, I came across a Depression-era larrikin Oz classic, Here's Luck, by journo and rake Lennie Lower, which is now making us laugh.

But Outcasts, by Frank Hardy, was far from the author's most significant work. His most notorious was one that got him in court for criminal libel - the last case of its kind in Victoria; but that's not where this journey leads us. The experiences of the Depression that gave Lower his comic material had radicalised Hardy, as they did so many others, prompting him to join the Communist Party and use his talents to fight the Establishment.

We have since learned what Communism did; but the instincts that it exploited - compassion for the poor, and vicarious indignation - are valid. In our secular age, they inform ecological panic and adolescent self-loathing, an opportunity for ostentatious do-gooders to secure bossy, well-upholstered sinecures for themselves.

In Australia, they take us to the aboriginals.

Twenty thousand years before Neanderthals recolonised an unpeopled Ice Age Britain, forty thousand before modern man supplanted them in Europe, even longer before humans saw the Americas, the first Australians came to their island continent. Early agriculture? The cities of China and Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mohenjo Daro, the stones of Wiltshire and Giza? Last week's news.

For them, time had no meaning, as is so with all of us, our past always fading into dream, driving us to build, write, record images; futile attempts to preserve our intangible selves in something that endures forever, though nothing will.

Where are their monuments? In their minds, and in their tongues. In their myths of creation and arrival, in the songman's store of rhymes that give life-saving directions for nomads in a pitiless land; an inconceivably long heirloom of songs, some maybe stretching back to the birth of language itself. Old to young, old to young, the chain continued, handing on words and skills that gave them their law and culture; the policeman and warrior, the getter of food and drink, the builder of shelters contained in their skins and carried within their hands and brains wherever they went.

Until the last link broke.

Dispossession, displacement, disrespect; opium via the Oriental trading in Port Darwin; alcohol everywhere, ruining the young as it did their counterparts in America, where sometimes crazy-drunk First Nation kids hang out of cars as they tear around settlement lands which they cannot sell or mortgage.

Instead of the remorseless pressure of daily survival, jobs: money, enough to get by and for some, to dream the modern dreams of easy intoxication. And since the young stopped listening to the old, the elders (some, at least) shut their lips. One by one, the guiding stars of the aboriginal are winking out of existence, taking their knowledge with them.

Materially, a little is done to compensate material wrongs, some in response to action by the victims themselves. Following a walkout in 1966 by mistreated Gurindji aboriginal workers at the vast Wave Hill cattle station, a small portion of their traditional lands were eventually restored to them, and the law has begun to address past injustices. Frank Hardy helped to publicise the issues in his book The Unlucky Australians, and a TV documentary followed.

What can make up for the vast, invisible vandalism of an ancient way of life? Like all humanity, the original Australians have always known war and crime, but what they carried in them was no less precious and far older than the historical relics over which we wonder and grieve in museums.

Still, many times older is the history of humanoids written into all our genes, itself dwarfed by the general relay of life that began billions of years ago. It is fleeting life that endures.

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