‘Australia’s relationship with the sea can tell us a lot about our history’

Sep 11, 2020
The ocean that surrounds our continent is ingrained in Australian history. Source: Getty

One of the pleasures of writing blogs is to see the finished product. It is not only the satisfaction of seeing your thoughts in (virtual) print – as any ex-journo who has experienced PDD (publication deficit disorder) will understand – but also to see the picture that your editor has chosen to embellish the story.

And, once again, I am not necessarily referring to aesthetic considerations, such as the visual improvement in the presentation of the blog, but, more interestingly, in the impact such a choice of picture has on one of the great mysteries of the written word, the symbiotic relationship between author and reader: where the reader’s focus on one small part might result in their drawing a conclusion quite at odds with the author’s intention for the whole, both can still emerge satisfied, the one because they read what they wanted to read, and the other, because their precious words had been read at all.

I was confronted with this conundrum a couple of months ago when Starts at 60 published a blog of mine which touched on the possible comparisons between the limits imposed on the freedom of a self-isolating coronavirus recluse and a prisoner, both of them caught between the rock of dreams of escape and the hard-place of having to make do with escapist day-dreaming.

The hook on which I hung this discussion was the Tim Robbins-Morgan Freeman movie Shawshank Redemption with its poster of actress Rita Hayworth embodying the ambiguous dualism of escape and escapism. On filing the blog, I mused briefly on what image the editors might select to lift the story. While I had no idea what might be the final choice, I suppose I assumed that, like the blog itself, a screen grab from Shawshank Redemption would certainly fit the bill.

When the blog appeared on April 24, the chosen photo was, instead, a generic shot of a man seated on a coastal bench gazing out at the ocean. Intriguingly, the man in the photo had a faint resemblance to my good self, with the same omnipresent pale-blue shirt, the same build, the same salt-and-pepper hair colour, same thinning patch on top and same darkish skin pigmentation.
I called my wife and pointed out these surprising similarities. “It can’t be you,” she snorted. “That person’s looking out to sea; you’re only staring at miles of mulga.” Ho-hum.

Though slightly miffed, I admit, nevertheless, that I wondered whether the choice of photo reflected something else, a sort of subliminal longing deep in the Australian psyche of which the ocean forms an integral part, because the blog itself made only the most marginal reference to the sea.

This is not the first time that I have wondered about the place the ocean plays in the bone-marrow of Australians. After all, we have a love-hate thing going with that great expanse of blue on our doorstep: hardly a month goes by without one of our number being consumed by a shark, more often than not in specks of the country we would never have heard of in a month of Sundays.
And while there’d be hardly an Aussie who didn’t know a bit about Gallipoli or Kokoda, how many do you think could tell you much about the actions of our naval vessels in either world war – except for the loss of the HMAS Sydney with all hands in 1941.

Moreover, the most enduring theory concerning the peculiarities of the Australian character is the vogue of the ‘bushie’, exemplified in the poems and prose of Henry Lawson, and subsequently given historical form as the so-called Legend of the Nineties, especially in the work of writers Russel Ward and Vance Palmer.

According to this theory of Australia, the rude democracy of the outback, tempered by the 1890s shearers strikes, became the furnace in which the larrikin Aussie of C.J. Dennis, et al, was forged. And, of course, it was the lure of abundant land which sent Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth across the Blue Mountains and brought thousands from the dispossessed European peasantry to these shores for five generations after the First Fleet arrived.

Some years ago, I put pen to paper on these theories and tried to develop what I thought might be a synthesis of the Australian character that takes account of the slumbering giant washing up on our 25,000 kilometres of coastline.

In so doing, I found it was impossible to ignore that fact that during the first 80 years after the advent of white settlement, about 170,000 convicts had been transported here, against their will, and if you add their children plus their similarly unwilling jailers, then you are looking at a generally unhappy European population, at least until the gold rushes of the 1850s.

To add veracity to my theory, I pointed out that the Australian accent reflects the Cockney accent which was the speech of most convicts in our formative years (the Irish did not appear in numbers until after the 1798 rebellion). I also pointed out that the American accent reflects, in its own way, the strong influence of English settlers (with their burring speech forms) from the hinterland of Bristol, whence many of them embarked. (As did Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver and Dr Livesey in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.)

Our colonial history is dotted liberally with stories of small groups of convicts escaping from their jailers, stealing a small boat and attempting to row or sail to some exotic destination, anywhere but the fatal shore to which His Majesty’s Government had consigned them.

However, like all attempts to find a unifying theory of history, mine was inevitably contested, with some modern historians decrying any attention given to the sparsely settled Australia of the 19th century, arguing that our character as we have come to know it, is urban and industrial in nature, that is as a product of the early 20th century. But, to this day, I cannot agree, believing wholeheartedly that every newcomer, no matter how imperceptibly they might wish to change what they find in a new habitat, can only respond, in the first instance, to what is already there on their arrival.

And so, the figure marooned on his park bench gazing out at the ocean, as an illustration for my April 24 blog, has, coursing through his veins, capillaries that long, however faintly, for a land he will never see again, as he awaits the first sail on the horizon of the ship that he knows is destined never to come. How very sad.

Sue's sassy!

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