The Heartland?

I wasn’t happy with my Australia Day post. I couldn’t really find the words or a theme and I’ve spent a couple of days wondering why. I had wanted to write about what it is that makes us Australian. Is it a laconic sense of humour, our obsession with sport, or that indefinable thing mateship? The fact is that it is all of those things and more but when trying to explain it to other people it may be enough to simply say we are Australian and at the end of the day, we know what that means even if you don’t.

The country has changed a lot since I was born in 1957. Back then the White Australia Policy was still in place, although the traditional British emigrant had been overtaken in numbers in the post war era by other Europeans, the large scale arrival of Asian immigrants had yet to come. In 1957, we were only 12 years from World War 2 and the horrors visited upon us by the Japanese in that pereiod and the fear of invasion were still raw in people’s minds. The Cold War was in full swing and we were not far off entering the Vietnam War to make sure that the domino theory did not come true.

I grew up in a very white anglo saxon protestant world. Despite the fact my Mum was a catholic that seemed a very odd religion to me. My father and uncle’s were Freemasons and it was no secret what they thought of Catholicism.

My school was an extension of that white world. In the eastern suburbs of Melbourne there weren’t even many Europeans at that time apart from the odd Greek or Italian. The closest we got to exotic food was a plate of spaghetti or the occasional dim sim from the fish and chip shop.

I am 50 years old if I go back just twice that amount of time or two generations from the year of my birth I would come to a Melbourne that was only 20 years old. In Tasmania my paternal Grandfather’s grandparents, Irish Catholics all, would have only just finished their sentences as convicts. In the Victorian goldfields my maternal grandmothers grandfather had married an aboriginal girl and had at least one child from whom I am descended.

In the years I grew up though this heritage was seen as something to be ashamed of. The pride in convict ancestry was still a few decades in the future and it probably wasn’t until we celebrated our bicentennial in 1988 that it became a badge of pride. It was just as well that my father’s Mum had passed away by the time we found out that the Joyce’s had convict blood, and were also Roman Catholic, because she came from a very strict Orange tradition.

On Mum’s side I knew of the rumour of black blood in the family but any time I asked my Grandmother she would just say “Don’t ask questions because you may not like what you find.” One day I was visiting her 80 year old cousin, Charlie Fry, and I asked him the question. He said,

Mum took me to visit my grandmother one day when I was about six up in Shepparton. We were walking down the street and I saw a woman standing out the front of a house. I said “Mum look at that black woman” and she clipped me over the ear and said “Shut up, that’s your Grandmother!”

Far from being ashamed I am proud of the fact that my ancestry may stretch back 40,000 years in this country, and that those ancestors were the first mariners on earth and have art work that stretches back 30,000 years beyond the art found in the Cave of Lascaux in France. Maybe it is those genes that give me that sense of great connection to my land.

So Australia in the first years of the 21st Century is different to that of the 50’s or 60’s when I grew up. No great revelation there. And it doesn’t explain what it is to be Australian other than to say that the definition has changed over the years.

When I grew up fish and chip shop owners were invariably Italian or Greek in origin, now they seem to be mainly Chinese descent. Doctors and other professionals were mainly Anglo Saxon, now they are as likely to be Indian or Vietnamese, Serbian or African. The homogeneity of my youth has gone into the melting pot and something else has come out the other end.

But no matter where those people or their ancestors come from there is something in the air and the water of this driest continent on Earth that gets into your blood. It is the sense of homeland that defines us. It doesn’t matter whether we have seen the red earth of the centre, we know that there is a heartland and that it smells of eucalyptus and petrichor. We know the harshness that comes from this place, the unpredictability and uncompromising climate of extremes that gives us “drought and flooding rains”, often in the same day.

We celebrate our differences. It may no longer be relevant or politically correct to mention the skips, dagoes and wogs, the poles and yugs, the chocos and poms who now are all Australian. There is no need to call us anything other than Aussies. We are what we are, no more, no less. Unique on this planet and proud of it.

Now if that doesn’t explain to you what it’s like to be Australian don’t feel too bad because most of us don’t know either.

The photos are a range of shots that I have taken over the past couple of years. I hope they show a little of the diversity of landscape that is my country.


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