Australia has no culture? You’ve got to be joking
- June 8, 2013
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David Gower: “How can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture?”
In 1978, I was introduced to a middle-class woman in Oxfordshire as an Australian. She replied, ”Welcome to civilisation.” This was in a week when English soccer fans had ransacked another European city; she was blithely unaware of the contradiction.
In more recent times I had dealings with an English journalist who was granted high office in the Australian media. We were discussing the plight of Aboriginal Australia and he said to me, ”This country has the worst history in the world.” He said it without any apparent awareness that Aboriginal Australia’s constant state of crisis began in 1788 with the arrival of 11 ships sailing under the Union Jack – his mob.
This week, asked if England’s cricket relationship with Australia represented a clash of cultures, former England player David Gower said, ”I’m tempted to say, how can you have a clash of cultures when you’re playing against a country with no culture?” It’s a joke, I know, but it’s a dumb joke.
You only have to be inside a prison for two minutes to know that prisons have cultures. If you leave two people on an island for 12 months, when you return they’ll have a culture of shared beliefs, however fragmentary. You can’t stop culture happening. What you can do is play some role in shaping culture, and an example of this is the Yothu Yindi song Treaty.
The continuing appeal of Treaty is interesting because in one sense the song is dated. It’s a response to Bob Hawke’s 1988 commitment to a treaty with indigenous Australia by 1990. That didn’t happen. The song was an attempt to make it happen. Again, it didn’t happen. But the song was a hit and retains a degree of popularity. Why?
Because, I think, of the djatpangarri, the Aboriginal traditional dance song, embedded with a rock tempo in the middle of the track. How can you not get excited by the pulsating didg, followed by the electric dance footage.
Yothu Yindi always put on a great show (they were more an ensemble than a band). And so what we got was a traditional Aboriginal dance, vibrantly performed and presented. It was intensely exciting and, what’s more, it was ours – every Australian’s. The song said so.
An Englishman who looked the Australian experience in the eye was actor Pete Postlethwaite. The 2007 documentary Liyarn Ngarn begins with Pete and Koori singer Archie Roach being taken by the father of an adopted Aboriginal youth to a roadside in Western Australia where the adopted son was beaten unconscious and then driven over. But this was a case where the usual stereotypes no longer applied – the two white youths responsible for the random attack were not Australian but English.
Pete ended the doco by suggesting that the legal doctrine of terra nullius – the land of nothing – which justified white settlement, is actually our foundation myth, a psychological blindness we inherited from Britain that continues to blight our vision and, it would seem, theirs.
Making Australian culture is hard. There are people who believe it doesn’t exist. If you say, ”Well, there’s indigenous culture”, they backtrack and say, ”I didn’t mean there was no indigenous culture”. Because that would be blatantly racist.
Personally, I don’t know how anyone who tuned in to the beauty of this land or listened to its amazing stories wouldn’t want to make art of some description, even if it means meeting ritual disappointments.
There’s a line in Treaty that speaks to this very point: Nhe djatpayatpa nhima gaya’ nhe marrtjini yakarray (You’re dancing, you improvise, you keep going, wow!).
The wow is for the brave ones who keep going.