Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid

Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. And then, it’s all over. Calm is restored as summer winds down, the kids return to school, and the working year starts in earnest – until the next national shibboleth lumbers into view – Anzac Day in late April. 

This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we are too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words.

The fires have dominated the media space, with harrowing photographs and video footage of their impact on people, property, and wildlife, stories of heroism and resilience, and circular debates and divisions, political posturing and finger-pointing. They have crowded out others news and reportage from around Australia and overseas where much is happening, be it the US’ assassination of Iran’s foremost general, ongoing protests in Beirut and Baghdad, the continued pounding on tons and villages in Syria’s beleaguered Idlib province, devastating floods in Indonesia, and volcano eruptions in the Philippines and and Zealand – and, less catastrophic but infinitely entertaining, Britain’s imminent retreat from Europe, and Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the royal family.

The fires have also crowded out the predictable argy-bargy over our national identity. It’s as if the partisans and opinionistas right across our political spectrum have holstered their weapons in deference to our collective pyro-purgatory.

There is one piece, however, that I deem worthy of republishing in In That Howling Infinite insofar as it encapsulates perfectly a cognitive and cultural dissonance at the heart of our national identity that I touched upon recently in How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo.

Sydney journalist Elizabeth Farrelly is always worth reading for her perspective on our identity, our culture and our natural and built environment. On this Australia Day 2020, she asks the perennial rhetorical question: what does it mean to be Australian? Her observations are illuminating. Here is my summary – you can read it in full below.

“As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up …

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite.

Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over. Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable, exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and  set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognized for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better … God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponized it. We’ll show this country who’s boss. 

Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. 

This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology”.

See also: We got them Australia Day Blues;  and Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Survival-by-respect or death-by-stupid: your choice Straya

Elizabeth Farrrelly, Sydney Morning Herald 26th January 2020

It’s invasion day again only, this time, the eyes of the world are upon us. Under headlines like “Australia shows us the road to hell“, the world is wondering if our economy isn’t every bit as fragile as the landscape it routinely exploits. It’s wondering about our tourism, with massive cancellations already from China and a US travel warning putting Australia on par with Gaza and PNG. It’s asking how long Australia will be habitable. But beneath those questions lies another. What, at this crossroads, does it mean to be Australian?

The first three are questions of both fact and perception. As such they may be partly addressed by Scott Morrison’s $76m commitment to beef-up Australia as a brand. But the last is a question for us. Who are we, as a nation, and who do we wish to be going forward? 

Australia Bushfires: Tourism fire effects

The tourism industry has lost some $4.5 billion as overseas visitors cancel trips over bushfires.

As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can dust off our angel wings and smarten up.

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite. 

 

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

And sure, to some extent, that’s just colonialism. Colonialism is inherently macho, and inherently denialist. But it should be transitional. Now, as the NY Times argues, our political denialism is “scarier than the fires”. Smarten up? It’s time we grew up.

This is Australia’s moment of reckoning. It’s time we lost the attitude. Time we made a clear, rational and collective choice between survival-by-respect and death-by-stupid.

On top of Auckland’s Maungakiekie, the volcanic Māori pa also known as One Tree Hill, stands an obelisk. The land was bequeathed to the city in the mid-19th century by the beloved Scot Sir John Logan Campbell, who designed the obelisk as a permanent record “of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people”. That was then – now, New Zealand has Jacinda. And yes, these dots are connected.

Australia has shown no such reverence. Indeed, unable even to express genuine remorse for our repeated attempts at genocide and erasure-by-other-means, we’re still doing arrogant displacement. And we, as a result, have Scott Morrison, who must live with the disparaging epithet concocted by the lads at the Betoota Advocate – Scotty from marketing – because many Australians believe there is a ring of truth to it.

Morrison who responds to bushfires by wanting to clear more land. Who thinks hazard reduction is climate action and more advertising can persuade them back to a charred continent. Death by stupid.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better. Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over.

Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s filthy foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable (Alice had 55 days above 40 degrees last yearand recorded street-surface temperatures between 61 and 68 degrees celsius), exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.  

As if that very ancestry, those very records, hadn’t been, for two centuries, the subject of our energetic erasure. As if being Indigenous had always yielded some special right to speak, instead of the precise opposite. As if the speaker’s genetic makeup validated or invalidated his speech. What?

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilisers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. That’ll show them. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognised for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers cheat – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. 

God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponised it. By golly we’ll show this country who’s boss. Then if things get really rough, we’ll pop to heaven. Let’s hear it. A recent street poster picturing Morrison declaring Pentecostals for a Warmer Planet! may seem extreme, but Meritus Professor of Religious Thought, Philip C. Almond, explains why Morrison’s faith meansreducing carbon emissions … may have little intellectual purchase with the PM” – because world’s end means the second coming and, for the chosen, salvation. It’s also why Morrison’s beloved Hillsong church can happily advertise its coming conference, called Breathe Again, with Bishop T D Jakes saying “it’s amazing how God can strike a match in Australia and the whole world catches on fire”. As if the fires were God given.

That’s choice A, Scott Morrison’s choice. Business as usual but with extra cheesy advertising. Choice B, survival-by-respect, recognizes that even cheese can’t sell a pile of ash.

Survival-by-respect means just that: respect for Indigenous peoples, for nature and for women. It means knowing that listening is no weakness, but a path to greater strength.

On the ground, the shift would be dramatic but not impossible. Zero carbon cities would become an immediate priority: solar vehicles, green roads, every surface productive of food or energy. It would mean ending coal production. Investing in renewables. Creating whole new industries. 

This would mean listening to people who’ve spent 60,000 years here. Not copying, necessarily, listening. And listening, above all, to nature, heeding the fires’ overwhelming lesson. Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology. 

Sure, we can stick with lazy old Plan A. We can bow to Brand Australia and trust our grandchildren’s futures to the Rapture Hypothesis. Good luck with that, and happy Straya Day!

Bare Dinkum

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo

A simple explanation  of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air. 

And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist  Jacqueline Maley nailed it:

“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”

We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?

Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.

“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.”

Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little­ good governance’.

“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.

The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.

On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

On the same day, the Herald’s  political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:

“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”

Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.


For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under

Bare Dinkum

A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny

Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the ­storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the ­storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.

In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring­ the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.

And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of ­Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a ­courageous and challenging crit­ique of Australia’s capabilities.

In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and ­wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequen­ces, and the capacity to bend it.

The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom­, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integ­ral part of the ­national lexicon, so too ­“tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the ­potency of their thinking remains very alive.

In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden­ for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British ­antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by ­second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curios­ity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper explor­ation and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.

Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of ­distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.

Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national­ and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.

A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.

Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ­ambition and outcomes but they are the ­exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social ­unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.

Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more ­reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant ­strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insou­ciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.

We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the ­distance to full connectedness and acceptance.

On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have ­national policies on how to optim­ally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, clim­ate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.

A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone de­livery, of even modest ­infrastructure.

Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and ineffic­iency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.

We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, ­disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.

Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech ­declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated­ and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal ­responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.

We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.

A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past ­reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to preven­t new sins.

After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has ­become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a ­nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.

Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of econo­mic and military security, and despite­ all the economic and cultur­al up­sides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse­ populations in the world, with ­almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not ­buried latent racism, inequal­ity and bigotry.

Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers­ were demonised, their ­religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and ­demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.

The Cold War 1960s and “yellow­ peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural ­resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.

We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact­ our longest-standing allies and alliances­. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South ­Pacific, few ­Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.

Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning ­nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals­ about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science­ and reason; opportunist­ically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial ­engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.

The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater ­because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.

So much “government”, so little­ good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.

Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, con­sumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.

There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.

If we do not better see and ­respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will ­become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.

Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).

Living off the sheep’s back

 

 

 

 

The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness

Pemulwuy

It was recently announced that Phillip Noyce, Director of the award winning Rabbit-Proof Fence, is to bring to our screens the story of Bidjigal warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy who lived near present day Botany Bay and who united local tribes in a twelve year guerrilla war against the British invaders of what we now call New South Wales.

As is always often the case with such fearless but forlorn intifadat, Pemuluy came to a sad, bad end. Shot down in a a totally one-sided firefight, his pickled head was sent by Governor Philip King to renowned botanist Joseph Banks in England, a grisly souvenir of Britain’s self-ordained, and, to many in power, god-given, mission civilatrice. 

And thus began Australia’s frontier wars. 

White historical memory is like a sieve. Give it a good shake and only the big chunks are left. For a long time in Australia, the story of our frontier wars was not one of those. But in recent decades, an ever-widening crack has let the light in.  

The first hairline fissures appeared in the early years of settlement as a small number of humanitarians voiced their concerns, although not with enough impetus to cool our pioneer fervour. Henry Reynolds, acclaimed historian of the frontier wars, quotes one such: ‘How is it our minds are not satisfied? What means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?’ 

I touched upon this paradox in a review I wrote of historian Peter Cochrane’s novel The Making of Martin Sparrow:

“The country into which most characters venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country” … 

… Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding …

… “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “I don’t reckon we’re the Christians … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

… They knew in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. 

No ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties

At Bellingen’s recent Readers and Writers Festival, it was our pleasure and privilege to attend a powerful “conversation” between Reynolds and indigenous activist and academic Marcia Langton (and, by fortunate serendipity, to share a meal with them at the Federal Hotel afterwards). One of many discussion points was that old conundrum: are those who rebel against authority and resist oppression and dispossession terrorists or freedom fighters? The festival event’s tight schedule precluded what was shaping up to be a very lively question time. 

Australia’s frontier wars, Reynolds reminded us, raged for decades from Tasmania in our far south  to Queensland’s far north. It was a story of vicious raids and reprisals. 

Australia at the time of first settlement, and particularly on the frontier, was a brutal, violent place. It was colonized by soldiers and convicts, most of them young men chock-full of testosterone and aggression, bitterness and prejudice, greed and ambition. The conflict, which in Queensland, endured  into the last decades of the 19th Century, was a war of conquest and extrajudicial killings – or more bluntly, murders. The subdued territories were patrolled  by the native police – effectively paramilitary forces. 

The wars were waged by an outgunned people on the one hand, and, on the other, what were effectively robber bands raised and provisioned by the local magnates and squatters intent on seizing, holding and expanding their often enormous landholdings. 

There were to be no ceasefires, no parlays and no treaties. And no recognition of indigenous rights. None were ever on offer – not that that would’ve made a difference. 

Reynolds observed how we as a nation celebrate war and warriors, but do not recognize, and indeed, forget our foundational wars of martial conquest. We commenced our national journey with a declaration that our land  was terra nullius, an empty land that was “ceded and  conquered”. There is still no proper explanation at law of how sovereignty passed from the indigenous people to Britain and thence the Australian State. 

Waterloo Creek Massacre, January 1838

Until the momentous Mabo decision of 1992 when the High Court held that the doctrine of terra nullius, which imported all laws of England to a new land, did not apply in circumstances where there were already inhabitants present – even if those inhabitants had been regarded at the time as “uncivilized”, and that as such, any indigenous land rights which had not been extinguished by subsequent grants by the Crown continued to exist in Australia. The concept of indigenous land title was thus born.

And today, at public gatherings and meetings, at carnivals and ceremonials, at conferences and conventions, many of us now recognize and acknowledge our first peoples as the traditional owners of this land and acknowledge elders past, present and future. 

We have come a long way in a short time; but we’re not there yet.

There exists still a darkness at the heart of our democracy that we struggle to come to terms with; and in these divisive days, it doesn’t  take much to reignite our “history wars” as we negotiate competing narratives and debate the “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of our national story. 

© Paul Hemphill 2019.  All rights reserved

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                            Solid Rock
They were standin’ on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
’cause somewhere, someone lied
And now you’re standing on olid rock
Standing on a sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line

Martin Sparrow’s Blues

You cannot stop the birds of sadness from passing overhead, but you can sure as hell stop them nesting in your hair. 

It is late summer in 1806, in the colony of New South Wales. After he loses everything he owns in a disastrous flood, former convict, failed farmer, and all-round no-hoper and ne’er-do-well Martin Sparrow heads into the wilderness that is now the Wollemi National Park in the unlikely company of an outlaw gypsy girl and a young wolfhound.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, Historian Peter Cochrane’s tale of adventure and more often than not, misadventure, is set on the middle reaches of the Hawkesbury River, north of Windsor, and the treacherous terrain of the picturesque Colo Gorge.

But first, some background history …

Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported by the British government to various penal colonies in Australia. It had began transporting convicts to the American colonies in the early 17th century, but the American Revolution had put an end to this. An alternative was required to relieve the overcrowding of British prisons and on the decommissioned warships, the hulks, that were used to house the overflow. In 1770, navigator Captain James Cook had claimed possession of the east coast of Australia for Britain, and pre-empting French designs on Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land was selected as the site of a penal colony. In 1787, the First Fleet of eleven convict ships set sail for Botany Bay, arriving on 20 January 1788 to establish the first European settlement on the continent. Botany Bay, named by Cook for its abundant and unique flora and fauna, was deemed unsuited, and six days later, the fleet hove to in the natural harbour to its north and established Sydney, named for the fleet’s commander.

Other penal colonies were later established in Tasmania – Van Diemen’s Land – in 1803 and Queensland In 1824, whilst Western Australia, founded in 1829 as a free colony, received convicts from 1850. Penal transportation to Australia peaked in the 1830s and reduced significantly in succeeding decades. The last convict ship arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Convicts were transported primarily for petty crimes – serious crimes, like rape and murder, were punishable by death. But many were political  prisoners, exiled for their participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the nascent trade union movement. Their terms served, most ex-convicts remained in Australia, and joining the free settlers, many rose to prominent positions in Australian society and commerce. Yet they and their heirs bore a social stigma – convict origins were for a long time a source of shame: “the convict stain”. Nowadays, more confident of our identity and our national story, many Australians regard a convict lineage as a cause for pride. A fifth of today’s Australians are believed to be descended from transported convicts.

A wise man doesn’t burn his bridges until he knows he can part the waters

In the young colony, for free and unfree, men and women alike, life  could be nasty, brutish and short, beset by hard labour, hard living and for many, hard liquor, cursed with casual violence, and kept in order by a draconian regime of civil and military justice. Particularly so for the felons, formerly of the convict transports, and only moderately less for free settlers and the expirees, former convicts endeavouring to make a living on hard-scrabble blocks on the outer fringes of the Sydney Basin, far from  young and barely civilized Sydney Town.

Sydney Society 1800

Cochrane’s history credentials are evident in his feel for the time and the place, the lifestyle and its accoutrements. And it’s a good pitch for a motion picture. A colonial “western” indeed, for the book echoes those fine films that portray the sordid and seedy side of the pioneer story, like Altman’s chilly McCabe and Mrs Miller, and latterly, the magnificently decadent Deadwood, with less brutal elements of Alexandra Iñárritu’s The Revenant. I noted at least two lines borrowed from classic westerns – Clint Eastwood’s avenger tale The Outlaw Josie Wales, and Arthur Penn’s  frontier drama The Missouri Breaks – and there are probably more.

Cochrane has assembled a cast that is as representative and as colourful of the transplanted populace as it undoubtedly was, although some may come across to readers as a tad stereotypical and over-the-top. Loyal and honest servants of the crown like dour, Scottish Chief Constable Alister Mackie and his erudite sidekick American Thaddeus Cuff, who is never lost for bon mots and folk wisdom; whores that would not be out of place in Deadwood’s seedy Gem; cruel; corrupt soldiers who are a law unto themselves; and veterans of the Indian wars (waged by the East India Company, that is). Some are soberly righteous and others less so, given to either producing or consuming in excess a hooch named for its after effects: “bang-head”); unscrupulous and violent sealers, hunters, bushmen, and escaped convicts; and a wise and inquisitive doctor and an eccentric and obsessively peregrinating botanist intent on determining how the platypus produces its young. And, that unlikely trio at the commencement of this piece.

For many of the characters, and particularly the melancholy Martin Sparrow, it is a tale of hope and renewal, survival  and redemption – again like those iconic westerns. There is something about “the frontier”, on the lawless and dangerous edges of civilization, that tries and proves a man or woman’s soul. Cuff declares that “all life turns on a pitiless wheel”, but, he adds, “we ain’t stuck in brutishness. We got a choice”.

Damnation and redemption walk hand in hand. It is perhaps no coincidence one of the river’s most righteous settlers, the former Redcoat Joe Franks, has a passion for seventeenth century Puritan preacher John Bunyans A Pilgrim’s Progress, that allegorical saga of faith in adversity written whilst the author was doing a twelve year stretch for his religious beliefs. Hope springs eternal on the Hobbesian frontier, and we are constantly reminded of this by the sardonic constables: “hope is the poor mans bread”, but he who lives on hope dies fasting.  Whilst hope might be “the mainspring of faith, it is also “physician to misery” and “grief’s music”. And yet, to the irrepressible Romany girl, who has seen and suffered much, it might also be the “little songbird in the well of our troubled soul”.

… the search for happiness can be like the search for your spectacles when they’re sittin’ on your nose. 

The country into which most of the cast venture is not, as we now acknowledge, an empty land. It was a peopled landscape, a much revered, well-loved, and worked terrain, its inhabitants possessed of deep knowledge, wisdom and respect for “country”. Cochrane acknowledges the traditional owners as they roam the fringes of his story and often venture into it, mostly as a benign presence, aiding and advising the protagonists in the mysterious ways of the wilderness.

Whilst many colonists, particularly the soldiery, regard the native peoples as savages and inflict savage reprisals upon them for their resistance to white encroachment, others, in the spirit of the contemporary ‘Enlightenment’ push back against the enveloping, genocidal tide with empathy and understanding. “It’s the first settlers do the brutal work. Them that come later, they get to sport about in polished boots and frock-coats … revel in polite conversation, deplore the folly of ill-manners, forget the past, invent some bullshit fable. Same as what happened in America. You want to see men at their worst, you follow the frontier”. “They don’t reckon we’re the Christians, Marty … We’re the Romans. We march in, seize the land, crucify them, stringing ‘em up in trees, mutilate their parts”.

But they know in their hearts that this ancient people and its ancient ways are helpless against the relentless tide of the white man’s mission civilatrice. “It might be that the bolters have the ripest imagination, but sooner or later, an official party will get across the mountains and find useful country, and the folk and the flag will follow, that’s the way of the world. It’s a creeping flood tide and there’s no ebb, and there’s no stopping it. No amount of … goodwill”. To paraphrase Henry Reynolds, acclaimed chronicler of the frontier wars, they can hear that uneasy whispering in their hearts.

It is Cochrane’s description of the landscape that makes an otherwise entertaining but derivative “quest” narrative soar to literally panoramic heights:

“They heard the sound of frogmouths and boobooks and night birds unknown to them, and heard the whoosh and splash and smack of fish jumping in the shallows and the constant sound of the tide chafing the banks and far off a dingo howling, and they saw the river rats scurrying for cover and myriad shapes in the dark recesses of the forest, and higher up they saw great bands of ancient sandstone, moonlit, cracked and fissured by the chisel work of ages”.

“They stood atop a cliff wall that ran north to the dense green line that marked the horizon, above a point where the valley was lost in the braided folds of mountain spurs and  patches stone and a wash of the darkest forest green … The far cliffs were fractured by heavily forested gullies and slot canyons carved deep through stone. To the north he could see open patches of grassland on the valley floor, the lumpy shapes of marsupials grazing, smaller things foraging, clustered together, wood ducks and a flock of black cockatoos in full flight following the line of the far wall, the stone there fissured and scarred like the hide of a dragon”.

“Soon they were there, standing four in a line atop the stone cliffs, a sheer drop to the thickly  timbered slopes that flattened to a valley floor perhaps a mile away, the river there flanked by irregular patches of forest and grass meadow and game feeding on the grasses – emu and wallaby, a wild dog loping along, and wildfowl breaking from the reeds. They saw a flock of parrots skimming the canopy, their colours coursing down like windswept rain. They saw a wedge-tailed eagle, those ragged wings, wheeling, slow, hypnotic, in the heavens above”.

Landscapes such as these are familiar to me. I view them from high places and walk the forests, and I have seen and heard the myriad birds and animals that inhabit the lands east of our Great Dividing Range. Indeed, many of them I view from my home in the forest. I felt the thrill of recognition as Cochrane’s adventurers ventured forth.

Breathtakingly beautiful it might be, but, then and now, it’s a hard and dangerous land. “… deadly cruel if you’re lost in there. I tell you both this: the wilderness in the west begs a certain reverence and demands a certain humility”.

The weather swings from searing heat to devastating floods – it is such a deluge that propels Martin Sparrow on his odyssey. The terrain in treacherous – one careless misstep and a fall can be deadly. The flora and the fauna might be exotic and magical to behold, but not everything is benign. There are snakes, funnel webs, wild dogs, eels, and bull sharks, and a particularly unpleasant wild pig. The travelers are constantly checking for mosquitoes, leeches and ticks. And the deadliest of all, the humans.

Well, these days it seems all the wilderness does is abet a multitude of crimes and occasionally a smidgen of restitution I suppose. Small mercies. 

A perilous place the bush may have been, but that did not deter those who sought to venture there and indeed, find a path through the Great Dividing Range. In ensuing decades, many explorers would weave their way westwards to view that “vision splendid of the western plains extended”, as our national bard described it. But in convict days, the vision splendid was one of freedom, from slavery’s metaphorical chains -actual irons were not required in the colony because the dense and impenetrable forests that covered the lowlands and the slopes of the ranges were as “iron bars all the way to the sky” and the nomadic “savages”, de facto guards, so to speak, and for freedmen, from backbreaking toil of the their meagre farmsteads. “… it’s the misery of this mercantile tyranny … or the sovereignty of the commonweal, fire of the brutish parties that govern us here”.

Tales of an inland haven, a sanctuary from the military despotism and the rigours of pioneering  were part of the convict “dreaming”.  Some say this was a rhetorical ploy to throw the Law off the scent as the real escape route was by boat along the coast. The authorities dismissed it as a fantasy, a fable, or, to quote Robbie Robertson, “a drunkard’s dream if ever I did see one”. All that lay out yonder was trial and tribulation and death by a thousand stings, bites, or spears.

And yet, the magical thinking of a happy land far, far away is part of our human storytelling. “Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue, and the dreams that you dream of really do come true”. Even Westworlds androids, who yearn, like Pinocchio, to be human, roam relentlessly towards the freedom of “the valley beyond”.

The notion of becoming a “bolter”is the primary theme of the story, and indeed the “making” of the luckless, lovelorn, indebted and hence perennially, melancholy Martin Sparrow who was ever wont to “stagger from one calamity to another”. A paradisaical village of free folk beyond the mountain fastness and the long arm of the constabulary, on the banks of “a river of the first magnitude” that winds its way to a mighty, whale-splashed ocean far to the west of the unknown continent, as they note, the celebrated  Mr Flinders himself had surmised, their wants satisfied by bevies of copper-coloured women:

“And there it is, the most beautiful grassy woodlands that you are ever to see, and way below, a small village, embosomed in a grove of tall trees, by a most majestic river, flowing west, as far as the eye can see, and small boats gliding the channels between little islands, and women, knee-deep in the  shallows, casting their nets … Olive-skinned, well-favored by nature and most pliable and yielding in all regards”.

Give a man his wish, you take away his dreams. 

And so, amidst Cochrane’s historical and political exposition – and he wears his historian heart on his sleeve – and remarkable scenic descriptions, a mob of folk of widely disparate authority, status, means, temperament and ability head off in twos and threes into the wild. Some are driven by duty; for others, it’s a living; and for our unlikely duo and dog, it’s a quixotic leap in the dark. Some perish, others sicken, and several arrive at their own epiphanies and apotheoses. I recall Paul Simon: “Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there”; and also, Robert Lewis Stevenson’s observation that often, “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”.

Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!
Rudyard Kipling, The Explorer (1898)

Orphan Girl

This beautiful song was written by Brendan Graham for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks in 2012 to commemorate the immigration to Australia of over four thousand female orphans who, between 1848 and 1850, were brought from Ireland during the Great Hunger. It is performed by the celebrated Choral Scholars of University College of Dublin, featuring soloist Abby Molloy


For wider reading about Australian history, I highly recommend William Lines’ challenging Taming of the Great South Land, the late Robert Hughes’ magisterial The Fatal Shore, and David Day’s Claiming a Continent Posts in In That Howling  Infinite include We got them Australia Day Blues and Outside Looking In.

As part of its marketing strategy, publisher Penguin Books, has seen fit to share extracts from the opening chapter of The Making of Martin Sparrow.  I have republished them below.

1.

Sparrow woke on wet sand somewhere downriver with a terrible stink in his nostrils, the smell of death and decay, rot and ruin all about. At first he did not stir, there in the pre-dawn, pale light to the east beyond the river, the tide on the turn, ebbing now, the flow yet a faint murmur in his ears.

Confusion held him still, as did the formidable lassitude in his bones and the damp cold on his skin. The sound of his breathing con­firmed the likelihood that he was alive. He raised his head and looked about, sucked up a wad of gritty phlegm and spat onto the sand. He wondered if perhaps his deliverance was the work of a kindly fate, a chance to make good his miserable existence. Hard to know.

The sand was strewn with muck and wreckage. The hen coop was there, his hens dead, in company with tangles of lumber and thatch, fence posts and scoured saplings, a big, raggedy cut of wagon can­vas and a lidless coffin, the muddied panelling infested with yellow mould that glowed bright in the soft dawn light.

He sat up and brushed himself off, noticed a long cut on the inside of his forearm, but it wasn’t bad. If it was bad, deep, he might have bled to death while he lay there in the dark, half drowned. But it wasn’t and he didn’t. That was lucky.

He studied the coffin; reckoned sooner or later he’d have to take a look, in all probability stare rotting death in the face. A crow alighted on the rim, shuffled one way then the other, then hopped in, keen to join its companions. Sparrow saw a flurry of black wings as the disputatious gathering settled to its work.

There was a blood-soaked tear in his britches and a hungry leech on his thigh, like a small, fat velvet purse. He flicked the greedy little sucker onto the ground, took a twig and pierced it, watching his own blood spill out and colour the sand to russet.

In the shallows he scooped up a fragment of the Sydney Gazette, but the newspaper dissolved in his fingers as he tried to unfold the sodden sheet.

Sparrow surveyed the farms beyond the river, the flooded fields; wildfowl feeding on the flattened corn, flood-wrack washing seawards on the flow. He dropped to his knees and laved water onto the little puncture wound on his thigh and the cut on his arm. Quite why he did that he did not know for he was otherwise layered in muck all over.

Memories washed about inside his head dispelling some of the confusion – the lightning storm, the torrents of rain, the hen coop caught in the violent flow; wheat stacks coursing the river; the unremitting fury of the waters, crops awash, the bottoms gone; the exodus of reptiles; the dismal cries from distant quarters, the sound of muskets dangerously charged.

He got up and turned about, scanned the lowlands to the west, the mountains far off, full of mystery and foreboding, and full of promise too.

The sound: the ebbing tide, the pecking crows.

Sparrow stepped quietly from the water. Stood. Listened some more. He crossed the sand, took hold of the wagon sheet, heavy with wet, and edged towards the coffin until he could see the beaks spear­ing into that shrunken face riddled with wounds, a fledgling on the old man’s chest, pecking at his coffin suit. He did not hesitate, for their pleasure had filled him with an unfamiliar wrath and rendered him vengeful. He hurled the wagon sheet across the coffin. The cap­tive birds panicked and leapt into the cloth and flapped and squawked and leapt again, like hearts beating in some hideous thing.

Sparrow took hold of a heavy stick and began to beat the cloth with all his might. A wing appeared askew the panelling and he smashed at it and heard the creature scream. And he kept on just so, until the canvas lay sunken in the coffin and the birds were all but still, dead or dying, their frames faintly visible. He leant on the stick, suck­ing for breath, awaiting further movement in the coffin, watching as blood seeped into the cloth. The birds made a few pitiful sounds, now and then a ripple or a shudder or the flap of a wing.

Sparrow stood over the coffin until the cloth stopped moving. He looked west to the mountains. Tiredness took hold. ‘Maybe it’s true, maybe I don’t got the mettle,’ he said.

He crossed the sand, stood over his coop, dropped to his knees. His hens in death, his good, sweet, giving birds, were naught but a lumpy pile of dirty feathers and claws.

He reached into the coop and gently palmed his birds apart, set­tling his hand upon a muddied wing; recalled the signs: the lightning storm in that inky blackness over the mountains, the discolouration of the flow and the rapid rise of the river.

But the waters had receded, briefly – a most deceptive interval that filled Sparrow with a false notion of security and he had not then seized his opportunity. He had not got in his crop, not one ear of corn; nor had he got his scarce possessions off the floor of his hut, nor moved the coop to higher ground, thus condemning the hens to a most frightful expiration, such an end as filled Sparrow with dread for reasons he did not care to contemplate. For all that, he was truly sorry.

More than once Mortimer Craggs had told him to stop being sorry. ‘Sorry for this, sorry for that,’ said Mort. ‘You got to stop being sorry, Marty, you gotta stop forthwith and seize the dream, for therein lies our path to an unfettered liberty, y’foller me?’

Sparrow did not quite follow, but he’d said yes anyway for he did not want further badgering from Mort, who was a fierce badgerer and a most indiscriminately violent man once roused. Mort might well whack a man; or he might take a filleting knife and slit his nose. You never did know what Mort might do.

Sparrow felt the sun on his back at last. Once more he looked west across the water-logged lowlands to the foothills and thence the mountains. He recalled his last conversation with Mort Craggs, before Mort took off with Shug McCafferty, before they bolted for freedom.

‘I just ain’t ready to go,’ he’d said. He was uncertain as to why Mort had invited him to join the bolt, for they were not friends, just acquaintances, a lethal acquaintance dating back to the years of his youth in the village of Blackley on the river Irk.

‘I think you don’t got the mettle, Martin,’ said Mort, fingering the ridge of proud flesh on his cropped ear.

‘I have things to say to Biddie first,’ said Sparrow.

‘Forget the whore, there’s women on the other side, there’s a big river, there’s a village, women aplenty, copper-coloured beauties, the diligence of their affections something to behold.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Can’t say, not till you commit to the venture, swear a binding oath.’

‘I cannot swear an oath, binding or otherwise, not yet.’

The very idea of copper-coloured women on the other side of the mountains puzzled Sparrow, deeply. He was somewhat lost for a per­spective on this startling infomation. ‘Like the Otahetians?’ he said.

‘No, nothin’ like them and I can say no more Marty, not another word.’

And that was the last conversation he’d had with Mort Craggs.

Sparrow had to wonder if perhaps his yearning for Biddie Happ was a foolish dream. If it was not a foolish dream before the flood it most likely was now. His thirty-acre patch was swamped, his corn crib gone, his corn crop flat in the mud, the wildfowl, the borers and the mould most likely hard at work this very day. His hut might well be gone too, lost to the flood. His hens were dead, he was deep in hock, mostly to Alister Mackie, and would have to beg for seed for another crop and that meant more hock, regardless of the weather to come. In short, it was now most unlikely that Biddie would see any chance of elevat­ing her prospects by joining with him, Martin Sparrow, former felon, time-expired convict, failed farmer on the flood-prone bottoms of the Hawkesbury River. Fool of a man.

He sat on the sand, bowed his head and ran his fingers down his forehead, over the faint indentations that continued onto his eyelids and cheeks, the all but faded scars that folk took to be the remnants of small pox.

He tried to sort his pictorial thoughts. That wasn’t easy with Biddie presenting herself in one instant and the copper-coloured beauties in the next. ‘I should have gone with Mort,’ he said aloud. He thought about the birthmark on Biddie’s face, the mark she tried to hide with that lovely sweep of hair, pinned just so. He wondered if copper-coloured women ever got birthmarks. As to that, he just didn’t know. The mysteries, numberless.

2

Alister Mackie sipped his Hai Seng tea, treading the porch boards by the tavern door, treading to waken his bones as the pale grey light of dawn brought the distant mountains into view and the mass of hud­dled humanity on the village square came to life, the refugees from the flood stirring from makeshift tents on rickety frames, tattered paniers lumpy with tools and keepsakes, waifs bedded in carts and barrows, piglets trussed and tumbled in the mud, game dogs on tethers and crated fowls crooning their disquiet.

He held the mug in his two hands, sniffed at the steam com­ing off the brew, searching the scene: the double guard on the stone granary and the commissariat store; soldiers by the barracks door in various measures of infantry undress; washerwomen in and out of the washhouse; the butcher, busy on his scaffold, a hundred pounds of pork on the hook; the little church, the smithy, the stone gaol. The village they called Prominence.

The drudge called Fish joined Mackie on the porch. He wiped his hands on his apron. ‘You want I take the mug?’ he said.

Mackie handed him the mug.

‘They’re hammered, like castaways, every last one of them,’ said Fish.

‘They are, yes.’

‘I seen floods, but I never seen a flood like this one.’

‘Nor I.’

‘Here and there the tops of trees, otherwise an ocean.’

‘Yes.’

Mackie stepped off the porch. He weaved his way through the bivouac to the commissariat store on the far side of the square and from there he followed the ridgeline past the granary to the top of the switchback path, where he paused by the doctor’s cabin to scrutinise the work of the floodwaters below. The government garden, gone, an acre of greens torn from the slope as if scythed away by some pale rider’s mighty blade; the cottages on the terrace, squat and sodden, the weatherboard swollen and warped. Felons in the shallows, gathering up the ruins of the wharf, the guards perched on their haunches.

Mackie joined his constables, Thaddeus Cuff and Dan Sprodd, at the foot of the switchback path and together they stepped from spongy duckboards into the shallows and clambered aboard the government sloop. Packing away the mooring lines, they drifted into the current and settled at their ease. A light westerly, a port tack, the wind and the tide obliging.

Cuff patted the planking beneath the rowlock, looking up into the big gaff rig as the sail took the wind. ‘This tub reminds me of Betty Pepper,’ he said. ‘Deceptive quickness in stout disguise, charms you’d never guess first off.’

He glanced back at the cottages on the terrace and there she was, Bet, watching them go; her porch strewn with soaked possessions, the high-water mark like a dirty wainscot on the cottage wall. The young strumpet Biddie Happ was there too, squaring a muddied rug on a makeshift line. Cuff raised his hat and Bet responded with a curt swish of her hand and took a broom and set to sweeping the mud off her porch. Biddie patted at the swathe of red hair that covered the birthmark on her face.

‘They’ll miss me,’ said Cuff, ‘they cannot help themselves.’ He grabbed the wicker handles on a gallon glass demijohn, upended it, took a swig, then another, and then he passed the receptacle to Dan Sprodd.

Sprodd took a swig and passed it back to Cuff who took another swig, knowing it would aggravate the chief constable.

‘Hardly underway, you set a fine example, Thaddeus,’ said Mackie.

‘Thank you!’ said Cuff.

‘You should ration that.’ Mackie wagged a finger at him.

‘I don’t go with the shoulds, the shoulds are a tyranny. I see no joy in rationing bang-head, or anything else for that matter,’ said Cuff.

‘Americans take their liberties very seriously,’ said Sprodd, as if Mackie was sorely in need of the information.

‘Indeed, we do!’ said Cuff.

‘As do I,’ said Mackie.

‘I’ll tell you now, spirits put clout and vigour in a man. You’ll get honest toil from a pint of bang-head, miracles of effort from a quart.’

‘That or the fatal dysenteries!’

Cuff quite liked the sound of the chief ’s lowland brogue but it was too early to argue with any persistence. Sleepiness, briefly, had the better of his contrarian temperament. ‘Hear that Dan?’ he said, ‘We are not to be trusted with the drink; we, the meritorious constabulary.’