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A week in the life of Australia

A week’s diary by Richard Flanagan as published in the French newspaper Liberation last Saturday. Read the English version, or go straight to the French version: Here

Ce matin, à 9 heures, j’étais debout, avec 10 000 autres, sur la place de la Fédération à Melbourne, pour regarder les excuses, en direct sur des écrans géants. Comme partout à travers l’Australie. Les applaudissements ont éclaté quand le Premier ministre, Kevin Rudd, a dit : «Sorry.»

SATURDAY
Saturday begins looking at a freshly framed print of a map of Bruny Island made in 1795 by the French explorer Bruni D’Entrecasteaux while charting the then uncolonised Van Diemen’s Land. Its French namings, some of which survive, point to an alternative future of my island home, now called Tasmania.

D’Entrecasteuax’s party met with the Tasmanian Aborigines several times, at one point taking off their clothes to make the Tasmanians feel more comfortable. Their encounters seem to have been characterised by humour, joy, games, gifts and possibly sex. One hopes so.

Within forty years those same Aborigines would be subjected to what was described at the time as ‘a war of extermination’ waged by the English settlers.

‘The trees are immensely tall,’ D’Entrecasteaux wrote of the Van Diemonian forests, ‘… some seem as old as the world itself…we were filled with admiration at the sight of these ancient forests, where the sound of an axe has never resonated’.

As I drive to catch the ferry to Bruny Island—where I am taking the map to hang in our shack—I hear on the radio news that conservation groups are planning the greatest campaign of civil disobedience in a generation to halt the construction in north Tasmania of one of the world’s biggest pulp mills. It is to be fed by those same native forests that once filled D’Entrecasteaux with such awe.

SUNDAY
The radio reports Barak Obama sweeping three more states in US primaries. When did American elections become more important than our own? I walk outside to see two kangaroos at the front of our shack. This January has been the driest in Tasmania’s recorded history, and they are starving, foraging for food, driven by the drought out of the hills behind to the coastal rind.

Later I read a book sent me by Brazilian novelist and samba singer, Chico Buarqe, recording in words and images the impressions of Rio de Janerio by French and English explorers en route to the south seas to explore Australia. Reading it I realise I discovered my world of Australia exploring the writings of the South Americans.

This evening, friends arrive in a boat, with news the fishing is good. They’ve caught calimari, crayfish and flathead in the large estuary known to this day as D’Entrecasteuax Channel. Bruny and its waters teem with life—around us circle birds and pad animals extinct elsewhere.

We make a fire and grill fish over the coals, washing it down with beer and home made slivovic. They are giddy, but not so much with the heat and the drink, but the odd goodness a summer day has brought to their wintry lives.

‘What do you reckon?’ says one.

‘Of what?’ I ask.

‘This,’ he says and his hand opens out to the sky and the sea, to everything and nothing, and he laughs, ‘This!’

A few metres away in the scrub, a hungry kangaroo startles at his cry and leaps away.

In this world, writes Issa, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers.

MONDAY
All day—a day warm and glorious—my daughters go surfing and I am left working inside on a piece on Australian politics for the English Guardian. I became a writer in order to go swimming, to evade a life disciplined. My chief characteristic as a youth was indolence and dissipation. What happens to such virtue?

Kafka’s diary on the day the first world war began: ‘Morning: war declared. Afternoon: went for a swim.’

The news is full of the newly elected Labor government’s intention as the very first act of parliament to apologise to the Stolen Generations, the name given the estimated 100,000 Aborigines removed, often forcibly, sometimes violently, from their familes and tribes over the twentieth century. They were put into institutions with the aim of severing all connection with their culture and language.

The consequent horror and misery for those who never saw their families or their children again can scarcely be imagined. In 1997 a major inquiry reported that the children and their families had endured ‘gross violations of their human rights’ and described the forcible removal of indigenous children as ‘an act of genocide, aimed at wiping out indigenous families, communities and cultures’. The report recommended compensation and an apology by parliament. In spite of a national movement that saw millions marching for reconciliation the then Liberal (Conservative) government, led by John Howard, refused to say sorry.

TUESDAY
Fly across the ocean to the mainland city of Melbourne where I am to launch a remarkable new history, James Boyce’s Van Diemens Land, which chronicles the first half century of European occupation of my island home. The book suggests as much as a process of colonisation, there is also a history of indigenisation—a strange uneven, frequently repressed, often violent process in which a white underclass took on much of black ways of living. It suggests we have a connection with our land not solely based on ideas of commerce, and that there are continuities in our understanding of our land that extend back into pre history.

The book is a defiant riposte to the last decade of denials of the historical suffering of the Aborigines, its accounts of the massacres and killings shocking, the tragedy of a land where the English, as a ships captain’s wife, Rosalie O’Hare, confided in her diary in 1828, ‘consider the massacre of these people an honour’.

Boyce’s compelling account of the bushranger Michael Howe, whose authority equalled that of the early Van Diemen’s Land governors is a potent reminder of how much the vaunted Australian traditions of revolt had Tasmanian origins.

The launch has a good turnout-200 or so people—but there is an odd mood. Like the coming of the monsoon, the air is thick and heavy, the atmosphere sticky, as if we are all waiting for the imminent relief of a torrential rain that never comes.

WEDNESDAY
At 9 this morning I stood with perhaps 10,000 others in Federation Square, Melbourne, to watch the apology televised on giant screens. Similar events were happening around Australia. Thousands had journeyed to Canberra. The effect was overwhelming. The crowd erupted in applause as Rudd said the word Sorry. It was an experience like no other. Around me people wept.

What then happened no one had expected. After the official apology was tabled Rudd made the most remarkable speech I have heard from an Australian political leader. He spoke of the inhumanity of what had taken place, the need to show empathy, the necessity of taking practical measures. He called upon human decency. Rudd, who had seemed yet one more party machine man emerged as something much greater, as he restored to Australia its dignity and pride after the a shameful eleven years of denials and evasions, ever tinged with a callousness that shaded over into racism.

Something was changing: over eleven years Howard’s conservatives had taken us into a war the people didn’t want, they had imprisoned refugees behind razor wire in detention centres in the desert in a manner many found an affront to humanity, they had denied us a republic. Yet though winning every political battle, Howard lost every battle of the heart. The cameras showed that all Australia’s surviving ex-prime ministers were at parliament bar one. Howard chose not to attend.

Around me people watched intently, hanging on Rudd’s every word, as if it were a speech being made in the middle of a terrible war, as though he were taking the nation somewhere new and necessary. No one seemed to be moving though many were moist eyed. It was as if we had been given our country back, that it was once more possible to speak of empathy and humanity. An era of shame had ended and a nation had awoken.

As I headed down the street afterwards I passed an old Aboriginal man walking proudly, eyes streaming with tears. Around the corner I came on a woman helping a beggar. I flew back to Tasmania and a Sudanese taxi driver drove me home.

Today, I am so proud to be Australian, said the Sudanese taxi driver.

Me too, I say, I who had been ashamed of my country for so long. Me too.

THURSDAY
Day spent writing, evening drinking. Faulkner: ‘A writer should live in a monastery by day and a brothel by night.’

FRIDAY
Have dinner with a writer friend, come to stay at our shack for a few weeks. I say I don’t believe in politics. He laughs. But it is a faith like all others. I was cured of it by Tasmania. I’m not left with much, I confess. I believe in the truth and bearing witness to the truth, in freedom and respecting freedom, and in love. Once I followed philosophies that made the simple complex. Now my position is simply this: you can take your compass from the despair or from the hope in this life. I take hope.

‘The fish is good,’ he says. And it is.

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]
2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. New Broom

    February 22, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    I enjoyed the article very much. Why are some people so hell-bent on destroying remaining wilderness areas? When will they realise that the money they make from their selfish, shady deals can never make up for what is lost.

    On the subject of the apology to the stolen generations, I quite agree with the statement that we are now in a new era. No more denials! We have to face up to our past, warts and all. It’s the only way to move forward!

    Here’s a poem I wrote on this subject just after the election in November. I hope you like it:

    The Taking

    The old man waits patiently, silently stands,
    surrounded by mulga and red ochre sands.
    The keeper of memories of ancestral lands
    and events from the time of The Taking.

    The old woman sits ‘midst her desert art,
    while staring ahead with a heavy heart,
    remembering her family being torn apart –
    when her children were there for The Taking.

    The father of fifty looks out o’er the bay.
    His memory turns to events on that day;
    to how, as a child, he was dragged far away
    when the whitefellas came for The Taking.

    The mother of forty is quiet in the train.
    All solemn and sullen, she nurses her pain
    and wonders just when she can go back again
    to her birthplace, the scene of The Taking.

    The old man and woman, the father and mother;
    from different communities, linked to each other.
    In dozens of tortured ways they smother
    the anguish that’s due to The Taking.

    The rulers in Canberra meet and discuss
    the problems connected with people like us.
    “Just throw them more money and don’t make a fuss!
    And what’s all this talk of The Taking?”

    Ah, but now there in Parliament something has shifted.
    At last – no denial! The veil has been lifted!
    With honest new Members the country’s been gifted
    to highlight the shame of The Taking.

    The old village lies ‘neath the merciless sun.
    The people are wary, yet something’s being done.
    Both grateful and hopeful the healing’s begun.
    The nation can now stand together as one
    and erase all the scars of
    The Taking.

  2. Dave Groves

    February 19, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Yeah good one Richard.
    Bless Bruny…what a place.
    I agree with the sentiment of Rudd’s speech.
    It seems to rekindle the fire extinguished, seems to carry a sense of an Australia I thought we would never see again.
    Happy days.

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