Category Archives: 3. Old and new

Old and new · Prologue

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Len Beadell was leading a survey party through the mulga scrub of central South Australia, when he came across something unusual, even unnerving. ‘It was almost like a picket fence’, he described, with posts made from ‘slivers of shale’. Atop a small plateau dotted with casuarinas, Beadell counted close to sixty of these slivers, three foot high and spaced about two yards apart. In this ‘eerie’, isolated location, Beadell found himself wondering about the ‘near mythical’ people who had arranged the stones. It ‘was obviously an ancient Aboriginal ceremonial ground’, he concluded, ‘built by those primitive, stone-age nomads in some distant dreamtime’—an ‘Aboriginal “Stonehenge”’. 1

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Notes:

  1. Len Beadell, Blast the Bush, Rigby, Adelaide, 1976, pp. 173-6.

A song written—but unsung

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A few minutes before midnight on 31 December 1900, a message from Alfred Deakin, one of the leaders of the Federation movement, was projected before the crowd assembled in Melbourne’s Town Hall: ‘May the new year of the new century usher in a new Nation, whose history shall be an illustrious record of progress in all the arts of peace’. 1 The conjunction was compelling: the year, the century, everything was ‘new’. The following morning, the Sydney Morning Herald also welcomed the new year, the new century and Australia’s ‘entry on a new and broader nationhood’. ‘It is not often in history’, the editorial continued, ‘that we meet with coincidences so striking’. 2 Federation had been many years in the making, but the timing of Australia’s inauguration helped focus attention away from the process, towards the moment. It was not an end, but a beginning.

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Notes:

  1. Quoted in the Age, 1 January 1901, p. 5.
  2. SMH, 1 January 1901, p. 14.

Dreaming of a new world

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The war was nearing its end in 1918 when the Australian war correspondent, CEW Bean, took a break from the carnage to rest, to write and to think. 1 Bean had been at Gallipoli from beginning to end. He had followed the Australian infantry through the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium. After four years of horror, sixty thousand young Australians dead, Bean began to wonder what good might come of it. ‘What were they fighting for?’, he asked. To keep the world free, of course, to make Australia safe, yet more than this, Bean argued, the men of the AIF wanted to make Australia ‘a great and good country—yes, the greatest and best country in the world’. 2

But the dead had left the task unfinished, they ‘will not return to help make up the country which they loved and longed for’, Bean reflected sadly. The future had now passed into the hands of Australia’s young people. ‘Unless the results of this war are to be thrown away, you have to take up the work which was only begun at Anzac and Pozières’, he told them, ‘You have to fight it’. The brains, the courage, the character of young Australians would make the nation ‘clean, great and strong’: ‘even if you have to build up between you a great big broom and bundle all of us poor, musty old cobwebs of the previous generation into the sea’. Emerging from the darkness of war, Australia brimmed with youth, vigour and promise—‘a country still to make’. 3

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Notes:

  1. KS Inglis, CEW Bean, Australian historian, John Murtagh Macrossan Lecture, 1969, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1970, p. 19.
  2. Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean, In your hands, Australians, Cassell and Company, London, 1919, pp. 8-9.
  3. ibid., pp. 10-18.

Awakening the earth

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There was no sound except for the ‘sighing squelch of the camel pads’ and ‘an occasional creak of cordage’ as Ion Idriess and his Aboriginal guide continued westwards towards Lake Eyre. Sand ridges and barren river beds stretched ahead, framing an oddly appropriate scene. Here he was, Idriess reflected, aboard ‘an ancient animal’, accompanied by ‘the last living son of prehistoric man’, ‘riding down into a dead lake, into a dead world’. Everything felt old and lifeless as they trekked on, deep into the continent’s ‘Dead Heart’. 1

The bones of a diprotodon protruded from a dried river bank. Elsewhere Idriess found the petrified remains of what might have been a giant kangaroo. Was that the skull of a ‘gigantic crocodile’, he saw, or the remains of an ‘enormous bird’? ‘Just here and there’, Idriess observed, ‘in some exposed place where mud had turned to stone, these monsters of the past were in part preserved’. Indeed, all over the ‘Dead Heart’ was evidence of ancient life, he argued: ‘the story in stone, in fossils, in opalized remains… tells us plainly of vast waters, of forests, of teeming life where now is aridity or desert’. These remains of animals long dead were more than curiosities, they offered proof that ‘the land itself is good land’, hope that the ‘Dead Heart’ itself could be revived. 2 All that was needed was water.

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Notes:

  1. Ion L Idriess, The great boomerang, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1941, p. 188.
  2. ibid., pp. 190-4.

A contrast as wide as the world

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Working as a drover and cattleman across much of the Australian inland, Michael Sawtell became convinced of the land’s potential for development. With the ‘zeal of a prophet’, the Sunday Herald reported in 1952, Sawtell had been ‘stumping Australia for years trying to convert his countrymen to a new belief in the empty territories’. 1 But in the postwar world, apathy and ignorance were not the only obstacles to hinder his crusade. In 1946, Sawtell participated in a debate on the development of the Woomera rocket range, broadcast by the ABC. ‘I am against this evil business of bombs over Australia’, he began. Sawtell was worried about the effects on Aboriginal people, but he also opposed the plan because ‘it engenders in the minds of city-dwelling Australians that Australia, this blessed plot…is fit for nothing better than a bomb alley’. 2

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Notes:

  1. ‘They believe in their country’, in ‘Development supplement’, Sunday Herald, 17 August 1952, p. 13
  2. Nation’s Forum of the Air, Should Australia be used as a bomb alley for rockets?, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1946, pp. 7-8.

Modern man looks towards the stars

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Regeneration might come not only to the land, but to its people. As evolutionary ideas took hold in the late nineteenth century it seemed that the human species itself might be capable of further adaptation and improvement. A nation’s inheritance could be found in its biology as well as its geographical possessions; its progress measured not just in the life and works of its citizens, but in the vigour of its race. Such beliefs found expression in the idea of the ‘coming man’, a new ‘type’ supposedly being created at the nexus of European civilisation and Australian environment. The ‘coming man’ combined masculine virtues of courage, initiative and mateship, with a sense of youth and destiny. In his hands he held the future of his race, in his heart the dream of a strong Australia, pure and white. 1

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Notes:

  1. White, Inventing Australia, ch. 5.

The wonder appliance of the atomic age

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Standing at the crossroads signpost in the middle of the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’, thirteen year-old Phyllis Nicholls symbolised the destiny of humankind. The people of the world were as children before the terrible power of the bomb. The inexorable advance of scientific progress called men and women to leave behind their ancient fears and prejudices, the brutish simplicities that had served from the infancy of civilisation. But as Phyllis looked about the exhibition, from the scale model of Hiroshima to the working demonstration of an atomic pile, progress beckoned her on in an altogether different direction. Beyond the story of the atom, were a range of industrial exhibits where manufacturers displayed their latest wares. There was Kix fly spray, proudly boasting to have the strongest DDT formulation available—‘Flies know the Atomic Age is here when Kix hits them’. Further on, the Toycraft company offered ‘atom power toys (any little atom can push them along)’, Healing revealed ‘the greatest refrigerator advance in years’, and Repco welcomed visitors to ‘a new automotive era’. While visitors pondered their grave responsibilities, they were reassured that science was working to make their lives more happy and healthy, that progress was as close as the corner shop. ‘Science was never more justified’, proclaimed one beverage manufacturer, ‘than in the long and patient researches which produced “Ovaltine”’. 1

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Notes:

  1. Advertisements for the industrial exhibitors were included in the souvenir booklet, The Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition, Herald & Weekly Times, Mebourne, 1948.

Beyond our sort of memory

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Imagine yourself some 5,000 years hence, travelling a land once known as ‘South Australia’. Something catches your eye—a strange glassy substance protruding from the earth. It seems out of place, unnatural. ‘How did it get here?’, you wonder. You begin to scrabble about in the dust, looking for clues. You find a few twisted pieces of metal, and… what’s this? Some of the colour is still visible despite the deterioration and there seems to be—yes it must be—writing. Writing in some ancient, unfamiliar language. A sign of some sort, a label? ‘What was this place?’, you ask, ‘who were these people?’ You try to imagine their customs, their rituals, and begin to muse, ‘What would they make of the world today?’

Some weeks later, traces of plutonium are found in your system.

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