My train reading at the moment is a book of readings, excerpts, about Australia published since Federation. I will talk about the book later. For the moment, I just wanted to ask you all a few questions.
What do you think are the key themes in the way Australians see themselves? Are they shared by external observers? Have views changed?
My first comment read in part:
I may get to this when I resume my reflections about 1957, as in that year we had an American teacher — the first American we had ever met — and went out of our way to demonstrate our Aussieness and his weirdness. Seriously, I find such questions very difficult to answer as I may be an Aussie but I am also me and furthermore from a particular background in a particular part of Oz (The Shire) at a particular time and from a particular background. So what generalisations really are of any use?
That said, I also feel it is obvious that in my seventy years we have changed what we mean by “Aussie” — whatever that means. I certainly have changed my ideas and continue to do so.
You may be amused by a 1911 book “The Awful Australian” by Valerie Desmond…
Some thought Valerie may have been a man, but the little I have been able to glean from news stories in Trove is that she was English and may have been in Australia in 1910 with Lady Dudley, the wife of the then Governor-General. A quick side note on that from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Sworn in at Sydney on 8 September , Dudley proceeded to Melbourne to a ceremonial welcome which prompted the Worker to complain of ‘a sham Australian court of St James’. In less than a year, on 27 May 1909, the defeat of Andrew Fisher’s Labor government, and Fisher’s request for a dissolution, brought into operation the constitutional functions of the office. After obtaining advice secretly from Chief Justice Griffith, Dudley refused the request, and on 2 June Alfred Deakin formed his third ministry. During her husband’s governor-generalship Lady Dudley also asserted herself in the public arena: in August 1909 she launched what became Lady Dudley’s Bush Nursing Scheme, but the project faltered through lack of funds.
By October 1910 the Dudleys’ estrangement (they separated in 1912) had virtually become common knowledge; John Norton’s Truth charged the earl with ‘concupiscent capers’. Other newspapers reported that relations between Dudley and the second Fisher cabinet, which had taken office in April 1910, were strained. Partly this resulted from Labor discontent with the increasing vice-regal allowance. In March 1911, after months of rumours of impending retirement, it was announced that, for personal reasons, Dudley was returning to England. On 31 July he relinquished office. Deakin wrote of him: ‘His ambition was high but his interests were short-lived … He did nothing really important, nothing thoroughly, nothing consistently … He remained … a very ineffective and not very popular figurehead’.
During World War I Dudley commanded a Yeomanry unit in Egypt and Gallipoli. Lady Dudley also served, setting up a hospital for Australians, and clubs for officers in northern France. In 1918 she was appointed C.B.E. and was awarded the Royal Red Cross. She drowned on 26 June 1920 while sea-bathing in Ireland…
The connection between Lady Dudley and Valerie Desmond is made in The Euroa Advertiser, 15 November 1912. Their artist came up with a cartoon.
This refers no doubt to Valerie’s quite hilarious chapter on the shape of the Australian woman.
I have the eBook of The Awful Australian, thanks to Project Gutenberg.
There has been so much adulation lately of Australia, Australian institutions, and the Australian people by writers with axes to grind and English politicians with party ends to serve that the people of the Commonwealth have come to believe that they are the salt of the earth, and that their country is the earth. Personally, I am impatient of such credulity, and I think it is time somebody called upon the self-satisfied Australians to show cause why a little more humility and a little less arrogance were not more seemly. With a view to restoring an apparently lost sense of proportion to the press and public of the country, I have written the following pages. If in telling the truth I shame the Australian this book will achieve its object. Should a howl of indignation be provoked, then will the condition of affairs be proved worse than my pen has power to depict, and nothing will be left but to declare Australia past redemption. This is the case for the prosecution.
Sydney, July 15, 1911.
- —Australian Politics
- —The Australian Accent
- —Australian Manners
- —Miss Australia
- —Australia for The Australians
- —The Australian in Society
- —The Australian at Shirk
- —The Listless Policeman
- —The Australian’s Parasitical Tendencies
- —The Australian’s Lack of Patriotism
- —Club Life in Australia
- —The Australian on the Land
- —The Australian Titled Person
- —The Australian at the Breakfast Table
- —The Australian Poets
- —The C.Y.A.
And a sample:
THE AUSTRALIAN ON THE LAND.
The man on the land in Australia is represented by two classes, the squatter and the cockatoo farmer. Why the latter is so called I am at a loss to know. He never has a feather to fly with. The squatter is more birdlike. He puts on a lot of “wing,” and some of him go so far as to flout a crest.
Many of the squatters of to-day in Australia are the descendants of cattle “duffers,” as their nondescript herds amply testify. A fine portly legislator of the present time has a couple of well-stocked stations, and generally looms large in Australian landscape. One day, before he became smug, a neighbour of his caught him with an unbranded calf in his yard, and cried, “Heigh! That calf is not yours!” “No,” he called back, “but it will be as soon as the iron is hot!”
I wouldn’t like to be an Australian squatter for many reasons. That is, of the old type. There are a few importations of recent years—men with clean breeding and clean money—from England. They’re all right. But they are not representative of the class. As a class squatters are illiterate, and an exemplification of the poet’s mock logic that “The man who drives fat cattle must himself be fat”—particularly about the head. They are used chiefly as members of the different Legislative Councils, where they obstruct liberal land laws with much vehemence and bad grammar. They are in the main responsible for the slow settlement of Australian agricultural lands by their relentless harassment of the selector at every point. The result is a trend towards land monopolies. New South Wales illustrates the case. The evidence and finding of the Lands Scandals Commission showed that a Minister of the Crown in New South Wales accepted enormous bribes to perpetuate this state of things; there have also been land scandals in Victoria and Queensland. In that State 24 men or companies hold 44 million acres between them, and hold this preposterous area so tightly that when Australians complain that it is unfair to judge the country’s indebtedness on a population basis they should remember that this sort of thing debars immigration: it rather accentuates the borrowing plight, by causing emigration…
Sir Henry Parkes once proposed to erect a mausoleum for the illustrious dead of Australia, but the hopelessness of getting eligible corpses caused the idea to be abandoned. There are, however, in Australia many unexplained monuments. Among the latest was one in Brisbane, raised to a deceased Rugby football player. Will the Australian ever get any sort of sense of proportion?
But a people, I suppose, must first of all have love of country before it gets a standard of measurement. If a plebiscite were taken it would be found that the memory of Edward Kelly is far more revered by the citizens of this mean country than that of any other citizen. This national hero was familiarly known as Ned Kelly. After a series of misunderstandings with the police, he died suddenly one morning.
The individual Australian, be it here remarked, does not consider the collective Australian much class, and the Australian who has travelled has a sneaking disregard for his compatriots. If he has spent two months in London, he returns an ape Englishman. So far as loose clothes and cheap mannerisms will carry him he is a Londoner. It is a noticeable fact that he imitates the most inane of insular types. The more howling the particular London ass of the period, the more sincere the Australian flattery of him. This needs no comment.
All very lively really and worth a look as an alternative to our usual concept of that Federation era.
For the rest, the Australian poets are pessimists, alleged funny writers, and parodists of Swinburne and Kipling. Paterson’s writings smell of horse sweat and stable sweepings. Lawson sings of Colonial beer—which, dear English reader, God spare you from ever tasting—Daley retails the philosophy of that blasphemous old reprobate, Omar, with this difference—a pewter of Colonial beer, not a jug of wine. And then there are Gordon, and Sladen, John Cash Neild, Mr. Furtell and Farrell. The last mentioned wrote a poem “How he Died.” I’ve never read it, and don’t want to, so can’t say how he died. But if it was an Australian poet who was dying I know how he ought to have been killed. In the pleasant metaphor of his own country, he should have got it where the chicken got the axe.
I see her recalled in The Melbourne Argus in 1956:
MR. W MAKIN, 2 Stewart St., East Brunswick, asks: Who wrote a book called “The Awful Australian,” which said Australian women “sway too much to port, and have not enough on the stern?”
A: You mean Valerie Desmond, an English journalist, who visited Australia in1910. Everything in Australia was washed down with tea, she said.
And in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1947:
AUSTRALIANS also have a stereotype problem on their hands. This is the national picture that represents the Australian (to us, anyway) as tall and lean”the Digger type,” “the typical dinkum Aussie,” and “the Stalwart Son of Australia.” The point can be made at once that the picture is false. It always has been false and, if anthropometrists (folk who measure the human body) can be relied on, it is likely to remain false…
Rolf Boldrewood weighed in with comments in 1901 (“In Bad Company and Other Stories”) to the effect that the native-born Australian was often “lofty of stature and lithe of limb” and had inherited “the stark sinews,the unyielding muscles, the indomitable dogged energy of those ‘terrible beef-fed islanders’ from whom we are descended.”
It was, perhaps, inevitable that someone’s gorge should rise as the result of these eulogies.
In a book titled “The Awful Australian” (1911), Valerie Desmond did her best to reduce the Australian to life-size by branding him a born loafer, a parasite, a lunatic and a barbarian, but her efforts were without avail. The “Stalwart Son” myth continued to thrive…