On First Encountering Australia

22nd December 2016

Terra Australis, the great land to the south, was the object of the seafaring explorers of the 15th century and onwards. Theirs was a clear, if faulty, premise: that the earth, being symmetrical in so many ways, must be so configured that there is equal landmass in the Southern Hemisphere as there is to the North. Eurasia being so damned large meant only one thing: there must be an equally large, hidden, continent to the fair, mysterious South.

There was much talk of Australia before ever it was detected. I avoid using the word ‘discovered’. After all, my absence from a party does not mean that the party is not happening. Any self-respecting narcissist will grant you that.

Although, until 12 hours ago, I had never set foot in Australia, it has been part of my life, and world, understanding for the longest, longest time.

I recall a dear neighbour of ours, Mr O’Connell, always singing Waltzing Matilda as his party piece – in honour of his sister who had left Ireland for Oz decades previous. To this day, I cannot listen to that song without feeling an undercurrent of pathos; the simplicity of the lyric, the beauty of the melodic line, and the dissonant nature of a bush ditty that can be about nothing and everything, all in one breath.

Australia, even back in the 1970s, was exporting daytime tv drama which seemed to capture the remoteness as well as the familiarity of its promise.

As a child of perhaps 10, I recall avidly following one such series, the name of which I cannot remember, which culminated in the heroine saving the lives of her siblings by throwing her body in the path of a falling tree branch.

Some domestic dispute or other meant that I was banned from TV, and could only see the trailer of that final episode. Something in me still hankers to know more of that brave Australian teenager, and her fate.

The meaning of Australia deepened the more I got to know and – intermittently – follow its cultural and political narratives.

I recall movies such as Walkabout and Muriel’s Wedding making a strong impression as they revealed her underbelly; I remember the 1990s racist antics of Pauline Hanson making me groan (though I would not have guessed that her cockroach politics would be so enduring); I fell in love with her great divas Joan Sutherland and Nelly Melba, the searing wit of Edna Everage, the rhetoric of bolchy feminist Germaine Greer…and the myth-making quality of a land so vast, so beautiful, yet so full of poisonous shit too.

But it was my Australian friends that made the country come most fully alive for me. Of course, they are drawn from a specific cohort: Aussies who have travelled overseas.

I have given my heart and sometimes lost my heart to Australians; I have loved them, loathed them, argued with them, found grace through them, had enormous fun with them, learnt from them, shared with them, felt at one with them.

As I walk these early morning streets of Sydney, I have a sense that I am in a movie, the screenplay of which I have already speed-read. I know its tone, its outline, but do not yet fully understand its plot lines or nuance.

I have a hard time grasping that it is all, indeed, for real.

Here it is. What a joy. Australia! A great land to the south does indeed exist. I can confirm. It has been detected.

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