“Australians will never acquire a national identity until individual Australians acquire identities of their own.” Patrick White
On New Year’s Day I asked my father if he would take myself and Anthony to his hometown and show us around. He agreed. In fact, he seemed rather excited that I was interested in a bit of family history. After all, the last time I had been “dragged out there” was some dozen or so years ago for the purpose of attending my father’s school reunion. I was 17 and Tallimba may as well have been the end of the earth.
Tallimba, NSW. Population 149.
Since the New Year’s Day trip, I’ve been asking myself why I wanted to go there in the first place. After all, it was a depressing and a grueling trip through barren bush land and virtually abandoned paddocks, only to arrive at a humpy that was my father’s home. I felt a little cheated. Where was the neat little home of my father’s stories? You know, the one that Granddad and Uncle Ted built with their bare hands? Where was the kitchen where Old Nan would beat cream for hours by hand to make butter? Where was the shed where Granddad would slaughter the sheep and string them up?
That house was gone and in its place stood a blue tin lean-to with over-grown cactus in the front yard. Doors boarded up, waist high weeds and rusted bits of machinery strewn about.
We drove on. It got worse.
“That building used to be the bakery where Granddad worked.” Really? That mint-green, tumble-down place?
“That in there used to be the hospital.” A faded sign leaning against what remained of the fence read ‘Bush Nurse’.
The only saving grace was our visit to the local school where my father proudly showed us the past students wall and the brick with his name on it.
The final stop was the cemetery where my great-grandfather is buried. Just him, on his own. We stood there for a few minutes reflecting on how sad it is to be buried away from other family members. Dad muttered something about money. We nodded as though we understood exactly what it was like to grow up in abject poverty.
We got back in the car, proceeded down a dirt road only because my father hadn’t travelled it for 60 years and got a flat tire. I told him that that’s what you get for being nostalgic.
So, there we were in 45 degree heat, literally in the middle of nowhere with no mobile phone reception, changing a tire and praying that the brown snakes were having a day off.
All through my adolescence and into my adulthood I have down-played where I come from. When asked that particular question, it has always been easier (and preferable) to say “Sydney” and change the subject.
My attempts to disassociate myself with my rural heritage and upbringing stem from a fear of being thought of as a ‘red-neck’ or ‘country-bumpkin’; a fear that others may perceive of me as ignorant, narrow-minded, unsophisticated, uncultured or ‘backwards’.
But it also stems from something else. A pervasive attitude in the wake of multiculturalism that there is something really rather shameful in being ‘Anglo-Aussie’. The response by some has been to aggressively assert a simplified and overtly masculine version of Australian identity that is characterized by BBQs, the beach and beer drinking (all done, dare I say it, whilst wearing a Bintang singlet). For others, like myself, the response has been to condemn this very form of Australian identity, whilst waving the banner of multicultural Australia.
Now I am not suggesting that embracing Australia’s multiculturalism is in any way wrong. Quite the reverse, in fact.
But, there has been an element of subterfuge to it as well. As though believing in a multicultural Australian identity and all its associated virtues – turning this into the mantra that one lives by, will divert attention away from one’s Anglo heritage. A heritage that we are taught is far from good and noble and, well – white.
It was the feeling of being utterly fed up with being shackled to such shame and guilt that prompted my desire to go to Tallimba. I thought that if saw the place where all the stories come from than I would be justified in feeling that there is indeed good in my own heritage – that I do indeed have a culture and that culture is something to be proud of; that it is valuable.
And, despite feeling a little cheated at the state of the place, I felt a surge of pride and whole lot of humility. The men and women of my family were pioneers. They belonged to a gutsy group who settled in virgin bushland and made a go of it. They didn’t give up. Life was tough and the landscape unforgiving, but it didn’t break them. They didn’t let it. They kept going. Drought. Bushfire. Flood. They kept going.
Their code of common decency meant that they looked after one another. They built communities. They raised generations of children to understand the importance of honesty, integrity and hard work.
These are all qualities to admire – the resilience, the stoicism, the dignity, decency and pride of ordinary Australians.
And these men and women are a part of me because my parents have told their stories.
So with Australia Day around the corner, as English teachers, let us reflect on the importance of Australian stories and folklore to both individual and collective identity. Let us put aside cynicism of ‘the bush’ and consider with pride, enthusiasm and a sense of humour, the frontier heritage that forms such a significant part of our Australian identity.
But above all, let us remember that our stories are our cultural song and it is the variety of voices that make that song sweet.