08 January 2006

The Lucky Country (For Some, Anyway)

Up early this morning and out to Bondi Beach, where, for a change, the sun was shining brightly. Too brightly, in fact, for me to take much advantage of the beach; if you're not acclimated to the Australian sun and/or slathered in buckets of Factor 30 or 45 sunscreen, it's not wise to spend much time in open sunlight between about 10 am and 2 pm, not unless you're willing to risk second degree burns, malignant melanoma, or, if nothing else, having your skin take on the texture of an old boot, something you can observe in many middle-aged and elderly Australians who were put out to bake by their parents back in the days when sunlight was thought to be a panacea for raising happy and healthy children.

I couldn't even go in the water - well, I could have, but frankly, I was scared by the size of the waves. They weren't too much higher than my head, but call me a coward if you will; that's a bit too high for me. The surfers were out in force, though I was disappointed to see that it's not quite like the movies: almost all of them fall off their boards within ten or twenty seconds of getting up on their boards, and I didn't see a single one complete a triumphant ride right up to the beach, there to be fawned over by buxom bikini babes. Mostly they just paddled around out there, waiting for a wave that looked feasible, jumped up on their feet and tried desperately to stay upright before being unceremoniously dumped in one direction while their surfboards went flying in the other (if they were fortunate, that is; if they weren't so lucky, the flying surfboard would come down and conk them in the head).

Up toward North Bondi, I saw five policemen, which is five more than I've ever seen at the beach before, and I felt assured that any Bondi crime wave must be well in hand until I realised that they were all astutely studying the "Rough Water Swim Races" pitting the "Waratahs" against the "Rabbitohs," which seemed to consist of several musclebound and/or overweight men from each side running into the sea, swimming directly into the 6-8 foot breakers for about 100 metres until they circled a buoy, then back to shore, all while an announcer gave a half-acerbic, half rah-rah commentary over speakers up and down the beach.

Disinclined to risk my life or my skin by either swimming or lolling on the sand, I decided to walk down the coastal path to Bronte Beach, about 3.7 kilometres south. Just before I got there, I saw a rare sight: a family of aborigines emerging from the surf. Although there are several hundred thousand aboriginal people in Australia, the beach is not a place where you'll usually encounter them, at least not in the big cities of the south. The one previous time I'd encountered aborigines at the beach was in Fremantle on the West Coast, and there I'd remarked on how all the white people were out there parbroiling themselves in the midday sun while the aborigines, who presumably had kind of skin that suited them for sunlight, were all huddled in the shade of a large tree, drinking beer.

You don't see that many aborigines in Sydney, either, though there is one neighbourhood, Redfern, where they're concentrated. There used to be a collection of very sad drunken ones who sprawled out on the pavement at Taylor Square on Oxford Street, sleeping off the booze they'd already consumed or begging money for more. "There's an example of our native vegetation," I heard someone crack as he passed by. But this year they seem to have moved on, or have been moved on, and only a handful of them are left, mostly off on a side street where people step gingerly around and over them.

If there's one truly tragic story in what is often called "The Lucky Country," it has to be that of the aborigine. Like their counterparts in North America, many of them died off from new diseases carried by the white colonisers, and many more died as a result of being driven from their traditional huntering and gathering grounds. Their culture and way of life was irreparably shattered, and as recently as the early 20th century, prominent white Australians thought it a perfectly reasonable thing to say that it would probably be best if the aboriginal race died out completely to make way for the new, improved European culture.

Then there was a turning point, probably around the 1960s, when Australia suddenly had an attack of conscience, and very nearly went to the opposite extreme, trying - often futilely and cluelessly - to make up for all the damage. Unfortunately, most of the efforts were of a typically hippie-ish, New Age variety, predicated on the idea that given sufficient amounts of money and autonomy, the aborigines would rebuild their traditional culture. But just as with North America's indigenous poeple, it was way too late for that: in a society which has no written language or history, the dying off and scattering of the elders had the same effect as bombing and burning all the libraries or unplugging the internet would on Europe.

So instead the new generosity of spirit has largely produced tragic, welfare-dependent communities where drug and alcohol abuse and violence are endemic. An ABC documentary this week told of a Northern settlement where even the handful of young people who managed to make it to the local community college were tested as having the reading comprhension skills of fourth graders. Most kids never got beyond primary school before succumbing to a fatal cycle of petrol-sniffing, leading to brain damage and paralysis. They interviewed one 22 year-old, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to speak, puffing on a joint and listening to Bob Marley sing about freedom. It made me want to kick a hippie or two.

Speaking of hippies, Germaine Greer, like many of her generation, is as guilty as anyone of romanticising indigenous people into her own pot-addled version of the Noble Savage (adding insult to injury, she does this from 10,000 miles away, having scarpered off to England, where she's actually regarded as an intellectual by the more credulous Poms). She wrote, or at least started to write, a book called Whitefella Jump Up, in which she advocates that Australians let aborigines show them how to run the country properly.

This might have contained a modicum of sense 200 years ago, when the white settlers first arrived, but the idea of 20 million Australians huddled around the billabong sharing a bouillabaisse of grubs and geckos makes about as much sense today as Pol Pot ordering everyone out of the cities and back to the countryside at the close of the Cambodian revolution. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and aboriginal culture is not coming back to rule Australia again, not, that is, unless a surplus of 19 million or so people can be done away with first. The real question is, how do you integrate the several hundred thousand aborigines currently hamstrung somewhere between modern civilisation and traditional ways? Whatever has been tried so far certainly isn't working.

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