Last Thursday night (28 January), as we walked back to our accommodation after the Sydney Theatre production of Louis Nowra’s 1985 play ‘The Golden Age’, my wife asked me what i made of the line ‘Nowt more outcastin’.
This ‘outcastin’ has been a theme running through the play.
The play was still too fresh in my mind to be able to make any informed comment’ except to say that Nowra is clearly playing with several inversions in a play which, being set in Tasmania, has the treatment of First Peoples there as an unspoken context and subtext.
While indigenous actors were part of the play, the story itself concerns interactions between two groups of people of British origin – one a small group of descendants of people who had become isolated in the bush (outcasts?) and the other consists of people who part of mainstream social life in Hobart. It is set just before the start of WWII. (see https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2016/the-golden-age )
Nowra’s play poses a question in relation to a large pile of earth which occupies center stage throughout his play – which people and which culture best fits this pile of earth? He graphically contrasts war in Europe with life here.
Seeking help to digest Nowra’s very solid work i have now done my quick google search.
The following analysis by Donald Pulford struck a chord (Francis and Betsheb are two of the main characters male and female respectively):
“… Francis gives voice to one of the most important ideas in the play, that in refusing to squarely face their past Australians are condemning themselves to a lack of identity, an inability to be at home in their own country, a rootlessness. The Golden Age provokes its audiences to face Australia’s colonial past, and its deconstruction of elements of imperialist discourse promotes the ‘effective identifying relationship between self and place’. Betsheb’s is the final statement of the play, ‘Nowt more outcastin’, no more exile, and it affirms the possibility of unity between people, and between people and their environment.
(from “Counter-imperialism in Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age” by Donald Pulford, La Trobe University. For a much fuller account of the play read his article http://www.nla.gov.au/ojs/index.php/jasal/article/viewFile/2716/3137)
Pulford’s words resonated with something i read only a day or two ago as part of background reading regarding Australia/Invasion Day on 26 January.
It was on the 7 February 1788 (not 26 January) that Governor Phillip actually had time to stage a large public ceremony where the proclamation was made establishing New South Wales. Part of the ceremony included an address to the convicts.
Governor Phillip made it explicitly clear that the people we call ‘convicts’ have been exiled from their home society. Instead of being sacrificed (in the name of the greater good) by being hung in Great Britain they have been sent to this country on the other side of the planet where – provided they shape up by embracing the same norms which have exiled them – they can be ‘redeemed’.
Having invoked the relevant ceremonial powers and thanking the ‘private soldiers’ Governor Phillip
“… then turned to the convicts, and distinctly explained to them the nature of their present situation. The greater part, he bade them recollect, had already forfeited their lives to the justice of their country; yet, by the lenity of its laws, they were now so placed that, by industry and good behavior, they might in time regain the advantages and estimation in society of which they had deprived themselves. They not only had every encouragement to make that effort, but were removed almost entirely from every temptation to guilt.” (Entry 7 February “The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay” (via www.gutenberg.org).
The Governor continued by outlining how those convicted people who conformed with the European norms (including marriage) would be rewarded while those that erred could expect no mercy. The Governor had the power of life and death over them.
The full account of that day (see below) is well worth a read. The flag was the Jack of Queen Anne, not the Union Jack. We can picture the British arrivals in their inappropriate ‘skins’ for this country – the semiotics of dress as display – in the costume of Officers and gentlemen, the Redcoats of the military and, perhaps, the coarse fabrics of the convict uniform.
There was no act of ‘settlement’ with the First Peoples when the new system of government was proclaimed. The original peoples were excluded from the proceedings and all that followed from that formal establishment of the new British colony.
TIME TO MAKE GOOD WHAT WAS NOT DONE IN 1788
What the conjunction of Nowra’s play and the report of the Governor Phillip ceremony made clear to me is that – culturally – and, to a large extent, Anglo-Australians remain exiles from Europe.
Despite all the rituals which should connect Being with Country, since the official culture does not connect with country, nothing else can either. The official ‘Australian’ culture still floats over the land like a layer of heat shimmer on a red hot summer day.
Culturally, non-indigenous Australians do not yet fully ‘belong’ here. The failure to establish proper diplomatic relations with the original peoples in 1788 became the norm in non-indigenous practices. And yet it is First Peoples who hold the real keys to this country – in, for example, the life-poetry we know as ‘Dreaming’.
In the 21st Century we do not belong, either, in Europe (or any place overseas). There is a gap between our geographical and cultural location. Where are we? In “Australia” – but where is “Australia” if not a limbo land of exiled European souls?
The very word ‘Australia’ does not belong here. It refers to a Southern Land – south of the Northern Hemisphere. An exonym (southern land) means, in effect, “Not here, somewhere else”.
The intense feelings which some people clearly feel when, for example, a cafe owner in Bermagui makes a reference to ‘National Dickhead Day’ – and his reasons for feeling compelled to characterize it in those terms – points to a deep insecurity in terms of our identity.
There is much in modern Australian life which can be explained in terms of that deep sense of insecurity. Various forms of interest have been invested a particular form of identity – that which sustains an Anglo-Australian system of patronage and control over life in this country. But, in the absence of genuine recognition of First Peoples, it is a hollow sense of identity.
How very different are the initiation rituals of First Peoples in Central Australia which tell newly fashioned men which Dreaming they are part of – where they fit into the whole of life here. They feel no need to wrap themselves in the flag as an excuse to impose obnoxious behaviours onto others.
The subsequent two centuries+ from February 1788 can be described as a systematic process of an official and unofficial ‘unrealisation’ of First Peoples, their languages, their cultures, their ways of relating – and a propping up of privilege and pretence for Anglo-Australian people, the English language, the European ways of dominating life. I think Nowra makes this distinction clear in his play.
By a curious twist of fate, the systematic un-realisation of First Peoples – the over-exaggeration of European practices for those of us in this part of the world at the expense of learning something of the Ways of First Peoples – has resulted in an under-realisation of Anglo-Australian identities – a failure to properly adapt.
I often say that First Peoples are captive in a modern Anglo-Australian nation-state. This is correct in as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough. To complete the picture it has to be acknowledged that non-indigenous peoples here are also captive in this arrangement, a vast conceptual prison-house.
We do not yet ‘belong’ here. I am not saying we should ‘go home to England’. I am saying we should come home to this place – whatever the First Peoples names for this country are.
It is not a matter of ‘Australia – love it or leave it’. Modern Australia – modern monoculture Australia as founded in 1788 – needs to come to maturity and begin to really connect with this country. Time to grow up.
It is a matter of enriching our cultures – the very stuff our souls are shaped by – the means by which we better relate and can connect to our surroundings.
“Australia” – an exonym, a Latin-based name from a different place – is the name for the land of European exiles.
This situation will remain so until real steps are taken, by those in positions of authority (and those in a movement of peoples) to enter into genuine exchange relations with surviving First Peoples.
And, it has to be said at this time, in the absence of a through-going transformation of Anglo-Australia, simply empowering the existing elites with an Australian republic is likely to lead to even more abuses.
For this reason alone – to re-earth the elite – dealing with the backlog of the need for negotiations with First Peoples over the terms of ‘settlement’ must be dealt with prior to the need for a republic. This was proven by the support of both major political groupings for the Northern Territory legislation, and the ongoing push by members of the political elite to use First Peoples country to store the world’s radioactive waste.
We new arrivals need to come home to this country (for which, in contrast to Aotearoa/New Zealand, we still have no official indigenous name or names).
But make no mistake – as necessary as this next stage of our development is, there is no utopia waiting at the end of it.
New challenges are certain for life is a cosmic balancing act and, as part of the dance, keeps us moving as required. The advantage of re-aligning life in this country is that it makes us better placed to deal with these challenges.
Ultimately, Life decides whose collective Being – that best informed by the right spirit – is the best fit for this living earth. It does so in curious ways.
But we have to make real choices if we are to properly Earth our Being.
Much good work has already been done in this regard – from the Land Rights Act, the Mabo High Court Decision, the Native Title Act, the reconciliation movement, the many articles and plays and songs and dances by cultural craftspeoples …. All steps in a positive direction.
As mentioned, there have also been completely abhorrent official deeds in recent time too – such as the Federal Government’s Northern Territory Intervention legislation which treated First Peoples in that Commonwealth Territory as mere objects of an obsolete imperial will embodied in the 1901 Australian Constitution.
For this and other reasons, everyday people have to ensure that the task of reforming the 1901 Australian Constitution is not merely a matter for elites whether non-indigenous or indigenous. We need a Peoples Constitution in order to give it a new and living heart.
This may not be possible without real sacrifice of some kind. Putting soul into such a document will not happen simply by itself.
Now the question in 2016 is this – have we formed a sufficient critical mass of people who are ready to make the next move in a long process of the maturing of our Being? A move, a shift of position, which genuinely embraces – as cultural partners – this country’s First Peoples and their Ways in some form of official Act of Settlement?
It is only by genuine acts of exchange of things of value between Peoples that non-indigenous culture can be enriched in relation to the original cultures. There is no short cut. The alternative is to continue to remain on the outside – as inauthentic Beings in this country.
There will only be
“Nowt more outcastin”
– an end to exile –
when we have truly arrived
and are really at home in this country.
We are in the land of Rainbow Serpent sprits.
Now is the season to shed
those constricting neo-colonial skins
(pin-striped or otherwise.)
Time, in other words, to get real.
Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn
1 Feb 2016