ANZAC Day: No ordinary day in an Australian suburb

There are no medals in my family. That my father, five uncles and both grandfather’s escaped conscription is something of a small miracle. There are Australian families who lost all their men to war in the last century, so my family I think is unusual. And fortunate.

I grew up not thinking at all about ANZAC Day. But things have changed. Since my daughter joined the Scouting movement, ANZAC Day has become a tradition in our family calendar, and I’m not sorry for it.

This morning, for the fourth year in a row, I observed our local ANZAC ceremony, which grows a little larger every year. The march begins at the local RSL (Retired Serviceman’s League) with an ever dwindling gathering of local servicemen and veterans. There are a few World War 2 men among them. It’s sobering to see these dignified, suited gentlemen with their vast array of medals adorning their chests.

The march is led by a bagpipe band and I appreciate the melancholy edge the music gives to the occasion. Those who can walk behind do accompanied by grandchildren, children, brothers in arms. Others, for whom the walk up the hill has become too great an effort for their old legs, are ferried by minibus to the Greensborough War Memorial.

The soldiers are followed by local Air Force cadets, Scouting groups and family. The cadets look no more than sixteen and are polished and nervous in their crisp blue uniforms. I can see how seriously they take their role in the parade, trying hard to keep in tidy step. Later I will notice the lad who lays the wreath, his head held high and proud, a small smile of pleasure on his face at being chosen for this honour.

As I stand taking in the reverence of the ceremony I realise how very Australian this event is. The rising sun glints through dewy gum leaves and the Salvation Army band plays softly amid the cries of magpies and rosellas. Those who are not part of the formal ceremony dress casually. The crowd is scattered across the surrounding park and the top of the nearby climbing equipment in the playground is crowded with children of all ages, claiming the best vantage point to watch proceedings.

The master of ceremonies has a strong voice. An army voice, trained to give orders. His words ring clearly over the PA system, the distinctive Australian twang resonating among the gum trees. Nearby three long trestle tables are loaded with wreaths soon to be laid at the base of the memorial, setting it ablaze with colour.

Even though I have no personal connection with ANZAC Day, I am moved as the ceremony reaches a close and the The Ode is read. Tears sting my eyes in the silence that surrounds the playing of the Last Post. I think of all the young, able, good men and women who volunteered, or were lawfully forced, to do the most frightening thing in the world – go to war. All the flesh and bone of generations lying far from their homeland. The Aboriginal servicemen who fought and returned still unacknowledged as citizens of their own land.

People prepare to leave and I notice the area around the trestle tables is littered with trodden flower petals. The image leaves a poignant and irrevocably sad impression. I feel now, it’s important to be part of this day. I am glad that my daughter is growing up with these memories. These annual national acts of melancholy and remembrance will become part of her identity as an Australian. Her generation will at least have some awareness of the terrible legacy war leaves. Destruction. Devastation. Loss. Damage. Awful things difficult for children to understand, but important for them to remember lest they make the same mistakes when they are grown.

 The Ode

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, they fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Lest we forget.


Heartbreaking & necessary: Fire anthology review

Last month I had the great fortune to be part of a launch of this profound anthology hosted by Eltham Bookshop and the Eltham Library. The event was well attended, booked out, standing room only in fact. Five of the seven Victorian authors included in the anthology were in attendance, three of us gave readings. The readings held the audience  in thrall.

Fire - published by Margaret River Press

Fire – published by Margaret River Press

Part of the magic of the kind of work presented in this anthology is voice. Each piece presented is unique, whether it be poetry, short story, photography or an artwork. Within each piece is a clearly articulated voice, carrying it’s own weight and tone, conveying it’s own message. A new voice emerged with each reading from Fire. As each author’s voice resonated around the room the scent of smoke seemed to manifest and emotion ran high. Each of us felt and heard the experience of waiting, of fearing, of deciding, descend upon us with every uttered word. Eyes were damp, hearts were blown open and we were reminded, again, of our human frailty.

The work contained in Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images, is not confined simply to the human experience of bushfire, although that is a prevailing theme. The voices within this anthology speak of interactions with fire in the present and past. David Milroy’s Warlardu and Karla imbues a contemporary man’s grief with a beautiful, ancient Aboriginal myth of love, Cassandra Atherton’s Raining Blood and Money… gives a bone-chilling account of the 1911 Shirtwaist fire in the US, Brooke Dunnell explores the devastating consequences of our contact with fire in The Pressure Suit.

Images are striking, even heart-stopping at times. John Gollings’ aerial photo of Kinglake after Black Saturday shows ‘red strokes…the residual ash from burnt out and fallen limbs and trunks of particular genus of pine tree whose ash is red/orange’. It is beautiful, stark and tragic.

Poetry touches places other forms can’t. Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s Coming Down to Earth reflects on the sense of esoteric pointlessness of choosing new bathroom fittings. Miriam Wei Wei Lo uses words like lassoes and whips in her shimmering poem, Playing with Fire, drawing the reader in then shocking them back out again.

Fire is not a book to be consumed all at once. It’s chocolate is way to dark for that. It’s best read in small bites, followed by time for digestion and reflection. It is an important piece of work, reminding us that we live in a dangerous time in our history and we are less in control of our surroundings than we believe ourselves to be.

My own copy has become quite dog-eared, it’s been carted around so often from place to place, which is why I recommend it.

Purchase Fire: a collection of stories, poems and visual images from Margaret River Press or your local indie bookshop.

The UnAustralian Australian (or why Jan 26th isn’t worthy of being called Australia Day)

I’m going to make this quick because it’s painful. And I know it’s likely to ruffle a few feathers.

January 26th signifies the day that Western immigration started in this country. The people who lived here at the time had no say in it. My (our) ancestors just lobbed in on their shores with their nasty diseases, their grog and their funny attitudes toward people of darker colour and set up camp. Pioneering? Yes, I suppose they were. Many were also cruel and inhumane and used their self-entitled whiteness as an excuse to run around slaughtering, raping and enslaving other human beings without due recourse.

Is this the event we really want to base our celebration of national pride on?

In the 220 years that followed some things have changed, but the fundamentals haven’t. It’s a bit tragic that we see fit as a nation to dance around wrapped in our flag (another issue of decorum entirely) singing Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi Oi Oi on a day that many Australian’s see as signifying the beginning of the demise of their culture and loss of their freedom. To celebrate the day our people lost their identity, language, self-respect isn’t Australian. There are plenty of words to describe it, but Australian isn’t one of them.

I’m not against celebrating being a part of this great nation. I love it here so much I feel no need to travel far beyond it’s beautiful boundaries. I love the diversity of it, the expanse of it, the irony of it. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating national pride – I just don’t think we should be doing it on January 26th.
So today, Australia Day 2013, I’m not celebrating at all. Which, to me, seems the most Australian thing I can do.

NAIDOC? Wha’ the?

English: aboriginal site, australia

English: aboriginal site, australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Australia has some great festivals and days of celebration. ANZAC Day, the Woodford Folk Festival (Qld), Moomba (Vic), Melbourne Cup (everywhere) – (NB I’m deliberately avoiding Australia Day for reasons I’ll explain in a minute – bear with me). There’s nothing we Aussies like more than an excuse for a long weekend and a barbie. NAIDOC week should be one of those great festivals. For what it represents it should be celebrated widely on a national scale, but unfortunately it isn’t mainly because not enough of the general population know about it.

National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) has a long history. It started as a ‘Day of Mourning’ in 1935, but dates back as far as the 1920’s & 30’s when groups of Aboriginal people organized formal boycotts of Australia Day, and with good reason. Let me explain.

Imagine how you’d feel if Australia was invaded tomorrow by a swarm of people who saw us as little better than pigs and killed most of us, pushing us out of our homes and off the land we believe we have a right to live on. These people then changed everything about the way we lived. They now control where we go, who we hang out with, who we marry, what happens to our children, where we live, what we eat. We are no longer allowed to speak English or sing Ke Shan or dance like idiots to Midnight Oil. All the festivals we look forward to every year are banned. No more barbies or long weekends. These people, after murdering and separating us from our families, and putting us to slave labour without payment, then announce a national day of celebration – on the very day they first landed here and took everything away from us. Not happy, right? Do they care? Nope.

Just imagine that then goes on for decades and decades, so all the generations that follow us, knowing what has happened to our ancestors as a result of the invasion, must face this national outburst of pride by the invaders, without any apology or acknowledgement of what it means for us as a race, every punishing year. As a day of celebration of all that is Australian, it kind of loses its appeal, doesn’t it?

NAIDOC week (always held in early July) has its roots in the political, in the celebration of survival of Aboriginal culture – that doesn’t mean just a handful of songs, stories, and rituals. Culture defines who you are. Think about it. What nationality do you and your family identify with? What does it mean for you, as a person, to identify with that nationality? It means language – how you express yourself and your feeling and ideas. How do you communicate if you’re not allowed to speak your language? It means rituals and holidays you take for granted – like Easter and Christmas – even if you are not a practicing Christian, growing up in a Western culture means these holidays are part of your family life. It means ways of being and behaving that you simply don’t think about until you are immersed in a different culture and your uniquely Australian cultural characteristics become obvious.

Given Australian Aboriginal people are part of the oldest (that’s 60,000 years compared to the measly 220 years the non-Aboriginal ancestors have been here) living culture in the world – you’d think the entire nation would enthusiastically celebrate its survival wouldn’t you? I mean, that’s really something worthy of a big celebration, don’t you think? But do we embrace it as our own? Nope. It’s a fringe festival, celebrated by those who’ve made personal or professional connections with our Aboriginal community. And yet, there’s a lively and ever-growing calendar of events organized each year by Aboriginal organizations (and lots of other public and private organizations) that anyone can attend. So why don’t many of us go?

Simple. Most of us don’t know about it, and many that do think of it as an Aboriginal festival, not a national one, and I think that’s a shame. As Australian’s we should be so proud of the original culture, and the complex and fascinating history of the land we walk on every day. Our Aboriginal people have survived a terrible and dark history, but the culture born in this country is being preserved and passed on to younger generations. This history, this story of survival, is something worth celebrating – vigorously and on a national scale.

NAIDOC hasn’t reached the mainstream yet – but it’s getting there. Each year it gets a little bigger. This week, all over Australia, Aboriginal people are celebrating their strengths in all kinds of ways. Art exhibitions, musical performances, elders breakfasts and lunches, the NAIDOC ball, flag raising ceremonies, speeches. Everyone is welcome to join in. It’s a warm and welcoming atmosphere with community at its centre. It’s just the kind of festival Australian people love to love. So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late. Go celebrate.

NAIDOC Victorian calendar of events

UBUNTU – a way of life

In a world driven by greed (I’m talking at you, Gina Reinhart), where competition is everywhere and Darwinism (survival of the fittest) is rife, I am both reassured and deeply unsettled by this blog post.

I spend half my week watching my fellow human beings push each other out of the way for something as simple as a seat on a train or the last discounted chocolate bar on the store shelf. We Westerners are grown up on a cultural diet of selfishness. We are taught entitlement from the moment we are able to talk. We know we must learn to be strong, to look after our own interests because (and how many times have you heard this in your life) ‘no one else will’.

The attitude of these African children is similar to the traditional attitudes of our Aboriginal people. Sharing and caring for community and culture are the core values that form the foundation of Aboriginal life.
As a culture, Australia has missed so many opportunities to become a unique culture. We’ve not only allowed our Westernism to dominate Aboriginal culture, tradition and knowledge, we’ve failed to recognise and integrate it’s strengths. We could have deveoped a completely unique Western culture in Australia. The opportunity was always there, may still be there, if we could stop competing with each other long enough to see it.

Comtemporary Australia has grown up alongside the oldest living race – and instead of listening, instead of discovering what we might learn from the wisdom that is right under our noses, we arrogantly keep trying to tell them our way of life is better.
How? No, really, I want to know.

There are some things that we do well. We build, we research, we do medicine and invent amazing things that help the unwell or the disable to have more free and comfortable lives. But we do so many of these things at a terrible cost – our humanity for each other.

What these African kids (kids, mind you) and our Aboriginal people teach us is that there is enough for all of us. We don’t need to be afraid of missing out. We don’t need more, we just need some, and so does everyone else. It isn’t about me. It’s about all of us, together. If all Australian’s could think like that, if we were less fearful and more generous, imagine what an amazing culture we could be.

But for the grace of God…

2:3 Normal or de jure version of flag, or obve...

Image via Wikipedia

Too many tears by Heather Vicenti & Deborah Dickman

This book was a difficult read. This review was difficult to write.

Vicenti’s long life has been made unimaginably difficult by the impact of misguided white folk in government and welfare agencies, who acted sometimes with good intentions, usually with ignorance, and often with cruel disregard. People are often a helpless product of their time, society and culture – but it’s hard not judge their actions when you see life through the eyes of a woman who had the misfortune of being born Aboriginal in a time when Aboriginal people were seen to be equivalent to flora and fauna in this country. As a child her mother had no rights to claim her, nor did she have the right to be raised in the place she was born by the people who loved her.

What is most painful though, is that her story is not an isolated case. Her story is repeated by thousands, across every state in Australia. That people in our land carry this much pain, and that the pain has been so misunderstood and denied by mainstream society for so long, is tough to comprehend.

Heather Vicenti is old enough to be my mum. This could be my family’s story. I try to imagine it’s my mother who never knew her real name because the authorities kept changing it. I imagine my mother forced into slave labour throughout her childhood, watching the missionary’s children eat the fresh food from her toil and be educated so they could take their place in society. I wonder what effect that would have on a person’s sense of identity.

Vicenti was told many times her parents were dead, even when she received visits from a woman who claimed to be her mother. Vicenti didn’t marry, not because she didn’t want to, but because a Government bureaucrat wouldn’t permit her to.

I could have been born into a family forced to the poverty line: a childhood of food rations, second hand clothes and hand to mouth living because the Government of the day didn’t allow Aboriginal mother’s to receive welfare payments like white mothers did. I could have been the one that was taken, because in 1965, the year I was born, the Perth Children’s Court issued Care and Protection orders for all four of Vicenti’s children (Kim 9, Hans 6, Marcia 5 and Michael 18 months), committing them to the care of the Child Welfare Department until they were 18 years of age. A fifth child, Ricci, had already been adopted by then. She was 29 years old, alone, destitute and ‘white welfare’ had removed all five of her children.

I have a seven year old daughter and I can’t begin to imagine the depth of grief and pain she would suffer if she were separated from me. I can’t imagine how I would keep on living if I lost her.

Vicenti bravely goes on to have two more children and keeps trying to reclaim those she lost, but never succeeds. She’s behind the eight ball before she even begins, with no legal support, no clear information, no recourse for appeal and no understanding of a system structured to work against her.

She reconnects with her children again as adults, but the joy is short lived. Within a few years Vicenti begins losing them again, this time to the emotional impacts of their removal from their birth family. By the end of the story Vicenti has suffered the double loss of the early and unnecessary deaths (one in custody) of four of her children, as well as the removal of two grandchildren from her daughters. They are the third generation of children in her family to be removed.

As I read Heather Vicenti’s story I was reminded of a Black Arm Band performance by Kutcha Edwards. He stood on a darkened stage holding a sack filled with stones. Beside him, a beaten tin rubbish bin. He began by telling the story of his family, explaining that each stone represented a relative. He pulled stones from the bag, one by one, gave them names and ages, then tossed them into the bin. There were a lot of stones in that bag. Lost lives, broken ties, people who had died too young, often in tragic circumstances: suicide, chronic illness resulting from poverty, substance abuse, and heartbreak due to separation.

I can’t imagine how I would cope with this much loss. Yet Kutcha, Heather Vicenti, and many, many others in our communities, do cope with it, every day.

What sticks is how their lives and families have been thoroughly shaped by systemic racism, the kind that is embedded in our happy-go-lucky Australian life. All the things many Australian’s take for granted – security, opportunity, freedom to go, love, be whomever we want – simply didn’t exist for Vicenti. She was denied them by law because of her race. The effect of it is virulent, passing from generation to generation, dripping like poison through the lives of her children, severing ties, eroding self esteem, dissolving optimism.

Too Many Tears makes it clear that when it comes to Aboriginal issues Australian authorities often operate to protect themselves from the impacts of their own inherent racism, rather than admit to any wrongdoing or misjudgement. I’d like to believe that this behaviour has been relegated to our dark history, but after reading Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ I’m not so sure. The unified solidarity shown, particularly in parts of government and the police force, is evidence of the dominant social group desperately trying to maintain the moral high ground – and failing in the eyes of those they claim to protect.

Too Many Tears is no literary sensation, but it absolutely achieves what it sets out to do. It tells a complicated, difficult, heart wrenching story with simplicity and honesty. To read it is to gain insight into decades of Aboriginal lives lived silently, painfully and courageously all around us. Vicenti could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt and the echoes of what she has suffered could be reverberating in your life and the lives of your children. Read this book and know that there, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.

The Apology


The ‘Occupy’ movement has taken up residence across the road from where I work. A few times a week I walk over the chalked messages – ‘WAKE UP!’

Tarpaulins, chairs, people and their ideas are scattered randomly across the greenery of Treasury Gardens. As I walk past on my way to my comfortable Government job (so I can earn money to support my daughter, husband and various bills) I feel pangs. Pangs of empathy, pangs of inspiration but, sadly, mostly pangs of guilt.

I would like to join them. Twenty years ago I would have. I’d probably be flirting with some poor young bloke in the name of social change. I’d be living on nothing but thin ice and feeling like I was really alive, really part of something. A living part of a burgeoning revolution. But today I’m acutely aware that I’m their target market.

I’m interested in what people think of Occupy Melbourne, so I ask. People respond differently. A few are supportive, most are dismissive, some are downright derisive. Many – mostly comfortable middle classers like myself – find the movement laughable. ‘What’s it about?’ they ask, smirking. This question disappoints me no end.

‘It’s about greed. Corporate greed. And fairness – or lack of it.’ I answer. I know it might be way more complex than that, but those are the chords the Occupy movement strikes in me. ‘They want the world to be better.’ I get blank and dubious stares and I know why.

The people I’m talking to already have the better world. They are not suffering from unfairness or lack or disadvantage. All they have to worry about is when they can afford their next big holiday, or if their phone needs to be upgraded, or if they should buy the new thing in red or blue. They are too busy getting on with their lives to be bothered by silly things like corporate greed and manipulation at everyone’s expense. The principles underpinning the Occupy movement are lost on them, because they don’t see that corporate greed and power has any impact on them.

And herein lies the problem. Complacency and comfort are the arch enemies of the Occupy movement and they are at epidemic levels in middle Australia. These attitudes are the very things Occupy is fighting against, the very things that have allowed corporate greed to become to insidious and pervasive. In a way we are all part of it. In an effort to look after our own, knowing that no one else will, the greed has trickled down to broader society and has created behaviours that are slowly dismantling our decency without us even knowing it.

Everytime we buy something that is overpackaged, or made from unsustainable materials, or has been produced in a sweat shop in China, without at least THINKING about what we are doing, we are propogating greedy behaviour. Why? Because we want what we want and we will have it even at its environmental and social cost. Could we live without it? Yes. Will we choose to go without for the sake of the women and children living in a factory and working 6 days a week on the other side of the world? No.

Greed appears in small ways – the person who pushes in front of you to make sure they get a spot on a crowded train; the car who zips into the park you’ve been waiting to get into; and big ones – the labour politicians who used their elected position for financial advantage; QANTAS CEO awarding himself a 70% payrise the day he locked out his employees. Greed drives our thoughtless, careless, daily consumption of stuff we just don’t need.

The interesting thing is that this decline in values, in decency, has been happening for two decades. Social researchers have identified falling social confidence in political and corporate organisations and predicted that a movement like Occupy was inevitable. But now that it is here middle Australia has met it with bewilderment.

Everyone wants to believe that company’s and governments will do the right thing, in spite of history that demonstrates the contrary. The premise that ‘most businesses operate legally and are run by decent people’
(Read more: is somewhat questionable these days, particularly when we have such a loose grip on the definition of a ‘decent person’.

In the film The Corporation, an interview with a Shell boss shows a very decent man, a man concerned for other human beings, who checks his ethics at the door of his office in order to do his job. It’s a common story. Even in my own insignificant worklife I have had to swallow ethical concerns in order to carry out the duty of the government of the day. I have always considered myself a decent person, but am I? If I have knowingly allowed a wrong to occur, a decision to be made that will have a detrimental effect on another human being, can I still consider myself decent?

‘WAKE UP!’ indeed. Occupy might seem like a fringe movement. It has been labelled by people with a voice as ‘fringe’, ‘criminal’, ‘aimless’ and driven by ‘professional activists’. I don’t believe that Occupy should be dismissed so off handedly. It is a sign that our collective conscince is not yet dead. A sign that we may yet be able to reclaim the decency that should be at the core of our democratic society, but has somehow been lost to our aspirations for ‘better quality of life’.

I admire the courage and idealism of people who are part of this movement. I might not agree with everything they say, but I am deeply grateful they are willing to stop and stand up and make their point in the face of constant ridicule. I know they are reaching out to me – to my complacency, my laziness, my entrapment in the endless cycle of obtaining money to live – and I am trying to listen to them, so maybe I can eventually WAKE UP.

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