Saw Peter Weir’s “The Last Wave” over the weekend on NITV

1977 seems such a long time ago. And I couldn’t help asking whether – brilliantly done as it is even if Richard Chamberlain is so forgettable – The Last Wave really is a lot of tosh. Did it rather show Indigenous Australians as white hippy mystics wanted them to be? After all, this was a time when shamans of any kind were so cool. Is it really deeply spiritual, or does it have the bunkum level of, say, Marlo Morgan? How do Aboriginal Australians in 2013 feel about the content of this movie? All that nonsense about South American connections, with what just might now look like abuse of Aboriginal stories and symbols – or a considerable stretching of their real context and significance – in the interests of a kind of von Daniken hodgepodge, albeit a good enough thriller. Granted, the Aboriginal actors in the movie, especially David Gulpilil and Nanjiwarra Amagula, did a great job. But what did they really think of what they were doing? What might they think now?

Apparently the movie opened in the US around two years after being made. There is an interesting interview from that time. It is on Peter Weir’s site.

What does it mean to be a tribal aborigine in Australia today?

The problems are with the youth. We’ve got the sophisticated technology and so forth – the transistors, music, the draw of the cities. So the problem for tribal people is how to bring their young people back into their culture, how to get them to be interested in initiation ceremonies, how to stop them drifting to the cities. It’s a case of how long they can continue to be a tribal people in a sophisticated Western country.

How did you find Nanjiwarra Amagula, who plays Charlie, and who is actually the leader of the aboriginal tribe?

He’s actually a clan leader. He’d never made a film, nor will he make one again. Not because of my experience, but because he saw this as a one-time thing. He would do it for certain reasons. To get him I had to go to, in Sydney, the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation director, a man called Lance Bennett, who subsequently became a friend. He was highly suspicious of a feature filmmaker delving into tribal cultural matters. It’s all very well to photograph a tribal man with spears against Ayres Rock, but another to delve into the system of perception, which I wanted to. So he screened me, he read my draft screenplay, and finally he passed me and he said, "OK. I’ll help you." He said, "There’s only one man who can play your Charlie, one man who has enough wisdom, enough breadth, enough understanding, not just to come into the city but to make a feature film. It’s obviously a sophisticated Western process." He said, "I’ll tell him about this on the radio-telephone on his island in the Gulf of Carpentaria – Groote Island. He may or may not see you." He did see me and we sat all day at Fanny Bay in Darwin, where he was rehearsing some dancers.

Rehearsing dancers – what does he do?

As a tribal elder he’s a magistrate; he sits with a visiting European magistrate to try petty crime, which is what they cope with there – theft, drunkenness, etc. He speaks the language with the accused and he advises the European magistrate on sentencing. He officiates at tribal ceremonies, which are considerable. For instance, during filming he had to hurry home at one point to bury a child who couldn’t be buried until he was present. He’s a member of the Northern Lands Council, which is coping with the uranium question. He’s a very important, busy man. So a film is something that could have appeared frivolous.

Our meeting, then. You know, they had no concept of acting. They don’t have acting. It’s the real thing. I sat with him on the beach and my first instinct was to tell him all about it. And I started to, and stopped because I could sense that it was the wrong thing to do and that he only wanted to do it has way. So we sat all day without saying a word. At the end of the day he said, "Can I bring my wife with me to make this film?" So he’d made this decision throughout that day in his own way, but it certainly wasn’t this idiotic language that we use. He sensed that it was right to do and that I was right to do it, I think. We then met that evening with Lance Bennett, who remained the go-between and who could speak his language. We discussed the concepts of the film and he asked me to place certain points within the film…

How did you decide on the subject matter?

It just arose. A series of connecting things, moments, that conversation with Gulpilil that I couldn’t understand. Something that happened before that. I’d had a premonition. I’d never had anything like that in my life. I don’t consider myself psychic. I was on holiday in Tunisia; I’d come down from London. I’d always loved Roman or Greek ruins – not the way they used to be, I just liked the way they’d fallen down; but I kind of liked classical structure. We were driving to Duga, this inland city in Tunisia, Roman city, looks like Pompeii, and we stopped the car to exercise a little and everyone was picking up bits of marble by the roadside in the fields. The driver hit the horn and we were heading back to the car and I had this feeling which lasted some seconds, that I was going to find something. I was picking up bits of stone and I saw on a stone these three parallel lines and I picked that stone up. In fact it was a hand, a fist, and the lines were between fingers. It resisted a little bit, then burst up through the ploughed field and there was this head, the head of a child, broken off at the neck and at the wrist. It had been holding something on its head, or a sword or something. The nose was gone, the lips and so on, but I can’t tell you what that was like. I smuggled it out and took it home and had it dated and put it on my desk. I wondered about the head; why did I know I was going to find it? Subsequently I told people about it, and they’d say, "Oh, that happens to you – it’s you." And I thought, What if a lawyer had found it – that’s more interesting. And at some stage from that I thought, What if a lawyer dreamt of some evidence, what if he found some evidence through a premonition? Someone trained to think precisely on one hand; on the other, the facts, dreaming, dream some evidence. I told Gulpilil about this and we discussed things and gradually the forces began to come together. I did a lot of reading during that period – Casteneda and the Old Testament, strangely different influences. Thor Heyerdahl’s theories, Velikovsky – and somehow these clues began to form a pattern. There was a new way to look at tribal people.

Is there really an ancient aboriginal cave under the city? Is that a real location in Sydney?

No, my location was up the coast about 15 miles. But there are rivers under Sydney; there are things buried under Sydney.

Are the aboriginal legends in the film authentic?

Everything passed through the hands of the tribal aborigines we used. The Sydney people are dead – white contact destroyed them. Around the city they’ve left signs and symbols, some paintings, carvings in national parks; they’re now protected. Nobody knows what they mean unless there’s obvious hunting in the picture. We took the Groote Island people to look at them. And Nanji just said "Poor fellows." So therefore, we created a fictional situation. The only thing was, Nanji insisted that there are still the Sydney people there, but they’re spirits and their spirits exist at sacred sites and protect sacred sites, so if there’s a sacred site under Sydney he said, "This is true, your script is true. The spirits will be there, therefore I cannot be human." That was one change because in my story Charlie was human, initially. He pointed out that that was impossible. But he could be a spirit that took on human form; this is quite possible…

Carlos Casteneda indeed.

I still wonder about whether this really is a an exploitation flick at heart that could confuse as much as enlighten when it comes to real Aboriginal beliefs. It is so 70s.

But it is still one of David Stratton’s favourite movies.  He sees it as a movie about climate change. Which it is, though like most such movies hardly a reliable indicator of what climate change actually means. There are some great sequences though – I agree with him there. Take that one where the buses and pedestrians in Sydney are suddenly totally under water. Great cinema. Bad science. And I still niggle that the film is bad Aboriginal culture, despite the presence of Gulpilil and company. In fact the more I think about it the more I see it as a 70s whiteman artefact replete with the buzz memes of that time. The truly Aboriginal movie had not yet arrived. Think maybe Ten Canoes.

Maybe most will disagree with me. But it is what I thought after seeing it again on Saturday.

See also reviews on the IMDB, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat on Spirituality and Practice, and Roger Westcombe who finds it “a masterwork of cinema that grows in depth and resonance with each successive viewing.”

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Inspiring people: true Aussies both

Two from last night’s Australian of the Year Award – with an eye to the future.

Young Australian of the Year 2013: Akram Azimi

"This bloke is a legend already," says one commenter.

Akram Azimi is a dedicated mentor to young Indigenous people.  Arriving in Australia 13 years ago from Afghanistan he went from being ‘an ostracised refugee kid with no prospects’ to becoming his school’s head boy. An outstanding student, he topped the tertiary entrance exam scores among his classmates. He’s now studying a triple major – law, science and arts – at the University of Western Australia. Intent on giving back to his adopted country, Akram uses his leadership and pastoral skills to help young people in remote and rural Western Australia.  In 2011 he co-founded a student-run initiative I am the other set up to raise awareness about Indigenous issues in universities. His philanthropic roles have included working with True Blue Dreaming, which helps disadvantaged remote Indigenous communities. For three years, Akram mentored young Indigenous people in the Looma community in the Kimberley region, and he has mentored primary school students in the small farming community of Wyalkatchem, in WA’s wheat belt. Akram is also mentoring a Special Olympics athlete to help raise community awareness of disability issues.

See also The Big Interview with Akram Azimi.

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Local Hero: Shane Phillips

REDFERN: According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s (Sydney) magazine, Shane Phillips of the Tribal Warrior Association is one of Sydney’s 100 most influential people writes Liesa Clague in the February 2012 edition of the South Sydney Herald.

It was an immense pleasure speaking to Shane about growing up in Redfern – what has inspired him with regards to his work now, and recalling, when he was young, the key events and people who have made him the leader he is today.

Shane (a Bundjalung, Wonnarua and Eora man) was born in Redfern, and grew up surrounded by role models such as Mum Shirl, Charlie Perkins, Joyce Clague, and other Aboriginal men and women who have contributed to the fight for equal opportunity, the right to be counted as part of the wider community and to help support Aboriginal people. Shane talked about the environment of Redfern in the ’70s and ’80s, which were “good times”.

Much has changed since then. Shane looks forward to new life for “working families” on The Block, better relationships with the police and among all people of good will in the community.

What inspires Shane is supporting his family and being true to them as well as doing the best he can for his community.

He believes that you need good work ethics and to follow through by doing the best job you can.

Shane started work at the age of 14, after being told by his Dad he had to work. The work experience for Shane was “tough but fair”, and he learnt a lot from the people he worked with and for. He learned there was value and pride in contributing to the greater good.

Shane recalls, when he was 14 years old, assisting another lad to break into a car. The other lad ran away but Shane was caught by police. He recalls that the police officer “kicked me up the bum” and “told me he didn’t want me being involved in any stealing again”. This event shaped Shane to realise that he did not want to do anything to get himself into trouble. “I respected that he gave me that chance – that he showed me that respect,” Shane said.

Being there for his family, maintaining humility and integrity, and developing programs that support young people in the community to achieve their goals are very important to Shane – more important than any accolades or awards.

Source: South Sydney Herald February 2012 www.southsydneyherald.com.au

See more from redwatch.

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See SBS video The Block for a profile of Shane.

In 1983 I learned more than I knew I was learning…

At that time I lived in Glebe and was in some ways at a rather low ebb, in hiatus from teaching but still editing Neos. I lived for a while in a boarding house in Boyce Street with assorted students, crims and schizos and one or two ordinary folk. It was an education. Among my neighbours was a schizophrenic Aboriginal woman whom I call “Marie”.  As I listened to Marie, who was also kind of concierge to the house, I found a story emerging amid the apparent randomness and even craziness. I tried to capture that in a poem at the time. Every word in the poem she actually said, though not all at once, and I have structured it so that her story emerges, as it did for me over a much longer time. An artist who lived upstairs read it and said I had captured her exactly.

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The house in Boyce Street. At the time I occupied the front room. “Marie” was on the second floor at the landing. The artist had the balcony room.

It is clearly no longer a boarding house.

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Marie: Glebe 1983

(for the “stolen generation”)

my mama was black
dadda a scotsman

in the home there was a flower
it woke us up

see here it is

and here’s one i’m saving for matron
(i loved you matron)
i’ll write a book for matron

she’s gone now
they say she died

sometimes
i think i will come back to her

she said “you’re in trouble, marie”
she said “have the baby”
(i was nineteen or twenty)

i know all about cocks
men can be cheeky
but the girls are worse
two backyard jobs

matron’s gone now
see her flower?
i’ve pressed it for her

i’m forty-two years old i am nothing
a woman not married in this society
is nothing

my dream is to get married
i said to matron
“i will have babies for you”

tomorrow

i’ll give up smoking
i must control the grog
but when my head’s upset i need a beer

the pub is good
nobody looks down on you there

i hope my joseph is happy
he chose his family
and thomas
where is thomas?

there have been too many men

i’ll go picking again
on the riverina

this is not my place

this is a dead end street this is a dead man’s house
but there is a lane

they call me
abo
schizo

words are very powerful
you must be careful how you use them

do the children still read?

the television
i got mine at the hock shop forty bucks
it freaks me out

sometimes

i see myself and matron and joseph and thomas
i learn a lot
it freaks me out

sometimes

this is not my place
my head hurts here

all that fucking going on
over my head

i’ve never hurt no-one
let them kill me it’s good
it doesn’t matter
i’ve never hurt no-one
but i’ve been hurt

do you know my dream?

this is my dream
i’ll have a coffee shop
and there will be little huts
and no-one will be turned away

we did that once
had pillows all over the house

i learned
dressmaking
and elocution

i’ll get up early and get a job
it’s good i reckon
tomorrow
will be good
after christmas
next year
i’ll leave this place

but it’s good
i reckon

see this flower?
i’m saving it for matron
and here is the one
that woke us in the home

my dadda was a scotsman
my mama was black

****

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Each photo is linked to its story.  See A guide to Australia’s Stolen Generations and 100 Year Commemoration of the Cootamundra Aboriginal Girls Training Home.

See also Punishment and death at Cootamundra for a contrarian view from Keith Windschuttle. BTW, if you happen upon that chapter directly via a search you could be forgiven for thinking it had some kind of official status. I find that a bit deceptive, but then I guess it is up to me (caveat emptor) to check the home and about links.

Archie Roach at Cootamundra Girl’s 100 years playing ‘Mum’s Song’ by Kutcha Edwards.

Full of hatred and full of anger
Which I needed to release
But with love and understanding
I’ve moved on and I’m now at peace

Late at night I still remember
I would cry myself to sleep
The scars they hurt no longer
But the memories are deep

As we come up to Australia Day tomorrow it is time to reflect soberly and honestly on the full picture of our country’s history.

Dhakiyarr vs The King on NITV last night

In Three documentaries–one of them a surprise thanks to NITV and How NITV and ABC News 24 have transformed my TV habits… earlier this month I recommended Channel 34 should become a regular part of our viewing. Indeed, I can think of few better ways to celebrate Australia Day than to go on over to Channel 34 as much as possible. Don’t miss the News at 5.30 pm. It’s a revelation.

Back to NITV then. They constantly surprise me, one example being a scoop that seems to have passed over the heads of too many of us: Join NITV’s Political Correspondent Jeremy Geia with his exclusive documentary Julian on the Inside.

Jeremy Geia is a regular on the news. He is really very good. He is also an artist.

Last night NITV showed the 2004 documentary Dhakiyarr vs The King.

In his acceptance speech when the film won the Audiovisual History prize at the NSW Premier’s History Awards in 2004, the producer of the film, Graeme Isaac remarked, "It has been said that history is written by he who holds the pen, but much of the Aboriginal history of Australia since white settlement has been unwritten history, a history conveyed orally rather than through books and letters. The court case of Takiyar vs The King and the following appeal to the High Court is a famous part of Australian legal history, often taught to undergraduate law students, but Dhakiyarr’s story has never really been told from the point of view of his own people. We fashioned this film project to rectify that imbalance, and to fill in the gaps in the white history created by our ignorance of the Aboriginal oral tradition. We wanted the film to be a mouthpiece for Dhakiyarr’s descendants to tell their side of the story from their own perspective.

They told it not just in words but also with their painting and their ceremony. And in commemorating Dhakiyarr’s memory in the way they did in the High Court in Darwin, with their generous offer of reconciliation with the system and the society that took their leader’s life, they have also changed the feelings and the views of many others, effectively becoming not just tellers of history but also makers of history" We made our film specifically to present the point of view of a participant, to enrich our understanding of a story that is important not just to the Yolngu but to all Australians, one of the great iconic stories of our frontier history – not a ‘black’ or a ‘white’ history but a shared history, where both sides must understand and learn from the other in order to glimpse the full story.

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Dhakiyarr

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When men of the law meet.

Northern Territory Supreme Court Justices Brian Martin (left) and David Angel (right) and High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson (second from right) meet Yolngu Law Man Wuyal Wirrpanda.
Date: Unknown
Photographer: Peter Eve

Just inspiring.

In 2004 my former SBHS student Sacha Molitorisz had this to say:

Tom Murray and Allan Collins have a remarkable story, and they’d prefer to let someone else tell it. It’s about a blackfella called Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda from north-east Arnhem Land.

In 1933 this Yolngu tribal leader came across a policeman who had broken Aboriginal law by trespassing on Yolngu land. He had also chained up Dhakiyarr’s wife. In accordance with black law, Dhakiyarr speared the policeman, Constable Albert McColl, through the leg. McColl died.

The retribution, in accordance with white law, was equally harsh. On the advice of a missionary, Dhakiyarr travelled to Darwin to face the Northern Territory Supreme Court, where he was sentenced to death for murder.

After lobbying by academics and unions, however, the High Court overturned the decision, ordering Dhakiyarr be freed. At the time, it was a hugely controversial result, recognising Aborigines should be treated equally before the law. "It was an amazing decision," Murray says.

But the Yolngu celebrations were short-lived: as soon as Dhakiyarr was released, he disappeared. Rumour had it he was killed, possibly by vengeful policemen, or by vigilantes. His remains have never been found.

Murray, a Manly resident with a deep love for Arnhem Land culture, has long been fascinated with Dhakiyarr. "I’ve spent a bit of time up there. I’d heard the story in whispers. It was such a significant trial of the time, so I’d read bits and pieces. And I thought to myself, ‘I bet Dhakiyarr’s family have an amazing story.’ When I went to meet them, this raw, unreconciled story of wanting to know what happened to Dhakiyarr revealed itself."

When Dhakiyarr’s descendants reconciled with the McColl family, Murray decided to make a film about them. As an experienced maker of radio documentaries who lacked film experience, he teamed up with Allan Collins, the cinematographer of Beneath Clouds.

Funding proved hard to raise – until Film Australia’s National Interest Program saw the project’s significance. So filming began, with the focus on two of Dhakiyarr’s grandsons, Wuyal and Dhukal.

"In the Yolngu way, they call themselves sons of Dhakiyarr," says Murray. "To us they’re his grandsons. The film is about Wuyal’s and Dhukal’s attempts to reconcile this raw wound after 70 years."

Last year, Wuyal and Dhukal sent a video letter to Clare Martin, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, asking for the return of Dhakiyarr’s remains. Alternatively, the brothers asked to hold a ceremony at Darwin’s Supreme Court, where Dhakiyarr was sentenced to death. Martin agreed to the latter, and the ensuing scenes – featuring a meeting of Dhakiyarr’s descendants and McColl’s family – form the climax of the finished film, Dhakiyarr vs The King, a powerful piece of work. Last week, the filmmakers learnt they’ve been nominated in the best doco category at this year’s Dendy Awards, scheduled during the Sydney Film Festival.

The Supreme Court ceremony had a reconciling effect on the Wirrpandas and the McColls. As Joan McColl of Narracan wrote to The Age last week: "The Wirrpanda family involved the McColl family in a wonderful healing Wukidi ceremony during which they apologised for Albert’s death and presented to Alan McColl, his nearest living male relative, a ceremonial headpiece. In turn, gifts were presented from the McColl family and the two families now are in close, friendly contact."

Says Murray: "I think it’s been a profound experience for the McColl family. Alan McColl is from Gippsland. He said to me a year ago he’d never even met a black person, and now he has a family of them."

In the process, the McColls have adopted a sporting legend: 24-year-old David Wirrpunda, a star with AFL team the West Coast Eagles. He spells his name differently, but he is Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda’s great-grandson. Wuyal is his dad. Yesterday, Murray, Wuyal and Dhukal went to a West Coast game in Melbourne.

"It’s the first time Wuyal has seen his son play football since he was a kid. David lives in Perth, and Wuyal is the leader of a community in north-east Arnhem Land," says Murray.

This week, Murray returns to his hometown for the Sydney big screen premiere of his film at the Chauvel in Paddington. Wuyal and Dhukal will attend. "It takes courage to acknowledge the past and to apologise, as Wuyal did to the McColls. That’s been missing from the national debate, where we don’t seem to have that leadership. Dhakiyarr going to face white law, that’s showing leadership … With Wuyal, his leadership was made very clear. He showed dignity and courage, and I think that’s what people are responding to. And the same is true of Alan McColl – the McColls were willing to reconcile their own past."

One of the film’s biggest strengths is that it lets the Wirrpandas tell their own story. "Where there is narration, the two brothers narrate," says Murray. "And I think the film was really affirming for them, especially now so many people are saying to them, ‘You’ve done something really important for the Aboriginal debate. You’ve told a really important story.’

"After the screenings, people have been saying that it’s the first time they’ve been given the privilege of gaining insight into an Aboriginal community, unmitigated by a white voice trying to explain it."

It will no doubt be repeated. Don’t miss it.

Mostly Australian…

First something that includes but goes beyond our patch: the annual summary State of the Climate Global Analysis 2012 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Climatic Data Center (USA) is now available.

Global Highlights

  • The year 2012 was the 10th warmest year since records began in 1880. The annual global combined land and ocean surface temperature was 0.57°C (1.03°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F). This marks the 36th consecutive year (since 1976) that the yearly global temperature was above average. Currently, the warmest year on record is 2010, which was 0.66°C (1.19°F) above average. Including 2012, all 12 years to date in the 21st century (2001–2012) rank among the 14 warmest in the 133-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century—1998—was warmer than 2012.
  • Separately, the 2012 global average land surface temperature was 0.90°C (1.62°F) above the 20th century average of 8.5°C (47.3°F) and ranked as the seventh warmest year on record.
  • La Niña, which is defined by cooler-than-normal waters in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific Ocean that affect weather patterns around the globe, was present during the first three months of 2012. The weak-to-moderate La Niña dissipated in the spring and was replaced by ENSO-neutral conditions for the remainder of the year. When compared to previous La Niña years, the 2012 global surface temperature was the warmest observed during such a year; 2011 was the previous warmest La Niña year on record.
  • The 2012 global average ocean temperature was 0.45°C (0.81°F) above the 20thcentury average of 16.1°C (60.9°F) and ranked as the 10th warmest year on record. It was also the warmest year on record among all La Niña years. The three warmest annual ocean surface temperatures occurred in 2003, 1998, and 2010—all warm phase El Niño years.
  • Following the two wettest years on record (2010 and 2011), 2012 saw near average precipitation on balance across the globe. However, as ia typical, precipitation varied greatly from region to region.

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Bring that right back home, perhaps…  You recall earlier this month Flying Fox Dreaming–or nightmare?  Here is a follow-up from today’s Illawarra Mercury:

The region’s budding flying fox population was not immune to Friday’s scorching weather, as dozens of bats died in the heat.

WIRES volunteers spent hours on Saturday disposing of nearly 50 dead grey-haired flying foxes after they died in the hot weather.

The colony, numbering tens of thousands, had taken up a summer spot in a patch of bushland just north of the Figtree freeway exit…

WIRES Chairman Sam Joukador said volunteers had removed a wheelbarrow full of the dead bats and expected to find more on the other side of the freeway exit.

"The heat just brought a lot of them down … they can’t handle the hot weather," he said.

"During the last heatwave, we had the same problem but this time, the weather was a lot more intense … if it had lasted more than one day, we would have lost about 90 per cent of the colony.

"We found a lot of them in the creek; they’d drowned while they were trying to get some water, they can’t just take off and fly from a creek like that, they need to be up high.

"Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do … it’s just nature taking its course."…

On ABC News 24 yesterday afternoon was a pleasant surprise.

When Sydney-based Scott Bevan arrives in Newcastle to visit family and friends, he releases an audible sigh. ‘‘It’s that exhalation of pure comfort … aaaaah … I’m home now and I’m fine,’’ he says, laughing. Until 1993, when the intrepid journalist left town to pursue career opportunities, home was here in the Hunter (he returned in 2001 for a year with wife Jo to write) and even now, when asked where he is from, Bevan replies with great affection and pride, ‘‘Newcastle’’. ‘‘Some nearest and dearest correct me and say, ‘Well, that’s not true any more’, but yes it is. I am from Newcastle in my heart and soul.’’

That passion for his birthplace and a love of history motivated Bevan, who now works for ABC News 24, to embark in February 2011 on an ambitious and meaningful adventure, picking up where he had left off a decade earlier. ‘‘Back in 2001, I wrote a series for the Newcastle Herald about a canoe trip I did with Jo down the Hunter River, starting just below Glenbawn Dam,’’ he recalls. ‘‘Then I went overseas for work [Bevan became the ABC’s Moscow correspondent] but often while I was away I was reminded of the river and I felt strongly about revisiting it with the view to writing a book so I could reach a wider audience. When we came back to Australia, I talked to ABC Books and they were interested.’’

It still took a little while for Bevan’s resolve to turn into action. ‘‘When I got back from Russia and told my dear mate [film director] Bruce Beresford about my plan, he said, ‘Gee, I hope you don’t die’. I told him it was safe and he said, ‘No, I don’t mean that. I hope you don’t die of boredom’. [Laughs] And then I launched into a defence of the area and why it’s so wonderful. I knew I had to get going.’’

After visiting by foot the three streamlets in the Barrington Tops that form the beginning of the Hunter River, Bevan explores the Packers’ 27,000-hectare estate Ellerston before starting his paddling from the White family’s famous Belltrees property.

Had much changed in the decade since his last journey? ‘‘The main thing that struck me was how many areas along the river were unkempt, [with] weeds having taken over. In certain parts it may be because more and more land is no longer primarily used for agriculture, but is tied up with the mining industry.

‘‘That’s not to say mines don’t consider that stuff, but if you’re on the land, day in and day out, and it’s part of who you are and what you are, then you’re going to be more mindful of that aspect. There were parts that were like paddling through South-East Asia because of the profusion of bamboo and weeds.’’

Mining had also increased its reach. ‘‘In 2001, I remember being surprised by how close in places mining does come to the river, so this time, I was more prepared for the shock, but it is cheek by jowl and the mining industry is right there beside the river.

‘‘In places, it is an extraordinary presence when you paddle around a bend and see a range of overburden towering over the river. I felt a sense of loss; you couldn’t just do the Huck Finn thing and paddle down the river and wander up to the farmhouse and speak to the local farmer and say, ‘G’day, can I camp on your land?’ There are stretches now where that isn’t possible.’’

The effect of being a decade older also hit the 47-year-old hard. ‘‘It was a reaffirmation that I’m ageing,’’ laughs the father of five-year-old twin boys. ‘‘You wouldn’t think there would be much difference in 10 years, but there is. My muscles were testament to that every morning I woke up in a tent aching. I wasn’t prepared for feeling so old!’’

Bevan is an evocative and skilful writer with a journalist’s eye for detail. He captures the subtle characteristics of the people and landscape that enriched his adventure. Colourful historical detail is threaded through his account, as is personal reflection. ‘‘You paddle a river and it forces you to look around,’’ Bevan says. ‘‘It also allowed me to meditate on those two questions I set out to answer with the book – who am I and where am I from?’’

from the Newcastle Herald. See also HarperCollins on the book.

Very evocative for me as it showed many places my mother had lived in and often spoke about. See More tales from my mother 4 — Dunolly NSW — and conclusions.

Finally, here’s a thought if you are wondering what to watch on Australia Day: why not be as Australian as you possibly can get? Watch NITV.  Somewhere in there is some footage of 1988. Perhaps I may even see myself!  I will certainly see places, things and people I saw then or have seen since.

Last night NITV showed an excellent movie, Radiance. See my 2007 post One of our stories well told: Radiance (1998). Stephen Page on Talking Heads.

Currently reading…

Yes, the Proust project continues in fits and starts. I find I can travel over to Proustland and stay for several hours with enormous pleasure, then go elsewhere for a day or a month and return where I had left off to take on that special world once more.  I am now into The Captive – so I have made progress since July. See Proust: visiting a demented relative? Thanks, Kobo – but it does mean I am reading via eBook the old Scott Moncrieff translation. See also: All about the new Penguin/Viking editions of Marcel Proust’s great novel, À la recherche du temps perdu, once known in English as Remembrance of Things Past but now more accurately titled In Search of Lost Time.

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Loved John Lanchester’s Capital. From The New York Times review:

Lanchester, a brainy, pleasure-loving polymath, is a novelist, memoirist and journalist who writes sagely and elegantly about food, family, culture, technology and money. He’s still best known for his delectably wicked first novel, “The Debt to Pleasure,” which blends murder with gourmandise. But he has also written a well-reasoned nonfiction book entitled “I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay,” which closely analyzes the current financial collapse. Now, with “Capital,” he readjusts his sights and zooms out, framing a larger, more inclusive picture that shows how the easy-­money era affected not just greedy speculators but the society that fattened around them.

The fiction I am currently savouring is The Importance of Being Seven, the sixth collection of episodes set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh, by Alexander McCall Smith. I read the seventh one in December: Bertie Plays the Blues. But no matter that I am out of sequence; the delight is undimmed.

Non-fiction just now is A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier by Darrell Lewis. Tom Griffiths on Inside.Org rates it one of the best (overlooked) books of 2012.

If Ned Kelly had been gentler and more learned but just as much a bushman he might have written A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier (Monash University Publishing, $29.95). Darrell Lewis’s book is a distillation of bush wisdom and scholarly tenacity, of courageous fieldwork and equally adventurous archival sleuthing, of forty years of learning the country and of a lifetime of listening to history. Lewis has walked the Victoria River District in Australia’s northwest, swum its crocodile-infested rivers, got to know its plants, animals and people, slept under its stars, inspected its caves, recorded its inscriptions on rock and tree, and then pursued its material diaspora wherever it may have migrated. I am reminded of a great landmark work in Australian history, A Million Wild Acres, a book about the Pillaga Scrub by another bush scholar, Eric Rolls. Lewis’s book is full of frontier stories, superbly researched and skilfully told. And the book to look out for in early 2013 is The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (Cambridge University Press) by Mike Smith. It’s the most important work in Australian archaeology since John Mulvaney’s The Prehistory of Australia (1969).

See also John Rickard in The Australian Book Review:

The Victoria River District is unusual in its lack of family dynasties with roots in the pioneer generation. The early settlers, who were occupying vast tracts of land, tended eventually to sell up and return to something more like civilisation. Lewis puts this down to the harsh climate, and to the remoteness and isolation, which lacked the ameliorating influence usually provided by country towns. With the high turnover of station staff, there has been ‘a weak transmission of local knowledge’. The irony is that Aborigines, who, unlike the settlers, ‘don’t come from somewhere else, stay for a period and then leave’, are actually ‘the “keepers” of much “European” history’. Lewis knows the District’s Aboriginal communities well, and is able to draw on the perspective on European settlement of those who so fiercely resisted it.

Lewis stresses the sophistication of Aboriginal land use, particularly in the deployment of fire. ‘They knew that burning at the appropriate time would promote the flowering of certain plant species, and the growth of particular food plants, or would attract desirable animals to the burnt area, and they knew that if they burnt certain food plants in patches over time, the plants would fruit over an extended season.’ This seems consistent with the argument recently advanced by Bill Gammage in his prize-winning The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011), which presumably was not available to Lewis when
he was writing A Wild History

At the heart of A Wild History, however, is a meticulous account of the halting progress of European settlement and the varied opposition it faced from the District’s thirteen or so Aboriginal peoples or language groups…

A Wild History is a fine piece of scholarship, exemplary in its judicious interpretation of both white and Aboriginal oral tradition, as well as the documentary sources. Just as the story begins with ‘the aura about the country’ firing Lewis’s imagination, so at the end it is the landscape, majestic, beautiful, forbidding, that has the last word. Keith Windschuttle could learn a lot from this book.

I doubt KW would, alas – but I have been finding the book quite a revelation.

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from the cover of A Wild History

And then there is William James.

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The Varieties of Religious Experience

A Study in Human Nature

William James

To
E.P.G.
IN FILIAL GRATITUDE AND LOVE

1902

Yes it is dated, but on the other hand what a great classic it is!  Makes you wonder whether we really have learned a great deal that matters since 1902.  I certainly am enjoying this very belated first acquaintance.

Three documentaries–one of them a surprise thanks to NITV

No matter how you look at it, the key fact in this country’s history since the 18th century is dispossession. On the other hand none of the current possessors/inhabitants is going anywhere.  That’s the paradox we have inherited and have to deal with.

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And then the strangers came…

On Sunday I watched the excellent episode of The First Australians dealing with Western Australia: Jandamarra, the revolting A O Neville, Moore River and so on.  Here were events from my grandparents’ generation, then from my parents’ generation and indeed my own lifetime. A fitting climax to the episode, even allowing for the disappointments one feels at times, was the Kevin Rudd apology of 2008.

In Redfern February 2008 – I was there.

Then last night ABC1 showed Coniston.

In 1928, following the murder of a white dingo trapper, Central Australia would witness the last known massacre of it’s indigenous people. With over one hundred killed during a series of punitive expeditions, now known as the Coniston Massacre, many lived to tell of the wholesale slaughter of innocent people. For the first time those who survived this bloody episode get to tell their side of the story in this new documentary on the Coniston Massacre co-produced by PAW Media and Rebel Films.

Not a single academic historian in sight – just the descendants of survivors or, indeed, actual survivors in some cases. Compelling stuff, and all happening in my parents’ lifetime. Just as my mother’s stories of the same years in another part of the country command my respect so, more so even, do these.

But of course Australia is far from the only country whose history is rooted in dispossession or where that dispossession has been followed by greater or lesser death of peoples and cultures and languages. So to North America, and the USA in particular. Last night NITV surprised with the showing of a 2012 German documentary, Bury My Heart in Dresden.

A Catholic cemetery in Dresden. A grey and weathered gravestone protrudes from the snow. At its foot stands a small American flag. The inscription on the old stone reveals who was laid to rest here in 1914: Edward Two Two, Sioux chief. Strange. How did one of the Sioux Indians, whose home is North America, end up in Dresden of all places? And why was he buried here?

Bettina Renner pursues this question, rummaging in archives and travelling to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation to visit Edward Two Two’s old homeland. Edward Two Two came to Germany as part of one of the so-called “human zoos”. In those days, people who fulfilled the local audience’s desire for the exotic would be taken from all over the world and presented in elaborately choreographed shows. The participants, who were sometimes paraded through town, would attract a lot of attention as soon as they arrived. Edward Two Two initially came with his wife and a granddaughter to Hagenbeck, based in Hamburg, later moving on to Dresden’s Sarrasani circus. At the time, Indians were the biggest attraction. Living in tepees in front of the circus tent, they were required to wear a feathered headdress and traditional clothing at all times as well as dance and sing. Flocking past, the large audiences loved them. They corresponded to a common, romanticised image of the Indians. Yet in their homeland the reality had long been far different. From their free life on the prairie, the Native Americans were forced into reservations and subjected to a programme of re-education. The consequences were fatal; hunger and disease were rife. How are things today in the reservation Edward Two Two left behind for Germany at the beginning of the last century? Bettina Renner embarks upon a journey, meeting descendants of Edward Two Two. Gradually she comes closer to the answer of why the Lakota Sioux Edward Two Two, who in real life was never a chief, was determined that his final resting place be in Dresden soil.

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“Chief” Edward Two Two of the Latoka Sioux

See also "Bury My Heart in Dresden" Makes North American Premiere in Chicago and Dokumentarfilmerin Bettina Renner — Ein Sioux in Sachsen.

And dispossession takes many guises.

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Click to see who, what and where.

Dispossession always comes at a cost – to the dispossessors as well as to the dispossessed.