MH17 One Year On | Mr Norris never forgotten

Today, it snowed in the Blue Mountains where I live.  Today has been marked by commemorations of the first anniversary of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and the murder of everyone on board.  Today, wattle blossom was for remembrance.

Among those killed was one of my old high school teachers in Geraldton, Western Australia. Nick Norris, or Mr Norris as I knew him, was well-liked by his students, captain of the school cadets, and well known to all when I was a teenage boy at Geraldton Senior High School between 1971 and 1975.

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He was not one of my regular teachers, but I well-remember a day when he stood in for a teacher in a class dealing with human relationship and sex education. The bogans at the back of the class were creating their usual disruptions when he called the ring leader out to the front of the class and gave him the opportunity to share with everyone his knowledge of the venereal diseases that he had been telling his mates about in the back row.

Seeing one of the school bullies red faced and fumbling for words was one of those delicious moments that remains forever in the minds of every school boy and girl who has been subjected to a school bully. At that moment, when the power of a bully crumbled before our eyes, Mr Norris became one of those heroes never forgotten. He showed us that bullies can be stood up to. He gave us back a power we thought we had lost. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who will remember.

That Mr Norris, all these years later, became a victim of the most vicious and invisible of bullies, makes his death even more meaningful. It exposes the awful violence at the heart of nationalism, and through this tragedy we saw the tragedy lived every day by the poor people living among the sunflowers. That his death was shared with his grandchildren and so many other people on that plane makes their loss even sadder and more hurtful. But, as the commemorations today have also shown, neither Mr Norris nor any of the other passengers and crew are forgotten.

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Vale Mr Norris and everyone else murdered on that awful day over the sunflower fields of Ukraine. Your presence will live for a long time yet. You were, and will always remain, a true champion.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness

Only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate

Only love can do that.

(Martin Luther King, 1958)

 

Anzacery, or, Who Is Not Invited To The Great War Centenary?

I watched the commemorations last weekend broadcast from Albany in Western Australia marking the centenary of the departure of the first convoy of ships taking Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The streets were filled with thousands of cheering onlookers as returned and serving army, navy and air force personnel paraded with banners flying and bands playing. The sun was shining, the old town was all dressed-up, the waters of Prince Royal Harbour and King George Sound were sparkling in a truly inspiring setting. It was all very rousing.

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But it all left me with an odd feeling. Something was missing, but what? I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the sunlit scene, the delight of the crowds or the pride of the marchers. It was something else, something about the way the images were being framed for the television audience, something about the story being told. I wondered if the townsfolk and the marchers knew how their participation was being presented?

Then flicking through the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald two stories caught my attention. The first, a commentary on page 11 upon the Albany commemorations, noted that Banjo Paterson had been in the convoy as a ‘special commissioner’ reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald. Banjo was apparently an enthusiastic war correspondent for the paper, and wrote a typically evocative piece describing the departure from Albany. However, it was the final two paragraphs that caught my eye. Paterson’s reporting was ignored, his descendants had not been invited to the commemorations, and there were no official plans to honour or mark his connection to the anniversary. Good enough for a ten-dollar note portrait, but not for Anzac commemorations?

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Then on page 18 there was a report on a rarely-noticed event, the attack on a Broken Hill picnic train on new year’s day 1915 by two ‘Afghan’ cameleers that killed four people and wounded another ten. Local people wanted to commemorate the attack, but their requests for support from the official commemorative authorities in Canberra had been ignored. The local police, back in 1915, killed the cameleers, and the attack was reported in the press as a ‘Turk atrocity’. The local people’s retaliation including torching the German Club in Broken Hill, and preventing the fire brigades from extinguishing the fire.

Thinking back to the commemorations in Albany I began to pick at my unease. The dais from which the official speakers spoke was blazoned with the official “100 Years of Anzac” logo. I have been uneasy about this for some time, as it seems to cast the whole five years of war as a single event, almost predetermined, whose only real significance lay in its causing the creation of the Anzac story and, by implication, the birth of ‘the’ Australian ‘nation’. It follows, of course, that anything not connected to Anzac (especially this version) would not get a place in the “100 years of Anzac” story, and I began to see what was making me uneasy, and I began to see who was not in Albany.

The first, and most obvious missing historical actor, was any sense of British involvement. Australian Prime Minister Abbott once mentioned the British Empire in his speech, and New Zealand Prime Minister Key once referred to the Australian Imperial Force, but otherwise any sense that the convoy of a century ago was participating in a British imperial war, or that the departing soldiery had any sense of Britishness or being British subjects was completely erased from the event. When the laying of wreaths took place, there was eventually a call for the “British Ambassador” to take his turn. The whitewashing of Britishness from the commemorations was, to anyone with even a passing acquaintance of early 20th century Australian or New Zealand history (or current intra-Commonwealth diplomatic terminology), utterly bizarre and ahistorical.

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“100 Years of Anzac”, as well as being Britannically-amnesiac, also appears to have no interest in reconciliation with former enemies, except for a certain type of Turk. ‘Johnny Turk’, fighting from the trenches on the Gallipoli peninsula, has been reified as the noble adversary (perhaps has had to be) in order to explain the Anzac’s “loss” in that deadly battle. And, in the roll call of wreath layers was a Turkish diplomat. But, no one was called to represent those erstwhile enemies, the Germans (or the Austrians, Hungarians or Bulgarians). Ironically, that is who the soldiers in the convoy thought they were sailing off the fight. How the Ottoman armies later encountered by the Anzacs in Palestine and Mesopotamia will be represented is yet to be seen, but the historical inconvenience of the ‘Turk atrocity’ near Broken Hill doesn’t augur well.

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The other missing actor from Albany was royalty. The Australian Crown was well represented by the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove KC and the Governor of Western Australia the Honourable Kerry Sanderson AO, but in 1914 there was no Australian Crown, only a single unitary British Crown. The divisibility of the crown was an outcome of the war, but it was unheard off in 1914. Members of the royal family have been evident at war commemorations in Britain and Canada, but apparently have been subject to some sort of silent fatwah in Australia.

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The unease I felt watching the Albany commemorations picked up a similar unease I had felt watching two recent television series, Anzac Girls and The War That Changed Us, both shown on ABC. Both displayed very good production values and told entertaining stories, but at their heart they both conformed to the standard, orthodox, nationalist interpretation of the Great War that has prevailed since the 1960s.

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This interpretation could be called the ‘futilist’ view, and consists of five main points. One, the war was futile and had no actual purpose; two, the main protagonists were Australia (young, free, bronzed, Anzacs) and Britain (decayed, class ridden, pasty, Colonel Blimps) while the Germans and others were a bit of a side-show as ‘our boys’ valiantly fought the incompetent gin-sodden pommie generals; three, everyone on the home front was a pacifist trying to stop the war, either overtly or covertly; four, men only joined up for a ‘boy’s own’ adventure, they had no other meaningful reasons for doing so; and fifth, the few people who actually supported the war in Australia were hysterical imperialists who, by definition, were obviously not real Australians. It is a script straight out of British revisionist historian Alan Clark’s 1961 book, The Donkeys, with an Australian nationalist overlay.

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This futilist approach leaves no space for any counter-narratives. It cannot account for, or even acknowledge, the shameful treatment of German Australians during the war. This national disgrace has never been faced, never accounted for, and still, I believe, forms a large but ignored historical scar. The centenary of the Great War could be a time to open our eyes to seeing this scar, to at least beginning a reconciliation and acknowledgement of our German Australian heritage. It could be a time to face the denigration and repression of German Australia that continued well into the 1920s. It could be a time of healing. It could be time when we might learn of any ‘honourable Germans’, like the Gallipoli Turks. It could be a time to question the war-time attribution of an innate Germanness to the royal family. However, the “100 Years of Anzac[ery]” seems it will be at best ambivalent about any questioning of the German-hating propaganda and rhetoric of a century ago. As the official slogan proclaims, “the spirit lives”.

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The Anzacery of the “100 Years of Anzac”, it seems, is simply unable to cope with histories beyond the futilist view. It just can’t encompass Britishness, reconciliation with old enemies, royalty, a Turkishness beyond Gallipoli, even the descendants of Banjo Paterson. And this is the official commemorative body set up, funded and endorsed by the federal government in Australia. This is the official narrative of commemoration. What is unfolding before our eyes, it seems, and not unexpectedly, is a very limited and nationalistic version of history that, if not endorsed by the “100 Years of Anzac”, then it’s just not the true, real, actual history of the Great War (or rather, of the Anzacs).

It will be fascinating to see just who gets included and who gets excluded from this new official history, and even more fascinating to see the underground commemorations or anti-commemorations that arise among communities who don’t, can’t or won’t conform to the “100 Years of Anzac” official narrative. They might instead choose to mark the centenary of the Great War by trying to understand its consequences that we still live with today.

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References

Neil McMahon, ‘Poet sailed in to Anzac history’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 11

Damien Murphy, ‘First terror attack recalled’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-2 November 2014, page 18

Damien Murphy, ‘Silver City Showdown’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 1-2 November 2014, page 28

‘Centenary of ANZAC: Albany Commemoration’, News, ABC1, 12:00-3:00pm, 1 November 2014, and blog

‘Anzac Girls’, Drama, ABC1, 10 October to 14 September 2014 (six episodes)

‘The War That Changed Us’, Documentary, ABC1, 19 August to 9 September 2014 (four episodes)

100 Years of Anzac: the spirit lives 2014-2018, official website

Alan Clark, The Donkeys: A history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915, Hutchinson & Co., London 1961

The Royal Family attending Commonwealth Great War commemorative services in Glasgow and in Liege

Joe Quixote | Hot Air or Wind Power: which is actually offensive?

Federal Treasurer Joe ‘Quixote’ Hockey thinks wind farms are a blot on the landscape. “Utterly offensive” he says here and here and here.  Presumably that’s an ideological statement rather than an aesthetic, conservation or economic argument. Every wind farm that is stopped is an opportunity to expand or open another open-cut coal mine or frack another CSG site. That is the real cost of wind farm phobia, not the faux ‘saving’ of any local landscape.

The Alinta Wind Farm, Greenough, Western Australia.  Established in 2005 with a 90 megawatt capacity from 54 turbines, capable of displacing 400,000 tones of CO2 from fossil fuel power generation each year.

Part of the Alinta Wind Farm, Greenough, Western Australia. Established in 2005 with a 90 megawatt capacity from 54 turbines, capable of displacing 400,000 tones of CO2 from fossil fuel power generation each year.

While I would agree there can be aesthetic value in the ruins of an old coal-fired power station, I am curious to know why the Treasurer seems to think the total and overwhelming destruction of a landscape inherent in open-cut coal mining or the fracturing of landscape sub-strata, and the consequent destruction of even more landscapes arising from transporting and burning the excavated coal or gases, has greater aesthetic and landscape value than a wind farm?  The Treasurer later claimed, “just for all the greenies”, that he would also be appalled by the aesthetic impact of a “huge coal-fired power station” in a beautiful landscape.  Perhaps a small one would be OK, or at least, better than a wind farm of any scale.

: an abandoned coal fired power station becomes a romantic ruin in Charlottesville in the United States.

Aesthetic values and coal power: an abandoned coal fired power station becoming a romantic ruin in Charlottesville in the United States. Source vtunderground

Open-cut coal mining involves the absolute destruction of the landscape it consumes, and so-called ‘rehabilitation’ does not restore a landscape ruined by an open-cut pit or fracturing. Even if the aesthetic sensitivities of wind farm phobics can never be ameliorated, at least at the end of the farm’s life the mills can be removed and the landscape returned to its pre-wind farm aesthetic forms.

An abandoned open-cut iron ore mine at Koolanooka, Western Australia.

An abandoned open-cut iron ore mine at Koolanooka, Western Australia.  This site has been ‘rehabilitated’.

An open-cut coal mine consumes and destroys every grain of the material evidence of the history of its own site, and leaves only a blank and deformed monument to human greed and short-sightedness. By contrast, a wind farm contains the potential for future possibilities, for histories and senses of place to continue and evolve.

The power of the wind: One of the leaning trees of Greenough, WA, river gums shaped by the constant southerly winds.

The power of the wind: one of the leaning trees of Greenough, Western Australia, river gums shaped by decades of the constant southerly winds, and an emblem of the local community.

Wind power has a long and continuous history in Australia. It shaped the design of the humpy, it was the industrial energy source in Old Sydney, it still powers the iconic rural windmill and all sorts of water craft, and the kilometres of shelter-belts across the countryside attest to its landscape-forming powers. It is an inheritance that any conservative can embrace in preference to pandering to the highly destructive and short term attractions of open-cut mining and fracking. Wind is continuity and lineage, coal is rapid change followed by absence.

The Sydney skyline in 1822, artist Joseph Lycett: numbers 3, 13, 15, 16 are all windmills.

The Sydney skyline in 1822, artist Joseph Lycett: numbers 3, 13, 15, 16 are all windmills.

The aesthetic values of landscapes are important to local communities, a point that the Treasurer appears to appreciate. That appreciation could be enhanced by also considering which and whose landscapes bear the real costs of stopping wind farms when offering aesthetic insights to the public.

SepiaGreen | a new blog for book reviews

A new blog has been added to the suite of mrbbaskerville’s blogs, for posting and discussions on reviews of books, journal articles and so on.  The new blog is called SepiaGreen, and there is a link to SepiaGreen in the top right hand corner of this page under the heading ‘Go to my other blogs’.  The name reflects my interests in cultural (sepia) and natural (green) history and heritage.

The banner image, shown below, is a photograph of the beautiful translucent marbled inside cover of a copy of a book containing speeches and addresses given by Prince Albert that was published in London in 1862 and presented by Queen Victoria to the University of Sydney.

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The review of David Phillips’ book, Emblems of the Indian States (2011), formerly a page attached to this blog, has been transferred to SepiaGreen.

Scotland Secedes, Australia Looses its Flag: More Media Absurdity

The people of Scotland will vote in a referendum on the 18th September 2014 on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country”. Should the “Yes’ case be carried, some Australian opinion writers have happily concluded that this will mean the Australian flag will have to be changed.

 

The Scottish Flag

The Scottish Flag

The Australian Flag

The Australian Flag

 

When Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, the Australian flag did not change. Why? Because the Union Jack displayed on the Australian flag does not represent a foreign country. It represents the union in Australia of people from Ireland, Scotland and England to create a new people. At first they were called British, then Austral-Britons, then Australians.

 

That uniting of three peoples that occurred here, not in the British Isles, made today’s multicultural Australia socially, culturally and politically possible. The Union Jack was the vexillological emblem invented in 1801 (thirteen years after British colonization of New South Wales began) to represent the union of the three kingdoms of Scotland, Ireland and England.

 

In Australia the people of those three kingdoms united with each other and with other peoples to form the new Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and they chose the Union Jack in combination with the Southern Cross to portray both the success of that union and its future prospects under southern skies. Whether the date of adoption is 1903 or 1954 or any other year, the fact is that the Australian flag, as designed by Australian residents and adopted by Australian authorities, includes St Andrew’s Cross because of that history, not because any Scottish authority gave some permission for its use, a permission that could be withdrawn at any time.

 

An announcement of the adoption of the Australian-designed Australian Flag by Australian authority in 1901

An announcement of the adoption of the Australian-designed Australian Flag by Australian authority in 1901

 

Just as Ireland’s separation from the United Kingdom did not result in the Union Jack design, as used in either the Australian or British or any other flag, being changed by deleting the St Patrick’s Cross, so any separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in 2014 will not lead inevitably to deleting St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian or British or any other flag.

 

I am a sixth generation ‘Old Australian’, as the current condescension terms it, with an ancestry that, from the time each stepped of the boat, is 42% English, 37% Irish, 9% Scottish, 8% Welsh and 4% Indian. They all arrived before 1901, and gave me a genealogy that is purely the product of Empire – a genealogy that is representative of many Australians (see 2011 census data ). I can never “go back” to anywhere, to any land of ancestral purity. I will only ever be ‘miscegenated’, for which I am ever thankful. To be Australian is to be more than some generic Anglo-Celtic- Subcontinental blend but at the same time it is not to forget any of those ancestries and how their fusion creates the whole.

 

The Scots are in the Australian DNA, and we have every right to care about the referendum and its outcomes, to look deeper than the Braveheart nationalism of Australian media opinionistas. Australia’s Scotland, as distinct from Scotland’s Scotland, as represented in the jack’s union of crosses on the Australian flag, stands for a sort of wholeness which nationalists either cannot understand or, if they do, to which they are antagonistic.

 

While I wish the Scots all the best in whichever course they choose in the referendum, I can’t help thinking that I would feel somewhat diminished by a ‘Yes’ victory that I can only see, from my partly Scottish-descended but not Scottish perspective, as a triumph for a myopic, excluding twentieth century nationalism.

 

In Australia, over several generations, the unity of three peoples opened the way to more people joining that union, that common wealth, and creating a new people. Without that original union could the success of the 1967 referendum, which metaphorically continued the expansion of that union, ever have been imagined or made possible? These are the patterns I discern, that is the future I want to continue, that I imagine will endure under the Federation Star.

 

The specifications for the Australian flag, including those of each of the four component crosses - St Andrew's, St Patricks's, St George's and the Southern.

The specifications for the Australian flag, including those of each of the four component crosses – St Andrew’s, St Patricks’s, St George’s and the Southern, and the Federation Star

White Australia was the great cul-de-sac in Australian history. Derisively championing the erasure of St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag is, on the one hand a fairly cheap shot at a prime minister who gauchely stated, in somewhat mangled phraseology, that while he did not seek to tell the Scots how to vote he saw a value and a freedom in unity; and on the other hand reveals a rather pathetic yearning for the comforts of that old white nationalism.

 

The only certainty in the gleeful assertions that the Australian flag will have to be changed if Scotland decides to secede from the United Kingdom is the romanticist desire to witness a satisfying humiliation of prime minister Tony Abbott. Schadenfreude is not an attractive emotion, even less so when displayed as ‘humour’.

 

Changing the Australian flag may or may not be an idea whose time has come, I don’t know. But trying to highjack the decision by the Scottish people on the future form of their state is about as contrived as it gets. Why not extend the logic by banning the use of the colour blue in the Australian flag on the grounds that it, too, seems to be derived from the blue field of the Scottish flag? Just as the humour is duplicitous, the argument is absurd.  Even some in the media seem to have realised this, with the Daily Mail Australia’s April Fools Day spoof of the whole story reprinted again this weekend.

 

'Scot-free' is how the Daily Mail describes this version of a post-referendum Union Jack

‘Scot-free’ is how the Daily Mail describes this version of a post-referendum Union Jack

Whatever the Scottish people decide on the 18th September, it will not provide any reason – logical, legal, political, rhetorical, vexillological – for tearing St Andrew’s Cross from the Australian flag, and symbolically ripping the idea of unity in diversity from the body politic of our commonwealth.

 

References in chronological order:

‘Tony Abbott criticized over comments opposing Scottish independence’, ABC News Online, 17 August 2014

Letters, ‘Don’t take the low road to Scotland’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 2014, page 15

Letters, ‘Flagging problems with Scottish independence’, Crikey, 19 August 2014

‘Could the Scottish vote for independence lead to a change in the Australian flag’, The Australian, 19 August 2014

Letters, (no title), Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2014, page 16

Simon Leo Brown, ‘Could the Scottish independence referendum change Australia’s flag?’, ABC News Online, 22 August 2014

John Birmingham, ‘From Australia with Love: Double-o Credlin to the rescue’, Sydney Morning Herald News Review, 23-24 August 2014, page 40

Paul Harris,’Scot-free: Union Jack gets a Yes vote makeover: Secret Government papers reveal how flag will look if Scotland votes for independence'”, Daily Mail Australia, 24 August 2014, originally published 1 April 2014

Why knighthood matters in 21st century Australia

(inspired by snatches of a conversation I overheard between Alain de Botton and Fran Kelly on ABC Radio National Breakfast 26th March 2014, and written the next day)

 

The Prime Minister’s recent decision to resume nominating pre-eminent Australians to the Queen for the award of a knighthood or damehood within the Order of Australia has attracted the usual loud but confused and largely ignorant response from the political-media classes. Beyond the noise and movement, however, the ‘return’ of knighthood offers us, as a whole society, a comely mirror for reflection upon the role of citizenship in the early 21st century.

 

At its simplest, the resumption of knighthood (and within that collective noun I include both knights and dames and their partners) is the rational action of the state turning the example of modern celebrity to its own purposes. The pre-nominal title Sir or Dame confers upon its recipients a certain status that conveys a message to the citizenry at large that in the lived actions of these knights and dames can be seen the values of a ‘good citizen’. It also contains the message that every citizen can achieve this status, signified by the title, by how they choose to live their life, by how they choose to give back to their communities and society over their own personal advancement, because it’s the right thing to do.

http://www.indianewsbulletin.com/nri-asha-khemka-dazzles-in-saree-at-buckingham-palace-as-prince-charles-awards-her-damehood

Leading British educational entrepreneur  Dame Asha Kemka after her investiture in 2013: “I am finding it difficult to express how proud and honoured I feel.  I am immensely grateful to Britain for recognising my strengths and enabling me to achieve my dreams.  But I will never forget my Indian roots.”  Image and quote: http://www.indianewsbulletin.com/nri-asha-khemka-dazzles-in-saree-at-buckingham-palace-as-prince-charles-awards-her-damehood.

In this sense, knighthood is contrasted with the meaninglessness of celebrity in our times that is conferred through the media, by for example television programs marketed as talent, weight loss, cookery and other quests in which the celebrities are celebrated for little more than being celebrated. Their celebrity celebrates vacuousness. It is celebrity for its own selfish sake, is generally fleeting, and involves the celebrity being cast aside, as soon as their ratings begin to fall, in favour of a new celebrity. The private commercial interests of the media owners remain, of course, hidden in this vacuity.

 

This meaningless celebrity can also be seen in the practice, well known in academic circles, of external people, usually business people, being invited to lecture to students for a semester or some other short period and in return being granted the temporary title of Adjunct Professor. For the temporary academic, the true value of this is the possibility (often realized) of then styling themselves Professor Smith (or whomever) for the rest of their life, which they use to gain a certain professional cache within their own circles and, more importantly, promote their private commercial interests to prospective clients. Whether this devalues the expertise of an actual professor in the real academy is rarely, if ever, discussed in public.

 

As notions of citizenship have to evolve in the rapidly changing world of the early 21st century, the core values of knighthood, which are explicitly and traditionally about service to others, beyond the self, for a greater good, are the values that the state will seek, indeed needs, to articulate and promote in the state’s own self interest. These values support the ideals of social cohesion, and run counter to the fragmentation of those ideals that is inherent in the cults of mindless self-obsessed commercial celebrity described above. The strategic and controlled use of the crown and knighthood by the state is a clear example of the state learning from the example of celebrity, observing its strengths and defects, and then turning that learning to its own advantage through the ideal of knighthood as meaningful celebrity, or celebration full of meaning.

http://www.mikael-melbye.com/en/gallery/figures/index.php?pid=2

Danish artist Mikael Melbye painted this self-portrait in 2006 after he was appointed a knight in Denmark.  In revealing the insignia of knighthood in his portrait he invites the viewer to “encounter all that is not revealed right away”, an encounter far deeper than mere celebrity.  Image and quote http://www.mikael-melbye.com/en/gallery/figures/index.php?pid=2

The resumption of appointments to the Australian knighthood is a clear sign, for those who take the time to actually read it, that the state, always dynamic, is evolving in the new circumstances of the new century. It is the ultimate example of egalitarianism because every citizen can aspire to appointment through truly outstanding and inspiring actions. Such actions must clearly place the community and society above the self and the personal. The new knighthood speaks to the real meaning of commonwealth in the early 21st century. It illustrates the state’s need to use the crown’s status as the sole ‘fount of honour’ to harness the values encompassed by the ideals of knighthood to fostering a socially cohesive and dynamic society suited to the demands of the new century.

 

Of course some of the political-media class don’t like it. They forge words such as medieval, colonial, British and bunyip into weapons to hurl at their opponents, in substitute for any actual argument. The very idea of an Australian knighthood directly affronts their self-assumed right to mediate between the citizenry and its leaders. This is illustrated in claims that the Order of Australia is already much admired and perfectly egalitarian as it is, as though putting the title after the recipients name rather then before is somehow more ‘equal’! It remains a moot point whether, had the new knights and dames been required to only use their post-nominal letters of AK or AD rather than their pre-nominal titles of Sir or Dame, the equity criterion set by the gatekeepers would have been satisfied.

http://www.today.com/id/17854722/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/bow-his-demigodness-bono-knighted/

Irish citizen Bono was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2007, and is shown here after he received his honour at the British Embassy in Dublin.  Instead of the pre-nominal title of Sir, he can use the post-nominal letters KBE.  Image http://www.today.com/id/17854722/ns/today-today_entertainment/t/bow-his-demigodness-bono-knighted/

In their noisy objections they reveal they have long ago captured the higher levels of the Order – and it works perfectly well for them, promoting their own in a cosy self-deception of faux egalitarianism that lets them then lecture the rest of use for not being Australian enough. It also reveals a distinct lack of any critical thinking, an intellectual enslavement to quaint old ideas of 1990s Australian nationalism and its obsession with all things British that blinds them to the evolving character of citizenship, the state and the crown in Australia that is occurring all around them.

I’m no fan of the government’s policies on the environment or asylum seekers, and the method by which the prime minister made his decision will be open to question from within his own ranks, but the actual decision is exactly right for this time. The ‘return of knights and dames’, as some media commentators and some politicians insistently, deliberately and incorrectly term it, is actually a logical and rationale response by the state to the evolving ideas of citizenship in a culture that is awash with opinionated media ‘reporting’ devoid of any real meaning (or even reportage for that matter).

 

http://www.123rf.com/photo_5361099_word-cloud-concept-illustration-of-chivalry-knighthood.html

Malaysian artist Kheng Guan Toh created this word cloud for ‘knighthood’ in 2006, illustrating a depth of emotion inherent within the concept of knighthood that is capable of evoking a greater sense of connection through service.  Image http://www.123rf.com/photo_5361099_word-cloud-concept-illustration-of-chivalry-knighthood.html

The values of the contemporary knighthood that will now develop in Australia will have the capacity to provide both inspiration and aspiration to service beyond the self in the interests of a larger common good. It will provide a pathway to social cohesion in which service and duty provide an alternative to materialism and cults of individualism. It also has the capacity to provide, at least for some people, an ethical secular alternative to the exclusive and, in some cases, tainted morality of organised religion. It will enrich the Order of Australia by daring it to live up to its purpose as an ‘order of honour’

 

The prime minister’s decision is courageous, and I don’t mean that in any Appleby-esque way. Welcome Dame Quentin and Sir Peter, and those who come after you, in making the Australian knighthood a crucible for forging the inclusive, cohesive and inspirational citizenship we need for the new century. I support the resumption of the Australian knighthood.

Place Names Can Break Our Hearts

Sydney City Council recently posted to an invitation to a public meeting hosted by the Council on Wednesday 16th October in the Abraham Mott Hall in Millers Point, Sydney to discuss a proposal to shrink Millers Point and Dawes Point by formally separating parts of each locality and combining them to invent a new suburb named Walsh Bay. For all the papers, see Corporate, Finance, Properties and Tenders Committee, scroll down to ‘Item 4’.  The notice and invitation to the public meeting can be viewed here.

Links are included to a number of technical papers, of which City Historian Dr Lisa Murray’s paper will be of most interest to historians. I urge all members as well as other historians and toponomysts to read these papers, and give some thought, in our practice as public historians, to the issues raised. You might also like to go along to the meeting.

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo.  Image mrbbaskerville

View over Millers Point with the wharves built over Walsh Bay in the centre of the photo. Image mrbbaskerville

I have a view that a place name, or toponym, is a historical record that can be researched, read and interrogated like any other historical document. Yes, I have been much influenced by Paul Carter’s writings in this regard, especially Road to Botany Bay (1987), but place names have long been an important historical record for historians in many other countries. In contrast, place names in Australia have largely remained the province of linguists and taxonomists.

Historians would be appalled by and resist proposals to destroy archival records. Those of us working in public history are well aware that the archive is much bigger than the documentary records alone. Buildings, landscapes, artefacts, archaeological sites and place names are some of the other records critical to our work. I think we need to pay a lot more attention to place names generally, and especially to proposals to change place names, just as we would if someone was proposed to change or detroy any other archival record.

Of course things change. I believe change is the only constant in the universe. But change is not necessarily a juggernaut. The idea of managing change so that what is significant is not lost to the future is at the heart of heritage conservation. Another word for it is sustainability. Millers Point has already had its western boundaries manipulated and shaved to invent the new gambler’s playground named Barangaroo. If its northern shores are lost to the newly surburban Walsh Bay, the once maritime Millers Point will have become landlocked. How much longer before even that name, with all its inherent history, is lost and the Millers Point community consigned to the shadows?

fedration homes, millers point, sydney

fedration homes, millers point, sydney (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The community arguments for and against the proposed new suburb name are summarised in the documents on the Council website linked above. Support for conserving the existing toponomyscape comes from the people who have lived in the area for generations, and long-ago acquired their own demonym of ‘pointers’. Advocates of the new suburb claim a new identity by virtue of their recent resettlement in the rehabilitated wharf buildings. They may think of themselves as baysiders rather than pointers, at any rate they do not seem to regard themselves as new pointers.

I am struck, in reading the submission summaries, by claims that people who work in the old wharves are counted as ‘residents’ (which would surely mystify, although as a tactic perhaps not surprise, experienced resident action activists). Perhaps it reflects the merging of work and home into one continuum with no escape from work, something that the waterside workers of Millers Point would have resisted. I am also struck by the seeming failure of the much-vaunted arts and cultural activities in the old wharves to have meaningfully engaged with the residents living south and east of Hickson Road. Instead, culture is offered as a reason for separation. Have the Hickson Road-Pottinger Street revetments become a sort of harbourside Berlin Wall, separating the old town above from its waterfront below, quite contrarily to the intention of their design? The bridges and public steps are the links and unifiers between the levels in the landscape, not exits or entrances. Has a border been created where once there was none? And in only ten years? I think it is too early to know.

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, whic...

The Sydney Theatre and The Wharf Theatre, which are part of the Sydney Theatre Company, are located in Dawes Point (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The central claim for the suburban name change is that a new community has arisen in Walsh Bay that is distinct and separate from the old communities of Millers and Dawes points. The ‘test of time’ needs to be considered: how much time has to pass before something can be understood as historical and not a passing fad. Finding a correct answer is not the purpose of the question. Rather, exploring the test of time is meant to help us distinguish between the ephemeral and the enduring, to help decide what we want to conserve within a changing environment, what we can allow to pass, and how that passing might be done without losing the genius loci.

A place name attracts and evidences loyalty and identity. That is part of its function and also its meanings. Just like institutional names and personal names, place names are not mere assemblages of words that label something to distinguish it from what is around it. To change a name will invoke deep and often unplumbed emotions and resonances. It is an identity issue. It is not something to be done lightly or cavalierly, or, as the Heritage Council’s guideline on place names states “for reasons of fashion or expediency” (have a look at Place Names of Heritage Value Policy).

The question becomes one of whether the new residents (however they are defined) of the old Walsh Bay wharves have truly become a historical community, so distinct that it needs a named and bounded space separate from that out of which it has grown? I am not arguing that a place name should never be changed or that its boundaries should be set in concrete. But there must be a rationale for a change that is persuasive and meaningful. The poor mapping and comprehension skills of some government agencies who apparently have some difficulties telling the location of a Walsh Bay apartments street address is just not such a reason.

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments

English: Walsh Bay wharf apartments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To remove or shrink a place name is to remove or reduce an archival record, to loose or restrict the histories contained within the name. Would Sydney still be Sydney if its name was changed to something else, with no historical connections to its foundings or contexts? Place name changing can sometimes be a form of historical denialism, of pretending that the history of place didn’t happen in the ways that it did, of fulfilling a wish that it happened in some other way, or inventing an ephemeral future without roots. There will be instances of a community strongly desiring such a change so that their future can be freed from an oppressive past (for example, Stalingrad). That is not necessarily wrong, but it still raises a question of whether it socially and culturally desirable to purposely forget parts of the past because, at a certain time, some people find it uncomfortable or confronting? Should future generations be denied the opportunity to visit that past on their own terms, pretty or not? Will they thank us for whitewashing their history?

The issues involved in diminishing the highly significant histories of Millers Point and Dawes Point, and inventing the rehabilitated wharfscapes of Walsh Bay as a new suburb, are emblematic of larger issues. They go to the heart of how we value, understand and manage our cultural environments. There are plenty of examples of old place names being discarded or new place names invented across Sydney and NSW. Some of the results are truly awful, some so artfully the contrivance of property developer interests, some little more than empty syllables strung together in a supposedly mellifluous arrangement (vale Pristine Waters Council Area, 2000-2004).

The proposed name change does not reduce the place name Walsh Bay to that level. It is the proper name of a geographical feature over which wharves were built as part of the wholesale transformation of Millers Point by the Sydney Harbour Trust. That twentieth century history should be understood and valued in a holistic sense and on its own terms. I am not convinced that Walsh Bay is really a separate place from Millers Point and Dawes Point. At least, not yet. But nothing is inevitable. It’s that old ‘test of time’ issue.

The Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct listing on the State Heritage Register (2002, see here) includes the statement “The natural rocky terrain, despite much alteration, remains the dominant physical element in this significant urban cultural landscape in which land and water, nature and culture are intimately connected historically, socially, visually and functionally.” That for the Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct (2000, see here) includes the statement “The Walsh Bay area is … [a] unique combination of steep rocky terrain, early, mid, late-Victorian and Edwardian housing, surviving relatively intact Victorian bond stores, and the results of an early twentieth century urban redevelopment scheme of unique scale”. The boundary of the proposed new suburb is the boundary between these two heritage items. Just a decade ago the distinction between the bay and point was only perceptible as a convenient planning arrangement. The evidence from the submissions for change suggests that still remains the only real distinction.

Walsh Bay, 1949

Walsh Bay, 1949 (Photo credit: State Records NSW)

There is little respect shown towards old place names and their histories and associated communities in NSW or indeed Australia. Place names are a significant historical record, and we as public historians are probably better placed than many others (especially in the professions) to argue for the public heritage values of place names. There is an argument that they have value as intangible records in the open air archive. Suburbanising Walsh Bay neither respects nor values the histories that have shaped and continue to shape this still-evolving and beautiful pointer locale. I think time is needed before it can be said that the name Walsh Bay has shifted onshore and up the escarpment, just as time is needed to heal a broken heart when something of value is lost forever.

Declaration: I was an Crown employee assigned to the NSW Heritage Office between 1998 and 2008, and during that time processed the Millers Point and Dawes Point Village Precinct nomination for State Heritage Register listing in 2002, and was the executive officer to the Heritage Council’s History Advisory Panel when it developed the Place Names of Heritage Value policy document for the Heritage Council in 2004. I have not been employed in the NSW Heritage Office since August 2008.