Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Going for gold: a nation groaning with philistines
Next Monday is Davis Hughes’s birthday. You remember Davis Hughes, Sir Davis Hughes, our favourite philistine – sacked Utzon, ruined the Opera House (but not before it became postcardworthy), claimed a science degree he didn’t have, sported a world-first perfectly symmetrical comb-over and appeared in Sydney’s only ever architectural protest march as “Mephistopheles in a business suit”. Were Davis Hughes in fact the devil incarnate, and therefore immortal, he’d be 98 on Monday. So it is in his honour that this column inaugurates the annual Davis Hughes Philistine Of The Year Award.
There are many contenders. Countless, depending on how many stones you turn. These include, aptly, the Sydney Opera House Trust, for that tent-of-mammon now parked permanently on its most photogenic frontage. There’s also the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust for devoting its own spare land to that new and especially tacky contribution to Moore Park Road, and then negotiating to wrest Moore Park East from Centennial Park for more – what else – car parking.
There’s also my own alma mater, Sydney University, for letting its new monster law faculty deprive the streaming Cleveland Street hordes of their one joyous moment, the long view of the lovely Blacket tower. And there’s Pyrmont’s Star City casino, for presuming to fix one egregious building with another.
Also figuring largely in the 2008 Philistine Awards is government, government and (naturally) government – for constantly traducing the public interest. For Currawong, Sandon Point, Catherine Hill Bay; for its rhythmic declaration and deletion of rail projects to the browning fringes; and for the wanton slaughter of the innocents at East Darling Harbour.
But more troubling still is a failure we all own. It’s the failure of taste and curiosity, as much as compassion, represented by the ratings for SBS’s truly remarkable First Australians series; ratings that can only be described as woeful.
Aired intensively over three weeks, as engaging as Ken Burns’s famous Civil War and hyped, you’d have to say, to buggery, this Phillip-to-Mabo saga should be examinable for all children and all citizens. But it was watched by less than 2 per cent of the population; fewer than are nominally Aboriginal.
Why? We know that indigenous art is treated more seriously in Europe than here. But white artists, too, are often more successful abroad, even if they live here – so is it simply a kind of inverse parochialism that makes us overlook our own? Or is it something deeper?
Is our near-total uninterest in Aboriginal history a kind of limbic remnant, the temporal equivalent of terra nullius? Are we still as reluctant to listen or learn – from Aborigines, as much as about them – as were the early settlers? It’s what Bill Stanner, in his 1968 Boyer lectures, famously called the Great Australian Silence, adding, “inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness”. First Australians was a great story well told but we stayed away in droves. A friend grumbled, “First Australians was terrific but it did become a bit relentless. You know, episode after episode of white iniquity.” To which the obvious response is, imagine how relentless a couple of centuries might feel, having your waterholes poisoned, your women raped, your children kidnapped and brainwashed and your land snatched from under you – and still having to sit politely at the back of the bus.
I know. Black armband, all that. But personally, I’m mystified that any Aboriginal person harbours anything but the most violent of hatreds towards whites. Mystified not by the drinking and dysfunction but by the exceptions to it.
Even from an entirely guiltless, apolitical viewpoint, however, First Australians is unputdownable. Beautiful to look at, with seductive soundtrack and breathtaking footage of corroborees, rituals and protests, it’s also absorbingly interesting, just to hear the old tale told in a voice from behind the mirror.
This very inversion gives rise, as it must, to the occasional hard-swallow, as in Allen Madden’s suggestion (countered by the featured historians) of smallpox as proto-germ warfare. But any history requires salt and this one was repeatedly leavened by that rarest of qualities in Australian history, a sense of genuine heroism.
Heroism is problematic for Australia. Both the ease of white conquest and the convict backstory were fruit dry of heroism juice and now, two centuries on, the heroic entities we have coaxed into life – farming, forestry, mining – are so deeply undermined by green consciousness as to be themselves contenders for fast-track fossilism.
But this is where we can learn. Indigenous culture may have been materially primitive – though in a Buddhist or artistic context even this we’d see as sophisticated. And few women I know would choose a traditional tribal life. But on the science of intuition, on universal connectivity, on carbon footprint and indeed, on forgiveness – things to which Western sciences are only now beginning to grope – it’s we balanders who are the primitives.
We are Burke and Wills, facing death by malnutrition while food is all around. And it’s for refusing to grasp this that we take home the big, grinning, hollow Davis Hughes gong.