Communicate virus better say journos
The big bad Australian buai boom

Between two cultures

David Gulpilil - "A man caught between two cultures and two different Australia’s, the old one and the new one"


TUMBY BAY - I’ve got a bird feeder in my backyard. I built it out of scrap wood. It’s got a platform where I put bowls of seed, fruit and other stuff for the birds and a roof over it to keep off the rain.

It looks quite picturesque but the only customers seem to be sparrows, starlings and the odd blackbird.

An occasional galah drops by and a few New Holland honeyeaters go past on their way to the blossoms in my flower beds.

If I drive to our nearest large town of Port Lincoln I pass through paddock after paddock of wheat, barley and assorted other crops like sorghum and canola.

The roads are lined with trees, mostly low scraggly gum trees and she-oaks. Up in the hills the same roadside trees coexist with blackberry bushes and the odd golden wattle.

In some of the paddocks sheep and cattle graze. Occasionally you will see a kangaroo or emu but at night there are no dingos, just foxes ghosting past your headlights.

All-in-all, the birds, trees and crops are very reminiscent of the English countryside.

The sparrows, starlings and blackbirds are all introduced species. So too are the blackberries and the flowers in my garden bed.

The gum trees, she-oaks and wattle are native but they are set along the roads and between the paddocks in much the same way as English hedgerows.

If you are looking for the real Australia, the place that the tourists come to see, you would be hard pressed to find it in this part of the country. I suspect it is the same in most of the settled areas of Australia.

I once wrote that Port Moresby is not the real Papua New Guinea. To see that you have to go well beyond the cities and big towns.

What Port Moresby and the other big towns represent is ‘the land of the expected’, as opposed to ‘the land of the unexpected’.

In Australia the contrast is much more profound and more widely spread. In the settled areas what you see is a landscape remarkably similar to any other landscape in the western world.

Settled Australia looks a lot like settled Europe and North America. You could drop the area in which I live into California among all its eucalypts and it wouldn’t look out of place at all.

In a similar way you could drop the town-fringing ghettos and many of the modern forms of rural village in Papua New Guinea into Equatorial Africa or South America and not see much difference.

To see the real Australia you have to travel well off the beaten track. In doing so you have to avoid the carefully designed fake Australia that caters for the above-mentioned tourists.

It’s the same in Papua New Guinea. The few tourists who visit are invariably channelled through carefully designed bits of fake Papua New Guinea.

These thoughts occurred to me while I was reading a new book about the remarkable Yolngu actor David Gulpilil*.

David’s story is one of tragedy. He is a man caught between two cultures and two different Australia’s, the old one and the new one.

He hasn’t been able to live successfully in the new one and his links to the old one are mostly gone. In Darwin parlance he belongs to the long grass, those refugee camps for the dispossessed on the outskirts of the city.

Unfortunately he is not even in the long grass any more. He’s stuck in a unit in Murray Bridge in South Australia slowly dying of lung cancer.

No doubt David feels like a stranger in his own land.

I wouldn’t seek to claim an understanding of what this means to him but sometimes when I manage to get away into the real Australia, the old Australia, I wonder what I am doing there.

I have a great affection for the bush but I’m still a white man standing in what is essentially an alien environment. My natural environment is Europe, not Australia.

We white Australians have worked very hard to turn the country into a copy of Europe and we have wrought immense destruction in the process, not only to the landscape but also to the people who rightly inhabit it.

The same uneasy feeling occurs when I am in the bush in Papua New Guinea. I am there but I am not part of it. In Moresby I’m okay but in the bush I feel a lot like an alien.

I doubt very much whether all the white people and all the other people from overseas who live in Australia, no matter how many generations they have been here, will ever really become part of it in the sense that indigenous people are.

What they will become part of is an artificially created country that bears only a marginal similarity to the original.

Sing as we will about being one in our Australianness, the truth is we occupy a place that we brought with us and transplanted here.

The tragedy is that what we created has also changed the country to the extent that it is unrecognisable to its first inhabitants. They too now live in an alien place.

It is entirely possible that the same thing will happen to Papua New Guinea.     

* Gulpilil by Derek Rielly, Pan Macmillan, 2019. There is a macabre warning at the front of this book that it “may contain images or names of people now deceased”. The only images in the book are of David Gulpilil


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think the difference between me and Chris and Paul is that they come from long established Australian families while I am only a first generation Australian.

I discussed this with my wife and son and daughter, who were all born in Australia. They identify wholly as Australian.

Perhaps my grandchildren will be even more connected to the place.

As for PNG, I still feel out of place there and so does my son.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was born in Oxford but spent the first eight years of my life in rural Suffolk Chris.

I can't quite place my finger on it but the countryside around Port Lincoln and Tumby Bay remind me of the rolling Suffolk landscape.

Maybe its the wheat fields and the blackberries.

I've been all over it in my little Suzuki Jimny, including along the coast and I haven't been able to find any archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation. No middens, no fish traps, no substantial artefact scatters

The only sites of consequence are down at Port Lincoln or much further up the coast. I think it was the lack of water that was the problem.

It would have been a magnificent, but forbidding wilderness before the land clearances occurred.

Paul Oates

Like you Chris, I feel the same way about being Australian. I have visited a number of times the actual home of my ancestors and stayed with the distant branch of my family that still remains and runs the farm in Cornwall. The name Oates is apparently a corruption of the Celtic name Ots that was reportedly indicating a farmer.

Like you, I too empathise with the poem 'My Countr'y and have recited it at the memorial at Gallipoli to other Australian's. The fact that Gallipoli was a British defeat doesn't alter the fact that the battle was Australia's baptism of fire if you rule out previous smaller conflicts that did not entail contributions from all the Australian States.

The link between your family's roots and your country is a powerful concept which is a good rallying point and can help in times of trouble.

PNG needs such a concept to bring her people together rather than tear them apart.

Chris Overland

By one of those strange twists of fate, I had just finished urging my adult children to read Dorothea MacKellar’s most famous poem (My Country) when I first read Phil Fitzpatrick’s piece about being trapped between two cultures.

My children are 5th generation Australians and, in urging them to read MacKellar’s poem, I am trying to help them understand what it means to be a part of this country.

You see, as an Australian born and bred, I strongly relate to the sentiments expressed in the poem. Even though it was written in 1908 it still resonates powerfully in me.

The imagery provokes a surprisingly strong emotional response because it expresses a love of country that I struggle to find words to express myself.

Like MacKellar, I do not feel myself stranded between two cultures. I know that I am of this country notwithstanding a genetic profile that says otherwise.

I have travelled to the homeland of my ancestors, indeed to the very villages where generations of them scrabbled a living as tin miners and agricultural labourers.

I feel admiration for their capacity to endure harsh and poverty stricken lives, as well as sadness for their many sufferings, but the places where they lived exert no attraction to me.

I was and remain a stranger in those places.

While born in Tailem Bend, I lived the first years of my life in Port Lincoln, so I know the road between Tumby Bay and Port Lincoln.

Phil, I can tell you that it looks nothing like the road between St Ives and Nancledra, my Cornish mother’s ancestral home, nor the road between Norwich and Upwel, where my father’s clan seem to have settled at least 300 years ago.

As an aside, I suspect that my father’s ancestors, boasting a Norwegian name, were an early version of what we call boat people, except that my lot probably charged ashore waving an axe while intent upon seizing treasure and land, not humbly seeking asylum.

I have rather belatedly come to understand and appreciate the extraordinary achievement of the Aboriginal people in surviving in this country for some 60,000 years, including having to endure the impact of the utterly foreign and singularly destructive and rapacious culture whose most wretched representatives staggered ashore in 1788.

For this reason, I cannot in good conscience call myself indigenous even though I am not a native of any other place but Australia.

Yet I am certain that I am Australian nonetheless. How can I be anything else? I have no place in modern Britain and certainly have no wish to return to a foreign land and live in an alien culture.

As to what is the real Australia, I have long puzzled over this matter.

Clearly, for some people, it may be found in Greater Western Sydney. Certainly, far too many of our politicians think so.

For me, and many others, the real Australia resides somewhere far from that teeming metropolis.

I only feel near to it in places like the McDonnell Ranges or Carnarvon Gorge or other remote locations. In the city, it hovers only distantly and indistinctly.

It seems to me that it is embedded in both the ancient dream time stories of the Aboriginal people and, for non-indigenous Australians, in the modern equivalent stories that we tell about ourselves.

For example, the Anzac legend now is more a dream time story about mateship, self sacrifice, endurance and heroism, than an accurate reflection of a particularly brutal, cruel and utterly pointless military fiasco.

It is a story we tell ourselves because we believe it was the flaming cauldron within which modern Australia was truly born, not the rather mundane national plebiscite which brought forth the new Commonwealth.

While Australia and Turkey both have integrated similar stories into their national narrative, the Gallipoli debacle exerts no particular emotional power for the British who so ineptly planned and executed Winston Churchill’s plan. For them, it was just an all too familiar stuff up, not a seminal event.

So, I do not believe that I live in an alien land, although I accept with humility that the Aboriginal people may justly claim a special place as the first people of this country.

You are, we all are, Australians.

It is our great good fortune to live in a land where neither place of birth nor ethnicity nor language nor colour nor religion nor wealth, whether alone or in combination, make us Australian.

It is a personal commitment to this country and to important shared values, notably an insistence upon a fair go for all, a profound underlying egalitarianism and commitment to the rule of law (however imperfectly we uphold these) that makes us Australian.

As for the wonderful David Gulpilil, I am truly sorry that he is stranded so far from his country. He deserves much better.

Paul Oates

Well I think that's great in theory Phil, but I don't know it's yet proven in practice. I personally know of at least two dedicated bridge players who believed playing bridge was a hedge against dementia. Both went down with dementia or 'old timers' disease.

320 calories however is another matter. Yet how do I know which mental exercise uses up more calories? I wonder what that is in equivalent food intake?

Philip Fitzpatrick

Apparently philosophising is good for you Paul. The harder you think the better off you become.

This is especially so when compared to passive mind activity, like watching television or social media.

“As an energy-consumer, the brain is the most expensive organ we carry around with us,” says Dr Marcus Raichle, a distinguished professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.

While the brain represents just 2% of a person’s total body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use, Raichle’s research has found.

That means during a typical day, a person uses about 320 calories just to think.

Different mental states and tasks can subtly affect the way the brain consumes energy. “If we were to put you in a scanner and we looked at what’s going on [in your brain] while in front of the TV or doing a crossword, your brain’s activity would change if we gave you a demanding task, and it would use more energy,” he says.

Doing difficult cognitive tasks like philosophising and arranging those thoughts into logical order by writing them down is a bit like the mind doing harder aerobic exercises and burning even more calories.

Using your brain is also a proven antidote to diseases like dementia. People who sit and stare at TV screens all day tend to lose it quicker than people who keep their minds active.

This suggests that earlier peoples without any mind numbing technologies were actually better off in the long run.

Having spent time with tribal people, especially in Australia, I can see how their rich philosophical lives not only mentally enriched them but contributed to their health.

'The Dreaming, or Tjukurpa' beats ‘Days of Our Lives’ hands down.

We tjilpis and lapuns know that but try telling it to a teenager.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That craving for civilisation as you describe it Richard was a significant feature in most bush kiap's thinking.

That's why they let us go on leave once every 21 months and occasionally sent us into Mosbi on secondment or to attend various pointless courses at the Admin College.

As I recall the most pressing obsession was a milkshake made with fresh milk.

I've had various entreaties from the Tumby Bay Bowls Club and the Croquet Club which I've politely declined.

I'm not expecting such a call from the Tumby Bay Blues but I do feel for them when I pass the oval in winter when its almost sub-zero on my way to the French Patisserie. Brave lads to a man.

Richard Jones | GFFL Correspondent

Once again we have our differences and priorities at opposite ends of the scale, Phil.

I thoroughly enjoyed my 13 years in PNG, all of them spent in the Central Province.

Even when posted to out-stations such as the Aroma coast and Amazon Bay, I couldn't wait to catch the scheduled StolAir flight into Moresby when leave/holidays were due.

Moresby was a sort of little slice of urbanisation. Movies, cafes (I don't think they qualified as restaurants), the Post-Courier on the day it was published not several days later.... And of course the Top and Bottom pubs.

Latterly I became the rugby league correspondent for the Post-Courier and 9PA (then the ABC's successor when that body came into play) with social activities centred on the Boroko RSL and also the Boroko Sports Club.

No slogging or stumbling about in the scrub, beset by giant-sized mosquitoes not to mention many other forms of insect and reptilian predators.

My dislike of bush scrambling came from my mid-teenage years when I spent a miserable 12 months at Timbertop, a sort of outdoorsy-type mixture of education and weekend bush walking.

My mates and I got into strife when, on Friday afternoons, we headed out the back gate complete with the very first models of transistor radio. Didn't go far. Just out of sight, really.

Instead of clambering up Mt Buller or even the smaller Mt Timbertop we camped just beyond reach of nosey chalkies and tuned into ABC radio calls of the VFL, direct from the MCG. (The name "AFL" didn't come into usage until the late 80s and this was the mid-50s.)

That love of sport/dining/latest movies/after-work drinks has continued on ever since and even though officially retired from journalistic duties I still serve as the local footy league's official historian and write up a central Victorian footy game each weekend for Monday's local daily.

And speaking of footy, Phil, your Tumby Bay Blues will be back in action very soon.

The club to beat in 2020 in the Great Flinders Footy League will be United-Yeelanna. The Eagles won the flags in 2018 and last season.

Paul Oates

Perhaps you're raising some subliminal concepts that are part of the human paradigm. To exist, we humans immediately alter our environment. It's like the introduction of alien species into Australia like cats and dogs and foxes, let alone rabbits.

When humans arrived in any part of the world they altered that environment, albeit in subtle ways, to suit their own requirements. Merely using the natural food and products available automatically removes those items from whatever or whoever was originally looking forward to using them.

That's not to say that we as humans aught not to recognise what our actions or activities have either had an impact on the environment or might cause a change in the future. We are however still part of our global village and therefore need to understand where we might fit into the overall scheme of our ever changing world. What is the real Australia or the real PNG these days? Who can really say?

Therein lies the conundrum. Who has the right or gets to decide what we as a species do and what the effect will that have on everyone else?

Currently, it seems like the 'squeaky wheel syndrome' is pitted against 'the entrenched inertia team' with the majority are simply wanting to get on with their lives. That situation usually changes when an imposed threat affects everyone. Then those who have had a chip on the shoulder and feel they haven't been listened to declare with rightful exuberance: "See. We told you so!"

Our primeval ancestors approached the world they were born into by seeking at least to survive. Those survival skills were passed on to each generation and led to where we are now. The real problem is one of choice. There are just too many choices available.

The classic adage is that Google can give you 100,000 answers but a librarian can give you the right one. The real problem is that no one is currently thinking about who is the right 'librarian' to go to.

Our ideas on leadership whereby those who have proven skills are referred to for direction have been allowed to be corrupted due to greed and false rumours that generate the intended impacts of controlling our passions and decisions based on emotions.

The history of humans unfortunately could be summed up as 'Was it ever thus?'

Phil. You need to find a mountaintop somewhere and have a sabbatical. You're starting to influence me into becoming 'Phil-o-sophical'.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)