Saturday, April 18, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - death of the Australian yarn

I have no idea what to write about this morning! There are lots of things I could say flowing from my current train reading, but they are all mixed together in my mind a bit like one of my bookcases; an untidy pile of books in no particular order. So, as often happens in these circumstances, I turn to others for my inspiration.

A blogging conversation with Lynne inspired me to write  Distant memories of a now vanished North Coast - Introduction, an initial trawl done one memory lane.

I am constantly struck by how little modern Australians know about their past. No, this is not a comment on the school system, nor on the teaching of Australian history, simply a reality of modern Australian life.

Last year, Australia had record emigration and immigration. One current Australian resident in fifty did not live in this country twelve months ago. That's a lot.

Australia's size also makes it very difficult for people to see, let alone come to grips with, the variety in our past.

I think that we all assume to some degree that others do understand, that there are shared experiences and knowledge. Then something happens to remind us that this is far from true.

In my case, the trigger was a recent work conversation. I mentioned something, used an Australian phrase, then realised that no-one knew what I was talking about. How could they?

The group included a Chinese women originally from Malaysia married to a Chinese whose family came from a different part of China. Then there was a woman born in England who had come to Australia as a child. Her partner was the son of Croatian immigrants. And so on.

This type of mix makes for some fascinating conversations, but it also explains why gaps can emerge in understanding.

My knowledge of history is quite good. This makes it easier for me to talk to people from different backgrounds since I usually know something of their pasts. However, in conversation I also sometimes use examples and idioms drawn from the Australian past that people do not understand.

I have never been able to tell jokes. The funniest jokes become clay when I repeat them. However, I did teach myself to yarn.

A yarn is a short story in words told to entertain. In the Australian case, it relies on understatement, irony, unexpected twists. The cadence of a yarn is slower than normal speech, the language often laconic.

The Australian yarn is, I think, a dieing art form.

It's partly a time thing. Yarning began sitting round a camp fire or in a pub. You have to have a captive audience. Yarning as an art form cannot compete with electronic entertainment. It takes too long, there are too many distractions.

It's also a language thing. Modern Australian English is faster, urbanised, chunked and in some ways less coherent. Especially among the young, this is the world of the ubiquitous like, of txt messages. Its codes - and all language involves codes - centre on new things.

Back in December 2007 in Saturday Morning Musings - endings, beginning and the role of the tribal elder, I wrote that I was struggling with an odd problem, that of becoming in some strange and peculiar way a tribal elder.

In Aboriginal times, the elders were the keepers of the lore. They preserved the continuity of the group, linking past, present and future.

This was an oral world. Today we have books, records the internet. We assume that this will provide continuity. It's not true. The past dies all the time and at a faster rate today because of the crowded nature of modern life. I am reminded of this each time I say something and then have to explain.

I cannot bring back the past, nor would I want to. Despite my gripes, I find modern Australia endlessly fascinating. However, I reserve the right to continue to link past and present, to try to teach while also hopefully entertaining.

Fortunately, people are remarkably tolerant. They forgive me my sometimes excesses when what I say verges on a history lesson!

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