Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Celebrating the Australian Experience

Stan Cross, 'For gorsake, stop laughing: this is serious!', Smiths Weekly, 1933.

I often talk about Australian popular culture. I feel that this is important. It is the thing that unites us all.

A week or so back I was listening to a Chinese colleague chattering away in Cantonese to a friend. Suddenly the clear word mate emerged in the conversation. I felt very happy.

No matter what our original backgrounds may have been, few can live for long in Australia without absorbing the Australian ethos.

There have been a number of stories this week that illustrated different parts of the Australian experience.

Early in the week I was listening to the radio while driving home from the office. It had been one of those days. Busy, that's good, but also disrupted. I only caught part of the interview, but that was enough to make me feel by the end that things were still right with the world.

I cannot give you a web link, nor have I been able to check my facts. But the facts as I understand them are these.

During the Cronulla riots a sixteen year old Lebanese lad took and burnt an Australian flag from a local RSL (Returned Services League) Club. Because of his age he was given a choice between court or a mediation process with the RSL branch. He chose the second. They agreed that he would walk with people from the branch in the Anzac Day march carrying an Australian flag as a way of understanding and sharing their experiences.

All hell broke loose, with some of the Sydney media frothing at the mouth, saying that this was completely inappropriate. The RSL decided that he should not march because they felt the lad might be attacked or abused by some in the crowd.

So far this can hardly be described as a good news story except as it applies to the RSL itself. However, what happened next is interesting.

Those in the RSL who had become involved with the kid were quite unhappy about the way he had been treated by the media and in the resulting public comment. As an alternative, they raised the money to pay for him to walk the Kokoda track, the long and rugged track along which Australian troops fought and finally stopped the Japanese Army during the second world war. He did this, although he was very nervous about it.

The radio program I listened to was an interview with the lad, now eighteen, and his main RSL sponsor. During the interview they described the whole experience, presenting it as a transformation on both sides.

Many things stood out.

One was the response of the diggers themselves to the media coverage. For the benefit of international readers, the RSL has often been seen as a very conservative organisation. In this case there was outrage at the coverage, a wave of support for the idea that he should walk, with many offering to protect him.

A second was the way in which the links with the lad had been maintained over time. This was no one-off story. The lad certainly came to understand the experiences of the diggers. More importantly, the things that he did gave him a sense of pride in himself, of achievement. Perhaps most importantly, they also created a sense of pride in his family in their son, nephew.

PATRICK BALL, RESCUE CO-ORDINATOR: The company brought in some psychologists and they interviewed everybody involved. And I still had four symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and she said, well that’s terrible, your boss should have recognised that and done something about it. I said there’s only one problem – he’s got five symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, and he’s still got about three. He’s not travelling well at all.

A second, very different, story was the ABC Australian Story Men Of Ore looking back at the Beaconsfield mine disaster. The link given will take you through to the transcript.

This story brought out the individual courage involved, but also showed the continued strength of the laconic sense of Australian humour found in the 1933 Smith's Weekly cartoon. We - the whole family - all watched the program, roaring with laughter at spots. We did wonder, though, how much of our humour would be understood by people outside Australia.

The program also brought out the Australian habit of working round rules.

PATRICK BALL, RESCUE CO-ORDINATOR: ... I found myself in the very uncomfortable position during the rescue of telling people not to do things and hoping like hell that they ignored me.

BRETT CRESSWELL, MINER: We done our best to stay within the rules and get the job done. I suppose sometimes you can be constrained by the rules and regulations and stuff like that and we were trying to do our best to get out mates out.

PATRICK BALL, RESCUE CO-ORDINATOR: There was a certain amount of information we needed that could only be got by people going in and doing, well, dangerous things. We had to find a way of getting the information across to the mines inspector without the person that had gone in there admitting that they’d broken the law by risking their own life. Rex came up with a fantastic solution that became known as Rex’s dreams and we simply went up to the mines inspector and said, "Fred, I had a dream last night that you wouldn't believe. I dreamt that I went in the 925, I climbed up the rock fall, went down a small hole." There's no crime here. There’s just a man just telling me about a dream.

In all, well worth watching and reading.

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