The Australian character
An authoress’s assessment.
“Our early writers, like early American writers, made the vast mistake of thinking that Australians are the same sort of people as those who originally came here, merely living in a different country,” said Mrs. G. Drake-Brockman, a West Australian novelist, in a talk on environment and national character at a meeting of the W.A. branch of the Australian Fellowship of Writers on Tuesday night. “Only now are we awakening to the fact that we are not, cannot be, the same people as those on the other side of the world. The sun, the dry climate, the dust, the floods and droughts, the equable weather, are doing something to our chemical make-up that is turning us into a different people. Whether we want it or not, it is happening. The small racial differences, due to actual districts and inherited individual differences are still there, but over and above lies the subtle universal similarity of being Australian.”
Mrs. Drake-Brockman said that just as it was impossible to miss an Australian feeling anywhere in Australia, because of the widespread gum trees and other natural similarities, so certain universal traits of Australian character were developing. One reason why this development was so interesting was the fact that, for the first time in history, a Nordic race was developing in a Mediterranean climate.
“I feel that it is of enormous importance that we as writers should try to trace these changes,” she continued. “That we should hold up a mirror in which Australians can see themselves, not distorted into crude colonials without manners or culture, nor magnified into ‘don’t give a damn’ giants who casually pioneer a hostile country or scale the slopes of Gallipoli or drink and gamble like heroes. What we want is to see ourselves as we are, living here in our own surroundings, going — whither?”
Writers who observed and recorded subtle signs of change could help to mould people, Mrs. Drake-Brockman said. It was not a matter of propaganda but of making people wake up and think about such things as national character and aspiration. “Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson, for instance, showed with masterly skill what happened to a man who could not adapt himself to harsh new conditions. The author, however, would have probably performed a better service to Australia had she depicted with equal power and insight what happened to an intelligent and cultured man who did adapt.
Democracy and Humour.
Early contact with England was a first jolt to her own awakening Australian consciousness, she continued. The second jolt occurred when she first went north. In the south her mental environment had been little removed from that of the professional classes in England. “But up there I grew suddenly alive to the existence of a people securely settled and responsive to their new environment, people without care of how folks behaved or what they thought about things on the other side of the world. And I began to see dimly that one of the first real differences in this country, as in America, is that each individual can, and often does, count for himself alone. In other words, here in Australia the democratic principle is not only an idea, but it is getting more or less towards being a fact. This isn’t, or wasn’t, so in England. It was better in Scotland; but England is still, I imagine, very highly class-conscious, in spite of its democratic principles.”
The Australian environment, by bringing out native ability and destroying pretensions, had, in the early days, laid the foundations of this Australian spirit, Mrs. Drake-Brockman added. The exploiting of the first goldfield did more to establish freedom of intercourse and unity of outlook in Australia than any other factor. Every digger counted as a man and nothing else. Common necessity meant common law and decent respect for the other fellow, whether he was a lord or ticket-of-leave man.
“Another national characteristic which carries already the print of environment is our sense of humour,” she continued. “It is a sardonic sense of humour. I think that the original bitter flavour dates back from the convict days. Possibly also the lack of women then accounts for the general unconcern with sex as a basis for wit. However that may be, only a bitter humour could have carried men sane through that terrible period. The same humour carried the Australian soldier through the war. The classic story of the Digger who pined a ‘Shake Dig’ notice to a skeleton hand sticking into a front-line trench never failed to fill men of other races with a sense of shock. It is not themselves and their own ridiculousness Australians laugh at, so much as the dreadful straits and absurd situations their country throws them into . . . the Australian had to laugh at himself harassed by fire and drought and flood or go mad. He adapted and laughed. And it is noticeable still that very close beneath the surface of all our best humour lies a grim sense of tears and tragedy.
“Personally,” she concluded. “I hope that Australians will see in themselves, not a people who have been emptied out to the other ends of the earth, not a people incapable of taste and of building a culture, but, first and last, a people who rise above existing conditions and fight forward, people who have turned a bad beginning to a great advantage, who have made the dumping-ground of older civilisations not into a wasteland but into a country of regeneration.”
The West Australian (Perth, WA), Monday 13 March 1939, page 5