The queer slant of a summer day ending. Heat, humidity… I’m half knocked out by work and its only Tuesday. Tomorrow, it’s Australia Day again.
For me the day has never meant a thing, other than a holiday, a break from the grind. When I picture Australia Day in my mind, I see a slab of beer under someone’s arm, I see sails on Sydney Harbour, smoke rising from a BBQ, a crowded beach stinking with sunblock, a beautiful woman stepping from a kitchen door like her hope might change the course of the world, a child with a cricket bat hitting a tennis ball, life can be so light…
This run of cliches I lived in once upon a time. It hardly seems real, and truth be told, it hardly seemed real then. And yet it was real. Nothing bad about it, but this eerie thing behind the memories, like I am floating across the surface of life, with this feeling, always, that things were not quite right.
In that respect maybe Australia Day is a perfect national holiday, unreal and insubstantial, strange and half-hearted.
I like to listen to that Richard Clapton song ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. It seems to have some sense of loss and urgency and irony in how it conjures the day. Then I spin No Fixed Address singing ‘We Have Survived’. So defiant, and yet inviting me in to something in the same moment it pushes me back; their Redfern reggae, so tough and powerful and lean. So many songs make the country for me and my memories live within them. Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh and its Vietnam damage and male wounds. Growing up as a kid in the ‘60s I often reflect back to the way my whole psyche carries a part of Vietnam and images of TV murder inside of me. We churned our youth over in Asia for imperial madness. We may not know it, but we still feel it. Maybe I will play Mental As Anything singing ‘Let’s Cook’ to lighten my mood. I used to hang out with all these cool girls in Newtown when I was 21, getting stoned and baking a cake while we played it over and over and danced. Anyway, you get it, old man’s dreams and songs. Australia Day, again.
Terrible images come to me of those tortured, hooded boys at Don Dale Detention Centre in Darwin. Barely five years ago. You can’t forget something like that. It goes into the core of our being as a nation. Leaves you ashamed and nearly broken.
Change the Date. I have been unsure or mixed about it. Partly because I belong to that great white dreaming we can call indifference to this day at all.
Last few years I have thought about it more. Sure, call it First Fleet Survival Day. Call it something that is not quite a national day. Call it ‘a fucking holiday for all those people out there who work like dogs’. This unkind and unequal system is taking more from us than it ever gives, so keep the holiday. Those bastards higher up the food chain won’t give us one kind hour extra to replace it. Covid has proven nothing trickles down.
But yeah, let’s change the date for ‘our’ national event, for our ‘Australia Day’. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for Anzac Day as the true heart of the nation. Men and women of all stripes suffered a lot; Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders made their sacrifices for the country. I also find the day echoes the hidden and denied wars that took place here on the land too, the massacres and battles that are denied. There should be a heap of memorials across the country for them to match the Anzac park and statues. Not pulling down our history, but meeting it and growing it. All this pain and blood flowed.
Anyway, Australia Day. This melancholic, faintly empty feeling I speak about. It’s the defining mood. Let’s be true.
So I say hello to all my friends, past and present and wish them well. I nod my head in gratitude to the Aboriginal musicians, artists and activists it has been my good fortune to meet over my 40 odd years as a freelance journalist and writer running wild and not-too-consistently across the landscape.
Scenes come to me… hearing Sunrize Band in Tenant Creek sound checking ‘Cortez the Killer’ as I walked across a park, like some giant was rising to meet me and entering into my own legs as I got closer; Warumpi Band, so fucking powerful and joyous in an underground bar in the city, igniting us all to believe we were as one; me, naïve and fresh as a daisy, stumbling in my early 20s into a meeting of indigenous activists at UTS, sitting beside Marcia Langton, her hurling decimal coins across the table, “look at them, look at them,” she said, boiling cold, filled with fury, pointing to the pictures of kangaroos and platypus and hunters with spears, “that is all we are, flora and fauna”; much later, me shipwrecked on the road in Darwin, being taken to a house at night, a group of women singing gospel songs to the stars, here, meet this auntie, she was in Jedda, meet us, sing.
I got lucky with the light and friendship that was shared. Long way to go, brother, sister, mother, father. Hope I can walk straight with you a little longer till my number comes up. And that better days are up ahead for us and all our children. Love to you, today.