Friday, June 5, 2015

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber

Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean and then lost its bearings. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. We might look like a go ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions?

Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests.

A father and his boy, Bronte Park, Tasmania 1950s. Almost, but not quite, the last man standing.

It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed.

Two different countries going in opposite directions 
We might look like a go ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions? I suppose the only consolation might be that in one of those rare bonuses of ageing, those heading in one direction will die much earlier than those heading in the other – but I'm not sure even that is true. This parallel shadowy land heading the other way is not Australia but Susstralia.

I have come to think we are a nation that needs a navigator to guide us home, wheeling across troubled skies, taking us above exploding horizons and safely back again.

'We might look like a go ahead, interesting kind of country, heading calmly into our future, but are we actually two different countries going in opposite directions?'

My uncle was a navigator – on a Lancaster bomber above Europe during World War 2. He left Australia to join the Allied war effort and he never made it home. Amazingly he survived, as so many did not. Where is he now? He sees out his days in a nursing home in Northern Ireland, where he settled and raised a family after the war.

The last man standing
He’s the very last survivor of five brothers – the last man standing, or at least sitting. All of the brothers made their contribution to Australia, many of whom served in (and survived) World War 2, our last Great War. My father was too young to serve – not that it stopped him trying, it's what you did – but to my eternal gratitude, his father refused to sign the papers.

Instead his five brothers all fought. They served on tiny torpedo boats in the Adriatic, on freezing Atlantic convoys to Russia and as aircrew in rattling, flak-damaged Lancaster bombers over Germany. They served and they were decorated, some more than once. It’s a miracle beyond words that every one of them survived when so many didn’t. In a challenge to logic, my last uncle – the one most in the way of danger – has survived the longest.

My uncle saw many things I’m sure he wished he hadn’t. He was a navigator on the bombers that fire-bombed Dresden, that jewel on the Elbe, turned into a centre for war industry and refugees by the war. My wife's relatives were living on the outskirts of the city and her mother saw the waves of bombers and watched as the city was destroyed.

My uncle joked once that the only reason he’d been decorated – twice as it happens, with the Distinguished Flying Cross – was because the rate of attrition amongst those bomber aircrew was so dire that they gave medals to anyone who survived.

My history growing up was intertwined with war, this distant yet so close World War 2.

Beacon of freedom and democracy far from the rest of the world
In the 19th century Australia had seemed to be free of the rigid, class-bound and narrow world of the Northern Hemisphere, of Europe and Great Britain. After the war those who returned saw that it was time for Australia to realise its dream of being the beacon of freedom and democracy far from the rest of the world that had failed them. 

'Imagine what a contribution people like her would have made if more of them had come to Australia.'

They were joined by refugees from every country all seeking a better life, even those from countries – like East Prussia – that no longer existed. As a young conscript in 1945, my mother in law, already escaping from a doomed East Prussia, stood in the rubble of Berlin as it fell, bantering with soldiers young enough to be children. What's cruel is that those young men were no longer children – they had grown up far too early, recruits in the tank unit Gross Deutschland, notorious for making its bloody way across Russia and Eastern Europe. She stood in the rubble, looked into the distance, then she turned away and left for good.

Her sister stayed and became a ‘trümmerfrau’, a rubble woman, one of those who rebuilt German cities brick by brick. Imagine what a contribution people like her would have made if more of them had come to Australia.

These were desperate times. At the height of the war another of my wife's aunts travelled to Berlin to beg Hitler personally – but unsuccessfully – to spare the life of her father who had been one of those involved in the plot to assassinate Germany's Führer. 

These are worlds so far beyond ours we can’t begin to grasp them.

This disparate mix of people - those who had left Australia to fight in Europe and were now returning and those who had survived war in Europe, had decided not to stay, and were coming here for the first time – became part of a common project. Having failed in his youthful ambition to join the fighting, my father became an engineer who built dams. He was part of that generation which helped build a modern Australia that embodied diversity and tolerance – his generation turned from dam busters to dam builders.

Nation-building from the ground up
I have always seen the building of community culture as reflecting this post-war endeavour. It's about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in. It’s one that is inclusive of different cultures and different groups, including the myriad of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations that comprise Australia. It doesn’t pit one nation against another. It recognises that diversity and the positive interaction between cultures builds resilience and innovation, creativity and productivity.

'These are worlds so far beyond ours we can’t begin to grasp them.'

Yet all of us, both new and older arrivals, are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect example, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. Is this our future, too?

Navigators help you to work out where you are and then to find your way to where you belong. In my uncle’s day Australia’s gaze was fixed on Europe and Britain. Nowadays the axis of the world has tilted  and we are hunkering down in the region we physically occupy. Our minds have followed our geography and turned to Asia – and to the Pacific.

On a recent journey to Tahiti I thought about where we belong, here in the great azure expanses of the Pacific.

Falling off the end of the world
The Polynesians were consummate navigators like my uncle – navigators between them of the sea and the sky. The old Polynesian navigators traversed the vast reaches of the Pacific before settling in Tahiti, so deep into the Pacific that it is only on the edges of all known maps. It is a wonder that any European seafarers ever found it. Coming to Tahiti you could imagine yourself – as did the mariners of old – falling off the end of the world.

'Like the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land encountering the sea-faring Macassan navigators, we need to encourage that part of ourselves that is excited by encountering and interacting with new cultures.'

Passing through the fragrant airs of Tahiti made travellers react in strange ways, settle down beneath the palm trees or mutiny against established authority and seize ships before disappearing into the blue distances. Perhaps we need to mutiny against our old selves and the discredited authorities we are used to and chart a new course for the future.

Like the ancient Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land encountering the sea-faring Macassan navigators, we need to encourage the voyagers and the travellers amongst us and within ourselves, that part of ourselves that is excited by encountering and interacting with new cultures.

It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, help us navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism.

Postscript: This generation from which we can learn so much is rapidly disappearing. In early August 2015 the last of the legendary dam busters died. These were the flight crews who piloted their Lancaster bombers almost skimming the water to breach the massive dams in the industrial Ruhr Valley, thereby hastening the end of World War 2.

On a more personal level only weeks earlier Jim Cassidy DFC and Bar (1921-2015) ceased to be the last man standing from his own band of brothers. By some miracle he survived repeated tours of duty on the bombers over Germany during World War 2, raids that were as fatal for the aircrew as for the civilians on the ground. He was a navigator on the raid that fire-bombed Dresden, a city in which relatives from the other side of my family were living at the time. His generation turned from dam busters to dam builders as they constructed the modern, democratic post-war world in which we live today – and which is once again under threat. We are the navigators for our country now.


See also
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support 
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

The island to the North – the islands to the North-East
‘The awkward relationship between Tasmania and the island to the North is not the only clumsy relationship between islands in this part of the world. The history of the ties between the island to the North and the islands of the Pacific is even more troubled.’ The island to the North – the islands to the North East.

Ignoring the neighbours – why our backyard matters
'My trip to Tahiti last year reminded me of the large issues swirling around the Pacific and of how uneven the relationship between Australia and the region has been. It threw up lots of issues about how local cultures adapt to the globalised economy. Producing artwork and performances for the tourist market is problematical. Yet it's also the fate of Australian culture generally. Is it swimming against the tide for all of us?' Ignoring the neighbours - why our backyard matters.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

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