Tag Archives: Oodgeroo Noonuccal

I didn’t go to the Vigil today …

I didn’t go to the Black Lives Matter vigil in Sydney today.

It was a dilemma. especially after the government took the matter to the High Court and the vigil was declared illegal, I felt a huge moral pressure to turn up. But I’m 73 and asthmatic, and I couldn’t see myself maintaining proper physical distancing in a potential crowd of 10 thousand that wasn’t allowed to spill out into the street.

So I wore black, I’m putting up this blog post, and I’ll make a donation to one of the campaigns of families of people who have died in police custody. (You can see a list of families here. It’s part of an excellent resource document prepared by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition with links to further reading and ideas for taking action.)

I also went with the Emerging Artist on a kind of pilgrimage. This year being the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first landing in Australia, we went to La Perouse on the northern side of Botany Bay to see if we could find the place where Aboriginal people and allies gathered in April 1970 while Cook’s landing was being re-enacted at Kurnell on the southern side. We didn’t know each other fifty years ago, but we were both there.

I have two clear memories of the event. First, many people wore white headbands inscribed with the names of First Nations who had suffered at the hands and weapons of the invaders; one white man, whom I knew by sight, wore a headband marked ‘Hypocrite’, which I took to be an acknowledgement of his uneasy self-doubt – was he there just to assuage his own guilt? Maybe, I remember thinking at the time, but how could you choose to be anywhere else?

The other memory is hearing Kath Walker, later to be known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, reading her poem ‘Dreamtime’. You can read the whole poem here. It begins

Here, at the invaders talk-talk place,
We, who are the strangers now,
Come with sorrow in our hearts.
The Bora Ring, the Corroborees,
The sacred ceremonies,
Have all gone, all gone,
Turned to dust on the land,
That once was ours.

The lines that struck me, carried on the wind to where I was at the very back of the crowd, and are central to my memory of that day, which were these:

The legends tell us,
When our race dies,
So too, dies the land.

That’s 50 years ago. Today we didn’t find the place where that ceremony happened, but though the land is suffering from the effects of colonisation and climate change, it is still alive and beautiful. So are its first peoples.

I did find some photographs at the State Library website, here.

Added later: Here with the Emerging Artist’s permission, is her painting from a photo she took on the day as people were coming back from having placed wreaths in the water. Recognisable in the foreground are Pastor Doug Nichols, Faith Bandler and John Newfong:

Still Mourning, April 27 1970, Penny Ryan 2019

The Book Group and James Rebanks’ Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life (Penguin 2016)

shepherd.jpegBefore the meeting: A number of the chaps in the group (me included) had been charmed by James Rebanks when they heard him on Australian radio earlier this year. Plus his book is short, always desirable for the Book Group and especially so at this time of year. So this is what we read.

The book is part memoir, part family history, part advocacy for a way of life and a community of people. The early pages frame the conversation neatly: Rebanks tells of teachers who urged him and his fellow students to study hard if they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives on their family’s tiny farms in the inhospitable fells of England’s Lake District, of a teacher who waxed lyrical about the beauty of that same region from the point of view of Romantic poets and those who followed after them, but seemed to regard her students as incapable of understanding such elevated thoughts:

I wanted to tell that teacher that she had it all wrong – tell her that she didn’t really know this place or its people at all. These thoughts took years to become clear, but in a rough childish form I think they were there from the start. I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, but that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed. She finished and left the stage fuming.

James Rebanks is no longer dumb and thirteen, and though this book rises from the same impulse as that farting noise, I’d be surprised if, when that teacher reads it, she fumes even the tiniest bit. Millions of people visit the Lake District each year for its beauty and simply don’t see that it is a workplace, or have any sense of the accumulated knowledge and connection to country of the people who work there. To them, in a very real sense, Rebanks and his community are invisible. The book doesn’t reprimand or reproach the visitors for their narrow vision. It sets out to show them – I should say us, even though I haven’t been there –  what we have failed to see, and it succeeds brilliantly.

There’s a lot about sheep, about sheep dogs, about grandfathers, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, about lambing and tupping and death, about fine ewes and tups (a word I’ve previously only known in the rhyme ‘Thomas a Tattamus took two tees / to tie two tups to two tall trees’), about the qualities of different breeds and the way the seasons run the life of the farms. There’s Wordsworth (not as unaware of the farmers as young Rebanks thought) and Beatrix Potter (not as the cranky child-hater I’d read about elsewhere). And there’s a lot about a way of life that is perhaps more than a thousand years old and has survived the depredations of capitalism more or less intact.

In some editions the book is subtitled ‘Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape’. I think that’s a mistake, because its whole purpose is to claim the land back from the idea of it as ‘landscape’, as something to be looked at. It moves in the direction of what I (dimly) understand of the Aboriginal idea of Country – and it’s no surprise that one section is introduced with a quote from Oodgeroo Noonuccal: ‘Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all around us and within.’

I’ve sometimes thought that I should start a blog post about a book by mentioning how it connects with other recent reading. This would have been a good one to start with: the scene described in this book when the radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl disaster appears is not as intense as those in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, but it’s definitely in the same peasant universe. The account of the obsessive value that some shepherds place on particular breeds of sheep and the agony caused by government slaughter to prevent the spread of disease is gripping in its own right, but also makes an excellent footnote to Grímur Hákonarson’s great movie, Rams.

I expect the book will resonate with anyone who spent their childhood on a farm, whether they dealt with sheep or not. I’m a thoroughly citified seventy-year-old, but the boy who helped decapitate a stillborn calf and pull it out of its mother, while his father held the mother’s head and crooned reassurance to her – that boy came alive again as I read this book.

After the meeting: It was our end of  year meeting in a restaurant, so conversation was fragmented and only about the book for a comparatively brief time. A show of hands indicated we were unanimous in liking the book. One chap felt it was too long (I don’t agree) and repetitive (yes, but I didn’t mind), poorly edited (hmm, I did notice one or two things), but he didn’t want to put it down: it turned out that like me he was brought up on a farm and had no attraction to the work or the way of life, and his father ran sheep, so in a way the book spoke very directly to him.

There was of course some controversy, but it was about the New South Wales government’s intention of pulling down a sports facility that’s less than 20 years old, and about the media treatment of the latest wave of sexual harassment scandals. There was good news from the group member who has been dealing with aggressive prostate cancer, we had a Kris Kringle or used books, and parted wishing each other good things for the end of the year.