I had occasion to chat with National Treasure™ Thomas Kenneally this morning about his latest historical tome ‘Australians: Eureka to the Diggers’. It’s the second volume (a third is coming) in a series of historical studies not of Australia, but of the people who made it. It’s an interesting device, and it works. It works not just because Keneally can write a bit, or that he researches meticulously and treats each historical figure as a character, not just a name on a plaque.
It works because of the fascinating, multi-tasking nature of our forebears. Very rarely do they just have one story. Their lives weave in and out of various narratives.
Like Plorn Dickens. Plorn seems to have been the idiot son of Charles Dickens, sent to the colonies at 16 to toughen up and stay out of his father’s way. He lost most of the family fortune in a drought, became a member of NSW parliament, got obsessed with rabbits and ended up a fairly successful businessman in Melbourne.
Or Tom Wills. He was a wealthy kid, sent to the Rugby school, the son of a pastoralist. The same pastoralist who was massacred at Cullin La Ringo in Queensland, after Tom went out for supplies. Tom was also a handy cricketer, who had the idea of devising a local code of football to keep the cricketers fit through winter. He later organised the tour of indigenous cricketers to England in 1888 – the first representative Australian sports team to tour internationally.
But you have to stop and think that in 1880, there were 2.8 Million (white) people in Australia. That’s slightly more than the population of Brisbane.
Of course Wills did all of those things. There wasn’t anyone else to do it.
It’s the same way that my 60-something parents would watch TV and say ‘Oh yeah, Jim’s Mowing…went to uni with him,’ ‘Captain Snooze…yep, he was in your uncle’s grade’ or ‘Icehouse, sure I used to babysit the bass player.’ Of course they knew all of those people. In 1956, while my dad was at primary school with Captain Snooze, the population of Melbourne was 1.5 million. Roughly half of what it is now. Australia was small. Sure, it was small because we excluded most of the world’s immigrants and decimated the indigenous population.
I’m all for a big Australia. I’m all for letting in people of all cultures, however the fuck they get here. But I sometimes wish I had grown up in a smaller country. When there wasn’t so much traffic, or congestion, or competition to be a notable character. Sometimes it just feels crowded out there.