Last weekend our neighbourhood hosted the Sandcliffe Writers Festival, named after two of the participating suburbs, Sandgate and Shorncliffe. I missed the Saturday, but I spent part of Sunday afternoon in the audience at the Sandgate Town Hall for a session entitled ‘Loving the Australian Landscape’. I knew almost nothing about what to expect, except that it began at 1:30, was free and – most importantly for someone of my natural apathy on a Sunday afternoon – was happening about 5 minutes walk from home.
Foolishly imaging it might be hard to get a seat, I arrived early. As I came in the door 2 volunteers grabbed me, one with a camera.
‘Are you a local?’ they asked.
‘Well, yes…’ I live at the other end of the street.
So they hung onto me as a useful (and possibly rare) prop for photographs with Our Local Member, and in due course I was squeezed in between him and Matt Condon, the first of the speakers to turn up. I’ve no idea what they did with the photos, but as they forgot to get my name, if I feature in them, I will have to be labeled ‘A Local’.
Our Local Member is Wayne Swan, former Deputy Prime Minister, former Federal Treasurer, but now with a good deal more time on his hands as an opposition backbencher. I don’t know whether he stayed for the afternoon, but I hope he did, for against my initial expectations I found it an impressive occasion.
The afternoon began with a Welcome to Country from Uncle Des (I never did find out his surname, and he’s not listed in the program). For those who don’t know, it is very common in Australia these days to begin formal occasions with a Welcome to Country from an Aboriginal elder, or more loosely, an Acknowledgement of Country from one of the non-indigenous speakers. I often find this acknowledgement either precious or perfunctory, a fashionable nod in the direction of reconciliation before the ‘real’ events of the day begin. (I’m also quite sure the reason for my cynicism is that the first person I ever heard give such an acknowledgement was a much-loathed and deeply cynical former Vice Chancellor.)
This Welcome, on the other hand, was utterly disarming. Uncle Des was wonderful. He mooched around the room with a wicked smile on his face, greeting friends, welcoming us all in to a boree – circle of friends. He told us about Tinchi Tamba – otherwise known here in Sandgate as the ‘third lagoon’ – and explained that it gets its name tinchi from the mangroves that grow there. He talked about Tom Petrie travelling through here with the Aborigines on the way to the bunya festival – a well known story – and explained that when Tom later took up land north of here, he named it murrumba meaning ‘good’. Murrumba Downs is now a dormitory suburb, while Petrie is the neighbouring electorate.
Uncle Des was followed by Yulu Burri Ba Dance Troupe led by Joshua Walker, a grandson of the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, formerly Kath Walker, of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island. The dancers turned out to be 5 of her great-grandchildren, the oldest perhaps 13. Joshua sang, and the kids danced to a didgeridoo accompaniment.
Joshua first explained the story behind each dance. He has mastered the techniques of the oral storyteller magnificently, using his whole body to tell each tale. I particularly liked the story of the sea eagle and the mullet. The eagle circles high over the entrance to Moreton Bay, watching for the arrival of the winter mullet school swimming up from the south. The leader fish turn into the Bay between Stradbroke and Moreton Islands and the eagle watches as the fish all follow their leaders in. He won’t begin to hunt until the leader fish are well into the Bay, because if the leaders are killed or frightened, the school may turn away and the winter fishing season will be lost.
After the dancing we had 4 papers on ‘Loving the Australian Landscape’. Sam Watson spoke first. Sam has long been an activist in local Aboriginal politics. He goes back so far that he still calls Oodgeroo ‘Auntie Kath’. He talked about his experiences in the early 1970s, when he worked as a law clerk doing conveyance work in the Titles Office. His job was the track land titles back – always – to the first colonial survey. Before that, according to the Titles Office, there was nothing.
The next speaker was James Molony. He has written many books for children, and an adult novel, The Tower Mill, based around an anti-apartheid rally in 1971 that turned nasty when police charged into a crowd protesting against the South African cricket tour. Sam Watson – now in need of a knee replacement – was in the crowd that night. James talked about urban landscapes, and the way old high-set Queensland houses (‘Queenslanders’), with their deep verandahs, dating from the 1880s, were an early accommodation by the new settlers to the local environment. Now many of those Queenslanders are being pulled down, to be replaced by airconditioned boxes with no connection to the outside environment. He argued that in the last 20 or 30 years, non-indigenous writers (and others?) have become so aware of the history of dispossession that they are no longer comfortable in the landscape.
Joshua Walker – now dressed in tee-shirt and jeans instead of a red loin cloth – talked about his journey from the working class suburb of Inala, with a Scottish mother and part-Aboriginal, part-Vanuatuan father, to discover his cultural heritage. Since Oodgeroo died in 1993, this young grandson can have learned very little directly from her. He told us that he was initiated by the Wiradjuri people in western New South Wales, and that Oodgeroo’s mother came from there.
Joshua talked about the links between animals and trees: the carpet snake is associated with the native passionfruit, for instance, and should only be hunted when it is in flower (although not by Joshua and his children, who have it as their totem). Saltwater people are associated with the cypress pine; freshwater people with the bunya pine. He also read from Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012).
The final speaker was Matt Condon, who spoke about coming home to Brisbane after many years away, and settling in the same suburb where his parents and grandparents had lived. He also talked about his trilogy – 2 down and one to go – on police corruption in Queensland since the 1940s.
A few days ago, the PM Tony Abbott launched the Defining Moments Project at the National Museum in Canberra. These lists are always contentious anyway, but Abbott put his foot in it when he described the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 as ‘the defining moment’ in the history of Australia. On the one hand, it states the bleeding obvious, especially as the Museum says they want to choose dates that were important ‘for better or worse’. On the other hand, it just gives unnecessary offence to indigenous people who were here long before. And the sea eagle has been circling for thousands of years before then, watched by people who have lived on Stradbroke Island for at least 20,000 years.
And what about me? As I sat there, listening to these talks, my eyes wandered around the lovely little Sandgate Town Hall, recently restored to its original art deco charm (but with air-conditioning). It was designed and built in 1911 to replace an earlier wooden hall that had been destroyed by fire. The architect, George Prentice, was my grandfather’s brother.
One of my great-grandfathers married a daughter of Johann Zillmann, one of the Germans who established a mission to the Aborigines at Zion Hill, now Nundah, just up the road from Wayne Swan’s electorate office. Another great-grandfather married a daughter of George Grey, who was one of the original English settlers in Sandgate. He was one of the settlers who called in the Native Police in 1857 to ‘disperse the natives’.
It’s complicated. But yes, I’m a local.