Beyond the Brisbane Line

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  • Published 20050906
  • ISBN: 9780733316715
  • Extent: 232 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm)

IT MAY BE the product of living in the second most southerly continent, but every generation of Australians has had iconic images of threats from the north. Flip through your memory of popular history and there they are – Chinamen in pigtails set to overrun the goldfields, Japanese aggressors poised to invade, dominoes tumbling on a Cold War map, Indochinese boat people searching for a safe haven and refugees stumbling out of leaky boats onto isolated beaches. Most of the images feature people with dark hair and Asiatic features whose intent is clear: to occupy the vast, virtually empty spaces between the northern coastline and the southern capitals.

Over time, these threats have acquired an almost mythic quality, but like most myths, they are often only incidentally grounded in reality. Instead, they pander to deep-seated insecurities that generally lie dormant.

Now add to the mental mix the allure of the north, of warm tropical nights, coral reefs and palm-fringed beaches, of open roads surging through dramatic country, of millennia of indigenous settlement, of people who follow their dreams and find a home, or themselves, in the most unlikely places, of crocodiles in remote waterways and the captivating exotica of Asia.

Our imaginative sense of the north is a complicated one: full of contradictions and fascination tinged with fear, like submerged crocodiles.

THE MOST TANGIBLE manifestation of the fear arose during the Second World War. It still resonates today, sixty years after the war in the Pacific ended marked by the spectacular bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For Australians who had grown accustomed to fighting wars half a planet away, suddenly there was a war on the doorstep – predictably, just to the north. When the Japanese bombed Darwin in February 1942, the threat was made manifest and deep seated race memories of Asian invaders quickly came to the fore. It was a fear based on reality – 250 people died in the bombing raids that morning – but one that quickly gained a life of its own as the link between anticipation, propaganda and observation embellished the threat.

When Peter Stanley landed in Darwin twenty-four years later as a young boy en route to a new life in South Australia, the site of Australia’s most significant wartime attack was strikingly different to the bomb sites he had played on in the north of England. Now the principal historian at the Australian War Memorial, Stanley is well placed to analyse how the attack on Darwin has assumed a greater significance in memory and imagination than it may deserve. He sees in the false memory of the “battle for Australia” the culmination of generations of fear and the precursor of a recurrent anxiety. To argue this is to invite criticism, but he is concerned that a wilful misreading of history is more dangerous.

Well primed by decades of threat mongering, those living north of Brisbane – across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia – were, soon after the attacks of 1942, convinced that a line had been drawn across the nation leaving them in an area that would not be defended. At the same time, tens of thousands of servicemen and women from Australia and the United States descended on the north, as it became the regional base for the war in the Pacific. Although the Brisbane Line was a “furphy”, official inquiries could not convince those who lived in the north that they were not regarded as second-class citizens who would be sacrificed to an invading army as Peter Spearritt and Michele Helmrich show with the work of war artists in Queensland.

This tension, and the exoticness of the north, sparked the creative imagination of David Malouf as he spent his adolescence in wartime Brisbane, the river a winding moat, segregating whites to the north, blacks to the south. Not long afterwards, he travelled further north on a quest for the exotic that he felt must lie beyond the Tropic of Capricorn. Years later, as he recalls here, he realised that the exotic for which he was searching was much closer to home.

Murray Sayle embarked on a similar journey. His imagination was also shaped by the war, but it was a pre-war fascination with Japan that drove him further and further north until, thirty years ago, he settled in a village between Tokyo and Fuji. There he found that the fear of the north was not something uniquely Australian but shared by even those who live in the most northerly nations. In Japan, the bulk of the “army” is stationed on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. When Sayle travelled to Vladivostok, the most easterly of the former Soviet ports, he found that the citizens also feared an attack from the north, tempting Sayle to surmise that there is a universal fear of the north and the “barbarians” who reside there, which he has calledboreaphobia.

THE EXTENT TO which this fear pervades politics is, of course, something that waxes and wanes with events. A survey of Australian foreign policy attitudes conducted by the Lowy Institute at the beginning of 2005 revealed a positive and self-confident nation, comfortable about its importance in Asia. Of the ten countries that those surveyed felt most positive about, six were regional neighbours: Japan, Singapore, China, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

That Japan should now rate just below New Zealand and Britain as the country about which Australians feel most comfortable and positive is particularly striking. Matthew Condon retraces the steps of Wilfred Burchett as he arrived in Hiroshima shortly after the atomic bomb was dropped sixty years ago and finds an old man who remembers with affection the Australians who arrived shortly afterwards. Bob Wurth draws on years of research to write about the evolving relationship between Australia’s great wartime prime minister, John Curtin and Tatsuo Kawai, the Japanese ambassador to Australia in 1941. Wurth’s research points to a remarkable friendship and shows how the seeds of the close trading relationship that has been important to both countries ever since were sown.

Attitudes towards Indonesia are not laden with such historical baggage, although they, too, are complicated. The reality of engagement with Indonesia was most sharply demonstrated in the Australian response to the Boxing Day tsunami. The spontaneous generosity spoke eloquently of how Australians felt connected to the region and drove the initially more diffident political response. Within months, the confidence of some foreign affairs commentators that this marked the beginning of the realpolitik of a new regional relationship was undermined by the vitriolic response to the trial of Schapelle Corby. The fear mongers found willing listeners to their amplified radio messages showing that charity and respect are not the same, as Dewi Anggraeni writes.

Public attitudes often follow political leadership as has been seen in the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. Michael Wesley, director of the Griffith Asia Pacific Research Institute, has responded to the criticism that the second longest serving Australian prime minister has been insufficiently analysed by examining the underlying motivations in Prime Minister John Howard’s response to the immediate region. After reading all the Prime Minister’s speeches for the past ten years, Wesley found little evidence that his attitudes were shaped by wartime propaganda or Cold War “domino” rhetoric. Rather, he argues that Howard’s pragmatic engagement and respect for cultural difference grows out of his Methodist youth and is incidentally the legacy of his journey through Asia in 1963 en route to Britain.

JOHN HOWARD’S YOUTHFUL Northwards journey, like David Malouf’s more than a decade earlier, is one that has been repeated countless times by writers and artists, young people and grey nomads searching for the essence of the country in its northern expanses and beyond. Andrew McMillan captures the uniqueness of one community, Larrimah, a pit stop on the route north for scores of such adventurers. As a young teenager, Meera Atkinson landed in similar towns on the road north with her boyfriend. She hoped that her life would fall into place when she reached Darwin but for her, like the characters in Andrew Belk’s and Patrick Holland’s stories, geography was not sufficient. When Phil Brown travelled to central Queensland, his accidental friendship with the artist Gil Jamieson alerted him to the importance of place in creativity. Lucy Palmer found an unexpected sense of belonging in Papua New Guinea, while Creed O’Hanlon’s quest for Ultima Thule took him as far north as he could go towards the Artic in a 7.5 metre yacht, recalling the mythic journeys of earlier ages in a “voyage of hope and discovery, not to new lands, but to lands so old that it was as if there was never a time in which they had been unknown, unexplored”.

Robyn Davidson embarked on such a journey and, in the process, inspired a generation when, in 1977, she set off from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean on foot with a pack of camels in a journey she recounted in her best-selling book, Tracks. Nearly thirty years later, she returned to Australia to pay her respects to those she met on that journey. As she writes here, in the meantime tourism had turned the spiritual, and her “grand passion”, into a photo opportunity, yet she found the power remains. Her experience hints at the lessons that can be learned from turning the map upside down, as Regina Ganter suggests, from looking south rather than north, and from accepting an indigenous perspective. This is a potentially life-changing experience, as Christine Zorzi, Mark McKenna and Megan Lewis show.

Perhaps by turning the map upside down the enchantment of the north will eventually overwhelm the myths and threats and provide exciting new ways of seeing and doing beyond the Brisbane Line.

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