‘Please explain’

Featured in

  • Published 20140506
  • ISBN: 9781922182258
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.

Gospel according to Matthew ch 9, v. 16,17

WESTERN AUSTRALIA IN the 1950s. I am sitting on the beach, looking across the Indian Ocean, wondering what I am doing here. Who am I? Where is here? Is that too much to want to know?

The ocean doesn’t answer my call. And when my wondering takes a cosmic turn, the niggling suspicion that the blue sky is some sort of grand optical illusion that shelters me from facing up to the infinite ocean of space, my earnest inquiry spins me through a rapid turn towards insignificance and – almost – despair.

I am already too familiar with the uneasy feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. Not just because my innately queer nature is unacceptable, even dangerous, in these here parts. I have stuffed my awkward attraction towards other boys into a hastily improvised closet, hiding even among my unsuspecting family. But quite aside from my difficulty in trimming off those aspects of my nature that don’t fit within the two-dimensional parameters of this country where I have, for some impenetrable reason, fallen to earth, even in the wider context, the transplanted culture in which I am engaged in my little personal struggle itself sits uneasily on borrowed soil. Are we not usurpers here? Alien interlopers?

It seems our sovereign rulers, a so-called ‘Royal’ family situated in far-off Britain, have come from Germanic stock, hastily reconfigured by Royal Decree (and only since 1917) from the German Saxe-Coburg and Gotha lineage to be ‘styled and known as’ the more acceptably Anglicised ‘House and Family of Windsor’. The Decree was issued by a nervous George V, acutely sensitive to anti-German sentiment murmured throughout the ‘Empire’ in the First World War against the Germans. Even Prince Phillip, the consort of ‘our’ Queen (as a child I saw them, newly wed, driving down the Great Eastern Highway into Perth from the airport), is some kind of a ring-in too – an aristocratic afterthought from the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg (a branch of the House of Oldenburg). Formerly, he was a prince of Greece and Denmark but, following the trend, he has dropped the princely trappings and reconfigured the lineage to take on the surname ‘Mountbatten’ from his uncle, Viscount Mountbatten of Burma! And – heaven knows what the Scots might make of it – he will also become the Duke of Edinburgh, (thus shoring up Her Royal Majesty’s holdings in the north). Such stories concocted as a palliative for the adoring populace to swallow whole, even out here, in the former colonies. Is everybody engaged in this desperate dance of belonging? And what kind of decree, royal or otherwise, would help me fit in?

These really shouldn’t stick in my craw, for this country has continued to draw opportunists, people anxious to make a new start, with cover stories often invented to fit in to borrowed identities. The anxiety of the arriviste members of our colonial transplant culture to render the country hospitable and the people familiar underpins so many stories – whether brash, pugnacious or gratefully submissive in tone – of displacement and replacement. And, I discover, this includes the patchwork quilt of my own immediate forebears.

MY MOTHER’S FOLKS eloped from Columbus, Ohio, to Fremantle, Western Australia, sometime before 1912. Their reasons for travelling so far are still being deciphered by cousins who turned to the Mormon Church for information on our lineage. There are elements of French, Welsh and other assorted ethnic stock in the mix apparently, but it’s impossible to tell definitively because for some reason they covered their tracks. They warned their offspring not to try tracking their origins but the authorised version of their story is coming apart at the seams. (Did she elope with her sister’s husband? Did they change their names? Did they ever really marry, before going ahead to raise a brood of children during the Great Depression and the next war?)

Chromosomal data from my father’s heritage have questionable provenance, too. He was born out of wedlock, in 1910, into the ersatz setting of the goldfields, near Kalgoorlie, to a Myrtle Ivy Marsh. My sister has tracked down records to fill out the sketchy information about his parentage (beyond the version we were originally fed), and she commissioned his own handwritten account of his chagrin: ‘It appears that grandfather was a very hard man,’ he writes. Grandfather Marsh was so upset about the stigma of an illegitimate child he insisted that baby Franklin be handed over by his daughter, said Myrtle Ivy, to the Child Welfare Department, soon after birth. From what he writes, in his beautiful Copperplate style, even decades later, the consequent shaming had real consequences for my dad: ‘Illegitimacy, when I became aware of it in my early years, was a handicap, a stigma, a sword of Damocles, hanging over my head, and when I thought it was forgotten, would occasionally spring up and bug me. It prevented me, at one stage, applying for a job in the State Government.’ (That was over fifty years prior to his writing.)

Curiously, this surname – the one passed on to me as our family name, Marsh – was borrowed matrilineally from his mother’s side, then. His own birth father, a mining engineer named ‘Christiansen’ (spelling uncertain), had done a bunk, leaving Myrtle Ivy holding the baby, to the stern displeasure of Grandfather Marsh.

Curiouser and curiouser, my sister’s sleuthing discovered that even this matrilineal surname ‘Marsh’ had been altered – you might even say, ‘de-woggified’. How so? When she cross-examined our belatedly identified and heretofore hidden grandmother, Myrtle Ivy, she claimed the name was originally ‘Marchings’, itself an uneasy fib offered to maintain the pseudo-Anglo mantle.

In a late decade of the nineteenth century, a footloose young man from the Ukraine named Nicholas Marchenko, escaping the Crimea, left Taganrog in southern Russia and worked his passage to Melbourne, where he jumped ship to try his luck on the goldfields near Bendigo. The ship’s captain, not knowing how to write the name, had spelled it ‘Machingo’. Nothing is known about Nicholas’s success or failure as a miner but we do know he married Caroline, the daughter of an English doctor (she was named after the ship on which they emigrated from the Mother country). As his foreign-sounding name, even in its somewhat distorted form, was deemed unsuitable for this English rose, ‘Marchenko/Machingo’ was promptly replaced with the more acceptable ‘Marsh’. Anglos rule.

This issue of needing to fit in is a poignant note in my father’s subsequent shame-filled struggle to survive. His birth mother grasped her opportunity for respectability when, at the age of twenty-seven, ten years after surrendering her first, ‘illegitimate’ baby, she accepted a proposal of marriage from a man named Vic Tresize. When she told this proper husband about the child she had had out of wedlock, he said it made no difference to him, that it was all in the past. But he also insisted that what his own sons didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them either. They agreed never to disclose the nature of the relationship with ‘Francis’, especially when, in his twenties, he sought her out in their south-western town. Typically, those disruptive elements of the story that didn’t accord with the socially approved narrative were elided.

Frank’s hopes of settling into some approximate version of a family life were soon disrupted by the miseries of the Great Depression. His work at the timber mill ran out and he had to move to other towns to eke out a living making fruit-packing cases for orchards. With the picking season over, he sought seasonal work on farms: ploughing, seeding, cultivating, harvesting, and driving teams of horses at Perenjori, a Wheatbelt town about five hundred kilometres north of Perth. He mentions driving Bulldog Lang tractors at Morowa, International trucks at Belleranga Station and John Deere tractors at tiny Minnivale, all close by.

Among all this hard labour there was little comfort for a young bachelor: ‘Most of the time I was alone, except when more than one was employed. Working from daylight to dark left little time for much else but a little light reading and then sleep. One farm provided only a bough shed & bush bunk (two poles and two wheat bags).’

All this, for 2 shillings and six pence a week. Yet there’s no hint of complaint in his stoic account, and some humour: ‘Got a centipede in my pants – it stung me in a very private part of my anatomy – I was very proud of the swelling for a short while.’

He went on to make something of himself, putting himself through accountancy at night school, working towards a career in business management but, in the meantime, the spartan survival training continued:

The Depression taught me nothing much more than the necessity to keep body & soul together, to maintain a faint hope of better things to come, to work at anything for any sum, however small, going for as long as three days without ameal. I would not beg, but did accept small charities. Ninepence could buy a three course meal, sixpence a big savoury dish. I worked in Kalgoorlie doing things like sinking a shaft, in Perth in a billiard room as a marker, and then I stole a feed in a restaurant & shot through without paying & I felt as guilty as hell.

In 1939 he returned to Fremantle and got a job as a storeman at Spicers Paper Merchants. He began to eat at the Roma café, which became an oasis of companionship for him, for he met his future mother-in-law there: Edna Evans. A warm and vivacious American woman (she who may or may not have eloped with her sister’s husband), Edna drew a large and lively circle of card-players around her, and ‘read’ tea-leaves to augment the family income. She took the opportunity to introduce the handsome young bachelor to her daughter Letitia (soon to be my mother). Soon ‘Tishie’ was shampooing his hair in the kitchen of a friend’s house.

‘The Evans family were wonderful,’ he writes. ‘I felt what a lot I had been missing in my life, and every opportunity I went to visit them.’

When Frank came to my mother’s transplanted, if thriving, familyhe found a warm and welcome contrast to the wintry guilt of his mother’s world, the stern, religious values of his foster parents and his lonely life of a bachelor eking out a living during the Depression.

Amid this parental potage, which has kept our short-sighted gaze firmly on us arrivistes, the original, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inhabitants of the country have been cast aside, shadowy figures haunting the fringes of our towns. For myths of inclusion always depend on the violence of exclusion. Everyone was struggling to fit within this shallowly rooted, Anglo model of belonging.

LEAVING THE MESSY details of my personal family story aside, you have to ask: Who controls the narrative of inclusion/exclusion, especially when everyone resorts to the worn-out trope of ‘Australian values’, as our politicians like to do? Former prime minister John Howard’s 2001 assertion that ‘we will decide who comes here and the circumstances under which they come’ was an uncomfortable reminder of the awkward fit between the dominant, if politically opportunistic, narratives and the inconvenient facts of our shallow history, for immigration continued, one way or another.

The hostility towards people who don’t fit the Anglo-Celtic profile was enshrined for years in the scandalous White Australia Policy and implicitly revived to be exploited by Pauline Hanson’s ‘One Nation’ push. When Howard saw that Hanson’s approach had won over part of the conservative vote, he co-opted the language to recapture those very voters and shore up his tetchy protests against multiculturalism, under the rubric ‘One Australia’. The xenophobic hostility was painfully unearthed again as recently as 2011 and 2012 in the Special Broadcasting Service documentary series (parts 1 & 2), Go Back Where you Came From.

This raises the issue: who do ‘we’ choose to let in to a land that is so clearly not ‘ours’? And once ‘they’ are here, how strong are the pressures of homogenisation to make them look, talk and act like ‘us’, when exactly who ‘we’ might be has not yet been satisfactorily established?

Talking back across the fault lines of these toxic narratives is a great tradition of writing from immigrant experience, the most recent of which has been the powerful collection of twenty-seven short, articulate memoirs in the 2013 collection, Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home, edited by Kent MacCarter and Ali Lerner (Affirm Press), which gave voice to migrant stories, as did texts such as Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem (Black Ink, 2006), and Arnold Zable’s marvellous Café Scheherazade (Text, 2001) and Violin Lessons (Text, 2011).

I suppose that transplanted populations will always feel insecure on foreign soil, and this has fed a continuous subtext of anxiety running since European settlement. Nationalistic sloganeering about ‘Australian values’ fails to lessen that anxiety, for the multicultural elements of our immigrant history have made it more and more difficult to maintain an all-embracing mythology of homogenisation. Whose story rules? Which symbols have sufficient power to invoke a renewed sense of national unity?

SOCIOLOGIST PETER BERGER has identified the functioning of ‘plausibility structures’ in the sociology of knowledge systems, and described the mechanisms by which different sources of knowledge and information are accorded ‘differential plausibility’, with ‘deviant’ views marginalised or excluded. ‘The threat to the social definitions of reality,’ writes Berger, with Thomas Luckmann, is neutralised by ‘assigning an inferior ontological status, and thereby a not-to-be-taken seriously cognitive status, to all definitions existing outside the symbolic universe’ (The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Doubleday, 1966). These ‘definitions of reality’ are instruments of power, de-authorising that which is not in accord with their models, and according to which new arrivals should have little to say in the national discourse. As Jean-FrançoisLyotard insists in The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, ‘Knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided’ (University of Minnesota Press, 1986). We could apply this equally to the official configurations of identity. The authorised forms that identity – and meaning itself – may take have been prescribed by a privileged class in order to ‘normalise’ its majoritarian practices and shore up the shared beliefs that provide the foundation for complex interlocking systems of domination.

Who controls the story controls the meaning, for meaning and power are inextricably related in contemporary constructions of identity. If that is so, any resistance to culturally prescribed identification has important political dimensions.

Since the first century of colonial Australia, one of the instruments of power constructing and defending the symbolic universe has been an unwieldy imported religion, imposed on a sometimes reluctant populace, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander folk, whose religions were displaced by the complicit coercions of Christian missionaries. But by the end of the second century of colonisation, the influence of this foreign religion appears to be waning, given the increasing separation between church and state. Peter Berger identified a creeping secularisation as occurring not only to social institutions but as applying ‘to processes inside the human mind, i.e. a secularisation of consciousness’ (A Rumour of Angels, Anchor Books,1969).

Berger felt that the expansion of the state meant that religion was losing its primary role as the ‘legitimator’ of social life, and this was producing a trend towards pluralisation of beliefs and practices. He claims this was predicted as early as 1915 by Max Weber, who foresaw that capitalism would produce a rational (and scientific) worldview leading to secularisation and the ‘disenchantment’ of the world.

When ‘church’ religion was undergoing a noticeable membership decline, Berger’s colleague Thomas Luckmann wrote that religion itself had moved to the margins of society because ‘the internalisation of the symbolic reality of traditional religion is neither enforced nor, in the typical case, favoured by the social structure of contemporary society'(The Invisible Religion, Macmillan, 1967). This dislocation of religious discourse from the privileged centre of social value systems has produced complex outcomes, especially as new waves of immigrants have brought with them their adherence to ‘alien’ gods.

Peter Bergerrecognised that while ‘it is possible to go against the social consensus that surrounds us’, there are ‘powerful pressures (which manifest themselves as psychological pressures within our own consciousness) to conform to the views and beliefs of our fellow men’. Hence the underlying anxiety and our need to huddle together out of a fear that has ontological, not just psychological dimensions.

Sensing an erosion of their long-held dominance in the cultural discourse, some leaders of traditional institutions have tried to renew their grip on the national imaginary. In 2005, the ABC saw fit to invite the schismatic Archbishop of the Sydney diocese of the Anglican church, Peter Jensen, to deliver the annual Boyer Lectures.

The Archbishop dedicated his six lectures to a discussion of ‘Jesus, the prophet of the end of the world’ and related topics. During the first lecture of the series, Jensen diagnosed the Australian situation thus:

…we have lost our sense of identity through history. In our national life there is now a vacuum where most peoples have a history. It’s hard to find meaning, purpose and community without it…

Then, perusing an attempt by other commentators to inquire into what might provide the basis of an adequately sustaining national mythos, the Archbishop commented:

They suggest that we begin to make the story of Eureka, our national myth. To me, Eureka seems rather weak on capacity to inspire and shape; how it will sustain humanistic Australian values in the hard years which may well lie ahead, it is impossible to imagine.

So Dr Jensen proposed this solution to the national dilemma:

You know, even appropriating the biblical history of Israel as if it were our own, could be a better option. It has been done before now. Think of how the biblical story sustained the American slaves.

While the Archbishop confidently proposed this makeshift appropriation as an adequate mythology for the emerging hybrid culture in Australia, I read this as a particularly striking example of Sartrean mauvaise foi, a state of inauthentic false consciousness that fails to respond adequately to our existential quest for identity. With all due respect to the parties involved, it seemed to me at the time a pallid, second-hand scenario imposed on an entirely novel situation, and an unhealthy invitation to national neurosis, to boot. (We should all become clones of Jerry Seinfeld, or Larry David, already?). The presumption that this ready-made mythology could apply across the board, including to someone like me, whose lived experience has been the target of some of the toxic elements embedded in these antique narratives, makes this a less than hospitable invitation.

Beyond kowtowing towards ancient Israel, the Archbishop failed to supply a convincing rationale to justify his invitation. As the apologist for a transplanted religious mythology, the Archbishop was not only content to retain the blinkers that allowed him to ignore the deep, silent sub-stratum of an Indigenous worldview, and the intrinsic mythologies of the many other ethnic traditions of a multicultural society, he showed no signs of acknowledging the patriarchal, white, male privilege that underpinned his peculiar religious views. Given the multicultural makeup of contemporary Australia today, the old proposition that this is fundamentally a ‘Christian’ – even a Judaeo-Christian – nation is becoming increasingly hard to sustain.

Jensen opined that the increasing failure to take up such an invitation had to do with ‘an addiction to intense consumerism’, not acknowledging there might be something lacking in the model he proposed. Yet perhaps his blueprint is cruelly appropriate for the Australian colonial situation; just as the Israelites displaced a people, decried their mythologies, placing their own god above the local version, so – even under the guise of protection ­– Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways, language, knowledge culture, spirituality were overriden by the dominant culture.

AS CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIANS have found themselves in cognitive dissonance with the meta-narratives supplied by religious doctrines, increasingly dissatisfied with the politics of the institutions with which such doctrines have been associated, more and more have found themselves at odds with the authorised religious narratives and, increasingly, have been seeking out techniques of spiritual inquiry from heretofore alien cultures. (That includes my own engagement with a certain set of meditation practices over the past forty plus years.) And the beginning of a new attitude of respect for Indigenous spirituality has been expressed in some quarters. Nicolas Rothwell, for example, has been able to pay homage in such collections as Wings of the Kite-Hawk and others.

There are other models available than the Jensenite/Israelite mould, then. Using the term ‘nation state’, I am reminded of the narratives spinning out from ancient Greece when I was being instructed in the 1960s asa (white, alien) undergraduate studying (hegemonic, Western) ‘Humanities’ at a sandstone university, plonked down on the banks of the Swan River in Perth (named after a city in Scotland), unaware of the rich Noongar culture of at least forty thousand years that preceded our arrival. As part of a ‘classics’ unit I was enjoined to study a history of the Greeks, written by one HDF Kitto. Battered and much-underlined copies of Kitto’s authoritative work, The Greeks, were passed down from year to year, as new generations of students in ‘the classics’ imbibed the teachings of the roots of democracy.

The one principle that stuck with me from Kitto’s history was that Greece’s period of expansive colonising greatness was preceded by a long period of taking in multiple peoples, cultures, ethnicities, even genes. I noticed that the British Empire, so many centuries later, was also preceded by an influx of such different elements, somehow fusing into a common purpose under the sway of national mythologies. Such a small country, yet its influence has been massive. Looking at the United States, the greatest immigrant nation yet, I wonder if the US has even reached the zenith of its power and influence. (And at what cost to less powerful cultures in its path?). And then I wonder about Australia. What kind of future will it inhabit and create, and which dreaming stories will produce a new mythology to carry us into that future? Or will we always remain resistantly diverse, somehow learning to co-exist as other nations have had to, a new republic, gathered under a perhaps newly designed flag? New wine. New Wineskins.

Share article

More from author

A touch of silk

MemoirDURING THE 1970s and '80s I taught meditation in a dozen or so countries throughout East Asia and the Pacific on behalf of my...

More from this edition

The history lesson

FictionTHIS IS 1975, over a hundred and twenty years since the event, and I don't reckon history is that important but Dad sent me...

Interview with
Craig Cliff

Interview Craig Cliff is a Wellington-based writer. His short story collection, A Man Melting, won the Best First Book in the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and...

Stay up to date with the latest, news, articles and special offers from Griffith Review.