The 2012 Act Three Journey of an Actress/Coach/Writer.

Day 26 Australia Day

Posted by themirrenlee on 26/01/2012

Sydney Harbor, with the Opera House and Bridge, is a wonderful background for fireworks. No wonder it gets all the New Year's Eve attention!

Australia Day.

Today is Australia’s day to celebrate itself as a country. I can hear the fireworks going off in the distance, and smell the BBQs all around me – the traditional way Australians celebrate anything is by having a “barbie”, pronounced “baabie” (like the sound a sheep makes).

Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a problem holiday for Australians, fraught with minefields of political correctness and sensitive feelings. Even what it’s commemorating is not something noble, such as a glorious battle for independence from tyranny, which is what makes the Fourth of July and Bastille Day so moving. No, it is simply marking the day the First Fleet landed in 1788: 11 ships inadequately provisioned to start the settlement of a brand new country, bringing with them boatloads of convicts. (Beating the French at the mouth of Sydney Harbor by only a few hours. If the weather had been better, Australians today would be speaking French!)

These poor wretched souls were kicked out of England in order to start a penal colony far away from the Empire itself. This was necessary because America had defeated the British in its War of Independence, inconveniently making itself unavailable as a possible place to put the “human refuse” (of whom many were convicted for stealing a ribbon or a slice of bread – not exactly heavy duty gangsters).

The history of the whole thing is quite fascinating, although most Australians don’t know anything about it, and in fact think it’s quite boring. It’s anything but, as I discovered when I did the research needed to create a show many years ago called, “Hysterical History”. It was devised using Theater Games, and we toured it around dozens of schools, as well as performing it for history teachers, hoping to inspire them to make it more entertaining for students! Today, Australian History is not even a required subject in high schools. That both astounds and saddens me.

I learned so many interesting facts, and got a whole new respect for a country that really SHOULDN’T HAVE SURVIVED! The English were so inept, so arrogant, so rigid about how they set the country up that there were famines, rebellions, and cruelties as a way of life. Then, of course, there were the stories of the convicts themselves – who, ironically, in the midst of great hardships often ended up having a much better life in a new country free of England’s restrictive class system.

Reading the seminal book, “The Fatal Shore”, by Robert Hughes (now an American art critic!), gives one new respect for how anyone DID survive those early years, much less flourish and prosper. I recommend it highly. Wikipedia also gives a pretty good overview of Australia’s origins, as well as the timeline of how we came to have an Australia Day at all – it has gone through many name and date changes, and there is still debate going on about moving it again. Can you imagine that happening with the Fourth of July or Bastille Day?

Australians have an ongoing identity problem that includes which day they should celebrate their creation, whether they should have a new flag that gets rid of the Union Jack, and who they should actually identify with, i.e., are they still part of the British Empire or are they now part of the whole Asia-Pacific region? Both the flag and location issues divide them about whether or not they should “get rid of” the Queen and become a Republic. Their identity issues are so chronic, and at times acute, that they haven’t even been able to create a successful tourism ad campaign since Paul Hogan told you to “put another shrimp on the barbie” last century!

The really controversial part is that Australia was established on the backs of the Aborigines, the natives indigenous to the country at the time. (Curiously, to me anyway, the word Aborigine means “indigenous native”, so it’s always seemed redundant to refer to them by both titles.) The black humor comes in when one finds out that England claimed Australia for itself under the terms of “terra nullius”, or a country that is uninhabited and therefore up for grabs! And it wasn’t like the Aborigines were hiding – the English just didn’t “see” them.

No wonder Aborigines refer to Australia Day as “Invasion Day”, or “Survival Day”. If you read their history, you’ll be appalled at their treatment, from the beginning to the current day. At least the Indians in America started getting casinos as some compensation!

So that’s Australia Day. A conflicted holiday, at best. Even the shops close for only half a day, so it’s not even really a total holiday. Never mind, any excuse for a barbie, a few beers and some lovely fireworks in the evening. It also, like America’s Labor Day, marks the end of the summer holidays, with most students going back to school next week.

Read some history about Australia; it really is fascinating. A taste: Australia’s first female doctor, Constance Stone, was not allowed into medical school here because she was female, so she got on a ship (a big trip at the end of the 19th century), and got her qualifications in America, Canada and England, and then went BACK to Australia (I would have said fuck ya’, I’m staying where it’s not so hard) just in time to be allowed to practice. Most Australians know nothing about her, even though she had her own stamp once, and yet I see the film version so clearly in my head, with Emma Thompson as Constance (whose first name was actually Emma!). I’ve done a lot of research about her, but come up against many brick walls of information gaps because of the inexplicable apathy about Australia’s history.

Of course, the really important thing about Australia Day for me is that it’s 3 days before my birthday!

I’m getting a whole new fresh start to my identity this year. That’s what I think Australia needs, too, don’t you?

I’m just wonderin’ …

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