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The Death of Flowers

I am a fairly tragic gardener and not for the first time, urticaria I have said hello to the lovely erect annual of Remembrance. 



The Flanders poppy is cheap, food beloved by bees and hardy in poor soil. Only a fool would think it unlovely and its nature adheres very well to our cultural calender here in Australia—unusually for a northern flower living under a southern sun.  Sow the seeds on ANZAC day and see them bloom for Armistice.

Honestly, see I’m all for sober reflections of The Great War; I have one in my garden and the nation is hosting a raft of sanctioned events, floral, flowery and otherwise. It can only do us good to look at modernity’s most savage and defining moment and ask of it what we can. War is a great university and can give us a good education.

But there is something that troubles me about this acceleration toward Gallipoli. And it is NOT just the threat that Mel Gibson might enjoy a career renaissance.

In part, it is that the story of the campaign becomes less, as I remember it as a child, of one of hopeless Australian dedication to a super-power played out in the Middle East. (We really seem to have learnt from that one, eh?)

It is more that we are so picky about the history we says directly informs us.  We see some acceptable histories so simply and as part of a process of arrival at the present. We see (or try not to see) others like a family history of which we are ashamed.

Courageous thinkers tell us not to look at any sort of history in a straight line; to embrace the idea of difficult genealogy instead of easy stories. History as we popularly and foolishly understand it is as a basic geometry that reveals clear planes from the past ascending to the present. But Euclid 101 is a less reliable guide to the past than, say, the icecream curves of a rococo palace redecorated over time. Or, the confusion of a field of poppies grown in place where the hooves of warhorses happened to fall.

History is not a straight line; more like a battleground accidentally ploughed into a flower garden that still has the capacity to break our hearts and divide us into nations. But, we post-colonial honkies look back in a straight line to the Great War and say “that made us who we are”. And that, of course, is partly true.  But we look back at the matter of our very violent settlement that is still producing death and say “well, that wasn’t anything to do with me”.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t say that we have a connection to the victimised flesh of boys in 1915 and that our nation was born out of its innocence on the bloody shores of Thrace and somehow, the fact of twentieth century massacres and the theft of children and a raft of statistics that I won’t ruin your Saturday afternoon in sharing have no impact on our life.

In other words, why remember Gallipoli as significant but retain no mental room for Slaughterhouse Creek?

People like to say that this is the “black armband” view of history; even if they agree that terrible things happened and are still happening, And even if they are the sort of people who might admit that the very recent theft of native land is what has led to white prosperity in this nation, they will still say “black armband” and “white guilt” as though we can’t look at this history because it will only make us all miserable.

Well, frankly, even in the terms of our own understanding of a simple history, this is total pants. We are emboldened by the misery of Gallipoli. If we can think about dead boys in Gallipoli, we can think about dead families “cleared” from arable land in Queensland to make way for farmers.

The way to move forward, as critics of the “black armband” view say they want to, is not to ignore the past. We did not grow away from devotion to the Crown by ignoring Gallipoli and we cannot grow as a nation without owning up to the fact that it was, and is being, violently stolen.

And, please. Don’t give me “they get everything”. “They” don’t and the most casual look at the ABS can bear this out. And, please. Don’t give me “They don’t know what to do with it when they’ve got it”. “They” have never had it. And don’t give me “the problem is too hard”.

Of course the problem is too hard because we won’t look it in the face. We won’t accept that this is the invisible core of our history and not an optional study module.

So when you think about the Great War across the next year and its extraordinary impact on our lives that still reverberates, extend that logic to ongoing theft and genocide. Let’s look back with candour so we can move ahead in honesty.

I should say this short observation is not intended to ruin anyone’s day or irritate anybody’s “guilt”. It is more a statement about the function of history than it is anything at all. If you look back even a little and ask the past questions, keep going.  Dust off that family genealogy.

And I would also like to offer that what is required here is not just “awareness-raising”. I don’t think, for example, the “Recognise” campaign’s constitutional tip-of-the-hat to Indigenous peoples will make much difference at all. It’s a floral emblem and not a beginning. Something much grander that will one day lead to planting a particular kind of flower in your garden needs to happen.  The flower is lovely but it is not, despite its lovely representative qualities, a signifier of growth. It is a memory of something that has not yet happened; something which in itself requires institutional memory.

If you don’t make the effort to remember, you’re a fuckwit. And you are enjoying the prettiest blooms of history without any sort of gardening at all.

You may, if you wish, go on being a fuckwit. You can go on believing that “They” deserve it or that it did not happen and is not happening and you do not benefit from it and I don’t think the fact of your fuckwittery will make much difference; no more difference than my Flanders poppies. Be a fuckwit. I don’t care and ultimately, the worst thing you will do is hurt a few feelings with your idiocy. No one needs your tolerance or understanding. What everyone needs is large-scale institutional and public policy change of the sort that might happen, say, after a World War.  After too many heartbreaking deaths.

So keep being a fuckwit all you want. But what you cannot do in all legitimacy is continue being a fuckwit AND say that you have a real interest in history. Because you don’t. You have an interest in reading a fiction that flatters your view of yourself and makes you seem as lovely and innocent as a flower.

So, be a fuckwit. Blame “them” and scream until you’re hoarse about how “it wasn’t me”. Of course it wasn’t you. But do not dare pretend that you have any use for history that is greater than the service of your vanity.  

It is a warm day and I am going back to the flowers that will serve me all spring.  If it is not already plain to you, I am not prescribing much beyond my garden and I am certainly not presuming to give you history as it *should* be understood; there are great Aboriginal historiographers who can do that a jillion times better than me.

I’m just asking you to think about history.


8 Responses to “The Death of Flowers”

  1. Bron says:

    When the past is used as an affirmation, as a narrative to bolster an ideology, a national identity, it’s an illusion. I think a lot about the usefulness of history and the role of the historian (I am an ancient historian in training) and as far as I can figure, the point is to sift through all the layers of bullshit, and try not to be corrupted by our own ideological influences.
    What to do with it, how to teach it, how to write it, how to learn from it, are questions I wrestle with.
    As for the history of Australia, I have one thing to say: #PayTheRent

    Enjoy your gardening x

  2. Dracohouston says:

    Public policy on school history classes is really awful. The curriculum writers have to sanitize history to appear ‘depoliticized’. Looking back on my own public schooling so much time was spent talking about Gallipoli and Australia Day and yet I didn’t learn anything real from it. We don’t even have the courage to teach the parts of history we are supposed to be proud of.

  3. Darren says:

    I very much agree. We cannot allow a black-armband for white Australia yet force Indigenous Australia to ‘move on’. Not only is the ANZAC legend commemorated annually but, as the legend goes, it is the experience in which the idea of an Australian was born. It’s held as the very ashen crucible of our identity. How can we hold that and demand Indigenous Australians forgot their past, de-identify with it and move on.

    Also I don’t understand why having to contemplate the nature of Indigenous Australia’s experience of colonisation has to be about ‘white guilt’. Surely contemplating that experience is about solemnity and understanding rather than blaming or being blamed.

  4. Dave says:

    Off Topic alert Dear Ms Razer, I live remotely and only pick up the big issue when I’m in the city. Your article in the wood for the trees issue was extremely topical and crystalised my own thinking on the subject. Everyone’s got an opinion sure but when news like the ABC has to have a fact checker then there is something very wrong going on. I love the Big Issue and really look froward to reading it when I get the chance and also engaging with the sellers if they aren’t too busy. No one talks to me at all when I’m in the city. People tell me that I look like I just got out of long bay but I wouldn’t ever hurt anyone intentionally. What a great mob of people I’ve found the sellers to be. They don’t judge me for how I look and always have a smile and a wave. It helps me combat the desolate loneliness of being in the city. Best Wishes

  5. Dave M says:

    I have been to massacre sites all over Arnhem Land. They have been shown to me by Yolngu elders whose memory of what happened there is still fresh. There are many more of them than people believe. One down at Trial Bay resulted in one man from the tribe surviving and that was because he hid in the swamp and was able to breathe through a reed. Another at Gan Gan is remembered well by the local inhabitants. Yolngu hate horses and there are none around here. It took me a while to figure out why. It’s because settlers used to ride up on them and shoot everyone. There are also tribal stories of poisoned food and water holes. This area was never really completely conquered though and we can thank the Methodist missionaries for that. The real genocide happened west to the Glyde River and south to Numbulwar. There is a really good book that turns whitefeller history on it’s head called An Intruders guide to Arnhem Land by Andrew Macmillan and another called Whispering Wind Tales of Arnhem Land written by Syd Kyle Little. These are both written by people that love blackfellers and tuned into waht is going on. On another note, I was out last night when the Yolngu boys and girls rocked the club with nearly the entire Yothu Yindi catalogue. That was a true Territory moment. Everyone there knew all the words note perfect. God we miss Dr Yunupingu.

  6. Helen Razer says:

    Maybe peoples who have lived in a land mass for at least 50,000 years.

  7. Carlene says:

    yep they would be the ones

  8. Carlene says:

    Excellent piece by the by

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