History

Are we dragging history to the recycle bin in this technologically obsessed new world?

The world rockets ahead. Every day we need to do things differently, refine, increase efficiency, trade up to a new model, buy a new app or read Finnegan’s Wake on a Kindle (it makes more sense that way). It’s almost as though information has become the key to some happier, healthier, wealthier world. We chase the future. We sacrifice the present for the promise of another 18 channels. In the meantime, history is consigned to the recycle bin. We barely bother separating war, famine and Uncle Ernie’s Best Bets as we dump them to make way for our children’s iPod e-vegetable plots. It seems such a pity. The older you get the more you realise how much history is biting at your heels. It colonises your body, mind, thoughts and emotions. The demolition of my childhood fibro-castle at Hillcrest felt like losing a few fingers to an angle grinder. On his first trip to Melville Island the artist Russell Drysdale was surprised to notice a group of local Aborigines following him around at a distance. When asked why he was told they were protecting him from spirits that might harm him. Here was, and is, a culture that doesn’t see the need to bury and forget, as Europeans do. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Most of us don’t fancy the idea of our grandmother’s ghost hovering above us as we step into the shower. It’s almost as though our bodies and souls (what’s left of them) have become some sort of Ikea consumable. History has dominated my work. The Barossa of the 1950s, 1960s Croydon, 1930s Hamburg. I don’t see much of a distinction between then and now. I work on the assumption that people don’t change much. Standing outside the Bastille in 1793, enjoying an afternoon of beheadings, one would probably overhear the same banter as the Heccies under-12 footy: real estate prices, 100 ways to cook mince and whether Gillard/Danton really has the political nous. Most of us know little about our own families. Andrew Orr started building wooden boats in Goolwa in 1867. There’s a road named after him near Goolwa beach but there’s no sign of him. I drove up and down the street looking for an old cottage, a pile of stones, a marker, but history hasn’t thought enough of him. As, no doubt, it won’t for most of us. For every human alive today another 30 have lived. That’s over 200 billion. But who were they? Most of us don’t know much beyond our grandparents, or their parents, and do we really care? A few of us join genealogical societies or watch find-your-ancestor documentaries, but that’s about it. Maybe it’d help if we could find some skeletons in the wardrobe. I recently read about my great grandfather (I won’t say which side as, to quote Holden Caulfield, ‘my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them’). He was a clerk who embezzled two pound fifteen and six from his employer, the Broken Hill Council. As with most South Australians (aware of our no-convict, Methodist past), a little bit of scintillation goes a long way. A grainy newspaper article tells how he got off lightly when the magistrate let him choose his own penalty. The judge invoked the First Offenders’ Act and explained: “Sometimes it is found more lenient to impose a fine, and other cases to inflict a term of imprisonment and suspend it. I will leave it to you.” Thanks, Your Honour. But who was this man, why did he steal (he had a good job) and was he overcome with guilt? Often, it’s impossible to know the dates, let alone the people. This is where fiction comes in handy. The thought of everyone writing an autobiography is a bit worrying. Not everyone’s Bert Facey. Perhaps this is where indigenous people have got it right. If you never really die, you never have to give a summation. Recently, an aged family friend moved to a nursing home. This seems to be the human equivalent of a Super Storage facility – unwanted objects kept in the shed or attic, just in case. In a society based around things, not people, or emotions, or memories, or (I’d argue) even common moral tenets, worn out bodies become a liability. During the cleanout of the house we found old newspapers, coins, photos, blue ribbons from someone’s aunt’s scones, a bag of broken watches, a retirement gift from work, and the list goes on. It was a life laid out in objects. An 1857 trade coin for Dr Holloway’s Pills and Ointments might have rattled in Charles Dickens’ pocket; might have been carried to Australia in Daisy Bates’ purse; might have travelled to Gallipoli and back; might have sat in a box gathering dust as Hitler rampaged across Europe. And here it is, today, still waiting to be claimed by time. As we all wait. Convinced, somehow, that we’re the first people to have ever lived, or mattered. History is everywhere: a Tonka wheel discovered behind a wardrobe years after the kids have left home; the smell of yellowing paper, and scribbled comments someone has written in the margins (‘Tennessee W. : boozy old queer’) or in the back cover of the family Bible (‘TW: b.1906 m.1932. d.1979’). I think it’s time we built a Museum of South Australia. Not another one with whale bones and mummies, but a place to display a million everyday objects the citizens of this state will donate. A place to bring the kids (and tourists) and show them how life was (and is) in the living rooms and backyards of SA. I’ll put in the first fifty quid. Any thought, Arts Minister? Perhaps our desire to get ahead leads us too far from where we began. Objects hinder, but remind. As the saying goes, if we forget, we gotta do it all again. As we set to rebuilding the Coliseum on the banks of the Torrens, the thought seems unsettling.

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