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Crash of symbols

19 March 2010 1,347 views No Comment

PUBLISHED in conjunction with the National Museum of Australia, this beautifully executed book is essentially an intellectual and emotional exploration of how our nation has imagined itself, and indeed still does. ‘Symbols of Australia’ thus examines, in some detail, the emergence and spread of 26 of our many and varied national symbols.

With each chapter written by different authors it is inevitable that there will be some quibbling about which symbols should have been included in the book, and which were not. While the kangaroo clearly rates a chapter, I am puzzled as to why the equally deserving emu, koala, platypus, or kookaburra (or even the Kelpie dog) have not gained a guernsey. Similarly, while I share the editor’s love of the pavlova, it seems surprising that neither the lamington nor the peach melba (nor even delicious Aeroplane Jelly) do not deserve a mention of their own.

Could it simply be that the editors first chose the authors, who then produced a chapter on what they regarded as their favorite national symbol? In any case, such a book is bound to be a curate’s egg. Thus some contributions are clearly head and shoulders above the rest.

Peter Spearitt’s chapter on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Richard White and Sylvia Lawson chapter on the Opera House are brilliantly crafted pieces, which by the way demonstrate than many of our key national symbols hail from Sydney, rather than from Melbourne, Adelaide or Perth. The limpid prose style of each highly engaging contribution is enhanced by full page colour representations of Grace Cossington Smith’s sensuous modernist painting ‘The Bridge in Curve, 1930’ and by Ken Done’s oil and acrylic ‘Bridge and Opera House by Night, 2003.’ As these works demonstrate, both structures are such well-known symbols that even abstract depictions are easily recognizable. This point is made clear by a photograph of Dame Edna Everage’s huge “Sydney Opera House Hat’ which Barry Humphries’ stellar creation wore to the Ascot races in 1976.

To my mind, Robert (not to be confused with Richard) White’s chapter on Vegemite and Libby Robin’s chapter on wattle are the absolute standouts in this intriguing book.
While wattle has long been a symbolic flower of Australia (featured prominently in our national sporting colors of green and gold) for decades there was a debate, especially originating in New South Wales, about whether or not the waratah also deserved pride of place. In fact, it was not until 1992 that September 1 was officially declared as ‘National Wattle Day’.

It is useful to be reminded that it was the vastly underestimated colonial poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, who first championed the wattle as our national symbol. Thus his great ballad, ‘The sick stockrider’ , has the dying bushman asking his mates: ‘Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms wave!’

When Gordon committed suicide by shooting himself at Brighton beach in 1870, his devoted friend Elizabeth Lauder planted a wattle on his grave. For the next 30 years, supported by that leading advocate of federation, the Australian Natives Association (ANA), she not only tended his grave but annually sent its seeds to Victorian schools for planting in Gordon’s memory. As Robin points out, in 1912 Victoria’s Wattle Day League “marked Wattle Day…with a visit to Gordon’s grave at the Brighton Cemetery. And it was through this association with Gordon’s death that the wattle acquired its commemorative role. But wattle, then and now, has had far wider, if not deeper, conations. Thus, the book features a fine 1925 coloured illustration to Marilyn Lake and Penny Russell’s quaint and quirky chapter on “Miss Australia, entitled ‘My Sweet Australian WATTLE GIRL’. As the caption points out: “It was sometimes a struggle to reconcile a modern beach-going Miss Australia with the more traditional image of a wattle girl, although this does not answer the moot question as to why “Miss Australia either was, or deserves to be, one of our key national symbols.

In 2006 the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott, noted that recent research had shown that the only ‘brand name’ more popular than the ABC was Vegemite. How a waste-product from the brewing industry , namely yeast extract from beer – came to be viewed with such affection, nation-wide and occasionally beyond, is the task that Robert White sets himself in his exemplary chapter about one of our all time favourite foodstuffs. The fact that Vegemite was even named on the prime minister’s website as one of Australia’s national icons was, White maintains, ‘as much a matter of clever marketing as the unlikely appeal of its distinctive flavour.’ Indeed an attempt to market Vegemite , the ‘health food of our nation’ , in Japan, on the theory that it ‘resembled soy sauce’, failed utterly ‘when the sample consumers found it inedible.’

Yet here in Australia the fact is that, by 2008, advertisers with ‘their characteristic marketing opportunism … could claim to have sold its billionth jar and consider opening a Vegemite museum in Melbourne’. Although the latter plan ‘has apparently now been dropped’, it is hard to disagree with White’s conclusion that Vegemite has proved highly ‘versatile in adapting to advertising fashions, political factions, and cultural shifts for over 80 years, a trend which shows no signs of abating’.Indeed, unlike the Holden car, which I would argue no longer claims an unambiguous Australianness, Vegemite has not only acquired, but for decades has maintained, ‘the priceless cachet of being itself an Australian symbol’.

As a final aside, I wonder why Lucy Kaldor’s revealing chapter on the gum tree does not mention that, at least until recently, they were widely known as ‘widowmakers’. This is because, especially in the bush, falling eucalypts killed a great many farmers, most of whom were male!

Ross Fitzgerald has written 32 books, most recently his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, which was published last month by New South Books.

Review of Melissa Harper & Richard White (eds), ‘Symbols of Australia’, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010, pp 235, $29.95. Spectator Australia, March 19, 2010