115. ‘Tall Man’ by Chloe Hooper, and ‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe.

I’m so overwhelmed and emotional after reading these books. Also rather embarrassed, definitely very ashamed, and deeply apologetic that in thirty years living here in Australia as an immigrant I have never really questioned the history I was taught at school and have imbibed as part of my white European heritage in the way I am now questioning it. I remember having a conversation with a friend years ago where I know I said, ‘Well, if you’d arrived in Australia from Europe in the early 1800’s, you’d have thought the indigenous people were ‘still in the Stone Age’ too”. How deeply I regret that statement.

Firstly, ‘Tall Man’. I feel I should note that I lived in Queensland through these events, but it was ‘background noise’ – the evening news filtered by feeding the family and bathing five small children all protesting bedtime. I remember it, but I had no time to really take on board what was happening. A poor excuse, but it’s how things were then in my house – constant multi tasking.

This is a non fiction account of the trial of a tall white policeman, Chris Hurley, accused of causing the death of an Aboriginal man in custody. But it’s also a savage inditement of the way our First Nation peoples have been systematically driven to become outcasts in their own country, the consequences of the Stolen Generation, and the general hopelessness felt by them, solace for which can often only be found in destructive substance abuse.

On the cover is a sticker stating that it was a Radio 4 Book of the Week in the UK – my guess is Mum heard the abridged version being read on there and bought this copy to fill in the gaps. I know once I had started it I was compelled to finish it even though I knew the outcome of the trial. And I am so glad I did.

It is a great read despite it’s truly shocking revelations – written I felt with a commendable level of ‘distance’ and offering the facts as both sides saw them – but ultimately, a shocking, eye opening and condemning narrative. Chloe Hooper is a white journalist who I think suffered from the same shock and horror I did, realising at last what was and had been happening in her country.

I followed this with ‘Dark Emu’ in which the author, who is himself of Aboriginal heritage, unveils in some detail and in an eminently readable and understandable manner the way that the indigenous population, far from being mere hunters and gatherers as I had understood previously – as I said, my exposure to and knowledge of their culture and history is severely limited – managed the land and grew and tended to crops. They did not simply roam around gathering and hunting plants and animals as they found them – there was cultivation; not cultivation in the European sense of the word, but the European methods don’t really work very well here as is now demonstrably proven. There were no hoofed animals here – imported sheep and cattle have caused no end of damage, and even I was aware of the problems caused by rabbits, cats, foxes and pigs, all brought to a land which held no natural predators of them and all of which are to this day a bloody nightmare, brought here for sport and entertainment but which in their feral form are really horrible.

So. Disturbing but deeply moving and eye opening, and seeking further understanding, I found a TV series on sbs.com.au called ‘The First Australians’. Once again, I found myself incredibly ignorant. I think most Australians are familiar with the term ‘Stolen Generation’, but my goodness – what we did to these people is unforgivable. I was particularly moved by an account of a group of indigenous people who did essentially what the white invaders had done to them – and went and claimed a patch of land as their own, only to be hounded off it by the Aboriginal Protection Board – what an absolute joke that name is.

When John Howard as Prime Minister of Australia refused to say ‘Sorry’, I was pretty much on his side. I would not have poisoned people, hounded them off their traditional lands, treated them as little more than animals – and I felt it was a bit daft to be apologising for something that wouldn’t happen today. By the time Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister did apologise to the indigenous nation, I was a little bit more aware, and deeply glad he did so. It was the very least they deserved as a people.

And honestly, I personally am filled with remorse. Books like these should be on every schools reading lists here in Australia – never mind Shakespeare or Austen, glorious though they are. The truth of the matter is that both Shakespeare and Austen if they were alive today would have written about what’s happened in Australia over the past couple of hundred years with the same degree of horror I do now.

A small post script. I gave my eldest daughter up for adoption as a baby. I do have understanding of the pain of losing a child. But that was my decision, she wasn’t taken from me like so many ‘half caste’ children were taken from their Aboriginal mothers – and let’s not forget who fathered them.

I am so sorry. And I pay my deep respects to the traditional custodians of this land we now all call home.

If you’re in Australia, I’d be happy to gift either or both of these eye opening books forward – just get in touch with your address. Unfortunately the cost of postage overseas from here is horrendous but if you’ll pay it, I’ll send them.

I feel I have to add a post scriptum.

Where I live, and have done since arriving in Australia in 1985 on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast – honestly, paradise for a UK immigrant like me, not too hot, not too cold, plenty of the things we think we need like shops and beaches, but certainly in the Eighties about as much culture as a Kmart bread bin – there is no longer an indigenous population and certainly hasn’t been since I arrived.

My children were deeply impressed by a man of the Gubbi Gubbi who came to the state school they attended in Buderim, played the didgeridoo, told them some Aboriginal tales, and successfully taught a few of them to play the didgeridoo. Not easy!

There was what I recall referring to, to my shame, a ‘token’ Aboriginal family living in the ‘Not Seriously Affluent But Doing OK’ estate we spent my children’s teenage years in. There were more Indian, British, European and Chinese but we were more used to them – I was anyway, having come from the UK.

So my initial encounters with First Australians in no way prepared me for an experience outside a country pub near Chinchilla, Queensland about ten years ago, and then walking around Darwin in 2020 having just emerged from 14 days in quarantine at Howard Springs. It’s not a pretty memory, and once again, I am so sorry A thought that came to me at one point during all of this was that I shot off from the ‘Lucky Country’ to go help Indians living in abject poverty to improve their situation – maybe I should have started, and stayed, here.

Becky X