Melissa Harper, Shino Konishi, Rod Quantock, Peter Spearritt, Linda Thompson and Richard White, 4 June 2010
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Good afternoon everybody. My name is Louise Douglas and I am one of the assistant directors here at the National Museum of Australia. Welcome on this very cold Canberra afternoon. I am particularly feeling sorry for the Queenslanders amongst us. Before I do anything, I will acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the land on which we have invited you to join us today, and acknowledge the Ngunnawal people as the traditional custodians of that land. We acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city Canberra. We would also like to acknowledge and welcome any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who might be here today.
This forum is one of three interconnected projects reflecting the Museum’s current interest in exploring and documenting Australian identity. We have, of course, been interested in Australian identity from our inception, and most particularly when we opened the Museum in 2001 with a major exhibition called Nation which looked at the informal and formal symbols of Australian identity. But we have continued to be interested in this topic. Most recently, in the last two years or so, the Museum has been delighted to have a partnership with Richard White and Melissa Harper which has generated a book, an exhibition and this forum here today. The book Symbols of Australia: Uncovering the stories behind the myths is a co-publication with University of New South Wales Press and we are launching it directly after this forum, and you are all invited to come to that launch which will be about 5 o’clock or 5.30 up in the Friends lounge. The exhibition is on a national tour, and it’s currently just about to open in Albury as we speak.
For today’s forum, we are very lucky to have Richard White and Melissa Harper here today who have been such central figures in the book, the exhibition and now the forum. We also have three additional contributors here: Peter Spearritt, Shino Konishi and Linda Thompson, who will each give us a snapshot of the harbour bridge, the billy, the kangaroo, the rainbow serpent, cooee and the Opera House. There will also be an opportunity for Q&A at the end of the presentations, and our MC Rod Quantock is going to weave his special magic through the afternoon.
When we started to think about who should facilitate this forum and who would have that magic, the idea that we should take a light-hearted look at the symbolism and iconography of Australian identity was very much in our minds. We thought that someone who had recently developed a show called Bugger the polar bears, this is serious might be the right man. You, of course, know Rod as a pioneer of stand-up comedy over the last 30 years. He’s been in many significant television shows: Australia You’re Standing In It, Fast Forward, Denton, Backburner, The Big Gig and Good News Week.
You may not know, however, that he has received a very serious arts bouquet in the form of a Sydney Myer Performing Arts Award in 2004 for his individual contribution to Australian cultural life. Although he’s been around for a while, he has remained amazingly contemporary, evolving and staying at the forefront of the craft. For me, there isn’t anyone more provocative or piercing when it comes to commenting on climate change or any of the other major issues confronting Australian society today. Please join me in welcoming the ‘magic’ Rod Quantock.
ROD QUANTOCK: Thank you very much, Louise, and good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, the unemployed who we have here this afternoon. Some of you are just on the happy side of deceased, and we welcome you. This may well be the last public event you go to, so we will make it doubly engaging, we hope.
We are here today to talk about this new book Symbols of Australia which will be available to you today at a very special price. Later in the afternoon we will officially launch this book. But to give you an idea - not to give you an idea, to tell you what’s in the story and what are considered symbols of Australia, I’ll just run through them: the southern cross, the kangaroo, the crown, the map of Australia, cooee, postage stamps, the gum tree, sharks, the boomerang, the billy, Miss Australia which could only be an Australian symbol, the flag, the coat of arms, the wattle, the digger, Australia House in London, vegemite which you would expect to be there, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the lifesaver, the pavlova, the Holden, Uluru, Sydney Opera House, the akubra, the rainbow serpent and the baggy green.
I am from Melbourne, and this book already affronts me deeply. I was born in the year that the first Holden ran off the production line in Melbourne so in a strange sort of way that universal Australian car has its birth in Melbourne. But that’s about it really for Melbourne. Just to give you an idea, the front image opposite the introduction to the book is an image created from Australian postage stamps of the Sydney Opera House. The Sydney Opera House and the harbour bridge are both considered symbols of Australia, and that’s fair enough, but Sydney does predominate.
The thing that really pissed me off in the end is that the gum tree is represented as a symbol of Australia. But you couldn’t have taken a picture of the gum tree in Melbourne or Canberra, we had to get a gum tree in front of the harbour bridge and the Opera House. So it’s controversial. If it isn’t controversial, I am about to make it controversial, because something like this – there are people who will speak to you later on who will speak with much more authority about the role of symbols in a society – because symbols are very powerful. They exist because of a common agreement that they represent something about the place, the people and the society. That’s fair enough too. It’s not a big book. You can’t fit every symbol in, but you could have kowtowed. I don’t know what you have in Canberra that would stand as a symbol. But if you put your heads together – what are the symbols of Canberra? Parliament House – yes but no.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: It’s in a hill.
ROD QUANTOCK: It’s buried. A few more layers of earth on it, and it would be a much better place altogether. It will become a talking point because there are so many symbols that we could choose from. For me if I was asked - not that I was - all this happened well before anybody contacted me, it would be a very different book if I had been asked to contribute to it. For me, and again this is perhaps a reflection of my age, the teddy bear biscuit should be in here - thank you, old people. For a number of reasons, most significantly because even though the teddy bear itself is a foreign construct created in England to amuse the children of the upper class, it was Australia that turned that into an edible biscuit, and we made it universal.
There was a time up until the 1970s when you could not get a better biscuit than the teddy bear biscuit. High on the hill of Parliament House or in the drawing rooms of Government House, the teddy bear biscuit would be on display for visiting dignitaries from around the world to say ‘welcome to Australia’. Now that has all changed. The teddy bear biscuit was invented in Melbourne by a man named Mr Guest. It was called Guest’s teddy bear biscuit. They were bought out by Arnotts, an Australian family company, who continued to manufacture them to the same specifications that Mr Guest provided us with. And then about ten years ago Campbells, a foreign multinational food conglomerate, consumed our biscuit-making technology and took over the teddy bear biscuit.
Has anybody had a plain teddy bear biscuit in the last ten years since the Americans have been making them? Anybody had a plain one. Put your hand up if you have - anybody at all? What do you eat up here? Do you live on the fat of the land? [laughter] I am telling you now that they changed our biscuits. They are not only smaller but they are harder. They are an economically rational biscuit. I remember when they were free range biscuits, when they came in tins. You could walk into a local grocer and a man or woman who knew you by name and never said ‘have a nice day’ and you could buy one teddy bear biscuit or an ounce or a pound - not like today when you go into the supermarket and you buy those teddy bear biscuits and they sit in there in their cellophane packets, front to back, front to back, front to back like some gay teddy bear Mardi Gras - no, they’re gone. They’ve changed. As a symbol of Australia it’s rather sad that we really can’t claim them here. They were subsumed in the end by the culture of chocolate and the Tim Tam biscuit that was introduced in 1972, I think, and that was the end of the plain biscuit and the changes to the way that we lived.
The other great symbol which is very much part of my culture, not personally but the culture that I come from, is the stubby. The stubby is an Australian invention. We invented the stubby and within seconds we went ‘Oh s… that’s cold’ and we invented the stubby holder. We’re the people who invented wine in a box so you could look like an executive on the way to swimming in your own vomit. We are the people who invented the screw top for wine so you could get at it quicker. This is why we don’t have a space program; we’re too busy inventing better ways of dealing with alcohol.
So symbols are symbols are symbols, and they are different for all of us. Many of you and maybe all of you will agree that everything in this book is a true and honest symbol of Australia and look you can’t deny it, they are. But any publication like this, obviously omits much, and I hope that as this exhibition swells and grows and that this museum continues on its merry way, you make representations on behalf of your favourite symbol. Has anybody got a symbol that wasn’t mentioned in the book that I haven’t mentioned?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Iced vovos.
ROD QUANTOCK: Iced vovos. We should have a whole book of biscuit symbols. I can see this coming.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: The MCG.
ROD QUANTOCK: The MCG - I agree, much more important than the Opera House, absolutely. They put opera on in the MCG. It’s a multipurpose cultural icon, but they keep pulling it down and rebuilding it and as an icon it morphs a great deal. But if there is one symbol of Australia that would be endorsed by John Howard, God rest his soul, it would be the MCG or the Sydney Cricket Ground.
So as you go through the proceedings today, keep in mind what you would like to consider a symbol. I don’t know whether the evaluation forms you will get will have a big box at the bottom saying, ‘What was left out?’ But you make your own box of what was left out. Be rebellious, that is another symbol of our country. Deep within the core of every one of you lounging, lazy people who have nothing better to do on a Wednesday afternoon there is a rebel. We would like you to drag that rebel out and challenge our assumptions about what symbols are.
This afternoon we are going to introduce to you a number of contributors to this book. At the end we will invite them to the stage and we will open the forum to your piercing and probing questions – I hope they do pierce and probe. I am going to introduce to you the first of our contributors. Each symbol in this book has its own chapter is accompanied by the name of the person who wrote it and has given a lifetime of study to this particular symbol.
Our first is Peter Spearritt. Peter is a professor of history at the University of Queensland, who used to share a post office box with me back in Clifton Hill in Melbourne when he was free and easy going. He is the author of a number of books including The Sydney Harbour Bridge: a life published on the 75th anniversary of the bridge’s opening in 2007 and the prize-winning - guess what the prize-winning book was? – Sydney’s century. What a horrible man! He has also co-curated a number of major exhibitions. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Peter Spearritt, one of the great contributors to this wonderful book. Peter, welcome. [applause]
PETER SPEARRITT: I do have one image for Rod, fortunately.
ROD QUANTOCK: Voom, voom.
PETER SPEARRITT: Thanks, Rod.
ROD QUANTOCK: I can’t do the Opera House.
PETER SPEARRITT: In deference to Rod, I will point out that my opening image which was used to market Australia in California in the 1930s was commissioned by a guy called Charles Holmes who ran the Australian National Travel Association, the publishers of Walkabout. He hired all these fantastic poster artists in the 1930s, including Gert Sellheim, Percy Trompf, Eileen Mayo and [James] Northfield. So in the 1930s obviously the bridge sort of captures the Australian imagination but it also becomes a very important part of our international promotion.
Theoretically you would think there are lots of bridges around the world, why would this one work so well? One of the things I try to argue in the chapter is that it’s a combination of its topographical setting and also the fact that there is no competition for it. Some of you will know that, in New York, as soon as they found that Sydney was building the world’s largest arch bridge, the longest and the widest, what do the bastards do? They built the Bayonne Bridge from Staten Island to New Jersey. They started it later; they finished it earlier; and they made it 25 inches longer. How mean can you get! An interesting comment on bridge technology at the time, the Bayonne Bridge has never had a high profile in New York because there are 20 fantastic bridges around Manhattan Island. And an interesting comment on the two cultures at the time: the Bayonne Bridge was and still is six lanes, only carries road traffic. When the harbour bridge was conceived, it was going to have four lanes of railroad and was primarily going to be a railway bridge in the first instance. Of course, anybody who gets stuck in traffic now on the Spit Bridge would be very resentful of the fact that the railway line to Narrabeen was never built. So in the iconography of the 1930s, which I go through in the chapter, the bridge becomes very dominant. I guess the ultimate insult to Melbourne is that Percy Tromp, Melbourne’s greatest poster artist, did a poster in 1930 that we reproduce in the book where he has a beautiful drawing of the bridge being built and the caption is ‘still building Australia’.
On to Rod’s territory, this is the TAA route map of 1958. Like Rod, I deduce that at least half the people here were alive in 1958 - congratulations to you. What a desultory collection! How desultory can you get? We’ve got Colonel Light’s statue. Nobody under 30 would remember Colonel Light I regret to tell you. Perth still looks pretty dull. Hobart has been improved by the erection of the Sheraton Hotel. There’s the provisional Parliament House, which in my view was always going to be Canberra’s greatest claim and emotionally recognised symbol. It’s in every textbook published in Australia from the late 1920s onwards. Brisbane is still in trouble. Melbourne, what can you say about Melbourne? It’s pretty woeful. The point I make in my chapter in the book about Sydney is that – this is 1958 remember – as you can see the harbour bridge pylons are absolutely filthy. It is Moruya granite, as all you Canberrans will know, you can still visit the quarry where the granite comes from in Moruya. They didn’t steam clean those pylons until the early 1960s. So I argue in the chapter that the bridge went through a period where it was very, very utilitarian. People just simply weren’t interested.
One of the drawbacks you can imagine of having devoted – correctly, according to Rod – a bit too much of my life to the harbour bridge is that you are forever looking for new images. As this session today is taking place in the National Museum, I have to confess to you that this image has been semi-illegally downloaded from e-bay by my colleague Adrian Young - I have to blame somebody - about three hours ago, although I was a successful bidder for this route map.
Now this is really what Rod is complaining about: Those of us who have come here via Qantas have been confronted with this kind of - what would you call this? This is a last-ditch attempt by the New South Wales government to save itself. This is its current advertising campaign. Some of you might also have seen the television version where you have lots of ‘mythnicities’ and things in it. But this is kind of typical of the Sydney braggart tone. It’s a challenge to all the other cities that they are always laying down. This comes from the Qantas In-flight Magazine for June but this is part of a very big campaign for the government to save itself. It reminds me a little bit of Barry Unsworth thinking that the Darling Harbour development would save his government – and just to remind you it didn’t – nor did the Bicentennial celebrations.
So is there a Melbourne reply? I haven’t got permission from the editors yet but obviously if we do a new edition it is pretty clear to me that we will have to ask Rod to write up this one [image shown]. It comes from The Age and the Fairfax this weekend. Now although I have to admit, as also a part-time student of tourism in Australia, the jigsaw Melbourne tourism campaign down the bottom left has without doubt been Australia’s most successful state-based tourism campaign for 20 years now. What kind of reply is that? I mean, who of you know who designed that mini Eiffel Tower structure in the middle. Does anybody know? This is the continuing dilemma. In discussion over lunch today, we were still arguing that Flinders Street station and the Melbourne tram are probably Melbourne’s two best prospects for inclusion in a book called ‘Symbols of Australia’. It’s really hard to see how - I don’t think you could describe that as classic graphic art or even very inspiring advertising myself. I’ll leave it there for further debate. Thank you. [applause]
ROD QUANTOCK: Thank you, Peter. In defence of that appalling spire, Roy Grant originally designed it to be sheathed in copper and it was going to be a really elegant building, but the cost of copper went through the roof and now with the 40 per cent tax on the mining industry it’s inconceivable that it will ever be done. But in the end they decided on a lego concept for the tower. It was just white lego sticks to put that tower together which amazed no-one and attracted not one single tourist. So during the Kennett years, and some of you are probably refugees from the Kennett years. Any of you too young to remember Jeff Kennett, he was the love child of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. He insisted that it be lit by computer operated lights. So they begin at the bottom and they go [whooshing sound] up to the top and then they swirl around and back down they come. You can go down there any night of the week and see literally no-one looking at them. It does raise the question, which we might raise towards the end, can you go about deliberating constructing an icon?
But now I would like to introduce our next presenter and co-editor of Symbols of Australia Melissa Harper who will talk about Billy tea. Melissa completed her PhD in history at the University of Sydney and now lectures in Australian studies at the University of Queensland. Do you know Peter? Her book The Ways of the Bushwalker: On foot in Australia, 2007 explores how bushwalkers have engaged with the landscape through leisure. She is currently working on a project that examines - now listen for this; this is one of those wonderful things you can do - the rise of fine dining in Australia since the 1970s. These are the sort of sacrifices that Melissa makes for our culture. Please welcome Melissa Harper.
MELISSA HARPER: This is not so much talking about fine dining today but something rather more humble in looking at the billy and billy tea. Perhaps it’s a symbol that doesn’t have a great deal of currency in Australia today but certainly something in the past that operated very much as a symbol of Australia. For something as mundane, something as humble as a tin can, the billy has generated an awful lot of debate – something that national symbols do quite a bit. They do, as we have seen, generate quite a lot of debate. It is something that has been invested with a potent range of meanings. It is some of those debates and meanings that I want to focus on today. I looked at these in more detail in the chapter but I will give you a bit of an indication of how the billys worked.
Most people agree that the billy became established as an essential item of bush equipment during the 1850s gold rushes, though many date its origins a decade earlier, some take it even further back. But the more heated debate concerns the origin of the term ‘billy’ itself. There is a range of explanations that have been put forward here. The most common theory is that it came from a French term bouilli which referred to a tinned beef soup which was popular on the goldfields. So the empty tins provided a suitable pot to boil water for tea. That’s one explanation.
Another is that it derived from billa which was an Aboriginal word meaning creek or river and thus water. A third that it comes from a Scottish ‘billypot’ for cooking pot or ‘bally’ for milk pail. The most intriguing possibility was Russel Ward’s proposal that it was a diminutive of William, named after King William IV who sat on the throne between 1830 and 1837. So you have a range of different possibilities here - French, Indigenous, Scottish or English a whole lot of possibilities about where the billy came from. It is something that is still argued about.
Whenever its beginnings, by the late nineteenth century the billy had become indelibly linked with Australia. Every bushman it seemed carried one. Some carried more, nested one inside the other. You either have a tea billy, a billy for cooking meat, perhaps a third for carrying water. The practical value of the billy to the bush traveller is obvious, but it doesn’t really explain the fondness, the sense of romanticism that developed around the billy, the way in which many bushmen kind of almost developed this romantic attachment. The billy became a bit of a love object for bushmen in the nineteenth century.
Why is it that a humble tin can should be put on such a pedestal? I suggest in the chapter that the answer lies in its symbolism, in its evocation of a particular understanding of Australianness and a widespread desire to connect with it. So the billy was seen as something that was very democratic. It was used very widely. It wasn’t just used on the road. It was also something that was used in houses as well. So men and women used the billy, black and white people also used it, workers as in swagmen but also leisure seekers. It became something that bushwalkers also made widespread use of. But it was its association with the bushmen and particularly with the swagmen, as we see here [image shown], that really gave it national meaning, that really made it a symbol of the nation.
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, artists and writers identified the bush as the real Australia and the bushman, particularly the bushman that took to the road, as the real Australian. So Australians from all walks of life imagined they could identify with the distinctive landscape and this kind of life of independence and hardship that entailed a life in the bush. And that life was said to have fostered a distinctive Australian character, one that was practical, laconic, egalitarian. So it was in this context that the billy came to stand for the nation.
In sketches of bush life that featured in illustrated newspapers, in a whole range of stories and poems of people like Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, Joseph Furphy etc, in the art of the Heidelberg School and in bush ballads and folk songs, somewhere there was always nearly a reference to the billy. Rarely did the billy take centre stage, it was usually just simply there, almost a kind of a obligatory motif to establish the authenticity of the scene. So the swagmen on the tramp was depicted carrying a billy or dangling it from his swag. When he stopped for a midday smoko or arrived for the evening camp, a fire would be built, the billy was filled with water and set to boil. So waiting for the billy to boil became a precious moment in the day for the swagmen or for the traveller. It was a moment for quiet, a time for reflection and also for rest.
The sight of a boiling billy was also an invitation to a passing traveller to throw down his swag and share a mug of the hot brew. So the billy symbolised hospitality and the sociability that was widely seen as a hallmark of the Australian bush. It was also around the boiling billy that the great Australian yarn was spun. So Henry Lawson wrote his short stories in the glow of that bush tradition. When he published the first major collection of his work in 1896 he called it While the Billy Boils. The ability to make a good brew is very much something that was seen as a sign of a good bushman, and again there is a lot of argument here, this is where the debate about billys and billy tea comes in about how to actually make a good pot of billy tea. So connoisseurs debated when it was best to add the tea leaves, whether the tea should be stirred with a gum twig, how long it should actually sit, whether it was necessary to swing the billy. There is probably plenty of people in the audience here who have swung a billy and regard themselves as experts at such thing. I have never tried it and I don’t think I ever will. I am sure I would just burn myself.
There were also arguments over whether it was better to hang the billy over a fire or to stand it in the embers. The experienced bushman always filled their billy to the brim because they knew that, if it was only half full, the rim was going to burn off soon enough. And bushmen competed with one another as to who could boil the billy the fastest, and the blacker the billy was, the more quickly it would boil. So men took pride in the blackness of the billy, partly because it did have superior boiling qualities but also because an old blackened billy signalled the old hand as opposed to the new chum. It showed that you were really part of the bush and knew what you were doing, so that it was not spick and span spoke of that nonchalance that was supposed to define the Australian character.
With such qualities it is no surprise that it became, as I suggested, the bushman’s mate. Some of the more sentimental bush ballads of the twentieth century really did kind of border on love poems to the billy. So you have this loving relationship with it but the billy also symbolised the ambivalence that Australians felt towards the bush. So as often as the billy was something that provided comfort and reassurance and hospitality, the billy also signalled or symbolised the struggles that went hand in hand with bush life as you get a sense of here in this sketch by Julian Ashton: Lost: A Sketch from Riverina in 1880, and perhaps one you are more familiar with [images shown] Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his Luck from 1889. So you really get a sense here of the hardship of the bush, the billy lies carelessly there on its side, discarded. So the fact that not even the billy could provide the usual solace indicated the kind of utter helplessness of an unfortunate bushman’s predicament.
But the association between the billy and death found its clearest voice in Australia’s quasi national anthem Waltzing Matilda. It is to the song that the billy owes much of its symbolic status, and equally the song owes as much to the billy or at least to billy tea. There’s a very interesting story behind this, and here again you have a lot of argument and debate around Waltzing Matilda. Both the origins of the lyrics and the music have been the subject of heated debates - complicated by the fact that there are a number of versions of the song. But the most commonly accepted account of its creation is that the lyrics were written by Banjo Paterson in 1895 - he was by then a well-known poet - with Christina Macpherson, who was a station owner’s daughter, and Banjo Paterson was staying with her family at the time in Queensland. Rumour had it that he fancied Christina and they sat down and wrote this tune and lyrics for the song.
Paterson introduced the billy in the first verse. So he had the line ‘and he sang as he looked at his old billy boiling’, but this was actually the only mention of the billy in Patterson’s version. In the chorus he opted for the fireless romantic waterbag. The version of Waltzing Matilda that was to become the standard had its origins as an advertising ploy for billy tea. Billy tea was something that was started to be imported in the late 1880s, and from the 1890s this is the packaging that you are having [image shown]. So you have a swagman drinking his billy tea, talking to a kangaroo who is carrying a swag and a billy - all those iconic images are there.
The head of the company importing the tea, James Inglis, planned to give away some of the sheet music for Waltzing Matilda with each packet of the tea that was sold but he wanted the lyrics of the song to be rejigged. I mean, it’s hardly fitting to have a story that associated tea with death as a choice when you are trying to market a beverage as a refreshing and uplifting brew. So the lyrics needed to be reworked; they needed to be changed. And the task of commercialising the song fell to Marie Cowan, who was the wife of Inglis’s manager. She added the word ‘jolly’ so ‘once a jolly swagman’ to the opening line and she injected billy into the chorus. So you are getting that repetition and the association with the product, and she also capitalised the ‘B’ in billy. What you get here is the song, the tea and the billy coming together and helping to firmly secure the popularity of all three.
So the symbolic power of the billy lies in the way it embodied the mythology of the bushman. Like him, the billy was seen as dependable, resourceful, practical and egalitarian. But what of the billy today? Does it still have a great deal of currency? I am not sure that it does with younger Australians who, when I talk to students of mine, they don’t necessarily know what a billy actually is. Bushwalkers and campers lament the fact that the restrictions on fire in national parks have taken away the opportunity to boil a billy on an open fire. But on the other hand it does continue to be used in the outback. It is certainly something that is used in outback tours, for example, where tourists are given this supposedly authentic experience of Australia’s bush. You can still buy billy tea in supermarkets and Waltzing Matilda remains a popular song sung at sporting matches for example. So you still have a range of ways in which the billy is given some currency in contemporary Australia. Yet I would suggest that for all the symbolic value of the billy, its ongoing power lies as much with its nostalgia for a bygone Australia. Thank you.
ROD QUANTOCK: Thank you very much, Melissa. It’s a fantastic ad for the billy tea, a man talking to a kangaroo. I wondered whether it was what was in the cup or what was in the pipe that encouraged him to do that. But they were the good old days when you could talk to kangaroos. And now we are going to talk about kangaroos. What a terrific segue that was, Rod.
We are going to introduce you to Linda Thompson. Linda completed an arts degree at the University of Sydney with joint honours in art theory and history in 2008. Her areas of interests are European art and Australian history, her honours thesis examining how travel to artistic centres has influenced Australia’s art. She is currently studying law, another over-achiever, at the University of Sydney. So to talk to us about our kangaroo, please welcome Linda Thompson. [applause]
LINDA THOMPSON: Whether it’s a boxing kangaroo, the Australia made symbol or Skippy the bush kangaroo, I would argue there are few symbols, perhaps even in this whole book, that are as unambiguously Australian and unique as the kangaroo. I am sure you have all spent hours pouring over the kangaroo chapter in the book or you’re about to do that so I am not going to go through the same arguments already there. But I thought I would give us a bit of ‘the best of’ the kangaroo so we can reflect on how it came to hold its strong position as a symbol of Australia today.
I would suggest that symbols don’t begin their life self-consciously usually, so Vegemite was just to be a waste product or surf lifesavers were just doing their job and the kangaroo had similar humble beginnings in Australia. I have done a fair bit of research in this area and I am fairly confident that, if you were to summarise all of the early interactions with kangaroos from Europeans, it would go something along the lines of ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell is wrong with that animal?’ And a response along the lines of ‘Yeah this place is really, really weird.’ That’s because for the first white settlers and the interested public back home in England, the kangaroo was just another symptom of weird and wonderful antipodean area. Kangaroos were taken back to England, they were bred in captivity and they were paraded pretty much across the British Empire as a mysterious and odd animal.
Whilst it was all very well for people in England to be breeding kangaroos, back home in Australia they were pretty much the opposite - they were a huge pest. They destroyed vegetation; they damaged water supplies; and the eastern states in Australia eventually passed legislation calling for the eradication of the kangaroo. There was millions and millions of kangaroos killed each year by the end of the nineteenth century. What I think is interesting at this point, however, when everyone is consciously targeting the kangaroos as something to kill and they are being culled, poisoned and beaten to death in extraordinary numbers, which we wouldn’t really see today except perhaps against the cane toad, their status as a uniquely Australian animal was starting to be claimed by Australians at the time:
For example, at international exhibitions, Australia consistently represented itself through some form of kangaroo imagery, such as trophies and exhibition sculptures. And the Princess of Wales was a very lucky recipient of a gift that I am not sure was on her wedding registry of kangaroo shaped spoons. So we can see Australia is really starting to take hold of this kangaroo, even though it’s a pest and even though it’s a bit weird.
One of the most telling incidents from around this time is when the Princes Edward and George visited in 1881. Whilst it was one thing for Australians to go out and hunt kangaroos, when the princes tried to do it, they were publicly lampooned in the press as not being Australian enough to understand how to hunt kangaroos, if that makes sense. In my way of looking at it, I think it’s sort of similar to complaining about your own family. It’s okay when you do it but, as soon as someone else does it, you say, ‘No, no, that’s not okay.’ That process involves very conscious claiming of the kangaroo, I think. It may be annoying, it may be weird, but it was ‘our’ weird annoying animal that we wanted to kill but we still loved nonetheless.
From the late nineteenth century this effort to claim the kangaroo as an international symbol of Australia began in earnest. This was achieved through both protecting the image from outside incursions, such as with the princes, and also more of an organic process through attaching a uniquely Australian meaning to the kangaroo. Perhaps stemming from its days as a pest, one emotive response frequently associated with the kangaroo was a spirit of irreverence. Jack the boxing kangaroo became a national celebrity in the 1880s when, to the delight of audiences all across the nation, he would fight humans in a boxing ring. Papers at the time declared that ‘this Jack the boxing kangaroo represented the true irrepressible colonial spirit because no country but Australia would dare upset the theories of naturalists by birthing such an ambitious and unusual animal.’ I am not sure that was Jack’s ambition, because pretty much it was quite an awful scene. They put boxing gloves on a kangaroo and hit it in the face until it tried to kick people. But this image of the kangaroo as this ludicrously heroic creature was set in stone. And even though Jack died an understandably early death, I think his spirit arguably lives on and was reborn perhaps in the 1968 series Skippy the bush kangaroo.
I am going to try and be a bit technological here for one moment. This is a compilation when they re-released the DVD of Skippy the bush kangaroo a few years later. It just gives you a general glossing over of what kind of things skippy was capable of.
Right Oh boys, 1, 2, 3:
Hippety hop she’ll stop the traffic when she passes by. You’ll stop and wish that you were where she was going. Hoppety hip, she’ll skip into your heart you’ll wonder why the world is all aglimmer and aglowing. Cute as a koala and as busy as a bee, Happy as a kookaburra laughing in a tree … hop he’s up. She’s off away she’ll wave goodbye. That is when you’ll want the whole world to know that you love Skippy, skippy, Skippy the bush kangaroo, Skippy, skippy, Skippy our friend ever true.
LINDA THOMPSON: Buy it now, guys, it’s out on DVD. It’s a great series.
As we can see from that short clip, Skippy was just amazing. He was friends with humans, he was friends with koalas. We didn’t get to see him flying a helicopter, which he did sometimes. We saw him in his scuba gear, but he was quite a swimmer as well. He could dive, he could send morse code, he could really carry his end of the conversation which I think is quite impressive. He was a consciously created national product which built on familiarity with the kangaroo and its previous history within Australia. The series had massive international success, similar to the Crocodile Hunter today, and a number of parodies such as very successive take-off Skupinder, the Punjabi kangaroo, on Goodness Gracious Me.
Competing with this spirit of irreverence, the kangaroo also became associated with an ambiguous if not noble spirit of Australia. In this manifestation, which was articulated in books such as Dot and the Kangaroo - I am not sure if anyone is familiar with the book - where a lovely kangaroo rescues a small child from the bush and is very friendly to her, kangaroos were wise, special, endearing, valuable and they were triumphantly Australian. This dignified and trustworthy kangaroo hopped right on board with the Royal Australian Air Force, which would regularly paint kangaroos, boxing kangaroos in particular, on the sides of their planes in the Second World War and adopted the kangaroo as their official insignia following the war. We see here, for example, Sapper Thompson of the Australian bomb disposal unit displaying their unit mascot Joey, which is actually a joey [image shown].
Qantas capitalised on these associations from 1944 when it painted on the side of its planes the kangaroo which was originally from the one penny coin. This was initially to celebrate the new kangaroo route from Britain to Australia. But by the end of the war there was an indelible link between service to the country, flying and the kangaroo. Today Qantas still trades on this image of itself as a spirit of Australia, and the spirit of Australia is intangible and flexible, it’s a kind of vaguely noble sentiment that is contemporary and timeless. To quote Qantas’ marketing department: ‘The kangaroo as a symbol is at once a legacy, the Anzac spirit, free spirited and confident.’ This self-proclaimed bestowal of the Anzac spirit onto a commercial airline simply by painting a kangaroo on the side – I think it should be admired for its audacity and it couldn’t have been achieved without such an effective and emotive symbol behind it. Such sentiments are still echoed by Tourism Australia who adopted the kangaroo as its symbol in 2004 because it represented, and again I am quoting from their marketing department, ‘Warmth optimism and boundless energy’.
The Made in Australia campaign which you might be familiar with, it’s a triangular green one, adopted the kangaroo in 2006 because according to extensive market research across all of Australia kangaroos had associations of the pure and natural, unique, innovative, and strangely enough clean kept on coming up. So these shifting associations demonstrate that the kangaroo has been successfully transformed from a mere animal which is a huge pest in Australia into a powerful and ubiquitous symbol. Anyone can write their own Australia onto the animal as long as you meet the precondition of being Australian. Few symbols had more humble combination than attempted extermination, and I would argue that few symbols are so self-consciously constructed today as the kangaroo.
I would like to leave you now with some inspiring words from a truly awful poem written in 1819 by Barron Field for the book First Fruits of Australian Poetry. Baron writes:
Kangaroo, kangaroo! Thou Spirit of Australia … Kangaroo, kangaroo! … Thy fore half, it would appear, Had belong’d to some “small deer”, Such as liveth in a tree; By thy hinder, thou should’st be A large animal of chace, Bounding o’er the forest’s space; – Join’d by some divine mistake, None but Nature’s hand can make – Nature, in her wisdom’s play, On Creation’s holiday.For howsoe’er anomalous, Thou yet art not incongruous, Repugnant or preposterous. Better-proportion’d animal, More graceful or ethereal, Was never follow’d by the hound, With fifty steps to thy one bound. …When sooty swans are once more rare, And duck-moles the Museum’s care, Be still the glory of this land, Happiest Work of Finest Hand!
Thank you. [applause]
ROD QUANTOCK: It’s in your blood, isn’t it? Thank you very much, Linda. Thank you for that beautiful poem. It’s a fantastic poem. You will put that up on the net for us so that we can all enjoy that wonderful poem.
We now move on to the rainbow serpent with Dr Shino Konishi. Shino is a research fellow in the Australia Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. Her research, including her PhD thesis from the University of Sydney, examines Western representations of Aboriginality and she is particularly interested in the history of cultural contact. She recently co-edited a special issue of borderlands e-journal on Indigenous bodies in 2008. Please welcome Shino to tell us about the rainbow serpent. I will slither off now.
SHINO KONISHI: I’m going to be a bit indulgent and talk about myself a bit in working through the symbol. In 2007, when I was first invited to write about the rainbow serpent for the Symbols of Australia book, I welcomed the opportunity to explore what I assumed to be a lighter aspect of Aboriginal history. At the time I had been teaching Indigenous Australian studies at the University of Sydney and I was increasingly weighed down by the heart-breaking details of teaching Aboriginal history, going through details about colonisation, dispossession, racism, exclusion and continual governmental intervention, as we probably all remember from 2007.
In thinking about the rainbow serpent I thought this should be a bit of fun in contrast. My mind immediately conjured up images of brightly coloured snakes that I had seen slithering over the covers of children’s books and school murals in my youth, not to mention the array of souvenirs that I had idly perused at airport gift shops. Yet at the same time I knew that the rainbow serpent was more than just a benign attempt to introduce children and tourists alike to the rich cultural heritage of Australia’s Aboriginal people. It was not simply a familiar design or decoration. I also remembered that the rainbow serpent could be a symbol of contention that could divide Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. So I guess quickly I went from thinking about light and colourful histories and went straight into the political.
The first time I had actually thought about the rainbow serpent as opposed to just noticing its colourful depictions - there’s an example [image shown] - was in the early 1990s when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Each day I would catch the No. 72 bus which sped along Mounts Bay Road only to slow down as it passed the old Swan brewery which lies between Mount Eliza and the Swan River, because at the time there were always picketers and protesters out front of the building. They were protesting the proposed redevelopment of the site by the erstwhile WA Inc.
Since the late 1980s the local Aboriginal people and their supporters had declared that this part of the Swan River was a sacred site known as Goonininup, a resting place for the Waugal or the Noongar people’s rainbow serpent. The Noongar believed that the Waugal created the Swan River and its waterholes and according to the elder Clarrie Isaacs it has the power of life and death and demands the respect due to it. However, at that time few non-Indigenous people were prepared to pay it any such respect. Sceptics clamoured to be heard on talkback radio accusing Aboriginal people of being troublemakers and inventing the Waugal in order to stymie economic progress. Few Perth residents would have been aware that the first government translator, Francis Armstrong had actually observed Noongar people paying tribute to the Waugal in 1836, a mere seven years after the colony had been established. In the end though, the Noongar people and their supporters lost their claim. In 1992 developers began construction on the site, and in 2001 it opened up as a café and function centre. In this instance, the rainbow serpent symbolised the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s investment in the land and also the clash over Aboriginal people’s cultural sovereignty.
Yet in 2001, if we move forward, following the legal recognition of native title and also the growing support for the reconciliation movement, which culminated in hundreds of thousands of people across Australia participating in Walk for Reconciliation in 2000, the rainbow serpent had suddenly come to symbolise the unity of the nation. As the nation celebrated the Centenary of Federation, the rainbow serpent was seen in an array of public displays. Alongside the Federation star, the rainbow serpent lit up the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the finale of the New Year’s Eve fireworks extravaganza, the two symbols together signifying 100 years as a nation – thousands of years as a land was the slogan.
It was also a float in Sydney’s ‘Journey of a nation - Centenary of Federation’ parade on 1 January and here in Canberra plantings of tulips and native flora arranged to resemble a rainbow serpent represented the 1970s in Floriade’s century of bloom display, symbolising Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. So in the new millennium, the rainbow serpent was used by event organisers to symbolise Indigenous Australian people and audiences were urged to embrace Indigenous people’s newfound place within Australia’s national identity.
So in these three different examples, we see that the rainbow serpent was used in fairly simple ways to stand in for Aboriginal culture or else to highlight Aboriginal people’s intransigence in the case of the Swan brewery protests or their eventual acceptance. However, in researching this chapter, I soon realised that the rainbow serpent had a rich set of complex meanings that were completely new to me. By the time I started writing this essay - I was a research fellow at the Centre for Historical Research here at the Museum so I had fantastic access to the NMA’s collections of images and especially images that were used in a collection called Painting the Land Story which was edited by a former curator Luke Taylor. Using these images to trace a new history, I discovered that the rainbow serpent was an English name for a figure that appears in the Dreamings of many different Aboriginal language groups across the continent [such as Thuwatha, Ingana and Nyalon, which I have an image of[. It features variously as an important creator figure, a guardian of sacred places, a bringer of monsoonal rains and storms, or else a dangerous creature that lurks in waterholes threatening to swallow any unwary passers-by – to name just a few of its diverse incarnations.
The rainbow serpent is also frequently connected with fertility, both human and ecological. In all of its guises and geographies it is associated with both water, an essential resource, and also the rainbow. Its shimmering light and curved form reflects the scales and body of the snake. The rainbow is also an important bridge between the water and the sky, which is yet another resting place for the rainbow serpent.
Through writing this chapter I have come to realise that the rainbow serpent symbolises so much than more just the brightly coloured snakes I remember from the 1980s. It’s been an important symbol in Aboriginal society for thousands of years, judging by some rock art, and by the start of the twenty-first century it was also a recognised symbol for the wider Australian society.
In making that transition it had, however, lost its particular so-called traditional meanings and its ambiguous combination of creative and destructive forces. Within contemporary Aboriginal society and politics, the rainbow serpent became an emblem of a pan-Aboriginal identity unifying all Indigenous people across the country. Unlike any other Aboriginal Dreaming figures or ancestral beings, the rainbow serpent was adopted by non-Indigenous people, albeit in an altered somewhat domesticated form, which I think that image represents [image shown].
In an official capacity it’s been used to represent the antiquity of the land, unity of the nation and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. But I always remember that cynicism about the Waugal when I was a teenager. Individuals have also embraced the rainbow serpent as a positive sign of New Age spirituality and connection to the earth. The rainbow serpent now often evokes social harmony and the acceptance of ethnic and cultural differences, yet at the same time it’s also been received by non-Indigenous people with some scepticism and as a symbol of Aboriginal culture’s incompatibility with Western modernity and capitalism. It is evident then that the supple skin of the rainbow serpent provides an ideal canvas for inscribing new meanings and symbolisms for Australians, both Indigenous and not, well into the future. Thank you.
ROD QUANTOCK: Thank you. I have to tell you doing this [demonstrates] you must do it every day for five minutes. It doesn’t matter what they tell you on late night television about exercise machines and what they tell you at the elderly citizens club on Thursday afternoon about keeping fit, bounce like a kangaroo, it will re-invigorate your life and bring you joy and happiness guaranteed – and it’s free. Thank you very much, Shino.
You can see from our list of presenters, we are down to Richard White who is going to talk about cooee and that damnable Opera House. Let me tell you about Richard White, coeditor of Symbols of Australia. Richard teaches Australian history and the history of travel and tourism at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Inventing Australia: Images and identity and is coeditor of a number of books including Memories and Dreams, The Oxford Book of Australian Travel Writing and Cultural History in Australia. In 2005 he published a collaborative work On Holidays: a history of getting away in Australia and in 2007 edited a special issue of Studies in Travel Writing in Australia. He coedits the journal History Australia and obviously Symbols of Australia as well.
So please on the count of three a big cooee for Richard White. Now get into it, you people have been lazy and self-indulgent all afternoon, and now it’s your turn to make a contribution. Are you ready, 1, 2 3 [cooee]
ROD QUANTOCK: Beautiful. Richard White.
RICHARD WHITE: Thank you, Rod, and for stealing my thunder. There is something special about a mass cooee that I always - I often try in my lectures where often there will be a few international students - so I ask the Australian students to demonstrate and the international ones look on very bemused. Then when I ask them to do it, because they will have learnt how to do it, there’s always total silence.
Why the cooee in a book on symbols of Australia? Because of course the cooee is not a visual symbol as most of the symbols in the book are - what we usually think of in terms of a symbol but it’s an oral symbol. But nevertheless we wanted to have something that wasn’t a visual symbol in it. We were thinking – could you have oral symbols of nations? If you think about the Swiss yodel or of the chimes of Big Ben as a symbol of Britain, especially Britain in wartime, they are also very evocative symbols and Australia has the kookaburra as well. The two things that are crucial in a symbol being effective is that first of all it’s distinctive, and the cooee fulfils that, and the other is that it’s reasonably reproducible. Although as my international students demonstrate it often takes a bit of effort to do your first cooee, ultimately it’s a reasonably reproducible thing.
But at the same time it’s interesting that the cooee does also take on a visual form, and here we have a wonderful example of the cooee [image shown]. It requires that particular kind of stance with the hands held to the mouth and also of course leaning forward because that means it will carry that extra ten centimetres further, and the carrying power of the cooee is of course the essential feature of it. The other issue that the cooee brings up in terms of the way in which symbols work and thinking more abstractly about the nature of a symbol is the issue as to whether symbols are actually in a sense imposed from above or whether they organically arise from popular culture, from the people themselves. I think different symbols work in different ways in that regard.
Some are very effectively exploited by commercial companies, as we have seen with billy tea, but others seem to just emerge out of the Australian ether, if you like. In many ways the cooee does emerge in that way. It is another borrowing from Aboriginal culture originally but quite rapidly, unlike the rainbow serpent which as Shino says only fairly recently became symbolic of Australia as a whole, the cooee quite rapidly became naturalised within European Australia – even by the 1820s Europeans in Australia were quite unselfconsciously using the cooee among themselves. They had started using the term ‘within cooee’, for example, that had entered the language.
From then on it sort of took off and increasingly became symbolic of Australia. By the late nineteenth century it was being used widely to promote particular companies. It became a brand name and so on. It was widely used in literature, lots of stories about cooees for lost children and sometimes quite romantic ones where the cooee might cross the ocean, for example. There were also a series of cooee songs from about 1860. I have counted over 70 popular parlour songs which used the cooee. And of course cooee being musical, it could be used quite effectively in that way.
But in terms of the top-down or the bottom-up popularisation of the cooee, I want to introduce you to Maude Wordsworth James. She is a very interesting character. I do have an image of her [image shown]. That is one of the many songs, Cooee Mary My little gum tree queen. That’s my favourite one, I have to say. There are some wonderful lines in it. But some were rather more serious cooee songs. And in a way the climax of the cooee as a national symbol comes in the First World War when the cooee becomes the call to arms and it was widely used in recruitment.
But turning to Maude, a fascinating woman, Maude Wordsworth James also draws to attention to the fact that, in terms of nation making generally, men are generally the prime movers. But when it comes to particularly the popularisation of national symbols, often you find women are actually involved just as much as men. For example, you can think about the Eureka flag with the Southern Cross, which was actually first made by a group of women. The popularisation of the wattle as a national flower was largely down to women, and I think to some extent the popularisation of the cooee was largely down to Maude. She grew up in Ballarat of a fairly prominent legal family, but during the 1890s depression ended up in Kalgoorlie with her husband Charles or Charlie. She had aspirations and the family was having money problems. I’ll quote her diary because I think it’s a fascinating document in national symbology:
One night Charlie … came home in a pessimistic mood, and talked as though money was the great thing in life, and that it weighed more with people than anything else … when I went to bed that night I determined that I would not rest until I had thought of some plan … for gaining wealth as quickly as possible … just as the dawn was breaking, an idea came to me that immediately arrested my attention … Here is the idea which is entirely my own … The Commonwealth of Australia has no Souvenir - Tasmania tempted Tourists with little golden maps - Western Australia sold silver swans on spoons, and brooches, and jewellery intended for gifts - and the other states sent away Kangaroos and Emus and typical products of the country. But a present that embraced all the states [and she was a keen Federationist too] and which could be used in any one of them was, I meditated, the one thing needful.
So she hit upon the idea that she would make her fortune out of the cooee by using it as the inspiration for a line of souvenirs. To quote the diary again:
… the more I thought of it the more I wanted to jump out of bed and start the thing right away … from that day to this, I have tried to advance the idea, and to make out of it a satisfactory profit for the future.
What she did was register the word as a trademark in Australia, Britain and New Zealand. She patented various jewellery designs, particularly with her cooee snake as a sort of design for jewellery. She sold those designs for engagement rings, bangles, brooches. She even tried to claim copyright of the word but was unsuccessful in that. But she moved on to cooee mementos, knick-knacks, china, pottery ware. She ran cooee competitions. She even made up these excruciating cooee jokes. She thought every home should have its own cooee corner, and that could include a clock that rather bizarrely featured a mechanical ‘blackfellow with a boomerang in his hand’ who would emerge on the hour and half hour and cooee.
She also contributed to the song writing tradition and she had very interesting things to say with about how her songs should be sung:
Before the singer commences, three ‘Coo-ees’ –
[I mean, we only did one - there were suggestions that Australians instead of giving three cheers we should give three cooees]
clearly rendered, and to carry well, must be given, with the hand or hands to the mouth, in true Australian fashion … The compositions should never be sung until the Call is thus emphasised beforehand.
Maud really got into the cooee and popularised it widely. I think probably she went overboard and partly because of her, because of that excess, we see through the twentieth century the cooee beginning to fall out of fashion.
One of the other interesting things about symbols generally is the way that they more or less come and go, although I suspect, and especially from your whole-hearted cooee then, the cooee is ready to make a comeback. Interestingly, at Steve Irwin’s memorial service there was a cooee. In a way, that harks back to the idea that the cooee had almost supernatural power and could cross the ocean as England called to Australia for help in the First World War but also could even cross the grave.
I also half wrote the chapter on the Sydney Opera House, so I will just half talk about it very quickly. It is oppressive for Rod sitting here that we are now going to talk about the Sydney Opera House, having started with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but I just make the point, Rod, and we make this in the introduction as a sort of sop to Melburnians in many ways, that it’s only the fluffiness of Sydney that requires symbols of Australia whereas a city with substance doesn’t need them.
ROD QUANTOCK: Bless you.
RICHARD WHITE: Where that leaves Canberra, which is in many ways a city of symbols and a symbol in itself, I will just leave that aside. As I said, one of the important things about a symbol is that it’s distinctive and easily recognisable, and certainly the Opera House has the reputation of being the most recognisable building in the world. That’s quite a significant thing. A number of people, not just Australians and not just Sydney-siders in fact, will say it’s the most famous building in the world. This Ken Done image [image shown] is quite a striking one because it doesn’t really look like the Opera House. Yet from just that image of those sails we know what it’s referring to. Similarly with the Sydney Olympics, just that squiggle was enough to evoke the Sydney Opera House internationally. That is an indication of just what a powerful symbol it is.
The other interesting thing about the Opera House as a symbol and about its fame is that a lot of that fame came about because of the controversy that surrounded the building of the Sydney Opera House and the effective sacking of Jørn Utzon in the 1960s. Once the Sydney Opera House was opened, it became a symbol of unity and everyone wanted to be associated with it, but we tend to forget there was not only a lot of criticism of the Opera House as a white elephant and so on, but there was also a lot of satire directed towards the Sydney Opera House. Barry Humphreys was quite interesting in terms of what he had to say. He saw the Sydney Opera House as basically a bit of kitsch and he made the most of that. [image of Dame Edna’s hat]
The final point I’d make about the Opera House as a symbol is that partly because it did become such a powerful symbol of Australia, it also became a site for symbolism, not only for national celebration but also for protest and perhaps most famously with the no war protest in 2003 which, like all good symbolic acts, got turned into a snow dome, which is a fairly rare item but nevertheless a typical symbol of Australia [image shown]. And I’ll leave it there. Thank you.
ROD QUANTOCK: Thank you very much, Richard, that’s fantastic. The idea that the cooee could make a comeback is brilliant. If we get timed local calls, I’m sure the cooee will make a comeback. Ladies and gentlemen, I notice a few of you have to go. We thank you for coming and you enjoy a safe trip back to where you come from. I’m going to invite all our speakers to the stage and we’re going to open the floor to you for both question and comment.
This is your chance to engage in this discussion. It’s been very interesting so far. From my point of view, I found the idea of Maude Wordsworth James’s commitment to create something out of the cooee extremely interesting and I am going to ask Richard: is it possible to deliberately go out and create a symbol or is it really a bit of pot luck?
RICHARD WHITE: I don’t think you can deliberately go out and create it. There needs to be a resonance there. But I think you can do a lot towards popularising it, getting it to proliferate within the community. Vegemite is a good example where the company happened on the fact that it was getting a response from the Australian community, particularly one of the elements of Vegemite’s popularity is the knowledge that nobody else but Australians can bear it and the way a symbol distinguishes Australians from the rest of the world is always very important. But then at the same time the marketing by Kraft, another American company, was very important in the popularisation of it as an Australian symbol. So I think the two things work together and probably a bit of both is needed.
ROD QUANTOCK: Either to you or Melissa because you overarch all of this: what is the difference between an icon and a symbol?
MELISSA HARPER: You can have that one.
RICHARD WHITE: One of the things about a symbol is that proliferation and the reproducibility of it. The power of an icon resides in the original; the power of a symbol resides in the fact that the reproduction is as important as the original. If you think of something like the coat of arms, for example, there is no original. It only exists as a sort of symbol that is reproduced. That would be our short answer.
ROD QUANTOCK: Do you have any questions or comments that you would like to make or indeed any suggestions? If this book is as successful as we hope it will be, there will be a second edition and you may be referenced as one of the people who contributed to it. So this is a chance. Anything you would like to add?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: If I can be permitted a double bunger, the first part is I would like to know one of those awful cooee jokes and I’d then like to know how much food is there in the book please.
RICHARD WHITE: You really don’t want to know one of the jokes and I am not sure I can even remember one. There is one about the difference between a cooee and a bad shot at billiards – I’m sorry, I can’t remember. She does actually tell a story, and I think it can’t be true, about how a notorious criminal had escaped from Australia and had managed to get to Britain. The police were sent looking for him and they couldn’t find him anywhere until this particular detective thought I’ll go down to the Strand and cooee. And the criminal naturally – any Australian if they hear a cooee is obliged to cooee back – cooeed back and was caught. She tells it as a sort of true story. I’ll leave you to decide.
MELISSA HARPER: In terms of food, we have the pavlova and Vegemite. There could have been other items of food.
RICHARD WHITE: And shark and kangaroo.
MELISSA HARPER: If you want to consider them food in that way. Pavlova was chosen I suppose over the Lamington because of the interesting debate about who actually owns the pavlova between Australia and New Zealand so it raised lots of fascinating questions there. You could probably have a whole book just on food symbols in a way. I’d be interested in what food symbols people would pick, if there’s one that you would favour.
ROD QUANTOCK: Do you have a food symbol?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Lamington.
ROD QUANTOCK: Is the lamington a national thing?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes.
ROD QUANTOCK: Jeff Kennett introduced the lamington competition in Victoria when he was losing votes in the country. He decided to become a country person.
MELISSA HARPER: You could have the Anzac biscuit as well, but we did have the digger so the biscuit got talked about in that context.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: I’m not sure how fruitful it is to talk about why something has not become a symbol. We have talked a lot about the things that have and it gets back to the Melburnian question. The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne built for the 1880 exhibition, how is it that Melbourne has never turned that into a major symbol? Why do we think that is so?
ROD QUANTOCK: They say it’s the finest Florentine dome in the southern hemisphere, not that there’s a lot in the southern hemisphere, I don’t know. Obviously the panel can speak but as a Melburnian it has always been part of our life because it’s been the place where the home show, the motor show and all of these commerce events have been held. It has lost its relationship to its original intent as it’s lost the complex of buildings that were around it. It once had an aquarium, a science museum, a ballroom and the most magnificent gardens. All of those over time - I think the aquarium burnt down which is a difficult thing for an aquarium to do, it’s been stripped of its ballroom and so on back to the basic cruciform shape that it has now. I don’t know why. It’s a staggeringly amazing building but it’s made of timber and I suspect perhaps you don’t make a symbol out of something so intrinsically flammable. Any comments from there?
PETER SPEARRITT: I’ll have a go at answering the question. I have thought about it for one personal and one professional reason. The professional reason is that my colleague David Dunstan edited a very handsome book on the Exhibition Building and the building is now on the World Heritage Property Register. The personal reason is that my father spent about three years on a radar station in New Guinea during World War II but he’s fond of pointing out as a Queenslander that the worst thing that happened to him ever in his life was living in the Exhibition Building for three months while being trained during World War II and it was unheated.
My explanation would be a lot to do with landscape setting. The thing about the bridge and the Opera House is the extraordinary landscape setting. The Exhibition Building doesn’t have a landscape setting that lends itself to depicting it in a landscape. Unlike the Eiffel Tower and when you look at all of these other buildings, the landscape setting of them is always incredibly important. Obviously it is with the Eiffel Tower because the city around it is lower until you get to La Defense and all that crap – but still. The empire state building still has a landscape setting in its part of Manhattan because all the other high stuff is up the other end. To me it doesn’t capture a particular point. It sort of, you could say, captures marvellous Melbourne at a particular point but for some reason that hasn’t had any resonance in the long term.
I briefly argue in my chapter in the book, which I think the editors kindly didn’t knock this bit out, that the Exhibition Building wouldn’t be recognised in the rest of Australia. Rod is right; Melburnians know it well. But you go outside Melbourne, you show a photograph of that building to a kid anywhere else in Australia and they won’t pick it.
ROD QUANTOCK: But at the time it was built it would have been.
PETER SPEARRITT: Absolutely. It would have been recognised around Australia at the time it was built, which goes back to Richard’s point about the trends in all these structures. They often lose popularity; they are regarded as utilitarian; and then they make a comeback.
ROD QUANTOCK: The other thing if the Opera House is up there, the difference between the Opera House and the Exhibition Buildings is the Exhibition Buildings are practical, useful and serve a purpose. The Opera House had never become a symbol it would have become a white elephant.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Of the symbols discussed today the rainbow serpent seems to be the slightly odd one out. I wonder if it is truly a symbol of Australia or if it’s a symbol for Aboriginal Australia.
SHINO KONISHI: I guess maybe Richard and Melissa could explain a bit why they chose the rainbow serpent. I suppose what I tried to argue is that there is a self-conscious attempt in 2001 to search for a symbol that could represent a reconciled Australia. Through a series of public displays the rainbow serpent was used to show the new Australia which has a reconciled Aboriginal community or where white and black Australia had been reconciled. I don’t think I found a lot of uses of the rainbow serpent after Federation. I guess this would be a question of whether it will continue to be reproduced in that way in the future or if it just had its moment around Federation and after the reconciliation walk and those sorts of successes.
RICHARD WHITE: You mean after the Centenary of Federation?
SHINO KONISHI: Sorry, after the Centenary of Federation.
RICHARD WHITE: We have organised the book vaguely chronologically according to when a particular symbol emerges as a national symbol, so the rainbow serpent is the second last one and the baggy green comes after that. But it’s a good example of the cooption of Aboriginal culture into national symbolism because the cooee, as I mentioned, and also the boomerang had both been used as national symbols quite early. But both to some extent by the end of the twentieth century were falling out of use and to some extent the rainbow serpent has been appropriated to fill that vacuum of an Indigenous symbol that can at the same time represent a reconciled Australia. But I think Shino is right as to wondering whether it will continue and how successful it will continue to be in the future. Qantas, for example, would use the rainbow serpent and it’s getting more commercial use.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: My name is George Poulos and I am the designer of the Bondi Beach flag, as Richard will know - probably nobody else knows.
ROD QUANTOCK: We do now.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Have we missed the most powerful symbol of all, which is the rising sun, and we have missed it even in the coat of arms. The rising sun started in the 1820s and signified the new man from the abomination of Britanniaen man and then was removed from 1908 from our official coat of arms because the British came in and just said ‘Forget about rising sun. She’s only been around for 80 years or something. You can have what we’re going to give you,’ which was one of the ugliest coat of arms we ever had. In 1902 we had the rising sun of the Anzacs and when I look at this, to me the rising sun is here and the symbols that are in this book are down here somewhere. Have we missed the most powerful symbol of all?
ROD QUANTOCK: Just a quick yes or no.
MELISSA HARPER: We did consider it. You might want to say a bit more because Richard is quite interested in the rising sun. Yes, it was something we did talk about. We did spend a little bit of time in the introduction talking about it, more so than some other symbols that weren’t included because we did recognise it was one that could easily have been a chapter. I guess in part because we had the digger and there was some discussion of it there that was one reason why it wasn’t. It was one that we did tussle about.
RICHARD WHITE: We started off thinking it would be a book of about 15 symbols. The publisher said no more than 20, and ultimately it ended up with 26. We said we have asked 26 people to write chapters but probably some of them won’t produce, knowing academics as we did, so it will probably only be about 20 – and all 26 came in on time, which was terrific. The publishers went with 26, because we couldn’t find others to drop out. It was very hard to leave the rising sun out.
I am interested that you argue that today it’s such a powerful symbol. It’s a very interesting symbol in terms of the rise and fall of symbols. But in a way it did fall out of use particularly from the Second World War on with the Japanese rising sun becoming effectively a much more powerful symbol than Australia’s version of it. It raises the other interesting question: why does Australia have so many symbols? That’s actually quite an interesting thing to ponder. You can rattle off five, six or seven symbols of France, America or Britain but you soon run out; where we certainly got to 26 and could have easily kept on going. Certainly the rising sun is one of our regrets at not including.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: The question still remains I would like you to divulge what is [inaudible] the question comes back. There are other things that a rising sun most beautiful flag in Australia … what we recognise the rising sun on.
It’s the most beautiful flag in Australia by a long way and it’s sitting there as a really powerful symbol. As well as that, we have rising suns on the crest of the New South Wales arms, on the crest of the South Australian arms and we have what we call rising suns in vexillology on the fly of the Western Australian flag and the South Australian flag. So the rising sun is rising, rising, rising, it’s not falling. I would argue that the rising sun is by far and way. But if it’s not, I would like if possible for each of you to tell me what is.
PETER SPEARRITT: My contextual comment is we can’t even get our own bloody flag. We still have an imperial flag. It’s extraordinary. [inaudible]
ROD QUANTOCK: The Southern Cross.
PETER SPEARRITT: I’d say the shape of the map of Australia.
MELISSA HARPER: I’d probably go the kangaroo for the one that both within Australia and outside is able to invoke Australia.
LINDA THOMPSON: Obviously I would go with kangaroo but my personal favourite is I actually wrote a chapter on the crocodile. If someone would like to ask why the crocodile wasn’t included as a symbol of Australia, that is also fine, but yes probably kangaroo internationally.
SHINO KONISHI: I would agree with Peter on the map of Australia. I think it’s used a lot.
RICHARD WHITE: Currently, I think you’d have to say the Southern Cross has more resonance than the rising sun. I don’t disagree with you that historically it has been an enormously influential symbol. It’s very interesting in that a lot of Australians now don’t realise its importance as a national symbol. It’s interesting that the army in its latest recruiting campaign got back to the rising sun as a means of recruitment. I agree it’s still around but I’d disagree that it was the most powerful symbol.
PETER SPEARRITT: We could take a straw poll quickly. How many people would agree with George that the rising sun - how would you like to phrase it - is the most powerful?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Rising sun in its broadest connotations so you look at the sun and then at the Aboriginal flag and say, ‘Does that resonate with me?’ I think that really resonates with Australians more than the Southern Cross even.
PETER SPEARRITT: So a better question would be how many of you right now would prefer to see what’s loosely called the Aboriginal flag rather than the current one we’ve got as our national flag? [audience gives show of hands] Do we still have our photographer? We need a photograph of the hands up.
RICHARD WHITE: The other thing about the rising sun is that it’s not distinctive to Australia.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Neither is the Southern Cross.
RICHARD WHITE: That is right. One of the interesting things is the way Australia has laid claim to the Southern Cross. I don’t like to stereotype the young but I can do that in this audience – most of them wouldn’t realise that anywhere else in the world can see the Southern Cross.
MELISSA HARPER: Young Brazilians are tattooing as well in the same way young Australians are.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I wondered whether apart from the tourist bureau anybody had done any research as to what foreigners thought were symbols of Australia. All the things we are talking about are patently recognisable here. We know kangaroos, billys and all that sort of thing, but does a billy mean anything to anybody in South America as representing Australia? Do these icons mean anything outside our boundaries apart from the oddities like kangaroos?
RICHARD WHITE: The way we begin the introduction is talking about probably a not very well known feature film called Scooby Doo and the Legend of the Vampire. Scooby Doo is an American cartoon. It’s a feature film which is actually set in Australia. It’s aimed probably at 10-year-olds internationally. This gang of teenage detectives arrive in Australia, climb the Harbour Bridge, go to the Opera House, go to Bondi Beach, get chased by a shark, meet lifesavers, they then go to the outback, they wear a slouch hat, ride an emu, meet kangaroos, kookaburras, gumtrees. There’s a rock like Uluru at the centre of the story. I think it’s quite amazing that, for 10-year-old Americans, those symbols sum up Australia. The makers must have realised that they would have resonance even among 10-year-old Americans.
They might not all have resonance, but I think one of the ways national symbols work outside Australia is through a process of gradual accumulation of your knowledge of the world and you acquire knowledge of the world through imagining symbols. It’s interesting that, even for a cartoon for 10-year-olds, the assumption is that those symbols would be recognisable as placing the action in Australia. Similarly, The Simpsons have had their Australian episode but they have also had an episode in France and Japan, and similarly symbols are working in that way. I would say not all of them.
It’s interesting that some of these symbols work much more effectively within Australia than outside but there are others that are more effective outside. Foster’s is a very interesting symbol of Australia outside Australia and is probably more powerful as a symbol of Australia outside than it is inside. Australians like the fact that, unlike Vegemite where nobody else likes it except Australians, with Foster’s everybody likes it except Australians. The way symbols work to differentiate the two audiences is an important element.
LINDA THOMPSON: When I was doing my research for the kangaroo I looked into how the Australian Tourism Board chooses what image they are going to run with for the next few years. They do a lot of market research internationally and they look for what they called - I think the official term was - semantic markers which have an emotive response internationally. So they pretty much flash card international – and they concentrate on key tourism areas like Germany, England and places like that – these things with them and they record their responses to them. That’s quite a clinical way of looking at it. Like Richard says, it boils down to the fact that if you see a kangaroo you know it’s going to be from Australia or if you see the Harbour Bridge you know it’s from Sydney. So in a way they are quite deliberately constructed internationally, I suppose.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Just with regard to the rainbow serpent, why did you choose that rather than Uluru which is also distinctively Australian and has great significance to the Indigenous people as well?
RICHARD WHITE: Uluru is in the book. We have a chapter on Uluru and certainly is another interesting example of that use of Aboriginality within a late twentieth century, early twenty-first century context of Australian nationalism. That’s a very interesting aspect of the way national symbols are going at the moment.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: I notice in all of the original presentations there were references to advertising and commercial use of these things, so the questions are: do things remain national symbols if they are not part of advertising or are we just talking about the history of Australian advertising here?
ROD QUANTOCK: Very good question.
PETER SPEARRITT: The example of Qantas is very interesting because one of our poster artists Gert Sellheim did the original kangaroo, which they have now abandoned. Qantas has attempted, as we have heard, to kind of appropriate the kangaroo. I think it’s very hard for advertisers to completely appropriate one symbol to themselves. I mean, look at something like the Westpac logo, how bloody dull can you get or Ken Done’s much admired among some graphic artists Commonwealth Bank logo, a couple of bloody boxes? I think the world of logos has become quite different to the world of symbols in a sense.
MELISSA HARPER: I think there are probably a number of symbols in the book that we look at that don’t necessarily rely on advertising, something like wattle which has a popular appeal or again is a symbol that has been revived quite recently in a range of different contexts. It was used as a symbol of grief in the aftermath of the Bali bombings and the Swiss canyoning incident with Australians. There are ways in which the power of symbols continue without advertising. The pavlova too doesn’t necessarily rely on advertising. It is something that is reproduced in people’s homes and becomes a symbol that way, being rolled out at the barbecue. Lots of them do certainly, but I don’t think it’s an essential aspect.
RICHARD WHITE: It’s interesting that Anzac is actually legislatively protected from being used by advertisers because it’s seen as an important symbol. And similarly there is legislation around the coat of arms or the flag as to how it can be used. It’s a very interesting issue just what is the relationship between advertising and symbolism. Obviously it’s very important, more important with some than others.
PETER SPEARRITT: The classic example at the moment would be the spot of bother that BP has because it appears to stand for leaking oil rather than a sun.
RICHARD WHITE: A lot of symbols proliferated around the beginning of the twentieth century when there were a lot of very small companies trying to establish a national market and they exploited just about everything they could think of as a symbol or as a trademark or part of their packaging and so on, and a lot of those have disappeared. Others have been taken over by multinationals. The ways in which a multinational company uses the national symbol to in a sense naturalise itself. Holden, for example, was always a multinational company but very effectively presented Holden as a national icon. Vegemite is another one and Kraft - I think I can say this without fear of retribution - is actually very protective of its image and Vegemite’s image. In fact, we asked Kraft if we could use some of their archival images and they said yes, we could, if they were allowed to vet the chapter and to make sure it fitted their corporate image - and we said no, naturally and found other images. It’s interesting that they were so concerned about the relationship with the national symbol.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: The Holden example is very interesting because it wouldn’t be a national symbol if it hadn’t been presented by advertisers in the way it was.
PETER SPEARRITT: I couldn’t agree more, because one of the best objects in the National Museum of Australia is the first prototype Holden which is all Yank.
RICHARD WHITE: The other interesting thing is right through the 1950s and 1960s, Ford was just as popular as Holden. If you remember, families were either Ford families or Holden families, but of course Ford got by without any of that national symbolism. Their symbolism was that it was American, which proved just as effective in 1950s Australia as Holden’s symbolism that it was Australian.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: The first Ford Falcons were always advertised in the bush in their advertising.
ROD QUANTOCK: We will have to leave it there, I am terribly sorry. Please thank our panellists, beginning at my immediate left: Peter Spearritt, Melissa Harper, Linda Thompson, Shino Konishi and Richard White. Please thank them all. [applause] we thank you particularly for coming along because without you this would be nothing. I know that you are going to be invited to the book launch in about half an hour in the Friends lounge.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: A big round of applause for our host, I think we’ll call him today, the ‘magic’ Rod Quantock. [applause]
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Date published: 01 January 2018