Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Book Review - The legend of the Nineties by Vance Palmer

The legend of the Nineties by Vance Palmer

Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1963

How did Australia as we know it now come to be? It's a question that many ask, and the answers are as varied as the people asking the question. Vance Palmer approached the problem in the late 1950s in this work, looking at what for many seemed as a pivotal decade in the formation of modern Australia, the 1890s. Palmer too sees it as very important, although perhaps not for the reasons others might chose.

Palmer sees distinct eras in early Australian history - convict, pastoralist, gold. Each brought something to Australia - the convict era brought institutionalised cruelty, pastoralism brought feudalism, and gold brought numbers. The sudden influx of people into the country during the gold rush changed more than just the landscape. The nature of gold seeking encouraged an individualist outlook, and the people that came to do the seeking, by and large, were independent characters who saw themselves as equals amongst equals. This influx prompted changes to the law, to land availability, and to the mindset of those who lived in Australia.

It was from this time onwards that ideas of what Australia could become began to coalesce. There was a growing thought that, in this vast "new" land, "new" systems of government could be applied to run the country. By the 1890s the country also began to develop its own literature and folklore (needless to state that the tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal lore was all but ignored by the white settlers), and these changes led to some new developments.

The Bulletin encapsulates the changes that Palmer elaborates, and he see it as a very important part of the growth of an Australian identity, as it captured the zeitgeist of the times, and made it available to all. It was for progress, but had no particular ideological  bent, lending its pages to single taxers, socialists, protectionists and others over the years. Isolationism was one thing that was a constant in the pages of The Bulletin, and beyond.

The other aspect of emerging Australian culture that The Bulletin promoted was writing. While a lot of second-rate material got into the paper, many of Australia's important writers and poets got their start between its covers. Paterson and Lawson were the best known, and their competing visions of life in the bush sets the scene for the final part of Palmer's book.

The old certainties of Australian life, such as they were, came to an end in the 1890s. The end of the gold boom, and the depression that followed, revealed several truths about Australia: the countryside could not support as many people as thought, and a drift to the major cities began that is still going on today. It was also clear Australia couldn't ignore the rest of the world, as that was where the money was coming from. The economic depression concentrated the antagonism between labour and capital that had been developing for the last 20 years, and led to the first big strikes in Australian history, at the docks and by the shearers. Ironically it was the superior industrial organisation by the employers that broke the back of these strikes. The outcome of these ructions - which included William Lane's flawed plan for paradise on earth in Paraguay - could have been almost anything, but ended in accomodation and compromise, and the arbitration system that served Australia well for many decades after Federation.

Palmer sees this accomodation between capital and labour as a lost opportunity: lost through the lack of true political awareness in the majority of workers and their acceptance of near-enough is good enough ("stringy-bark and greenhide methods"), the compliance of the new Labor Party in the system, and growing security fears leading up to World War One. He doesn't have much time for the political class in Australia at the time, seeing them as self-interested and certainly not connected to the majority of Australian people.

However, what he does recognise is that the 1890s was a decade where the idea of being an Australian took root with an increasing number; which developed further after Federation, and moved out into the wider world during the War. ANZAC in some ways set the seal on the previous 30 years of development of Australian culture in all its forms, when so many men and women travelled over the seas and realised that they were a different culture to the other parts of the Empire, and that what they had developed was in many ways better than the society of the Home Country. But that would be the subject of another review.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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