Review: Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay

Being a journalist up close to the political and media spin cycle, seeing oppositions become governments that fail to live up to our hopes as miserably as the predecessors who get voted out, while social and environmental problems only deepen, is endlessly disillusioning. I spend many days battling cynicism and weariness.

In particular, reporting on and reading about climate change, seeing David Attenborough’s Our Planet burst onto screens in all its beauty and urgency, knowing potentially irreversible destruction is happening right now without action to avert it fills me with a creeping despair that is increasingly clouding life. I am far from alone in this.

As the screws have been tightening, a review copy of Australia Reimagined by Hugh Mackay, Australia’s best known social researcher, has landed quietly on my desk.

It sat there months, among other things that needed dealing with (e.g. climate change!)

One day I picked it up. I needed something to amuse me during a lunch break that wasn’t a screen. I had no preconceptions. I enjoyed a previous book of his, The Good Life, but I expected this to be a bit boring, to be perfectly frank. A book about Australian society? Yawn!

I was entirely unprepared to be swept swiftly away, by a surging river of ideas.

I began to read the book every lunchtime. At the end of every lunchtime I put it down with increasing reluctance. And at the end of the week I put the book on the back of the bike, brought it home, and spent the weekend devouring the rest, with the kind of fervour that’s usually more to be expected from new-release crime fiction.

Anyone – and I’d hazard a guess that it’s many of us – anyone who feels even vaguely, even a niggle, that there might be something somehow wrong or contradictory about the way we live in this country today – despite all our luck and progress and privilege – should read this.

In a marching argument loaded with insights on the Australian-specific version of Western culture, Mackay examines our trends in privacy, technology use, religion, marriage, loneliness, anxiety, multiculturalism and gender and demonstrates how these trends are feeding into each other, affecting our social cohesion, dragging us down as a people.

It’s a story about ourselves we need to hear. But it’s not a lecture and while it’s at times shocking, it’s never depressing. Quite the opposite: it’s illuminating, empowering, hopeful.

Mackay offers new ways to think about reviving and transforming our broken and disenchanting political system, our crippled public education system, our toxic gender stalemate – and more.

For someone feeling so broken-down by the situation described in my opening paragraphs that sometimes, in my darker moments, I struggle to see the point of even continuing to work, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

His ideas made me want to spring up from my chair after every chapter and take some kind of practical, actionable step. I think anyone who read this would feel the same, but depending on their own problem or passion, the action they would take might look quite different from mine.

Therefore, at various times while reading I wanted to thrust this book under the noses of my brother, sister, mother, husband, boss, colleague and friend, and there’s no better recommendation for a book than that. It would make a great gift (I’ve already lent mine out!)

If I had known how much I would love it, I would not have let it languish in a ‘to read’ pile; I would have placed it on top and read it before anything else.

As should you.

 

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The Supply Party (Martin Edmond, 2009)

Part biography, history and travel narrative yet surpassing all in sum, Martin Edmond’s story of the Burke and Wills expedition is told through the life and death of its scientist, naturalist, collector and artist, Ludwig Becker.

Reflective and atmospheric, Edmonds’ descriptive work fleshes out the human side of Becker and the expedition and teases out the tragedy at the heart of what I previously thought of as a rather dry story, told to death.

Snippets, anecdotes and quotes taken from Becker’s notes illuminate the atmosphere and humanity (both good and bad) Edmonds picked from the story’s bones. Edmond makes Becker real and immediate, so much so that by the end I really don’t want to hear the rest; for it’s not a particularly happy story.

Nevertheless I am compelled to go on.

Now it has taken a place in my mental collection of haunting representations and stories: alongside Sidney Nolan and Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly; Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Joan Lindsay and Perer Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Past and present blend as the narrative alternates between Burke & Wills’ expedition and that of the author following, albeit much more safely, in their footsteps years later.

The land he is seeing draws the author’s thoughts repeatedly back into the story of the doomed expedition, and one of Edmond’s major achievements is to give you a sense of not only what the land looks like today and how it looked 150 years ago, but 50 000 years ago before he, Ludwig, Burke or Wills ever walked upon it.

A finely worked sense of ominous inevitability grows in the reader as we hear the now-familiar details of the party’s demise.

Discord grows between the dwindling numbers of men in the party. Gradually, and necessarily, they discard the camels, trackers, people, other supplies and hundreds of litres of rum which were catalogued with such pride at the journey’s beginning.

Becker is eventually required not for his artistic services but for the extra pair of hands that may make the difference between life and death. He is forced to leave behind the careful records, the tasks and equipment that constituted both his life’s work and his purpose for being on the expedition.

Edmonds draws a vivid, heartbreaking picture of Becker: ill, injured, bullied by the sadistic Burke and forced to make his observations and artworks at night. His love of his work, and unshaking commitment to it, is fully realised as we are shown the completeness of his exhaustion yet his absolute determination to continue with his mission as long as he is able to pick up a pencil.

The uniqueness of this book is its marriage of the human story with art history; Edmonds clearly has a deep respect for Becker’s artwork. I was as affected as he by the uniqueness of the work, which Edmond describes as in the tradition of miniaturing and portraiture – mixing scientific precision and detail, yet illuminating its subjects with whimsical, the fantastic and the grotesque.

In this crucial aspect the book is let down by its publication in trade paperback with a few measly reproductions in the centre, so small that the reader is forced to read the words and use the pictures as a sort of imaginative aid to help fill in details and colours described and vitally important to the story thematically, yet invisible in the versions shown.

I would love the opportunity to buy this in a coffee-table, hardcover format, with full-page glossy reproductions and more illustrations taken from Becker’s notes, already so painstakingly sourced by Edmond.

As Edmond’s background to this process recounts, he says to the librarians who want to know why he wants to access Becker’s jealously guarded sketchbook and poorly lit paintings that there is no substitute for seeing the originals. And why block access to art the public doesn’t know or care about anyway?

Therefore, it is a shame the scale and pathos of these rare reproductions weren’t given justice, though I recognise the market for such a book would be almost negligible.

To give the art community access to a book that rests firmly in the Australian history section would achieve Edmond’s goal far better – to give Becker his rightful place and recognition in art as well as history. As it is, the book is forced to be less than it was originally capable of, much like Becker at the close of his journey.

Yet this cannot undermine the subtle, scholarly elegance with which Edmond has written his elegy; it will certainly remain in my consciousness, as will Edmond himself.