Neverland: The Lost Continent of Australia

Neverland introduction

when I look at the map and see what an awfully ugly-looking country Australia is, I feel as if I want to go there to see if it cannot be changed into a more beautiful form.[1]
Oscar Wilde

And the sun sank on the grand Australian bush—the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.[2]
Henry Lawson

Nothing has a Spirit that is grounded within itself and indwells it, but each has its being in something outside of and alien to it.[3]
G.W.F. Hegel

In Martin Boyd’s Outbreak of Love, Diana von Flugel and Russell Lockwood retire to the kiosk in Melbourne’s Fitzroy Gardens. Over strong tea and ‘dry dull cake’, they consider the quality of life in Australia. Lockwood complains, ‘Australia should have been colonised by the French or Italians, or some people who know how to live in this climate.’ His companion demurs, ‘Then we wouldn’t be here.’ Lockwood persists, ‘there ought to be a restaurant here with a French chef. It ought to be the thing to come here—like dining in the Bois.’ Miss von Flugel questions his willingness to accommodate to Australian life, ‘You like Australia now because you are thinking of all the European things that could be done to it. There will never be a French chef in the Fitzroy Gardens. When you realize that, will you want to stay?’ As the couple stroll down the sloping lawns, Miss von Flugel herself begins to have doubts—‘The scene was quite un-Australian… it reawakened her desire to visit again the other side of the world.’[4]

This yearning for an alternative Australia is a familiar theme. It responds to the sense that something is missing in the Australian way of life—that its grip on the land is tenuous, short in history, culturally immature, beholden to readymade models and coarse in outlook. Why settle for a rough imitation of Europe when it is possible to return to the original? Many Australians travel this low road of discontent until they find themselves in a more welcome environment. Expatriates like Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and, recently, Meaghan Morris, John Kinsella, Margaret Wertheim, McKenzie Wark and Bernard Cohen, find greener pastures in the northern hemisphere, far from the lean cultural offerings in Australia.

It is natural for those who remain here to feel some resentment at expatriates, as though they had fled a sinking ship rather than man the pump. It may seem nobler to travel the high road of optimism, to acknowledge the maturity that the Sydney Olympics brought to the country, to celebrate the rule of law and to feel grateful for the peaceful integration of many different races into one society. There appears much to praise in the unpretentious openness of life in Australia.

But such pride goes against the grain. Australian history is more often characterised by its failures than its achievements. The inland sea, Lasseter’s Reef, Phar Lap, Eureka Stockade, Gallipoli and Ned Kelly all symbolise failures to realise opportunities that the land and its offspring might have offered. Paul Keating’s government of the early 1990s dramatised the struggle between grand visions of possibility, such as Creative Nation, and the fatalistic forces of contraction, which he subsequently titled the ‘Kingdom of Nothingness’.[5] The kingdom has prospered in recent times with a string of failed visions, including Adelaide’s Multifunction Polis, the minimalist Republic proposal and Knowledge Nation. The twenty-first century appears to offer more of the same. As the clash of devout south and freedom-loving north reaches symphonic proportions, Australia is left holding the triangle, chiming in with its Anglo brothers. Australia would be ideally positioned to broker dialogue between the two halves of the world. Sadly, the Bali bombing in October 2002 seemed to destroy the one natural connection that mainstream Australia felt with Asia. The ongoing history of miscarriages reflects a fragile sense of legitimacy as a nation. Australia arose by chance. It would have taken only a minor change in the course of history for the fantasy of Martin Boyd’s Lockwood to have come true. La Perouse arrived in Australia only five days after the First Fleet. Or Lockwood could have been eating paella—the Pope had already given over Australia to the Spanish. Indeed, well before Cook arrived, the Dutch had established an Australia Company to colonise South Java, and centuries before that the Portuguese were staking out the neighbourhood. This circumstantial nature of British colonisation makes it plausible for Australians to imagine how it might be otherwise.

So what is to be gained from raking over the coals of possibility? A direct answer would be that uncertainly and lack of definition are the very ideal of Australian identity. They provide a unique paradigm of critical thinking, a theatre for world cultures and an openness to other possibilities. This is the kind of Australia that might reflect McKenzie Wark’s concept of ‘antipodality’,[6] where cultural differences can intermingle freely in the communication grid. Such a concept calls for the celebration of Australia’s karaoke culture as a global zone of intermingling world cultures.

However, without a nuanced framework for openness we are in danger of calling on a purely quantifiable sense of difference. Without an ear for dialogue, cultural strength becomes measured by the sheer number of different nationhoods gathered together or breadth on the colour spectrum of folk dress. We are left celebrating ‘diversity’, but with little actual encounter between participants.

A more dynamic way to accommodate difference lies in seeing the world through the eyes of the other. This entails more than the ironic commentaries on Aussie society, such as the wog narrator Nino Culotta in They’re a Weird Mob. It requires a reversal of roles, whereby we become the foreigners and they are the insiders. This need not lead to cultural escapism, as long as we keep in mind that what we see through the foreigner’s eyes is ourselves, freed from the mask of familiarity.

If only

Such reversal builds on a familiar conversational ploy. Underlying much discussion of culture in Australia is the ‘if only …’ refrain. If only we had same respect for culture as the French—or the environmental concerns of the Scandinavians, or the confidence of the Americans, or the passion of the Spanish, or the intensity of the Russians. These fictions are not a distraction from the true local culture—the Aussie mantra of mateship and fair go—they are alternative colonisations, and as such are closer to the actual stories that frame life at the bottom of the world. The challenge is not to pull back from this historical masquerade, but to explore its terrain more deeply—to risk the dissolution of Australian identity in order to recover a history that is more open to the challenge of creating a new nation on an old land.

Scenarios of alternative colonisation have only rarely been extended. The Aboriginal film BABAKIUERIA[7] imagined if the Aboriginal peoples were colonisers and the Europeans were indigenous (whose BBQ Area signs are read as sacred sites). Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith[8] re-imagined Australia as Efica, a remote Dutch colony overwhelmed by its USA-like partner, Voorstand. These are the exceptions. More often there are outward comparisons with more colourful and enlightened worlds, whose ideals constantly elude life in Australia.

Rather than seek liberation from these foreign models, they should be embraced—even if they reflect badly on Australia. A navigational metaphor is apt. In order to determine latitude and longitude, sailors align a sextant with a familiar star and measure the angle. These alternative colonisations are like those stars—they do not belong to our world, yet they help us understand Australia’s position in it.

The aim of this book is thus to explore the low road of cultural longing—not to leave Australia, but to find a way back again. The lure is a promise of a worldly provincialism, an understanding that the exotic exists only in a context of the familiar, and vice versa. Given the leap of faith required by a book that sits between history and fiction, there may be some readers who require knowledge of the ideology underlying the text. What follows is written for these readers. Those who prefer to plunge in unencumbered by theory are free to skip this section.

The argument

The argument that drives most of the scenarios in this book is between the forces of freedom, as expressed in the release of desires, and of structure, as represented in objective boundaries that contain energies. There are two sides to this argument. Saint Augustine’s distinction between the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Letter’ elevates inner feeling beyond external coercion. Since the Reformation, this has become a dominant theme in Western thinking and is now championed by the heroes of Hollywood. The other side of the argument is rarely heard. Though often associated with the operations of priestly hierarchies, the case for necessity was refreshed by poststructuralist thought. Jacques Lacan formulated a psychology in which the symbolic structures of law and language are seen to precede the imaginary realm of individual experience, as captured in aphorisms like ‘the text reads me’.[9]

On the one hand we have a union between self and world, where energies and feelings flow freely between society, people and nature. Opposed to this are laws that mark inexorable divisions—between god and man, humans and animals, male and female, sacred and profane, pure and impure.

This book seeks not to privilege one or other side of the argument—the dream of collective harmony versus disinterested pursuit of truth. The underlying aim is to rejuvenate the argument itself. Freedom cannot exist without structure. The ethical question is how to parse their relationship so that they abut each other—countering the other’s limits without cancelling each other out.

Our world has many readymade structures for playing out this argument. The Judeo-Christian week allots six days for labour and a Sabbath for play.[10] Without opportunities for carnival, a society will tend to sediment its hierarchies and breed resentment. Without division of labour, it would starve. The business of society is both opposed to and dependent on the play of community. On its own, the symbolic is a sterile mechanical order, and the imaginary simplistic and ineffective. When the imaginary has full control of affairs, it leads to revolutionary terror.

When the two antagonistic processes encounter each other, there is a charge of cultural energy. The literary consecration of everyday life has inspired great works of literature, such as Joyce’s Ulysses and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. And the explosion of popular energy through institutions of power has enabled the progressive transformations of the Reformation and modern democratic revolutions. The meeting of freedom and structure provides a heady exchange.

In today’s Australia, it could be argued that these two forces rarely interconnect: the symbolic is confined to the increasingly commerce-based public life of financial indices and market reports, while the imaginary languishes in the commodified experience of home entertainment. The imaginary is channelled through an increasingly commodified package of escapist narratives, such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, on DVD and MP3. There is no bridge by which these romances might lead into the ‘real world’ of third world sweatshops, privatisation and the new underclass. For the argument to have life, it requires some spillage of utopian longing into the official order.

Like the Nowhere of William Morris,[11] Neverland is designed as a deliberately leaky structure by means of which utopian alternatives might infiltrate historical reality. Throughout this book, freedom appears in those forms of life that have been repressed by the dominant symbolic order. Such recessive cultures include Viking Scandinavian, Shinto Japanese, pagan Russian, Arabic Lebanese, Bektashi Albanian and Sebastian Portuguese. These are folk origins of modern cultures, which offer a missing link back to the more syncretic and localised forms of life. In modern times, such missing worlds are often located in distant places, such as the antipodes, where they appear as lost continents or invisible cities. What this book attempts to do is find a place for them in Australia.

Within the Australian story, the principle agent in this loss is assimilation: communal forms of engagement are shed in order to accommodate a practical Anglo way of life. Rather than mourn this loss, Neverland attempts to maintain such cultural origins in the realm of the possible—not to despair at the traditional ways of life abandoned for the supermarket, but to build a space for the imagination in which such lost practices might be revived.

Such a venture naturally abuts what we know as ‘multiculturalism’. In its time, set against the White Australia policy, multiculturalism was a bold program of cultural change that has enabled entry of other ethnicities onto the national stage. However, as a bureaucratic initiative, it operates largely at the margins of official life, in expressive domains such as public festivities and comedy. Its logic is cumulative: each new culture that enters Australia adds to the diversity already here—there’s one more cuisine to choose from or one more colourful act to include in the council festival. Despite this tolerance, a strict separation is kept between the ethnic cultures and the ‘colourless’ Anglo audience it entertains. This arrangement is typical of the rigid relationship between freedom and structure that so desperately needs lubrication in Australian life. There should be less multiculturalism and more diaculturalism. Put bank clerks in the multicultural parade and Buddhist shrines in the banks.

Choice of nations

The particular choice of nations in this book might seem puzzling. The six alternative colonisations do not include the main competitors with colonial England—The Netherlands, Germany and France[12]—nor the principle sources of post-war migration, such as Greece and Italy. Instead, the final list includes such seemingly obscure choices as Russia, Albania and Scandinavia—not the usual influences listed in the development of Australian identity.

There are two factors influencing this selection. First, nations with a smaller historical footprint on Australia provide a more easily defined voice for the purposes of dialogue. As in the case of navigation, we need a small but clearly visible point on which to fix our coordinates. Second, much of the material in this book results from a series of workshops that accompanied the exhibition Turn the Soil, which toured Australia in 1997 while the racist demagogue Pauline Hanson was in her first ascendance. Based on speculation about what Australia would have been like if colonised by a power other than Britain, the exhibition contained work by second-generation Australian craft practitioners. These children of migrants from Latvia, Greece, Portugal, Vietnam, Sweden, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Hungary and Albania developed works that translated their parent’s craft traditions into an Australian idiom. Inevitably, migrants leave behind their craft skills for a world they can buy ‘off the shelf’ in Australia. The material processes that give texture to one’s immediate world are often born of necessity, and quickly discarded when easier alternatives appear. This exhibition explored how it might be otherwise, if Australia could be born again as a colony of their parents’ nations. At each venue, we held a workshop with members of the local community, to develop a scenario of alternative history relevant to their demographics (e.g., Russian colonisation in Gladstone). Six chapters in this book evolved out of those histories.

With the prospect of a republic on the horizon, Turn the Soil heralded the significant contribution expected from second-generation Australians. In creative arts, the second generation is granted license to recover—in a way that makes sense in a local context—the culture their parents left behind. Some of those artists find a place in this book, but there are others such as Hanh Nguyêt Ngô (Vietnam), Visma Bruns (Latvia), Anita Apinis-Herman (Latvia), Laurie Paine (Palestine), Elizabeth Fotiadis (Greece) and Suszy Timar (Hungary) who await future unravelling.

To open up the process of speculation for public consumption, a number of writers were invited to contribute their own fantasies about how Australia could have been different. While based on historical material, Neverland bears the traces of its author’s own fantasies of a culture that might reflect better the mysteries of the land. Other contributions in the final chapter are provided as an opportunity for others to puff on the same pipe of speculation.

At the threshold of the Turn the Soil exhibition was the Wheel of Historical Fortune. Visitors could spin the wheel and one of a number of Australian flags would be selected. Each contained a different country’s flag in the left-hand corner where the Union Jack would otherwise be. At openings, it was not unusual for visitors to stand around cheering for their favourite alternative Australia to be the winner. Let’s spin the wheel.


[1] Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde, New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 207.

[2] Henry Lawson, ‘The Bush Undertaker’, in While the Billy Boils, edition? p. 7.

[3] G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (trans. A. V. Miller), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977 (orig. 1807), p. 295.

[4] Martin Boyd, Outbreak of Love, p. 78.

[5] The Hon Paul Keating, Manning Clark lecture (National Library of Australia, Canberra, 3 March 2002): ‘we are at risk of becoming, as Manning once said, subjects in the kingdom of nothingness. Subjects of a post-Christian, post-Enlightenment world where there is no inspiration, no higher endeavour, little compassion and no belief beyond narrow self-interest.’

[6] McKenzie Wark, The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s, St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997, p. 57.

[7] BABAKIUERIA (producer: Julian Pringle; director: Don Featherstone; writer: Geoffrey Atherden; starring Bob Maza, Kevin Smith, Cecily Polson, Kelan Angel, Tony Barry) is ‘a satire on black and white relations in a fictitious land. It is set in the fashion of a dramatised documentary, produced in co-operation with the Babakiuerian Film Commission.’

[8] Peter Carey, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1994.

[9] A secondary source such as Anika Lemaire’s Jacques Lacan (trans. David Macey, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) is clearer on this distinction than Lacan’s primary texts. Any text by Slavoj Zizek will demonstrate how this Lacan perspective can be applied to the contemporary West.

[10] See Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), for further elaboration of these terms.

[11] William Morris, News from Nowhere, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984 (orig. 1890).

[12] The French influence on late 20th century Australian thought has been covered in an anthology of essays, Judgment of Paris: Recent French Thought in an Australian Context ( ed. Kevin Murray, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992).

South up