Australia, the oldest new country on Earth // 4 December 2010

One of the wonderful things about being here and seeing Australia through relatively fresh, questioning eyes is the discovery of the untold. Between, above and below Oprah hysteria, Uluru, World Cup kangaroos and Gillard hairdos are layers and streams, creases, folds and cracks waiting to be pulled back, poked under, dived into and explored.

Of course, I’m new to Australia, as I once was to London. But the UK, with its smorgasbord of cups overflowing, sometimes feels overcrowded with stories – through sheer volume of numbers, there are very few parts of the UK’s mythical, historical and cultural being that has been left untouched in popular consciousness.

Even in a world of instantly gratifying communication, information harvesting, sneaking and storytelling, Australia is underpinned by a prodigiously giving storyscape – the surface of which we are only now beginning to scratch. Like everything from a distance, views of this massive continent are interlocked with ample untruths, misnomers and inaccuracies – and you can guarantee that the most fascinating stories, ripe to share with a thirsty audience, are as far from Paul Hogans, boomerangs, barbies and beers as factually and creatively possible.

Take the total lack of any heritage legislation before the 1970s.
Or the fact that one of the world’s great Venetian masterpieces, Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, is quietly hanging in Melbourne.
Or the burgeoning pepper industry in Far North Queensland.
Or the fact that indigenous Australians live for an average 20 years less than white city dwellers.
Or the aristocratic family of a beautiful Melburnian who burnt ‘the Ashes’, indelibly shaping cricket forever.
Or the world’s longest running scientific test, the Pitch Drop Experiment and its inimitable custodian.
Or the Old Adelaide Famililies – OAFs – who pride themsleves on living in a convict-free enclave.

Depending on who you are, those snippets may come as no surprise whatsoever. But just being here, sensing the size of the land, the gravity of historical contexts for modern Australians and the opportunites, challenges and ideas fertile for sharing with the world is as inspiring as it gets. It’s unchartered territory for me – and, by my guess, for many the world over.

Pic: former gaol, Sydney’s National Art School

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