The Weight of History


Uluru - once known as Ayres Rock
Uluru – once known as Ayres Rock

Once again I have been taken to task by one of my long-suffering readers for posting too many “travel” type pieces and not enough penetrating cultural analysis.  Well at least I am generating some feedback so I suppose I should attempt to comply.

Some countries and cultures are superficially similar due to some shared history, the pervasiveness of cultural “soft power” and of course a shared language – although of course GB Shaw did famously say of England and the US that they were “two countries divided by a common language”.  Experience, however, usually soon disabuses the traveller of the similarity notion and that is even more true for those who actually manage to live for some reasonable length of time in another country.

When I first went to live in Australia I was particularly struck by the then level of egalitarianism that I encountered.  This is not to be confused with individualism but is rather the capacity of Australians to interact with each other in a way unaffected by distinctions of class, wealth or education.  A proper sense that we are all Australians together.  This is not something that is so readily found in either Britain, fraught as it is with class, or the US with its extreme individualism of all against all and the devil take the hindmost.

Sad to say I think that political divisions in Australia, driven by the nutty neo-classical economic ideas emanating from that country said to have “passed directly from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization at all” has meant that this egalitarianism is not felt so strongly as before.  Nevertheless it remains a difference between the land down under and those still above and the question is from where did it originate?

I don’t imagine I can answer that question fully in a little blog post but one thing that has occurred to me being back in England, in particular, and Europe in general is that there is a tremendous weight of history here that is constantly, subliminally impinging on ones consciousness in the form of the both the natural landscape – which is of course not natural at all – and the built environment.

Greenwich just a small part of "The Great Wen"
Greenwich – just a small part of “The Great Wen”

There is scarcely a scrap of land in England that hasn’t been altered and domesticated by the hand of Englishmen and women.  Not only do buildings date back millennia, quite literally, but so too do the signs of agriculture and therefore of culture and the history of tribes, peoples, kingdoms and classes; of trade and industry, the creation of wealth and divisions in society justified by religion and ideas of blood, of inherited privilege and so on all of which seep into the consciousness of the average Briton as they grow up and negotiate the social and geographic landscape.

Lost in the Wilderness
Lost in the Wilderness

In Australia, on the other hand, is found a wide brown sun burnt land that, like America, is vast and whose distances are only fully grasped by attempting to drive across them.  While in the US these distances traversed by settlers moving west helped to develop the culture of “rugged individualism”  associated with that country while in Australia they engendered a fear in the convicts and early settlers who had been transported to a place so alien and distant as to be regarded as another planet.  To survive, everyone had to help everyone else.

Such a young country as Australia necessarily has a very different built environment compared to the “old world”.  It is rare to see a building that is older than perhaps 180 years and most would be no more than about 130 years old and a good proportion of those are likely to be very much younger than that.  The history that these buildings allude to is one of such short duration and of such struggle to build a new nation from nothing and of which so many of its European inhabitants wished only to overthrow all the old hierarchies of their colonial mother country it is no wonder that a different way of relating to ones fellow man developed.

Add to that the extraordinary nature of the Australian landscape.  A country so vast can escape the hand of man to an extent that the sense of recent arrival is ever present.  Although it would not be entirely true to say that the Australian landscape has not been much affected by human activity – as argued by Dr Tim Flannery, it is likely that the Aboriginal inhabitants of the country had a profound effect on the flora and fauna by their practice of firestick farming – for most current Australians great swathes of the landscape have a primordial appearance that speaks of millennia of emptiness.  The weight of human history is notable by its absence rather than its presence, that is, the complete opposite of that of England.

These factors together help to explain why Australians are more easily able to sustain a culture of egalitarianism than that of England which is weighed down by the burden of centuries of history.

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