It’s January 26, Australia Day. The equivalent in the antipodes of July 4th, it commemorates the arrival in Sydney Cove of the First Fleet in 1788. Aboriginal Australians regard it as a day of mourning.
I have a habit of keeping track of the day of the week, rather than the date assigned to it, so the only reason that the significance of this day dawned on me was the tweets from the Australians I follow – specifically, a human rights lawyer and a supporter of Julian Assange.
And, make no mistake, it is a significant day. I could have spent it in Australia, probably in Sydney. If I hadn’t got on that Qantas 747 back in April last year, and by doing so, lost my permanent residence visa, I’d still be there, on my way to becoming an Australian citizen four years down the line.
If I were in Australia, I’d probably have a decent job – planners earn well there. I’d live in a rented place close to a ferry. Maybe not Mosman, because I was lonely there, and there’s a chance I’d run into my ex-husband, and his new wife would probably freak. Maybe I’d live near my one friend in Sydney, who I got to know thanks to Thought Leader.
I sacrificed a lot when I chose to return to Johannesburg.
Stability. An element of certainty. Ordinariness.
This is my life today. There are the crappy aspects: I live with my parents. My things are scattered and my life is in chaos, still. I will not earn any income this month (I’ll draw a salary from the company for the first time next month, hopefully). I work like a dog, seven days a week, while an actual dog, the horrible chow-chow, chews up my brand new silicon muffin pan, the one I used to make mini frittatas for breakfast so I can try and not eat carbs.
These are the less crappy aspects: I have a business with partners, who are the reason I came back. My time is my own (which means to say I work much harder than I did when I earned a salary). Today the proprietor of Velo asked if I want to do another art exhibition and I said yes, and it’s nice to have a project.
But it’s tough. I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t, and that, presented with all scenarios, this is a life I’d have chosen in my 40th year. Today, after getting back from the gym, I sat in my grandmother’s car and wept.
Fuck. I’m turning 40 this August. How sad is that?
Are the sacrifices worth it? Would I have been better off had I stayed? I don’t know. The jury is still out, and will be for a while. Tomorrow is an important day for us. That it should be juxtaposed with today is interesting.
(I’m aware that there are many, many gaps in the narrative. Those who know the story behind the blog know what’s been happening. Maybe one day I’ll tell you too.)
But back to Australia Day. I am working on my hopelessly overdue ebook for Mampoer Shorts (if they’ll still have me) and as part of my research, I’m reading The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It’s a beautifully written and compelling account of convict history in Australia. I found it in the Book Exchange in Knysna; it was the one book I felt compelled to pick up from the shelf.
The idea of transporting convicts to the other side of the world in the late eighteenth century was the equivalent, more or less, of transporting prisoners to the moon today. The only reason the British even knew Australia was there was that Captain Cook had charted the coastline once years before.
Since then, no British subject had set foot on that strange southern land. And yet the British government was willing to send the detritus from its overflowing prison hulks on a dangerous journey lasting months.
Those first immigrants did not arrive in Australia voluntarily. Neither they, nor the guards who watched over them, wanted to be there. Many prisoners died en route; many risked everything to escape. The brutality of the system was astounding, and in turn those at the bottom of it took it out on others they perceived to be even lower than themselves: the native peoples of the strange, sweltering land where they were dumped.
The official British position was a relatively enlightened one: leave the natives alone, and do not harm them. Manly in Sydney was named for the physical prowess of the native people seen there. The unofficial one was very different, and when the worst of the worst criminals were transported to what was then known as Van Dieman’s Land, they carried out genocide in all but name.
How Australia, with such brutal beginnings, is now a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world, and where there is less inequality than any other country besides the Scandinavian countries or its neighbour, New Zealand, is one of the most remarkable tales of the past two centuries. This Australia Day, most of the people lucky enough to live in Australia have a lot to celebrate. (And yes, the original Australians still have plenty to mourn.)
I celebrated Australia Day with witblits. Not Mampoer – which is made of anything except grapes – but similar. This is the bottle, given to me by a farmer in the Magaliesberg. With it is a wooden cat and a duck given to my parents by my ex-husband; who knows why they are still here.
Here’s hoping it takes away the pain.