Upon seizing office in September last year, the latest person to join the Australian Prime Ministerial conga line said these words: "there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian". I can only assume they were said sincerely.
At the time, I was hard at work remixing short stories originally written by Marcus Clarke and what became clear to me from this reading was how exciting it must have been to be an Australian in the 1870s. Clarke captured a nation in emergence, full of wide-eyed optimism and youthful vigour: a collection of colonies and a nascent culture that yearned not just for nationhood, but for greatness. But it was also a culture that carried dark stains and its aspirations in the near century and a half since have been offset and gnawed at by an instinctive and unthinking pettiness.
I had also, perhaps not coincidentally, developed an obsession with an extraordinary song called Definitive History by Augie March, where lyricist Glenn Richards deals directly with these same ideas. It's an angry song, no question, but its aesthetic is more of an anger that has burned out, an exhausted shell of despair.
In the final story from Hunted Down I imagine a scenario in which Clarke berates me for having the temerity to modify his excellent work. The story gave me the opportunity to try and capture what the most exciting time to be an Australian feels like from the inside.
With the words of Clarke and Richards swirling in my head, this is what I came up with.
I wanted to think I might have touched a nerve, shared the sadness and mourning for a nation that has lost its innocence, but learned too little in the process. This is what had been gnawing at me ... What did Clarke observe about who we were and what does it say about who we’ve become?
We shrink in meek obedience in the face of authority, even as we pull faces behind its back. We’re bold only with a bellyful to beat to submission anyone on a lower rung. We are relaxed and friendly (we lie to ourselves), but only for the right kind of visitor. And at the same time, we refuse to acknowledge the festering wounds of our own dispossession. We glorify the ordinary as though it’s an end in and of itself. We aspire to be aspirational, not once pausing to wonder why the elites loudly denounce “elites” in our ears while they make craters in the very bush Clarke celebrated and burn its earth for a few more dollars. We pave over anything undesirable and build a complex on its plot; the property values are too good to waste. We goad the gullible to hate, then throw our hands up in despair when the inevitable blood returns to us. Always someone else can carry the blame. The rats of the culture wars wrestle in filth for the right to some kind of Australian soul. And in the mirror we see only the worst of ourselves.
Hunted Down is available now for the small price of one shilling (currency and inflation adjusted).