Writing my previous post about pernicious publishing practices in the Amazon age, I found myself reflecting on that Australian literary and political figure Bob Ellis. Near the end of his life (he died at his Palm Beach home in April 2016) he gave a radio broadcast about the things that really mattered.
His early life in small-town Lismore had, on reflection, been one of them, and he regretted the way he had lost contact with the tight-knit community-based world where families all knew each other back for generations, where collective events were celebrated and sins were forgiven. Of course we know it isn’t like that any more – the horrors of small-town and rural life are the stuff of legend – family murders, suicides, drug addiction, child abuse and the rest of it – any virtues seemingly eclipsed in the heady rush of late modernity. It surprised me that he expressed such nostalgia for a way of life he despised in his glory days.
I was a little disappointed in Bob’s book, not because the individual essays and articles weren’t interesting but because I had expected an autobiography or memoir, a reflection on earlier commitments and decisions. What seems self-evident at one time may turn out to seem very peculiar three decades later. Bob’s radio broadcast suggested he was in a state of reconsideration, and this book sometimes let you glimpse that, but more would have been welcome. As in life, Bob couldn’t stop himself namedropping. The reader is left in no doubt about how chummy he was with the great and good as well as the infamous not-so good. Bob Ellis was an Australian icon, but his legacy may disappear quickly. He was a genuinely strange person.
I knew Bob back in his Sydney Uni days, when he hung around with those two great poets Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Bob was generally long-haired and shabby. Les was fat and looked like a farmer, which in fact he was. Geoff was immaculately be-suited and always elegant and polite. They were an ill-assorted trio. Les went on to become a right-wing identity and Poet Laureate, while Geoff remained a lawyer as well as a poet. Bob became ever more leftish, cultivated important connections and wrote many plays and screenplays as well as several books.
I met him many times at pubs and parties, but he mostly ignored anybody who wasn’t important or political and was rarely cordial or even polite to those he deemed below him. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade, during which time I had spent two years as an anthropologist living among Aboriginal people in the desert. Then, to my amazement, there he was at Maralinga, at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, 1984. I had been asked to act as the Royal Commission’s anthropological advisor, reporting directly to the Commissioner. “Diamond Jim” McLelland was an august and controversial legal figure with his dapper suits and air of absolute superiority. Renowned as a supporter of Gough Whitlam and accused of extreme Leftism by various Australian rightists, he went on to front the Land and Environment Court.
In the remote flyblown deserts of Northwest South Australia Diamond Jim fitted in with grace and good temper, sitting under flimsy shades among the Aboriginal witnesses, squatting around campfires, and walking unconcernedly through the plutonium fields. I went wherever he went and listened to all the evidence. I pointed out where translations to and from English seemed inadequate or wrong. Bob Ellis was there to write a book. He and Diamond Jim seemed to be best mates, and had been permitted to attend the desert hearings, a rare privilege. I don’t think any other writers or journalists were allowed to be there. Shambling, shuffling and disordered, Bob behaved with dismissive contempt to almost everyone. He did try to converse with the Aboriginal witnesses but they had no idea who he was and thought he was just another lunatic white man. He paid no attention to other white people, including me, so I never got to discuss his perceptions of what was happening, although I would have liked to.
I have finished a long story – novelette length – about Maralinga for my new collection of stories, Radiant Sands, which will be out soon. In Bob’s collected works was a long piece about Maralinga, which I had not been aware of previously. This essay seems to be all that remains of his intended book.
Bob seemed to have attended closely to the Aboriginal evidence and was able to convey the extraordinary quality of the desert hearings, although the details were sparse. It was a good piece, and I enjoyed it.
My fictionalised novelette, Last Patrol, is very different. The people Bob Ellis saw and heard during the Royal Commission were members of the the same groups of people whose story I tell in Last Patrol. I wanted to restore the realities that lay behind the formality and structured context of a legal hearing. I imagined events and invented composite characters. But I believed then, and still believe, that it was a true story. I had no reason to question the account of many people that their relatives had been living in the far bush and that some had perished in the bomb blasts.
I attempted to persuade the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission to follow up this line of questioning. It is not possible to ask the Royal Commissioner directly to pursue such an issue himself, it has to go through arcane and indirect processes involving the introduction of evidence which can be challenged by others with the right to appear at the hearing. There were plenty of these. Many Aboriginal witness statements agreed that there were people coming in from the far north-west at the time of the first tests, and that they had never been seen again. But there was no way of getting direct evidence since nobody had survived. To present this as evidence would require that the witnesses know exactly who they were, be able to name them, to state why and how they knew there were walking into the atomic test sits area at that time, and the basis on which they knew it. If they couldn’t do so, their words were just speculation and hearsay, or so I was told. The question opened up too great a can of worms, even for this enquiry
Aboriginal people had told each other stories which had passed along the chain of communication to the north and west and right around the desert. The criteria of “truth” in a legal case depends on a certain kind of evidence: this, but not that; here but not there. That’s not the way Aboriginal people think, nor is it the way their world is constructed. Even the “black cloud” evidence was not fully convincing to the judge and the legal team. The “missing relatives” story was even less so. The Australian legal process when applied to non-English speaking Aboriginal people is so totally misplaced and unable to penetrate into the “truth” of any situation. I was so completely disaffected and infuriated by the way the Royal Commission proceeded, and the minimal impact of its findings. It did result in clean-ups, and the local Aboriginal land-holders did get rights to their land eventually, but the deeper truth of what happened seemed to me to have been consistently glossed over and trivialised.
Memories and stories have their own rationale; memoirs and autobiographies move to a different rhythm and produce a different kind of truth. Writing about an historical event using fictionalised reconstruction is a kind of knowledge-creation but it still makes me feel uneasy. Purely factual history makes the reader comfortable although there are so many different ways to construct it. Of the several factual books on Maralinga the recent prize-winner Atomic Thunder, by Elizabeth Tynan, is undoubtedly the best to date.
I don’t know what kind of book Bob Ellis would have written, or what he would have made of my story if he had lived to read it. I wrote Last Patrol well before Tynan’s book appeared. To what extent should one book influence another, where one is “fact” and the other is “fiction”? What value can we place on fictionalised narratives which rely on imagined events and composite characters? It’s an issue which needs far greater consideration than I can give it here, or probably ever.
All the injustice that the Aboriginal people of the desert experienced seemed wrapped up in the chain of events that motivated my story: their peremptory removal from their traditional lands, the contempt displayed towards anyone who protested, the absolute dismissal of their rights to life and liberty. It was ghastly but not surprising back in the days when the atomic testing program was established, but to find much the same attitudes expressed, even if covertly, in 1984 was truly shocking, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Was it wrong to use fiction to write about it? Wouldn’t a thorough analytic recounting using the detailed transcripts and thousands of pages of documents have been better?
Like Bob, I once thought I would write a book. I tentatively called it Maralinga: Memoirs of a Royal Commission. I still have cartons and cartons of material in storage. But it became clear as the decades passed that I was never going to do it. Is a fictional story any kind of substitute? All I can do is hope that readers are led to consider the possibility that Aboriginal people in Central Australia are the only human beings on the planet ever to have been nuked, other than the victims of of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not sure I did the right thing in writing that story, but I felt it needed to be told and that seemed the only way to do it. I will leave it up to the reader to decide, when it finally appears.