Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: australia

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.


Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

The place for a village – some thoughts on Victoria’s early history

Last week in the hiatus between my fevered consumption of fairy tale re-tellings and resuming serious manuscript edits, I started researching my next project. I say started, in reality, I have been reading about life in the early days of the Port Phillip District for years. Reading, without making notes or marking maps, leaving what next in the periphery of my head.

On Wednesday, I pulled down a pile of books and shifted gears.

For me, research is the prime stimulus for my creative process. I start with characters chattering in my head. I have a vague sense of where they lived and what their inner issues are. How I work out these issues – the nuts and bolts of events and scenarios – tends to spring from research.

My next novel will be set in the Port Phillip District of the then Colony of New South Wales. I therefore decided to ‘start’ my research by re-reading A history of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before separation.

In 1842, the Port Phillip settlement was ‘officially’ only about four years old. Two earlier attempts and been made to settle the region. One at a site close to modern day Sorrento. The other in Western Port. In between, sealers and whalers plyed the coast, various surveys and explorative expeditions were conducted and, ahead of the law, men started to transport sheep and cattle across the straight from Van Diemen’s land.

I am always amazed, post Mabo – the landmark High Court case in which indigenous land title was recognised – to read the attitudes of Australia’s early settlers. Here are some thoughts that struck me this week:

The colonisers saw the land entirely in terms of its usefulness to them. Consider this 1831 newspaper quote, written in relation to the Hume and Hovell expedition.

“…discovery of a vast range of country, invaluable for every purpose of grazing, and agriculture – watered by numerous fine streams, and presenting an easy inland water course extending from Port Phillip and Western Port to the settled district of Bathurst – thus refuting the previously adopted opinion, by which this line of country had been denounced as inhabitable and useless…”

Did anyone notice an omission in that passage? Like some kind of recognition that the land was already inhabited?

Many who did recognise the indigenous land title did so from their own agenda. There were no official treaties with Australia’s indigenous people – unlike those made with the Maori’s at Waitangi and by the Quaker William Penn with the ‘Indians’ of Pennsylvania – apart from a treaty made on behal of the Port Phillip Association, in which Batman claimed to have purchased 500,000 acres of land North of Melbourne in return for blankets, knives, tomahawks, scissors and mirrors (even as a child, I wondered at the ludicrousness of such an exchange).’

Setting aside the illegality of Batman’s processes and that clan land was non-transferable, held in trust for future generations, the treaty did seem to be recognising indigenous rights to the land. Indeed, the Association expressed a desire to found a colony on ‘principles of conciliation, civilisation, philanthropy, morality and temperance.’

However, when you take into account that Batman’s treaty was made on behalf of a group of capitalists who were seeking to appeal Governor Arthur, who had repeatedly urged a such treaty on the Colonial Office, and that, in Van Diemen’s land, Batman had a record of ‘much slaughter’, it becomes apparent that they were were merely dressing their actions in a ‘philanthropic disguise’ in order to gain the support of the humanitarian lobby in Britain.

In the end, Batman’s treaty was declared void.

It conflicted with the Imperial position that Australia was terra nullis – an unoccupied territory.

There were individuals who recognised aboriginal land rights from the outset. When discussing colonial attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people’s it is not uncommon to hear sentiments such as: ‘Oh, well, were men of their time.’ It is gratifying to note that, from the outset, there were individuals who recognised aboriginal land title. These men were not saints. They were active participators in the colonisation process. Like us they had personal lists of bigotries and short sightedness. But in this respect, they saw clearly. In A history of the Port Phillip District, Shaw lists them. It seems appropriate to acknowledge them here.

  • Bishop Broughton,
  • Quaker visitors James Backhouse and G.W. Walker,
  • The Wesleyan, Joseph Orton,
  • The Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang
  • Surveyor, Charles Tyers
  • Aboriginal Protectors Robinson and Dredge (does anyone see the irony in the appointment of aboriginal protectors in an unoccupied territory)
  • Settlers like, Gideon Lang, William Howitt and William Westgarth
  • Pamphleteer and newspaper editor, George Arden
  • Soldier and author, Colonel William Mundy
  • Under-secretary James Stephen
  • And…finally, not until 150 years later the High Court of Australia


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