by John Marsden Posted on 03:45PM, 27 August 2010 Be the first to comment
I got very confused in Grade 5 at Devonport Primary School when our teacher, Mrs Hilliard, told us the story of Edith Cavell, the World War 1 nurse who was shot dead by the Germans for helping Allied soldiers.
Nurse Cavell had apparently nursed both British and Germans, but she was executed for aiding escaped British prisoners-of-war.
Her last words were about patriotism. `I realise' she said, `that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness in my heart for anyone.'
Patriotism is not enough! What was this? Mrs Hilliard was confusing us! She obviously wanted us to admire Nurse Cavell, to recognize her heroism. But Nurse Cavell had died with heresy on her lips. Patriotism in the 1950's was everything. A kid who didn't stand to attention in the Devonport Cinema when they played God Save the Queen got a smack across the head from any adult within range. The Queen smiled graciously down at us from every classroom wall. It was impossible to attend a Wolf Cub pack meeting, borrow a library book, or go to Sunday school, without coming under Her Majesty's benign gaze.
At school we saluted the flag, recited the oath, and listened to endless adult exhortations about loyalty to our country. On ANZAC Day we heard stories of sacrifice and heroism. When an Australian golfer won the British Open, or Rod Laver knocked off the Wimbledon tennis title, we were convinced that this was due to our superior way of life.
It was a kind of cartoon Australia back then. On Anzac Day no-one mentioned those Diggers who ran in fear when the battle got close, or the war crimes committed by Australians. The Wimbledon winner's glory was shared by the chain-smoking slob watching on his TV set at home. Our superiority meant that others were inferior; our patriotic feelings implicitly endorsed the smugness, racism and xenophobia that characterised middle-class Australia in the 1950s.
For me, the cartoon Australia ended in 2001, with the M.V. Tampa. Our government’s cruel and shameless treatment of the needy refugees picked up by that ship left me unable to generalise about any particular strengths we could claim as unique to Australia and Australians.
The subsequent years of continuing abuse of refugees who were legally entitled to come here and to remain here made me feel that it was ludicrous to pretend that we had a code of honour, or a code of mateship, or a right to any sense of superiority.
I know now that patriotism is not enough. Integrity and honesty are worth far more. I just want to be a good person, a good citizen of the world. Australia Day is only worthwhile if we use it to celebrate the things we have done well, to confront honestly the things we have done badly, and to make fresh resolutions to which we can all commit for the future.
John Marsden is arguably one of the best know Australian writers for children and young adults. He has won many awards in literary and children's choice competitions. In 2006 John's work as an author, teacher and mentor was acknowledged through the Lloyd O'Neil Award for Service to the Australian Book industry.