Stories frame our understanding of ourselves. If, as some say, we actually are the stories we tell ourselves, then the 20th century saw Australians adopt a variety of personas. We were young and free and newly federated; then self-sacrificing diggers keeping our chins up; we were carefree custodians of a lucky country; noble suburban battlers; and, lest we forget, likeable larrikins. Love them or hate them, Alan Bond and Bob Hawke were men of and for their times. As was John Howard. The century finished with his wish that we might all feel 'comfortable and relaxed'.
With the new millennium came new stories, and perhaps nothing epitomized the changes more than when, on a spring night in Sydney in 2000, Catherine Astrid Salome Freeman ran her winning 400m final. This young Aboriginal woman, her right arm tattooed with the words "Cos I'm Free", carried a country's hopes on her slim shoulders. If pressed to name those hopes, there were probably very few who could. Was it that we wanted to be seen as a country where an Indigenous woman could represent all that was best in us? Was it that we were aching to confront our Anglo-centric, white, male mythology? To free ourselves from it, and open the way for new stories?
Of course it may simply have been a nation burning for another sporting victory - the quest for gold, gold, gold is one of our most potent defining narratives - but the unfolding stories since that night suggest otherwise.
We emerged as Olympians, awash with expansiveness and a sense that the world was watching us - and liking what it saw. That sense of ourselves as a world player continues to animate us - for better and for worse.
Older stories were shape-shifting. Roo and Barney, Ray Lawler's famous cane-cutters who flew down annually from Queensland's vivid north to Melbourne's urban monochrome, morphed into FIFOs - the fly-in-fly-out army now servicing the northern mineral boom that fuelled the first decade of the 21st century. They support the 'working families' whose ever-increasing appetite for iPhones and Androids has made us among the biggest uptakers of new technology in the world. Well, that's one story we're told. We are many, of course.
A mythology that underpins multiple Australian stories is our recurring preoccupation with the north, whether it be the image of the khaki-clad croc-wrestler with a wide grin; the silent solitary king in his grass castle, squinting into relentless glare; the anything-goes frontier land where roads are measured not in kilometres but in days travelled; or the outback desert - 'our red heart' - peopled with nomadic bushmen, serial killers, salt of the earth stalwarts, bigots or drag queens.
The north is epic.
Historically, it was a place where men were real and women mostly existed in relation to the needs of those men. Over time, though, it took on other qualities. To travel north became to expand, to literally broaden the horizons, and to head toward the possibility of a larger, freer version of the hemmed-in southern self. It was to choose wildness. To thrive in the north was to be a match for the vastness of the island continent. Living in the south was for those not big enough to exist with boundaries that extended to the horizon.
In David Williamson's Travelling North, we are asked to examine a version of that myth. The north has sung to Frank and Frances, in the depths of Melbourne's wintry grey. As a defining act of their new-found love, they make an epic drive to the land of big barbies, lurid shirts and campervans. They have re-written their narrative, imagining themselves coasting through tropical hamlets, pulling fish from abundant seas and finding stretches of squeaky white sand where they will be grey nomad lovers leaving only footprints as they walk through eternally warm air.
Beautiful one day…
That dream of north, and in particular of Queensland, has been sold and re-sold by successive tourist agencies. Even in the 21st century, it still plays into the collective imagination, seducing a cavalcade of Jaycos up the Pacific Highway to seek their idyll among the mangroves and the angophoras, where joints will loosen and virility be assured under an endless blue sky.
Perfect the next…
But we are also the stories that go untold. We are our secrets, too. We may be the inheritors of myths, but eventually we must stare them down and ask what lies behind them, if we are to progress.
If we are to grow.
This is a short extract from a longer essay that will be published in the program for Travelling North, which will be available at Box Office and The Bar for $10.
Travelling North, 9 Jan - 22 Mar 2014, Wharf 1 Theatre