Josephy Furphy and the Australian scrub

Section of Panel 7 of the 10-panel Federation tapestryLast weekend I ran across Joseph Furphy, whom I’ve mentioned before in my blog, in the strangest of places – on a tapestry in the Melbourne Museum. It’s not strange of course to find Furphy, one of Australia’s pioneer novelists, in the museum, but I was surprised to find him quoted on a tapestry. Except, of course, it was no ordinary tapestry. It was the Federation Tapestry which was designed and made by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop to commemorate the 2001 centenary of Australia’s federation.

The tapestry comprises 10 panels, with Furphy appearing in the 7th one titled “The Heidelberg School“. Its focus is “the creative outpouring of national sentiment in the last two decades of the nineteenth century”. At the bottom of the panel, in the centre, is a quote from Furphy, writing as Tom Collins in his best-known novel, Such is life. The quote comes from his description of the Riverina area of remote Victoria-New South Wales.

It’s not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this, and as clearly here as at the centre of the continent. To me the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub has a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge.

I like the fact that the tapestry designers chose a quote like this to incorporate into their panel because, although it feels almost cliched to say, I believe it captures the paradoxical nature of Australia and Australians that still, I think, informs much of our cultural landscape.

A couple of paragraphs on, Furphy writes that:

For though history is a thing that never repeats itself–since no two historical propositions are alike–one perennial truth holds good, namely, that every social hardship or injustice may be traced back to the linked sins of aggression and submission, remote or proximate in point of time.

There’s an irony here (not to mention an unconscious prescience, to our 21st century eyes) because Furphy, like most of his day, was not thinking of “aggression and submission” in relation to Australia’s indigenous populations – in fact he saw Australia as “a virgin continent” that had been waiting “in serene loneliness” for things to happen – but in terms of working people and their struggles. Both issues (and others to do with “aggression and submission”) are important today …

One day I will have to read (all of) Such is life.