driving with Richard Flanagan ...

I often find myself on the road between Yarrabah and Cairns with ABC Radio National to keep me company on the drive, while Dante sleeps the time away in the back seat.  Today was no exception - but exceptional in the stirring words of Australian author Richard Flanagan giving the closing night address at the recent Melbourne Writers' Festival.  

His topic The Decline of Love and the Rise of Non-Freedom is a timely and alarming assessment of the current state of play in Australian society and our possible trajectory should we silently continue to follow the worrying path we have begun to walk ...

One of the major concerns underpinning his talk is the decline of our capacity as Australians to feel empathy, love and kindness towards others; particularly those in situations far worse off than our own and whom are most in need.  I could not agree more; how ironic that a country so financially sound, rather than becoming more generous as a nation and as individuals, is becoming less and less so.  

I have held the belief for a long time that a nation's wealth is not something to be measured in a fiscal sense only - and in this respect I too hold grave concerns for Australia at the present time.  We are at a crossroads at present and the path we choose to take could be one that sees us become a wealthy and generous nation, or a rich but emotionally impoverished one.  

On a previous drive into Cairns I was engaged by another discussion, again on Radio National concerning the demise of the humanities in Australian universities.  I consider the two topics related as I believe that for a nation to maintain and enhance its capacity for empathy and love it must also be cultivating imagination, creativity and a knowledge of its own and other cultures and cultural histories.  We seem in danger at present of creating a country of worker ants whose creativity is limited to their choice of consumer goods, spirituality to the brands with which they identify and who see themselves as serving only their own good - rather than relating to a community, culture or a nation as a whole. 

It seems the greater our fiscal wealth, the poorer we are in danger of becoming as we hand over precious black soils to be mined for gas, place harsher and harsher restrictions on those seeking safe harbour on Australian soil, and slash the opportunities for engagement with the more creative, imaginative and cultural aspects of life that enrich our lives in so many ways.

The image I hope we shall not achieve, but I fear we are close to realising is found in T.S Elliot's 1934 work 'The Rock' 


The Word of the LORD came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men, 
O wretched generation of enlightened men, 
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities,
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship, 
I have given you speech, for endless palaver, 
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions, 
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments, 
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them
Many desire to see their names in print, 
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of GOD, 
Much is your building, but not the house of GOD, 
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing, 
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers? 

[and further on ...]

Where My Word is unspoken, 
In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit, 
The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court, 
And the wind shall say: 'Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls'. 

Here Elliot speaks of GOD - but rather than a God in the christian sense I interpret Elliot's 'God' in the broader sense; as a figurehead of love, empathy, spirituality or search for higher meaning. In light of Flanagan's talk I am particularly interested in the line 'Where My Word is unspoken' for it is the great Australian silence regarding ever harsher treatment of peoples, the changing of laws to limit freedoms and the increasing absence of political debate that will see us become in time a fascist country through our sheer complicitness, apathy and hesitation to stand up for basic human rights and values.

Richard Flanagan's closing address has articulated concerns that have been gnawing away in my mind now for some time, and I hope he will find an audience inspired not just to think but to act ...

... click here to hear to listen or download the audio of Richard Flanagan's speech from The BookShow's website; or look out for the December edition of The Quarterly Essay - from what I can gather this will be the only way of getting the actual transcript.  After listening to Richard's words again this evening with Stylus, I am looking forward to obtaining my copy ...