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Monday, 12 January 2009

Post#112 People at the Edges (Bit Players in History)

I was reading a post at The Girl Who Wished She Was Australian about former Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon, which prompted me to make a comment which I'll reproduce, in part, here:


"I remember a little bit about McMahon from my childhood. I have one enduring memory of him; a television newscast from the campaign for the election of 1972 that he lost to Gough Whitlam. In those days there were still large outdoor rallies to which anyone could turn up. These have disappeared in this country now and this is a good example of why: McMahon was about to give a speech from a platform and someone had organised a bouquet presentation. Two girls of about 6 years of age wearing white, lace-trimmed dresses, stepped forward to hand the large bouquet to McMahon as he stepped onto the platform. The crowd was, naturally, composed mostly of Labor supporters and a great groan and moan went up: "Ooaarr. Orrrr." It sounded as though they were watching someone eat something very unsavoury. As I understood it at the time they were expressing disgust with the girls for giving the bouquet to McMahon. I was pretty disgusted by that. Those kids had probably expected that it would be a pleasant event and their parents had dressed them in their best for the occasion. Only to be greeted by that. In the years since, I've realised that the crowd were probably expressing mock-revulsion at McMahon being allowed near the girls or abusing the adults who put the kids up to it. Still, I think it was probably a nasty experience for the kids and they wouldn't have taken it well at the time. "


As I was writing this I began to wonder about all those people who make peripheral appearances in history. Those two girls, for example. That was late 1972; 36 years and some months ago. They would both now be in their early forties if they are still in this world. I wonder where they are and whether they remember their big day out that took such a nasty turn.

On the subject of using children for political stunts, there's another episode which I remember with some disgust. In the 1990's there was a very vexatious public debate in Australia in response to the Mabo decision on Aboriginal land rights. The contesting factions included mining and pastoral interests which had sufficient funds to run expensive propaganda campaigns for their cause. Their purpose was, simply, to encourage anti-Aboriginal sentiment. These campaigns were cloaked in a pretence of moderation and fairness and were tuned to appeal to the baser aspects of human nature while appearing to speak in the voice of sweet reason.

On example of this was a glossy brochure which was delivered by letterbox-drop in my neighbourhood. On its front page was a photograph of four children standing in a line, each holding a cardboard square. On each square was written one letter of the word "MABO". The children had obviously been chosen as representative of racial and ethnic types. One was apparently of British ancestry, one was a dark-complexioned Caucasian and might have been any of several origins; Southern European, Indian, Arab. A third was East Asian, Chinese perhaps. And one was obviously an Australian Aboriginal. I was very surprised that any Aboriginal family would allow their child to be used as window-dressing for a campaign attacking their own ethnic group. Then I looked very closely at those cardboard squares. The letters in red on the white boards were not quite in the same tone as the other colours in the photograph. Very close but not quite. Then I spotted the explanation. The purveyors of this junk mail (And I do mean junk) were cunning but only half-clever. They had missed the fact that one of the children had a piece of red letter over the tips of his fingers. The children had been photgraphed holding blank white cards and the letters had been superimposed after the event. The parents of these kids had obviously not been told what the cards were going to spell out. They were probably booked through an agency, taken to the studio, photographed and sent on their way without explanation of the campaign's purpose. I assume a parent or authorised person accompanied them as they only appeared to be about ten years old at most. I never heard a word about anyone complaining. I had too much on my plate right then to try to stir up media interest so I let it go. I've wondered since what unknown furies and embarrassments this episode may have caused and what came of it all. Does the Aboriginal child know today how he was ill-used?

Another case of political exploitation of an individual's race was broadcast during the 1996 federal election campaign. The "minders" decided that they needed to smooth over John Howard's record on race relations. Eight years previously, Howard had expressed concern over the level of East Asian immigration to Australia. This led to a very lame stunt being performed at the election campaign launch for the Liberal party. As Howard left the hall after giving his campaign launch speech a woman rose from an aisle seat and interrupted his progress to hand him a large bouquet. She was of Mongoloid racial origins and was wearing what looked to me like a traditional Korean woman's costume. This was apparently supposed to prove that John Howard is not a racist and that Asians like John Howard. I know a little about the way these minders operate and I wouldn't be surprised if they'd lured some woman with a poor grasp of English and no idea of the history of the situation into playing this role. (I wouldn't even put it past them to have had a Caucasian woman made-up and dressed to look Asian. It wouldn't have been impossible to work such a scam; the Liberal party had complete control of the venue and could direct where any photography would be allowed and the camera was placed a fair distance from where the woman was sitting.)

It's intriguing to me that no-one interviewed the woman to expand on her views on the subject. Was she a loyal, Asian, Howard-loving Liberal who played her part by informed consent or was she a dupe? How does she feel about it now?

Another unknown bit-player is that man who anticipated Gough Whitlam's words on 11 November, 1975. ("A date which shall live in infamy", said Gough, wryly borrowing from Roosevelt.) On that day Gough spoke what he has, correctly, described as the most famous phrase in Australian political history. After the Governor General's secretary had read the proclamation dissolving Parliament and concluded with the exhortation "God save the Queen!!!", Gough stepped forward and made various comments to the crowd, including these words, written in fire in the memory of all of us who lived on that day and were old enough to take notice: "Well may we say 'God save the Queen', because NOTHING will save the Governor-General". Of course, it's obvious what he meant, but a strict reading of it shows that it's a non-sequitor as it stands. A proper expression of the sentiment would be, "Well may we say 'God save the Queen'. However, NOTHING shall save the Governor-General!"

I've seen the video-recording of this moment many times and, as with all very familiar things, your attention begins to drift to the peripheral details. A few years ago I noticed that Gough paused after saying "Queen". At that instant a man in the crowd shouted "God save Kerr!" (As in, "God help him if we catch him.") Then Gough spoke the mangled balance of the sentence. It's occurred to me that Gough was put off his grammatical stroke by the supportive interjector. Now, who was that anonymous voice? Does he live yet? Does he point out to his family or friends that his voice is to be heard on the soundtrack with Gough. Like the soldiers of Shakespeare's Henry V speech, does he strip his arms and show his scars of that Remembrance day? ("There be gentlemen in Melbourne who yet lie abed, will curse their luck that they were not here with us on this Dismissal Day.") I have stood on the very steps where Gough said those words and mimicked them to the amusement of a female friend. Only the two of us there on that Saturday in 1989 to share the joke. (Later someone set up a tour of the Old Parliament House where you could playact the roles of the protagonists and repeat their speeches.) O, wherefore art thou, interjector? If yet thou livest, come forth and claim thy mantle of glory!

Another rally with Gough, from the previous year, 1974, was the occasion for the can-throwing incident. Gough addressed a rally in my hometown, Perth, and was received with enthusiastic animosity by a large contingent of farmers who had come to town for the purpose thereof. One of them hurled a drink can (I think it was empty) which struck Gough (again, I think) on the side of his head. In those days drink cans were usually steel, not aluminium, although aluminium cans were beginning to appear. I don't think the thrower was ever caught. Perhaps he brags on "bopping Gough" to a select group of trusted persons.

In the field of rally-projectilers there is a somewhat less inglorious title to be claimed by the person who threw an egg at John Hewson in 1993. Hewson had attempted to revive the outdoor rally as an election event and encountered the same obstacles that had already killed it off once. At one of them he caught an egg which flew up from the crowd and called out, "That's the catch of the season!" At the other end of the egg's trajectory was a person who can say, "I threw the egg that Hewson caught."

And then, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there are the "unknown unknowns". I can imagine one for you to show what that means. In the days when Alan Bond was being prosecuted for various matters, Paul Barry (then with the ABC) approached Bond as he was walking to court and said "Mr Bond, I'm Paul Barry from the ABC. Do you remember me, Mr Bond?" He handed Bond his business card as he said this. Bond calmly took the card, carefully placed it on the footpath and then ritually stamped upon it. As Bond turned and walked on, Barry followed, smiling and saying in a very pleasant and apparently delighted voice, "Ohh, so you do remember me Mr Bond." (At this time Bond was faking brain damage and memory loss for legal purposes.) Bond then turned and began shouting mock-hysterically (for the cameras) "Leave me alone! Leeeave mee alooone!!" It's a good yarn and I may return to it one day. For now, let's allow Paul and Alan to walk away from us down the path of history. Let's look back to where Bond stamped on the card. There it is, lying on the pavement with his shoeprint on it. What happens to it? That card is a Lost Treasure of Australian History. If only someone walking along behind would think to pick it up. Mounted in a nice frame it could attract a good price at a charity auction. Perhaps the National Archives or the National Library would like to have it. Or does it disappear with the rest of the debris of the footpath, disintegrating in a gutter or down a storm drain? Well, now that I've suggested it, it's a known unknown. Perhaps someone does have it tucked in their wallet and produces it at the pub as a conversation piece.

There are uncountable quantities of such curiosities and mysteries to be found, reaching all the way back to the deepest past of humanity. They spread out to touch all of us bit-players in history.

5 comments:

Dina said...

I do think all these peripheral people remember/tell/brag about their little intrusions into history. "I was the guy you hear in Whitlam's speech!"

As for the Asian woman, who knows? Maybe she did support Howard. I think I wrote about that in one of my entries--how there's always someone from a group who is actually supportive of a policy other people from the group are against. The example I was talking about was the stolen children. Ross Lightfoot said he knew Aborigines and they were grateful for the whole thing. My feeling is there probably ARE a few who feel that way. There are probably a few Native Americans who think it's good their country was invaded. You find these people and then you can say something like "I have a lot of gay friends and I know that even homosexuals think homosexuality is an evil sin."

As for peripheral stuff. I sometimes wonder about people in photographs--you know you take a photograph of your family/friends and there are other people in the background. It's so weird to think that in the world there are probably thousands of strangers who have photos of you in their albums.

Michael said...

I like reading historical fiction, like Bernard Cornwell, who looks at major events through the eyes of bit players.

Off topic a little, the marketing ploy to superimpose a graphic or use pictures out of context is highly unethical.

I remember seeing a photo of my grandmother in a brochure promoting Tasmania. She was at a family picnic ... near Melbourne, and had no idea she was being photographed, let alone endorsing Tasmanian tourism.

Retarius said...

Dina, that's an apposite observation about the egregious types who support apparent attacks on their own groups. Some of them are, I believe, utterly despicable sellouts who will collaborate with opressors for their own material profit. Others have a pathetic desire to join the dominant group and are trying to "mutate" into their form. I've encountered something similar in reading about Jewish collaborators with the Nazis. Perhaps this is what certain people mean when they talk about "self-loathing Jews".

In these days of camera phones and the Internet the phenomenon of one's image spreading to all corners is going to increase in magnitude.

I have a very poor-quality photo I took in 1969 with a $5.00 (!) Kodak Instamatic camera that I received as a birthday present. I remember that I was attempting to photgraph a statue in the pond at Perth's Kings Park called the Pioneer Woman. It's in the middle of a pond. I didn't notice a couple of girls of about thirteen in the foreground because I was intent on the photograph's intended subject. One of them shrieked and ran out of the camera's field of view. Too late, though. I'd already clicked. There she is, nearly 40 years later, a woman who, if alive, is now in her fifties; captured in a moment of frivolous youth and fresh beauty. The photo's poor because I hadn't wound the film far enough and it has a white band down the left side where the divider strip was. I only kept it because it was one of the first photographs I ever took. Oddly, it was also one of the last. Leaving aside work matters, I've only taken about forty photographs in my entire life for personal reasons.

Michael, I've heard of Bernard Cornwell but I don't know if I've read anything by him.

Your comment is right on topic. It's exactly the sort of thing I'm thinking of.

Of course, the law allows anything that is in a public place to be published unless there's a damn good reason why not and a court has made a pertinent order.

The publishers of the brochure could simply respond that they're merely showing what a human being in Tasmania looks like when having a picnic, not purporting anything about their opinion. I agree that if a photo is to be used for commercial or governmental purposes, the courtesy of asking consent should be extended. It could be legislated that it was required if a person in the photo would be recognisable.

Michael said...

The media self regulates itself pretty well, I think, when it comes to using images from public places in newspapers, on television, etc.

Consent is normally obtained where possible. And you rarely see faces used if, for example, a story is running on obesity and a fat man is pictured walking down the street.

I wouldn't like to see legislation enacted. That could inhibit journalists and photographers doing their job, eg taking pictures of an accident scene or a crowd disturbance, etc.

The examples we have both referred to involve advertising/marketing.

We could probably have complained to the Advertising Standards Council, but they're a toothless tiger, like the Press Council. Perhaps they should be given some real powers to fine or somehow penalise agencies that act unethically.

Journalists have a code of ethics. I'm not sure there is one for advertising.

Retarius said...

Michael, I agree that news reporting of public events shouldn't be hampered by consent requirements but I believe it's not a hindrance to journalism to statutorily require consent for images which are intended to be used for advertising and in which a person may be recognised.

As you say, the Press Council and ASC are toothless tigers. A law with significant penalties attached always proves to be the only solution where a profit motive is involved.