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Australia’s familiar past

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 4 February 2011

Magic happens in old books. The thoughts and observations of writers long deceased come alive at the turn of yellowed pages. Deciphering antique fonts, touching dried-out leather covers and smelling aged paper, there is no more sensual bridge to the past.

It is surprising, however, how much of this magic still sparkles even in an electronic copy. Thanks to the digitalisation of the world’s great libraries, little treasures are now available at a mouse-click from your home computer.

A Swiss newspaper recently asked me to write an essay on the cultural relationship between Australia and the Old World. During my research, I stumbled on this book about Australia on Google Books. Written by an obscure German author and published in Leipzig in 1870, it got me hooked after the first few pages. The excitement was not so much because the book had opened a window into Australia’s history. It was rather because the past sounded so much like the present.

The author reports almost breathlessly about Australia’s remarkable economic achievements of the previous decades. The country is in the grip of a commodity boom, although the term for it at the time was ‘gold rush.’ Australia’s bustling cities are growing fast and are described as world class by the German visitor.

It is fascinating what the writer has to say about Melbourne in the last 1860s. Though only really established some 30 years earlier, the city already shows many of the landmarks of today’s Melbourne. The main newspapers are called The Herald and The Age; the State Library and Parliament House had just opened; and there was Chinatown in Little Bourke Street.

The Australians in the book come across as practical, hard-working and civic-minded. After the catastrophic floods in the Nepean district in 1867, Sydneysiders donated large amounts of money to help with the reconstruction. Apparently, the event was followed by a long discussion about building dams to prevent any such events in the future. At least Australians of the time escaped an extra tax to pay for them.

A dip into Australia’s history, seen through the eyes of a foreigner, is revealing. The pragmatism and egalitarianism so closely associated with Australia today are certainly not an invention of our times. Australia has obviously changed over the past 140 years, but perhaps not quite as much as we think.

As for the magic that is happening on yellowed pages, I couldn’t resist ordering a physical copy of the book from an antiquarian dealer.

Fortunately, some things have changed since the book was published: I won’t have to wait three months for it to arrive from Europe.

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