Passengers of Memory: Constructions of British Immigrants in Post-Imperial Australia

By Wills, Sara | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Passengers of Memory: Constructions of British Immigrants in Post-Imperial Australia


Wills, Sara, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


In the wake of Australia's bicentennial celebrations, the poet Robert Adamson published "Remembering Posts" as part of his collection The Clean Dark (1989). In the nationalist context of the bicentenary, the poem provided an alternative way of figuring the sensibility of a post-imperial Australia. Adamson wrote:

   In this country, beyond the sparkle
   and the junk, the weekend blood
   arenas, beaches full of paddlepops
   and shit, out along the road
   you stop noticing flags for hamburgers
   or the empire, it all becomes a streak
   of colour smearing the windscreen--as
   you drift freeways or swerve
   and loop down narrow passes you
   realize you could be anywhere
   in the world in your head, though
   nowhere else you'd feel like this--a
   passenger of memory floating out
   across centuries. After distance
   lulls you become a mobile antenna,
   taking it in as each nerve flicks
   with pain, sensing flesh wounds
   in the open-cut mountainside, broken
   bones under desert crust. Now you
   know that if you stop you would shoot
   roots and grow branches, leaves,
   flowers--or you'd spear yourself
   into the earth and sprout up
   like a telegraph pole, a grey post
   on the edge of a gibber plain, and be
   stuck there swaying in the dry wind,
   remembering. (1)

Adamson's poem is broadly evocative of many dimensions of the Australian journey out of imperialism. The passengers of memory alluded to here, however, are the 1.5 million plus British migrants who have arrived in Australia since the Second World War. I want to use Adamson's poem as a point of departure in order to illustrate how the passing of "imperial" connections between Britain and Australia has affected British migrants: to outline how these migrants have been both passengers of national memory and become more recently passengers of their own memories of journeys "from the ruins of imperialism". (2) I want to do this by outlining firstly some of the reasons why British migrant memory in Australia is emerging in specific forms now, and secondly by drawing attention to some of the debates surrounding this remembering. Based on research into the experiences of post-Second World War British migrants to Australia, I want then to chart three moments of post-imperial Britishness in Australia--three "remembering posts"--in order to examine how post-imperialism in Australia operates on and is produced by British migrants; to stress the value of understanding this post-imperialism as an embodied experience; and to suggest that British migrants have also been the passengers of an Australian post-imperial forgetting. What I want to emphasise is that the post-imperial "remembering posts" of British migrants in Australia have been and are "acts of memory" in the context of broader socio-historical forces. (3) They illustrate the active role of individual, social and cultural memory and the potential for conceiving British identities in new ways. Post-imperial, though not yet post-colonial, they mark also a heterogenous grappling with identity alongside recognition that Australia has had something more complex than a homogenous British, Anglo-Celtic or even "white" past. (4)

Remembering Posts

It is of course something of an understatement to say that British identity in Australia has been a complex phenomenon as it has developed over the last 220 years. Once the primary basis for the nation's identity, it became both the foundation upon which notions of Australianness were constructed and also that against which Australian nationalism sought to define itself. In this context, the place of Britishness in Australia has ebbed and flowed in the national psyche, reflecting developments in history and politics, culture and society. Thus explicitly we deal still with Britishness at specific moments: in relation to politics (citizenship, the monarchy and the republic), international relations and the economy (war, trade arrangements and tariffs), sport (rugby and cricket tours), and events relating to national anniversary and cultural heritage (the Bicentenary and Federation). …

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