Saturday, January 13, 2007


I've often wondered whether certain aspects of my character might be "explained" (let's leave those inverted commas in place, since I don't wish to tackle the possible meanings of that fuzzy term) by the fact that I grew up on an island. A big island, certainly, but an island all the same... "girt by sea", as our national anthem Advance Australia Fair puts it. French people are always asking me about how big Australia is, and I usually say "fourteen times as big as France"... which is not a particularly eloquent explanation. The following image from Margaret Nicholson's excellent Little Aussie Fact Book (Penguin) provides a better idea of the size of the huge island:

Islander characteristics, to my mind, are such things as a love of autonomous seclusion, a constant anguish of being invaded by outsiders, and a vague underlying curiosity about what might be taking place in the remote and ill-defined "outside world". Many islands have an associated mainland. In the case of my treasured island of Rottnest, for example, the mainland is Western Australia. But the island continent of Australia, taken as a whole, is an exception in that this island knows no mainland. You might think of Australia as a super island that is its own mainland. We Australians may have inherited this way of looking upon the universe from Great Britain, whose peoples think of their native island in that way. But we might just as well have inherited an island mentality from our Irish ancestors, for they too see their birthplace—at least symbolically—as the heart of the universe.

We islanders used to be united by our respect of the Robinson Crusoe myth. Knowing that our homeland can be lashed by terrible tempests and subjected to all kinds of possible disasters, we would strive to fortify our abode, to be able to defend ourselves, because we knew that we couldn't count upon help from the outside world. Today, of course, this is no longer the case in Australia, which has placed herself under the protective cloak of the USA.

Even though I now live far away from the sea, I still have an islander's awe of big ships, which was a childhood image that soothed me whenever I was upset. I have always thought that this is a remnant of our collective memory of ancestors who came to the Antipodes in ships.

Last night on French TV, the weekly maritime magazine called Thalassa (sea in Greek) dealt with several islands, including the fabulous feudal domain of Sark in the English Channel, which I visited long ago when I was writing my guide book Great Britain Today (Jeune Afrique, 1978). The French documentary then turned its attention to a quite different island, in the Pacific, whose name I had almost forgotten: Nauru.

I recall that, when I was a youth in Australia, the magical name of this island was a synonym of dizzy riches obtained through the sale of phosphate. Up until its independence in 1968, Nauru was a trust territory administered by Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Since then, all the immense wealth acquired from the sale of its phosphate appears to have dissolved into thin air (?)... leaving the island's small population more or less destitute. And the island itself, from an environmental viewpoint, is a total catastrophe. In fact, one of Nauru's only sources of revenue today is the rent paid by the Australian government for a detention center holding asylum-seekers who have tried to enter Australia. Between islanders, that kind of basic collaboration is normal. N'est-ce pas?

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