For me, the word Carnarvon is a sensation with a myriad elements: the smell of crackling desert dawn, the roar of the Indian Ocean, stars hanging low in the sky. It’s a billy boiling on glowing coals, fish sizzling in a pan, my young parents endlessly outdoors in a world of water, spray, sand and dust. It’s a quality of light and air that exists only there, only in that place. I wasn’t born there, but I got there early enough for it to take hold of my soul. I will not be five, six, or seven years old anywhere else on earth. Or fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Carnarvon has all of those years.
But Carnarvon is also the place I was desperate to leave when I was a teenager serving buckets of hot chips at Delmonica’s Deli next door to the book exchange. Life was elsewhere, and I couldn’t wait to go find it. For quite a few years I barely looked back. And then, the undercurrent, pulling me back.
In recent years I’ve been a member of a Facebook group called I Grew Up in Carnarvon, a virtual town in cyberspace. People will post announcements of deaths and funerals, or pictures of what places in Carnarvon look like now. Both current residents and those of us long gone live companionably there. We are united online by the things we knew intimately offline: the dry crunch of the Gascoyne River, the creaking of the boards of the One Mile Jetty, the smell of prawns and mangos, the palm trees dotting a seawall known as The Fascine, the giant dish of the radio telescope looking over the town from its perch on a red sand dune. If you’re on Facebook, a certain bittersweet nostalgia is never more than a couple of clicks away.
But then a few days ago, blasting into the middle of this nostalgic idyll, an urgent posting:
OMFG can you be serious!!!!!! I’m listening to the ABC news and the Shire of Carnarvon is refusing to fly the Aboriginal Flag during NAIDOC week!!!!!! Shame on you Carnarvon Shire!
And then it was on. The comments rolled on and on. “Disgrace!” “Shame!” and so on.
For my international reader*, a bit of background: NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. During NAIDOC Week, held in the first week of July, most local government offices fly the striking black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag. It symbolises respect for, and celebration of, the oldest living culture on earth. For forty thousand years (some say sixty thousand) before invasion and settlement by European powers, Aboriginal people had been sitting by firelight under low-hanging stars, listening to the crashing of the Indian Ocean or the buzzing of insects on the red earth inland from the coast, singing the songs and telling the stories of the place we know now as Carnarvon.
But the shire of Carnarvon has just decided that it will not fly the Aboriginal flag for NAIDOC week in July. The shire president insists that the Australian flag – the Union Jack plus the stars of the Southern Cross – represents all residents of Carnarvon equally, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. But local Aboriginal people are feeling it as a personal snub. For a radio interview this morning, I called someone who’d been in my sister’s class at school and asked what local Aboriginal people were feeling. Rage and despair, she said.
Why is it so hard for some Australians to look history squarely in the face? The land was wrested from Aboriginal people against their will. Dispossession was a long, drawn out and often bloody process. It stands to reason, then, that our the national flag carries traces of these meanings. It does not represent the whole story of this country; it represents a part of it. In recent years, as a nation, we have begun to recognise this and to reach out to the country’s first peoples. Sadly, Carnarvon shire appears determined to stick to a 1950s vision, one that is wilfully blind to the history and lived experience of many of its residents.
Carnarvon is an extraordinary place in an ancient and beautiful landscape. It deserves an Aboriginal flag flying freely over the Shire chambers. Let’s hope the shire councillors change their minds before NAIDOC week in July.