Courtesy Reuters

Australia Looks Around

Not long after I returned to Sydney in 1954, I met a friend I had not seen for five years. After a meagre offering of cordialities, he said: "How long do you give us? I give us three years." When I asked him what he was talking about he said that he expected that China would conquer Southeast Asia by 1957 and that Australia would become a Chinese dependency shortly after. He speculated for a while about who the members of Australia's first Quisling government would be. . . .

The feeling that one morning we shall wake up to find that we are no longer here has been one of the strong undertones of Australian life. For most of the first 100 years of settlement there was a shiftlessness about being an Australian. The sense of impermanence in the penal colonies, the gold rushes and the land seizures was even reflected in architecture: most of settled Australia looked like a camp. The arid interior did not provide the excitements and optimism of an expanding frontier; it seemed to be associated more with an ingrained doubt that life could be expected to hold anything very much (although one might as well "give it a go"). Even now most Australians still live in the city ports, clinging to a few bits and pieces of the edges of their continent. There is a long established anxiety about its emptiness. (Perhaps Australia should be renamed a "desert island"; there are too many rhetorical implications in the idea of one nation occupying a whole "continent," even if the "continent" is only Australia.) Between the two World Wars "populate or perish" was a fearsome slogan and it seemed to make sense when the Japanese destroyed Darwin in 1942. When Australians now consider that the tropical third of their island (the part that is closest to Southeast Asia) is almost completely unpopulated, they sometimes fear that by some act of natural justice they might lose title to it. This middle-class belief that success must

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