Malcolm Williamson Master of the Queen's Music
How old is space? Where is time? How young is democracy? Who better than the Australian Aboriginal people know? Before Abraham was, Australians in their tribal cities understood. Their happy liaison with Mother Earth enabled them to know what was to be known, to accept what was and is mystery.
After the unbroken nomadic democracies of near enough 100,000 years lived in the reflection of their eternity, the Dreaming, there came, a mere two centuries ago, a crude and cruel eruption for which ignorance alone can be blamed. The infant civilization of Europe bore south to lasso what was imagined to be a vast and vacant continent. Innocence was lost. Coffin ships came bearing gifts of alcohol, lying and disease hitherto undreamed of in the Dreaming.
The Aborigines gazed on the white interlopers in wonder; the Europeans responded with aggression traditional to their survival culture.
Mystifyingly, two centuries later, white supremacy and near eradication of the world's oldest extant culture are celebrated. A wiser age, still awaited, might have attempted a pluralistic culture and ethnicity. One such culture could have tilted the world on its axis. It is the eleventh hour and, as with Faust, salvation is just possible.
Contemporary Australia is a thrilling hotchpotch of excellence and mediocrity — at once wiser and less wise than any other nation in our world. The burden of needful redemption rests on a pathetically few shoulders. For all its tiny population pitted against diversity in vastness Australia has thrown up more than its share of philosopher-rulers. Too often unheeded because of their improbability and threatened with scything, reluctant politicians and inconvenient artists have stood tall. One such is Kath Walker, born 1920, an Aboriginal poet, survivor of blood sacrifice and prophet of wise hope, master of outrageous hyperbole and intuitive Socratic disciple.
In 1987, I was offered several commissions to write works for the Australian Bicentenary of 1988 designed to celebrate the white man's incursion into the Australian Continent. I had decided to reject one such offer since it came from Queensland because of its unappealing history of injustice to the Aboriginal people. I met a representative of the commissioning body in Sydney. I had prepared my lordly, disdainful rejection of the offer. 1988 seemed to me a year when sorrow for man's inhumanity to man would have been more suitable than celebration of white conquest. Leaving me no chance to accept or reject the offer, I was asked ‘Had you thought about setting Kath Walker to music?’ I knew and admired her poems and, without allowing more than a second for astonishment, I shook his hand and said, ‘Done!’ He explained that the great lady had never allowed her poems to be set to music and that, therefore, two trials had to be undergone to gain her permission — the first, by telephone; the second, face to face.
The long-distance telephone call, deeply serious but laced with laughter, was the first trial. What did I think of Margaret Thatcher, of Ronald Reagan, of the Premier of Queensland? Almost as directly, probing questions about Love, Sexuality, Justice, Retribution, Forgiveness. The first trial led to an invitation to visit.
I flew to Brisbane and then, with two musical colleagues, took the ferry over what might be thought of as Kath Walker's ocean to Stradbroke Island. We drove the dusty roads through the lush and lusty tropical vegetation to a cluster of tents and caravans among the trees. It was nationally known that Kath's home had been vandalized and, since the Queensland police had declined to investigate the matter and no compensation was forthcoming, the Walker family preferred to live on common land in the traditional ‘sitting-down place’ of the Noonuccal tribe in circumstances precluding a recurrence of the injustice.
A small, dainty woman, elegant in a cerise dress and hat which would command admiration in any fashionable street in the world, came to greet us. Embraces seemed entirely natural. Although photographs had made the face familiar, nothing prepared us for the beautiful aquamarine eyes that bespeak innocence, intelligence and wisdom. Kath led us to the veranda and offered us cucumber sandwiches, tropical fruit and tea. In a clearing nearby was a fire of wood and stones being heated for their evening barbecue.
Although time seemed to have stopped, none was wasted in preliminaries. We realized that we had the total acceptance of a loving, candid and indomitable woman. Like Jonathan Jo, she has a wheelbarrow full of surprises. Her strikingly beautiful hands, marvellously manicured and beringed are never without a cigarette. As she waved one towards the distant roadway she shouted, ‘I'll stop smoking when people stop driving cars.’ Through the sunlit hours when we were together we submitted to the paradoxical delights of the mercurial personality of a poet who would recite poems, mostly not her own but which she admired, interposed with amusing bawdy anecdotes, mercilessly accurate denunciations of those who deserved them and unstinted selfless praise of such colleagues as the historian Manning Clark and the great poet Judith Wright.
Essentially every poem, like every spontaneous remark whether literal or metaphorical, is pumiced to shining meaning. The gear-box has yet to be developed which can change gear as Kath's mind does and only indicative fragments can be reproduced here. While she was recounting the story of her trip as a delegate to the People's Republic of China I was removing the teacups. Kath looked over her shoulder to the kitchen and said, ‘Your Mother brought you up well, Malcolm’, and continued to talk about China. Having studied all her printed poems, so diverse and rich, I had arrived with the list in sequence of the poems I wanted to set for what was to become the hour-long choral symphony The Dawn is at Hand. In a rapid switch from reciting a poem by the West Australian Aboriginal poet Jack Davis whom she greatly admires, Kath look my list and, giving sound reasons, reassembled it adding some poems, taking others away. It is hard to know how, before any music was written, she had so astutely envisaged the structure which stands so satisfactorily as the final text.
Thus the second trial was passed. Reluctantly, as a bottle of port was produced and the beef was set for barbecue, we left, laden with passion fruit.
As I went to work on my music, my excitement about the poetry was intensified by the aura of the poet, but simultaneously burdened by the responsibility of looking greatness in the face.
My next meeting with Kath was at as memorable a theatrical evening as I have ever experienced — an Aboriginal manifestation in Sydney written, directed, lit and choreographed by her brilliant son, Vivian. Kath was in the cast as singer, dancer and reciter. She was, at the time, 67 years old but in every department showed the effortless grace of a teenager.
At the first performance of The Dawn is at Hand to a crowded house in Brisbane Concert Hall with the full panoply of soloists, chorus and orchestra Kath and I unwittingly made history. Never before had an Aboriginal poet and a Caucasian composer collaborated in so vast a work. We stood together holding hands in the royal box to acknowledge deafening applause which seemed to last almost the length of the work and for scheduling reasons was eventually curtailed by the national radio. It was shortly after this that the overtly racist government of Queensland, which had for so long been a scarcely concealed scandal, fell.
Kath Walker, poet, essayist, painter, actress and dancer regards herself principally as an educator and, to date, in her Stradbroke Island school well over 30,000 children have passed through her hands. She is, so far, the recipient of honorary doctorates in three Australian states. She has been awarded the M.B.E. for her services to literature and the list of international honours from five continents would occupy pages. A pacifist in life, she is a fighter with the pen. While she and her poems have been chosen to represent Australian literature in North America, Eastern and Western Europe, the Republics of Africa and Asia including China, while every Australian schoolchild knows We are Going and Song of Hope she has suffered enough personal humiliations in her native Queensland to quench a lesser spirit. However, as we may read in her poem Let us not be bitter, it is characteristic of Kath to have compassion for her detractors; but woe betide anybody imprudent enough to open battle with that sharp intellect and flashing tongue, as I know to my personal cost. Although we neither of us knew it, we were both in Moscow at the time of Glasnost:
Kath: ‘Why didn't you come to hear me read?’
Me: ‘I was at the Soviet Composers' Union.'
Kath: ‘Well, that was your bad luck, wasn't it?’
There is every reason to believe that posterity will place Kath Walker as one of the leading poets of our time. Her poetry speaks for itself but, leaving aside the extraordinary gift, the historical and cultural confluences were unforeseeable and unrepeatable. A small girl of some Scottish, some Spanish and much Aboriginal blood had, on the one hand, rudimentary European education imposed on her, while converging with the meditative study of Biami, the indefinable god of creation. The young culture of Europe and the world's oldest culture were absorbed side by side thus forging a unique poetic voice. To date, some 350 Aboriginal root languages have been codified. An Aboriginal poet, Kevin Gilbert, has collected much poetry in these tribal languages like Kath's own Noonuccal, but she has elected to speak her message in English.
Theses on her work abound. What is more significant is that had history been different, had Caucasians occupied Australia for 100,000 years and had Aboriginal aggressors arrived two centuries ago, Kath Walker would have been the champion of the persecuted white people. I can claim no originality for this thought. It has been voiced by American Indians, by Inuits, by persecuted Africans and, indeed, by victims of injustice the world over who refuse to abandon hope and dignity.