Review: Symbols of Australia shows the difficulty of defining an entire nation through symbols alone

Pavlova - the most ambiguous of all Australian symbols. Picture: Shutterstock
Pavlova - the most ambiguous of all Australian symbols. Picture: Shutterstock
  • Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation, edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White. NewSouth, $39.99.

This new edition of Symbols of Australia (first published in 2010) starts with a bleak warning from Joseph Furphy in 1903. "Loyalty to something is an ingredient in our moral constitution, and the more vague the object, the more rabid will be our devotion to the symbol."

Furphy's comment leaves plenty of room for argument, about whether we actually possess a "moral constitution", whether we are "rabid" about anything much, and whether "vague" symbols are more compelling than tangible, day-to-day ones. Harper and White are up for any such debate, and lead in the reader by claiming that "symbols attempt the impossibility of defining 'us', whatever we are".

The first edition of this book inspired a popular travelling exhibition from the Museum of Australia, as well as a counterpart volume about symbols of Canada. This re-issue tweaks all the earlier essays, "to take into account a symbol's new accretions and depictions".

Or, using more practical references, "Holden reached the end of the road, the Akubra was dropped as an essential prime-ministerial accessory, and Uluru is no longer climbed".

The editors have added two new items, both worthy inclusions: the democracy sausage and the Great Barrier Reef. That makes 28 symbols, arranged in a manner which is not alphabetical, chronological or in order of the significance of the symbol to us.

The rainbow serpent, which perhaps should have been accorded pride of place, is listed 27th. The justification for starting with the Southern Cross is that that constellation "can date its origins closest to the Big Bang". Cricket's baggy green enjoys an even lower position than the rainbow serpent, coming in at 28th place.

Selections like this are meant to provoke grizzling about the editors' omissions. Where is the Hills Hoist, for example? Or the ABC? Why is Australia House in London included? The unlikely answer to that question is that it qualifies as "the first building designed to act as a symbol of Australia".

Is it accurate to declare that Uluru remained, "until the 1970s, of little or no interest to the vast majority of Australians"? Why not insert a chapter on smoking ceremonies and Welcome to Country?

Generally, however, the editorial decisions are shrewd, and the individual contributors are consistently informed, rarely pedantic and sometimes witty. Who knew, for instance, that the baggy green cap has "not always been baggy or even green"? Why were we not told that, from 1997 to 1999, tourist boats off South Australia towed wet suits filled with offal in a bid to attract Great White sharks?

Do we remember that Australians use the term wattle, rather than acacia or mimosa, because of the verb "to wattle"? That synonym for "weave" describes the first phase in construction of wattle and daub housing. Why have we not committed to memory one early, blatantly sexist advertisement for Vegemite: "If Ma might, Pa will"?

Many of the writers are conspicuously fair. Disagreements between New Zealand and Australia over the provenance of the pavlova are not settled, but rather shelved, on the basis that determining the dessert's intellectual property is simply "too complex".

Regrettably, our national stamps, "miniature conveyors of officials ideology", have never depicted any Australian university or business enterprise.

Especially judicious is the essay on the lifesaver, which insists that "the lifesaver has been fought over for a century and on occasion has fought back".

The text in Symbols of Australia is sweetly complemented by illustrations, both black and white and in colour. My favourite remains the Billy Tea ad, from 1910, where a swaggie encounters a kangaroo with a swag over his shoulder and a billy in his paw. The caption reads: "Hullo mate. I always thought you were only a Billy Tea advertisement". Against the odds, I have always imagined it is the kangaroo which is speaking.

Harper and White suggest that "all nations use symbols to make themselves visible". Surely their function is both wider and deeper than that. I reckon the most authentic test of any symbol is how its appeal resonates when you are far from home.

A maudlin piece of doggerel like The Man from Snowy River might bring a tea to the eye. Crushing and burning gum leaves can conjure up a nation oceans away. Eating a VitaWheat or a TimTam can seem akin to a religious experience.

The two editors are keen, alert observers, and would be sensitive to those nostalgic, sensory tugs from home. Now we might move on to the next stage with national symbols. Where Canadian tourists can invariably be identified by their pride in wearing the maple leaf flag, we could ditch the Union Jack for the Southern Cross or the Aboriginal flag.

This story Who the hell are we anyway? first appeared on The Canberra Times.