You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Thursday, 15 March 2012

of a Scandal at the Op Shop

Today, my best favourite op shop is having its semi-regular big sale. In addition to the regular op shop being open, there is furniture for sale in the car park, books in the foyer, and another room of trestle tables heaped with piles, through which you can rummage and pay $5 per garbage bag full.

Yep, pretty exciting stuff. So I couldn't stay away even though I was pretty tired this morning.

I was browsing through the children's books when I got such a shock I think I actually made an audible choking sound. A children's book called Bromley Climbs Uluru by Alan and Patrician Campbell. The cover showed a photograph of a stuffed teddy bear among a landscape of red rocks.

If I were telling this story to a local friend, I would just continue on and expect that said friend would immediately understand why I felt so scandalised. However, I'm aware that this blog is read by people from other countries, people who have never been to Australia, and would not be expected to know anything about Australian Aboriginal laws and customs, so I am detouring here with a bit of back story.

Uluru is the very big rock in the middle of Australia. When I was a little kid, we learnt at school that this rock was called Ayer's Rock. In 1985, I was in Grade 2, and we were all told that it was now called Uluru, as it had been handed back to traditional owners. It has great cultural and spiritual significance to the Anangu people, and it is a huge tourist drawcard, attracting many thousands of visitors each year. Many of these visitors climb Uluru, in spite of well-publicised requests not to climb the rock, out of respect for native traditional law. Many people respect these requests and don't climb. One of my favourite bumper stickers, often seen on hippy vans, proudly proclaims - I DIDN'T CLIMB ULURU. As you can imagine, it's Quite an Issue.

By the way, over 35 people have died while climbing Uluru, mostly of heart attacks. I'm not sure how the mortality rate compares to other rock-climbing treks, but it doesn't sound good to me.

So, a children's book, designed to be read to under-5s, that is promoting and condoning climbing Uluru. Aaaargh!

I mentioned it to the lady at the book desk - I can't believe they would publish a book like this! She nodded, yes I know, and didn't say much, but she knew what I was talking about.

I went in to the trestle table room and wrestled with the heaps for my bag of goodies. But it was niggling away in the back of my mind the whole time I was in there, the idea that it was somehow fundamentally wrong to expose innnocent children to that kind of disrespectful attitude. I wondered whether I should say something in protest. I wondered and uumed and ahhed to myself. I considered the 'freedom of expression' argument. I happened to cross paths with the manager on my way out past the books. I've got a pretty good op-shop-liaison relationship with this gentleman, so I took this as a synchronous occasion and went with saying something. I attempted a humourous approach, though there are those that question my interpretation of humour. 'So, Mr. B, I see you're selling books here that are promoting illegal activities!'

Of course, a conversation ensued. I was surprised to discover that Mr. B seemed to be completely unaware that there was anything inappropriate about climbing 'Ayer's Rock,' as he called it. He put the book away, which I was happy about.  But the encounter had opened up a path to one of my bugbear issues. Of course, I went home and googled this book. I discovered that -
- this book seems to be easily available through all the regular online booksellers, including an online retail site devoted to an 'outback products' theme.
- there was an attempt to stop the publication of the book by Anangu elders in 2003, but it turned out that the photographs in the book had been taken in 1986. Whitefella laws restricting photography in sacred sites at Uluru were not introduced until 1987. So there was nothing much they could do about it.
- my local library does not hold a copy of this book, though it does have another book from the same series, which does not feature Uluru.
- lots of people are very upset about not being allowed to take photographs in this particular spot.
- there are lots of Australians, living far from Uluru, who are unaware of the issue at all.

For example, the extremely melodramatic title of this article here - Why Australians are Unwelcome in their Own Country - might bring to mind some kind of deeply repressed fear that one day the Aborigines could rise up and take over the country and send us all packing back to Europe on convict ships. After all, something like that did happen in Haiti once. Actually, the author is describing his experience of not being allowed to take photographs at a specific location at Uluru. He seems to feel that as an Australian, he is entitled to take photographs anywhere in Australia that he wishes. Hmm, now I wonder if he would use that same argument if he had a desire to take photographs in other specific locations reserved by law, say, my backyard, or your backyard, or the Prime Minister's backyard, or on a military base, or in a scientific research facility? Somehow, I don't think it would fly if he did.

The author, drumming up some sympathy for his anguish, quotes nature photographer Ken Duncan as saying that Australia 'must be the only country in the world where you could get a criminal record for taking a picture of a rock.' Well, that is just not so. There are many countries in the world where one could be arrested for taking photographs of or at specific locations. What if the rock you were taking a photo of happened to be in front of a government building in China? You could well be arrested.

The statement also gives me cause to question the ambivalence of the photographer toward the landscape. It seems that he is saying - the rock is special, so I want to photograph it, but because it is not special, I should be allowed to photograph it. Well, no, I don't think you can have it both ways.

Co-author of the book Alan Campbell says here - 'I don't see why continuing occupation gives Aborigines the right to dictate to people what they can and and can't do.' I would like to point out to Mr. Campbell that there are numerous people out there who are, for various reasons, dictating what I can and can't do, and the vast majority of them are not Aborigines.

The point that seems to me to be obvious is this - white people make various divisions of public and private land, and restrictions on activities in certain locations. So, why shouldn't the indigenous people have the right to make similar divisions in their land?

*The author of this blog post has never climbed Uluru.


  1. I remember seeing "Toddler taming" by Christopher Green at our local library. I stole it and through it in the bin.

  2. and that is why I love you, Moddy.

    Awesome post Demelza

  3. Once upon a time I hid a 'parenting advice' book under the bookshelves in a library. I didn't have the nerve to steal it. My hat is off to you, Moddy. Ah, who would have thought that such liberal hippies would have the heart of a book burner! In fact, it occurs to me now what I should have done. I should have bought the book - I can't see a 50c donation to the salvos incurring any negative karma - and brought it home and burned it. Well, I'll have a plan of action if I ever encounter such a scandal again.
    And, that's all why I love you both, too!