Singing the Coast: Masks, Mists, Mirrors, Maps

  • This is a reflection or meditation on Singing the Coast, rather than a review as such. It grew out of a short review I wrote for the Townsville Bulletin at the time of publication. I may have submitted it to an academic journal (I can’t even remember whether it got that far) but really, I wrote it for myself as a way of trying to make sense of a very strange piece of story-telling. I have posted it here on Words & Images because it connects with concerns about indigenous history and heritage in The European colonisation of Australia. A word of warning: it’s long.

Singing the Coast
Margaret Somerville and Tony Perkins
Aboriginal Studies Press, $34.95
May 2010

Singing the Coast attempts to preserve a specific Aboriginal vision and share it with white society. One of its two authors, Margaret Somerville, is Professor of Education at Melbourne’s Monash University, while the other, Tony Perkins, is identified as a ‘cultural knowledge holder and member of the Garbi Elders of Corindi Beach’. With the help of Tony’s fellow Elders, they present essential elements of Gumbaynggirr culture through stories passed down in aboriginal families on the coast between Nambucca Heads (NSW) and Yamba, stories which relate the patterns of their daily lives and weave them into the timeless presence of the country.

It is an honest endeavour to do something which I believe is important to our spiritual health as a nation – as individuals, for that matter – so I wanted to like the book and wanted it to succeed, but I was continually frustrated and disappointed by it. Part of my disappointment was due to its language and structure but I gradually realised that my deeper frustrations were enmeshed in white Australians’ history of willed ignorance, of defining ‘aboriginal’ as ‘other’ on the way to dismissing understanding and reconciliation from our ‘need to do’ list.

What follows is one reader’s attempt to come to terms with a book which will undoubtedly evoke a wide variety of responses. For some, it will be a voyage into unknown territory; for others, a triumphant confirmation of identity; for others again, an exemplary study in sharing knowledge across cultural divides. I saw it as an opportunity to hear from a group of people whose voices have been muted for far too long and to revisit country I knew in early adulthood.


Singing the Coast opens with an explanation of its genesis as an attempt to bridge two ways of seeing our coast, but it really only gets under way with the Elders’ stories of the community they knew when young. Chapters are organised thematically, around the history of the lakeside camp at Corindi, food gathering, spirit presences and initiation, and the dreamtime stories which connect people to the landscape.

Much of the text proceeds as a series of quotations from one or another indigenous speaker, followed by a contribution by someone who must therefore automatically be identified as the ‘real author’ of the book: that’s the way quotations work, isn’t it? But the ‘real author’ is not introduced, which is problematic when two authors are named on the cover.

If, but only if, the reader begins by reading the ‘Acknowledgements’ and ‘Notes on Language’, she or he will find that ‘the authorial voice is Margaret’s, in conversation with Tony,’ (p. ix) and that the book documents a ten-year ARC-funded research project between Yarrawarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre Corindi Beach, Muurbay Aboriginal Language and Cultural Centre Nambucca Heads, and the University of New England (pp. vii – viii). This explains a lot, but not one general reader in a hundred will begin a book with the front matter. And Margaret is only a shadowy presence in Singing the Coast, occasionally writing in first person but rarely showing herself in the time and place where the stories were told or joining the conversation, and never identifying herself as either old or young, married or single, just (and only once) a ‘white female settler-researcher’ (p. 25).

These gaps matter. They separate her from the social reality, while letting her retain total freedom to shape her informants’ stories without being seen doing so. Her motives may be of the highest and purest, and her editorial hand the lightest in the world, but she is hidden in God-space: omnipresent, omnipotent, invisible and above criticism. Perhaps her position of power was unavoidable in the circumstances, but if only we knew her better, and could see that her informants knew and trusted her, any doubts would vanish.

Margaret has an unfortunate habit of repeating her informant’s anecdote, as if in translation, adding little or no information and losing some of the flavour. For instance:

Every Sunday you’d start [the washing day by the river], and then if you’d never got it all done on a Sunday you’d carry it over till the Monday. There’s a lot of wild cherry all down the banks, used to go there and get a lot of them. Bush lemons … (Tony’s voice, p. 114)

Washing was an all-day affair, or even two-day affair, and while they were at the river they caught and collected the many foods to eat. Wild cherries, the favourite dark-red fruit of one of the lilly pilly trees, and bush lemons … (Margaret’s voice, p. 115)

It clogs the book with unnecessary repetition and blurs the reader’s image of the scene.

And repeating another’s words can be a way of saying, ‘Yes, I understand,’ but it can also be a way of claiming ownership, saying, ‘This is how your words should be understood.’ Perhaps I have spent too long in the classroom, but that is how I automatically tended to interpret the repetition here, although I’m sure it’s not what Margaret intended.


Oral history, from any culture, has its limits. It can be forgotten, added to or distorted and the changes leave no trace; and it generally has only three historical periods, the speaker’s lifetime, the speakers’ grandparents’ lifetime, and the generic past. ‘My grandfather said that when he was a little child he saw…’ dates an event, whether it was a volcanic eruption or white people on horses making their way along the beach for the first time. Anything older? Dreamtime, myth time, some of it told accurately after hundreds of years, much of it worn down to nubs of meaning.

If we could say to the storyteller, ‘Yes, your grandfather must have seen Robert Towns and his party in 1873,’ or, ‘Yes, that volcano erupted five hundred years ago, give or take fifty, according to our geologists’ dating of the ash layer,’ both sides of the dialogue learn something. Why not make such connections where we can?

The oldest story in Singing the Coast with real people in it begins:

M’grandmother was tellin’ me
about the time
her mother was lookin’ after a baby …
(Tony Perkins’ voice, p. 24)

Older stories are dreamtime stories, like the tale of the sisters who separated sand from water to make the Australian coast.

White culture is good at maps, dates, photographs and documentary evidence; and such things would, surely, help white readers (and that means most readers) connect the indigenous narrative to their own, known, narrative of exploration and settlement. But what does Margaret contribute from white culture to complement and enrich what we hear from the black side? Only one small-scale map (South West Rocks to Corindi Beach) and a collection of photographs; no larger-scale maps or town plans, no family trees, birth dates or marriage dates. I did eventually find Tony’s birth year and can now place him as someone five years older than myself – but I had to go to the cataloguing-in-publication entry to do so.

The white side of the story is the story of timber-getters and settlers moving into the country of the Gumbaynggirr. I did not find any dates of white settlement in the book but a few minutes’ research elsewhere revealed that timber-getters entered the area from the 1840s, followed by farmers in the 1860s and the declaration of the township of Nambucca Heads in the 1880s. The bulk of the oral history dates from the childhoods of Margaret’s informants; it therefore represents the Gumbaynggirrs’ situation two or three generations after first contact. Indeed, the New South Wales GenWeb Project says that, ‘The traditional inhabitants of the [Bellingen] region were the Gumbaynggir people. Black Jimmy is reported to be the last full-blood Gumbaynggir. He died in 1922 and is buried in Bellingen Cemetery.’


Each of us brings to every conversation our whole self and as much of our culture and history as we carry in memory. Tony Perkins acknowledges as much when, beginning an interview with ‘a young Gumbaynggirr researcher well known to him’ (p. 190), he starts:

Tony Perkins, the name. I am a local person from the northern area of the Gumbaynggirr. All my relatives come from this area but I got associated with other Elders’ groups within Gumbaynggirr through different types of marriage in the clan groups.’ (Tony’s voice, p. 190)

I have argued that Margaret Somerville should have matched it. So too should I, since in becoming their reader and your writer, I also became a participant.

Hugh Mackay says in his recent What Makes Us Tick that it’s a mistake to think that indigenous people’s spiritual relationship to their country is somehow, mystically, more significant than anyone else’s. Certainly, those who live closer to one patch of country for longer build stronger ties to it than those who are urbanised and/or transient, but all of us see our country through our own and our family’s lived history, and all of us identify with it to an extent that is hard to quantify. Reading Singing the Coast, I was struck again and again by how closely the Gumbaynggirr Elders’ memories of their country childhood mirrored my own.


I grew up on a Victorian farm as the child of English immigrants. My country is South Gippsland, with its rolling hills stripped of towering gum trees two generations before I was born; the old bloke on the next farm was a child of the pioneers, and he told us of the 1898 fire that burnt so wildly out of control when felled trees were set alight that it blocked Bass Strait to shipping.

Those hills are my country and helped make me who I am. I could show you now, fifty years later, the swimming holes and the little hidden waterfalls, the locations of the self-sown roadside fruit trees that fed me on bike trips every autumn.

I don’t think I ever saw any aboriginal people – at all – there. Looking back, I am fairly sure there were none living in our nearest town and none attended my schools. Perhaps the closest I came was on a family holiday near Bairnsdale when my father pointed out ‘Lake Tyers’ to my mother; it meant nothing to me at the time, but I found out later that Lake Tyers was an ‘aboriginal settlement’ and, later again, what that was likely to mean.

In the fashion of the day, the history we learned in the classroom had little to say about indigenous people. My engagement with them was therefore almost wholly through the imagination: myths like those in my Victorian School Reader in the early 1960s; Ruth Park’s Maori tale, The Hole in the Hill; ME Patchett’s Arnhem Land adventure, Warrimoo; and Ion Idriess’ lurid Drums of Mer.

In my late teens I moved to Melbourne for work. There I met one or two aboriginal people, and saw more on the streets of Fitzroy, but I knew far more Greeks and Italians than indigenous Australians and my sporadic engagement with them was still primarily through books: Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Ending of the World (1983), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972, and the 1978 movie) and a few others.

Thus far, I think, my experience is reasonably representative of the Australian baby-boomer. We are a motley nation of big-city folk, most of us only one or two generations away from our European or Asian ancestry, and most of the migrant groups are much larger segments of the urban mix than indigenous people.


Things changed for me twenty years ago. In my late thirties, I moved from Melbourne to Townsville where indigenous people are a significant and highly visible minority of the population. Myth met reality at last. I was taken aback, shocked, at the casual racism of many long-term residents, and gradually became aware of a shadow on our horizon. ‘That’s Palm Island,’ they said.

I got to know aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as I got to know every other part of the population, primarily by teaching music to the children. Nice kids, bright and friendly (as most children are if you treat them as real people) and generally willing to work, but too often disadvantaged by their home life. How much schoolwork can a twelve-year-old do when she has been left in charge of her four younger siblings while mum has another baby? How can an eight-year-old focus in class when the other dozen people in his house were partying all night?

I picked up some casual work a few years ago, checking electoral enrolments. It took me into indigenous households I would never otherwise have visited, to meet, among others, the smart, focused young woman recently arrived from Cairns and looking forward to her new job; the older man to whom ‘permanent place of residence’ was completely meaningless because he moved freely between Palm and suburban Townsville; the woman whose standard English was so poor that I had difficulty communicating; and the young mum at home with eight happily messy pre-teen children. Many indigenous people here live secure, fulfilled lives in mainstream society but it is still sadly true to say that most of our poorest people, who are also those most likely to suffer chronic ill-health and legal trouble, are indigenous.

My wife’s family were pioneers near Townsville. Alex Miller’s fine Journey to the Stone Country had all sorts of correspondences in her background.

Townsville is Eddie Mabo’s home, too; not his birthplace, of course, but where he lived most of his adult life and his home during the court battle which led in 1992 to the land rights decision bearing his name. I was in Townsville at that time – and when vandals defaced his grave three years later.

Palm, of course, is an even darker shadow on our horizon these days, after the death of Cameron Doomadgee in 2004, the riots and the disgracefully botched police investigation.

What I have said about indigenous people in the Townsville context is daily reality, with local variations, across perhaps ninety per cent of our continent – the tropical Queensland coast plus everything west of the Great Dividing Range except the south-east corner of Western Australia. Across that vast sweep of country, no-one can ignore or forget the living consequences of a racially-conflicted past.


Any map is a representation of territory but it is a knowledge filter as much as a knowledge store, and excludes far more than it includes. The geologist’s map will show soil types but not the vegetation that grows in accordance with them; the council’s map will show roads, bridges, houses and property boundaries but not social connections between the people who use them. The child’s mental map features playgrounds, swimming pools and the place he crashed his bike and hurt his knee, while his father’s highlights work, sportsgrounds and his favourite pub. A complete representation of the social territory would comprise every individual’s map, overlaid on the topography.

We could assemble such a map of Gumbaynggirr country. The bottom layer could be our geological strata. Over it, surface features: hills, rivers and beaches. Over that, micro-climate: dry hill-tops and moist sheltered gullies. Over that, vegetation and animal life: reed-beds, paperbarks, tree ferns, kangaroos, eels, dairy cattle and spiky little spiders. Over that, the modern built environment: roads, houses, dams and fences. Over that, indigenous stories of the past, white stories of the past, indigenous stories of the present, white stories of the present – each community member adding her or his own gossamer layer of memory, narrative and significance.

Each point on every layer would reveal connections to other layers, and we could swim through its strata of meaning, tasting and absorbing them as we go. We might also drown in it, overwhelmed by its complexity.

The fact that a complete map is so rich and so complex makes nonsense of the myth of the ‘neutral observer’ which is so influential in academia: if there is so much information in even a tiny part of the world that it is impossible to put it all on paper, there has to be a filtering, selecting, process at work which can only be subjective but is excluded from consideration by the myth. I have already pointed to gaps in what Margaret has chosen to record. Gaps being inevitable, I don’t blame her for them, but their existence is the reason I would like to have seen more of her in the book.


Margaret and Tony have given us one layer of a map but it is incomplete – hilltops emerging from misty depths – and I want the connections through other layers.

We see what today’s old folk were doing as young folk (1930s to 1950s) and hear the occasional older story, but I want to meet the younger men and women, and the children; I want to see how aboriginal people live in that community today, the consequences of how they lived sixty years ago, the regular interaction of black and white people.

Most of all, I want to see the white people who were the complementary participants in the events, so that a history which includes them also includes the dispossession and marginalisation of the people whose land they took. White Australians need to see themselves, ourselves, through aboriginal eyes before we can know ourselves.

In the long history of immigrant-aboriginal relations, one side has been heard almost to the exclusion of the other. Somerville’s project is a careful, conscientious attempt to reveal a small part of the unheard story, but for most readers the new knowledge will be clouded by the manner of its telling. Singing the Coast is, as Margaret says, ‘slow learning that requires slow and careful reading,’ (p. ix), and even with careful reading much remains obscure. The question she asks on page 3, ‘How can we bring traditional understandings of singing the country, singing for the renewal and wellbeing of people and places, into a contemporary present?’ is, essentially, answered only for aboriginal people.

The fact that there are hardly any white people in the book implicitly exempts them (us) from responsibility for their (our) impact on the lives of the Gumbaynggirr:

Northern Gumbaynggirr people called this place No Mans Land. They settled in the swampy wetland around Corindi Lake when the first selections were taken up by white people and they found ‘they was livin’ on someone else’s land’ (Margaret’s voice, p.5).

Even more to the point, the massacre:

M’grandmother was tellin’ me
about the time
her mother was lookin’ after a baby
between Blackadder Creek and Casson’s Creek,
she said all these policemen came along on horses …
and she said they shot the men there
then they chased ‘em down through to Red Rock
the men was swimmin’ across the river
and up here where they started and down there
the water was red
just red with the blood
where they shot ‘em.
(Tony Perkins’ voice, p.24)

In both cases, the questions are obvious: ‘When did it happen?’ and, ‘Who were those white people?’ Obvious, but ignored.

By choosing not to link the black history to its white context, Margaret allows readers to pretend that the stories she relays to us have no connection to our own history, that they don’t matter to us, or even that they may not be true. That is certainly unintended but it is a serious failing. Ultimately, her strategy places the aboriginal people as ‘other’, ‘apart’, fringe-dwellers. That’s where white society put them a hundred years ago. Do we still want to place them there now?

Our need now is to meet as equal human beings, to listen to each others’ stories and to connect them to our own. Our inheritance as Australians is the geological and ecological history of the landscape, the indigenous history of the country and its people, and the post-European-settlement history of the people and the country they (we) like to call their (our) own.

We need to be able to see aboriginal people as ‘us’, not ‘them’.

4 thoughts on “Singing the Coast: Masks, Mists, Mirrors, Maps”

  1. Here are some more books relevant to Singing the Coast.
    (1) People of The River by Grace Karskens gives you maps to the deeper levels of society and environment that you were looking for in Singing The Coast. Karskens is Professor of History at the University of NSW. Her book, (508 pages of text, 44 pages of bibliography, 23 pages of index, plus Appendices), covers the history of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Region from what is known of the region’s geological history 50,000 years ago, through occupation by indigenous people, the arrival of the First Fleet, and the first 40 years of European interaction with the Aboriginal inhabitants. A wonderful book, accessible, comprehensive and eye-opening. We bought it two years ago, and we have both read it once, and I have been back to it several times since.
    (2) First Knowledges series. This is a planned 6-book series edited by Margo Neale.. The first three are all now published. I have Books 2 and 3 but have not read Book 1. They are very worthy follow ups to “Dark Emu”.
    1. Songlines: The Power and The Promise by Alison Page and Paul Memmott
    2. Design: Building On Country
    3. Country: Future Fire, Future Farming by Bill Gammadge and Bruce Pascoe

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