Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2018

Griffith Review 59 (2017): Commonwealth Now, edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens

I probably shouldn’t admit to this but I skipped a couple of the more recent Griffith Reviews because one of them was all about the Perils of Populism (and as far as I’m concerned every day that’s a Trump-free Day in the media is a good day), and one of them was all about Millennials, and (feeling fairly confident that Millennials don’t read this blog) I would rather share funny videos about them than ponder the scary world we will live in when they are running the world…

But the most recent Griffith Review #59, Commonwealth Now is a must read if you are interested in Big Picture issues that confront us as Australians. This is the blurb:

At the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April athletes from countries that were once a part of the British Empire will battle for gold – but is the Commonwealth of Nations more than a legacy of another age?
At a time of geopolitical uncertainty, the Commonwealth is poised to play a major role as a values-based network that represents a third of the world’s population. Whether this group can exercise real power and influence will be determined in 2017. It is clear that the old empires are long gone, but in the wake of Brexit and the rise of China and India, the shape of a new world order remains unclear. Yet there is a shared history and legacy.
Commonwealth Now, co-edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens, features writers from around the world who explore the contemporary experience of Commonwealth citizens – confronting new challenges, reconciling the past, creating a sustainable and equitable future, settling scores and opening new exchanges.
Contributors include: Melissa Lucashenko, Salil Tripathi, Margaret Busby, Shashi Tharoor, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Mark Gevisser, Annie Zaidi, Michael Wesley, Romesh Gunesekara and many more.

The very first article ‘Time to Mention the War, Towards a new settlement’ is by Melissa Lucashenko, of Goorie and European descent, and she shares an indigenous perspective about Aboriginal attitudes to the Queen and the Commonwealth.   The take-home message is that it’s fair to say that Aboriginal fans of the Commonwealth are not thick on the ground.  It’s the historical context that makes it clear why this is so:

Regardless of particular family histories, the incursions under the protection of the British monarch have never been forgotten.  As Aunty Lois Cook, Bundjalung elder and oral historian, says of the massacres:

“Occasionally we can put up a plaque – but hardly anyone knows that they’re there, or what happened to them… It’s like the soldiers who went to Gallipoli and perished… those beaches are sacred… and so should these places be to everyone.  They are to us”.

To non-Aboriginal people, all this might seem distant, and nothing to do with the Commonwealth.  To Aboriginal people, whose oral histories are treasured, it does not.  With few exceptions, events of the frontier still shape Aboriginal attitudes towards mainstream society and its institutions.  History might be written by the winners, but the past is recalled and discussed and analysed by the other side too, for whom it is barely past at all.  Aboriginal thinking about the Queen and the Commonwealth today is still seen on a continuum from first contact, just as an increasing number of white Australians trace their national identity back to a battle that happened on a beach on the other side of the world in 1915.  If Aboriginal Australia had a motto about out shared past it might be: Do Mention the War.  (p.15)

It is worth getting this Griffith Review #59 for this excellent essay alone, but there is plenty more.  Michael Wesley’s essay ‘Empire of Delusion’ is brilliant, and lest you think it’s all deadly serious, there is ‘Postcolonial Talkback, Fast-talking PI visits the Queen’.  In this memoir Poet Selina Tusitala Marsh tells the droll story of her performance at the Queen’s gig, the Commonwealth Day ceremony at Westminster Abbey:

She has the most recognisable face in contemporary Western history and she’s almost within my reach.  The longest-reigning monarch and I share a few things: we are both seated in Westminster Abbey (founded in 960); we share the same birthday (on 21 April 2016, I turn forty-five and will be exactly half her age, a quirky fact I thought to share but then my Samoan discretion got the better of me); and we are both wearing blue in a sea of black and beige, as observed by many an attendee afterwards.

‘My dear, how politic of you to wear the royal blue.’

‘The blue of majestic te moana nui a kiwa, the Pacific Ocean.  Why, thank you!’ (p.34)

When you watch this video, don’t miss the ending where, calm and elegant in her Pacific blue, she meets the queen, having scrambled back into her silk wrap just in time after thinking everything was all over and putting on her black puffer jacket and crimson backpack.  

I just loved reading this gently irreverent debunking of the stuffiness of royal protocol and its irrelevance to modern life.

And then there’s an essay called ‘Without Hindsight, We’re here because you were there’ by Salil Tripathi, an Indian writer based in London, who punctures the naïve ideas of that clown Boris Johnson about a post-Brexit Britain simply replacing its European trade with new pacts with Commonwealth countries.

Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as its fifty-one other member-states are not exactly sure what Britain wants, and whether Britain is what they need.  They have all gone their separate ways.  Canada, for examp0le, is keen to protect the North American Free Trade Agreement, which President Donald trump wants to revise, if not tear up.  Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.  (p.47)

Yes, many of us have not forgotten the way the Brits unsentimentally dumped imports of Australian butter and New Zealand lamb when they joined the EU, though it turned out to be the best thing for us in the long run.  And India would not wish to jeopardise its ongoing negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU for a pact with the UK.  This article makes the point that many people in Britain have a very limited view of the past, one that valorises British greatness in movies like ‘Churchill’ and ‘Dunkirk’ while failing to show that there were four Indian companies on those beaches, and more importantly have not acknowledged at all Churchill’s role in the Bengal Famine (1942-44) although this Wikipedia article suggests that the causes are not as straightforward as Tripathi implies.  Whatever about that, the Commonwealth, if it is to have any future at all, needs to be modest and humble in its ambitions and, it seems to me, honest about its history, starting with educating the British people to broaden their history curriculum… Shashi Tharoor makes the same point about British people having a one-sided view of their history in his essay ‘Imperial Amnesia, the messy afterlife of colonialism’ … where I was startled to read that 47% of Brits still think #GoodGrief Australia is still a colony.

There is so much else in this edition:

  • David Fettling’s discouraging essay ‘When Chifley met Nehru, Compromise in the International Order’ which compares Chifley’s inspirational support for newly independent India in 1949 with Theresa May’s short-sighted one-way vision of British investment into India, acting as if modern India is not much-changed from the Raj.  Stuart Ward in his essay ‘The Empire’s New Clothes, Come to Britain and see the crisis’ compares this with the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an imperial state of mind’.  
  • South African author Mark Gevisser’s chilling portrait of postcolonial nations in Africa cynically retaining pre-independence Imperial laws that breach human rights, long after Britain has reformed laws about homosexuality.  He exposes the dilemma Britain faces in its new ‘civilising mission’ to have these repressive laws repealed in its former colonies.  (David Cameron suggested that British aid to these countries be conditional on reform, provoking furious rejoinders that his remarks were ‘patronising colonial rhetoric’.)  [But seriously, do we in Australia want to be part of a Commonwealth whose member states permit ‘…multiple human rights violations perpetrated against LGBT people’, including ‘torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, violations of due process rights, and extortion’?  When Nigerian athletes march past at the Games, pause for a moment to remember that they have the world’s harshest anti-gay law outside of Islamic sharia.’ ]
  • Fred D’Aguiar writes about the ongoing legacy of slavery in ‘Imagination as Emancipation, Challenging mental slavery’;
  • Jenny Hocking reminds us that the Brits still won’t hand over Kerr’s papers regarding the Whitlam dismissal;
  • and these and other essays are interwoven with poems, memoirs, reportage and short pieces of fiction.

Highly recommended!

Editors: Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens
Title: Griffith Review #59, Commonwealth Now
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925603293
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing via Brendan FredericksPR

Available from Fishpond: Griffith Review 59 or direct from the Griffith Review, where you can also subscribe or buy digital editions.


  1. Thanks Lisa for that recommendation. There is so much that needs to be discussed honestly when it comes to the colonial imperial history of Britain. You need go no further than Scotland or Ireland where the past has been given a white wash in some quarters ( pardon the pun) and continues to maintain power and prestige for the same old crew. From spying, slavery, torture their reputation at last is being challenged. It’s time.


    • Yes. I can’t remember which essay it was now, but one of them mentions Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales as problematic too.


  2. I don’t think the Commonwealth has any relevance beyond some sort of lingering nostalgia for when the sun never set. The WIndsors are no more interesting than the Kardashians and have no greater claim to power. What keeps any of the Asian countries within even the token remaining bounds I cannot imagine, though perhaps the African and Pacific countries get a little extra aid. Time it was all wound up I think.

    Mentioning the war is of course much more important and next time some ignoramus in the media talks about Anglo-celts or about Australians being one people now we should remember Ireland’s bloody history as a colony of England and the many still unacknowledged massacres of Indigenous peoples throughout the Commonwealth.


    • Yes, I’m a bit inclined to agree about the pointlessness of it. I do think there’s a place for countries forming partnerships that are not just about trade, but I think it should be based on something other than their history as forced members of a club dominated by Britain. You and I are of the generation that grew up when the world atlas was pink, but younger people probably think that the idea of a ‘family of nations’ is nonsense. Maybe it will fizzle out as time goes by…


  3. That job interview clip is so scarily real… I sat on an interview panel a while ago where most candidates were exactly like this. It kind of made my job easy because as soon as one person sat down who wasn’t like that, they stood out :-D


  4. As the parent of millennials, I’m not sure I like that clip Lisa! My millennials are hardworking, responsible, sensible young people, albeit devoted to their devices. (One is borderline millennial as I understand the dating, and the other a few years in). It reminds me that our generation was seen by many as long-haired, dole-budging hippies – but most of us had more substance than that (then and now!!)

    All that said, the clip is very funny!


    • LOL Sue, I’m sure your millennials are not like this at all, but trust me, as Kate W says, they’re around. It was my job once to calm the ruffled waters when one of our millennial staff just didn’t seem to understand that the principal was the boss and that at the end of the day, she had to do what she had been asked to do. She just kept repeating that the decision was stressing her and that *I* had to make the principal understand that and make her change carefully thought out plans that had been designed for the good of the whole school. I was flabbergasted. She just had no concept of considering other people’s needs at all, and it was like trying to negotiate with a brick wall.
      But you’re right, I’ve been dying to have an opportunity to share that clip, it really is very funny.


      • Yes I know they’re around, but every generation has its stories, doesn’t it?


        • Of course, and I’m sure Millennials have a sense of humour just like we did…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now, edited by Julianne Schultz and Jane Camens […]


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