I was one of the lucky ones: I escaped Marysville. The window of time was somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on whose information you believe. Those who remained either perished, or they survived. Either way, their lives have been changed forever. The lucky ones like me, on the other hand, have ample time to reflect on the experience from the comfort of our own homes.

So I escaped, and life goes on virtually unchanged. But nonetheless, I’ve been dealing with reliving the experience, and the emotions that it provoked. So what? Everybody who has a little scare has to do likewise, right? True, but the difference in this case is that my emotions have been first surrounded, then inundated and now hijacked by the emotions of “the nation” and its faithful organ, the press.

It’s always tough to know what a sufficient and appropriate response is to events such as the bushfires. For the first few days, a cloud of indeterminacy floated around the event. People were still saying things like “it’s just surreal”, “it’s unbelievable” and “it’s unimaginable”.

Three days after the event, this had quickly turned to superlatives: “unprecedented”, “worst-ever”, “greatest peacetime disaster in the country”, as the op-ed pieces swung into action, accompanied by the croc tears of politicians and by coverage that was p-rnographic in its explicit, plotless, repetitive voyeurism.

The day after the Marysville bushfire, I emailed or texted all my friends and relatives to let them know I’d made it out safely. The initial responses were very matter-of-fact, which surprised me a bit. But by the middle of the week after the disaster, the retrospective phone calls were flying in. “I just didn’t know how bad it was.” “You guys are so lucky.” Sometimes this was followed by other comments: “Did you know a human body would last a second, just a second, if hit by that fire front?” “Hot enough to melt steel…” and so on.

When people who already “knew what happened” started to ask me about it, I felt the narrative power of my own authenticity, the unassailable realness of having been there. I could sense the listener’s urge to participate, to “feel” a part of the outpouring. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their feelings. But somewhere in between the grief and confusion was excitement, even enjoyment. There was something thrilling about it: about talking about it, about talking to me about it, and about relating my story to that of those others, the people who survived or perished.

Five days after the event, I learnt that relatives whom I had emailed my account of the disaster had forwarded it on to other relatives, who duly forwarded it on to their friends. People who didn’t know me enough to call me were now making an emotional connection to me via my story, gaining a direct emotional purchase by affiliation. Initially I dismissed my thoughts as cynicism, but then I noticed how people I spoke to would keep telling me that they knew someone who knew someone who knew someone whose uncle lost everything…

A situational definition had emerged, and it was a nationalist one: ugly Australian nationalism, of the kind Howard pinched from Hanson, refashioned into the comfortable and relaxed version innocuous enough for general consumption. The fires were still burning, but the smoke had cleared: there was a narrative (nationalist), there were the heroes (Aussie men), there were the victims (Aussie women and children), and there was the culprit (a swarthy arsonist with a funny surname, a hard drive full of kiddy p-rn, and a picture in the paper). I was unsurprised to see the commercial networks milking people’s misery and humiliation — that’s what they do best, that’s what rates. Milk the tears, bay for blood, piece to camera, slow-mo shot of singed koala and the flag.

But it was when I was watching Q&A on the ABC last week that I noticed the extent to which the reaction that was now “good, proper and natural” was not only nationalist, but stridently so, and on a war footing. This wasn’t a Today Tonight tear-jerker, this was a special panel of Australians of the Year, exemplary people whose behaviour we’re supposed to imitate. The real pearler was Tania Major’s rant near the end, which rambled between fires, floods, and Aboriginal affairs. It was stirring and incoherent, and Major knew very well which emotive buttons to push:

[O]nce we start looking at our own backyard, and helping and volunteering — I mean national service, mate, I’m up for it. You know, five years ago — I would be there fighting for my country. I mean, we’re looking at Australia, but we’ve got to think globally. We are at war as well. What are our young people doing?

According to Tania, we should all be taking action, which means taking responsibility not only through national service, but also through “placing values back in our society, and saying, ‘Hey, come on, mate.’ We’re lacking values.” Despite confessing not to have known about the fires until she saw it on the news on Monday, the appropriate response was mateship and national service — because, you know, we’re in a war, after all.

It’d be nice to think Tim Flannery was swept up in the moment when he immediately chimed in, reinforcing Tania’s speech by reminding us what a special place Australia is because “we have this ethic of mateship — we do care for each other in part because we do face such horrendous disasters as this.” This, apparently, is “just part of our character,” but “we need to build on it, we need to make sure that we keep it alive, because more and more of us are becoming urbanised and detached from that view. But it’s very precious, it really is precious. We’ve got to hold on to it.”

It took Professor Fiona Wood from the UK to break frame by reminding the panel that “it’s precious, this mateship in Australia, but it’s not Australian, it’s people. I believe in people. I believe in the power of people.”

A week and two days after the events of Marysville, I received an email from a friend who teaches ESL at a college in Melbourne’s CBD. Apparently, the college had arranged a fundraising sausage sizzle for the bushfire appeal. The occasion culminated in a speech to the college’s (mostly Chinese) students in which the school’s director explained how lucky ‘they’ were to be here and ‘see this’. No, not the burnt sausages and buckets of tomato sauce. They were lucky because they’d been given an opportunity to learn something about Australian spirit. “When we are in trouble,” she said at the end of her speech, “we stick together.” This profound announcement was capped off by a stirring round of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi!”

There was no ‘Australian spirit’ in Marysville on Saturday afternoon. There were a lot of very frightened, scared, confused people doing whatever they had to do to try to save their houses and their lives. Something horrendous happened there, something that’s difficult to comprehend, something that none of us, even the lucky ones, properly understand yet.

I keep looking at the photos of me smiling in the town that morning, or relaxing in the house I stayed in that afternoon — a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a town that no longer exists. Then I turn to the media, hoping to find out exactly, to the minute, what the window was between escape and survival, existence and non-existence. And mostly all I can see is an orgy of nationalist self-love and self-pity. It’s hard to know what’s more alienating.

Peter was in Marysville on the day of the bushfires with Arwen Summers who wrote a minute-by-minute account for Crikey.

Peter Fray

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