One sunny day in Barcelona, I met with a bunch of English blokes called Jason and Jonny and Steve. They’d put out an ad for an Australian researcher to help them create a new product.
As any good researcher would do, I’d gone to their website The Book of Everyone and made one myself. Heartwarming, fun and funny, plus full of facts of no use to anyone. All things I love.
So, I wrote and asked if I could please work on the project. Meeting them, it’s clear these guys are best mates. It’s also clear that making books is their dream. And they are also a little kooky, in a nice, harmless way, with big hearts.
Over the following months, a new book slowly came to life. The Australian version of The Book of Everyone. Ta-da! Here’s what I learned about myself and Australia whilst helping create it.
Making warm fuzzy feelings makes you feel warm and fuzzy
I was tasked to help create some “warm fuzzies” about Australia. I delved into our history to distil our quintessential quirks, and naturally began feeling a little sentimental about being Antipodean.
Those who know me might be surprised – I’m known to be practical, and parochialism leaves me cold. Yet as I read, and wrote, and filled in data, I thought of the smell of gum leaves, the warmth of the sunshine (which admittedly can kill you), and pesky magpies. And the even peskier mozzies.
I recalled munching my Vegemite on toast as a kid. Trying not to get dunked by the surf in summer. Skinning my ankles while riding my Malvern Star bike barefoot. I remembered how beautiful our landscapes are. Sometimes wild and raw, inhospitable to humans.
Indigenous name places sprung to mind – Warrnambool, Kalgoorlie, Toowoomba – and I thought about how my hometown Melbourne, which stands on land that belongs to the Wurundjeri nation, had changed.
Going back through the decades, I glimpsed the Australia of generations older than mine. My research was helping create a book to foster nostalgic memories for everyone from grandparents of 101 and baby boomers right through to millennials and kids. I really hoped I was doing this book justice.
People don’t confuse us with Austrians anymore – but they’re still confused
Months later, I’d collated Aussie facts and figures and phrases dating back to 1910. Every now and then, I’d head to the office to give an update, and clarify idiosyncrasies. Chats went something like this:
Trust me, there really ARE only 25 million of us – starting with only 3.7 million at the turn of the 20th century. (Don’t worry. We’re not endangered yet).
No mate, we don’t have tarantulas – just funnel-webs and redbacks. I could try to explain AFL to you but basically… it’s weird.
Yes, we call flip-flops “thongs” and utes do “ueys”. (Times this conversation about lingo by 100).
I’d never realised how misunderstood we are – but maybe that came of us struggling to understand who we are ourselves, and portray a unified and genuine image. Obviously, there are many ‘Australias’, each one valid but not necessarily given equal weighting.
What our history books don’t say is pretty revealing
Later in the project, I was asked to pen 100 or so mini-biographies, write about some legendary Aussie phrases, and about my favourite lollies. Tough job, I know.
I got a few goosebumps of pride writing about Eddie Mabo, Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Edward Weary Dunlop.
And yes, sometimes I’d be working with saltwater wet on my face. Like when I learned Neville Bonner was born under a tree because his mum wasn’t allowed to get to a hospital in town due to curfews for Aborigines after sunset. Or Dr. Fiona Wood’s efforts to save the Bali bombing survivors.
I might have finished faster had I not gotten sidetracked by the weird, funny, outrageous and sometimes sobering facts from our checkered past. Like reading Banjo Paterson’s poetry, being awed by the details of Mawson’s expedition in Antarctica, and completely humbled by Vincent Lingiari’s story.
And it wasn’t just what I was finding out about our history that took time to wade through. The significance of what was left out was just as eye-opening.
Nancy Bird-Walton, Cathy Freeman and Michelle Payne all made me proud to be an Aussie woman but it was surprisingly difficult to find female icons in the history records. Needless to say, famous indigenous Australians didn’t feature strongly until the 1950s despite the fact they’d been around for 40,000 odd years.
And I was bamboozled about the dearth of stories of the Chinese gold miners, Pacific Islander sugarcane labourers, the Italians and Polish immigrants, and the Vietnamese refugees who’ve all contributed to the Australian story.
Hello Australian history – something’s missing I think?
But this book is about so much more than being Australian…
The Book of Everyone is not just about creating a unique story of an individual and the world they were born into. It’s a book that you give to loved ones, to celebrate their life. And how much you both mean to each other.
In this day and age when we too often get caught up with work, and bills, and everyday life, The Book of Everyone is a reminder to focus on what matters: connecting with others, creating memories and sharing experiences.