Flamingo stories. And a tide of change?

At five years old I was given a book titled Daddy, Read Me a Bedtime Story, which was first published in 1971. Presenting the collection to young readers, the editor, Mary Parsley, wrote, ‘Who reads the bedtime story in your family? Chances are […] Father would if he knew he might enjoy the story as much as his children will’. I have no recollection of my late father reading aloud from this volume, although he certainly delighted in sharing a good tale (read his obituary here).

Parsley recommends the volume particularly for its humour. Yet the emphasis is much more on the uncanny—the fearfully strange. One story that recently resurfaced in my imagination concerns a schoolboy named Gregory, who literally transcends the unkind appraisal of his headmaster by changing into a flamingo. ‘In his new colours of rose and red, the feathers black at the end of each wing, Gregory flew towards his new life. […] “Goodbye,” called Gregory to the rooftops of the town, in a raucous but faintly sorrowful voice. “I’m off to live by the great rivers of India and East Africa.”’. ‘Gregory’, and Tony Escott’s illustration of a large bird framed by a wash of sky over narrow rooves, first introduced me to the flamingo.

‘Flamingo’, from early forms of the word ‘flaming’; named for its vivid red and roseate plumage, which from afar can seem to shimmer. Associations with fire are apposite to a story centred on freedom achieved through metamorphosis. In ‘Gregory’ the flamingo also transfigures the boy’s sense of alienation from his bleak horizons in an English town. Leaving behind his ‘long raincoat’, he migrates to tropical and subtropical habitats where, as a young reader, I was sure he would feel ‘at home’.

Flamingo populations can migrate in search of more favourable weather and water levels in the saline lakes or lagoons that are their feeding grounds. Aeolian artist Ambra Mirabito points up the analogy between this ecological fact and the basic quest for safety and better living conditions that continues to result in human fatalities in the Mediterranean, and the arrival of migrants at European shores.

Mirabito sourced her project ‘Fenicotteri Migranti’ in a news article about a ‘stray’ flamingo that stayed feeding at Lake Lingua on the island of Salina for some four months. The artist repurposes this story by making paper flamingos: giving each a name; decorating the wings with hand-drawn patterns and silk stitching. The new flamingo then ‘takes flight’ in a large envelope, migrating by post to the address of a waiting addressee. Each effectively carries a question—namely, is it possible to transcend fear towards the unexpected arrival of ‘strangers’ with an attitude of hospitality?

According to the UNHCR, so far in 2016, 272,296 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea. Such numbers are abstractions from always perilous journeys, and landings uncertain at best. They are part of the attempt, however, to document the current refugee crisis. On World Refugee Day, the trenchant statement issued by PEN International asserted that the world’s present system for protecting refugees is no less than ‘broken’. The horizon could not be bleaker for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conditions of war and persecution.

Uncannily, through the overlong campaigns that preceded Australia’s July federal election, rhetoric from the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labour party barely registered immigration policies as a matter of concern to voters. The great bird that came to mind during those weeks was the ostrich. Or rather the age-old myth that the ostrich buries its head in the sand when seized by fear.

Now, however, against the Australian government’s habits of silence, obfuscation, and point-scoring, there is an increasingly vocal consensus that Australia’s system for meeting humanitarian obligations toward refugees and asylum seekers is broken too. Compulsory offshore detention is the stuff of brutal horror stories. By its themes of abuse and abandonment, this chilling chapter in the history of Australia’s relationship to the 1951 Refugee Convention evokes the earliest Children’s and Household Tales published by the brothers Grimm. Except that at present it is haunting, outrageous fact.

Meanwhile, the #BringThemHere campaign just might represent, at last, an implacable tide of transformation—to a prevailing attitude, in Australia, of compassionate hospitality towards some of the globe’s displaced people, who, so close to our shores, continue to suffer unnecessarily. Dare each of them, like Gregory, imagine ‘a new life’ of thriving in dignity? If sponsoring one of Mirabito’s paper flamingos seems far-fetched, signing the #BringThemHere petition is a more direct way to express support for people seeking basic safety and protection. We can respond on the basis of our common humanity.

Who reads the bedtime story in your family?