Books: Even As We Speak — Let's Talk about Us |
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Let's Talk about Us

In the 1950s, John Douglas Pringle caused a sensation in Australian intellectual life with the publication of his book Australian Accent. A real, live, distinguished British journalist and editor had written about us! He had found Australia interesting! Half a century later, it is a measure of how interesting Australia has become that another real, live, distinguished British journalist and editor, Michael Davie, is unlikely to cause an equal sensation with his book Anglo-Australian Attitudes. Davie’s book is at least as good as Pringle’s, but times have changed, and where there was once a famine of commentary there has in recent years been a feast, a feast which in the year of the Sydney Olympics threatens to escalate into a saturnalia. The delicious suspicion that the whole world might be watching lends an extra, international cachet to this wonderful new national sport of self-examination at which Australians have so quickly become so good. It’s the biggest thing since synchronized swimming, and it’s all ours. Hands up anyone who hasn’t written a book.

With so much activity on the part of the home team, it is harder for the visiting pundit to get a look-in, no matter how impressive his paper qualifications. In the post-Whitlam period Davie had a two-nations connection with Australia, rather like Pringle’s in the late Menzies era. Where Pringle was the Pommy ring-in editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Davie was the Pommy ring-in editor of the Melbourne Age. Davie was even better than Pringle at cracking the whip over the unruly prose of his young Australian journalists while simultaneously laying himself open to the burgeoning cultural life around him — and by his time, of course, there was a lot more burgeoning to deal with. Beyond those capacities, however, Davie was the carrier of an extra propensity which could help this book make its voice heard even in the current hubbub. He had an acute ear for bluster. He liked the confidence of Australians, but when they were all shouting the same thing at once he showed a subversive tendency to wonder why. Anglo-Australian Attitudes is the fruit of that tendency. Davie gives his endorsement to the rise of national self-awareness. But the rise of self-assertive nationalism earns his disapproval, all the more damning for being so quietly expressed.

Davie has always had the kind of whisper that can shout you down. One of his most piercing whispers in this book is addressed to the orthodox nationalist precept that Australian troops at the Dardanelles were used as cannon fodder by a cynical British high command. Not after Gallipoli but after Gallipoli (i.e. after the movie, not the event — a sign of the times) the idea became very popular among the Australian intelligentsia, probably because it so neatly encapsulated the Manning Clark train of thought about the permanent colonial status underlying Australia’s parade of independence, a necessary subservience dictated by the machinations of capitalist imperialism. In recent years the idea has buckled under academic scrutiny: in the fourth volume of the Oxford History of Australia, Stuart Macintyre quotes the statistic that matters. The film, of course, didn’t mention any British dead at all, and it’s quite likely that hardly anybody who saw the film is aware that the British were even present. But they were, and suffered a total of fatalities more than double that of the Anzacs, and just about three times that of the Australians taken alone. The notion that the Australians were sent in by the British to die in their stead at Gallipoli should therefore have been a non-starter. But the film Gallipoli ensured that there was no stopping it. Davie’s whisper might help to slow it down. He quotes the figures, having always been in favour of the kind of journalism in which the hard facts appear in an early paragraph, and aren’t left to the end, where they might be cut.

Davie has the patient humility to pick up on the results of dull-looking academic archive sifting and transfer them to the world of the media: a task that the higher journalism should always tackle, but seldom does. Better than that, he is ready to do some hard graft in the archives on his own account. A latterday wandering scholar, he has somehow found time to journey from state to state, request access to the papers of previous state governors, and actually read them. The results should be equally fascinating to those who smile on the old imperial connection with Britain and to those who would like to be rid of its last vestiges. Particularly before Federation, some of the governors were formidable men. In the twentieth century the standard of originality went down as place-men settled in, but there was still the occasional star figure. Starriest of all was Alexander Hore-Ruthven, the first Lord Gowrie, who practised for being Governor-General of Australia with a preliminary period as Governor of South Australia from 1928 to 1934. Davie has read Hore-Ruthven’s papers and found much to admire on top of their impeccable style.

Hore-Ruthven began his turn of duty under the impression that a governor might have a role in politics. When he attempted to mediate between the wharfies and the shipowners he was told by the state government not to do it again. Governors were doomed to spend much of their time being masters of ceremonies and incarnating, along with their hard-working wives, the apex of social life. Especially since they were likely to bring large resources of cultivation to the latter role — along with plenty of their own money, the post being designed for gentlemen who would not complain about ending up out of pocket — Davie rather admires them for their dedication to a non-job, while he fashionably allows that the whole arrangement has always been superfluous to requirements. But on that point he might have drawn a more edifying conclusion from the story he recounts of how Hore-Ruthven helped the Governor of NSW, Sir Philip Game, to dismiss Jack Lang. Unusually for one so pertinacious, Davie glosses over the significance of that incident.

Like Gough Whitlam forty years later, Jack Lang really proposed to govern without a parliament, the very thing that reserve powers are designed to stop. In Lang’s case they stopped it efficiently. One might conclude that the governor system thus proved itself to be the very opposite of powerless, even if its one and only power was to supersede all other powers at a moment of crisis. But Davie feels safer calling the state governor system antiquated and cumbersome, while simultaneously conceding its quiet charm. He doesn’t seem keen to dwell on the awkward fact that at the vital moment it worked, perhaps because that would lead him into the uncomfortable side of the perennial debate about the Whitlam dismissal, which turns on the question of the reserve powers. There have to be some. So who gets them? The answer you give dictates not just whether you are for or against a republic, but, if you are a republican, what kind of republican you are. Judging from internal evidence, most of this book was written before the referendum, but there would have been time to add a few pages of protest if Davie thought that its outcome had been a debacle. Instead he takes the calm attitude that the republic will arrive anyway. But he is probably glad that it didn’t arrive at a time when Australia’s past was still a subject of caricature. The strength of his position depends on his capacity to see the inevitability of the unravelling of the Anglo-Australian ties while simultaneously wanting to tell the complicated truth about what they were like when they were still ravelled.

In 1985 Davie’s contribution to The Daedelus Symposium was called ‘The Fraying of the Rope’. He welcomed the decline of the old deference but made a telling citation from his hero Sir Keith Hancock, who had quoted an Indian professor to the effect that Australia, if it repudiated its European inheritance, would be no use to India. Davie has elaborated his position since then but his sense of historical responsibility is still at the core of it. For Robert Gordon Menzies the ties with Britain were so important that he held back his country’s Asian future with an almost treasonable zeal — or so we were encouraged to think, until Macintyre established that Menzies, at the opening of the war, did a better job than his legend allows in resisting pressure from Churchill to neglect Australia’s specific interests in favour of Britain’s. Davie is not inclined to follow Macintyre’s lead on that particular point: while questioning the validity of the classic David Day thesis that Britain deliberately left Australia at Japan’s mercy, Davie still believes that Menzies in 1941 should have been thinking and acting closer to home, instead of hoping to share with Churchill the task of running the Empire’s war. But whether or not Davie is right about Menzies’ behaviour, he is surely right about Menzies’ motivation: Menzies was acting from quite the opposite of a colonial inferiority complex.

To arrive at this conclusion, once again Davie has gone unerringly to the document that matters: in this case the diary that the young Menzies kept when he visited Britain in the mid-thirties. Davie shows convincingly that for Menzies the tradition that mattered in British politics was Whig. What really counted for him about Britain was its parliamentary freedom, not its royal panoply. He was a Cromwellian, not a Cavalier. If the absurd ecstasies of pomp and circumstance that marked his twilight years — the plumes and velvet of his honours royally conferred, the vow of eternal love to the Queen — were compensation for any feelings of being an eternal outsider, it was because he was a Scot, not because he was an Australian. In the post-war period, his pride in Australia and faith in its future made untenable any suggestion that he thought of his own country as a backwater. The suggestion was made anyway, and still is: but Davie’s opinion of Menzies is a useful contribution to a necessary process by which Menzies is slowly emerging in his true stature as a creative political leader who did at least as much looking forward as harking back. It was the harking back that made him a joke, but had he been just a joke, so would have been the large proportion of the electorate that voted for him — and for any country’s intelligentsia there is no more dangerous moment that when it unites in finding the common people politically inadequate.

On the general question of whether Britain abandoned Australia at the beginning of the Pacific war, Davie has nothing original to offer except common sense. Not long ago, during the full ascendancy of the Other People’s Wars thesis, there was not much common sense to be heard on the subject. Lately there has been more, but you could scarcely call it a glut, so a fresh contribution is always welcome. Although he never looked it when I knew him, Davie is old enough to have seen service in the Royal Navy (on the cruiser HMS London) at a time when a Japanese torpedo might easily have provided explosive evidence that Britain was doing its best in our part of the world. The question turns on how good that best was. Davie faces the full, sad facts about the inadequacy of Britain’s preparations and our foolishness in thinking that everything was going to be all right. But he also shows that with the Singapore catastrophe, as at the Dardanelles, Britain did too much damage to its own interests to allow any validity whatsoever to the idea that it was intent on betraying Australia. The Donald Day theory simply doesn’t wash. The disaster in Malaya wasn’t a conspiracy, it was a cock-up. Plenty of people have said this by now, but it is always useful to have someone say it well, with such a clear head, and in such a clear style.

Not even Davie, however, is clear-headed enough to get beyond the assumption that it took incompetent generalship on our side to give the victory to the Japanese. There will be no fully mature opinions on the subject until it is accepted that the Japanese army would have taken Singapore anyway, even if our forces had been deployed to their optimum effectiveness. The disaster would have just taken longer. Writers who glibly suppose that only a failure on our part could have permitted a Japanese success are succumbing to racist assumptions without knowing it. At the beginning of the war the Japanese were superior in almost every department and their command of the air alone would have been enough to make them hard to stop. Failure to realize this opens the way, paradoxically enough, to underestimating the magnitude of Australia’s achievement when they were stopped, in New Guinea. In the story of how the Japanese onslaught in Asia and the Pacific was turned back, Kokoda was a crucial moment, and it was ours: it happened because the Australian soldiers were valiant. Revisionist history, by displacing attention towards the moment when Britain supposedly machinated to leave us in the lurch, has had the effect of diminishing our country’s real status — an unfortunate but not unfamiliar consequence of rewriting history along nationalist lines.

To trace the rise of the Republican movement in modern times, Davie characteristically sets about investigating the background to Geoffrey Dutton’s trendsetting Nation article of 1963. Somewhere in the middle eighties (Davie is sometimes a bit vague about when he did things: British reticence) he called on Dutton in Melbourne and got the full story that Dutton himself never wrote down for publication. It turns out that Malcolm Muggeridge, down under on a visit, provided the spark. It was not long after the Queen Mother’s Royal Visit of 1958, enjoyed by Dutton as a comedy. (In his journal — from which Davie, again characteristically, is able to quote — Dutton poured scorn on those intellectuals who boycotted the ceremonies and thus cut themselves off from the entertainment.) Muggeridge’s own, non-Royal visit took place during the aftermath of the ruckus he had kicked up in Britain by disparaging the Royal Family. At dinner in Adelaide, Muggeridge put the question of what was being done about an Australian republic. Two of his interlocutors were Rohan Rivett, editor of the Adelaide News, and its young proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. They said something had to be done but it was too early. In other words, before they got behind the idea it would have to be a ball already rolling. Dutton’s article rolled the ball.

An obscure, smoky restaurant on the Anzac Highway, a group of influential men deciding their country’s destiny — here is a play by David Williamson in the making. But what to call it? My own title would be The Silvertail Conference, thus to emphasize an aspect that Davie could have made more of. The opening section of his book is a penetrating analysis of the class structure that Australia is not supposed to have — an evocation from which the squattocracy emerges in all its easy splendour, complete with its hallowed ties to ‘home’. Davie notes that the grand families have traditionally not taken an overt part in Australia’s political life, preferring to exert their influence behind the scenes rather than run for office. (Malcolm Fraser might have been cited as a conspicuous exception to this rule, but it will still serve as a rule of thumb.) He also notes that of the participants at this historic dinner, Murdoch (Oxford) and Dutton (Cambridge) were both from grand families. But he neglects to note a possible connection between the rise of a republican movement and a moneyed elite exerting its influence in an extra-parliamentary manner. Such a connection can be denied, but its possibility has to be considered, because when it came to a referendum there were plenty of Australians who suspected that their libertarian sympathies were being manipulated by an elite. When Malcolm Turnbull, another glittering son of a grand family, found himself too prominently placed for the good of his cause, it was an illustration of the real reason for that political shyness on the part of the gentry that Davie seems so puzzled by, and even to regret. The Australian electorate is very unlikely to accept any constitutional system that overtly transfers power in the direction of an oligarchy, and wise oligarchs know it.

Davie might well object at this point that during the forty years since I left Australia he has spent almost as much time in my homeland as I have in his, so he has a better right to speak about recent developments. I would gladly concede that, but with one proviso: nothing quite beats being born and brought up in the country you want to pontificate about. It isn’t just that I know for a fact, without having to look it up, that the Australian Prime Minister whom Davie calls Joe Chifley was really called Ben. It’s that I sat there on the carpet in front of a radio set taller than I was and listened to Ben Chifley’s grating voice while my mother told me she respected him as a true man of the people. She always voted for Ming anyway, but that was politics: Australian politics. It was made clear to me from an early date — bred in my bones, in fact — that patriotism didn’t just mean pride in the Fair Go, it meant pride in my country’s innate distrust of any form of dogma that treats people as a mass. In this book Davie gives me several elegant strokes of the cane for a crime he can’t quite bring himself to specify, but it sounds like a lack of patriotism. Let me caution him in turn that he should beware of what Orwell once called transferred nationalism. One of the tragedies of the transferred nationalist is to miss the point about the new country he adopts, and the point about Australia is that its citizens never cease to be patriotic until patriotism becomes compulsory, whereupon their individuality takes over.

Caught in the middle between two national loyalties, Davie’s book gives the sense that it has been squeezed out of him: for all its freshness of perception, it is short of breath. Bill Bryson’s Down Under is big and brash: HMS London, make way for USS Nimitz. Bryson is an outgoing American personality on a generous mission to find out whether there is any kind of country joining up the Australian cities where he has previously been on book tours. On the flight in, he still doesn’t know the name of the current Prime Minister. I once landed in Mexico without knowing the name of the current President, but that was because the President whose name I had looked up had been deposed during my flight after his sister was caught in Switzerland trying to put half of Mexico’s GNP into a private bank account. The Australian Prime Minister’s name is John Howard, for Christ’s sake: it isn’t hard to remember. He might be, but his name isn’t. To make such breezy condescension even less appealing, there is Bryson’s comic style, which depends on exaggeration without benefit of metaphor. When I say, for example, that to read Bryson on the subject of crossing the Nullarbor by train is like crossing the Nullarbor on foot, I am exaggerating, but also speaking metaphorically. If I were to say that reading his book took me a hundred years, I would merely be exaggerating.

I would also be lying. Once the reader gives up on the idea that any of the author’s heftily visible preparations for a wisecrack will ever yield results — page two is a good spot to call it quits — the book turns out to be not without value. Bryson has the genuine curiosity that comes down through the American tradition of travel-talk reportage from Mark Twain, who rode on stagecoaches and paid attention to the other passengers when they conversed, argued or shot each other. Bryson talks to everyone he meets, visits museums no matter how unpromising, and is generally not afraid to do the corny thing — a very important attribute, because there is nothing like sophistication for cutting you off from experience. A big smile in a rented car, Bryson gets a long way on bonhomie. He can even, despite his relentlessly facetious style, be amusing: perhaps because death and tragedy are involved, his account of the monumental incompetence of Burke and Wills is sufficiently deadpan to elicit an appropriately hilarious response. Burke and Wills’s qualifications for exploring the dead heart of Australia were exactly those of Laurel and Hardy for painting a house, and Bryson, for once, proves that he knows enough about vaudeville not to spoil the comedy with too much whizz-bang punctuation from the band in the pit.

One might say that Bryson has never been in Australia long enough to find much to dislike, but there is a killing description of a bad meal in Darwin to show that he is capable of invective. The bottom line is that he likes Australia, and being so famous he will probably sell millions of books saying so, many of them within Australia itself. But it is becoming a nice question whether there is much room left for visitors from civilization to come flying in and marvel that we have hotels more than two storeys high. Back in the 1950s, there was a story in it when the black musician Winifred Atwell crossed the Pacific to play the piano and liked Sydney so much she wanted to stay. There was another story in it when she wasn’t allowed to. In the razzmatazz of Australia’s current jamboree, it is sometimes forgotten just how narrow-minded Australian society seemed only forty years ago. Sometimes I forget it myself. From the perspective of social-democratic politics I nowadays find the Ming dynasty underrated, but if I had been condemned to live through its protracted decline, would I have wanted to face a future in which I wasn’t allowed to read Portnoy’s Complaint? We were barely allowed to have Portnoy’s complaint. There was a fantastic amount not happening.

Peter Conrad hasn’t forgotten any of it. His icily scintillating article about his life-long alienation from Tasmania heads up a very keepable special issue of Granta devoted to Australia. Patiently edited by Ian Jack, who must have needed a cattle-prod to corral some of the more elusive among his illustrious contributors, the booklet is clear proof that writers born and raised in Australia are nowadays quite capable of discussing their country’s drawbacks without feeling that they are lending ammunition to foreign philistines. Among the bleak views, Conrad’s is the bleakest. ‘Australian troops were always available to die in Britain’s wars,’ he intones. ‘At Gallipoli, they were used by the imperial generals as cannon fodder...’ The riff is familiar, but less usual is the way in which Conrad detects a more comprehensive imperialism, as an envious world closes in on its last theme park.

Conrad might be on to something here. Those of us who think that Barry Humphries was not just joking when he identified Australia as the newest top dog among nations should remember that this is the age of celebrity, in which to be loved by the whole world is to be in some danger. On the whole, though, Conrad’s article is less a disquisition on geopolitics than a cry from the heart. It was because of his personal circumstances that he thrived as a literary pundit in England. For the same reason, the Englishman Howard Jacobson — whose contribution is as sensuously funny as you might expect — thrived as a literary pundit in Australia. Each man wields a brilliantly inclusive style, but neither has a chance of summing up what has really been going on in Australia since they first passed each other in mid-ocean. For all we know, the key event of the whole period since World War II was something Menzies didn’t do — he didn’t, for example, put Arthur Calwell’s immigration policy into reverse. If Ming had really been so committed to Australia’s future as a British nation, he might have tried to do that. But he didn’t, and the way was left open for his beloved, sleepy, conformist and wowser-ridden country to change in ways he could not predict.

Australia’s literary intellectuals might have to face the possibility that their effectiveness as political commentators is coming to an end, and that this might be a good thing. The journalists are taking over, just as they did in the United States, where the advent of expert political commentators such as Elizabeth Drew left the inspired but tendentious pastiche of the Mencken heritage where it belonged — in the past. As that excellent volume The Best Australian Essays 1999 revealed, no poet or novelist is going to write political commentary as pertinent as Mungo MacCallum’s, because he is right there on the campaign plane with his raw material. Michael Davie remembers when the political journalists always mistook the country’s mood because they never left Canberra. But now the politicians travel and the journalists travel with them. With insularity no longer the keynote, the ivory tower is no longer the vantage point: leg-work, contact and close observation are everything. It’s still Australia, but it’s a different country, and its writers and artists had better accept that they can no longer get an overall grasp of it just by intuition: they’re going to have to read about it in the newspapers and the magazines, just like everybody else.

In the newspapers, the magazines and the books — and most of the books are nowadays by journalists, and thank God for it. Since the middle 1970s, we have gradually become accustomed to such books being on hand when we need them: Paul Kelly’s fine trilogy is only the most conspicuous example. In the Pringle period they scarcely existed. When Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country came out in 1964, it was so singular that its underlying thesis was taken as holy writ, an ex cathedra endorsement of the exciting idea that our country could be saved from its long failure only by political realism, which would entail a preliminary admission that the country’s international position up to that point had been essentially servile. From that time forward, most of the informed voices spoke on Horne’s side, but there were signs even before the referendum that a true discussion was developing. The mere presence of Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians on the bestseller lists was an indication that those who looked with disfavour on the wholesale denigration of Australia’s anglicized past didn’t necessarily consider themselves romantic — they thought they were realists, too.

Since these were the very people that the less judicious republican activists had grown fond of calling unpatriotic, the result of the referendum can be seen as a blessing for everyone, and especially for the republicans. Had they won, they would have faced the impossible task of presenting, to an audience they had only just finished insulting, a model of the state on which they themselves had not yet managed to agree. Now they have time to clarify matters both for themselves and others, although the latter part of the task, especially, will require listening as well as talking. We can look forward to a battle of the books, in which books written by journalists are bound to play a key role. As this article goes to press, the justly lauded Australian expatriate journalist Philip Knightley is about to publish his magnum opus called Australia: A Biography. I have seen the unbound proofs, which teem with pertinent facts and original judgements. Reviewing the finished work will take an article not much shorter than the book, but perhaps I can jump the gun legitimately by citing a real-life conversation Knightley had with Ryszard Kapuscinski.

Knightley records how Kapuscinski assured him that there was an answer for despairing citizens of the quondam Soviet satellite countries who now found it impossible to live the way Americans would like. There was such a thing as a just society that was also free: it was called Australia. Knightley believes it, and the belief makes his book a labour of love even at its most caustic. As I write these last lines here in London, Knightley has just said in the Sunday Times that Australia seems so attractive to live in now that he wonders if he was right to leave. I know what he means, but the fact remains that we all remain: nobody leaves, and nobody forgets. As Knightley recalled in his contribution to The Best Australian Essays 1999, he once, so very long ago, pestered Menzies for a quote outside Kingsford-Smith airport in Sydney. ‘Young man, I don’t know you,’ said Ming. ‘I have not been introduced to you, and I have no wish so to be.’ Travel as far and as long as you like, you can from your mind a moment like that banish never.

(Australian Review of Books, September 2000)