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A Death in Life

The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes

For the longest part of its short history, Australia preferred to forget that it began as a penal colony. Australian historians born under the British Empire would accentuate the positive. When, in recent years, a new stamp of historians, usually harbouring no great love for Australia’s constitutional ties with Britain, began to tell the real story of what the formative years of the white man’s Australia had been like, it became apparent why forgetfulness had been so nearly complete. The story was horrible. Luckily, few of them were able to tell it with more than a modicum of evocative power, or the result would have been hard to bear. Now, in The Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes, an Australian-born critical writer of pronounced literary gifts, has summed up all previous efforts, exceeded them in force of expression and brought the whole deadly business back to life. The result is hard to bear—or would be, if it were not so clearly one of those rare achievements in the writing of history by which the unimaginably inhumane is brought to book without making us give up on humanity. Such redemptive work can’t be done without artistry: there are degrees of anguish which only style can make us contemplate, since merely to recount them would leave us cold.

Hughes might have attempted this book in his youth, and got the story out of proportion, even if he had not skimped it. Fortunately, he has made The Fatal Shore the magnum opus of his maturity. By now his sense of historical scale is sound, as for this task it needed to be. It would have been easy to call the Australian system of penal settlements a Gulag Archipelago before the fact. The term “concentration camp,” in its full modern sense, would not have been out of place: at least one of the system’s satellites, Norfolk Island, was, if not an out-and-out extermination camp, certainly designed to make its victims long for death, like Dachau in those awful years before the war when the idea was not so much to kill people as to see how much they could suffer and still want to stay alive. And, indeed, Hughes draws these parallels. The analogies are inescapable. But he doesn’t let them do his thinking for him. He is able to bring out the full dimensions of the tragedy while keeping it in perspective. The penal colony surely prefigured the modern totalitarian catastrophe. Equally surely it did not. It was a unique event, with unique consequences: the chief consequence being Australia itself, which has come a long way in 200 years—a point sufficiently proved by its ability to produce a book like this. The literature of the totalitarian dystopias emerged in spite of them, and could reach only one conclusion. Australia is a more difficult subject, however damning the raw evidence.

To the penal colony, the cat-o’-nine-tails was a tool more basic than the hoe. On Norfolk Island, where the camp was commanded by a succession of sadists, there were other forms of torture as well, some of them as vile as could be conceived before the age of electricity. But flogging provided the steady rhythm of torment. What made the whipping on Norfolk Island unique was that it so often got out of hand. At Port Arthur, in Van Diemen’s Land—now called Tasmania—there was less chance of the flagellator’s ecstasy releasing his victim to a premature death. The idea was to impress the subject with the mechanical inexorability of his fate, even when he was being punished for nothing except the dementia or paralysis induced by previous punishment. Norfolk Island was the personal expression of whichever maniac was running the place. Port Arthur was impersonal, a research establishment where the machine that ruined you was run by technicians whose only concern was for its perfection: Kafka’s penal colony, so often thought of as a harbinger, now turns out to have harked back.

But there are echoes of these things throughout history, in which the only reliable constant is the form taken by extreme cruelty when it is given absolute licence. Hughes, while aware of the general considerations, declines to lose himself among them. He keeps it specific. Enough to say that Norfolk Island and Port Arthur were there to inspire terror even in those convicts who were so recalcitrant that they were not terrified already by everyday life in the penal colony proper. The outlying camps were dumps for those who were held to be unassimilable elements in the main camp, where the city of Sydney now stands. But the main camp was itself a dump. Every convict sent there was held to be unassimilable in England. Whether he had stolen a thimble or forged £1,000 was immaterial. There was no notion that poverty might have created thieves: only that thieves might create revolution. They had to go. The colony was a way of getting rid of them without hanging them. It is a nice question whether transportation was intended as an alternative more humane than hanging, or less. Everyone knew what hanging looked like. But Australia was an unknown terror. So far away that no solid news ever came out of it, it was a black hole for facts. Dreadful stories percolated back to England of what went on out there, and there was always pressure from home to ensure that what went on remained so unattractive that any potential miscreant in the British Isles would fear it more than the rope and the hulks, and think twice before breaking the law, lest the law be obliged to break him, or her. There was thus a constant dispute between the liberal persuasion, which wanted Australia to rehabilitate criminals, and the illiberal persuasion, which wanted it to scare them. The first persuasion eventually won out, but not before the second had done its worst.

There was no need to give the place a bad name. It did that well enough by itself. Female convicts were forced into concubinage on the voyage out. Their sluttishness having been thus established, on arrival they were sorted like cattle, with officers taking the first pick. There were never enough women, so sodomy was rife among the men. Boys were initiated by rape, but to become an adult convict’s punk at least ensured some protection against the others. Nothing except unquestioning docility could protect anyone against the lash. Male convicts on the chain gangs, flogged perpetually as they did one-tenth of the work they might have done willingly for a pittance, could have been excused for wondering if Norfolk Island could be worse. It was, because there the work was entirely pointless. Around Port Jackson and the country opening up westward towards the Blue Mountains, the road cutting and stump grubbing had some purpose, no matter how inefficiently it was done. Despite itself, the slave-labour camp grew into something better than that. Most of the convicts were put out to assigned labour, with the prospect of working their way to rehabilitation; the chance of freedom proved to be a carrot more powerful than the stick.

One of Hughes’s best gifts is his ability to analyse the way a social order arose out of a disciplinary regime. It wasn’t much of a social order to start with, because even the free settlers were not the most imaginative of people, and the convicts, far from being instinctive exemplars of the democratic spirit, were mostly so ignorant of where Australia was that they thought China was next door; escapees would set out to walk there, and eat each other on the way. Students of the American Revolution, accustomed to the mental capacities of the nascent superpower’s founding citizens, will search Australia’s early history in vain for a comparable group of visionaries. The Rum Corps, a cabal within the garrison, deposed the governor only because they wanted the free exercise of their monopoly in booze; it was scarcely the Boston Tea Party. Hughes is well aware that the resemblance ends almost as soon as it starts. Nevertheless, a nation emerged, and did so partly because men like Governor Macquarie—no Thomas Jefferson but no fool, either—were determined that it should.

Hughes is careful not to romanticize the convicts. The thief who stole a loaf of bread didn’t always steal it from someone who had a hundred loaves. He might have stolen it from someone who had one loaf. To have grown up in the prisons and the hulks was no education for anything except crime. The few literate convicts—counterfeiters, and, later on, Chartists and Irish separatists—were cut off from home by their sentence and cut off from each other by the system. Isolated, they lost heart. Yet, on the whole, the convicts represented a lot of energy going to waste, and it was necessary only to release that energy in order for them to turn their new country, which none of them had ever wanted to come to, into a place from which most of them did not want to go home. The gold rush in the middle of the nineteenth century brought the transportation system to an end, because no incipient felon could be made to fear a place that so many free men were booking their own passage to reach, often selling all they had. The bad dream was already over—for the white man, at least.

For the black man, the disaster was unmitigated. Here again there is a parallel, but it is more with South Africa than with the United States, unless we try to keep Wounded Knee in mind and forget Harpers Ferry. The Australian Aborigines were never a casus belli between white men, not even as a pretext. Instead, the white men united against them. The revisionist who would like to pin another mass atrocity on the occupying power, however, will get no quick help from Hughes. In Van Diemen’s Land, the soldiers might have driven the Aborigines like game, but on the mainland it was the convicts who posed the greater threat to the native population. The brutalized convicts had to feel superior to someone, and the Aborigines were ideal casting. They toiled not, and were hated for it. When the Aborigines helped the troopers track escapees, the convicts hated them even more. The troopers could offer their black collaborators no reward that did not corrode their tribal ways and make them less fit to survive. What the Aborigines needed was their land, untouched. They would have had to fight for it, and for that they would have needed solidarity. But on the day in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Harbour the tribe on the north shore spoke a language that the tribe on the south could not understand. The Aborigines were not one people. It is racism to suppose they were. There was not, and could not have been, an Aboriginal general. They would have needed an Eisenhower, and couldn’t produce even a Crazy Horse. There had never been any need to, until we got there.

By “we” I mean Australians. All of us now feel the force of the plural personal pronoun. Some of us feel it so strongly that we move national self-consciousness to the forefront of the political agenda, often with tiresome results. Touchiness, however, is inevitable. Australian writers, painters, singers, actors, film directors, scientists, sportsmen and tycoons make a disproportionate bang in the world. The outsider could be forgiven for thinking that everything must be for export. But in all these fields there is quite a lot going on at home as well. The Australian can get a bit impatient when he hears his country judged according to what its expatriates are up to, even when the judgement is praise; and when the expatriates do the judging, especially if it is dispraise, he is likely to become inflamed.

But, with due notice that the case is being put broadly, what has happened is this. Up until the late 1960s, Australia undervalued itself as a country, or anyway its intelligentsia thought it did, giving this alleged Cinderella complex the unlovely journalistic title “the cultural cringe.” But the vogue for self-discovery, felt in those years throughout the Western world, was a passion by the time it reached Australia, rather as the Depression in the 1930s struck harder and stayed longer there than it did anywhere else. With the advent of Gough Whitlam’s government, in the 1970s, Australia had begun to esteem itself at what its social commentators—an increasingly numerous and vociferous class—thought was a just valuation. Diffidence had turned to self-assertion. The change was welcome, but there was an obvious danger of hyped-up expectations, to which some of the country’s more stentorian promoters duly succumbed. The cringe became a snarl. Tub-thumping was heard in areas where a reasoned tone might have been more suitable. Hughes’s excellent book on Australian painting, The Art of Australia, adumbrated this new confidence but proved to be atypical in its tact. While analysing, appraising and ordering the Australian painters with an authority that no indigenous critic had achieved before, Hughes was careful not to tear his country’s heritage loose from its world context, and made it clear that it was only because he had a world view, gained during his travels, that he was able to come home and see clearly what the Australian painters had achieved.

Australian defensiveness about the success of its expatriates was not to be allayed, and probably won’t be by The Fatal Shore, either. Here again, political zeal inevitably distorts the picture. Ardent republicans would like Australia to be self-sufficient in the arts the way that it is in minerals. The idea that any one country can be culturally self-sufficient is inherently fallacious, but in the forward rush of Australian confidence during Gough Whitlam’s period of government, when grants were handed out to anybody with enough creative imagination to ask for one, reason was thrown into the backseat. For the last fifteen years, Australian artists in all fields, supposedly free at last from the imposition of being judged by alien—i.e., British—standards, have been judged by their own standards, and almost invariably found to be the authors of significant works. The glut of self-approval has been most evident in literature, which in normal circumstances customarily produces a strong critical movement to accompany any period of sustained creativity but in Australia’s case has largely failed to do so. The undoubted fact that some very good things have been written can’t stave off the consideration that many less good things have been given the same welcome.

A consideration is all it is. Creativity can get along without criticism. When Pushkin—who was in the position of having to think what form a national culture might take—called for a dispassionate criticism, he wasn’t calling for help in writing poems, which he could do by himself. He was merely stating his wish to write them in a civilized atmosphere, whose absence was reducing him to isolation, and thereby damaging his individuality. The individual needs a community. In Australia, while literature is rapidly becoming a cash crop, a literary community has been slower to emerge. Criticism is too often, in the strict sense, tendentious. Scale is duly hailed, ambition lauded, but the direction of the book—does it point the way? does it give us purpose?—is usually the basis of assessment. There are not many critics detached enough to quibble over detail, and ask why so many great writers have produced so little good writing.

This is where Hughes’s book will come in handy. It will be thoroughly read in the schools, whereas many of the new masterpieces are skimmed dreamily at the beach. When workaday books are well written, a culture starts to pick up: the best of the spoken language is fed back into itself, by way of writers whose ear for speech informs the content of their prose, and whose mastery of composition makes them selective. In this respect, Hughes is hard to fault. The Australian landscape has been captured like this by few painters and by no other writers at all, because anyone as vivid also gushed, and anyone as elegant was dull. Here is the entrance to Port Arthur:

Both capes are of towering basalt pipes, flutes and rods, bound like faces into the living rock. Their crests are spired and crenellated. Seabirds wheel, thinly crying, across the black walls and the blacker shadows. The breaking swells throw up their veils.

In the late 1950s, as an architecture student at Sydney University, Hughes was the artiest young man on the scene. His blond hair growing naturally in a thick layer cut, his lanky form Englishly decked out in lamb’s wool, suede and corduroy, he sloped forward on long-toed desert boots while aiming at you a cigarette whose startling length suggested that he was about to launch a poisoned dart. Instead, he drew you. He drew anything that caught his eye, which was almost everything; and he drew it with uncanny speed and accuracy. Eventually, he decided that his graphic work was derivative, and gave it up. Although it is true that he absorbed other people’s styles one after the other, he might have arrived at this renunciation too early. When there was no one else left to absorb, the real Hughes might have emerged, as happened in his prose. In those years, you could always tell what he had been reading the day before. Even today, he is a magpie for vocables: no shimmering word he spots in any of the languages he understands, and in several more that he doesn’t, is safe from being plucked loose and flown back to his nest. Omnivorous rather than eclectic, that type of curiosity is the slowest to find coherence. But his fluency was always his own, and by persistence he has arrived at a solidity to match it: a disciplined style that controls without crippling all that early virtuosity, and blessedly also contains his keen glance, getting the whole picture into a phrase the way he once got his fellow-students’ faces into a single racing line. It is exactly right, as well as funny, to call a merino sheep “a pompous ambling peruke.” Scores of such felicities could be picked out, but only on the understanding that they are not the book’s decoration. They are its architecture.

There are several benefits that accrue to the Australian writer who turns himself into an expatriate. The first advantage of going away is obvious: it is the wider view he brings with him if he comes home. Hughes, a member of one of the grandest Australian Catholic families, was not very provincial even before he left, but in London in the early 1960s he was in no danger of shivering rejected in an Earl’s Court bedsit. While some of his contemporaries were doing exactly that, he had rooms in Albany, the exclusive address for gentlefolk just off Piccadilly. Hughes found his true fame later on, in America, but he would not be able to say plausibly that Britain turned down what he had to offer. Before the immigration laws toughened up in the 1970s, Australian overachievers found Britain hospitable, sometimes absurdly so. The British class system, hidebound within itself, was easily penetrated by the colonial whose accent it could not place accurately in the social scale. In London, the Australian expatriates breathed dirtier air than at home but found life more interesting. The experience did not stop some of the short-stay visitors going home as convinced republicans. But for a long voyager like Hughes it became that much harder to cast Britain as the villain, either currently or in retrospect. One of the hard issues he is prepared to face in The Fatal Shore is that the growth of the penal colony into a living society can’t be interpreted as merely a liberal refutation of the mother country at her most repressive. England was also present at the spontaneous creation that grew out of the planned destruction. The ties with “home” were real. The past is not to be argued away for the sake of a political programme.

The second advantage enjoyed by the expatriate Australian literary practitioner is just as obvious. Travel not only broadens the view; it sharpens the gaze. Hughes might have remained comparatively blind to the uniqueness of his native topography if he had never left it. Coming back to it, he sees it without any intervening veil of familiarity. Laudably intent on looking at what happened where it happened, he has travelled widely within his own country, to places most of his compatriots have never seen but will see now through his eyes:

As you approach it [Macquarie Harbour, in Tasmania], sea and land curve away to port in a dazzle of white light, diffused through the haze of the incessantly beating ocean. All is sandbank and shallow; the beach that stretches to the northern horizon is dotted with wreckage, the impartial boneyard of ships and whales.

A third advantage is less talked about but ought to become more evident, now that The Fatal Shore has given us such a conspicuous example. The Australian expatriate, the stay-away writer, loots the world for cultural references. If he can write like Hughes, he may combine these into a macaronic, coruscating prose that would be as precious as a cento or an Anacreontic odelette if it were not so robust, vivid and clearly concerned with defining the subject, rather than just displaying his erudition:

The Norfolk Island birds had forgotten man had ever been there; one could pick them out of the bushes, like fruit. Even today, a walk along the cliffs—where the green meadow runs to the very brink of the drop and the bushes are distorted by the eternal Pacific wind into humps and clawings that resemble Hokusai’s Great Wave copied by a topiarist—is a fine cure for human adhesiveness. One sees nothing but elements: air, water, rock and the patterns wrought by their immense friction. The mornings are by Turner; the evenings, by Caspar David Friedrich, calm and beneficent, the light sifting angelically down towards the solemn horizon.

Nothing home-grown in Australia sounds quite like that, yet it is essentially Australian writing—the product of an innocent abroad who has consciously enjoyed every stage of his growing sophistication without allowing his original barbaric gusto to be diminished. Here the vexed question of what place the expatriate has in Australia’s cultural history is answered in terms of intensity, as critical questions always must be. The best comparison is with that period of American prose when literary journalists were enjoying both the American idiom and the privilege of loading it with a cosmopolitan culture. The comparison should not be forced: American writers mostly had their Europe all around them at home, whereas Australians had to sail in search of it, or thought they did. (Even as early as the 1950s, the post-war immigration of European refugees had changed Australian culture profoundly, from the kitchen upwards, but those native Australians who sailed in the opposite direction were following a surer instinct than has subsequently been made out: they might have eaten baklava in Melbourne, but the Parthenon was still in Athens.)

Yet the similarity is striking. That feeling transmitted by the sheer scope of James Gibbons Huneker, which rises to a fever in the style of George Jean Nathan, is the feeling you get from the Australian expatriate writers at their most exuberant: that the world is theirs, and that they are trying to pack it all in, possessing it through the naming of its names. Barry Humphries, Australia’s unchallenged genius of cabaret and intimate revue, not only wields a vast culture himself but incongruously lends it to his characters, so that his most famous creation, the housewife superstar and arch-philistine Dame Edna Everage—who by now has taken on such an independent life that she hosts talk shows in both Australia and Britain—turns out to know more than seems plausible about, say, German Expressionism. The poetry of the London-based expatriate Peter Porter, often thought of by even the most favourable British critics as being a showcase for his learning, sins less through calculation in that regard than through the lack of it. Porter just loves the adventure of creativity—anybody’s creativity. The message of his work, far from being “Look how much I’ve read,” is “Look how much there is to read.” There are lines by Porter that might be sentences by Hughes, and vice versa. Not that one suggests anything so organized as a school. (The present reviewer was at the table in the Groucho Club in London, last December, when Hughes and Porter met for the first time, Hughes having wandered the world for twenty-five years, and Porter for ten years longer than that.) But the very fact that this is not a school might be what makes it a movement: an expatriate movement in Australian writing which complements the achievement at home—without, of course, presuming to replace it.

In fact, some of the more spectacular of the Australian cultural stay-aways don’t seem very concerned about what happens where they come from. Germaine Greer (whose polemics are at their most effective when uttered with the kind of zest I am talking about, and at their weakest when she affects to be weary of the world) turns up in Australia mainly to stun the local talk-show hosts and harangue the feminists for so slavishly clinging to ideas she gave them in the first place. Then she takes off again. The almost dementedly clever Oxford academic Peter Conrad is nowadays ready to turn aside and sum up Australian literature—having already, in his Everyman History of English Literature, dealt with the old country’s written heritage—but there is no doubt that his chief concern is with the world entire: his prose, like Greer’s, pops and fizzes with the strain of fitting in a self-assured opinion about absolutely everything. Australia’s itinerant literati, like its media entrepreneurs, are world-eaters. Perhaps it is revenge for isolation: the Empire (among Australian expatriates the joke is old by now) strikes back.

In many respects the most damaging counterblow yet, The Fatal Shore is nevertheless open to criticism from several points of view. The book is dedicated to Hughes’s godson, the son of a barrister who recently had the pleasure of making one of Britain’s leading civil servants look ridiculous in an Australian court. The poor man had been sent out there in a misguided attempt to secure the Australian government’s cooperation in repressing a book about MI5; the Australian judiciary, only lately set free from the constitutional tie by which its highest court of appeal sat in Britain, made its independence felt. But republicans pleased by the dedication might not find the book that follows wholly to their liking. If they use it to condemn the past, they will have to condemn themselves along with it, Hughes having shown how serious Sartre was when he made his apparently frivolous remark about not being able to quarrel with history, because it led up to him. Still, if the trend towards republicanism proves inexorable, Hughes will at least have helped to make the transition more intelligent, by raising the level of debate.

Professional historians will no doubt cavil about the unacademic eclecticism of Hughes’s research techniques, although if they do so they will be paying him that tacit compliment of accepting him among their number, and anyway it is hard to see how his use of correspondence, in particular, could be more fastidious. If letters by convicts have been quoted from before, the job has never been done with such sympathy, so keen an ear for the telling phrase. Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance must retain the title of the most startlingly original book of Australian history, but The Fatal Shore runs it close, and is less like a thesis.

A more serious criticism could be made through the area in which the book most obviously excels. As a literary work, it rather tails off, as if its author had got tired of it. If Hughes plans another volume, telling the story up to Federation, at the turn of the century, it will be very welcome, though the period has already been well covered by historians. But, on the evidence of his text, his interest flags after Australia has ceased to be a paradox—a birth in death—and he interprets the approach of relative normality as a signal to pack up.

Even so, a more roundly conclusive final chapter would have been gratifying. Earlier chapters amply prove that Hughes would have been capable of it. He has that rarest ability among pictorially talented writers, of making a plain prose statement that covers the case. His television series The Shock of the New was good to look at but even better to hear. Giving us his view of the stack of bricks that the Tate Gallery had purchased and displayed as a work of art, Hughes made his point so simply that it didn’t sound like an epigram: “Anyone except a child can make such things.” (Cocteau’s famous remark about the poetic prodigy Minou Drouet—“Every child is a genius except Minou Drouet”—is funnier, but not so true.) As the art critic of Time, since 1970, Hughes has had the obligation of covering the world art beat in readily accessible prose most weeks of the year. Bigger stories, such as the Rothko-legacy scam, he has been able to treat at length in the New York Review of Books. While the typical homebound Australian literary genius veers between undisciplined newspaper articles and fictional masterpieces that grow extra chapters of self-justification if challenged, Hughes has had to perfect himself in the good journalistic practice of seeing the point and keeping to it.

For his discovery of the diligent man inside his own bohemianism (“Live like a bourgeois,” said Flaubert, “think like a demigod”) New York has rewarded Hughes well, not least with much free time. This book is what he did with it. He went home and rediscovered his country, with an eidetic intensity that recalls Sidney Nolan doing the same thing, and in a prose that adds something to Patrick White’s vision of the Australian landscape—clarity, straightforwardness, a sparkling simplicity without distortion. Finally, the best thing about The Fatal Shore is just that: going about other business, it doesn’t try to be a work of art. Even on a subject like this, and at such length, Hughes has managed to speak with the arresting verve that Australians of today, fancying themselves, not without reason, as natural democrats, would like to think of as their peculiar tone of voice—the breath of sanity.

(The New Yorker, March 23, 1987; later included in
Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)


Did Robert Hughes benefit by making his base in New York instead of London? Obviously so. As an art critic, it put him in the centre of the action, and in his amplified task as a general cultural commentator it has given him the best of two worlds, because his books arrive in Britain with all the impetus of American success behind them. The latter aspect is too seldom mentioned. For all the British literary world’s justifiable pride in its self-sufficiency, American prestige works the same trick with the British media as the PX of a U.S. Air Force base used to work with British teenage girls. And Hughes’s television programmes, merely well regarded on the minority outlets of the U.S., are hailed as major events when transferred to British mainstream channels, especially now that British public service broadcasting has largely given up on initiating any projects of similar scope and depth. Both tactically and strategically, Hughes could hardly have handled his exile better. The only drawback was slow to emerge, but it was edifying when it did.

When it came to the 1999 referendum on whether Australia should break its constitutional ties with Britain and become a republic, Hughes was a star performer of the unfortunately named Republican Movement. (Movement? Bewegung? Bad idea.) Unfazed by the long flight home across the Pacific, he could outwrite and outspeak anybody on his own side, and he left everybody on the other side sounding inarticulate. But his Americanized glamour helped to intensify the suspicion that the prominent republicans might be a bunch of silvertails with their own aims. For the Australian people, the “silvertail” is the person who has quite enough privileges already. The result of the referendum set the Republican Movement back on its heels. Like several others among the disappointed leadership, Hughes showed a tendency to blame the population for missing its historic opportunity. Catching him out of countenance, the press, itself overwhelmingly pro-republican, nevertheless took delight in calling him a carpetbagger. Like many another successful Australian expatriate, Hughes has proved by the trajectory of his career that the climb into orbit is the easy part: it’s the re-entry that’s hard.